Monday, February 28, 2011

Frogs and trees, but not tree frogs

When I look out of the bedroom window there appears to be a minor earthquake in the Haggard - the water in the pond is swilling about even though there's no wind. There are waves and swirls and wide wide ripples.

It's the frogs, of course, and this is very mild activity to what will come over the next couple of weeks as the head count goes up (literally - that's all you can see of them from a distance) and efforts to mate become more frantic. From the courtyard there is a steady purring sound, rhythmic, soothing. If you manage to get close up without the frogs diving for cover you can see the cheeks of the males puffing out as they produce this astonishing, endless sound.


Other spring activities - we've been cutting things back. Joe has been busy with the chainsaw over the last few weeks, cutting down a few ash trees for fuel. They'll grow again of course, ready for another cut in seven or eight years time. And yesterday we had a couple of tree cutting men up to take down a full-grown sycamore. Joe has been talking about knocking this one for a while, but I resisted. It's a mature tree, standing proud beside the beautiful copper beech in the Grove.

It's what I look out at from my kitchen window, and have thought of it as one of two guardians. However, I finally came round to the idea over the winter months. It blocked a lot of light, it's 'only' a sycamore (not a native tree) and it gets black spot on its leaves in late summer every year. Beyond is another copper beech, the growth of which is limited by this sycamore. In summer it blocks the late evening sunlight. We would be lit up for much longer on the terrace and in the kitchen if it wasn't there.

So down it came. I couldn't look at first, felt guilty, saw the branches had been full of lichen - the beardy type that only grows in places without air pollution. On the walk afterwards I became obsessed with looking for trees with this bearded lichen, then Googled it. The Latin name is Usnea, and it has many uses I hadn't realised. It's a medicinal plant, having antibiotic and antifungal qualities - it was useful for treating wounds before the days of antibiotics, its hairlike fibres acting as a form of gauze.

We do have other lichened trees - the old apples in the Haggard and the oaks bordering the field beyond. There are others on the surrounding land and up the road towards Jones's.

I've also done some planting. One of the men who came to cut the tree has a small nursery on the other side of Tuamgraney, and just before he left he offered me a bunch of bare-rooted whitethorns. That morning I'd been thinking about getting some whitethorns for the 'hedge' I'm growing along the fence that runs along the Rough Side. I knew I hadn't much time left - bare-rooted stock has to go in before the end of February (or thereabouts) while the plants are still dormant. I probably wouldn't have got round to it. So in they went. Eleven new native trees. Guilt lessened. A bit.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sparrowhawk dinner

The sparrowhawk just whooshed around the bird table again. I'm fairly sure it was a female, big and slate grey, although according to my bird book it's the smaller male that usually takes tits and finches. That's the second time this week. It happened so fast it was difficult to see if she got anything.

I think she left empty-clawed when she called on Tuesday - walking up the track with the dogs a while later there was a pile of feathers on the verge that looked freshly plucked. I'm pretty sure it was the remains of a woodcock - the feathers are distinctive, and its the only bird we regularly get around here with this type of stripe.

The woodcock is one of those birds with astonishing camouflage. I see them at dusk flying up from the edge of the forestry. They look very angular in flight, and make a big clattery fuss of it, zigzagging away.

Here's a photo of one in a pile of leaves. You could tread on it if it kept quite still.

I called at the Irish Seed Savers Association yesterday to pick up my order of seeds and potatoes - members can pick five packets of seeds and one sowing of potatoes. I'm trying some new varieties this year. There's an old rare heritage parsnip called Bedford Monarch, a turnip (Tipperary Turnip), Mexican Midget tomato, which doesn't sound local, and Yerevan Parsley which definitely isn't local. It says on the packet that the original seeds were brought back from an Armenian market place.

The potatoes are first earlies and are an old English variety - Sharpe's Express. I also got some garlic, one I've had before called Lautrec. A few years ago I bought a selection of garlics from the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm, and this was one of theirs that did well. Last year, however, it was poor, so I needed to replace my stock. Apparently French gourmands class it as the best tasting of all French garlic, and they should know. Not sure why the Seed Savers have it though, as it's widely available.

The Seed Savers buildings and gardens are in the middle of the Clare countryside just outside Scarriff, accessed by a tiny lane. As I was leaving the  building in the lashing rain there was a Rolls Royce stopped outside the door (not parked in the designated parking place note). It was an 08 Dublin registration, and seemed full of people peering out through the wetness. Back in my car I sat and ate my occasional addiction - a dark chocolate-covered marzipan bar - while waiting for the reappearance of the car. I was intrigued. What could it be doing in a place like this?

It didn't reappear, so it wasn't one of those mistaken drives around the countryside looking for something to do. Had it not been lashing I'd have gone back up to be nosey.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ponies in the mist

The ponies are back. This time they're in the fields below the house - a network of many acres that goes down to the Assness, a river that on the maps is called the Corra but that everyone round here calls this different, local, name. I think it refers to the many fabulous waterfalls on the stretch of river.

The ponies have been there for a few days now, reappearing up near the house every so often then disappearing down the fields again. I'm happy to see them. They're half wild and it must be tough in a winter like we've had with no extra feed. I'm intrigued as to how they broke in. Our neighbour keeps his fences well mended, and they certainly didn't come up the track to our house like the last time. Clever creatures, ponies, much brighter than most of their bigger horse cousins.

Yesterday one of the ponies was half lost in mist as I set out with the dogs. The valley had been full of fluffy white cloud early in the morning - a typical winter state where we feel aloft as though in an aircraft high above Out There. As we left the house the garden was filling with a soft mist. A deer bounded away across the field above the house. The mist followed us up the track towards Jones's broken down cottage and near the top I looked back through a tunnel of fog. A thrush was singing high in the forest. It was one of those uplifting moments when the familiar becomes suddenly, briefly unfamiliar and you see the beauty of where you are.

Back home and looking out of the kitchen window the crocuses had their little yellow cups open to the sun. The frogs are singing in the pond. Even though the rain is back as I write this, there is no stopping the spring. The seed potatoes and onion sets arrived in the post yesterday. The panic season is almost upon us.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Trip to London

There are an awful lot of people in London. Thank heavens for the London Underground, although you wouldn't want to be too claustrophobic when the trains are full. We popped up from the depths at Russell Square close to our hotel, The Lancaster in Bedford Place. A little oasis of calm except for the helicopter hovering overhead, still spying on the student demo that started in Russell Square. Glad we missed that one. Didn't fancy getting caught up in a kettling incident.

That evening we ate at a little bistro in Islington which was full of theatre-goers before crossing the road to the Almeida Theatre. The play, Becky Shaw, was excellent. Dark humour, very well written and at no point did I have that theatre moment where you're very aware that these are actors on the stage, not the characters they are portraying. It's a lovely theatre too with a stage that revolves to reveal the next set.

We were sat next to an American fellow who'd lived in Geneva for 20 years. He worked in International Property Rights at the United Nations. Great conversations during the interval.

Sunday morning and off to Camden Town for brunch and the markets. It was Joe's birthday, and for someone who has a love of markets like he does, this is the place to go. Many of the shop fronts have sculptures hanging high up on the wall above the door. Or maybe you wouldn't call them sculptures. Figures of people, shapes to illustrate the name of the premises, slogans and names. The place we went for brunch had one. This was one of the more tasteful.

The brunch was a full english breakfast but none of your greasy caff stuff here. The sausages were proper butcher's affairs, the rashers were thick and tasty, the eggs done just right. There were hash browns too. Not thoroughly english, I don't think. A touch of  over-the-pondness to them.

Across the road and one of the markets was scattered through a nineteenth century group of stables, workshops and warehouses, brick built and two- and three-storeys high. There were cobbled ramps to allow horse movement between levels. Everywhere were life-size statues of horses. Some more than life size. Here's the birthday boy wearing his new stripey cap just purchased for £8 across the road.
Camden is on the Regent's Canal, and as we can never go anywhere without some waterways interest, we took a walk from Camden Lock to Little Venice in cold winter sunshine. There are more bits of market at Camden Lock - this seemed to be mostly a food area - but then the bohemia is left behind for narrowboats, mansions and exotic birds. The narrowboats are obvious as we were on a canal. The mansions were less expected.

Theses vast classical buildings were constructed between 1987 and 2008 by Terry Quinlan in the style of the architect John Nash. They are quite outrageous, situated in Regent's Park overlooking the canal. Not too far from the zoo, so they doubtless have an interesting background sound track.

The towpath passes through the zoo, right next to the beautiful aviary designed by Lord Snowdon and built in 1964. It was wash time for the pelicans as we walked past.

After the pelicans and mansions and canal it was time for a bit more culture. A dash to the Royal Academy of Arts by Very Slow Bus caught in traffic. The dash was purely in the mind except for the last hurtle down Piccadilly. I'd bought tickets in advance, and you have to give a time. I'd said two and it was already half past. This being London, not Dublin, we didn't know how much it mattered. The woman on information didn't seem bothered. I doubt whether anything much perturbed her. She looked through the envelopes of pre-booked tickets, asked for our address, sighed a little. I mentioned that I'd booked on the phone, the online form getting in a tizz about the lack of postcode.

'Oh, you booked by phone,' she said in a tone you might use on a child walking mud into the house.

'Did she ask?' I said to Joe as we left the desk. 'Did she ask if we'd booked by phone or online?'

'No,' he said. 'She never asked.'

The exhibition of Modern British Sculpture was incredibly interesting. The most amazing and powerful piece was 'Adam' by Jacob Epstein. Some gorgeous works by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Then we were into the very modern including Damien Hirst's 'Let's Eat Outdoors Today', two perspex boxes full of flies, rotting food and maggots. There was half a pear hanging from the ceiling with half an apple glued to the cut side. And by artist Gustav Metzger, a line of pages of The Sun's page three stuck to the wall. Co-curator Penelope Curtis said

"We chose this piece because it reflects quite well on the literary, journalistic day by day quality of the way we perceive British culture now. How, for most people, the way they understand what British culture is, is through the press, through imagery, through magazines so it comes to you pre-digested."

I wonder whether Gustav Metzger, who is 84, chose it for the same reason.