More Stoats (nature notes)

What did I say?!

It had been a strange and frustrating journey home this evening. I set off in good time but my fellow drivers had other ideas:

First, there was an HGV struggling up a very steep hill. No problem on most days as it’s served by a dual carriageway. However, a guy two cars in front, driving what looked like a perfectly able car, barely managed to go faster than the trucker.

Secondly, I came across an unexpected tailback. It was caused by a stationary horsebox – not the trailer type but one of those pantechnicon things which always seem to be driven by a middle-aged, mumsie-looking woman in a gilet and head scarf. Sure enough, a woman seen matching that description – though minus scarf (it was warm) -could be seen on the other side of the road waving down traffic. God knows what that was about; maybe she’d misplaced her nag.

Following this, I managed to get behind slower-than-the-speed limit no. 2 but after a few twisty bends, the road opened up enough to pass. A couple more twisty bends and I was behind an old banger – slower-than-the-speed limit no. 3. It was an MG open-topped death trap, emitting a stench of two parts burnt oil to one part raw fuel, each time the driver shifted gear.

Finally, we hit another straight stretch where I passed safely. All in vain: around the next bend was a Romanian HVG barely touching 30. The speed limit for the road is 60mph.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too far from the cut through, a narrow country lane, where I spotted a stoat a week back. I turned into the lane and cruised about a mile from where the stoat was seen when I saw a group of animals scurrying along in the distance, tight into the verge.

I took them for partridge initially as there is a lot of game bred in these parts. I slowed right down as I approached them as birds are unpredictable, but then the group suddenly turned a right angle and I could see they were definitely stoats. One hundred percent.

Four of them, running across the road, leapfrogging, and playing what could have been stoat tag. I’m guessing they were siblings. What is the group noun for stoats? What do you call them at birth? A litter? A kettle? I don’t yet know.

The lesson of this tale to take away is not to get irritated by delay. It’s just time’s way of presenting an different experience. Had I not been held up, I’m sure I would have passed by long before the stoats happened to cross. It was a rewarding sight.


Doing Almost Nothing for the Environment

Last weekend, firing up the Mountfield, I took aim and cut as graceful an arc as I could with a mower having a fixed wheel on each corner. We are “wilding” part of our front lawn and I was striking the dividing line.

It’s a trend. Now that we’ve started, we notice quite a few gardens have done it, many with an advanced growth of red poppies, cornflowers, and daisies. I expect there are other wild plants in there too though too short and too far away to see.

To speed things along, ready seeded turf can be laid, or you can sow wildflower mixtures from a seed packet. It’s much more interesting to watch how things develop by nature, I think, though there is a temptation to give it a helping hand. Of course, some intervention is necessary to stop the dominant weeds taking over, like dandelions. Though it can be a very useful plant – and not that unattractive I think – a lawn full of dandelion heads gives the ready impression of a neglectful gardener rather than a wilding one.

Already after seven days there are swaths of clover, buttercups, clumps of violet flowers – which I think are curiously named “self heal” or “heal-all” – and those ubiquitous small daisies kids sometimes make bracelets from. The grass itself is also putting up a variety of seed heads which normally wouldn’t see the light of day given regular mowing. Nature is having a small field day.

The point of this, and the reason we’re doing it, is the first hand experience of not seeing the normal quantity of insects here these past Summers. There are a number of uncertain reasons for this: unduly successive cold and wet Summers, excessive and discriminate use of “pest” controls, exotic diseases, trophic disruption and habitat loss.

Where have the bugs gone? Remember the Summer’s when you had to wash down the car windscreen after a jaunt through the countryside? I tell you, I can drive practically all Summer without needing to do this now.

Understandably, humans have a innate aversion to insects and for agriculturalists and gardeners historically they’ve been enemies no. 1, 2, 3 and beyond. Yet many insects are crucial to our survival, and all of them play important roles in a self sustainable ecological system. It’s fair to say we cannot know if the removal of any one seemingly insignificant bug has a big knock on effect, perhaps quite literally the butterfly effect.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens to our third of lawn left uncut – apart from digging out any rogue dandelions. And I don’t have as much grass to mow weekly, which is a very welcome bonus as well. Every bit helps.

hey, that image is not my wilding lawn but something I’d like to achieve.

Shorts, innit?

a flash-fiction piece

It had been the wettest Saturday since records began, they said, and football’s cancelled. The boys were disappointed. Still, it was May and I said, on with the shorts! Shorts are the best, in my opinion; you can’t go wrong. Well, except the young ‘un. He kicked up a stink, threw himself on the floor, big tantrum. I give in. Life’s too short.

She said, we’ll go to the park, it’s stopped raining. We put our waterproofs on, just the same. Life’s too short to muck about in a wet shirt. Good thing about shorts: your legs dry off quick.

(100 words)

written for Bikurgurl’s 100 Word Wednesday Writing Challenge: Week 120

image by Bikurgurl.

The Woman in the Park

a flash-fiction piece

John Singer Sargent became the much sought after society portraitist of his time though, in middle-age, having gained some fame and a little wealth, he grew increasingly wearisome of this work. He was, in spirit, a man of the plein-air style of painting and seldom ventured out without a small box of watercolours and paper on which to sketch whatever, or whomever, took his liking.

And so he found himself on a balmy afternoon in late May, strolling through one of the city’s most popular parks when he came across a young lady, reading within the shade of a plane tree.

So engrossed in her book was she that it seemed his approach had gone unnoticed, and so he stepped a little back from the path and secreted himself behind a myrtle bush where, having made himself comfortable, prepared his paints for a sketch.

He had made satisfactory progress and was at the point of introducing some dark, tonal shadows when his attention was drawn to the slow approach of a dandy gentleman, swinging an ebony cane. Not wishing to invite a scene, Sargent put down his brush and hid his work beneath his coat. The gentleman eventually passed and in doing so, the two strangers nodded a cordial greeting. Sargent was about to renew his sketch when the other man swiftly turned on his heels and raised his cane in the painter’s direction.

“Good Lord,” said the man, “Are you not the painter, John Singer Sargent?!”

“That I am,” replied Sargent in a modest voice.

The young woman, startled by their voices, turned to face them.

“And you are painting this young lady, I see?” continued the man, swinging the cane in her direction now.

“Evidently,” Sargent sighed.

The woman blushed, which put Sargent in mind of rose madder; a useful pigment; he had run short, he noticed…

The woman, to his dismay, had gathered up her few belongings all too quickly and, without the slightest glance, hurried away in the direction of the South gate. The stranger stood still, watching her departure and when she could no longer be discerned from the others in the park, he said,

“Well, well, I do hope I haven’t spoilt the occasion, old chap. Fancy, though – John Singer Sargent – so pleased to have made your acquaintance, sir. And now I’m afraid I must dash. No rest for the wicked!”

And with that said, the man swung himself around and sauntered off, leisurely swinging his cane.

Sargent would meet the gentleman again, on occasions and purely by chance, and with each subsequent meeting, the gentleman would acknowledge their acquaintance with added determinism and, if he was ever in company, would imply he had known Sargent for many years. As for the young woman, Sargent never set eyes on her again.

(470 words)

written for The Haunted Wordsmith Prompt – April 29th.

The American painter, John Singer Sargent, is one of my favourite artists though more for his society portraiture than anything else. He possessed an exceptional talent, in particular with the women sitters, for suggesting in their pose and expression, something hidden, almost scandalous. Of course, he was accused of this whilst working in Paris and so moved to London. I did read how he grew tired of society portraits and preferred landscape painting “plein-air” but it wasn’t nearly as lucrative.

The above story is fictional. It is the first time I’ve come across this painting, “Resting” (watercolour, 1880-90 – Joseph F. McCrindle Collection).

Beyond #writephoto

Everything alive here, now and before, is the favour of the sun; its light and warmth. In the cold of late winter, before the spring, before the earth has warmed and, in its turn, warmed the air which remains chill to our senses, our sun can give its warmth directly: the wonderful experience of feeling its heat on your body as you walk outdoors, or through a sunlit window as you sit.

To think of all the sentient creatures of the world which have sensed this too. From the time of insects energising their gossamer wings for flight, and upon the scales of giant lizards, the dinosaurs, and the feathers and down of early birds, then the mammals and us.

It is believed, with the irreversible stresses we have placed on the Earth, that the next life forms will not be organic but cybernetic, in order to survive the heat and extremes of the environment. What will a cognitive machine make of the sun’s radiant energy, if it analyses it through an electronic sensor chip, with artificial intelligence; or even senses it at all? What meaning will such an experience have for the soulless beyond?

written for Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo #writephoto challenge – “Beyond”.

We Grow Accustomed To The Darkness

a writing prompt challenge

In the school where I go to learn yoga, the men’s changing room is just off the entrance hall. It’s a small room, not much more than six feet by eight. There is a low bench along the wall on which to put your clothes and the arrangement of its sparse furniture has been the same for more than fifteen years.

I arrive early: to bag a good spot and get into the right frame of mind for the session. I’m usually the first in and, entering the changing room, there is enough light spilling in from the bright hall to see by so I won’t turn on the light. How much do you need to see to remove one’s trousers and top, fold them and place them on the bench which has always been there? An act most could do with their eyes closed, and besides, it all takes no more than ten seconds.

If another student comes in while I’m changing, usually his hand goes automatically to the light switch; he may give me an odd look and may question me about getting changed in the dark. But the question surely is; why do something habitually, without any thought?

When I was a boy scout, one of my favourite exercises was the night hike. There were six patrols in our group, about five to six boys in each, and we’d be driven in a minibus and several volunteers’ cars to six different places in the countryside. Having been deposited in the strange gloom, the patrol leader was handed a map and compass, shown where we were on the map and a destination to arrive at before dawn.

I don’t remember it ever being frightening. When you’re the youngest, you look up to the older members, even though the oldest is only sixteen, four years older than yourself. When you are the oldest, you are their patrol leader. If you’re the mindful sort, you feel the responsibility for the others, especially the new boy, but you’ve been there before, and several times. Not the same place, exactly, nor the same destination sought but the nighttime, in very unfamiliar surroundings, can appear as a homogeneity: the habit we form of seeing it instinctively. It’s not a place you want to give in to.

When the grownups leave, it’s better we face our situation squarely and piece together the clues that eventually reveal themselves, as we grow accustomed to the darkness.

written for Reena’s Exploration Challenge writing prompt #81 – “as we grow accustomed to the darkness”

Reena’s prompt this week is also provided by the poem, “We Grow Accustomed To The Dark” by Emily Dickinson, in this animation by Hannah Jacobs

image: “Full moon over Greece” by Jason Blackeye via Unsplash.com

The Road Gang

We are settling into village life more and more and I received a nice email thanking me for my participation in the village tidy up. There were about a dozen of us meeting up last Saturday morning. We each had a pair of gloves, a hi-vis tabard, a plastic sack and one of those extended picker devices operated by a trigger so we didn’t have to keep bending down. Then we scattered to different points of the compass to pick litter.

The last time I went on litter patrol was at school. Then, it was seen as a punishment for some trivial felony, like refusing to wear a school cap or picking one’s nose in religious education. Although there was the ecological and aesthetic benefit to school, the purpose behind it was more humiliation.

But on this occasion it felt good and worthy. It helped that the morning’s weather was mild and sunny, and my stretch of road offered high views across the fields where there were sheep and lambs and cattle.

It was a big sack and I was worried I’d not fill it and look like a worthless newbie on my debut. So I busied myself with every speck of paper and dog end I could spot while my companions strode forth and were soon almost out of sight. I needn’t have worried; a little past the village welcome sign, I found all sorts of discarded detritus. Mostly, it was the expected soda pop cans, coffee cups and drink cartons, occasionally a takeaway container and a burger meal bag. I did find the broken remains of a car accident which filled up the sack to breaking point – I knew then I wasn’t to fail.

The oddest things I picked up in the space of an hour were, a large medicine bottle with a prescription label, an empty economy bottle for hair conditioner, a plastic box for small tools – the places for pliers, screwdrivers, wrenches etc. were clearly indented – a race competitor’s number label, 106 – I hope she or he wasn’t disqualified for losing this – and a pair of cut down denim jeans.

I got the hand of the extended litter picker eventually but I will say a thank you to all those considerate individuals who crush their cans before throwing them out the car window. Crushed cans are a lot easier to pick up with an extended litter picker than uncrushed ones – these tend to slip away as soon as they’re clamped. So, thank you crushers! A little thoughtfulness in a world of mindlessness makes life a little better.

Yeah, right.

Out & About

Bredon Hill (Overbury, Bredon Hill, Ashton-under-Hill, Grafton);
Cotswold Walk no.28; 9.5 miles; (6 hours inc. stops)

In summertime on Bredon 
The bells they sound so clear; 
Round both the shires they ring them 
In steeples far and near, 
A happy noise to hear.

(from “Bredon Hill”, a poem by AE Housman)

The sentiment once put to me that “October can be nice, also” has certainly had some traction this Autumn. I head off at the crack of dawn to the village of Overbury to walk Bredon Hill, the last of Jarrold’s Cotswold walks.

I don’t remember where I came by this book now, whether I bought it myself or whether it was a gift. From the many photographs I took on the first walk, an easy two and a half mile stroll around Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, I can see it began in 2006. I’d splashed out on some decent boots and I am now wearing my fourth pair. It’s a long time over which to complete twenty-eight walks – they could easily be done in a couple of years, I think – but events thwart all endeavours, and god and mice and men. To say nothing of the vagaries of our weather. I am a fair-weather walker, no point in going out to enjoy myself and not enjoying myself.

If you want views, this is a walk for you. They’re almost aerial in a sense, as near as you can look down over a broad landscape and still be on terra firma. The climb is gradual and not too arduous; I was passed by two middle-aged guys on mountain bikes.

Healing Stones

Halfway up, hidden amongst shrubs and trees, are the King and Queen Stones, though I counted at least three separate ones. They are said to have healing properties so I touched the zip of my old and favourite fleece jacket against them as the fastening has become temperamental lately. I’m sorry to say it remains temperamental. Oh well.

Atop The Hill

The summit is expansive and ringed with a typical dry stone wall over which you can see the Midlands of England spread out to the hazy distance. To the west, the dark hills and mountains of Wales. The flatness of the country rising abruptly to the Cotswolds gave me a clear impression of a geological catastrophe. It felt quite surreal, like being in a foreign place. I wished I had a more sophisticated camera than that on my mobile phone, though the emotional response to landscapes can be practically impossible to capture.

Lunch @ The Star

I made The Star Inn pub at Ashton-under-Hill at one o’clock – perfect timing for lunch. It’s a traditional pub and it was very welcoming. I wasn’t familiar with any of the three ales they had on draught and so the landlord talked me through them, and I took a chance on one by Three Brothers. It was very good and complemented my bacon, brie and cranberry sandwich nicely.

As you might notice from the pic, I sat out in their garden, the weather was so good. I wasn’t alone either. October was nice also for a number of drinkers and lunchers.

Saint Barbara Lost Her Noggin

Ashton-under-Hill is a quaint village of mixed buildings, some in Cotswold style, some thatched cottages and some red brick. I poked my nose in their church, as I do. It’s dedicated to St. Barbara, apparently one of only three churches dedicated to her. She was a comely lass, as legend goes; a Syrian possibly, from a heathen family. Her Dad locked her away in a tower to avoid suitors and in this prison she found Christ, much to the annoyance of Dad. When she refused to renounce her new faith, he cut off her head.

The Red not-a-Phone Box

It’s an hour’s walk back to the car which I left in Overbury, passing through the hamlets of Grafton and Conderton. At Grafton, there is a red public phone box, a fine example of one of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s designs, an British icon along with red buses and red postboxes – all red, we must have had a lot of red paint.

I read somewhere there are 40,000 of these phone boxes in existence though British Telecom is gradually removing the innards as use is dwindling due to everyone owning mobile phones. Though the equipment is removed, the boxes may remain and used for different purposes. Housing a defibrillator is quite a common use now. Another use you see in some places is a local lending library where residents donate their unwanted books. Grafton’s box serves both functions, though I can’t imagine any of the titles displayed in it giving anyone cardiac trouble. Still, it looked a well cared for little red box.

A great walk.

By the by, I found out that Ordnance Survey have taken over publishing the Jarrold Walking Guides. My edition has been superseded, and hopefully updated, but the walks are the same. They are very good, look out for them.

Please click on the pics to embiggen. Preferring to walk light, I don’t take a camera and make do with my mobile phone. Whilst okay for portraits and figure images, it tends to be disappointing for panoramic landscapes, which are difficult anyway. Sorry for the quality. After this, I’m thinking of rooting out one of my old cameras and seeing if I can get it to work. But then again…


Thank you for the fall
the bestest season of all
apart from the spring

Here in England, the Autumn can go any kinds of ways. For a few days last week, the sun shone brightly in a clear sky and you could sense its benign radiant heat while the breeze, uncharacteristically, also carried some warmth – in mid October! (Remember, “October can be nice, also.”)

The English – and probably the British by extension – are known to complain about the weather and, god knows, we have enough of it to complain about; if heat is not your thing, there are those days to complain about; if you hate the cold, your opportunity will come soon. If you miss the rain, or think it too wet, we can cater for those too. We offer a democratic style of objection to climate.

But this Englishman doesn’t complain – well, not much normally. Not only do I think of its inconsistency and variety and not forgetting its moderation, as a blessing but I don’t get why humans take against nature so. The weather was here long before we were. If you don’t like it blame your nomadic antecedents who pitched up, threw away their bivouacs and tents and took to farming. They must have recognised the benefits.

Nature, if we imagine it to be anthropomorphic, would regard humanity as an adult might regard a petulant child. You know, the kid you might see in a café or restaurant, first adamantly wanting pizza, and then not wanting it the moment it arrives. That’s the English with their weather.

The seasons are not as complicated and more inevitable. There can be a few surprises, as we’ve had this month, but the cycle of seasons ultimately prevails. Yet each season as it emerges from the previous one and goes on to merge into the next, gives us its special beauty. These wonderful experiences are things we ought to embrace psychologically, not fight.

image: untitled photo by Chris Lawton via Unsplash.com

Old Fart Lek Redux

After what I posted previously about joggers, I’m going to eat my words. With time on my hands now, I thought I might try running again. This idea came after reading an article aimed at runners in different age groups and advice on running shoes.

The last pair of running shoes I bought weren’t that brilliant, since relegated to gardening shoes, but the pair before those were a dream, so I’ve been a bit cagey about shelling out for new ones, and I don’t like wearing trainers as everyday shoes. The article recommended a company called Brook’s which allows a 30 day trial with a full refund if not satisfied. So I did something which I wouldn’t do normally with shoes – I bought them unseen, online.

Well, I did see an online picture, for what it was worth. There’s a funny little questionnaire to go through before they recommend one of their products. This involves peculiarities like balancing on one foot, putting a hand between your knees and squatting down, and watching your toes whilst walking to notice whether they point out, or in, or move straight ahead. Then it basically asks you in seven further questions,

What are you trying to achieve?

I like these guys! As you can see from the photo, the shoes for me are the Cascadia 13. Just two days shipping from Germany, I’m already impressed. Trying them on, I was worried they felt a bit snug – I have wide feet – but, hey, 30 days satisfaction guaranteed, what’s to lose? On and out the door.

On the track, the snugness didn’t seem obvious. Not as obvious as my out-of-condition body. It was tough going. Wheeze. Then I remembered that the joys of running come at the end, when the feelgood hormones rise within you and you’re having a refreshing shower. It’s probably called the smug factor. Me, run? Yes, of course. Don’t you?

Anyway, I guess they’re not getting their shoes back now, or for a while at least. I don’t usually do endorsements and so I won’t be providing a link.