Category Archives: animals/pets

The magic and mystery of cats

Cat, Black, Sun, Meadow

“I have lived with several Zen masters”, wrote master and mystic Eckhart Tolle, and went on to say they were all cats. Well, I have lived with one zen master, a small black witchy cat who entered my life with purpose. Black cats are notoriously hard to adopt from rescue centres because so many people associate them with the myths of witches, having absorbed the ancient male propaganda about women and healers (but that’s another story).

I’ve always thought I was a dog person, having nurtured seventeen rescued dogs (three at a time, but that’s also another story), yet when I look back on my chequered past, I see there are just as many cats as dogs who have entered my life – some  at a distance.

All those cats who did, had those mysterious feline qualities of dignity and free spiritedness. Two strays were the first, Black Kitty and Wild Kitty – a beautifully marked tabby – both unnamed, a subtle way of not alarming my parents into thinking I wanted to keep them, and also I couldn’t bear to give them names and then have to relinquish them. But after a few weeks my parents softened, and expertly using the thin end of the wedge, I managed a balancing act between the kittens and the puppy I had also acquired over my parents’ dead bodies.

I was eighteen and I wonder now how I could never have looked into the future and realised that I wouldn’t be around to care for these fragile little creatures. We moved house a couple of months after acquiring them, and I was immensely relieved  to find that my parents were including my animals among items to come with us.  The journey in the back seat of the car with an excitable puppy, two terrified kittens on the loose with long claws, and my loudly protesting eight-year-old brother was an ordeal never to be repeated.

At the new house, Black Kitty was run over, but Wild Kitty established a comfortable possie behind the warm boiler in the kitchen. I left to join the army a few months later.  When I returned months later for a weekend leave, the parents had moved to another house the other side of the town, and Wild Kitty was missing – apparently she had left home when I did. The family moved back to an army quarter a year later, half a mile away from the house I’d left, and miraculously Wild Kitty turned up when I came home for the weekend.

From then on Wild Kitty appeared when I came home on leave and then pushed off when I left. The last time she was seen was when she walked across the grass to show us her line of tiny kittens straggling behind her.

Decades later in this country, I received the usual Christmas presents from irresponsible townies who dumped two tiny tortoiseshell kittens at our gate. Tins of cat-food for a year until they were caught.  Another pair again another year, and then a cat and her kitten when we moved to a new house, a gentle stray in Norfolk Island who nestled on our bed, and waited for us every day while we were on holiday, more tins of cat food, followed by starving kittens in Fiji outside a restaurant…only scraps for them…

Some years later, back in town to be near new grand- children, we lived in a house on the side of Mt Eden, an extinct volcano. Our garden stretched steeply up the slope and ended in overgrown shrubs and trees and wilderness. One day I noticed a stray cat in the garden. Feeling sorry for it, I put out some food the next day. In a few days there were five cats, so carefully keeping the doors shut so no cat-chasing King Charles spaniels could do their worst, I put another dish or two out.

By the end of three weeks I had fifteen stray/ wild/dumped cats waiting neatly and patiently on the steps leading up the hillside. I put out five bowls night and morning, and they shared with perfect good manners, and then quietly left with dignity. They always knew the time I would put the food out, and would be lined up expectantly and hungrily for about twenty minutes before, and there was never any squabbling or pushing in when the food arrived .

When we downsized to a little town house, and I had to leave them, I used a possum trap to catch them one by one, and take them to the vet, as I couldn’t bear to think of them starving on the hillside. I caught them all except three tom cats who were too clever to get themselves trapped.

Then, not enjoying living in town, we moved back to the country. We’d only been there a week when we went out into the garden, and there on a log in the sun was a tiny black cat. She got up, stretched, and came over and nuzzled us endlessly, followed us inside the house, and all but said: ‘I’ve been waiting for you’.

She refused to go back home, which was on the next-door acre of land. For weeks I resisted, refraining from feeding her, and yet every time I opened the door, there she was on the front door mat. Eventually I put a deep linen basket with a soft cushion in the bottom for her by the front door, and finally, when I heard a fight  in the middle of the night, with the big marmalade tom cat who had come- it seemed- to fetch her back home, I opened the door to her. She ran straight in and settled down on the bed, and for the next ten years ran my life. She was a small oasis of calm and character, whose endless antics amused and entertained; while her wilfulness and intelligent curiosity and mysterious inner life fascinated me.

Whenever her previous owner saw us out walking the dogs with Cara, the cat, skipping along with us, he’d wind down his car window and shout “traitor! “at her. The end of Cara’s story is in the first blog I ever wrote, called ‘Goodbye Cat.’

My last encounter with a cat was more like sitting in that boat with a tiger in ‘The Life of Pi.’ A panther-like black cat had terrorised both cats and owners in our small village for many years, and my friend who had a small gentle cat who was being monstered, decided something had to be done to save her cat. I arrived at my friend’s house just as her Altzheimers husband was putting a blanket over the possum trap and cat, which they had arranged according to my instructions!!!

Feeling responsible, I volunteered to drive friend and captured cat to the vet. We carefully put the trap on the back seat, which was covered in a rug to protect the seat. Chatting happily, I suddenly felt sharp claws dig viciously into my back and shoulders, and a black body hurtled past my ear to land on the dash board. A panting black creature with blood literally dripping from its fangs from where it had forced the door of the cage up, using the crack from the seat rug to lever it, and with fierce yellow eyes glaring at me, crouched there – ready to spring.

It did, back into the back seat, shaving my ear the other side as it hurtled past. Driving was impossible … I pulled unsteadily into a farm drive, not having the faintest idea what to do, and my friend, who was bulky enough for the angry desperate creature not to tackle her side of the car, cringed in horror. The cat continued to leap back and forward past my ears in a frenzy, raking my shoulders and back with its claws each time. Luckily a car was coming down the drive… I flashed the hazard lights, tooted and did everything to show I needed help.

We dared not lower the windows to talk in case the frantic, mangy, bleeding animal escaped to terrorise a fresh territory. The farmer shouted through the glass, telling us to go to the vet – impossible – which he soon realised as the cat continued to launch itself to and fro past my head. The end of the dreadful story came when we quickly eased ourselves out of the car doors, and while we cowered in a farm shed, the helpful farmer opened the car, and shot the poor creature as it made a dash for freedom.

I took my expensive blood-stained cream cardigan straight to the dry cleaners, and had a stiff cup of coffee- I really needed a stiff glass of something stronger. Back home, I washed the blood off all the windows and the dashboard and rubbed antiseptic cream into all my weals and wounds. The next morning, I went out to go shopping, and found to my dismay that there was still blood everywhere. As I washed them off, I counted twenty-eight blood-stains on the inside roof of the car alone. Alas, the blood never came off my cardigan.

Cats – here? No, no danger of strays or bullies here. We live in a covenanted forest with an agreement that we have neither cats nor dogs in order to preserve the native birds, most of whom don’t fly. So no more temptation, no more catching or herding cats, or even black panthers. Sadly, all these encounters with cats have mostly been the result of man’s inhumanity, or irresponsibility.

Unlike the dogs we rescued, I was usually unable to do anything to better their lot, and also unlike the wonderful people all over our city who visit colonies of strays every night to feed them. Sometimes these cat-lovers manage to catch them and get them de-sexed or healed of their illnesses, but I still feel sad that they don’t have homes, which once-domesticated animals long for.

Robert Heinlein, science fiction writer who some feel was also a seer, once wrote that: “How we behave toward cats here below determines our status in heaven.” He may well be right – if there is a heaven – so maybe I’ll see you there! And maybe those dignified, elegant creatures we have encountered in this life will be there too in all their mysterious beauty to love us still, in their own idiosyncratic way.

Food for threadbare gourmets

I had some chicken nibbles in the fridge bought to use for a chicken risotto, but when it came to it, boiling them up for stock etc didn’t appeal, so instead I marinaded them in half a cup of honey, nearly the same of soy sauce, a good glug of sesame oil, lemon juice from a juicy lemon, a generous teaspoonful of minced ginger and the same of garlic. After a couple of hours resting in this mixture, thirty-five minutes in a hot oven, and eaten with sour dough bread, they made a quick tasty lunch.
Food for thought

I don’t believe there was ever anybody who loved being happy as much as I did. What I mean is that I was so acutely conscious of being happy, so appreciative of it; that I wasn’t ever bored, and was always and continuously grateful for the whole delicious loveliness of the world.”

Elizabeth von Arnim. Author of Elizabeth and her German Garden

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Man and animals caught in the net of life and time

Wenka was born on the 21 May 1954, which makes her sixty- three years old this year. She has been in prisons and endured forms of torture, as well as abandonment, much grief and loneliness, throughout her whole life.

She was born in a laboratory in Florida and taken from her mother the day she was born, to be used in a vision experiment which lasted seventeen months. Wenka was ‘only’ a chimp and thus could be used and has been used for the cruel purposes of men all her life.

After the experiment she was sold to a family in North Carolina. Four years later, instead of finding an animal refuge for their pet, they returned her to the Yerkes National Primate Research Centre, as she was supposed to be too big to handle.

Since losing her family – because undoubtedly she would have felt they were –  she has been used for experiments ever since – alcohol use, oral contraceptives, aging, and cognitive studies. She has also given birth six times, and I have no information about her babies. Researchers  obviously didn’t take these opportunities to study chimp maternal behaviours, feeding techniques etc. And they obviously didn’t study grief in Non- Human Primates when deprived of their babies either.

Chimpanzees tend to be used repeatedly over decades, rather than used and killed as with most laboratory animals. But researchers lament that one of the disadvantages of using non- human primates is that they can be difficult to handle, and various methods of physical restraint have to be used. (Researchers also shorten the term to NHP, which makes these intelligent, feeling creatures sound like a tool or non- human object)

Yes, I would resist researchers /torturers, since I have 98.8 per cent the same DNA as these almost human creatures, which is why they are used for research and called non human primates. A ‘gentle-man’ (I use the word sarcastically) from the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Centre writes that scientists may be unaware of the way their research animals are treated, and this could have an effect on their results. He doesn’t say that it would be fear or despair skewing the results.

This scientist, called Reinhardt, writes instead,  of ‘uncontrollable methodological variables’, and goes on: ‘Numerous reports have been published demonstrating that non-human primates can readily be trained to cooperate rather than resist during common handling procedures such as capture, venipuncture, injection and veterinary examination.’

Reinhardt then lists common restraint methods as: squeeze-back cages, manual restraint, restraint boards, restraint chairs, restraint chutes, tethering, and nets. He also suggests using the drug ketamine, which I know from recent personal experience in the helicopter on the way to hospital (see a previous blog) paralyses you and causes terrifying hallucinations. When you’ve survived those, you come to, and find you can think clearly, and therefore know you’re paralysed and can do nothing to defend yourself or even turn your head, which is also a terrifying experience.

In the US 65,000 non- human primates were used for experiments in 2012 – a figure which has remained the same since 1973. The latest figures for the UK are 2,202 non- human primates used for experiments. But no licences have been issued there for experiments on great apes since 1998. Many countries are now working towards protection for these creatures so near to us in intelligence and all emotions – which is why they are used for experiments of course.

The Great Ape Project (GAP), argues that great apes (gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos) be given limited legal status and the protection of three basic interests: the right to live, the protection of individual liberty, and the prohibition of torture.

In 2008 Spain became the first country to extend these rights to great apes,  ‘torture’ which includes medical experiments will be outlawed, while imprisonment –  as in circuses, or for films – is also banned.  Hurray! Austria, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK are all now working to ban experimenting on primates, which includes great apes, chimps, gibbons and all the other varieties used in what some scientists believe is unreliable testing. The EU has also had strict guidelines  on animal testing since 2013.

At the moment great apes are the most protected, with too many other species of non- human primates still fair game for people/researchers who will never say their work is ended, that their experiments have now proved/discovered all that they wanted to know, and thus talk themselves out of a job. I used to love reading in the newspaper the results of experiments which reveal different characteristics in people, until I suddenly realised that to find out these results, animals had to have been used.

That’s when I began to research the use of animals in experimentation, and the facts are hideous. Millions of animals other than non- human primates are used for cruel and useless experiments every year in the US, by drug or chemical companies and others who have no interest in the well- being of the tragic creatures born in captivity, tortured with cruel experiments, and then killed.

We have become the Non-Humane Primates.

Charles Darwin held that animals had the same emotions as human beings. Years ago I read an article in Time magazine which quoted instances of animal intelligence, and their capacity for emotion. At the end, it dismissed the whole idea, in spite of the last conclusive example, a talking parrot.

The pet parrot was being left at the vet for treatment and it cried out as his owner left, ‘please don’t leave me – I’ll be good’. The article did not explore the various strands of this cry – the parrot’s immediate understanding that he was being left, as well as his promise to be good – which is the response of many small children when left in hospital or when their parents die, or leave. They believe it is their fault.

Many will have seen the Youtube videos of Christian, the huge lion, rushing a year later, to put his arms around his owners who had brought him from London and freed him to live in Africa; or the lion behind bars in a zoo, trying to cuddle the woman who had saved him five years before.

Most people who have lived with animals know the depth of their love, loyalty, kindness. Animals nurture their offspring, and do not neglect or abuse them. They do not lie or betray (unless they’ve been badly treated) and therefore can be said to live lives of integrity that many human beings fail to do. And we feel free to treat them in the unspeakable way that we do.

Nature writer Henry Beston says it best: ‘We need another and a wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilisation surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby…. the whole image in distortion,

‘We patronise them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate in having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.

‘They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow travellers of the splendour and the travail of the earth.’

When will we begin to honour and respect our fellow travellers, who too often never get to savour the splendour of the earth?

Food for threadbare gourmets

Nothing much in the cupboard, except bacon, spinach, mushrooms and opened noodle packets with the chicken stock packet used for other purposes. So, lots of noodles to use up.

Chopped the bacon and fried it in a little olive oil and some butter for the taste, added the mushrooms, grated a courgette in for thickening, and then added cream, garlic, pepper, and nutmeg plus a chicken stock cube. When the cream had bubbled and thickened, I added torn leaves of spinach – subtle way of getting vegetables into those who don’t like them.

Towards the end, I cooked the instant noodles, and then served them with the cream mixture over and some grated parmesan.  A good lunch.

Food for thought

 I believe deeply that children are more powerful than oil, more beautiful than rivers, more precious than any other natural resource a country can have.

Danny Kaye   Comedian

He also said: Life is a great big canvas; throw all the paint  you can at it.

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The love of three women who changed the world

Taking a small blue hard back book down from my parent’s shelves I began reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s book: “Travels with a Donkey”. I persevered, but the relentless beating and prodding of what he described as the ‘delicate little donkey’ upset me too much to find out how their journey progressed.

I tried it again as an adult, but the same heartless beatings had the same effect on me. Quite different to the way I felt about Black Beauty – that eminently sensible Anglican horse – as H.G. Wells referred to him. Black Beauty is one of the best sellers of all time I’m glad to say, and must have affected the attitudes of people to horses and animals in general for all time too.

Since I read it at ten years old, I’ve always been grateful for the motor car, tractors and other machines, no matter how much they clog up streets, create pollution, or are responsible for dreadful accidents. At least no horses suffer now the way they did, as Quaker Anna Sewell so graphically describes in the one book she wrote, and which was published just before she died, always having suffered from ill health.

It was written in Black Beauty’s voice, itself a sensation at the time, and his story showed how horses were not just the victims of the vagaries or cruelties of their owners, but that if they became scarred they were no longer valued, and then began the downward slide to become worn- out under-fed beaten cab horses, flogged and half-starved until they dropped dead from exhaustion.

Anna, who lived from 1820 to 1871, didn’t live through a major war, so she didn’t mention the use of horses in war. But anyone who has seen the 1970 film of Waterloo, which was filmed in Russia, will have seen the horror of a war horse’s life, as they charged and were shot dead in battle, or left to die untended from their wounds. (No-one is quite sure whether the horses were as endangered as they looked in this violent film, only that fifty circus stunt riders performed with the horses in bloody battle scenes on churned- up muddy slopes. But we do know that a hundred horses died in the making of Ben-Hur)

It wasn’t much better for horses in World War One and even in World War Two, when the Germans were still using horses and mules to pull guns and supply vehicles, and the British took their beautiful hunters and cavalry horses out to the Middle East, and then had to leave them there when their regiments became mechanized -ie supplied with tanks and armoured cars.

In her delicious diary: ‘To War With Whittaker’, Lady Hermione Ranfurly writes a heart-breaking description of going to say goodbye to her husband’s two precious hunters and then going to each other horse in the regimental stables to farewell them.

A decade before Hermione’s description of the Sherwood Foresters’ horses, Dorothy Brooke, another Englishwoman   who loved horses, and whose husband commanded the cavalry in Cairo, discovered the old war horses sold off to local Arab tradesmen and workers after the previous war. She decided to seek out and rescue the starving, broken- down old horses, who had formerly known kindness and consideration instead of blows, but had spent the years since being worked to death by owners who often didn’t know how to care for them or didn’t have the means or the will to feed them well.

In 1934 Dorothy Brooke formed the Old War Horses Memorial Association, and with the help of many people, including senior officers and other wives and locals – and even George V after she wrote to the Telegraph – she tracked down and raised the money to buy back five thousand emaciated old horses from their owners, who she never blamed or judged. They were all that remained of the 22,000 sold off after the Allenby campaigns and other cavalry operations in the First World War. They’d already had a hard war, carrying as much as 22 stone in weight, suffering rationing, piercing cold, extreme heat, dust clouds and exhaustion as well as some wounds.

Now she wrote : “As their ill-shod misshapen hooves felt the deep tibbin [broken barley straw] bed beneath them, there would be another doubting disbelieving halt. Then gradually they would lower their heads and sniff as though they could not believe their own eyes or noses. Memories, long forgotten, would then return when some stepped eagerly forwards towards the mangers piled high, while others, with creaking joints, lowered themselves slowly on to the bed and lay, necks and legs outstretched. There they remained, flat out, until hand fed by the syces ( grooms).”

Dorothy Brooke never gave up, and her small animal hospital continued to grow. She died at her Heliopolis home in 1955, but her work continued and was eventually re-named the Brooke in 1961. It now operates out of London, all over Africa and employs nine hundred people who do their best to rescue and treat horses and donkeys and re-educate their owners.

When it comes to donkeys, they too owe a debt of gratitude to another woman, Doctor Elisabeth Svendson, who died in 2011. Since setting up her Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, starting with one rescued donkey, it’s now visited by over 300,000 people a year, and her donkey rescue missions have also spread all over the world, from Belgium to Egypt, Ethiopia to India, and of course in the British Isles.

The Donkey Sanctuary has given over 15,500 donkeys and mules in need, lifelong care in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe. Donkeys are rescued and cared for and sometimes re-homed or given to guardians, for donkeys live till fifty, which is a long time to guarantee a pet’s welfare or well-being.

Donkeys have always been overworked and under-valued, unlike their noble cousins the horse, who does get loved and admired. I remember the creaking of a treadmill above a well just below the bedroom window of the hotel where I was staying in Majorca, many years ago. In the blazing afternoon sun while we all took siestas, a little black donkey trudged around the treadmill with no respite. I lay there listening in agony, unable to slip into a happy afternoon nap while he laboured alone and unrelentingly.

The gentle donkey with his big ears and delicate legs, staggering along under huge loads has been the object of derision for centuries, but as Chesterton wrote:

The tattered outlaw of the earth, Of ancient crooked will;

Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,

I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;  One far fierce hour and sweet:

There was a shout about my ears,

And palms before my feet.

. ‘Mighty oaks from little acorns grow,’ and these three women, Anna, Dorothy and Elisabeth, could never have known how their small actions for the creatures they loved would have such great and noble outcomes. In her Christmas speech, Queen Elizabeth quoted Mother Teresa’s words about doing small things with great love. No-one knows how their small actions will change their own world, or the larger world around them, but these women who had so much love, are an inspiration for us all.

Food for Threadbare gourmets

One more day before the turkey would have been past its use-by date, so instead of freezing it, we ate it – a sort of turkey hash, eaten with noodles – I think they’re called Remen noodles in the U.S.

It was very quick and easy. While I fried an onion in olive oil, I chopped some bacon, mushrooms, and the remains of the turkey – in this case just over a cup full. I put one packet of noodles in a basin with boiling water, and put a plate over the basin to keep the steam in.

Cook the bacon, mushrooms with the onion and finally add the turkey when the onion is soft. When the mixture is hot pour over it two beaten eggs. Drain the noodles, and after stirring the eggs through the mix for about a minute, stir in the noodles and add soya sauce and sesame oil to taste. Serve straight away… this makes enough for two, but you could stretch it out to four with another packet of noodles and a bit more turkey…but now: P.S. I forgot to include nutmeg to taste in the recipe for turkey in the last blog. I’ve amended it now in case anyone decides they want to try it…

Food for thought

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
How does one look after others by looking after oneself?
By practicing mindfulness, developing it, and making it grow.
How does one look after oneself by looking after others?
By patience, non-harming, lovingkindness, and caring.

(Samyutta Nikaya 47.19) a Buddhist scripture

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Helicopters, hallucinations and hospital

.It only took two seconds. But since the consequences of those two seconds have dominated my life for the last six months, and promise to do so for some months yet, I feel faintly justified in sharing them.

Stepping blithely onto the back of the sofa to put a book back on the highest shelf, I lost my balance and fell backwards. Lying on the floor in a strange position, I knew without even looking that I had broken my leg and announced this to my love as he came to help me. Luckily the sofa is seven feet long, so he was able to get me onto it so I could lie there in unbelievable agony.

Even in that short time when I looked at my knee it was about ten inches across. I foolishly thought this was just swelling.

Abandoning the idea of driving to our nearest hospital an hour and a half away along a winding, precipitous road above the sea, we rang 111 instead. In half an hour the blessed ambulance arrived, with two angels who pumped me full of morphine, got me onto a special stretcher which didn’t entail lifting me, and decided I had to go by helicopter to the big area hospital.

After the interminable drive down the long winding gravel road during which time they stopped regularly to allow me to be sick, we reached the air strip and the waiting helicopter.

The last words I heard before I even had time to say goodbye to Himself, were: “I’m giving you ketamine for the pain. Some people get hallucinations.” I did.

Suddenly I was hurtling through outer space – tumbling into a vortex between intricate patterns of gold and black, and being sucked into the centre into the black hole. It seemed to go on endlessly. Eventually I said if I’m dying, I’m ready to die, but this didn’t stop the tumbling through space, the diving into the black hole again and again, and the patterns closing in around me. Then suddenly, I was back in the real world, unable to move a limb, totally paralysed, with the blazing sun beating down on my face through the glass about a foot away.

Unable to move or attract attention, I somehow survived this ordeal by sunburn, and arriving on terra firma was immediately surrounded by helpful, efficient people and wheeled away into a white tunnel which is what seems to pass for an X-ray these days apparently.

Then up to the operating theatre, and more blissful unconsciousness while they put on a plaster from thigh to toes, which had to last until the specialist could operate five days later. They told me the top bone was jammed down on the bottom bone, shattering it – a very nasty injury they assured me… not sure what happened to the knee in between, and I never got to ask…

Wheeled into a ward, addled with drugs and shock, I got used to the other drug-crazed, injured people around me! There were six of us and they included a secret smoker in one corner, and a young Maori woman who wore dark glasses all the time so she didn’t have to speak to any of us. The one time she was roused into vehement speech was on my behalf on the third day.

I had drawn what I called the Short Straw, a nurse who was looking after me that day who was so stout, it was a real effort I felt, to keep on her feet all those hours, and deaf too, so I wasn’t sure whether she was a bit dim or whether she just hadn’t heard me. Her ministrations were slow and reluctant, and when I told her I felt sick and she ignored me, I wasn’t sure whether she didn’t think it was worth taking any notice of me, or whether she just hadn’t heard. Seconds later, I called urgently for a receptacle and then filled three large ones with blood. “I wonder what caused that?” she kept saying in a helpless, puzzled way.

Apparently enraged, the Maori girl sat up in bed, took off her dark glasses, and using the odd four letter word, said words to the effect: “what do you expect when you fill her full of F… tramadol. Of course it’s tramadol doing it, you dimwit.” I trust the Short Straw only heard some of this.

The doctors decided it was the infamous drug tramadol too, combined with the rest of my cocktail, so I was downgraded to morphine and daily injections, instead of taking anti-coagulants. The result of this was that I had damaged my stomach, but didn’t know what to eat, so ate nothing but yogurt or mashed potato for some time, since otherwise I felt so ill that the pain of my leg paled into insignificance.

The operation duly took place and I wore a heavy black lycra and metal brace from thigh to foot for the next two months, unable to set foot to the ground. The operation also left me with a numb foot and shin, which I still have, accompanied by nerve pain which means I still enjoy/consume a full cocktail of painkilling drugs, and which makes it hard to walk.

The months were passed in a little cottage hospital where thirty-five of us were all coping with long-term injuries. In our little ward with four of us, we sympathised with each other, listened to each other’s life stories, gossiped about our favourite nurses, and moaned about the rigours of trips by ambulance back to base hospital to see the specialists at regular intervals.

I was humbled by the dedication and commitment of the staff, none of whom ever dawdled but who were on the run all day,   scurrying down long corridors of an old style building, walking between ten and twelve miles a day.

I set myself to be a low maintenance patient, but many of the patients needed help even in getting out of bed, (depending on the injury this was an art in itself), into a shower, dressing or eating, and no nurse ever be-grudged the time they spent with anyone. Two patients died unexpectedly while I was there, and red-eyed nurses showed me how much they cared.

The doctor who visited several times a week knew everyone’s names, joshed us all, and usually ended his visits in the big sitting room, where he sat at the piano and played old favourites for anyone who wanted to listen. One of my favourite nurses was a delicious and beautiful Indian who brought her children and nephews to do Indian dancing for us… exquisite…others brought their dogs, and one jumped straight up on my bed, and cuddled into me – bliss…

Most people were old, and alone at home so they couldn’t manage, and were sheltered safely here until they were ready to cope. I was a rarity with my leg stuck out in front of me in a wheel chair. But what I learned as I observed the others was that I was one of the only lucky ones there.

Though I was older than many, I was almost the only man or woman there with my own teeth, who didn’t have a hearing aid, who didn’t have dementia in some form, and who was strong and active, healthy and able to do yoga and all the other things that kept me young(ish) and flexible. In other words, I had been lucky enough to afford to go to the dentist, to be educated about a healthy diet and life-style, could afford them both, and had enjoyed a life fairly unencumbered and unstressed by money worries.

These frail people brought home to me as never before how life expectancy and/or the enjoyment of good health depends on income, which dictates education, health care, mental health, housing, and everything else we need for a good life.

I listened to the life stories of my companions in pain, and heard how one woman brought up her six children when her husband died when her youngest was five, working at sewing factory uniforms at home from dawn to dusk to make a living and look after the children, and helping in the local shop when she had any spare hours; the lady in the bed across from me who had had two children and adopted two more, shared the trials of coping with deeply disturbed children and then their adult problems; the beautiful, feisty woman in the next bed was going home to look after an alcoholic and bloody-minded, middle-aged son she’d brought up alone, and the severely mentally handicapped sister she also cared for.

And then there were the incidental friendships. A visiting son who had raised thousands of dollars to rescue, doctor and re-home over six thousand feral cats. When he ran out of money and still had thirty-six cats to re-home, he sold his house and he and his wife moved into the country into a smaller house with land where rescued dogs, ducks, ponies, goats, pigeons and every other needy creature came to live with him and be loved. All the cats came and were named and loved until they died. This lovely man worked at night driving a bull-dozer to make enough money, and he also did a lovely tango across the ward to amuse his mother! It was my enthusiastic applause which connected us !

A young woman came with her dog to visit an old neighbour, and she told me she and her sister and her mother, rescue and re-home more dogs than the local animal charity, who often turn to them for help. They used up every penny they earned caring for desperate creatures.

Listening to these stories, and the life-stories of my fellow patients, I felt humble and so grateful for the life I had been able to lead. Even having the time to write and to blog, and to own a computer is something only the fortunate can do.

Breaking my leg, and now hobbling around with my stick, waiting for everything to heal has been a blessing. It has opened my eyes to how so many good, kind women live their whole lives coping with inescapable burdens. That son reminded me of how much hidden goodness there is in the community, and I was shown how much beauty,  compassion and dedication so many women pour into their lives and their careers in the hospitals where they work. I was reminded that women are wonderful.

And I left this wonderful place with a full complement of much needed pain-killers, a walking frame, crutches,  stool for the bathroom and a high stool to sit on in the kitchen. I was offered care at home, plus someone to clean, and free physio for as long as I needed it. I will never grumble about paying taxes again! I give thanks for being fortunate enough to live in a western society where care and compassion for those who need it, is a way of life.

Food for threadbare gourmets

This is the first year of my adult life that I haven’t made my own Christmas mince pies – for obvious reasons (see above !!!). But I found some decent bought ones, prized off their lids and spooned oodles more good mince- meat into them, replacing the lids, and heating them up as required. Before serving I sprinkle them with caster sugar … this IS Christmas isn’t it??

I also like to serve them with a dollop of brandy butter – why keep anything so delicious just for Christmas pudding? I make it by ear as it were, using two ounces of softened butter – preferably unsalted, but not necessarily… and adding icing sugar and brandy… I go on beating with a fork, or a beater, and adding butter and icing sugar and brandy until it tastes the way I want it, and is the right soft consistency. I also add a few drops of vanilla. Once tasted, no mince pie is complete without it… though cream is also good…      A  Merry Christmas… to threadbare gourmets and to all those who are neither gourmets nor threadbare !

Food for thought

Lord, forgive us that we feast while others starve.           Grace before a banquet, said by John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester in the reign of Henry VIII.         Just as appropriate now as then…

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Snakes alive !

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Mrs Tiggywinkle, her rounded figure enveloped in her apron, sweet face framed by a ruff of prickles and a frilly white bonnet, quizzical grey eyes gazing kindly out on the world, catching up with her ironing and piles of laundry is one of those childhood images that remain with most children who have encountered her.
Thanks to the genius of Beatrix Potter this little creature who has snuffled around the planet for thirty million years or so, is one of the most beloved of small animals. Fluffy little red Squirrel Nutkin isn’t far behind in the beloved stakes either, another creature with a pedigree going back fifty to thirty million years. Their images, once impregnated in the memory in early childhood ensured their imperishable hold on the imagination and affection of anyone who encountered them.

But there’s another even older species, a hundred million years old, which enjoys none of this fondness and protection. Instead, in the western world, it is reviled and seen as an object of evil. Thanks to the Old Testament – a late Bronze Age work of literature as some see it, or the words of God according to others – and the legend of Adam and Eve and the Temptation, snakes have had a bad time through the ages… through no fault of their own. The sin of the original apocryphal snake has been visited upon them for millennia.

Even as a child I felt sorry for the snake… that he got the blame, as well as Eve, for wanting to know… since I always wanted to know I couldn’t see what the problem was…

Many who’ve never touched a snake assume that it’s slimy… but it isn’t…its skin is dry and supple, and when it loses its skin this has become a metaphor for spiritual transformation for those who can accept the snake as an innocent creature who only bites when attacked, and for the most part lies curled up in beautiful sinuous folds and curves. Different species have exquisite markings and colours which is not surprising since they are a part of the glorious beauty of creation, and it’s not logical to exclude them on the strength of the ancient and apocryphal story.

Other cultures untouched by Judaic snake prejudices have seen the snake as a healing symbol both in ancient Egypt and in Greece, where it was used as a symbol of healing, twined around the staff of Aesculapius, the god of medicine. Even the unprejudiced talk about our reptilian brain -the earliest part of our evolutionary growth – as having a rather unlovable set of qualities – the word reptilian evokes thoughts of coldness, calculation, and lack of emotion…

My dearest friend had a garter snake as a pet as a child. It lived in a terrarium, with stones and branches to give the snake a feeling of home from home. The lid was perforated with holes. My friend hadn’t realised that the snake was pregnant and it quickly gave birth to lots of small four inch long baby snakes. The mother snake then did the most extraordinary thing.

She coiled herself around the branch, so that the top of her body and head reached the roof, making a bridge across the gap from the branch to the roof. Her babies then slithered up the branch and then up their mother’s body out into freedom and fresh air.

There was nothing reptilian about this amazing behaviour, it was pure unconditional mother love, combined with incredible intelligence and imagination. She knew that freedom for her children lay beyond the roof of her prison, and she worked out the way for them all to escape. They all disappeared before my friend had time to prevent their exodus from the snake pit or catch any.

I used to think that eels were a branch of snake species, but they are actually fish. When my grandsons were seven and eight, a river ran past the bottom of our garden, and one day they announced they wanted to go fishing. I found some bamboo poles, and string, and we tied some scraps of bacon on the end of the string, and off they went.

They came back shortly after, bursting with excitement … a couple of eels had come and eaten the bacon. So they wanted more of course. We tied a chicken carcase to the string, thinking it would last them forever. But to their delight, not one, not two, but thirteen eels appeared from beneath stones and rocks and the over- hanging river bank.

Every time the children went down to the river with their fish food supplies (my bacon bill soared during their stay) the eels appeared as if from no-where. They were all sizes from eighteen inches to more than four feet. How did they know… how did the message pass downstream or upstream that the goodies were on offer again.

Eels are still one of nature’s unsolved mysteries… after fourteen or more years, depending on whether they are male or female, the full- grown New Zealand eels return to their breeding grounds, there to spawn and die. No-one knows where these breeding grounds are, though they think it may be near New Caledonia. Having spawned, the eels die, and their progeny, armed with their inherited memory or instinct, set off on the long journey back to where their parents came from. They begin life as larvae, then grow into tiny glass eels, which finally mature into elvers – young eels. These young eels are capable of making their way up waterfalls to reach their ancestral homes. And there they stay until they hear the call to go back to their spawning ground and pass on new life.

My grandsons were so entranced by our eels, that when I found an extraordinary story about a German eel, I made one of those grandmotherly illustrated letters telling them the tale. A German father caught an eel, and brought it home alive, intending to kill it and serve it up as fresh eel. But his children raised such a clamour, that he put off the evil day and popped it in the bath over-night. And there it stayed, for 25 years until someone dobbed them in with the local animal protection society.  He was called Elie.

When anyone wanted a bath, they simply put a bucket in the water and Elie would swim into it and lie coiled up until he was lowered back into the bath and could swim out again. By the time he was discovered, the children had long gone, but there can be no doubt that he must have felt loved, by that peculiar osmosis that other creatures have and we can only guess at.( You’d have to love him to live with an eel in your bath for twenty five years !) I never heard the end of the story – whether he had been separated from the people he knew and loved, and sent off to swim in strange cold waters or not….

The most unbelievable and beautiful story about an eel and love is contained in this one minute video below:
http://www.wimp.com/befriendeel/#comments

If this isn’t love, then as Shakespeare wrote:
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Food for threadbare gourmets
One of my closest friends and neighbours is a Frenchwoman, and we spend long satisfying hours talking about food. We both love making soups out of nothing, having kept in the fridge all the stock our vegetables were boiled in.

I made such a soup last night. I had a big dollop of cauliflower cheese left over, not enough for another meal, so I thought it would be a good start for one of these soups… I gently fried in butter some chopped onions, a stick of chopped celery, the heads of the green leaves from two leeks, a grated carrot and a couple of garlic cloves.

When they were soft, I added the cauliflower cheese, the stock, a chicken bouillon cube, salt and pepper, and gently brought it to the boil. When it was soft I whizzed it with the whizz stick, but still left plenty of texture. With some good bread I made croutons in olive oil and with a sprinkling of parmesan, and a dash of cream it was a light satisfying supper.
Food for thought
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgement, self-abuse and regret.      Miguel Ruiz

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Living takes up all my time

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As I drove home this morning I wondered how often I had driven along that same country road with all its winds and curves and hills and one way bridges… ruminating about this, I went back randomly to my diary six years ago to see what has changed… this is what I found:

“ I had the house to myself today – the solitude I’ve always wanted. In his early diaries, Thomas Merton moaned on about not having solitude and silence. I know how he feels, but how could these things be missing in a Trappist monastery? And it’s a lot easier to be alone in a crowd surely, than one in a one-on-one relationship! Silence is easier than solitude. I never have the radio on, rarely the TV, and sometimes go for weeks without playing any music.

‘The days have seemed calm and beautiful. Ken Wilber’s understanding of how to ground the insights of the spiritual life, reminded me of Brother Laurence’s practise of the Presence of God.
It was reported of him that, ‘in the greatest hurry of business in the kitchen he still preserved his recollections and heavenly-mindedness. He was never hasty nor loitering, but did each thing in its season, with an even uninterrupted composure and tranquillity of spirit…’  mindfulness then…

‘I had made a cake from a recipe on the last page of Nigella Lawson’s book ‘Feasts’. This was a funeral cake, but the beautiful loaf in its tin with a long sprig of rosemary for remembrance on top inspired me. It was absolutely delicious, and has entered my repertoire with a fanfare. So yesterday, I got up in good time to make another rosemary cake for morning tea with Kate and Jocelyn. This time I used twice the amount of cooked apple and lemon, more sugar and added vanilla.

‘It was a triumph. The big, tender, golden loaf with a sugary top, infused with the taste of lemon and rosemary, and with the rosemary sprig down the centre, was a culinary poem just to look at. It had a pure, classic feeling, qualities which can be applied to things other than music or sculpture! We all felt it was a work of art, which didn’t stop us devouring it in large moist chunks, and Jocelyn took the recipe.

‘ Both girls very pure, so we had apple tea instead of coffee, (I didn’t realise it was solid sugar) and we talked for hours, until nearly one o’ clock. Jocelyn brought a jar of her fig and ginger jam, Kate, a fragrant bouquet of herbs and pink and violet flowers. I had laid a table with a linen cloth with a heavy crochet lace border, and with the curving regency-style silver tea-pot, the bone china rosebud sprigged cups and saucers edged with gold, silver king’s pattern cake-knives, white lace and linen napkins, it looked like one of those romantic magazine photographs. I left it, cake, crumbs, rosemary sprigs and all, untouched all day long to savour.

Today, I fell off the wagon. Went shopping and doing errands in town, and I never seemed to get into my stride. Going into the spare bedroom to work out where I would start doing paint touch-ups, I found a book left there by the last occupant, Alexander McCall Smith’s, ‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’, which I read till I had finished. Charming, erudite and civilised – art, music, ethics – all merging seamlessly. But apart from meditating, I hadn’t been present all day, just for the sake of blobbing out with a book, going absent without leave as it were. So no mindfulness then…

Thank heavens for Rumi, who I turned to this morning and his wonderful:
Come, come, come, whoever you are! Wanderer,
Worshipper, lover of learning
This is not a caravan of despair.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve
Broken your vow a thousand times
Still and yet again
Come!’

Driving home through the bay, I saw a mother duck shepherding her family of tiny brown fluffy babies along the footpath, while she calmly brought up the rear. There must have been at least a dozen, and one hadn’t managed to make it up onto the low step-up of the pavement, and was now trying to keep up, anxiously scurrying along in the gutter!

Cara (the cat) is still asleep on the unmade bed, a flat, black semi-circle. She slept all night stretched up against me, seeming to be purring every time I awoke. Maybe she was making amends for a dreadful incident last night in the cemetery. As I strolled towards the look-out where I habitually inspect the flat rock far below with waves splashing over it at high tide, a cock pheasant ran across and into the undergrowth on the edge of the cliff.

Cara was a long way behind, and hadn’t seen it, so I thought all was well. But when she reached me, she stood and sensed the area. She could have been a pointer, the way she sussed out the presence of the bird. Ignoring my peremptory calls, she purposefully plunged down the cliff. I attempted to grab her, but it was too dangerous. Occasionally, as I peered into the undergrowth, I would catch sight of her blackness skulking through the bushes. I went home with my arms full of pohutukawa twigs as usual, to use as firewood, and then came back in the hope of tracking her.

She turned out to be sitting behind a grave-stone, and when she attempted to escape me again I grabbed her by a foreleg, and carried her firmly home, where I made sure she stayed. I hope it’s not the breeding season. ‘

Reading this, I realised that much has changed in six years … though I still fall off the wagon regularly, but the beloved cat has gone to a soft cushion in the sky, I am now alone, and have also given up eating sugar… so fewer delicious cakes. But the rhythm of the seasons continues, the full moon still shines across the water as I stand at the cliff’s edge, the mother ducks are still moving majestically across the road shepherding their broods… some friends have moved on, new friends have changed my life in many ways, and life is often a baffling adventure.

But whatever hidden meaning there may be in it, I remember Montaigne’s words: “Alas, I have done nothing this day !”
“What? Have you not lived? It is not only the fundamental but the noblest of your occupations”. So be it. I live.

 

Food for Threadbare gourmets
Here’s that delicious cake by Nigella Lawson with my wild additions. (I belong to that abandoned school of thought that feels if one thing is delicious, twice as much must be twice as delicious ! I also subscribe to the Hebrew saying that we will be held accountable for all the permitted pleasures we failed to enjoy).

So, first you cook until soft a sliced eating apple with a teaspoon of caster sugar, zest and juice of half a lemon, a teaspoon of butter and a small sprig of fresh rosemary. Fish out the rosemary, leave the apple to cool, and then mash or blitz to a pulp. Line a one pound loaf tin with greased baking paper.

To the pulped apple add 225 grams melted butter, 150 grams of sugar, 3 large eggs and 300 grams of flour. I use self raising, and also double the apple mixture and add a scant teaspoon of vanilla. Mix it quickly to a smooth batter, and pour into the tin. Dredge the top generously with caster sugar, and then lay a long sprig of fresh rosemary down the middle of the cake top. The oil from the herb scents the cake deliciously as it cooks – oven 170C or 325 F, for approximately fifty minutes. Let it cool etc. before cutting and devouring with abandon!

 

Food for thought
The unexamined life is not worth living.     Socrates died 399 BC

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The wrong lion?

The man who killed Cecil the lion, seems to be contrite about killing the wrong lion. He is reported as saying that he hadn’t realised he was hunting a protected one. But killing any lion (and all the other precious endangered species he’s slaughtered) in a world where we are now beginning to realise that animals have a different consciousness to ours, and have gifts that are a closed book to our different intelligences, seems not just wrong, but cruel and crass.

Yet I discover that in this country too, as in South Africa, and presumably other places, gangs of rich white men fly in to shoot animals penned up in enclosures … all for the fun of killing a captive lion or deer, or whatever. I read that an Englishman, also run to earth for his killing of these great creatures on safari, refuses to comment, saying it’s a private matter. But it isn’t of course.

These creatures are dying out because these men are killing them, and our planet and our children and grand-children will be deprived of a vital source of life as well as beauty. Scientists say that our survival depends on the survival of the large animals. So we ARE all involved in this killing by rich white men, as well as poor poachers, even if we think we aren’t.

Let’s hope Cecil’s death helps to change humankind’s thinking about our place on this planet… for we are not so much homo sapiens as homo murderous.

Avaaz has a petition we can sign in an effort to stop the hunting of lions. Perhaps it would be a start to stop calling these magnificent creatures ‘big-game’, and to stop calling the killing ‘trophy hunting’. There are other more appropriate names for this destruction of life on earth .

Google  Avaaz, RIP Cecil if you want to help.

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