April 25, 2013
Today, I began the process of making linden bast. “What is that?” you may ask, or indeed, you may already know. Bast are strips of fibre made from the inner bark of the lime tree that can be woven into cordage, clothing or shoes and have been used for thousands of years for such purposes.
The lime avenue to our village church was recently pollarded. Pollarding is when branches above head height (or sometimes above the height of grazing animals) are cut off reducing the crown, rather like coppicing but higher. The branches will re-grow until the next pollarding. It is a way of reducing upward expansion or of creating a sustainable harvest for firewood, animal fodder or other uses. Unfortunately, this was simply destined for the bonfire. I took my folding saw to the pile of brash and removed all the smooth straight, thicker stems in lengths of about 2m to 1m.
When I got it home, the next step was to remove the bark. I found that the best way to do this was to split the stem near the edge and deliberately break the wood causing it to run to the bark – the last thing one would normally want in a splitting process, but it was the bark that I was after. I was then able to peel the bark off in long straight strips. By flexing the it back the other way I could remove any wood that was clinging to it.
This is a process for spring at the earliest and one that works even better in May and June when the tree gets very sappy – it is said to almost peel itself. The names lime or linden, are derived from old European roots, particularly the Anglo-Saxon word lithe, meaning pliant and the Swedish linda, meaning a band. Tree names were descriptive – thus the linden tree is the tree that provides bands.
Having acquired a good quantity of nice flexible bark the next stage is to macerate (soak it in water to start decay) it for some time. The process may take up to six weeks. I am using our rain barrel. During the process scum forms on the water and a bit of a (not too unpleasant) smell develops. This will wash out later. Flowing water works better but you will need something like a net bag to contain the bark and a weight to hold it down and something to tie it all to. The water butt refreshes when it rains as surface water overflows and drains away. And there is no shortage of rain.
When the process has run its course, I’ll take you through the next stages to the end result. Give it a go, if you get a chance. And stick with it. Lime bast is one of the most pleasing materials in nature.
February 8, 2012
The latest snowfall, mainly over eastern England, differed from snow events of recent winters. Did you notice, for instance, that the snowflakes were thin needles rather than the hexagonal star-like plates? Snowflakes come in a variety of shapes, depending on the temperature at their genesis and where they were formed. Stellar dendrites (starry and plantlike) – the most popular form of snowflake – are grown in temperatures from about freezing to – 4°C. Needles, on the other hand, crystallise in temperatures around -5°C and descend from mid-level clouds (e.g. Altocumulus). At -5.5°C, hollow columns are formed and at -12°C flakes start forming again. The best part is, no-one knows exactly why.
The snow was deep (around 18cm) in my neck of the woods and took an imprint well. Unfortunately, because it descended throughout the night, by dawn it had obscured the activity of most of the nocturnal animals that bothered to venture out.
A pheasant, however, had been roosting in the big tree above the gateway in the photograph and it’s descent in the morning was beautifully captured by the snow. The fan and sweep of the cock bird’s tail is perfectly preserved, as is the random meander away. The only thing missing is the racket he makes, but I’ve heard that often enough, thanks.
Diurnal creatures – birds, squirrels and the odd fox left their mark on the first day but after a night of lying snow the ground the following morning was criss-crossed with trails. The fox trots in deeper snow with his body at an angle in a peculiar form of dressage, so that his tracks form a single line. If you look carefully you can see where the sweep of a foot joins up alternate tracks on the left and the right.
The back foot of each side lands in the spot where the front foot of the same side fell. At my place of work, a visitor wondered ‘what one-legged animal’ had made such trail.
The fox steps daintily, as always, while the low-slung badger goes through seven inches of snow like a snow-plough. Look closely and you can see the longer heel of the badger’s hindfoot as it too lands where the front paw was a moment before.
There is so much study in just one night’s activity, I have spent entire days from first light to dusk following the trails of animals and birds. This hunting fox is a typical example of recapturing the previous night’s play.
Why hunting? Because of the slow gait, frequent pauses and points where it turns around sniffing for food under the snow.
How can I tell what it is doing? Look carefully at the snow and notice the soft imprint of a nose.
October 31, 2011
Sunday October 30th
The prospects for finding fungi had improved over the previous week with the arrival of the damp but mild weather. Two of us had recently had successful outings; Mafro harvested Field Mushrooms – Agaricus campestris and the previous night I had dined on Shaggy Ink-caps – Coprinus comatus. Both of these are open grassland species and, as it turned out, down in Dering Woods there was still insufficient ground moisture to kick-start a serious fungal recovery.
This was partly evidenced by the lack of ectomycorrhizal fungi, the ones in beneficial association with trees. The mycelia join up with the tree root systems and as such are found further down beneath the soil. Mushrooms such as Boletes, Russulas (Brittlegills) and Amanitas are of this kind. When you pick the fruit-bodies (remember this is what a mushroom or toadstool is – the fruit-body of an underground organism)you have to dig your fingers into the soil to gently free the base, as many are relatively deep rooting.
We found three representatives of this kind; Fly Agaric – Amanita muscaria, Common Yellow (or Ochre) Russula (or Brittlegill) – Russula ochroleuca and a solitary Brown Roll-rim – Paxillus involutus. The latter is curious because despite having gills it is closely related to the spongy-pored Boletes. Close examination of our specimen revealed the gills becoming tube-like where they ran down the stem.
It is also noteworthy because it was historically widely eaten until it was discovered to contain a cumulative toxin – an antigen, in fact – that, once tip-over point is reached, causes a person’s immune system to turn against them and fatally destroys their red blood cells. This can even happen a year after eating the mushroom with no ill-effects, upon eating a second meal. In parts of Eastern Europe, apparently, some people still gamble their lives with this one.
The rest were mainly saprobic types, either deriving their nourishment from decaying wood or leaf-litter, apart from the destructive Honey Fungus – Armillaria mellea, which attacks living trees. Many, but not all, were LBJs – Little Brown Jobs, originally a birding term, meaning obscure and hard to identify, in this case small fungi with many similar species that require microscopic examination to separate. However, after lunch, our basket provided a challenge for the different levels of experience within our group – to sort them into Genera based on their shared or differing macro-characteristics. I was impressed by how well everyone did.
Early steps in the right direction are the ability to recognise a fungus in all stages in its development from immature to over-mature and to differentiate a mushroom that has turned funnel shaped with age like an umbrella blown inside-out by the wind, from a species that is naturally a funnel shape with decurrent gills (those that run down the stem).
Whilst out and about we encountered several interesting animal field-signs. The burrow of a Brown Rat, Rattus norvegicus, is more often in a slight rise or bank than the one pictured, with a characteristic fan of earth outside the entrance. This one was a bit more sprawling and less neat than usual with a very distinct digging channel.
Carol led us to a Hornet’s nest that she had found earlier in the year. It was no longer occupied and something – probably a squirrel, or possibly a woodpecker – had opened up the lower levels and emptied the queen cells of any remaining larvae. Nature’s interactions are absolutely fascinating.
Back on the farm, and in the middle of a field, something similar had happened with this wasp nest, only the culprit was most definitely a Badger – Meles meles. With their good sense of smell they can sniff out and with their powerful claws, dig out a wasp nest quite easily. Certainly they attack at night and the wasps will be disorientated in the dark, nonetheless, you’d expect a badger to take quite a few stings, especially around the head and mouth where the fur is thinner. Also, when they devour the plump, nutritious grubs they are bound to ingest adults and indeed, may do so deliberately, in which case they must get stung inside the mouth. Perhaps they are immune, or simply don’t care? I’d love to watch the actual scenario play out, having seen the evidence many times.
Despite the afternoon wearing on and the light beginning to fade, a last wander produced more surprises and delights. The adjacent arable field turned out to be overflowing with wild Field Mushrooms – Agaricus campestris, so that everyone who wanted some took home a basketful – or a hatful.
Even more thrilling for me was the fact that the dominant weed of the field was an obscure plant called Sharp-leaved Fluellen – Kickxia elatine, a plant that I had not seen for over 20 years! As if that were not enough, to my absolute delight, a companion plant in the same field turned out to be Round-leaved Fluellen – Kickxia spuria, a species new to me. These plants seem to have the ability to lie dormant as seeds for some time. They can disappear and reappear years later if conditions become right and the seed bank is disturbed. Both are members of the Toadflax family (note the little snapdragon-like flowers) and are by no means common, occurring, as on this occasion, in little local pockets, on cultivated land, though widely distributed across southern England. They are archaeophytes, meaning they were anciently introduced to this country. During the Middle Ages the bitter juice was used as an astringent and K. elatine as a medicine for skin disorders. Like many other important plants they suffered from the over-use of pesticides, but perhaps the maize crop that had previously been harvested was organically produced.
Bad light stopped play. This was too brief a visit for re-acquaintance or a first encounter. The shared feeling was come back as soon as we can.
December 1, 2010
It’s a popular misconception that squirrels hibernate. What would be the point of all that food caching in the autumn if the squirrel then goes and sleeps through the winter? If it is really cold, like at the moment, the animal can stay snug and warm in its drey and venture out only when it is hungry, should it so choose. That might mean a couple of days without putting in an appearance.
Squirrels are good animals to track in the snow. Their footprints are easy to recognise, if snow conditions are kind – and blowing or fresh-falling snow, like many of us are currently experiencing , are not helpful. I was lucky enough to chance upon these very fresh. Squirrel hind feet usually land ahead of the front feet because of the bounding hop that the animal employs to get round. Their soles are naked (unlike ,say, a stoat or a fox, which have hairy pads), so toes tend to be distinct, as are their lumpy pads. The squirrel has no ‘thumb’, just a fleshy lump, and thus forefoot tracks show only four toes while the back show five. The three middle toes of the hindfoot are all of equal length.
In the snow they usually move with a purpose, and that is to find food. This one was travelling fast with distances between bounds of over a metre (twice its body and tail length combined). It then slowed and hopped to a particular spot where it dug down and retrieved a buried hazel nut. It is possible to see the impression of the nut in the soil because the squirrel lifts it with its teeth, not by scooping it up with its fingers.
But how did it find it under the snow?
It was long believed that squirrels sniffed out their scatter-hoarded nuts. They have a good sense of smell and it can be quite apparent on observing a squirrel under normal foraging conditions that they are using their noses to find hidden food. Conversely, it has long been known that hoarding birds like the Jay, which have no sense of smell, have an area of the brain especially to remember where they hid stuff. We have a small ability in that area but bird and rodent have to remember thousands of spots over the winter and following spring. Part of the bird’s brain (the hippocampus) actually expands in the autumn to accommodate all the extra data it will need to pack in, but because the squirrel’s brain does not obviously do this, scientists have been reluctant to acknowledge that squirrels have a similar ability.
Several times over the years, in lying snow I have seen clear circumstantial evidence that the squirrel carries a map of its treasures in its head. Trails leading unerringly to a spot in a wood or field and then a single dig, with the tell-tale impression of a nut in the hole, sometimes with a split shell resting on top of the snow, indicating success. The depth of snow seems to rule out sense of smell being used in this case – and there are no ‘snuffle’ marks or nose impressions leading up to the spot.
Science has finally caught up with common sense. Researchers in University of California, Berkeley have concluded that as well as their sense of smell, ”They use information from the environment, such as the relative position of trees and buildings, and they triangulate, relying on the angles and distances between these distant landmarks and their caches.”
The multi-talented squirrel is understandably a bit paranoid about his neighbours stealing his food. If it were all in one spot he could lose it in one go, which is why he scatter-hoards it. Some pilfering does go on, with another squirrel’s nut sniffed out by chance, here and there – but definitely not in the snow.
August 2, 2010
Just the name is enough to send chills down your spine. Shame that it is usually misapplied to two other species, one whose berries are only mildly toxic – Woody Nightshade or Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) and one whose berries are actually edible, when ripe – the Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum).
Perhaps it is just as well that our parents and grandparents brought us up in a climate of fear about berries? As children, our ability to differentiate between similar things, without training, is limited by our attention span, experience etc. so if our family could not provide the necessary knowledge, better to leave it until we can acquire it for ourselves. For me, that time is now.
Bittersweet is a sprawling, straggly plant with dark green oval and halberd-shaped leaves that may be found in woods, ditches, waste ground and the seashore. It is more easily spotted by its clusters of scarlet egg-shaped fruits that are reminiscent of tiny plum tomatoes, with good reason – tomato belongs to the nightshade family – than by the strongly reflexed purple flowers, whose yellow anthers project forward in a cone. As a kid, I was always taught that this was Deadly Nightshade – and that it is ‘deadly’ therefore – and it seems that that is what most people believe, including medical practitioners. In the United States at least, children are routinely dosed with a strong emetic as a precaution, if they swallow even a small amount of Bittersweet berries. Recent tests have shown that the ripe fruits contain very little solanine (the poison), while unripe berries contain more. However, the dark green unripe fruits are not only unappealing to a child’s eye but are also quite inconspicuous and so are rarely ingested. Research suggests it would take over 200 fruits to make a dangerous dose!
Black Nightshade looks like a small potato plant that has gone to flower, with good reason – potato is a member of the nightshade family! The blossoms of both are similar to the Bittersweet, except the petals are white not purple. Solanum nigrum turns up on waste ground, cultivated soil and farmland and can tolerate quite dry conditions. Both the young shoots (boiled in a change of water) and the ripe, black berries are extensively eaten around the world, especially in Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East – but also traditionally in the United States both by Native Americans and settlers. Over here it was long believed to be poisonous and mistakenly called ‘deadly’. The unripe fruits are toxic and should not be eaten.
The real Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is a relatively rare plant, found in scrub, open woods and rocky places on chalk or limestone. Its growth habit is as a small spreading upright shrub that is actually quite hard to spot. I think it has a strange beauty; rather lurid purple tube-like flowers and incredibly attractive shiny black (or green when unripe) berries that resemble black cherries held within a large star-shaped bract. And they are truly deadly, just half a berry being enough, in some instances. The poisonous principle is called atropine and the effects are very different from solanum nightshades.
“Numerous cases are on record of the poisonous effects of this plant when taken by mistake for some other, or administered designedly, producing pain in the head, restlessness, dimness of vision, dilitation of the pupils, and subsequent loss of sight, dryness of the throat, delirium, coma, and sometimes convulsions. The delirium is not always present, and is mostly of the pleasing kind, with constant and immoderate laughter, talking continually, but generally on lively subjects. The muscles of the eyeballs are sometimes spasmodically contracted, as well as the muscles of deglutition, especially when anything is attempted to be swallowed. At other times the effect produced resembles somnambulism, as occurred in the instance of a tailor, who was poisoned with an injection of the infusion of bella-donna, and who for fifteen hours, though speechless and insensible to external objects, went through all the usual operations of his trade with much vivacity, and moved his lips as if in conversation.”
From FLORIGRAPHIA BRITANNICA; RICHARD DEAKIN, M.D., 1857.