A Christmas Story (of sorts)

Thursday was the last day of work. An early closure, coffee late in the morning, then home. Catch the train and start the final preparations for the big day.

The train platform was almost empty. A train for the line I did not want had just departed, taking most of the passengers with it. Just a few people waiting for the Belgrave train, me included.

I sat on a bench, thought about listening to some music, but did not. I just thought. It has, by almost any standards, been a big year for me. I noticed the old lady walking through the ticket barrier. Frail, but not broken, old but not yet without independence.

She sat next to me, slightly closer than I would have expected, but I such is life. You can’t travel on public transport without pulling your personal space tight around you. But this did seem a little strange. Plenty of space, but she choose to sit close.

Almost at once she started talking – “I’m only going one stop” she said “I have run short of my tablets”. “I used to walk” she said “but not anymore”. I made some non-committal comment about it being important not to run out of your medication. I expected the conversation to end there – but it did not.

“It’s too hot” she said and I had to agree. “It’s not hot where my daughter is” she continued. At this point it was clear I had been sucked in. “Where’s your daughter” I asked. “Poland” came the reply. “Well it won’t be hot there” I said knowing that people had been dying in the streets because of the cold.

I was clear from her accent that this lady was not Australian born, but I could not place her. So here we were, two strangers in a strange land and the conversation started to flow. “It should be cold at Christmas” she stated and I had to agree. Christmas in summer feels strange – it’s not wrong, but it does feel strange to me. Christmas means late afternoon darkness, cold, the necessity of heating and gloves. Houses lights beaming in the gloom of a December afternoon, these are memories and associations.

“I would like to see one more Christmas in Poland” the old lady added. “Sometimes I miss Poland, but at other times I cannot believe I was there”. This confused me, was she saying that she had been in Australia so long that she could not remember her home land? I noticed she was rolling up her sleeve.

She pointed to a rough set of numbers tattooed on her arm.


“Do you know what these are” she said. “Yes I do” I replied.

“Do you know where I got them” she said. “No” I said “but Auschwitz is in Poland isn’t it?”

“Yes. I was there when I was 21”


“I had my daughter fostered out 2 weeks before they took us away, she was just a baby”


“I got her back when she was six”


“Sometimes I cannot believe what people can do to each other”.


The train arrived; she stood and walked to a door.

“Have a nice Christmas”.

I got up and got on to the train. Did I just dream that?

Sometimes we pay ready attention to see what is going on. But we also need to pay ready attention to the past, so we make sure the things that there happened never happen again.

A Growing Community.

I met somebody a few days ago who claimed he had never grown anything. He was referring to plants specifically, rather than a beard or a deep dissatisfaction with government action on climate change. Specifically, he claimed never to have grown a plant.

I have to ask; what the hell did he do at school? Did he not have Mr. Freeman (who had already grown a beard) and the long succession of cuttings and graftings that thrived in the greenhouse, but did less well in the dark confines of a school locker? Did he not germinate seeds with Mr. Rix (who only eat plants and noting else) in Biology? Did he not grow flowers in the back garden to keep his mum happy? Listen to Percy Thrower on the BBC? Have pot plants at college – that’s plants in pots if you were wondering! Keep carnivorous plants as a marker of teenage angst?

He may, of course, have lived in a high rise flat, with concrete views and grey vistas, with corporation gardens stripped of all but the most robust plants, where growing plants is a luxury. He may have, but he did not. He lived in a leafy suburb with trees and lawns and manicured box hedges. And yet he had never grown a thing. You may have guessed by now, but I thought that this was remarkable to say the least, and sad in a way that is typical of many younger people, but surprising in one of his age.

I know from firsthand experience that time at school is precious and crowded. Demands push in from all directions. From governments sitting above the school, from parents standing alongside their children demanding equity, quality and opportunity and from organizations convinced that our children will be destined for failure without knowledge of dog handling, ethnic dancing, the mysteries and delusions of religion and healthy cooking. And here I go adding one more thing to the list. Kids should grow things. In gardens if possible, in pots if necessary or in margarine tubs if nothing else comes to hand. And if at all possible they should eat what they grow. Now Mr. Freeman may have had difficulty with this, as we always seemed to grow nothing edible, just cacti and other textured succulents. I am not sure that basil and exotic vegetables had made it to Midsomer Norton by the early 1980’s. They may not have made it there yet!

I try (and fail) to spend some time in my own garden every day. Even if it is just the slow walk in the morning to collect the paper, and the equally slow return at the end of the day. I try to find time to look at the tomatoes. I don’t know what I expect to see on any of these excursions into the world that grows within the confines of my garden, but I normally see something.
Gardens are a microcosm of the rest of the world. Plants are front and centre as they should be.
They make a garden what it is, which is apt for producers. Plants are sunlight made tangible and I am, directly or through a more twisted route, the product of plants. We may be made of star stuff, but we need plants to carry out the basic fixing and trapping of such material before we can use it. And there is only a limited amount of this celestial matter about, so we better recycle it, lest supplies run short. And there in the compost bin, hidden in the unloved part of the garden behind the shed, next to the wood pile, is a recycling plant of exquisite simplicity and complexity. A compost bin. Pile stuff you no longer need into the top, wait a while and organic gold can be mined from the bottom. Compost, decay, rebirth.

If kids could see just these two things they will have witnessed the processes that keep the biological world turning. Energy to do what is needed and endless (but recycled) matter to build what needs building. That’s what growing things teaches us. Energy and matter. Physic and chemistry made concrete by biology. That really is a trinity worth getting excited about.
Beyond energy and matter there sits a world of wonder that gardens can show us. The problems of elsewhere will remain elsewhere until you can see the link to here and now. Gardens are rooted, literally and metaphorically, in the here and now. The tangible, the testable, the tactile benefits of growing things, and keeping your eyes open as you do should not be overlooked.

Yet it seems for many people that there is little contact with the growing world of plants. Lawns and playing fields, if they are considered at all, are seen as little more than a green carpet of convenience. With the drought the green may be brown and the carpet threadbare and worn. Lawns have become a symbol of depraved over use of water – but we can grow other things, we don’t always have to convert our only spaces to gravel zen gardens, full of positive energy and empty of children.
This morning there was a spider web – almost a meter across – and anchored to an apple tree 3 or 4 meters below in the garden. It seemed to be catching the early morning light rather than insects, but here again we have the garden as home school. Predators, prey, adaptation, life, death, selection, evolution. All hanging from the telephone line over my garden. And the spider was there because the insects were there, and the insects were there because the plants were there, and the plants were there because this is a garden where things grow. Community, food web, populations, food chains. Each of these a link with flows back to plants. Each going back to the things that grow.

My gardens food web must be complex, my understanding of it limited. But each day brings a new link. Lizards by the rocks, hunting for the unknown. Slaters hidden under plant pots. The large and rather intimidating spider that emerged from the garden umbrella. What do they eat, what eats them? I don’t know – but whatever eats the spider will have to be large, and the spider itself looked able to handle a small dog! Biodiversity is not something that exists elsewhere or can only be seen in a zoo or on safari.

Some biodiversity can be less welcome. There are rather unpleasant creatures eating the pears on the pear tree. It’s a forlorn hope that we will get a crop this year. If the bugs don’t get them the possums will. Or the bats!

I work in an office. My garden is more important than ever. It brings connection, community and space.

I just need to go and check on the tomatoes!

Garden Variety Birds.

Much can be learned from a single phrase. When a person says “Did you see the report in the paper?” it is clear they assume you know which paper they mean. They mean their paper, the paper they read. And if they ask you about “the paper” they assume you read the same one they do. In this way much can be learned.

Much can also be hidden in a single phrase. Many truths can be obscured, many understandings prevented.

“Garden Variety” is such a phrase. It means ordinary, humdrum, unremarkable. We get birds in the garden – this in itself is unremarkable – so we get a variety of garden birds. But are they always Garden Variety birds? I think not. To view our garden birds as ordinary, humdrum and unremarkable is to miss the point. It cloaks those birds in a veil, a veil that needs to be lifted.

Many garden birds are common in the extreme, they may seen banal because of familiarity. They are never noticed because they are always seen. They are the garden constants. Some birds are noticed because of their size, or because of the size of their beaks. Some birds are noticed because they nest where we live. Hiding in plain sight, at the top of post, in woodshed corners, famously in old kettles and abandoned hats. Such birds bring variety to the garden and should not be dismissed as garden variety at all. I have some in my garden as I write.

When I arrived in Australia Butcher Birds had an air of mystery to them. They were birds that occurred elsewhere, and if you knew of one on your patch you would definitely go and see it. Vlad the Impaler had nothing on a shrikes – which are butcher birds. Insects, small reptiles and such like lined up on a thorny branch. Impaled on a Butcher’s spike. Air dried lizard anybody? (Any South Africans reading this will probably be say “and you point is?” Nothing like air dried wildebeest as a mid-morning snack!)
The first time I saw Grey Butcher bird in the garden I nearly fell over. In my garden? No, it can’t be. But it was. I have since come to know that they are rather more common than I expected. But they will never be a Garden Variety bird as far as I am concerned. They breed in the mature trees behind my house and the noisy young beg for food on post, the edge of our sand pit and on the tomato frames. They are not fussy, but they are hungry.

The call (which for a while I thought was a magpie) is a bubbly (I just heard one!) warble. “Loud, mellow and piping” it says in the book and that just about sums it up. Nearly constant would also help. Its habits include “margins of rains forests, monsoon forest and gardens”. OK, so a few other places are listed before gardens, but it makes a nice list of three! They fight, squabble, get harassed by the Wattle Birds and bring a wildness to the garden that I like. Rainforest (how exotic), monsoon forest (they must be good mustn’t they) and my garden!

It will come as no surprise to learn that Grey Butcher birds have a lot of grey on them. Over the back, the tops of the wings and in a lighter shade of pale, down the front. Their beak is hooked and looks ready to wound. They are a muscular but slightly drawn out bird, a blackbird on steroids. And (and I acknowledge I’ve said this before!) they live in my garden! The young are obliging in the way that they sit and call, they invite observation. The adults are less so. They have the flighty caution of all predators, a willful unwillingness to be photographed. They call, hidden, from tree tops or explode, startled from garden edges. The adults do not pose. A double flap and glide is common in their flight, from garden fence to washing line and off into someone else domain. I seldom if ever see them catch anything, but the young are growing, so they must do. I have the strange feeling that it is the birds that own this patch of Australia, regardless of what the paperwork says.

On the other side of the world where it is still yesterday and the tree push hard against the roads it will be winter. Leafless woodlands creep into the back blocks of people’s houses. Snow banks against the windows, raccoons leave footprints and birds come to the welcoming feeders.

These are garden birds as well, but one has a special pulling power. I had seen it before, ripping a tree stump to pieces in a New England woodland. Laughing with pleasure at the sight of a chicken sized woodpecker with a red crest. Pileated Woodpecker. The light was failing but it was good enough to see this bird. Less than 30 seconds later it was gone, strong irregular wing beats taking it away, out into the growing darkness and gone. That was no Garden Variety bird!

When I found out that they actually visited my friend’s garden I lapsed into jealous shock. Woodpeckers are rather special to me. They speak of woodlands, childhood and special places. Nests found in holes, yaffles on ant rich pastures, Great Spotted’s on the feeders. Three species, one only ever seen twice by me, both times glimpsed. Always a welcome sight, regardless of species. Some seem have become more common in the UK in my absence, their call distinct, their dipping flight characteristic. But for me, here, now, they are absent. For the time being I have lost them.

I live east of the Wallace line, and beyond it there are no woodpeckers. There are many other wonderful things, but there are no woodpeckers. And I miss them. The Wallace line slices down between Bali and Lombok in Indonesia and cuts off Asia from Australasia. A line between bio-regions named for a man who could have been more famous but for the tyranny of distance and work of other people. Maybe it’s for the best – Wallaceism is so much harder on the tongue than Darwinism!

Ohio is to the west of the Wallace line and has woodpeckers – large black ones that come to visit your garden and impress your guests. And I have to assure you Rich, it worked!

Garden birds should not be over looked. The live close by and we should embrace them, not lumber them with some disrespectful name!

Things with Legs and Wings

“In JUNE Kipper lay on his back and watched as little things with legs and wings climbed the spindly grass and whizzed into the big, blue sky. “There are a lot more things with legs and wings than you would think”, thought Kipper.”

That is from a wonderful book called “One Year with Kipper” by Mick Inkpen. If you are reading this and you have preschool children you should track it down and read it to them.
People look for wisdom in all kids of places. Books especially. It gives the world a nice kind of symmetry that you can find truth in books of that make no claims to fact. Truth presented in a simple way does not have to be simplistic. Books like Kipper offset all the instances where others make sweeping claims to fact without any basis in truth.

But a simple observation in a children’s book pointed me towards a certain set of thoughts.
Coincidences abound. On the day after I read the Kipper book I saw a butterfly in the window of a clothes shop. It was early in the morning, a clear night had brought with it a slight chill. It was cold enough to notice, but you did not need a jacket. A brisk walking pace and the promise of coffee was more than enough to keep you warm. Yet I could feel the chilled air streaming through the shop doorways. Refrigerated shopping. Air conditioner turned up to maximum. Cold outside and colder still inside. Why?

The butterfly was trying to come up to speed, struggling to reach a working temperature. Occasional movements, brief flutters. In reality it may have been dying. If it did not find warmth it would become as lifeless as the shop window mannequins, who’s posed beauty was destroyed by the flaking paint of fingernails and sun faded lips. Contemplative staring into the windows of fashionably expensive shops is liable to attract unwanted attention. Especially if you are male. The presence of a struggling butterfly would be no defense, even if it really is justified. I moved on.

The hollow limbs of arthropods, changed over countless generations to carry out a dazzling array of tasks, go unnoticed on most days by most people. The endless forms most beautiful of the arthropods would overshadow the pedestrian engineering of humans if we cared to pay more attention. Instead of chilling them to death in shop windows, swatting them with rolled newspapers or poisoning them with sprays and baits we should pay a little more attention. Before people become concerned that I have strayed into the realms of “equal rights for cockroaches” or some such location, I would say this. We need more understanding. Understanding of how the world works, what changes we are causing and what the consequence of our future actions could be. If we are to achieve any of these we cannot ignore the fraction of life normally dismissed as bugs. To do so would dismiss the majority of animals. We humans are not typical, far from it. The butterfly was closer to typical, beetles even more so. The meek may inherit the Earth, but the meek will have an exoskeleton.

I would also like to say that what follows will be a valuable contribution to the on-going debate about why we should value bugs. Why we should value the joint legged and the tiny. But the truth is that I doubt that it will. Firstly, there is no on-going debate. Secondly, these are just some simple observations from somebody window shopping in the supermarket of biodiversity.
As I walk across my lawn small blue butterflies lift from grassy hideouts. Achieving flight in a fraction of a second, airborne at will. The evening brings life to the outside lights, confused by the million moons of suburbia. Moths leave dusty marks on window panes, beetles scratch against invisible glass barriers. Tiny specks of life float in the air. Living dust, smaller than sand grains, as viable as me. In each speck of life the same processes are carried out. The same cells are found and a common heritage is shared. Me, you, blue whales and bugs. Life started once and once only and it gave rise to all this. It’s the only wonder you need. If we are to be struck by awe, we only need open our eyes and look around. Why direct our eyes to the empty heavens when our world is so full.
Butterflies are conspicuous and popular, so they are noticed. Cabbage white, Australian Painted Lady, Caper White, Yellow Admiral: they all pass through the garden. Many are missed. You don’t know what it is, but you know what it is not. The caterpillars feeding on the fence line grapes, on the pear tree, on the tomatoes. Each adds to a list of residents and visitors.
The cockroaches and milling hoards in the compost bins, the flies in the air, the armoured slaters under the pots – not insects, but land living crustaceans –, earwigs, claspers at the ready, all join the throng. Each one adds to the garden list and makes a connection in a food web the supports us.

But not all of these garden insects are so shy, so retiring, so mobile. Some stand out and some stand their ground and wait. Preying Mantis’s sit and await their prey. There victims do have a prayer. An alien like predator with huge eyes and equal claws. A four legged insects, with two arms as well. They rock gently in a non-existent wind and wait. And wait. And wait. The strike – seen only once – is a blur of extending arms and thrashing legs. It was as if the mantis had conjured the insect from thin air. One moment the space in front of the mantis was empty, the next it was filled with death and feeding. A movement so fast and so precise it defied sight. I only knew it had happened when it stopped. What would the world be like if these animals were a meter long? What fear would we know then?

But insects do not need to be fast or menacing to be remarkable. Or in this case, annoying to the point of rage. Mosquitoes are evolutions portable drill. A flying Black and Decker capable of boring through almost any human invention or chemical deterrent. And often doing it without being noticed. Only the much too late hand slap and the smear of blood betray their presence. Sometimes you can get them, most times you miss. And when you do get them the victory is pyritic. They got you long before you got them. They can drive you to distraction and drive you from the garden, taking shelter in the house. The night time buzzzzzzzzzzz, high pitched, sitting just on the edge of hearing is enough to keep you awake, always at your ear. They are remarkable and without redeeming features. They are wonderfully adapted, but I don’t care - I really don’t like them.

Sometimes it’s not the size or the colour that demands attention. It’s the sheer numbers that astound. Standing by a bare willow bush in mid-summer, not a leaf left. You could hear a hiss from the twigs. The bush was moving with weevils. Just on this bush and no other and you could hear their feet. Each animal making six little noises as it moved, and the uncounted numbers made a sound I could hear. Imagine being alerted to the sound of insect feet! That was years and many concerts ago, would I hear it now?

I have heard wasps chewing plants to make their paper nests, a drying rasping from a dead stem. The buzzing of bees in the trees, or in a concrete power poll, seems less remarkable, but it is more common. But most remarkable was a gathering of flies painting the underside of beach cliffs black. Uncountable numbers in undisturbed places. Any movement towards them formed a choking black cloud. A lung clogging swam of protein and wings. I am glad I saw them before I breathed them.

I have, of course, missed out the spiders. Autumn brings them out when they weave their webs between the trees. For now, the spiders can wait.

There are clattering moths at my window and noisy cicadas in the trees. So I will turn off the light and go to listen.

Danger Up-Date.

There may be danger on the edge of town but dangers can be avoided, and threats averted.

I first started watching this nest on the 19th of last month. Today (5th December) the chicks were sat on the edge of the edge of the nest summoning the courage to dive into the wild blue yonder. Balanced between security and fear. Instinct pulling in both directions, finally tipping the birds over, though fear and into the world.

Less than 10 minutes after this picture they took off – not so much flying as plummeting – not flying, just falling with style!

I suppose it gets worse from here. They are neither functional flyers nor competent runners; they may not make it through the night.

Only time will tell.