Thursday 29 October 2009

Picnic on "the Coat Hanger Bridge", a Living Wall and the 200th ...

I am not sure my grandfather, Sir Ralph Freeman, the designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge intended it as a picnic site – but times have changed in the seventy plus years since it opened. Would he have envisioned having a living wall in his home city of London, planted there by an American fashion house either?

The picnic seems to have been an incredible success – perched high over Sydney Harbour nestling amongst the steel girders with your own foods, or those offered by the organisers – wish I’d been there! Cows grazing on the newly laid turf – yes truly, and a piano player and buskers serenading everyone around (apparently honky-tonk giving families and new found friends a party atmosphere).

Hampers bursting forth with juices, fruit, fresh baked rolls, breads and croissants, fresh jams, yoghurts, flasks of morning coffee; while tablecloths laid on the grass, cutlery laid out, napkins passed round – I am sure there was champagne, or Buck’s Fizz, to charge a toast to celebrate the first of the probable now annual events.

This was certainly a different take on the arts festivals to which we’re normally accustomed – street level musicians, food stalls, theatres and wandering minstrels – a high-level picnic. It started early too at 6.30 am (set up 5.45 am) and lasted only last two hours .. so not a lot of time to absorb the views, the ambience, or your breakfast.

What would you pack for your breakfast at 161 feet ( 49 m) above the harbour waters below – a good old English of Devils on Horseback (prunes with a bacon wrap), Spanish Tortilla (thick egg omelette with mushrooms, potatoes), scotch eggs, baby tomatoes, stuffed mushrooms (with feta cheese), slices of melon, grapes, warm oozy buttered French bread with blackcurrant jam perhaps – perked up with a cafe latte, a bush tea or an English Twinings?

What a feast with which to take in the stunning cityscape of Sydney, its coastline, the Opera House nearby; a unique chance to walk the walk on the grass turf (10,000 metres of it) covering the normal eight lanes of bitumen; a chance to share with 6,000 others a piece of history – what will we get next ... a living wall perhaps?

That’s exactly right – a living wall it is .. planted as an interior by Anthropologie, the eclectic American retailer, inviting the customer to explore further – to experience the floors of bohemian chic .. be it textiles, furniture, home accessories, vintage 21st century apparel .. or to admire the planting of the living interior.

This vertical climbing garden, cleverly set next to the staircase, reaches 200 metres high dominating the 10,000 foot of retail space, incorporating 18,000 plants of 14 different species – sedums et al. These two-by-two-foot panels, that are three inches deep, containing numerous rectangular cells planted in special soil that retains the moisture, are watered via drip irrigation lines running between the rows of panels with rain water from the roof, as and when necessary. The skylight lets in some natural light, while the interior green walls will help clean the air in the building.

Photo courtesy of Decor 8 - the living wall and staircase, and two displays

The designs can be as eclectic as Anthropologie’s global range of goodies and can change with the seasons depending on what has been planted – different colours, plants that smell (like camomile or thyme), or that flower .. they don’t tell me if there are worms, slugs and snails mixed in too – or for that matter which plants have been planted? My sister-in-law on her instructed designated visit to give me the low down .. did not divulge the presence of slugs, snails nor puppy dog’s tails.

I was interested in the fact that I had to look at two websites to find out a little more information, rather than Anthropologie’s own pages. It seems that they have a cult following of bloggers and if you feel like a browse around – desiring things beyond our immediate possibilities .. they are well worth a look: these talented fashion, visually stimulating posts that have been put together. Decor8 and Pia Jane Bijkerk

Wall planting per the Green Roof site

So we have two living places – one vertical, already returned to its roots, perhaps to reappear for next year’s picnic, and a horizontal one (that has a guarantee of 15 years – well the States’ website says that!) – a visionary gateway to the hip retail therapy ahead. My grandfather designing the coat hanger, while his wife’s family absorbed the Hamley’s store a little further down Regent Street into their toy business .. while, all I can do is bring to fellow readers’ attention these quirks of fate by writing my 200th post today.

The stories amuse my mother and she loves seeing the pictures on the iphone! – as she finds it difficult to focus on a mixed page of text and pictures – so we can talk about all sorts of things and I usually have a picture to match. She loves it – and says what an amazing piece of technology, she likes to hold it and check the pictures out (where did you find them?) .. I have to master its’ amazing range of applications – not too good yet: difficult to concentrate on the mundane with other far more important life and death moments going on.

These pictures came from Pia Jane Bijkerk's blog - the amazing quintessential English tea at the press opening
My mother say these posts stimulate her and give her something to live for – as did my uncle – he couldn’t wait for the postman to drop a letter off, or for me to leave! if I delivered some, so he could read the next instalment!, or they look forward to hearing more, to see what this brain will think up next, where the stories will lead us. It’s a pot pourri of posts .. here’s to the next 200?

Dear Mr Postman – this strike is becoming a bit of a nuisance though the bills get through, as does some correspondence, which is nice to have at this time – new cards for my mother’s birthday in the middle of the month, and memories of my uncle from people unable to attend the funeral at midday tomorrow.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Monday 26 October 2009

Sands of Time ...

Would you buy a golden sandy beach, without any rights other than ownership, except perhaps to raise income by authorising donkey rides, or sell ice-cream from a van? Thirty hectares of English property, consisting of 71 acres of sands and 5 acres of dunes, has recently been sold for £80,000.

This beautiful area of beach is where, as children ,we used to picnic and play in the sand-dunes, the rock-pools, jumping across the rocks at low tide, splashing as kids will in the surf (surfing was not an option then). Those days of freedom with the amazing views across to St Ives, and the other beaches we used to frequent dependent on the weather and winds; or we would drive south across the Peninsula to more sheltered coves in the vicinity of Penzance.

Godrevy Lighthouse has become synonymous with Virginia Woolf’s book “To the Lighthouse”; as it is believed, that although the novel is set in the Hebrides in Scotland, the lighthouse described is based on Godrevy, seen from across the bay when she was holidaying in St Ives as a child, or latterly with other members and artists of the Bloomsbury Group.

The colours would have been more amazing at Upton Towans, the beach sold, in the early part of the 20th century, before the cleanup of the mines started to take place. The little Red River runs out here, and when we used to visit there were still shells on the beach and in the water, the sea ran red, with the shells having taken on some of the colour (rather like the autumn leaves I described in the previous post).

Someone with Cornish connections is the purchaser, who is obviously philanthropic as the beach must remain open to the public, so those literary pilgrims may wander imbibing Woolf’s depictions, together with beach lovers there for the surf, that special light of the bay and the magical atmosphere that comes with being by the sea.

The shifting sands of time – the area was settled in medieval times, then tin mining and copper mining were possible in the early industrial days, before the revolution and its new developments took over, leaving numerous tiny backwaters of life around the country – however the sand dunes (known as ‘towans’) claimed a once prominent village – now buried and lost until the dunes move on and release their secret treasures.

Time moves on and as we learn more and more – we are able to find hidden ancient treasures beneath the rising seas (estimated 7.5” (190mm) per 100 years), to bring new knowledge of our world 2,000, 10,000 or more years ago .. so the creeping sands release their artefacts, the cliffs crumble spilling their fossil skeletal and shell remains out for us to find.

Will Gwithian beach be here in 1,000 years .. as Canterbury Cathedral withstands that test of time. The limestone used in its creation was brought over from Caen in northern France by the Norman craftsmen, who understood their stone and the need for longevity. The sedimentation process occurred millennia ago, compacting down to form various types of stone used by man as building materials, once they acquired the tools to work this earth.

Sand from Pismo Beach, California. Components are primarily quartz, chert, igneous rock and shell fragments. Scale bar is 1.0 mm.

The Norman craftsmen were renowned for their magnificent Abbey and Monastic buildings, so when the Saxon cathedral at Canterbury burnt down in 1070, William the Conqueror, as King of England, put their skills to good use to rebuild the Cathedral as a testament to one of the great holy places in Christendom, as well as cementing this first place of pilgrimage for those arriving in England from the continent.

The Caen stone, these craftsmen had used and loved for its ease of working, which over time hardens with its exposure to the air. The grain is fine, it is what is called ‘a live stone’, which means it can be sawn, or squared up in any direction – the crystal structure does not restrict the directions in which it can be worked: making it ideal for the intricate stone carvings that surround the structural elements.

Canterbury Cathedral from the city entrance

The missionary Augustine was sent over to England in 597 AD from Rome to found a place of worship, which is now encompassed beneath the current nave, but which would become the stunning Norman Cathedral that stands today, exuding wealth and splendour to all who have visited over the past one thousand years.

Repairs in the 20th century have been urgently required due to the erosion caused by the atmosphere and acid rains; much has been learnt however by the stonemasons of recent times. Relatively cheap stone was used, until it was realised that it stained too easily, and it did not weather well, as repairs made in the earlier years of the 20th century are now already shown to be disintegrating.

Église Saint-Pierre, Caen. The restoration of the 'chevet' shows the real colour of the stone.

So once again a similar limestone is being imported in massive blocks, weighing about two tons, to be worked on in the stonemasons’ yards before being assembled within the Cathedral structure to stand against the elements for another millennium.

This land of ours offers so much that perhaps we do not realise, the common sedimentary rock, cut and worked, still standing proud above the earth, once man realised its benefits, while nature’s sea sands erode and mould our coastline, laying down new layers for future generations to find.

Dear Mr Postman – I see your strike goes on .. but I’m pleased you’re able to deliver my letters; my mother has been asleep a lot recently, chatty and cheerful with the staff – as she says a laugh makes everyone happy – but then very sleepy when I’ve been around.

Perhaps the effects of my uncle’s death have yet to seep through, though Janice, our healing touch therapist – who is more!) talks to Mum about Derek, as do I when the occasion arises, and I asked the vicar to spend a little extra time with us immediately after Derek’s death – these things all help I think.

However apart from remarking on my cold hands – unusual for me – ‘don’t put them near me’!, she’s always asking about the blog! We have yet to ‘do’ all her birthday letters and cards properly – but she will have another period of wakefulness soon I expect.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Friday 23 October 2009

Provender Hedgerows with Autumn Colours

This year the weather has just been just right for the hedgerows, fruit and nut trees to flourish: and it shows – Spring was lovely, so the fruit could set; July gave us rain so those sets could swell, the late Summer has been dry to allow the fruits, nuts and hips to ripen to their best ready for picking, pickling, preserving, drying or just plain guzzling.

Japanese Maple, Westonbirt Arboretum

What is going to happen in the next few months? Freezing weather with loads of snow – that some countries (the eastern parts of Europe and the States) have already had this year? Soaking rains dredging the land with heavy drops bringing the possibility of floods? Or just sheer damp and greyness as we had for much of last winter, with large dumps of unexpected snow?

The mass of shrubs are weighted down with berries, hips, nuts all bursting out from the practically hidden foliage: bright red, yellow, orange, nutty brown sheaves, black or purple fruits exposing their benefice to all who need – the foraging birds, tiny rodents, small mammals, insects and of course, us humans, all content to stock up, maximise and store this free larder.

The wildlife inhabiting the hedgerows are in heaven, the migrating birds and insects can stock up, regain their energies to survive the coming winter; we can stock our larders with jams, syrups, jellies, liqueurs for use during the long dark evenings ahead.

The lazy tea times with perhaps blackberry (as right) jam topping the oozing buttered crumpet beneath; the rowan berries mixed with crab apples to make a bright red, smoky aroma jelly going so well with the mountain meats – the game, venison and mutton, or perhaps a sloe gin for a pre dinner slurp, with a wild pear liqueur to finish off the evening.

Blackthorn - Sloe

We’ve been using the hedgerows as our larder for thousands of years, eating the fruits as they ripen, pickling with vinegar (Egyptian urns dating from 3,000 BC with traces of vinegar have been found) , salting or brining our foods for overwintering, much as wildlife does now, or when fighting, travelling or exploring, (when it was more important to eat, than worry about salt) and as our knowledge improved, new foods such as sugar were found and became commonplace (adding to the natural sugars in fruits and the not so prolific supplies of honey).

In times of hardship – after the war .. I remember pickled eggs (granted not in the hedgerows – but no doubt could be used for duck eggs too), pickled walnuts, fruits, jellies preserved in kilner jars all abounded in our house; now the lanes and fields are filled with foragers benefitting from this edible profusion.

What will they make in these days of the 21st century – no doubt the bright coloured jellies and jams to stir our hearts, but also the flavoured vinegars and sugars utilising the herbal recipes of times gone by – perhaps a rosehip syrup from the dog-rose, a rich damson syrup cordial instead of the manufactured sort, or more appropriate for today: elderberries turned into a flu-preventing syrup.

The hedge – these massed shrubs congregating together forming boundaries to our fields, woodlands, or gardens – perhaps self-seeded centuries ago, still proliferating providing us with a bountiful display of autumn coloured riot.

This time of year is so special when walking through the country lanes – the vistas are so magnificent, the fallen leaves providing an amazing glowing golden walk, the swishing of the leaves on boots, the earthy woody smell rising up assaulting the nostrils, the coloured leaves on shrubs and trees.

The tapestry of colours – golds, russets, rouges, reds, translucent amber – all melding together interspersed with the remaining greens, the nutty browns, the dark browns of chestnuts, the dark grey trunks of trees rising above the canopy of the glorious abundances.

Over 30 years ago this month I came to New York for a friend’s wedding up at the Cathedral of the Pines church in (probably) Vermont; we have wonderful colouring in England and I’m sure there are such wonderful visions here too – but the colours at that time overwhelmed me with their profusion: the land is so much larger than our tiny island.

Female Holly branch with berries

Now here we have the glorious colours of the Canadian and Japanese Maples, Sweetgums (Liquid Amber), Scarlet Oaks, Spindleberries, Dogwoods together with our Chestnuts, Japonicas, Oaks, Beech to name a few; as my mother and I experienced on our trip to Lake Vyrnwy,Wales and Bodnant over ten years ago.

View of Lake Vrynwy taken from Hillside Farm, with the Autumn colours just appearing

The weather is still clement as I walk or drive around the streets – roses are still budding and flowering (after last night’s heavy shower .. perhaps a bit rain saturated, bruised and battered), the reds of the Virginia Creepers, the Berberises full of berries and purple leaves, even catkins on a hazel tree, leaves sprouting, birds singing happily with all the profusion of bounty.

I had a basket of autumn leaves, hips – dogwood, guelder rose – holly berries, together with autumn chrysanthemums made up for my mother’s birthday .. which she loves: nature straight from the bushes, and which she can feel .. the rustle of the leaves, the prickles of the holly, the silky brush of the bamboo flowers – together with some cyclamen giving off their gentle scent – an autumn gift for the ailing.

It's not my favourite - leading to the darkness of winter .. I much prefer the long summer days - but perhaps I prefer the colours of Autumn, even the new shoots of growth and spring don't gel together so well as this wonderful patchwork of reds, oranges, yellows and browns.

Dear Mr Postman .. I know you’re on strike today – but it’s kind of you to ensure that this letter gets through to my mother; we have had a quiet week, remembering at times my uncle and talking about him, while being silent together with our memories: an essential to someone imprisoned in bed. It’s not easy but I cannot give up and need to do as much as can in these trying circumstances.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Monday 19 October 2009

Grovel at Gravel ... Recipe for a Moss Milkshake ...

Genuflecting at stones and making a moss milkshake where on earth is this world taking us. Just sometimes we need to take a closer look and these days we are being encouraged to do just that. One of my favourite stopping points on my way to Penzance Cornwall is The Eden Project, as described in this post; Eden has a ‘Flowerless Garden’ exhibit, where they have been introducing, over the past two years, the story of evolution through the planting of mosses and liverworts.

"Lichenes" from Ernst Haeckel’s Artforms of Nature, 1904

Britain boasts 1,000 native species of the world’s 20,000 species, and is considered along with New Zealand and British Columbia to be one of the premier temperate, global moss locations: Cornwall is in a unique position with its damp climate to be able to showcase a wide range of healthy and beautiful mosses and liverworts.

Moss trunk - courtesy of Andrew Westcott

The Eden Project are great experimenters and are absolutely determined to do everything naturally – to grow moss garden on site; their inspiration was the moss garden, Wistman’s Wood, in one of Devon’s oldest woodland on Dartmoor. The woodland looks as prehistoric man would have found it – a magical, ancient copse, festooned with moss and liverworts – or where J K Rowling would have taken us in the Harry Potter series.

Believe it or not, moss milkshakes are an ideal way of establishing mosses on rocks and stones. The recipe – take one part buttermilk, one part water, and a handful of moss: blend until a thin smooth soup, ensuring all the moss lumps are finely mashed; spread, brush or spray onto the selected moss site. Alternative flavours: beer, cream, yoghurt or sugar. Finally keep the area damp for the first month. Courtesy of The Eden Project magazine Summer 2009.

Moss –shakes could be used in a number of ways in the future to green-up troublesome north-facing, damp walls, or dull winter spaces, which could do with some colour and texture, or in due course may be used for moss walls rising vertically, thus revitalising and greening our urban areas.

Mosses are one of the very early indicators of plant life, but are surpassed by lichens as the first form of plant in the plant chain. Mosses were often used to stuff mattresses and pillows in the eighteenth century and one of our native moss genera, Hypnum, derives its name from the Greek for ‘sleep’. Lichens today, in times past probably ignored, can date buildings from the lichen growing on them – pre-determined by looking at gravestones, with their dates, and taking that species of lichen, its growth period, and thus determining the building’s age.

In my post on Herbs, Worts and all, I briefly summarised early herbal medicine; the Apothecaries’ discipline embraced new learning and the Chelsea Physic Garden was founded soon afterwards in 1673 on the edge of London, as it was then – now in the heart of Chelsea, with its entrance from the river along Swan Walk.

Today, lichens serve as important biological indicators of air quality, which the lichens in Chelsea have been reflecting for centuries, and are now being monitored. When the scientists started to take an interest in 1977 only 11 species of lichen were recorded, however now there are 38 – which shows that London’s air quality is improving. We had only just come through the ‘pea soupers’ (simply nasty fogs!) of the 50s and 60s with their acidic effects.

When fungi are found in association with algae the dual plant is called a lichen – but don’t be put off by this definition! Climb out of the car and look at the surface of the ground. This was the ‘call to arms’ for my mother and I on our trip to the Namib, where you wouldn’t quite expect to be told to grovel at gravel .. but yes, Namibia has some of the rarest and most interesting species in the world.

Crustose and foliose lichens on a wall

These next paragraphs were written in an informative letter (not much has changed then?!) by me nineteen years ago: The vegetation of the gravel plains contains, again, many intriguing forms of life. The desert eidelweiss and other everlastings look more like cultivated old-fashioned posies, than desert xerophytes growing under arid and harsh conditions.

Lichens too, of many varieties, occur on the gravel plains, rocky outcrops and mountain slopes. These strange organisms, which are normally hard and brittle, come to life or ‘bloom’ when water is sprinkled over them – moving visibly and becoming soft and leathery to touch.

Lichens are not really plants, but composite organisms composed of algae and fungi, forming a symbiotic association. Because they ‘help’ one another, they can grow in places where no other plant could exist. Like other plants in Namibia, lichen is dependent on the sea fog for its survival, although it can manage without moisture for long periods of time.

Gravestone, with lichens on it, showing date of death at 1639, Wormshill, Maidstone, Kent

Lichens are a very important link in the food-chain of the desert and there is a close interaction between lichens and the insect life. They are the first form of life in the plant chain and the lichens of the Namib have created considerable interest amongst international lichen experts.

So please grovel at stones they may be able to tell you something and should you feel a little under the weather, why not try a lovely green milkshake – make mine a beer one!

Dear Mr Postman – we are relatively quiet: my mother has been happy with her birthday, but sleepy too; she remembers and forgets that Derek has died, but is philosophical in her acceptance. We just quietly move on .. thank you all for your thoughts –

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Saturday 17 October 2009

What can you read from Kitchen Utensils?

Can you tell what they’d be used for? Would they be used for extracting seeds, for sifting sand, for ambushing? Are they perfect for grasping tiny objects with great precision? Or chiselling and excavating holes – are they as specialised as you’d like, or perhaps they don’t measure up to those you’d prefer to have? Will they do the job or will you perhaps be looking down your nose at the tools to hand?

Animals tell us a lot about themselves – how they can run, their mouth structure suggesting the type of food they might eat, or how we as humans might look through language which has come into common usage.

Beaks: top to bottom: black skimmer, male pileated woodpecker, and male American goldfinch (c/o Elizabeth Morales)

Such as a man of some importance sitting high up, looking down over his nose at the miscreant below, before passing judgement – no wonder a slang developed for “the beak” to describe the police magistrate or assize judge in the Middle Ages ... it really wouldn’t matter if he had a huge proboscis or not, would it?

The description has stuck and became entrenched through its usage in classical literature and as a cartoon, as here dated 6 December 1881, from the magazine “Punch’s Almanack For 1882”, called “Up Before the Beak” where the “Beak” ,or judge, is a Maribou stork, as shown in this wonderful courtroom scene.

This descriptive word for the horny projections to be found in various guises in nature, derives from the Latin word ‘beccus’ and Middle English word ‘bek’, has, apart from the thieves’ jargon of the word ‘beak’ for a man of authority, adopted many other slang names for the human nose. Those pertaining to large, pointed or hooked ones, have become known as hooter, honker or snout, and are used in various contexts today.

Birds, turtles, insects and fish all have similar structures called beaks, which over the years have evolved in various ways. These horny, projecting structures forming the mandibles of a bird do not contain teeth, but are used as crushing organs.

Just looking at the various birds of today and seeing the different types of beaks in use, and the adaption to their habitat really should amaze us at how incredible this planet is. We have hooked cruel looking beaks, adapted to tearing rotten meat, of the birds of prey, raptors and scavengers, or the mainly long straight bills of the hummingbirds, used like straws thrust into the deep-throated tubular flowers to find the life giving nectar.

The Secretarybird is a large, mostly terrestrial raptor, shown here with its open beak.

Or how about a spoon bill, a wading bird with long legs spoon-catching the fish, shellfish, crabs and amphibians as the bill moves from side to side through the water; or even a crossbill, which really does have crossed bills, using the unusual bill as an adaption to assist in the extraction of seeds from conifer cones.

The woodpecker describes itself completely – doesn’t it? They hammer their way into trees, both on alive or rotten wood, or in crevices in bark on the trees, and then use their barbed tongue to excavate the prey, but also as importantly to obtain the tree sap, an important food source for some species.

As with kitchen utensils, beaks through their particular shape and size tell us what species of bird we’re looking at, what and how it eats. Beaks can be used for all kinds of functions to poke, bite, grasp, maim, stab, slash, pierce, tweet (which sort? bird sort – not twitter sort!), call, scoop, filter, ingest and hook onto – have other creatures adapted as much, I don’t think so.

The crossbills are birds in the finch family.

“The Crow and the Pitcher” – Aesop’s fable – uses the crow’s beak to illustrate how ‘little by little does the trick’, as the crow drops pebbles into the pitcher to raise the water so that he can drink thereby saving himself. Or as other tellers of the story suggest the crow’s persistence, or reminding us that “Necessity is the Mother of Invention”.

Another tale from the Classics is this wonderful limerick, “The Pelican”, I came across recently from Owen Meredith (Earl of Lytton: 1831 – 1891). My recent post shows its dip netting beak – a loose membrane that can hold onto the fish, while the pouch is drained before swallowing their catch. Large fish can be caught with the bill tip, tossed into the air to be caught and slid into the gullet head first.

A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill will hold more than his belican
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week,
But I’m darned if know how the helican.

The wonder of language and its uses that have developed into the word beak for that proboscis that most of the fauna of this world has in some format, whereas the human being has included a somewhat derogatory description for perhaps our most obvious accoutrement to the human face “our hooter”, which has been recorded for posterity in our literature and art.
The Crow and the Pitcher, illustrated by Milo Winter in a 1919 Aesop anthology

Dear Mr Postman - since my last story with its happy connotations about great nieces visiting my Uncle, sadly he left us on Wednesday. Today is my mother’s 89th birthday – so life is, as usual, interesting.

I hope and believe that my uncle left us knowing that he would be going home, once he was more comfortable, and I have to comfort myself that that is where he is now with his precious and much loved wife. He was so much loved and respected, and he was so grateful to see his friends and family at his bedside, in his relatively short illness: may he rest in peace now.

I haven’t had much time for anything and things didn’t quite go to plan, which I’m sad about, but he left knowing that I’d always been there for him. However, I have to consider my mother and she cannot, due to her strokes, express her emotions, which makes these sort of situations very difficult.

We remember the happy times and a cousin of my mother’s, who was over from Canada, came down on Tuesday and had a short visit, and we had supper together. So for the moment we continue on and will remember my uncle for the wonderful man he was, and the amazing times he gave my mother and I with his communication skills and knowledge of life – he will be sorely missed, but I cannot dwell on that at the moment.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Tuesday 6 October 2009

The Rhythm of Life ....

Fire and Water those necessities of life have some interesting attributes. The Earth has known fire for over 400 million years. The reason is simple: Life made it possible. Marine life pumped the atmosphere full of oxygen; terrestrial life lathered the crust with fuels.

Water in three states: liquid, solid (ice), and (invisible) water vapor in the air. Clouds are the accumulations of the droplets, condensed from vapor-saturated air.
When oxygen and fuel meet a spark under the right circumstances, a fire kindles. (Lightning is an ancient and ample ignitor.) The fundamental chemistry of combustion lies at the core of the living world. When it happens with a cell, it’s called respiration. When it happens outside organisms, it’s called fire. It’s that basic. (taken from How Plants Use Fire (And are Used by It) – by Stephen J Pyne)
Living systems have had to adjust to fire in order to survive. Fire, in itself, has a rhythm of heat. A climatic basis exists for fire’s regimes, and this relies on rhythms of wetting and drying. A place must be wet enough to grow combustibles and dry enough to ready them for burning.
These rhythms mean that fires thrive in a kind of habitat. Fires in grasslands burn one way; fires in a rainforest another; fires in temperate conifers in several ways, sometimes skipping along the surface, sometimes soaring through dense crowns.

Indeed, varieties of each kind of fire exist. Even grassfires may burn with the wind or against it; they may creep and smoulder or rage at the pace of a galloping horse. But rough patterns do emerge, and all the animals and plant life in that region adapt to these patterns, much as they would to patterns of rainfall.

Fire from the heavens, lightning has kindled wildfire for millions of years, causing plants over the eons to adapt or die out. (c/o Pyne)
Over the years life has coped with fire, or we wouldn’t be here – some trees and plants, such as the banksias and proteas have adapted by growing an impervious layer of bark, so that the tree can re-sprout once the danger has past, or burst nuts spreading the seeds onto the fresh ash to rejuvenate. Fire does not necessarily advance out of control; fire can only burn that part of the landscape that is available to burn. Plants thus do shape the kinds of fires they may experience.

Humans, on the other hand, are the only creatures that can manipulate fire. As Stephen J Pyne says our ancient ancestors made a Faustian pact. We gained fire, which brought power; in return we agreed to manage fire. We cannot ignore fire, because (now) no neutral position is possible.

If we set fires without thought, uncontrollable biota will spring up, changing the fundamentals of that landscape. Plants and fauna have taken many millennia to evolve and adapt to their particular habitat; while at the same time become active agents in shaping those landscapes by their grazing, browsing and hunting habits, each of which determines what kind of fuel is available for burning.

Dew drops adhering to a spider web.
So as well as the scavengers hunting along the edge of the fire for the snakes, insects or larger creatures moving head of the flaming front, some beetles possess infrared seeking organs that help direct them to smouldering stumps and logs, where they will feed and nest. Animals have adapted by flying away, or burrowing deep, or skirting the fire – very few actually become trapped.
The ancient Greeks and alchemists thought that fire was an element, as they considered earth, air and water to be elements. Fire, however, is made up of many different substances (hot gases), so in modern definition terms it is not considered an element.

Water on the other hand is an element, being composed of hydrogen and oxygen, and is essential for all known forms of life. Water usually refers to its liquid form, but if you think about it, no other substance is found simultaneously as a liquid, in solid form as ice or as a gas.

We’re made of 70% water .. yet water is the most destructive substance on the planet, it can dissolve almost anything – sooner or later water eats away everything. Water is strange. It takes more energy to heat water than it does to heat iron. Hot water freezes faster than cold water.
Fynbos, South Africa: Because fire is common in this ecosystem and the soil has limited nutrients, it is most efficient for plants to produce many seeds and then die in the next fire.

Aristotle (384BC – 322BC) first promulgated that hot water freezes faster than cold, while Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626: the English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer and jurist) actually demonstrated the effect, which Rene Descartes (the French philosopher, mathematician and physicist) in the 1600s also confirmed.
Pearl Shoal Waterfall, western Sichuan, China.

It was not until a Tanzanian schoolboy, Erasto Mpemba, questioned why his ice-cream froze faster, when it was placed first and without cooling first into the freezer – he was trying to beat the other students to ensure he had a place in the freezer, only to be surprised when his froze first. Schoolboy pester power prevailed and eventually he was rewarded by the scientific community confirming that in certain conditions this effect happens and is now known as the Mpemba effect.

So water and fire each have these weird attributes and we cannot do without either; we have adapted to live with them, while over many many eons plants and fauna also adapted to these patterns of fire, much as they have done to patterns of rainfall, and will continue to do so, probably long after the human race has gone.

Dear Mr Postman - it’s a busy time: but my mother continues to astonish me and others! Of course the Melbourne reference was to Cook’s Cottage being translocated from England to Melbourne – that’s why she went! My uncle came up to Kestrel and has been very up and down, sometimes very down .. but he loves his visitors, is still hugely interested in politics and the day to day happenings in the newspaper!
My cousin’s two daughters came down today to see my uncle, and I was telling Mum that Sarah and Anna would be here and reminding her that we went to Sarah’s wedding last year .. my mother then reminded me about the wobbly cake: I had shown her a photograph - a year ago! Anna was propping up the ‘wobbly wedding cake’, so it didn’t collapse onto the lawn and we would have cake to eat! How can I not say – that her brain is still improving. She is so desperate to get out and about .. it is so tricky. Fortunately sleep comes.
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Thursday 1 October 2009

£230,000 for one in a billion? A refrigerated one in a million?

Would you pay the price of an average house for one of these? Just one! There are one billion plus of them worldwide, granted not all of this sort, or of this value. Would you put the only one of these in your fridge having picked it off your apple tree?

The Texel Ram, with the wonderful name of “Deveronvale Perfection”, has been sold for a world record of £231,000 and has been big news around the world, as I found reference to it down under and across the pond!

Deveronvale Perfection should make new owner a mint: Texel Sheep Society

My mother when she saw the picture said that is a ‘cardigan’ .. and isn’t she right? Brilliant assumption considering her condition – and we both had a good laugh. My uncle, who sadly now cannot see, promptly told me all about the Texel breed, originating on the isle of Texel in the Frisian Islands of the Netherlands, and is probably a mix of English breeds.

There are more than one billion domestic sheep worldwide, fortunately not all as valuable as the Texel, or our lamb chops would be rather expensive! Sheep were among the first animals to be domesticated (probably in Mesopotamia, between nine and eleven thousand years ago); as they have several characteristics suitable for this purpose – such as a relative lack of aggression, a manageable size, early sexual maturity, a social nature, and high productive rates.

The Texels, a white-faced breed with no wool on the head or legs, has been slowly bred into a meat breed of outstanding carcass quality and is now one of the most common lamb or mutton meats available: hence “Deveronvale Perfection’s” rather high price.

If ever a food suffered from an idiom, it is that old reference to “mutton dressed up as lamb” and in recent years mutton has acquired such a derogatory meaning in England and America that it is unlikely to have been on the dining table for a half a century or so.

Particularly enjoyable was a visit home to the Isle of Wight and a dish of boiled mutton with caper and onion sauce.

In earlier times, particularly in the nineteenth century, mutton proved some of the best and most famous English dishes – saddle of mutton, boiled leg of mutton with caper sauce (one of Samuel Pepys’ favourite) and spiced mutton ham. In those days the virtues of the different breeds were understood and preferences were argued. Pepys and Mrs Beeton both extolled the virtues of mutton.

During the 19th and 20th centuries as farming practices changed, industrialisation continued apace, new scientific services were introduced spreading around the world, mutton fell out of favour. Ranges were no longer used for cooking, though our families still revere Agas, so the slow cooking methods were phased out, and the demand for sweet, tender lamb increased; with the introduction of new fibres the demand for wool also fell – all leading to the decline in the demand for mutton.

A renaissance is taking shape with top chefs enthusiastically embracing the complex flavours of mutton, similar to the old favourites written up by Mrs Beeton. This reminded me of the simple fare we ate after the war; we were extraordinarily lucky having a large garden, which my mother promptly turned into a veritable vegetable and fruit garden: so we never lacked.

We had fruit trees of various sorts – apple, pear, plum, walnuts, hazel nuts, with all sorts of soft fruits as well as the array of vegetables. We used to clamber up the trees to pick the fruits which my mother at first stored, wrapped in newspaper, in a dry dark place, and later pureed to put in the freezer: we were always fairly near the forefront with new technology – coming from an innovative engineering family background.

A collage from Glass Brothers, established in 1963 who specialise in growing and processing Bramley apples.

Apples of various sorts grew in the orchard and sadly I do not know much about the different types – though Bramleys were used for big bursting cored apples full of butter and sugar straight from the Aga as a pudding (as we call desserts here). Cox’s Orange Pippin are another name synonymous with the fruit that we had at Christmas time; while the Russets I used to love to eat as they were different; but the new Granny Smith was ‘horrible’ and I eschewed it.

Poor households in days gone by would have utilised all the fruits of the hedgerows, and one recipe I’ve recently come across from the old days is a Potato Apple Cake, when potatoes and apples would have been plentiful and relatively cheap. Here too the left-over mash along with a few Bramley apples and sugar cooked together and served as a ‘cake’ was considered a luxury – I thought this might be quite a nice addition to pork chops.

Going back to ‘my’ two coloured apple mentioned above: this surprising story bore fruit last week, when a retired painter and decorator returned from picking apples for his sister-in-law only to spot this apple of two halves hanging from a bough of his own tree. Not believing his eyes, he picked it to make sure. Now the whole village is caught up in this million to one fruit, with everyone queuing up to take pictures.

I would be stunned too, and my mother, asking how my blog is going, said she remembered me showing her the picture and said amazing! It seems that it is probably a random genetic mutation at odds of more than a million to one. The Golden Delicious will probably taste sweeter on the red side, but I suspect Mr Morrish will not be biting into his fairytale apple just yet.

Ken Morrish, 72, of Colaton Raleigh, Devon, did a double take when he grew a Golden Delicious apple split down the middle - one half was green and the other red Photo: ARCHANT. Courtesy The Daily Telegraph.

The apple originating in Central Asia, where its wild ancestor is still found today, was one of the first fruits to be cultivated, with Alexander the Great being credited with finding dwarfed apples in Asia Minor and bringing them back to Macedonia for propagation. Winter apples, picked in late autumn and stored just above freezing, have been an important food in Asia and Europe for millennia, as well as other parts of the world as the Europeans spread out.

These two staples of the western world have provided today wonderful stories of their own, while bringing back memories of childhood, and giving us some insight into their past with their history, while reminding us that food in its simplest form is often the best.

Dear Mr Postman – as I mentioned above my mother asked about my blog and remembered the two coloured apple; I honestly think her brain is improving, which seems absolutely incredible considering everything; today she was in Melbourne, Australia .. but that’s fine! – and Janice asked her who she went with – Mum’s reply: with BA (British Airways) .. Janice thought she was going to get Hilary, Hardwick, her dog, and some of the nurses and carers .. but no: nothing wrong there really! My poor uncle is having a tough time – we had a quick trip to the hospital yesterday evening; I dashed down to be with him, as being blind he gets quite disoriented. He’s not at all well, but tomorrow he moves up to Kestrel, where my mother is. We hope to get him home – and that’s where he’d like to be.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories