Thursday 30 July 2009

Is this a petrified octopus with tentacles growing skywards ...?

Upside Down Tree, Monkey Bread Tree – the strange case of the tree which grew the wrong way – or did it? The Bushmen believed that the Baobab had offended God and, in revenge, God had planted the tree upside down, or each animal on being given a tree to plant – the hyena decided to plant his the wrong way up .. so the roots waggle in the air.

Baobab tree

The world is made up of many strange sites and the Bottle Tree another name for the Baobab, is certainly one of them. 

They are iconic trees – you cannot miss them when you see them in the bush. They grow naturally in Mauritius, where six species remain, one native species each in Africa and Australia, however they are now grown in other countries or areas – India and Florida being two.

The undisputed monarch of all the Savannah trees of Africa. Even a single isolated baobab dominates its surroundings with its bulky form and unique character. In winter, without their leaves, baobabs resemble petrified octopuses with tentacles groping towards the sky. The size of the baobab varies as they have the ability to store thousands of litres of water in their trunk (up to 120,000 litres or 32,000 US gallons) to see them through the drought periods.

Baobab Flower
Surprisingly the tree, in Spring, bears its heavy white flowers at night, probably so the bush babies (nocturnal primates) can benefit from the sources of nutrition, or so that a species of fruit bat is attracted to the carrion scent of the pendulous stamens ensuring pollination occurs.

Almost every part of the tree is useful to man. The young leaves have a high calcium content and can be boiled and eaten as a vegetable, similar to spinach. The pollen of the flowers yields an excellent glue, and the seeds are rich in protein, calcium, oil and phosphates, and are pleasant to suck, or can be ground and roasted to make a palatable coffee.

An opened pod
The fruit pod contains tartaric acid (used in sherbet), while the fruit is nutritious possibly having more vitamin C than oranges and exceeding the calcium content of cow's milk, this is the tree of life .. with many more uses, including making ropes or paper from its spongy wood.

Even the tree itself offers shelter and water for hundreds of birds, insects, small and large mammals of the African Savannah, though until relatively recent times it also offered shelter for humans – the Bushmen of the Kalahari used the trees for shelter; the pioneers used the trunks to live in and as workshops, or hiding places made for local thieves.

Artefacts have been found in the naturally hollowed out stems dating back hundreds of years, while it is known that the tree hollows naturally from the inside after about 1,000 years but the young baobabs are so unlike their revered elders there was concern that they were endangered, fortunately not so .. and as Hugh Glen, a government botanist, once said “the problem with the baobab is that it doesn’t get handsome until it’s about 800 years old”.

The bigbaobab website states that carbon dating has been used to estimate the Big Baobab’s age at ± 6000 years. To put this in perspective the tree is possibly older than the Giza Pyramids and was certainly here thousands of years before the birth of Jesus Christ. When the first leaves sprouted the Sahara Desert was still lush and green and our Iron Age ancestors were roaming the land.

Sunland's Baobab
The farm on which this big baobab is found is now a safari lodge and offers five gorgeous thatched” jungalows” with open air en-suite bathrooms accommodate 17 people. Have a shower under the glorious southern night sky and its millions of African stars! I thought you’d like the description ... especially "jungalows".

Sunland’s Baobab is 22 meters high, and is some 47 meters in circumference. It is still (and is likely to remain so) "the record holder for the species", according to the SA Dendrological Society.

At Sunland's - in the bar
In 1993 the van Heerdens cleared out the hollow centre of the tree, removing masses of compost build up, to uncover the floor about a metre below ground level. In the process they found evidence of both Bushmen and Voortrekkers (pioneers), attesting to the historical importance of the tree.

They squared off a natural vent in the trunk to make a door and installed a railway sleeper pub inside the trunk, complete with draft beer, seats, a music system and space for nearly 60 people. A wine cellar has been installed in a second hollow, with a constant temperature of 22° C, ventilated by natural vents.

Photo courtesy of Barcroft Media and the Daily Mail - Fancy a pint in a bar that is inside a tree? ©

So there we have it a real tree of life .. nurturing us humans probably for over a 1,000 years, nourishing, feeding and watering masses of wildlife from the night time bats, to the tiny insects to the baboons, monkeys and elephants who depend on its fruit ... 

... and which will go on nurturing us for many years to come with the authorities of the world anxious to find new remedies and uses from our natural flora and fauna. Welcome to the world of the upside down tree!

Thanks for visiting Mr Postman, my mother always loved this tree and if the pub had been open when I lived there, my mother and I would definitely have been there sleeping under the stars and having a drink in a tree. We have had a good three days when my mother has been awake and interested in being read to .. even today to my surprise, tonight she was asleep: I can finish this before I go out .. perhaps!

PS: the Baobab Fruit: how the Eden Project is supporting Rural Harvesters in Malawi and southern Africa 

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Wednesday 29 July 2009

The Power of Water ....

Imagine a field of gently waving green barley one day happily growing in the English summer, the next suddenly becoming a rather large corridor of mud. The city of Durham found itself with a mini grand canyon to its east The torrential rain during the night caused a wall of water to build up determined to find the shortest route towards the river, just simply by moving the agricultural soil to the side, then proceeding to cut down into the river sediments below.

Durham: a map of the city from 1610

Over three inches of rain had fallen on ground already saturated by excessive rains over the previous ten days, so on that night the torrent built up and thundered its way towards the sea, scouring the land as it took a shorter course through the flood plain.

An amateur photo from showing a close-up view of the new canyon

When the River Wear reaches the city of Durham it passes through a deep, wooded gorge, from which several springs emerge, historically used as sources of potable water, so the landscape has a very low water table and is prone to land saturation. The river ever evolves over the flood plain , naturally migrating across it.

The wooded riverbanks of the Wear as it flows through Durham

Durham city itself is built on a sandstone bedrock peninsula within an incised meander of the River Wear, providing an ideal defensive enclosure – so essential to early occupiers in Saxon and medieval England. The Norman Cathedral and 11th century castle were built on this high fortress promontory to provide sanctuary for the tombs of Saint Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede both buried on this land by their guardian monks from Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island.

The ‘great deluge’ forced a gully two hundred metres long, thirty metres wide and nearly five metres deep, the agricultural topsoil and river sediments underneath were swept into the River Wear and on out towards the North Sea. Now the waters have receded it is thought probable that the deluge found an old river course, pushing the barley plants, earth and silts to one side or took the balance with it as the force of the water rushed on following the line of least resistance.

Google Maps image, retrieved July 24, 2009, showing the field with the approximate position of the new canyon.

I wonder if all those 8 billion years ago the Grand Canyon started life as a thunderous roar before slowly cutting down through the rock stratas, while the continents pushed and pulled each other creating unexpected fragmented earth, eventually crafting our world as we know it today – but which forever ebbs and flows with the suns, moons, seas and rains .. perhaps that wondrous space evolved thus?
Noon rest in Grand Canyon (Marble Canyon) second Powell Expedition, 1872

We have such wonderful names for our places in England, when I was researching our mini Grand Canyon I found the Cow Green Reservoir (and yes, Durham does have a cow link! - the Dun Cow legend), Cauldron Snout falls and along the high Pennine moors to magnificent inland views down High Cup Nick and across to the Lakeland Fells. On top of that most of this descriptive passage came from the RaggyLads Walking Club – so thanks to them and for the picture.

Following their instructions for the walk, which we will not do here, but we can take their description on board, as we walk along we pass old lead workings, military activity (when the flag is flying), then rise above Maize Beck, before descending towards its banks again and crossing over (NB: be aware of the beck in spate). At this point it is easier to climb up the western side where the path is clearer, until at last you reach the very edge of High Cup Nick to see one of the wonders of Britain.

RaggyLads describe it as "a horseshoe shaped hole in the ground, but what a size, and what views from the top. The Grand Canyon it is not, but it is not bad all the same and well worth the walk out and the return." The picture is so enticing .. and as you see the Grand Canyon is mentioned here too.
High Cup Nick taken by one of the RaggyLads Walking Club

So there we have it .. a mini Grand Canyon made in hours – will it stay, what will they do with it, THE Grand Canyon made over millions of years, or High Cup Nick, which is pretty pretty – we live in a wonderful world, would you not agree?

Dear Mr Postman I hope you got back before our torrential rains came? So far it hasn’t been too bad here .. but reading The Cornish Riviera book to my mother – travelling along the railway, following every tributary, finding every Holy Well, visiting every Church, Chapel, and every ancient stone age monument from Stone Age Man to the Middle Ages I feel well travelled and somewhat sore throated – Mum thoroughly enjoyed it and that of course is the main thing, til tomorrow ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Champagne fruit ... anyone?

Where will you find a hint of strawberries, pineapple, papaya, passion fruit, clear peach with an aromatic scent, an effervescent flesh, producing a powerful fragrant perfume once it reaches ripeness – encouraging you to cut into it to reach its elixir – in a Babaco?

Ecuador from Images Net

The large dark green seedless babaco fruits, turn to bright yellow when ripe, the pale apricot coloured flesh, the tender juicy pulp, mild and delicate in taste, faintly acidic offers an unusual flavour that is so overwhelmingly delicious that you simply could not forget it – in my case for over 20 years – if another one had been sighted, it would have been bought on the spot.

I was travelling back from the Kruger Park in South Africa, having stayed at a game lodge for a week’s break in the bush, away from the hustle and bustle of city life; we decided to take the back road, rather than the main highway back to Johannesburg, so we were able to visit trout farms, fruit and vegetable stalls along the way – restocking our freezers with fresh fish and our larders or fridges for the week ahead.

The babaco was here: purchased – completely unknown, it looked good, smelt good -I suppose we must have asked how we used them. When home we cut into them and were completely intoxicated .. and if we could we would have turned round and gone back to the farm stall to get some more. This was about 20 years ago – memories remain.

The taste of the fruit was really fantastic the juice poured out as it was cut, but then stopped – so each slice just melted on the tongue, sweet and fragrant, sensuous to taste – it is more than just a fruit, high in vitamin C, with a host of nutritional recipes to satisfy every occasion.

This highland fruit is believed to be a natural hybrid of the papaya and is unique because it is distinctly five sided, being first discovered in southern Ecuador in 1922. It was introduced to other parts of the world from the 1970s and apart from South Africa, is found in New Zealand, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, north America and Guernsey, where they are grown under glass.

The babaco tree has a palm-like, truncated appearance with large ornamental leaves growing from the top third of the tree. Surprisingly it grows to a height of only two to three metres (6 – 9 feet) in the first year, and will produce fruit after nine months. The tree is parthenocarpic (seedless) which means that its flowers do not need pollinating to produce fruit.

The fruits appear to grow and hang down in bunches, having an extensive fruiting period the tree will produce 25 to 100 fruits per year, in a fairly short life span of 6 – 10 years. The star shaped fruits are quite large measuring 12 inches by 4 inches and weighing in at 675 – 1,135 grams (one and half to two and a half pounds) each.

The fruit is extensively used in the Andes – fresh, roasted, in sauces and fresh juices, in marmalades or preserves – while the western world has put its own take on the fruit .. in muesli, babaco parma ham wraps as starters, a hollowed out babaco filled with ‘fruits de mer’, babaco sauces, fish in babaco and green herb sauce, babaco tagliatelle, babaco cheesecake, a cooling refresher, or morning glory drink. Why or why can I not find one here?

The fruit is incredibly versatile, 98 percent edible and virtually seedless. During the cooking process, unlike many other fruits, the babaco will retain its shape and will not break up; the skin is very tender and easily digested, or the fruit can be peeled and the skin squeezed to remove any extra juice; the unripe green fruit is delicious used as a green vegetable in curies and chutney; while it also contains an enzyme called papain which acts as a meat tenderiser, rendering tough meats more digestible than a marinade containing wine.

Babaco can be used as an alternative to lemon juice, offering a softer acidity than lemon juice, especially when used with delicate fish dishes. It can also replace lemon juice to prevent peeled fruits, such as apples, from turning brown, without making them too acidic.

With this amazing array of choices, I am really surprised that there does not appear to be a ready market for them – but will this under-exploited small tree, that could provide so much value, become a future super fruit? That exotic scent wafting through our homes is just too wonderful to contemplate – I might have a travel quest in the future: in search of the elusive strawberry, mango, lemon, passion fruit, pineapple scented champagne fruit – the babaco.

Dear Mr Postman .. my mother will love this story as she loves trying new tastes and flavours and would relish the challenge of finding a market for these fruits, travelling to see the orchards, testing new recipes - all things 'up her street' - the kind of things she would so enjoy. One day I will find a source and once again be able to buy a fruit ...
PS - let alone the photos today .. I struggled to find the ones I wanted .. and gave up .. so I shall be searching for photos too ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Monday 27 July 2009

Those Magnificent Men and their flying machines ...

Leonardo Da Vinci said “Once you have tasted flight, you will walk the earth with your eyes turned forever skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return”: That is me! .....

Five hundred years ago Leonardo was still alive, four hundred years later the first flight was made across the English Channel by a Frenchman, Louis Bleriot. “Flying machines are no longer toys and dreams, they are established fact,” said David Lloyd George in 1909, before he became Prime Minister in 1916, after reading The Times’ breathless coverage of the historic flight.

The Times, 26 July 1909, reported thus: “The long-dreamt-of-feat has been actually accomplished; pluck and promptitude have been rewarded; ..” The Wright brothers, the New York Times reported, had not believed the monoplane could do it and both praised the daring aviator.

A design for a flying machine, (c. 1488) Institut de France, Paris

Bleriot’s exploits were all the more remarkable considering he had badly burnt his leg on the engine exhaust leaving him on crutches, which were ditched once he was airborne, then on top of that he was a non-swimmer, and had none of our modern navigational aids.

He flew over the channel at a height of about 250 feet and after twenty five minutes, nearing the coast, lost sight of sea, ships and land, as a sea fog had rolled in, which is a bit daunting flying at 130 mph, with what we would call now-a-days “impediments” - do you not think?

Suddenly popping back out of the mist losing height, he realised he had had to turn westwards looking for the gap in the forbidding white cliffs of Dover, the monoplane was gathering speed as the desperate search for that elusive landing spot became somewhat intimidating.

As he approached those looming 250 foot white cliffs, his ‘heavier-than-air’ monoplane flying somewhat erratically down the coastline towards where he was scheduled to land, Bleriot commented that “it was the most anxious part of the flight: I had no fear for the machine, which was travelling beautifully”.

Dover Castle hove into sight and the gash in the cliffs appeared, Bleriot cut his motor at 60 feet almost crash landing, but thudded onto the hillside, breaking his undercarriage and propeller. Land and wireless telegraph sent the news around the world, Mr Bleriot was feted in London and Paris and his monoplane went on show in Selfridges. Bleriot was not a great pilot: he was known for pranging his planes, but he was above all tenacious, and very foolhardy.

The American Wright brothers are generally credited with inventing and building the world’s first successful aeroplane and making the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight on 17 December 1903, mainly due to their invention of aircraft controls that made fixed-wing flight possible.

Many years later a young lady was having gliding lessons at Perranporth airfield, Cornwall when I was described as “being able to fly under verbal instruction. Tends to be a little over cautious with the controls” ... as I was learning to drive too – I suppose at 15 I was allowed to be a little careful?

Looking from St Agnes Beacon, northwards towards Perranporth beach in the distance, with the Gliding Club in between; the name "Beacon" comes from the old Cornish "Bryanick", or "pointed hill".
It was a wonderful time those three years in the summer being able to glide for a week or two, on a private aerodrome – so I was able to drive the old buggies, tow the gliders, drive an E-type as a special treat, and eventually to drive myself over once I had passed my test aged 17. Going solo in a glider was a piece of cake – you could do that at 16!

Those long summer August days spent out in the open, high above Perranporth, with the freedom of being young without worries – just experiencing so much – the working with other course members all there for the thrill of the sky, learning new skills, being free of the family for the first time ...

The terrible weather .. no change then .. but this meant our flights were only 2 – 5 minutes maximum .. we were towed up by a truck, almost always over the cliff face, to a height of perhaps 700 feet if we were lucky, often only 400 to 600 feet; just enough time to cast off, a short ridge soar, then rush back on the wind before turning in to make a questionable landing .. somewhere on the runway.

Slingsby T.21 at Windrushers Gliding Club

The set up was primitive, there was a winch on a long runway for the fair weather days, but usually the launching took place towards the cliffs, where we could ridge soar following the birds above us; the truck braked towards the end of the runway, up above we experienced that sinking feeling, released the cable and let the tow wire drop to earth; the truck sped ahead in theory ensuring the that the cable dropped on the runway and not in the farmer’s fields either side, and did not tie itself in knots as it settled – de-tangling a wire tow rope is not fun.

North Wales Gliding Club T31 cockpit – lovingly restored

My step-grandfather co-founded the Cornish club in 1957, when he was in Surrey with us he would fly over our house waggling his Tiger Moth wings at us kids – those were the days! He would take me up to the club, or we would go through as a family on our holidays in Cornwall, so as soon as I was able I was off and gliding: it was my time, my sport.

I first learnt in the training glider the Slingsby T21, eventually going solo in the T31 – they are open cockpit training gliders and are described thus: “The T.21 was popularly named "The Barge", after its boat-like hull and sedate flying qualities, while the T.31 was often referred to as "The Brick", again after its flying qualities.”

The headland called Newdowns Head just round from St. Agnes Head. Capped mine shafts in the foreground: Courtesy of Joe Pritchard

Sadly once those years were over life moved on, work came and time became precious .. perhaps in this new century I should experience the thrill of flying again – the memories are still there. Bleriot’s restored one hundred old plane is once again on show at Selfridges, also celebrating its one hundred years – Gordon Selfridge, from Chicago, had an eye for public relations, this appears to remain today!

Thank you for coming today Mr Postman .. it's always good to see you - it's a bit damp at the moment, but at least the weather was clear on Saturday for the flight recreation across the Channel. Mum and I will enjoy the memories of the gliding club, learning to drive one of the first minis, and then the mini cooper - which was much more fun .. caution had been thrown to the wind! Did you ever see the film "Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines"? and of course the iconic mini film "The Italian Job" ? .. a couple of the films I've seen more than twice!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Friday 24 July 2009

Ideas Worth Spreading ... Dreaming Spires ..

My Stroke of Insight was the moment I started to learn about strokes with my eyes opening to their effects. I had met some wonderful people in the hospital of all ages, 21 to 80 plus, each had been affected in different ways and each family had to suddenly adapt to this unexpected affliction for their child, mother, relation.

I had seen a review of this book in the Times Magazine and was totally bowled over, so much so that I ordered a copy. This is “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor, and is her personal journey, as a Brain Scientist who suffered a major stroke. We all need to learn about things that may well affect us in later life – this blog is for my mother, who suffered three major strokes in the spring of 2007 and who had effects that I had no idea about.

I am always keen to learn and I like learning the easy way – I am not erudite, even though I see the dictionary defines it as learned! I have enjoyed books such as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - by a Frenchman, who could only move an eyelid; My Year Off – by Robert McCrum, rediscovering life after a stroke; Stuart: A Life Backwards – he is homeless, a thief, hostage-taker, pyscho and street raconteur; and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - about Asperger’s Syndrome.

Since my mother has been ill, having spent time in three hospitals and the Home for over two years I have met lots of people and learnt lots of new things. My mother has left-sided neglect, it is much better now, it can be a stroke condition where the person ‘ignores’ their left side and that side is neglected, I suppose! It means that she cannot read properly – however she can see words and pictures, and her brain is just about fully functioning – even now two years on.

So my main objective is to help her through – for how long one never knows .. I was told it could be four years, however someone down here, who cannot talk, has been going for seven years. Do we realise these things? I suspect not.
The Chaplains in London would drop off a card saying they had visited and often it would have a quote on it from a Saint, or philosopher – they interested my mother, so I would be sent home to Google it and find out more!

In fact as I travelled this journey with my mother, I have covered so many subjects – granted in a superficial way – but we have laughed, commented, learnt, wondered and kept ourselves amused. This blog reflects this and if you could see my desk, it too is piled with other interesting topics – I relaxed last night for an hour, as some issues have been resolved and I just needed a space ... well as you might expect I cannot stop and found at least another ten subjects to write about!

Robert Koehler, Tribune Media Services, reviews Jill Bolte Taylor’s book thus: “Fascinating ... Bursts with hope for everyone who is brain injured (not just stroke patients) and gives medical practitioners clear, no-nonsense information about the shortcomings of conventional treatment and attitudes toward the brain injured .. But to my mind, what makes “My Stroke of Insight” not just valuable but invaluable – a gift to every spiritual seeker and peace activist – is what I would describe as Taylor’s fearless mapping of the physiology of compassion, the physiology of nirvana. This book is about the wonder of being human.”

Later on I ‘stumbled’ Jill’s TED site and had my first look at a TED video. I was impressed and have since seen a few other videos from an amazingly diverse range of speakers. This week in Oxford, England 700 vetted delegates have arrived for what is described as a four-day intellectual jamboree with 50 speakers.

In the Saturday Times, Antonia Senior wrote an essay entitled “Supersmart or Supersmug” about this upcoming (TED) technology, entertainment, design conference. The delegates will hear a mix of scientists, businessmen, musicians and intellectuals in 18 minute chunks ‘tell-a-story approach’ – a hall full of clever people receiving thought provoking ideas: I would love to be there!

On the TED website there are ‘Other Talks’ from “TED in 3 minutes” and some of the videos are 8, 12 or 15 minutes, apart from the ‘Master Stories’. There are 489 talks listed on the site; you can sort these by: Newest releases; Most languages; Most emailed this week; Most comments this week; Most favorited all-time; Rated jaw-dropping; ... persuasive; ... courageous; ... ingenious; ... fascinating; ... inspiring; ... beautiful; ... funny; ... informative; and you can sort by ‘Show Talks’ related to: Technology; Entertainment; Design; Business; Science; and Global Issues.

These eclectic ideas suit my rather scatter gun approach to the subjects that my mother and I are interested in .. I found Jay Walker, curator of the Library of Human Imagination; Robert A F Thurman, the first American to be ordained a Tibetan Monk by the Dalai Lama; Organ virtuoso, Qi Zhang; Mathematician and Magician Arthur T Benjamin = Mathemagics!; Iqbal Quadir tells how his experiences as a kid in poor Bangladesh led to his setting up GrameenPhone in conjunction with the Grameen Bank (I had heard of the Bank 21 years ago in South Africa); and last but not least geopolitical expert Parag Khanna, who asks “Do we live in a borderless world?”

The review of Khanna’s talk about the borders of the last 60 years starting with the world in 1945 and how there were 100 nations, now there are many more through the de-colonisation process. He features a map of Russia and China which he is using in his illustrations of the borderless world – the map is of a time 700 years ago. Sometimes when I start researching my blog post I am amazed where the information leads me – often back thousands of years, with history not so much repeating itself, but reinventing itself .. or as Knanna says “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.

It also reflects my mother’s brain – most elderly people suffer some form of serious loss and do not remember recent events, but not here .. I have to contend with words such as Emmanuensis, subhirtella, a span of eighty years plus and the fact she remembers two posts I wrote about the House of Commons and the Speaker in May .. can you understand why I’m bouncing around with ideas to write about?

Dear Mr Postman – that’s life today .. thank you for visiting .. let’s open our mind to new ideas, new thoughts – we can all learn from these videos .. Qi Zhang plays Prokofiev – not my favourite .. but what a listen – would we ever see it otherwise – without the internet, Tim Berners-Lee (who also features) on TED ... I doubt it.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

The books are available via Amazon

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Enchanted medieval fortification absorbed by the landscape ..

Ancient Italy, family feuds, Marine Republics and the Papacy begin this story high in the hills of Lazio, south east of Rome. Enchanted gardens set in beautiful scenery, being returned to their earthy beginnings – a tale of a garden: a hidden jewel under the Mediterranean sun.

Benedetto Cateani as the newly elected pope, Pope Boniface VIII, in 1294, conferred on his family the fiefs of four hilltop towns: Sermoneta, Bassiano, Ninfa and San Donito – making his family the most notable in Rome. The history of Pisa holds the other part of the Caetani family life in early medieval times. This wealthy family turned their fiefdoms into walled hilltop fortresses, with Romanesque cathedrals and massive castles.

Ninfa – our object of desire! – was a substantial town going back to the times of the Romans, however during the middle ages the town was squabbled over, sacked, beset by malaria and eventually Ninfa was abandoned to the elements and neglected by its aristocratic owners.

Since that time, on the marshy plain leading down to the sea and under the eagle eye of the other more successful hilltop towns, the castle, the fourteen towers, seven churches, town hall, mills and 150 houses of Ninfa have slowly crumbled.

In the last century descendants of the Caetani transformed the town’s ruins into a botanical garden and the garden has now been left to a foundation to run the site in conjunction with the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Natural life has taken over, colouring the ruins, brightening the day with blushes of flowers cascading over low walls, broken foundations, flattened geometry of the old town, growing high into the trees, falling over high battlements.

The whole of Ninfa has disintegrated, the whole can still be seen, one could imagine walking through the streets, round the buildings, seeing the smithy, watching the canny pick pockets, smelling the pungent smell of new baked bread, with oils, garlic and olives, men talking in the square – but time stood still.

It is a place for feeling more than seeing – feeling the blood of time since the sacking of the 2,000 souls in 1381, feeling the sense of wholeness for the town that was .. and now seeing it come to life again as a nature reserve: 100 acres of nature reserve, the new lakes, the migratory birds, the owls and rock thrushes in the towers above.

Preservation as is – is the order of the day .. the plants wind over ruined towers and walls, rejoicing in the crystal clear streams and springs that run through giving them life in the damp conditions. Roses scrambling for footholds in ruined archways, the frescoed church wall still standing open to the weather, together with banana trees, maples, slender cypresses and flat-topped stone pines dotted throughout this typical Italian landscape.

The dampness of the location, under the hills facing the coastal plain, has lead to a microclimate of an unusual and unique mixture of species. Ninfa is a landscape of water, despite the spread of centuries’ old sacked building rubble under its evergreen covering, with the clear water running through channels and cascading through races, into iris pools until they team up into the river flowing down to the sea.

The restoration as such has been left as much to nature as can be, not much tidying up has been done, it’s been cleared a bit, new plantings have just happened with no obvious planning – making it such a wonderful natural gardener’s delight. Clematis abound, bignonia, jasmines and honeysuckles clamber up trees and ruins. Self seeding has been allowed to occur with different ‘rooms’ within the ruins – for wild flowers, a grove of Cyprus trees, Magnolias and flowering cherries dotted amongst the green open spaces.

See ancient Italy, a lost garden, smell the scents of Cyprus, old roses, and in May the waft of orange blossom as you wander under the blue skies, and hanging gardens, remembering our troubled past, but what a folly of wonderment for its future – an idyll that will never be lost in time.

Thank you for being here today Mr Postman, my mother, who was a great gardener, will absolutely love this story, so we can talk about plants and gardens, stone walls, cascading waters .. a wonder to bring back some colourful thoughts and scents for us to discuss ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters
PS .. Entrance is by ticket only and its not always open .. go to World Wide Fund for Nature.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Would Dew Ponds be a help in climate change?

A panoramic view of all seven sisters from the Beachy Head cliffs near Birling Gap, looking back towards the River Cuckmere and Seaford Head in the background.

These shallow concave scrapes found high in the chalk Downs or grasslands of southern England, particularly the eastern parts – Kent, East and West Sussex, Hampshire, Wiltshire and into Dorset are an enigma .. but they could be a useful enigma in this day of climate warming.

These small ponds, some survived, some revived, some left to sediment and grass, have a huge wealth of hidden knowledge ... they do not seem to run dry. Why? They should do, as most are situated on the chalky Downs – that soft white porous sedimentary rock that does not allow rainwater to run off, but absorbs the rain releasing it slowly into aquifers below.
Cowlink Dew Pond, near Eastbourne on the Downs

Early settlements were situated on high land to provide protection from the marauding animals roaming the forests and thicketed land below, but they lacked one essential – water.

These dew ponds – also known as ‘mist ponds’ or ‘fog ponds’ lie on the Downs far above the level at which streams begin to form, or springs are found, and romance has attributed certain of the older ones to the work of Stone Age men.

Archaeological evidence has revealed that the Downs have been inhabited and worked for thousands of years. Neolithic flint mines and settlements; Bronze Age burial mounds; and Iron Age forts are all in evidence. It is also thought that the tree cover of the Downs was cleared some 2,500 years ago, and the present closely-grazed turf is the result of continual grazing by sheep.

The fact that most dew ponds are at the top of the hill make them strategically positioned to get the most from the mist and rainclouds billowing up from the nearby coast to the chilly heights of the Downs, where any water that collects is less likely to evaporate. There is no catchment area for the rain when it does fall, but the Downs are quite often enshrouded in mist or low cloud, and where trees have been replanted then there will be extra moisture from the dripping branches.
Some dew ponds will also collect rain water from the surrounding land, as they are normally situated in a slight depression, but a great many are at the high point and need to obtain their moisture in other ways. The water retention properties of these ponds lay in their making and the appreciation of the margins of the pond as a catchment area.

An ancient method of obtaining a watertight material based on chalk, clay and straw is by ‘puddling’ - layering the pond bottom with these materials, which were then trodden and beaten flat, providing a bound waterproof bottom liner. The ‘puddle’ needed to be about 25 cm (ten inches) at the edge, and about a metre (three feet) thick at the bottom.

This ‘puddling’ is done in layers and has to be kept wet in order to remain waterproof. The process took some days, and at night the work done had to be covered with straw to ensure the frost did not get in and damage the lining. Once completed the base is lined with flints, pebbles and small stones – providing a protection from animal hooves damaging the lining surface as they quench their thirst.

On warm summer days the pond will remain cooler from the stone layer taking longer to warm up, the non-conducting nature of the layers of straw, when night comes and the air cools, the cooler water will attract more moisture from the atmosphere, and so counteracts the evaporation on the hottest of days.
High 'N Over: a rising Down looking back down the Cuckmere basin towards the English Channel

We have a dew pond on the coast road at the high point, where the herders would have rested their animals on their way to market before the days of transport, or when the animals were moved from one part of the lands to another; these coast roads were the main stay of prehistoric man as they provided access to the beaches and sea – a major source of food., and I have always wondered about them.

It is a credit to our ancestors that these dew ponds were able to exist, found high up on the hills, far from the shade of trees or protecting copse, where no streams have ever flowed, they seldom if ever dry up even when the valleys are parched and the springs reduced to mere trickles.
Dew Pond on top of Downs at Beachy Head, above Eastbourne

This enigma could be used today – new dew ponds being dug to retain water, old ones revived. In 1922 it was estimated that the life of a dew pond was 100 to 150 years, at this stage as long as it was renewed and cleaned – then its life would be indefinite .. there are records of ponds being in existence today that were recorded in Saxon times around 825AD. These could provide a lifeline or back up where a supply of water is required in times of drought – will the art of dew ponds be revived?

Dear Mr Postman .. these pictures and these ponds must resonate with you - as a Sussex man. My mother loves these old stories remembering her history and the old ways that she heard as a child - though she was mostly brought up in Cornwall - she'll be interested to see the Sussex content .. it's great to see you and thank you for our letter ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher
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Sunday 19 July 2009

The first noun in the dictionary ...?

What’s the nosey hole digging, elephant shrew like, earth pig called? Why – an aardvark! Was the name chosen because it enjoys notoriety, since it is often the first noun, and often the first illustrated entry, in many English dictionaries? No – Aardvark comes from the Afrikaans/Dutch for “earth pig” (‘aarde’ earth, ‘varken’ pig), because early European settlers in South Africa thought it resembled a domesticated pig.

Karoo landscape, South Africa

As it happens it is not closely related to the pig; rather it is the sole representative of an obscure mammalian order; nor is it related to the South American anteater, though it shares some characteristics, a superficial resemblance and the name “anteater”, having other names such as antbear, or the Cape anteater.

The aardvark's range in sub-Saharan Africa

This nocturnal, solitary, power animal is capable of digging at great speed to get away or seal a tunnel in times of danger, but otherwise moves fairly slowly. Their burrows can be deep and extensive, have several entrances and can be as long as 13 metres (40 feet); they change the layout of their home burrow regularly and from time to time move to make a new one; old burrows which ecologically are of considerable importance to a wide variety of animals, are then adopted as homes by the porcupines, pythons, warthogs, jackals, hyenas, leopards, wild dogs or wild cats.

Their foraging range is quite large and they have a few temporary burrows spread around to use as quick getaways. The aardvark hunts with its long nose swinging it from side to side to pick up the scent of food. When a concentration of termites or ants is detected, the aardvark digs into it with its powerful front legs, sealing its nostrils to avoid the dust, while keeping its long ears upright to listen to predators, then can take up an astonishing number of insects with its long sticky tongue – as many as 50,000 in one night have been recorded.

Aardvark mother and young

In African folklore the aardvark is much admired because of its diligent quest for food and its fearless response to soldier ants – its long tongue, as long as 30 cm (12 inches), with its tough skin renders the termites’ biting and the ants’ stinging futile. The aardvark eats a fruit known as the aardvark cucumber to quench its thirst.

Veld and Flora December 1995, journal of the Botanical Society of South Africa

This “cucumber” surprised Kew’s authorities in 1923 as they could not believe that there is a symbiotic relationship between the aardvark and this fruit. As this is the only plant food the aardvark eats, the seeds are then taken into its burrow, where they sprout from the dung, staying cool underground as they grow, and not being burnt by the hot African sun. When we were in Namibia we saw similar plants – the Namib Tsamma is a member of the pumpkin family, and the Nara Butternut – where the woody rootstocks are kept cool and can tap into the underground water, or stay protected until the rains come.

The aardvark’s main predators are lions, leopards, hunting dogs and pythons. The aardvark digs fast or runs in zigzag fashion to elude enemies, but if all else fails they will strike with their claws, tail and shoulders, sometimes flipping onto their backs to lash with all fours. Their thick skin protects them to some extent.

Termite mound in Tanzania

The aardvark lives in sub-Saharan Africa, where there is suitable habitat, such as savannas, grasslands, woodlands and bushland, and available food – termite mounds, or ant heaps. This earth pig whose closest relatives are the extraordinary named mismatches of elephant shrews (who ever heard of an elephant shrew?), the sirenians, hyraxes, tenrecs and that lumbering giant, an elephant.

They are seldom seen, but we are constantly reminded of their presence in the African bush with their large holes, or on occasion a large bump and collapse into a hole – rather an irritating consequence of being on safari! Long live that first noun in the dictionary – the Aardvark.

Dear Mr Postman – this was meant to be a shorter, less complicated post .. so I can do three longer posts a week, and three or four shorter ones concentrating on one subject or just brief overviews. We’ll see! My mother will still enjoy them – as they’ll remind her of our times in Africa ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
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