Tag Archives: Beatrix Potter

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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Summer Days and Thirsty Hedgehogs

It’s high summer in our village, the sea is postcard turquoise blue, and scored with white wakes from little fizz boats having fun. I watch the big game fishing boats with tourists going out with tall fishing rods at the ready, poised to hunt giant marlin and other innocent creatures of the deep – and disapprove. All around me holiday houses are filled, and laughter and calls of children punctuate the buzz of lawnmowers.

Yesterday a homemade cricket match with children and adults on the grass across from our oak tree, filled the afternoon with joyful noise. The click of ball on bat, the shouts, the laughter, the groans, the cheers, the guffaws sounded like the archetypical holiday games of childhood that fertilise the memory, so that looking back in later years, all summers seemed sunny and filled with laughter.

This morning I sat outside in the sun having my breakfast, and watched monarch butterflies flirting, fluttering and feeding among the pink flowers of the mutabilis rose and lavatera, and rose-red cannas. Reading Anne Dillard I learn that monarch butterflies smell of honeysuckle… do they really, or was honeysuckle the last flower they’d been sampling when the researcher sniffed their beauty? The other side of the garden where it’s shady, blue hydrangeas are blooming amidst the foliage of acanthus and queen of the night, the blue African primrose is flowering profusely on the edge of the ivy, while blue agapanthus spring out of the greenery further away.

Pale blue petunias echo the colour of the faded painted wrought iron chair on which their pots rest. A tiny green silver eye dived determinedly past me and into the trellis where wisteria, honeysuckle and red and purple fuchsia tangle with each other. He rustled noisily and industriously among the leaves, eating aphids or grubs, and then flew into the plum tree and wiped his beak on a branch… didn’t realise that eating aphids was a messy business for birds!

And now, as I write this, a speckled cream-breasted thrush has just quietly hopped past the open French door, followed closely by a bumble- bee, buzzing and bouncing along the ground in an irritated sort of way. Ever since I got home from Tai Chi the neighbour’s black cat has been purring, first at my feet, then on my lap, and now on the chair beside my chair. What with the gentle susurrations of the wind in the flax bushes and the pururi leaves, the whirring and clicking of cicadas in the trees outside the window, and the receding low-tide sighing softly across the exposed sea-weed – though there is no sound of spoken word – it is not a silent world this afternoon. And since every sound is the sound of the earth getting on with the business of being, it is sweet and satisfying.

The wind which has blown across the Tasman from the terrible forest fires in Australia, has been unceasing, and the ground is dry and hard. Ponds are drying up, and birds are spending much time not just at the bird bath, but also at the dog’s drinking bowl outside on the road. Thirsty birds as well as dogs keep me busy re-filling it.  Yesterday when I went up the path with a jug to top it up, someone had dropped three one dollar coins in the bowl. I love it  – a random act of fun – and yet obviously my bowl is very tempting because it’s the fourth time in the last few years that I’ve found coins in the water!

I’ve heard several people talking about finding hedgehogs in their swimming pools, unable to get out… they don’t seem to realise that they’re looking for water. As I drove back down our road after shopping the other day, I saw a hedgehog weaving an unsteady path across the road. I stopped the car, jumped out, and picked up the little ball of prickles, and carried it home. As I delicately carried her, so as not to be impaled on the prickles, she uncurled, and I felt her warm leathery legs hang down. I stood her in the flat water bowl in the garden, so she knew in her confused state that water was right there. I left her there drinking, while I walked back to retrieve the car.

She’d shuffled off (into the piles of dead leaves, I trust) when I got back, but I’m putting out cat-food, in the hope the hedgehog gets to it before any other wild-life – like rats. I’ve also now got shallow plant pot holders all over the garden filled with water for little creatures. I hope the little thing sticks around…I like the thought of a hedgehog in the garden.

They are amongst the oldest mammals, fifteen million years old. They have between five and six and a half thousand prickles, and beautiful quizzical little faces framed by their prickles. Anyone who grew up on Beatrix Potter is unable to resist them – shades of Mrs Tiggywinkle and Fuzzypeg –  there are hedgehog hospitals in the UK, and patrols to rescue hedgehogs trapped at the bottom of cattle grids. Conservationists in this country don’t like them as they eat native birds eggs as well as all the garden pests. I am a one- woman Society for the Protection of Hedgehogs.

I found a pair of snails crawling up a big deep bowl of water I always have in the courtyard, and to my amazement, found them at the water’s edge some time later. Wasps also drink from the dog’s water bowl. With streams and ponds covered over in towns and cities, there’s little water for thirsty creatures. A hundred and fifty years ago, an English millionairesse and philanthropist, Angela Burdett-Coutts donated horse troughs and  fountains for animals in English towns … but if anyone tried to do the same now, I could imagine the red tape and town planning regulations and resource management restrictions preventing anyone from re-instating drinking places for thirsty animals.

When I lived in town I always had a drinking bowl on the pavement outside my gate. It was a big deep blue and white china bowl I’d brought from Hong Kong, and everyone told me I was mad, it would get stolen as all the students on their way to lectures, and cleaners on their way to hospital trailed past our house. But it never was, and even late at night I’d see cats drinking from my bowl, the only water around.

When we moved I asked the doctor who bought the house if he’d keep it filled if I left it there. He promised, but when I met him six months later and checked that he was still filling it, he told me it had been stolen two days after we left!

Here in my village, everyone respects my drinking bowl, except the birds who bath in it, so I’m always changing the water because it gets so dirty. Who knew that birds were so dusty! I see dogs straining at the lead to get to it – they know it’s waiting for them. And being a village, people stop to talk to me sitting in my garden, and thank me for the water. And then there are the ones who drop coins in it – I hope they make a wish as they do!

Food for Threadbare Gourmets

This is a lovely summer starter, and cheap withal! I’ve used it since I was a very new wife fifty years ago, so you could say it’s stood the test of time! You need one orange per person and some black olives. Peel it so that all the pith has been removed, cut it in half, and then slice thinly across, keeping the juice, and taking out the centre line of pith.

Arrange the slices in individual dishes, dot with olives and then pour this vinaigrette over. For the vinaigrette peel and finely chop an onion, chop two to three tablesps of mint, and one of parsley, and make up the vinaigrette – one third wine vinegar, two thirds olive oil. Mix all the ingredients together, and add salt and black pepper to taste. I add any orange juice that has run out, and only pour the vinaigrette over the oranges just before serving.

It’s summery and refreshing, and the mint and onion with the orange is tangy and different.The oranges and black olives and green mint look beautiful too.

Food for Thought

Education is identical with helping the child realise his potentialities. The opposite of education is manipulation, which is based on the absence of faith in the growth of potentialities, and on the conviction that a child will be right only if the adults put into him what is desirable and suppress what seems to be undesirable.

From The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm  1900 – 1980 social psychologist, philosopher and writer.

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