Thursday, 28 September 2006

Bee in his Bonnet?

The new postman doesn’t like my garden. There are too many things in it. He leaves me notes – ‘can you cut back your bushes because of the bees’. He threatens to leave my post at other houses. I feel like saying – you’re a postman, you should be brave – after all, what about dogs? Surely a few bees aren’t a problem? They don’t want to bite your ankles! If I’m home, I see him bending down as he pass the window, preparing to duck under the honeysuckles that run along the wall and over the front door - and incidentally act as a porch, giving shelter when I come home in the rain and am grovelling about in my bag or pocket trying to find my keys. He doesn’t like the honeysuckle 'massive'. It has bees. And moths. And spiders. And various other wildlife. It shelters my snails. And one part of it has big blousy cream and pink flowers in summer, and the other has smaller, delicate white and cream flowers in the early spring, sometimes when the snow is still on the ground, and it defies the worst of the weather.
I don’t think he likes the fuchsia bush by the gate either. From small beginnings it has grown to about two metres in height, and three wide, and at this time of year it’s dripping with red and purple flowers, humming with honey and bumble bees, a clarion call of colour as the sere shades of autumn creep into the rest of the garden. But it doesn’t get in the way. It’s been trimmed back so it doesn’t hang too far over the wall, or get in the way as you come through the gate. There’s a clematis somewhere in the mix as well, a small-flowered blue alpine one, with feathery seed-heads late in the season. This also defies the weather and the salt wind to surprise me with its delicacy and toughness.
The last postman liked my garden – since he’s retired (and taken the job of school crossing guard) he also delivers papers, and we swap gardening thoughts and seeds as the year goes round.

But we all have to get on, and so every so often, I trim the honeysuckle. But not very often!

Aliens in the Undergrowth

Damp mornings, heavy with dew. Cobwebs - or to give it the local name, slammach, - hangs wet on the gorse bushes like pieces of cloud ripped off and caught up in the spines. Cows loom out of the fog, strange in the half-light. And in the undergrowth, something odd is appearing. Overnight, they have appeared, aliens from another world. They troop through the woodlands, small trolls transfixed by daylight, or raise their strange heads through the grass of suburban lawns. One or two are breaking through the pavement in the village. Others emerge from the bark of trees, or cluster in whispering congregations as the rain drips from the leaves on their heads, raising small clouds of fine dust to be carried away on the slightest breeze. They are friends, killers, and clean-up merchants.


It’s a great time of year for them, and after the warm summer, this damp autumn has brought them out in their hundreds. Much misunderstood, coveted by some and reviled by others, it’s time they had a proper place in our everyday lives. In fact they do - we just aren’t aware of it most of the time.
So, some years ago, a group of us got together to develop a programme for schools which looks at the wonderful weirdnesses that are fungi, to help children understand how they grow, and their place in the natural and unnatural world around us.

This week has seen ‘The Good, the Bad and the Fungi, 2006’. (Yes, I know! Groan!!) We have discovered spores and how they travel, how they grow into fungi, the mystical world of mycelium, how fairy rings develop, how the fungus got its spots. We have come face to face with a wide variety of the real thing - the red and white fly agaric waiting for the fairytale to begin: white-weeping ugly milk caps: the solid shelf of the birch polypore: clusters of yellow sulphur tuft: the delicate glistening white of porcelain fungus, high above our heads on the dead branch of a beech tree: the blotches of tar spot, breaking down the fallen sycamore leaves, and a host of others. We have discovered how fungi help trees and other plants to grow by exchanging mineral salts for food, how they break down dead material, and how some can kill through parasitism. We’ve considered how this fits into the environment, how dead wood provides food and shelter for other creatures and how fungi fit into food webs. We’ve played parachute games, blown up balloons, made badges, discovered the small beasties that appear when you leave fungi to rot - and we’ve had to clean up some of the aftermath too!

And we’ve learned to look very carefully into the undergrowth.

Equinox Days

Swallows improvise
A coda to the summer
On telephone wires

The opening bars
herald autumn’s symphony,
a fanfare of geese.

I’ve been doing a bit of time travelling over the past couple of weeks - my own personal TARDIS being a combination of my car and the road between North East Scotland and East Yorkshire. Unexpected necessity means I have been up and down twice in three weeks - eight hours each way gives time to observe the passing landscape.

It’s a bit of a contest between summer and autumn - which is further advanced? Earlier in the year, as the harvest was being gathered in, south was well ahead of north - now, with the turning of the season and the rapidly shortening days, it has swapped over, and the north has the autumnal ascendancy. Travelling up and down, I find myself moving between the seasons. Here in the North, the leaves are already falling, crisp brown and yellow, filling the guttering and clogging the drains. The autumn fogs lie heavy, hiding the hills and clinging in the river valleys, clammy in the residual warmth. Wearing a jacket keeps out the wet, but is too warm yet for comfort.

South, in the one short week between my visits to Mum’s place, her Virginia creeper changed colour from green to crimson, scarlet and orange, burning up the side of the house in one last defiant outburst. The leaves there haven’t fallen yet, but will soon lie in brilliant drifts along the driveway, waiting for the garden vacuum and the collection bags where they will lie through the winter, turning into rich leaf-mould for the garden. The hedgehog leaves tracks in the heavy dew on the lawn, but we haven’t seen her recently - too busy with motherhood, we suspect. The hedgehog box will be installed soon, to provide a snug retreat for her winter hibernation.

The country seems to have been split; south of the border the summer lingers with sunshine days and kick-off-the-duvet nights. Driving through it reveals ploughed fields and stubble, and the last calves of the year with their mothers. As the evening descends, straw bales rise like ancient monoliths, black against deepening blue. North of the divide, there is rain. The sky hangs low, like a grubby wet dishcloth, spray and rain mingling on the roads. Safety lies only in the dim gleam of red tail-lights, for little else can be seen through the mist. Returning home, I wonder if there has been a power cut - even the flares from the gas terminal are invisible in the thickness of the murk - only the occasional glow of houses as I pass reassures me that there is still a world beyond my windscreen.

Evening’s fading light
shows monsters in the hedgerows.
Gorse becoming ghoul.

In my eye’s corner
tree becomes giant, stone wall
turns to crocodile.

Sunlight cannot show
this hidden face of the land
only dusk reveals.

Sunday, 24 September 2006

Brief Encounter – Eigg Anchorage

So we’d sailed over from Barra, and at the end of the day, dropped anchor on the south side of Eigg harbour. A shore party had been exploring the island, we’d had dinner, and were enjoying a glass of wine and some music on deck when a passing prawn boat gave our cook a notion for next day’s lunch. After a short discussion, the skipper and two of the female members of the party set off in the dinghy, and returned with a huge bucket of langoustines and some smaller prawns, traded, in best nautical fashion, for cans of lager. OK- it may be stereotypical, or even sexist, to send the bosun to bat her eyelashes at the fishermen, but it works!

It was a strangely calm night – strange, because the forecast had sternly said ‘Force 8 Northerly gale, imminent’, which was why we anchored where we did, sheltered from the oncoming winds. It never materialised, though they kept warning us about it! A few stars were showing through broken cloud, their numbers growing as the sky cleared. Out here, free of the intrusive lights of towns and cities, the sky seems immense – a swathe of brilliance curving from horizon to horizon, some stars seeming close enough to become tangled in the rigging, others as far away across time as to be nothing but a distant memory of something that once was.

The last few night-owls were loafing on deck, idly chatting and finishing up the wine, when there was a faint splash from the starboard side. We look at each other, and go to the rail to see. There’s something in the water, sliding quite quickly along beside the hull. ‘A seal’ says someone. I’m not so sure, and flick my torch briefly into the darkness. Not a seal. A long body and tail, broad flat head with a short nose, thick fur. The otter turns his head to look up at us, powerful tail driving him through the water. He’s about five feet long, or so it seems, and unconcerned by our presence. He swims alongside, vanishing under the overhang of the stern, before reappearing briefly, then diving with a hint of a splash. Bubbles trail away in the torchlight, heading for the prawn boat. It’s obvious where his interests lie.

Next morning, we tell Mum. She turns an interesting shade of green.

Monday, 11 September 2006

Dolphin Days - August 2006

OK, so I haven’t been around much recently. Like most people involved with schools, summer is the time to take off on holiday, lay back and relax, and watch the world go by. At this point in my life, this has become inextricably bound up with sailing off the west coast.

Travelling as the wind and tide dictates, watching the weather come in off the Atlantic and the changing light on the water, you see the land from the outside, a different, older face of Scotland. This is the road the Vikings took, and the lost stragglers of the Armada, the way of the Lords of the Isles, the main highway of the early settlers and traders, the lifeline for the isolated communities up and down the fringe of the land. It bustled with fishing fleets and small ferries and steam puffers plying their trade from the Clyde to the Summer Isles.
Now it’s left mostly to the tourists, and the trade is carried on the red and black liveried Cal-Mac ferries, the scatter of small fishing boats is outweighed by the cages of fish farms, and, far out in the Minch, the low-slung forms of tankers head for the northern terminal of Flotta, or beyond, their potential for environmental disaster a thin rust-clad steel wall away from actuality.

It’s still a wonderful place for wildlife.

Previous trips have brought contact with sea eagles, porpoises and whales, and great gatherings of basking sharks, sifting the waters north of Canna for plankton. Phosphorescent plankton danced in Loch Dunvegan, an underwater firework ballet glowing green under midnight skies. Gatherings of seals have watched us sweat on the halyards, or haul up the anchor from remote bays. There’s always something different to look forward to.

This year, our first encounter is the resident seal in Mallaig harbour, idly watching us load up the boat and refuel. It’s an Atlantic grey seal, the larger of the two species found regularly round our coasts, and it views us regally down the length of its long Roman nose.

The next couple of days see us heading out past Rum and Canna, across the Minch towards the Outer Hebridean islands, Uist, Benbecula and Barra. Porpoises slide past us, small and dark, and the ‘phooff!’ of their exhalations recalls one of their old local names – “puffin’ pigs”. They roll along as if they are wheels, with little splashing, and they don’t stay long. A small pod of common dolphins dashes past on their way to somewhere, slapping the water with their tails as if revelling in their speed and grace – and leave us trailing in their wake. Heading towards Castlebay on Barra, I’m at the wheel, holding 110 tonnes of ship with over 3000 square feet of sail on a course for the evening’s anchorage, when I notice a flock of birds away off to starboard. I squint against the light, and can just make out something large in the water, so I call it out to the rest of the crew. At this point it launches itself into the air – a minke whale, breaching. It drops back with a flurry of white water, and vanishes into the depths, as everyone rushes to the rail to try and see it.

The following day, as we head back towards Eigg from Barra, after a night of ceilidh music and dancing on the deck, (and there are a few sore heads this morning!) we spot a gathering of gannets. Plunge-diving in large numbers, they mark another shoal of fish, a bait-ball, and a magnet for predators, both above and below water.

Out of the grey water to starboard comes another pod of dolphins, around twelve of them, including one small calf. This group aren’t playing today, and head straight into the bait-ball, chasing the fish back and forth, until we can see the splashes as they leap clear of the water. More dolphins come from the port side, another fifteen or so, and five of them break off to join us, riding our bow wave for the next few minutes before turning back to join the feeding frenzy. It’s exhilarating to watch them sliding effortlessly from side to side of the bowsprit, a stream of bubbles rising from each blowhole as they come to the surface, the arched back and sharp fins cutting through the water. Dolphins are very sensual creatures and these are, in fact, indulging themselves in full-body pleasure; the pressure waves from our progress and the waves acting like a natural version of something bought in an Ann Summers shop. The skipper grins at me as we explain what’s happening to the others. “Dirty wee divvels!”

There are more seals, more porpoises, ravens and red deer, skuas and shearwaters, before the voyage is over for this year.

Sail Training Vessel ‘Leader’
Trinity Sailing

(All photos courtesy of my brother!)