Thursday, 30 April 2009

Family history

Bloggeration! Where did those days go, it's Thursday evening already.

My father (flat 'a', please, dear reader) has always been a keen gardener. I remember growing up surrounded by neatly-manicured flower beds, a fragrant shrubbery, a regimented vegetable plot and a verdant lawn (that sounds like they didn't allow me in the house, doesn't it?). Therefore, he must be despairing of my inability to pick up the green-fingered habit, and though I've tried to run an allotment, believe me I have, I don't seem to have the chlorophyll gene.

But technology may have inadvertently come to my rescue. I'm not talking about a GPS satellite-tracked robot lawn mower or hydroponics, but trees. Y'know, big branchy, rooty things, the symbols of life across the millenia and cultures of mankind. Don't be afraid of their bark, for they ultimately link us all together. Family trees.

Like many others, our little clan, in this case consisting of coal miners, agricultural workers and shopkeepers, is there for all to see on the Internet. This means I can become a sort of cyber horticulturist, taking the branches carefully pruned by Dad and, rather like an espalier, grow them in different directions.

Perhaps worried that my enforced convalescence would be a bit boring, I've been set the challenge of proving once and for all, whether there is a link between my paternal great grandmother (died c1920) and the Reverend Robert Hood, Doctor of Divinity (died 1782).
Oh...Kay... someone mightn't be getting a Father's Day card this year!

The main branch of the family, the paternal line, has been quite well-documented over the years, so I had a starting point at least. Also, I had tinkered with genealogy websites before, so initially, it was a matter of choosing the one that seemed to be the least rip-off. After the early success of finding Great Grandma's marriage record and sending off for a copy of the certificate, I foundered on her father's christian name. Neither myself or MGLW could be certain what it was, though we did agree that it was most likely "Leonard". Trying to find her birth record was impossible, too. None of the four candidates born in the county at the right time proved to be correct, which I only found out by purchasing copies of certificates. Bah!

Then I had a bit of luck. Ignoring Great Grandma, I switched to census returns for her father and, joy of joys, the story started to unfold. Despite the website I was using not having all the census data in their possession, I was able to follow the line back to approximately 1801, thanks to the paternal line having a penchant for the christian name guessed it...Leonard!

This, I suspect, has been the easy part. The next 19 years cannot be done using your average genealogy website, It will require more specific information from parish records, cemeteries and local history societies. It sounds like a road trip up North might be necessary, which will have to wait until yours truly is back behind the wheel.

There's one bit of good news, however. Remember the dead end with Great Grandma? If it had been correct, I'd have been a Mackem. Close shave or what?!

Monday, 27 April 2009

An end, a beginning

I know, I know, you've spent all weekend worrying if the damsels and dragons have finally arrived in Buckinghamshire. No? Oh well, my work here is not yet complete, then.

There is good news... but hang on, I'm getting ahead of myself. How was Braised Bambi, you may be wondering. Absolutely dee-lish-ous. JD is not someone who thinks herbs are for herbivores. He's not even someone who knows the meaning of "enough different herbs now". He is, however, an exceptional cook. And he can dig a mean pond into the bargain. I'd swear there was tidal action going on, it's that big.

As a treat for the grumpy, convalescent git (me), I was then taken to a musical recital given by the world-renowned guitarist, Mr Gary Moore. I last attended one of his performances way back in the mid-Eighties and can happily report that the repertoire was completely different, save for the perennial favourite Parisienne Walkways. The venue did remind me of a plush Victorian engine shed, which was apt, because it felt like we were in a cattle truck (in case my GP's reading this, I was careful to stand at the back, out of harm's way). All in all, it was a pleasant day and I was all in at the end of it.

Back to the Odonata. Last Wednesday, whilst I was on the phone to my younger daughter, my good lady wife hurtled into the room to report that there was a Large Red Damselfly sunning itself in the garden. Predictably, by the time I had politely extricated myself from the conversation, it had gone. MGLW kindly showed me her photos of it. Like that helped!

By Sunday, I was on the wrong side of odo withdrawal symptoms, so we drove the short distance to Walton Lake, a small water body across the River Ouzel from the Open University. Here, on a peninsula (I couldn't spell isthmus), there are some excellent sheltered spots for insects, little oases of sun without a breath of wind. We headed straight for these, ignoring the calls of Reed Bunting, Sedge Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat (ok, so not quite ignoring). In no time at all, we were finding roosting Large Red Damselflies and I could start to relax. I doubt if it is possible for me to adequately convey the feelings of relief that this brought about, as it seemed such a long time since the last Migrant Hawker of early November. Although there are many magical moments throughout Winter (frost patterns, snowflakes, winter bird visitors from the far north to name a few), when the first damselfly of Spring is discovered, it brings to an end an aching that has been getting imperceptibly louder but steadily stronger for nearly six months.

The scream is over, bring on the smiles.

We counted about forty individuals nestled amongst the nettles, soaking up the liquid heat and forging it into that brilliant burnished red, edged with black and gold.

Blacksmiths and artists, every one.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Oh... deer

Aha, the weekend, that wonderful time when everybody else is off work too, cluttering up the place for us convalescent pedants. Still, I do get a more reliable taxi service, so at least I'm not so much of a pedestrian.

Today, we're having a meal cooked by our radical conservationist friend, JD. Whether spoons are required, we'll have to wait and see. I doubt it somehow, as it's venison on the menu. When I say "venison", I mean the non-indigenous to Britain, invasive species of deer, the cute and cuddly Muntjac. I'm half hoping for Canada Goose pate for hors d'oeuvre but I'm a little nervous about what sort of dessert can be created from a Grey Squirrel. I did say "radical".

JD works in habitat management, which, in case you're wondering, isn't the same thing as being employed by Sir Terence Conran. One creates homes for a wild life, the other, homes for wildlife. I imagine that to Sir T, heather is the colour palette of his latest soft furnishing range, but to JD, it's a 3 day conference at the other end of the country, several meetings in London and a 42 page report to be in by next week. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, perhaps the world is unfolding much as it should, when there are folk around who are that passionate about the environment. I am suitably proud to be considered an acquaintance of his. (Yes, yes, I know, that Habitat is not owned by Conran any more, it's under the umbrella of the Ikea founder's family, but JD and his mates are more rat pack than flat pack.)

Whilst I'm typing this, the cricket commentary of the Durham v Yorkshire match is on the internet. There's something magical about listening to North East accents whilst sitting so many miles away from the Land of the Prince Bishops. If I could just slip into the vernacular for a minute, Howay! It's a terrible cross to bear, y'know, being too Southern for the North and too Northern for the South. Nee wonder aah'm not reet canny.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

The Life and Times of Charles Drawin

Whilst sorting out our bookshelf, as only the terminally bored do, I discovered a book I'd not noticed previously. Judging by its dog-eared appearance, it must have been handed down from father to son for several generations, each new custodian cherishing it like a precious jewel, until I absent-mindedly filed it away between Haynes' Land Rover Discovery '89 to '98 (G to S reg) and Nicholas Mason's Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd.

It was entitled The Life and Times of Charles Drawin and is a posthumous autobiography by the great man himself. I have spent a day or two reading the hallowed pages, absorbing their message and appreciating the implications contained therein.

This incredibly-gifted and far-sighted man has single-handedly shaped the way we think of the world today. His 1839 biography of Lieutenant William Bligh, especially the chapter concerning the journey of HMS Bounty taking breadfruit to the Americas, The Voyage of The Bagel, is simply spellbinding. Crumbs, no wonder he was the toast of the Victorian science scene, for he was no duff nut.

I must admit, I wasn't so entirely convinced by his Earth parable of 1859. Here, he describes a crease in the fabric of Space/Time that causes so much intense heat and pressure across the world that water is instantly vapourised into steam and all life is squashed flat. There are eerie fore-shadowings and essences of Einstein, climate change and Pratchett to be found here, which make it a required read, but I felt that the title, On the Ironing of Species, was a little contrived. Apparently it went down rather well with the religious lobby, as many Churches and faiths appreciate crisply-pressed linen, so it all starts to make sense.

His later work, too, certainly has resonances for the Modern Day. Take, for example, the 1871 pamphlet, The Scent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, which neatly encapsulates many of the theories put forward by late 20th C and early 21st C thinkers, as regards male grooming. I'm talking here of the Unnatural Selection schools of thought on either side of the English Channel, notably Monsieur David Ginola at L'Ecole Polytechnique De L'Oréal and Professor Beckham FRS MUFC from the David Beckham Academy in London.

And so, dear reader, this evening when you pour your alcoholic beverage of choice, I implore you to pause a while, raise your glass and ponder on the brilliance of Charles Drawin, without whom, our slice of existence would be unbuttered and all the poorer for it.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Naked as Nature intended

Don't be alarmed, faithful reader, it isn't that sort of blog...

As the sun was shining and Buckinghamshire is still without an official 2009 damselfly sighting, I decided to be a bit more pro-active today. If the little blighters refuse to emerge from my pond, when counties all around are recording them AND some dragons, perhaps casting the net a bit wider might do the trick.

Whilst convalescing, I've only been toddling to the local shop and back at most, or being gently ferried at ridiculously slow speeds to our local nature reserve. My elder daughter amused me yesterday, as each car overtook us, she would yell "Neck brace, he's wearing a neck brace!". It seemed to make her feel better, at least.

Today, of course, is a different kettle of fish (non North East readers, please use a dictionary).
No handy lifts and a mission to accomplish. Not impossible, and is it not said that I look like Tom Cruise in the right light? Well, I say "light"... I mean "total darkness". The walk to the nature reserve is about a mile. Armed with only my British Dragonfly Society cap, a pair of sunglasses and hope, I set off on a solo adventure.

Upon leaving the house and heading up the old towpath, I couldn't help a wry smile, as I spotted four mallard sat on the roof of the large house with the big pond. Schadenfreude is a terrible thing.

Then it suddenly struck me... solo. I was on my own. Gulp. I wasn't nervous for health reasons, I just don't do natural history on my own these days. When was the last time I ventured out without a companion for conversation, identification advice or simply to share a silence?

Heck! And it gets worse. No optics. This is a bare bones trip, surviving on eyes and ears alone. Ooo, there's a bit of pressure. Set free from the umbilical cords of binocular and camera straps, it is instantly a much bigger world, alot of which is a long way away, and threatening to remain unidentified. Whilst I've not actually had a nightmare like this, it very much felt like one.

I soon discovered that it's a range thing. Instead of looking at binocular distance, it was much more important to concentrate on what was happening close up. There was a great deal of bird song, which took my rusty ears some time to figure out. Fortunately, a single individual padding along the path makes less noise than a group, and I was able to get closer than normal to several warblers. Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Willow, a distant Reed and oh, there's a Cetti's. I started to relax a bit, but then came a new arrival. Sounding a bit like two different bird calling one after the other, first a warbler, then a finch. It eventually dawned on me, Lesser Whitethroat! Neat. A cuckoo was calling far off, but today wasn't a day for Dad's trick of calling it in. Another time, perhaps. There were plenty of insects; butterflies, hover flies, bee flies, midges, bees, beetles, but no damsels. Despite today's heat, it just hasn't been warm enough for long enough yet. I searched all the favourite spots, but to no avail.

On the return trip, a blackthorn bush stopped me in my tracks. Judging from the songs emanating from within, it appeared to contain at least three different warblers. Whether this was the case, or it was one damn fine mimic, I'll never know, but it sounded like a mixture of a Blackcap, a Garden Warbler and a Sedge Warbler. And I was actually happy not knowing, which came as something of a shock in itself. I could listen and not have to find out, just simply enjoy the moment.


Friday, 17 April 2009

Latin lovers, please beware

Despite it being my favourite season by a long way, there is, inevitably, a flip side to Spring. The equivalent of the wasp at the Summer picnic or the Winter snowball containing an accidental stone. So what is Spring's dark secret? How are the wonderful green hues of the season sullied and tarnished? Cue clap of thunder and lightning flash, as the heavy drapes are parted to reveal a monster so hideous that the mere si....ok, ok, it's a duck. "But it's only a duck," you say. "Hah!" quoth I, "That's what it wants you to think."

Technically, it's two ducks. A pair of mallards. One male and one female. They hail from the local pond, which is a relic from the redundant arm of a small canal that once carried produce to and fro from Newport Pagnell to the Grand Union Canal and on to the wider world. It is now incorporated into a modern housing estate and serves as home to a variety of wildfowl, including mute swans, moorhen, mallard and, bizarrely, the occasional red-crested pochard.

A very noble little environment, to be fair, which will abound with all manner of other wildlife from the plant and animal kingdoms. It brings the country into the town, helps to connect people with their surroundings and therefore gives them roots in the landscape. Pond, I salute you.

So...why my earlier tirade? Do you really want me to spell it out for you? Oh... Kay! It's Spring, that time of year when a young duck's thoughts turn to... er... well, let's just say it doesn't necessarily include crusts of bread, but hey, a romantic meal for two might just lead to some duck lurv. Oh yes, let's head off, away from all these swans and moorhen, and find a nice, secluded spot where we can prop-Oh-gate the sp-Eeee-cies!

Well, not in MY little pond, you don't!

A short history lesson may help explain. In 2003, Channel 4's Time Team had the first of their Big Digs. This involved viewers all over the country digging test pits in their gardens to see what turned up. As a family, we were very informally involved and ended up with a 1 metre square hole and very little else. Hey, it passed the time and kept the girls occupied for a few days of the Summer holidays. The decision was taken (extensive searches of the archives don't reveal by whom) to turn this initial hole into a small pond to increase the biodiversity of the garden and make it more wildlife-friendly. (These days it would be part of the Homes For Wildlife scheme promoted to good effect by the RSPB) Somewhat embarrassingly for myself, this was dug by my wife and daughters, as I had sustained an injury to my right arm (convenient, I hear you say). All credit for the resulting habitat must therefore go to them. Sterling work, Ladies!

My passion for Odonata has made me rather protective of this tiny and fragile environment. Amongst the aquatic plants, amphibians and other invertebrates live dragonfly and damselfly larva, the future aerial predators of the Summer. It does not take a pair of mallard very long to totally trash this idyllic scene as they chomp their way through the plants and insects. And so, every Spring sees a tense siege. I, listening for the telltale quacking that heralds the expansionists' arrival, the ducks sitting on rooftops, awaiting their chance to invade. I've not even figured out how they manage to land on the apex of a roof. What bit of evolution prepared them for that, then? In recent years, anti-duck measures have been deployed in late March. Usually, a string, rope or cane grid placed at duck height over the pond to prevent access, whilst allowing other birds to drink or bathe and invertebrate life to go on unhindered. This year, other factors have come into play, such that the pond is undefended against the evil schemings of duckdom. Its fertile and virgin growth at the mercy of beak and webbed foot. Oh woe, where is the leader to save us from the impending disaster?

Sorry, got a bit carried away there. Anyway, dear reader, I hope you now see my predicament. Whilst my view of Nature generally encompasses all wildlife, for a few weeks every Spring, the local ducks become anatina non grata ( plural: anatinae non gratae) or as I prefer to call it, paxo non pax (Dog Latin: Stuffing not peace).

Wow, a whole post without puerile puns like "quack troops" or "dabbling in disaster". Doh!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Tune in to Spring

Following a thunderstorm in the night, I'm wondering if it was a mistake to mention the butterflies yesterday. All that flapping of wings can have untold consequences. It's probably fortunate that, as an Order, the Lepidoptera don't eat beans.

The storm roiled and rolled in at dawn. From my disturbed slumbers, I could hear the blackbirds, against all odds, rejoicing the new day. Hardy's darkling thrush must have opened one eye, peered at his alarm clock, thought better of it and gone back to sleep. Some days it's difficult to struggle into the blast-beruffled plume.

As an amateur orthinologist, or word botcher (thanks, Humph, you're sadly missed), I do find the dawn chorus is a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, it is a sound picture of consummate beauty, focussing the hope of life into a joyful ensemble, which is sung with a death-defying passion that few of us will ever experience for ourselves. On the other hand, I can't ignore it. Tuned in to birdsong, as birders tend to be, I cannot help myself. Each individual species and often several birds of the same species can be identified, and I invariably strive to do just that. It's a mean and petty regret, for the chorus is a wonderful spectacle to behold. I must try to rediscover the wonder in listening to the whole orchestra again, not each soloist.

It being Spring, the air is full of song from an ever-increasing avian cast list. Personally, I don't look for the "one swallow" or have my pen poised to write to The Times upon hearing the first cuckoo. The siren call that heralds my Spring is the fluid cadence of the willow warbler. The descending notes give a warmth to the still-chilly April days, promising that, ok, Sumer might not be Icumen In, but it's jolly well not too far away.

The blackcaps, too, are belting out their flutey burbling song, which means it won't be long until the garden warblers arrive, with their call that is ever so similar but just a little bit raspier. Ah, heady days indeed for the uptight naturalist.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee

Today, dear reader, I can't promise another bumpy journey from Dodie Smith to Messrs Mason, Wright, Gilmour and Waters, but make yourself comfortable for a bit of a ramble. In several senses.

The sun came out yesterday, which was a shock for a Bank Holiday in these parts, so my good lady wife, my naval acquaintance and I had a gentle wander to our local patch for some natural history therapy to aid my recovery.

Spring being Spring, the natural history is starting to get rather x-rated, in a kind of "the birds and the bees" way. It was fitting, therefore, that the Admiral spotted a bee being hotly pursued by a butterfly, which, if I hadn't witnessed a similar incident last summer, I would've treated with a shrug and filed it away under Inexplicable. But when I say "hotly pursued", I mean tail-gating in the outside lane at 90 miles per hour, that sort of "hotly pursued". I doubt if bees have door mirrors (the lack of doors being a bit of a clue), so perhaps it was blithely unaware of the Lepidopteran threat. A bit like James May trundling along in a carefully-restored 1960s Triumph Herald as Jeremy Clarkson appears over the horizon in a testosterone-fueled, Hell-on-wheels-mobile and is suddenly THERE.

Car analogies aside, this got us to thinking on the butterfly's motives.

The Admiral reckoned that the "butterflies and the bees" seemed the most obvious answer, in a crazy cross-species love affair. Pheromones, mixed signals, a misunderstanding, you know how it plays out. They'll see sense eventually and resume normal lives, wondering what might've been if only they'd met on a different flower.

Or perhaps it's about food and the butterfly was betting that the bee was outward bound to the nectar fields. Well, it's a 50-50 chance and you know how they like a flutter. So the aerial chase begins, with strangely un-butterflylike directness, because they can't half shift when they've got the smell of nectar in All to the tune of The Entertainer from that film, bashed out on a honky tonk piano at breakneck speed. Over bushes, around trees, through the glade, over the hedge and only ending in pollen paradise or hive horror depending on that initial gamble. Jings, where's the BBC Natural History Film Unit when you need them?

For the record, we saw 6 species of butterfly during the afternoon: Brimstone, Small White, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Speckled Wood and Comma. I don't know which species was road raging our apian friend, we didn't even get his number.

Monday, 13 April 2009

In case you're wondering...

In case you're wondering, dear reader, I am most definitely not writing this whilst sitting in the kitchen sink. However, I did see a Dalmatian yesterday. These two small facts may well have set the tone for all that follows, today, tomorrow and in the future.

I am finding that convalescence is a keenly-honed, double-edged sword. Here I am, on the face of it, with bucket loads of time, but with little opportunity to make good use of it, as I'm not allowed to pick up the bucket. So glad now that I didn't say "s**t loads of time".

Despite the obvious frustration this brings about (the lack of opportunity, not the s**t part), I am finding that new possibilities are opening up. This blog, for instance. How better to try and fill the unforgiving minute, than with 60 words of typing done. I've no proof that this is how many words I do type in a minute, but you get the idea.

Speaking of proof, I am thoroughly enjoying "The Age of Wonder" by Richard Holmes. Subtitled "How the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science", it is an absorbing read and is certainly helping to keep me on the correct side of sane. I'll leave you to decide where that is and how it applies to yours truly.

I logged on this morning to the news that David Attenborough has given his support to a movement campaigning to highlight the dangers of human overpopulation. As someone who berates work colleagues on this point whenever climate change and loss of habitat are raised in conversation, all I will say now is "Hurrah!" And there I was not going to be too confrontational in my inaugural blog. Oops.

Anyone wondering how I'm doing after the op, worry not, the old git is still as daft as a brush and just about as prickly. And to escape the bucket analogy, not too pail. Only time will tell, I suspect, whether it can be considered a success. Time, eh? Now there's a subject for a future blog, and an excellent Pink Floyd track into the bargain.