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.
December 11, 2011
Recent nights have brought forth two stunning lunar haloes.
The one on the10th December was one of the most intense I have ever seen and it surrounded the full moon. Naturally, the one two days previously could not match it as the moon was two days less full.
In both cases a weather front was involved. On the 8th a front that brought severe gales and torrential rain had recently passed through and the Cirrostratus was trailing behind. On the 10th the Cirrostratus was a precursor of rain the following morning, even though the night had started intensely frosty.
Such 22 degree radius haloes are formed by moonlight, in this case, but more often sunlight, passing through hexagonal ice crystals in cold high Cirrus or Cirrostratus cloud. The tiny ice crystals are tumbling randomly in the cloud but there are enough of them with their axes roughly perpendicular to the direction of the light so that when light rays enter these prisms through a side face and leave through another tilted 60 degrees to the first they are refracted 22° or more. The little glints, all connected up, form a ring and that is why the halo starts at that distance from the sun or moon and is diffuse but bright beyond that radius with a darker hole within – albeit one with a bright light source! No sparkles from the refracted light are turned into the middle – there are just direct rays from the light source itself.
Two people see the glints from different but suitably orientated crystals to each other, so your halo was not the same as mine. What’s more, a halo only exists if something is there to see it. It is the result of a collection of light rays travelling in particular directions that can only be captured by a receiving lens into which the rays converge. That lens may be in an eye or in a camera – but if a lens is not present, neither is the halo…
March 7, 2011
Cockles are well known edible marine clams that can be found around most of the UK coastline in sandy bays and estuaries. The unmistakeable globular shells, which have been much used decoratively, are thick are deeply ribbed and from the side, attractively heart-shaped.
Cockles are filter feeders. They are not as mobile as some bivalves and as a consequence choose to inhabit the top 5 cm of surface of sediments. They can be abundant where they have not been over-fished by commercial dredgers. Population densities of 10,000 per square metre have been recorded. If harvested sustainably, therefore, cockles are a great food resource for shorebirds and shore-folk alike.
In the last year or so, the cockle beds on the south coast of Kent have had a huge settling of spat (baby cockles), which should go a long way to sustaining the population.
However, the mortality rate is very high and in the early winter tens of thousands of young and mature cockles were killed by severe frosts affecting exposed animals between tides.
The traditional method of harvesting them (for a living) is to use a wooden rake but to find enough to make a meal for a couple of people can take little effort and a lazy hour of time. Many estuary stocks are protected or have associated trigging (cockling) rights, so make sure you gather some local knowledge beforehand. An ebb tide is good. As the tide recedes cockles are often left stranded and exposed, washed out of any slight rise in the shore.
Given time, many will pull themselves below the surface using their muscular foot, or they may just tough it out on the surface for 12 hours.
Birds will find them and so will people.
Your haul will almost certainly need de-gritting. If left overnight in a bucket of sea water that is not too deep and with a large surface area, the cockles will spit out most of the sand they have taken in.
Cooking is easy; boiling water for about 5 minutes, until most of the cockles open. If some don’t or open only partially, discard them. Fresh cockles are delicious with crusty bread, especially if a generous glass of white wine and a knob of butter is added to the cooking water, but they can also form an ingredient of any number of seafood dishes.
Cockles and Carragheen with lemon, peppers and ginger over long pasta
Cockles – approx.1.25 kilos in their shells, 140g without
50ml white wine or mirin
1 litre water
Boil the cockles in fresh water and wine in a saucepan, with a knob of butter until they are all open (about 4-5 minutes). Drain immediately and remove the meat from the shells. Set aside in a small dish. Reserve 350-500ml of the liquid they were cooked in. Strain out any grit.
Ingredients; (for the sauce)
¾ red pepper
½ – ¾ yellow pepper
75g fresh tomato
2cm fresh ginger root
1 medium onion
1 small, hot chilli
140g freshly cooked cockles (see above)
10g of dried Carragheen (reconstituted)
1 tablespoon Demerara sugar
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
¼ lemon, thinly sliced
25g butter + vegetable oil
230g Fusilli Bucati Lunghi or Linguini or Spaghetti
Heat butter and oil in frying pan. Chop up all the fresh ingredients. First add onion to pan over high heat, add sugar to caramelise for 1 minute. Add teaspoon white wine vinegar. Then add peppers and chilli; cook for further 2-3 minutes. Add the tomato and cook for 1 more minute. Add lemon, ginger, but only half the Ramsons. Pour over about 350ml of the cockle water and throw in the Caragheen. Stir in the ingredients and simmer for 10 minutes to allow the seaweed to thicken the sauce while the pasta cooks. Add the fish sauce at this stage and season.
Rinse the cooked cockles and add to the pan, along with the rest of the Ramsons, 2 minutes before the end. Do not overcook the cockles.
Drain the pasta serve and pour on the sauce. 2 portions
If you fancy some practical cockling experience come and join us on our shrimping and sandy shore foraging course at Greatstone on Sea on Saturday April 9th. Look at the courses page for details.
December 19, 2010
Eclipses seem to be like proverbial London buses. You know, you wait for ages for one, then three come along together.
Well that is how it is right now. The first is a lunar eclipse, when the full moon passes into the Earth’s shadow, on the morning of December 21st, which also happens to be the solstice. Winter Solstice lunar eclipses are rare. The last one was in 1638 and the next will be in 2094.
The penumbra (an area of half shadow) will begin to pass over the moon from 05.29 but there will probably be little observable difference (perhaps a slight dimming) for about an hour. After this time, at about 06.32 Universal Time (equivalent to Greenwich Mean Time, to which our clocks are currently set) the moon moves into the Earth’s solid shadow and will slowly start to be eclipsed, at first with black and then with the blue of the lightening sky. The ancient Norsemen believed that the moon was perpetually pursued by a giant supernatural wolf, Hati, whose intention was to devour her and who, from time to time, would almost succeed.
The moon will be quite well eclipsed when it sets from our vantage point, at about 08.11 from Britain. Subject to clear skies it should prove a fascinating spectacle. The moon can be safely viewed with the naked eye or through binoculars and should photograph well with a digital camera, especially if mounted on a tripod. Manual settings, rather than automatic, work best. Perhaps we should also go out and bang drums and shout to scare the wolf away? Given the hour, though, one’s neighbours might not appreciate the sentiment or the din.
America gets to see full totality on this occasion.
There will be another lunar eclipse on June 15th, 2011 and that one will be already underway at moonrise. After that there will be nothing worthwhile from this part of the planet until a total lunar eclipse in April 2015.
Early in the new year a partial eclipse of the sun occurs. If we are fortunate enough to have cloudless skies on January 4th 2011, the disc of the moon will already have taken a bite out of the sun’s face at sunrise (08.06). It will be missing a portion for approximately the next couple of hours but the sun’s nemesis, the great wolf of Norse myth, Skol, will not succeed in devouring it all.
To observe this eclipse do not look directly at the sun! It is possible, by pointing binoculars in the direction of the sun (without looking through them!) to project the image of the sun onto white card. A square of card around one eyepiece will cast enough shadow to provide a darker backdrop to the sun’s bright disc and the normal focus wheel of the binoculars can be used to sharpen the image.
2 more solar eclipses in 2011, one on June 1st and the other on November 25th will not be visible from the UK. For the next eclipse of the sun visible from Britain we must wait until March 2015!