Category Archives: wild life

A merrier world and a beautiful one

 

Tropical islands poised to benefit from ocean power

The story of a sixteen-year old fighting climate change always moves and excites and inspires me.

Jadav Payeng has been planting a forest single-handedly since 1979 when he saw a pile of dead snakes and realised they had died for lack of both water and shade. Jadav Payeng, the son of a poor buffalo trader from a marginalized tribal community in the region of Assam, India, is now a poor farmer; but he has let nothing stand in the way of the task he set himself. He’s planted a tree a day in the forty years ever since. Elephants and tigers and all the indigenous wild life of the area have returned and are inhabitants of the forest he’s planted, which is now bigger than Central Park in New York.

I can’t help contrasting his story with the story of another sixteen-year old, an angry frightened Swedish teenager.

As I watched her speaking at the UN, I wondered, not for the first time, where her parents were to protect her, and also to help her to get some balance… yes, climate change is real, but no-one has stolen her childhood, living in a privileged western society like Sweden. While on the other hand, millions of children elsewhere are starving, enslaved and truly hopeless, and the millions of us in WW2 and other times, as well as children growing up in fear of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War, could claim to have had our childhoods stolen… except that self- pity and blame gets us nowhere!!!

And it isn’t just climate change which is a problem for the future… we face polluted oceans, destruction of the world’s forests, over-population, the extinction of other living species, and many other pressing issues. Yet the future is not actually all doom and gloom, and I wish someone would help Greta see the other side of the story.

After watching a video called 13 Misconceptions about Climate Change, I began to feel a lot better about the future, while there are other signs of progress which make me feel truly hopeful.

For starters, there’s the so-called destruction of Pacific Islands by the rising ocean, which the UN Secretary General described when he spoke after Greta at the UN. Actually, the story of the Pacific Islands is fascinating. A research team, which included a professor from Auckland University, have been studying the problem, and their findings show the gloomy forecast of flooding and inundation is unjustified.

Previous research by the team, which used aerial photos going back as far as 1943 to track changes to the 101 islands that make up the Tuvalu archipelago, found that overall there was a net gain in land area of 2.9 percent or 73.5ha over the past 40 years.

They found that the height of the atolls increased at the same time as the rising water, that sand and sediment shifted as the atolls responded to the environmental changes: that the elevation of the atoll crest – the highest ground – mirrored the rise in sea levels, which suggests sea level may be an important controlling factor on island elevation.

Co-researcher Dr Murray Ford, also from the University of Auckland, says the study shows islands are more resilient than previously thought, able to change shape or physically adjust to higher sea levels and more severe storms.

Then there’s the Great Green Wall of China where they are planting an area of forest bigger than Ireland every year, and have drafted in 60,000 soldiers to help with the planting. While they have had their problems and are still working on them, the project is heartening, while all the re-wilding and regeneration going on in England, Scotland, Denmark, Spain and other European countries is setting a new paradigm.

Great tracts of land are being returned to their ancient state – at Knepp Farm in Kent for instance, they’ve pulled up all the fences, sold all the farm machinery, and introduced as many original species onto the land as possible. No aurochs now, which used to roam the land in Neolithic times, so they introduced the nearest thing – long horn cattle, Exmoor ponies instead of wild horses to keep too many trees from spreading, three species of deer and pigs. Nature designed each animal to have its own function, they all graze differently, while the pigs rootling in the hard clay soil open up spaces for seeds to germinate. The results of this system include improving soil quality, flood control, water purification and pollination.

Rare bats, birds, butterflies, insects, flowers, fish, which haven’t been seen for centuries, are returning to this paradise, only a short way from London. The cattle are gently led – no violence being chased by dogs or motorbikes to round them up – and culled and sold as the highest quality meat, so there is no over-grazing in what is still an enclosed space, with other traditional farms around, hemming them in. This was the mistake made in the celebrated Netherlands project, where the animals flourished so well that in a hard winter many died from starvation, so now some animals have to be culled to maintain the health of the others.

As the years have gone by at Knepp Farm, swamps and wetland have returned, trees and scrub and rare wild flowers have spread, birds sing, butterflies dance over blossoms, and the whole area exudes a sense of calm and beauty. Glamping has become an off-shoot of this wonderful experiment.

The famous return of wolves to Yellowstone Park has shown that by introducing the top predator, the whole ecosystem can heal and regenerate. Rumania has one of the last and biggest swathes of forest, where vast areas are flourishing with all the wild creatures roaming, , which have disappeared elsewhere in Europe, and though during the Communist rule the forests began to be logged, they are now protected.

In Scotland where a number of philanthropists and trusts have bought up huge areas of land, they are re-wilding or regenerating the land in other ways…John Muir, of the John Muir Trust, one of the largest landowners, said that: ‘thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity’. This is why of course, that eco-tourism is on the rise which may or may not be a good thing, with concern over carbon footprints.

Modern factory farming, with all the attendant soil erosion, animal cruelty, chemical poisoning through the use of herbicides, pesticides, and anti-biotics, and water degradation, is also being addressed by dedicated experts. In the wonderful half hour documentary called ‘Unbroken Ground’ we learn of efforts to breed strains of grain which don’t require annual re-planting with the resultant ploughing and soil loss. Another farmer has transformed the over-grazed barren waste of his land caused by cattle grazing, by introducing bison, the original inhabitants, and their presence has restored the eco-system, while their meat is organic and unsullied by anti-biotics or other modern methods of increasing yield.

In fact, farming like this turns out to be more productive than modern farming methods, while respecting the land and the animals. All over the world farmers are taking up ‘re-generative farming’, letting the land dictate the results, allowing trees to grow for shade for animals and to prevent soil erosion, increase the world’s stock of trees, and as a by-product make the land both beautiful and productive.

This method of farming aims for topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing eco-system services, increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.

And even fishing is being tackled by one co-operative fishing company on Lummi Island in the States. They’ve perfected a way of catching salmon without stress, returning the unwanted catch to the sea unharmed, and treating the salmon with gentleness and respect. Now that scientists have proved what many of us have always believed, that fish can feel pain, it’s a great step forward to see that fishing can be humane; and perhaps in our brave new world, we will see this respect and care for all living things, including our planet, penetrate the consciousness of us all.

This revolution in our thinking towards the world can start at home. In small town gardens and plots, where gardeners grow native species, or plants that attract bees, or birds, they create tiny oases in urban deserts. A balcony or a window box, a bird feeder or a bowl of fresh water can attract insect and bird life, and even leaving dandelions to flower, the bees favourite food, is a small gift to the planet. We don’t need a farm or acres of land to do what we can to nurture nature. Some people plant road-sides, railway embankments and waste land in cities… sometimes they’re called guerrilla gardeners, and they are among the unsung saviours of the planet.

So if I could speak to sad and anxious sixteen year old Greta, I would give her the words of Max Ehrman in Desiderata:

“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste … Speak your truth quietly and clearly…  And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”

The beauty is a gift, but happiness is a decision I sometimes think… remembering the words of the anarchic Monty Python gang in The Life of Brian – always look on the bright side of things! And much happiness for me is to be found chopping and stirring and beating and eating in the kitchen… hence our Tuscan binge after reading Frances Mayes…’Giusi’s hen, hunter style’ was our first go at peasant cooking, and not having the guinea fowl required in the recipe I used eight boneless chicken breasts. We started with ‘odori’, which is a base made of two carrots, two stalks of celery, one onion, 2 cloves of garlic, and parsley. Chop them finely, saute in olive oil and put aside.

Saute the chicken for ten minutes, add salt and pepper and the odori. When the mix looks golden, pour in a glass of white wine. When it’s almost evaporated add two cups of tomato sauce and cook slowly for another twenty minutes. I took the advice and let it sit until the next day.

There was enough for two meals, the first we ate with creamy mashed potatoes, and the next day with pasta, accompanied by green beans – and of course a glass of good wine.

Being inclined to short cuts these days I used grated garlic in a jar, and a tin of tomatoes. It still seemed pretty delicious even with these non-Tuscan deviations!  And as that wise old man Tolkien once said:” If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Frogs and Tigers and Us

Image result for pics of archey's frogs

A full moon shone through the tree-tops, and apart from the hooting of a distant morepork, and the autumn cricket symphony, not even the careful movements of the four silent searchers disturbed the peace of the forest.

Then a hushed excited exclamation came from Charlotte: “I’ve found one – it’s a baby!”  The other seekers carefully stepped across the lines of coloured string which separated them, and gazed at a perfect, tiny jewel-like creature, smaller than the size of a thumb nail, half hidden beneath a frond of fern, the first find of the night.

A baby Archey!

This is how the two researchers from Auckland Zoo, on their annual visit to monitor our resident Archey’s, began their silent night of seeking for these precious creatures – living fossils – which are among the world’s oldest frogs, and almost unchanged since their 150 million- year- old relatives flourished here.

There are now only two populations left in the world, and one of them survives here in the protected forest where I live. Two zoologists, specialists in frogs, have just been here for four nights monitoring both frogs and our rare striped and forest geckoes. Sara, a resident and our own indefatigable discoverer of so many frogs and rare geckoes, and an expert at both detecting and recording them, organised the searches.

Using coloured string Sara has measured out into four sections a ten-metre square grid on her property. She and the experts from the zoo re-visit this site just once a year to check on the frog population, as to do so more often would be too invasive. (Our friends from the zoo also return four times a year to count and measure and monitor the rare geckos which live here).

By searching the same area each time, they are able to assess the size of the Archey’s population and hope eventually to discover whether it is thriving or declining, as sadly 43 per cent of all such creatures are declining in this country.

Finding these tiny and elusive creatures is challenging. They are usually hidden by fern fronds or leaves, and as in the case of the first find of the night, are often so tiny they are almost invisible. Their camouflaged colours vary from mottled greens to rich browns and pale sandy markings. However, the eagle-eyed team are now experienced enough to spot them.

When they do, they use a surgical glove when holding the frogs so as not to contaminate them, and a separate glove for each frog. They mark and number where they found the frog, and gently slip the tiny creature into a see-through plastic bag, giving it the same identifying name. The bag is then pinned to a nearby tree, until the search is ended, when they are all gathered up. The time, temperature, weather conditions and GPS co-ordinates of each frog’s whereabouts are also recorded.

Back at base, each frog is carefully placed within a protective canvas square, and photographed using mirrors, so as not to disturb the frog, yet capturing all angles in a single shot. It’s then moved to be weighed on very sensitive scales, and then measured. When this careful record has been completed, the frog is taken back to where he was found.

Archey’s frogs don’t need water like most frogs, and produce their tadpoles in a gelatinous sac. When they’re hatched, the male frog carries the froglets around on his back until they have full metamorphosed. The minute exquisite froglets we saw were complete.

To watch the dedicated researchers carry out their painstaking task – first finding their quarry using their torches in the dark forest, then carrying out the incredibly detailed and meticulous procedures laid down by the Department of Conservation (DOC) was so impressive. Anyone handling these precious creatures must have a license from DOC to do so.

Beginning the search at nine o clock, they ended at six in the morning. They did this for four nights, as well as searching, finding, recording, measuring and going through the whole procedure with the rare Coromandel Striped gecko which also survives on the estate.

Geckos are slightly easier to find since they are bigger, and they are just as beautiful. Like the frogs, each one has different markings so they can be recognised from one monitoring session to the next. They have the same sort of protuberant eyes as the frogs, and like the frogs too, tiny exquisite little fingers on their feet. Geckos also have ‘sticky’ feet: their toes are covered with microscopic hairs that allow them to climb sheer surfaces and even walk upside down across a ceiling.

As a somewhat ignorant observer, I felt so privileged to see these rare and ancient creatures who live amongst us as they have done for milleniums, and who are struggling to survive with so many enemies like rats, stoats, possums etc who feast on them. Our predator control programme is absolutely vital to their survival, and our whole community is dedicated to the government’s hopeful policy of a predator free country. Our residents also continue their commitment to our precious wild life with their constant checking and setting of predator traps all over the forest.

To be there with the little research team – even for only one night  – gave me such a profound insight into the richness of our environment, not just the Archey’s and geckos, but insect life which included spiders with beautiful markings as they spun their webs, long legged ones picking their way delicately through the fallen leaves, millipedes which curled into a tiny round ball looking like a large blue-berry, young wetas, and the background of crickets serenading us.

As I write, I look out on a peaceful vista of trees stretching across to the top of our forested mountain range. I watch green silver eyes feasting on insects clinging to the bark of the karaka tree beyond the veranda, and watch the tiny grey warblers and black headed tits flitting among the foliage, looking for lunch, and green finches perching there. Bell birds sends their melodious notes floating across the green valley, and it’s hard to realise that I am in fact sitting here in the midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction, the worst such destruction of species for 65 million years, and one of the most significant extinction events in the history of the earth, according to scientists.

They point to the disappearance  of billions of plants, insects, animals, reptiles and amphibians all over the planet, saying the Sixth Mass Extinction has progressed further than we thought. It’s caused by over-population, loss of habitat, hunting, use of poisons like pesticides, climate change, pollution and in some cases, as in the case of NZ’s Archey’s frog, by disease.

There are so few of our frogs left here that they are number one on the list of endangered species, which is why we are guarding and monitoring and cherishing them. Just as saddening is the knowledge that in the last fifty years tigers, for example, have declined from 50,000 down to three thousand – a thought that fills me with terror at the thought of losing them all soon.

Scientists fear all big cats will be extinct in less than a hundred years, and point to lions as a symbol of what has happened to our world. They remind us that lions used to live and roam all over Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East right up to north-western India, and yet now, there are only small parts of Africa and tiny populations in a few other places.

While hunting and habitat loss is behind the loss of so many creatures like the big cats, over-eating is the problem that most frogs face! In the US alone, three million kgs of frog meat are imported every year. This is roughly 26 million frogs – mostly from India, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Germany, France, the Netherlands and Africa are also keen on eating frogs’ legs. Luckily for them, our Archeys are too small to be a tasty morsel for homo sapiens – (if only we were truly homo sapiens).

It’s easy to feel discouraged when facing a global event of such momentous proportions, and one which in the end could mean our mass extinction too. And when it is such an enormous and profound happening, we can only fall back on the only thing we know – love. By loving and reverencing every creature, plant and sentient being we can feel at least that we are doing something positive. Giving in to despair or hopelessness is not the answer. Nor is burying our heads in the sand.

The words of a children’s hymn printed in 1864 which my grandmother taught me, come into my mind.

We are bidden:”… to shine with a clear, pure light,
Like a little candle burning in the night;
In this world of darkness, we must shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine.

………..                                           all around
Many kinds of darkness in this world abound:
Sin, and want, and sorrow—we must shine,
You in your small corner, and I in mine.”

So yes, I will light my candle in my small corner.

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I’ve always been keen on cakes that require very little effort, and I’ve used this one several times recently, and it’s never let me down. All you have to do is stir all the ingredients together and bake – no beating, creaming, or separating! The ladies from the Zoo loved it when they came for afternoon tea!

Grease a cake tin and line the base with grease-proof paper. Set the oven to 180 degrees. In a large bowl, tip 100gm of melted butter, a generous 100 gm of brown sugar, three eggs, a 100 gm of self- raising flour, a 100gms of ground almonds, a tsp baking powder, four tablespoons of milk, and a table spoon of honey. Mix them all together thoroughly, tip into the cake tin, and bake for just over 35 minutes  or until a skewer comes out clear.

I made lemon butter icing using the juice and grated peel of a lemon. The cake did n’t last long!

Food for Thought

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo. ‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’”

JRR Tolkien This favourite quote seemed like the most appropriate one for this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

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Aliens, Narnia and our dog, Murphy

Image result for image of world from space

 

My latest devouring passion (perhaps passions keep you alive and hungry for the fascination and excitement of life!)  is for films about aliens… I especially love the ones with encounters between them and us… those with peace and a desire to communicate.

The film ‘Arrival’ sparked this unlikely interest, and I’ve watched it several times, and have been working backward from ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’, in which Keanu Reeves played the solemn and idealistic alien, ‘ET’ of course, and my favourite, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. At the end of any film I’ve watched, I then go into a frenzy Googling the cast, reviews, and interviews with directors and any other interesting facts, etc.

When watching ‘Close Encounters…’ again last night, I registered for the first time the dead decoy carcases of sheep and cattle. I noticed too, the tortured dog entrapped in a crude home-made gas mask by his owner, who was trying to sell animal gas masks at the crowded railway station crammed with evacuees. I put aside my disquiet at the killing of the sheep and cattle in order to immerse myself in the mystical, magical encounter with the space-ship and its aliens.

But in my researches afterwards, my misgivings returned. Reading Spielberg explaining that before disguising a group of local school children as the child aliens he had tried to use an orang-utan encased in a silver lycra suit and roller skates strapped to his feet upset me dreadfully. The poor creature undid the skates and crawled back to its owner, so Spielberg had to switch to using children.

As usual, my heart turned over at the idea of using an animal for the purposes of entertainment and causing it distress and discomfort. Not as bad as bull fighting obviously, or as bad as the experience of the tiger in ‘The Life of Pi’. This glorious creature became the victim of the very people who were supposed to be looking after him, and nearly drowned because his keepers were so pre-occupied with the affair they were enjoying.

I’m been suspicious of the use of animals in films ever since the makers of Narnia had wanted to use our magnificent bull mastiff. We had taken Murphy – a rescue dog – to the vet, who was impressed with his splendid mastiff good looks. The vet told us that the makers of the film Narnia were on the look- out for big, handsome bull mastiffs like this. They needed six apparently.

We thought about it, desultorily, and finally asked what it would involve. It would have meant gentle, devoted Murphy – who’d cried with relief all the way home from a ‘Club Med for Critters’ where we’d left him for a weekend once – going away for training for six weeks. And what would the training be, we asked. He would learn to snarl and growl and spring upon people on demand, we learned.

We were absolutely horrified. While he would be pining, and wondering why he had been taken away from us, Murphy’s gentle, friendly nature would have been warped for the purposes of film makers who obviously would not have his best interests at heart. How would they teach a friendly courteous animal to snarl and growl and attack, I wondered, appalled.

Since learning about this, I’ve been very conscious of the way film-makers seem to lack a conscience about how animals are used on set. I no longer believe those PC disclaimers: ‘No animal has suffered any cruelty in the making of this film.’ Certainly, the carnage, when over a hundred horses were killed in the making of Ben Hur, would not be tolerated today, but what constitutes cruelty is entirely subjective…

I cried my heart out over Old Yeller, like most of my generation, my best friend and I mopping up our blotched mascara in the ladies cloakroom after the film… but I sometimes wonder now, after our experience with Narnia , how Old Yeller was trained when he had to snarl and growl before rabies set in…

Lassie is another story, with his waving tail and cheerful demeanour. The most fascinating thing about him is that his character is based on a true story, and on the heroism of a real Lassie.

Wikipedia tells us that writer Nigel Clarke in the “Shipwreck Guide to Dorset and South Devon”, gives the original Lassie story. Half collie, Lassie was owned by the landlord of the Pilot Boat, a pub in the little sea-side town of Lyme Regis. On New Year’s Day in 1915, the battleship “HMS Formidable” was torpedoed by a German submarine off Start Point in South Devon, with the loss of more than 500 men. In a storm that followed, a life raft containing bodies was blown along the coast to Lyme Regis. The owner of the Pilot Boat offered his cellar as a morgue.

When the bodies had been laid out on the stone floor, Lassie found her way down amongst them, and began to lick the face of one of the victims, Able Seaman John Cowan. She stayed beside him for more than half an hour, nuzzling him and keeping him warm with her fur. To everyone’s astonishment, Cowan eventually stirred. He was taken to hospital and went on to make a full recovery. He visited Lassie again when he returned to thank all those who had saved his life.

The sinking of the ship was a severe blow and when RN officers heard the story of Lassie, and what she did to rescue Cowan, they told the story again and again to anyone who would listen, as it was so inspirational and heart-warming. The story travelled to Hollywood and Lassie and the generations of Lassies who followed her, became one of the immortals.  Hers is a feel-good story, as also was the real- life filming of Babe.

In this film, there were six trainers acting as department heads, supervised by an American trainer, and assisted by over fifty-seven animal handlers from the United States, Australia and New Zealand. It took a year and a half of training, and six months of filming to make the film. Wherever there was any violence or an incident in which an animal might suffer discomfort, animatronic models were used; and the pigs were so clever that animatronic models were hardly used in their scenes.

The filming of Babe was a triumph for the humane treatment of other creatures. Interestingly, James Cromwell, who played Farmer Hogget, who was already a vegetarian, became a vegan after making it. Many children, including my granddaughter, stopped eating bacon after seeing this film… And when we remember how often the word ‘pig’ is used in such derogatory ways, it was beautiful and heart- warming that pigs were portrayed at last as the intelligent and loveable creatures that they are.

I’ve strayed a long way from aliens, but I like to think that the noble alien in ‘The Day The World Stood Still’, who came to save the planet, but not the undeserving people, would approve of this film, realising that humans are changing, that they can cherish all life, and not just our own species. (They can even give up eating bacon!)

Technology update. I discovered that my extraordinary overload of e-mails was a file I didn’t know existed, and it contained every blog I have ever received, plus every like, comment, follower, since May 2012. There were nearly ninety thousand, and I’m down to just under seventy- three thousand, deleting them in chunks of fifty which is the best ‘they’ will let me do.

Four fascinating bloggers used to send between five and twenty blogs a day each, which was one reason for the huge back-log… but now at least I know what I’m up against and try to clear between five hundred and a thousand every day … time consuming especially when a title leaps out at me, and I simply have to stop and read it. I’m back as far as December 2015, so you can imagine what a task I still face…this may explain my tardiness in sometimes getting back to you… but nil desperandum.

 

Food for threadbare gourmets

Not much in the fridge, except the makings of courgette and feta fritters, a favourite for us both. First, grate two large courgettes and put them to drain on kitchen paper. I’m using leeks at the moment instead of onions, so cut half a leek in four lengthways and chop it. Gently fry the leek in olive oil. In a large bowl mix the leeks, grated courgettes, two beaten eggs, a crumbled packet of feta (about 225 gr) two tablespoons of flour, lots of salt and pepper, and plenty of chopped parsley and fresh thyme. Drop tablespoonfuls into hot olive oil, and slightly flatten, turn when brown on one side, and then drain on kitchen paper while you cook the rest.

Sometimes I use coriander instead of parsley and thyme, sometimes nutmeg. We eat the fritters with chilli jelly or sweet chilli sauce, or beetroot relish, with salad – and hot buttered rolls for hungry people. This amount of fritters is enough for three greedy people or four reasonable people!

Food for thought

You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.        William Wilberforce who campaigned against slavery and cruelty to animals.

 

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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 – describes a rather unlovable set of qualities –  and the very 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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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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Serendipity and the Private Life of Rabbits

100_0379I don’t know what made me ask. Serendipity. A visiting friend had said his wife hadn’t come with him to see us because they had guests from overseas – a palaeontologist and partner.

Out popped the words, “Not Ronald Lockley’s son?”  I’d once been told that his son was a palaeontologist. It was, and he came, and we were a mutual admiration group for his father. Synchronistically I had just been re-reading his father’s autobiographical book ‘Orielton’. Mostly because I wanted to refresh my mind about rabbits!

Ronald Lockley was the brilliant naturalist who did the research on rabbits which was the basis for Richard Adams’ famous book: ‘Watership Down’. Richard Adams made millions out of this book which has never been out of print, while Ronald wrote over sixty five books to keep the wolf from his door!

But in ‘Orielton’ he tells not only how he organised his amazing research into the life and domestic habits of wild rabbits, but how he also gained an insight into rabbit psychology, when he adopted an injured baby rabbit. His son – the one who came to talk – helped to keep it alive overnight and then That Rabbit, or TR as she was called, became part of the household.

The household lived in a remote and rambling beautiful Georgian manor surrounded by parkland of lakes, woodland, farms and gardens in Wales. A succession of other famous naturalists, Spanish domestics and would-be students and helpers passed through it, and the family and its animals lived a rich and lively life. Ronald’s interests and observation ranged over the private life of the large spiders inhabiting his home, to the badgers, birds, bats, rabbits, hares, and stoats, otters, ants and bees ranging the estate. This house which had rung with laughter, music, wit and brilliance from the likes of Ronald and Julian Huxley and Ludwig Koch, he finally handed over to the Field Studies Council, before leaving England.

Ronald was already well known among naturalists before he published his four year study of “The Private Life of the Rabbit”, having lived on, and written about the uninhabited island of Stokkum, off the Welsh Coast. Here  from 1928, he pioneered studies of migratory birds, established the first British bird observatory in 1933, and carried out extensive pioneering research on breeding Manx Shearwaters, Atlantic Puffins and European Storm-petrels – wonderful names… In the thirties he had made an Oscar winning film on gannets with Julian Huxley, but here at Orielton it was rabbits that took up most of his attention.

That Rabbit – TR – slept in the cat basket by the fireside, and when she was awake was “excessively playful” according to Ronald. She invented a version of hide and seek which she played on the stairs with anyone who would join in, and would chew through the string of s cotton reel Ronald used to roll around for her, seize the reel in her mouth and rush off dodging through the furniture as though playing rugby, enticing Ronald to chase her. If he was busy, she’d chew through his slippers, wreck his socks, and if all else failed, leap onto his type writer and push her face into his to get his attention.

After an unfortunate incident with a stoat, Ronald devised a system of In and Out doors which closed behind TR so the stoat couldn’t chase her inside. She learned immediately how to work this system, just as she had instantly worked out how to organise her toiletry, and never messed inside.

For afternoon tea in the garden with the rest of the family, she enjoyed weak tea with milk and a little sugar … and as time went by, Ronald realised that if he had not had this relationship with TR, he would never, as he said, have understood the soul of a rabbit. Even as an adult, TR sought out his company and showed a deep attachment to him.

The end of the story came when on one of their walks together, TR encountered a young buck rabbit… and then again. She left home and set up house with one of her own kind. But this was not the end of the story.

One night when everyone was sitting round the fire they heard the In-door, and TR came hopping through. She went straight to the cat basket, and grabbed in her teeth the dolls blanket which she used to cuddle up in, and then made a dash for the Out- door.

She had remembered as she prepared her burrow for her first litter of babies, that soft warm rug by the fire-side that she had always used!

Ronald had given me ‘Orielton’, with several others of his books, and I was such an ungrateful insensitive person in my younger days that I’d never got round to reading them. Natural history just didn’t do it for me then, and I was too wrapped up in my teenagers and complicated life generally.

I used to meet him when I was delivering my weekly column to the newspaper, and Ronald was delivering his naturalist column. (no e-mail copy then!) He had come to this country to live, because he felt that the UK was not committed to looking after the environment. We loved each other, and yet when I left Auckland to live in the country, we lost touch. It makes me sad now, Ronald was never really appreciated in this country – no-one really knew or recognised  his work back then in the seventies and eighties.

But as usual he made his mark on the place. He was involved in setting up the bird sanctuary at Miranda where every year, hundreds of thousands of godwits gather to begin their stupendous flight to the other side of the world – Siberia – to breed. He also created a little protected reserve around the house on the cliff where he lived, overlooking the sea on the edge of Auckland. I still have the book he gave me about his life in that: “House Above The Sea”, as it was called.

If fame means having an obituary in the New York Times, an entry in Wikipaedia and in various biographical tomes, Ronald does have fame. But I actually feel that the words from Ecclesiasticus describe him best: “and some there be which have no memorial…. these were merciful men, whose righteousness has not been forgotten.”

Richard Adams, who made a fortune out of Ronald’s research – which he acknowledged – said of Ronald that he was a “sensitive and clear-sighted lover of this beautiful earth.” The gentle humorous man I knew was also a lover of all beauty. He died in 2000 at ninety-six, and as I wrote this, these words came into my mind: “Swim with the dolphins deep in the sea, Soar in the sky with the birds and be free…”

 

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

I needed a cake in a hurry the other day, and it was serendipitous too, because there was enough left for coffee when my expected visitors arrived the next day to talk of Ronald Lockley.

For this easy lemon cake you need 225 g each of soft butter, caster sugar and SR flour, four eggs and a lemon. Just beat the butter, sugar, eggs and grated lemon rind. When creamy, add the flour and beat gently. When blended pour into a medium sized greased and floured loaf tin and bake for fifty minutes at 160 deg C. I make a glaze of the juice of the lemon, a tablesp of caster sugar, and a teasp of butter. Melt and stir together and brush over the loaf when cooked.

 

Food for Thought

In a Bath Teashop

“Let us not speak, for the love we bear one another –

Let us hold hands and look.”

She, such a very ordinary little woman;

He, such a thumping crook;

But both, for a moment, little lower than the angels

In the teashop’s ingle-nook.

John Betjeman  1906 -1984  Much loved and much read Poet Laureate, and eccentric. As an under-graduate he took his teddy-bear Archibald Ormsby-Gore to Oxford with him, which was immortalised in the book: ‘ Brideshead Revisited’  by Evelyn Waugh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The mystery of other lives

 
100_0207

Not a picture of hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil, but a picture of the three fat wood pigeons sitting on the power line outside our house yesterday.

They used to be plentiful, but between the Maoris and the settlers they nearly became extinct. They’re now protected, and their numbers are increasing. The Maoris call them kereru, we call them wood pigeons. They are precious to us.

This morning, waiting for the kettle to boil while I made a cup of tea to take back to bed, I stood at the bench looking out of the kitchen window, and watched one of these pigeons in the guava tree. As he swallowed the guavas whole, they travelled down his throat and then the lump disappeared into his white curving bosom.

I was fascinated to see how this big heavy unwieldy bird kept his balance on the thin frail branches. He moved from fruit to fruit, gobbling them up, without ever looking or checking to see where his feet/ claws were going to find a secure foothold. The feet moved with an intelligence of their own. Once, the twig bent so much, the bird keeled over, and his wings flapped open to hold him, as his feet found a better foothold. Enough being enough, he whirred heavily out of the little tree shortly after, and lumbered off. The tangy red guava berries are small and sour this year, with no rain to swell them, so I’m leaving them all for the birds.

I took the tea-tray back to bed, and lay back on the pillows looking out of the window on the other side of the house. The loquat tree, just beyond the window, which is covered in blossom, was rustling and shuddering. A turquoise and black tui was enjoying the blossom, seeking the honey, long beak pushing aggressively into the flowers, and plunging from one bough to another, with the same sure-footedness as the wood pigeon.

As I watched this bird, with his bright white bobble of feathers jiggling at his throat, which caused the early settlers to call him the parson – bird, I felt I was watching something familiar, and then I remembered. As the tui sucked the honey, his tail waggled back and forth in an ecstasy of concentration, just like the tails of lambs when they are suckling their mothers in the fields.

During the nightas I turned over in my sleep, I heard a morepork, the New Zealand owl calling, very close; later, the huffing of a possum in the loquat tree, which sounds like the hissing of a python and what I feared were rats rustling in the roof above. I hoped the hedgehog I found yesterday was on the move in the garden drinking, eating and making merry by the ivy. I seemed to be inhabiting a corner of the universe where other creatures were getting on with their lives oblivious of homo sapiens.

When I drove through the little hamlet at the edge of the sea on my way to shop the other day, I slowed down when I saw a couple of ducks crossing the road. I stopped a good fifty yards away from them, so they wouldn’t feel hassled, and was tickled to find them being followed by at least another twenty waddling, feathered bodies. When I slowly drove past the drive where they had all disappeared, I saw there was a feijoa tree hanging over the fence, and the ground was covered in the fallen green fruit.

The ducks were feasting… how did they know the fruit was there, that this drive was the only way to get at it, and that this is the time of year for fallen fruits? Their intelligence is of a different order to ours, and it works for them. It being the beginning of the duck shooting season in a few more weeks, they will soon all congregate on ponds they know are safe from hunters, in city parks like the duck pond in the Auckland Domain….

And on the way home I dodged a quail family scuttling along the side of the road with half a dozen speckled brown babies. In our last house, I once looked out of the window and saw a veritable army of quails advancing down the drive… eleven to be precise, four adults and seven tiny powder puffs on wheels. They all scattered over the lawn, while the four adults stood one at each corner, with their backs to their babies, guarding them.. When the babies had finished, the adults marshalled them, and moved off, with one adult bringing up the rear, and keeping the stragglers in order. An exquisite example of responsibility, co-operation and parental love.

Henry Beston wrote in ‘The Outermost House’:  ‘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 extension 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 prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.’

And philosopher Ken Wilbur writes that: ‘Every single thing you perceive is the radiance of Spirit itself, so much so that Spirit is not seen apart from that thing: the robin sings, and just that is it, nothing else…’

And so as I catch in a glass the bumble bee which has just blundered into the house, and is buzzing angrily at the window, I release it outside, sending it on its way with a blessing, knowing that we are all fellow travellers and all connected by Spirit.

 Food for thought

This prayer of St Francis is dedicated to America with love – and to the world – since we are all one…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

St Francis is the patron saint of animals. He lived from  ADe l,ived fromH1181 to AD1226

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