Monthly Archives: May 2014

Pot of Gold


We spent the week cutting thick bramble runners and digging out bramble roots with a pickaxe, raking and digging and smoothing the ground, enduring the amusement of neighbors who came by offering their supplies of Round-up herbicide.

Like any simple problem left unattended for too long, the bramble roots ran deep and the thorny vines fought their removal. Underneath one very large mass of vines, I found a decaying tree root that put up real resistance to the pickaxe. Why? Because embedded in the old tree root was a rusty pot. And all around the pot was the detritus of  home life that had been put here back in the 1940s or thereabouts.

A couple of crockery shards, some glass bits, a plastic-handled knife that is definitely from a more recent time, the old pot.

The stuff from under the tree root. Note the pickaxe hole punctured in the side of the pot.

The stuff from under the tree root. Note the pickaxe hole punctured in the side of the pot.

This past week, I’ve been working on a corner of the garden that’s always been my bête noir, a ragged patch of annoyance.

Our small garden, not directly adjoining our house but opposite the driveway, was once the home of the village ovens. The stone ovens were taken down by the first foreign owner when she bought the house and its property back in the 1970s. But this little house and plot of land have been inhabited and worked since the 15th century.

The garden, when we moved in, had seen a few owners come and go since the ovens came down, and each gardener only added, they never took away. By the time we got here, there were corners that had been thoroughly overplanted and then neglected, hedges that had gone untrimmed, brambles that had multiplied unhindered. It was a glorious mess around the edges, which were encroaching on the tidy middle section.

The old garden.

The old garden.

We’ve been reluctant to do anything over the years because I liked the crazy romance of it all, but beating back the bramble jungle became too much. So over the past year, we’ve been streamlining. Those raspberry canes that were stunted and fumbling under a cherry tree grown too large? Gone. The nine flower beds (9!) that were choked with ground elder? Gone. The new raised beds that carry my signature gardening style of ‘Haphazard’ are easy to maintain and require less water. The pebbled path that runs the perimeter of the garden where the sun rarely shines is free of moss and weeds. The herb garden is a collection of pots and containers.DSC02240

But that one stretch of hedging that runs along the road, that part remained old garden. Thick brambles between five different hedge bushes, fronted on our side by a decorative veil of peonies and roses meant to distract from the other stuff. Sure, we could just dig the whole thing up and slap down a lawn.

What fun would that be?DSC02239

We used to think we might find a pot of gold in the garden, some buried treasure or at least an interesting cache of old jewelry or coins that someone in all the centuries of this land being gardened might have left behind. So far, it’s been mostly shards. I did once find a pre-WWI French centime, which I gave to a neighbor who had been born in that year, 1912.

Still, every time I come across the remnants of our predecessors, I have the sense that we are a part of something longer, something with a backwards and a forwards. An awareness that we’re the current bead in the pearl string of gardeners here, which is its own kind of treasure.DSC02244


Seeing Through Tortoiseshell Glasses



Trade in tortoiseshell – or more properly, sea turtle shell – was banned in 1977 under the conservation treaty known as CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Beloved for thousands of years as a natural thermoplastic for everything from hair combs to furniture inlay, turtle shell in its endless varieties is beautiful, versatile, and feels warm and smooth against the skin.

I found a 2010 news item on a specialty manufacturer of tortoiseshell eyeglasses. The article claims that the fourth-generation shop uses only legal turtle shell. The current web site itself makes no such claim, even if the company is likely very careful to use legal shells. A pair of custom-made eyeglasses, handmade from turtle shell, can cost up to USD 39,000.*

Unfortunately, the sea turtles of the world don’t reproduce quickly enough and in enough numbers to keep up with the ongoing demand for their shells. Their numbers are also diminished by the usual suspects when it comes to marine life threats: habitat loss, fishing and pollution. Six of the seven sea turtle species are endangered and protected under international agreements.

Five kinds of tortoise shell (1767) Source: Leitner/Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Museum für Naturkunde

Five kinds of tortoise shell (1767)
Source: Leitner/Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Museum für Naturkunde

When the trade ban began in 1977, there were hundreds of metric tons of turtle shell already harvested and stockpiled for further manufacture and sale. Creating artefacts from real turtle shell requires a high degree of artisanal skill. Much like the stockpiles of banned ivory, the turtle shell stocks continue to be used for manufacture and sale, usually with the caveat that the shell in question is from turtles that were harvested ‘pre-ban’.

There are countless good alternatives to using turtle shell, from horn to various plastics. Meanwhile, illegal harvesting and trade continues because the demand remains.

Like any number of other animal parts increasingly valued as the animals themselves go extinct, as long as tortoiseshell is a product highly prized for exclusivity, there will be someone supplying that demand. Vintage tortoiseshell eyeglass frames can be found online, usually starting at well over USD 1000 for a pair.

Seeing the world through genuine tortoiseshell glasses, for those who desire them and wear them, strikes me as a variation on the old idiom of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. Ever the optimist, the wearer sees a world with him or herself at the happy center,  where modern considerations take a backseat to outdated tradition; a place in which the fulfillment of their desires is tantamount and entirely worth endangering some of the most ancient creatures on the planet.

It’s World Turtle Day.

Here’s a good, concise post on turtles around the world, and here’s a look at turtle shell trade from the Sea Turtle Conservancy.

*It’s only fair to note that the eyeglass company states that it donates 1-2% of its profits to turtle conservation projects.

Source: WWF

Source: WWF


Weaving a New Mantle


Moving at a glacial pace is how we’ve always described something so sluggish as to be practically immobile. Geological time is what we sometimes say when we talk about things that take forever to occur, at least when using the yardstick of human life spans.

The Earth’s mantle, that layer between the outer core of the planet and the surface, is mostly solid and we like to think of it that way.

But in what we consider geological time, it moves like a thick liquid. As it turns out, though, it moves a little more quickly than that, especially when a tectonic plate is sinking or rising. Sometimes at speeds 20-30 times faster than expected.

Embroidering the Earth's Mantle Artist: Remedios Varo

Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle (1961)
Artist: Remedios Varo

And then there’s the news that the ice of the Antarctic is melting faster than expected, great chunks of it breaking off and raising the sea level like to many ice cubes added to a glass of water.

What’s happening to the land that’s been beneath the ice all this time? What happens when the weight of eons is lifted and dispersed? The land rises.

However, the land is rising at a pace that is not very glacial. The land ‘rebound’ was expected to move in geological time. Instead, according to a recent study published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters,  it’s moving so quickly that researchers can chart its rise of over 15 mm (0.59 in.) per year using GPS. In some areas, the uplift could reach 47 mm (1.85 in.).

The cause is thought to be temperature or chemical changes in the composition to the Earth’s mantle, making it ‘runnier’ beneath the Antarctic than elsewhere.

The climate change we fashion in human time nudges the hand of the planetary clock to speeds we might just be able to see with the human eye.



Some Favorite Meadows


Well, it’s one of those days. I had a lovely post all completed and ready to go, something about a cool gadget, and it’s been swallowed whole by the ethers (the post, not the gadget). It’s a mystery. I can recreate it, but it will take more time than I have available right now.

So instead, I’m posting a few images of some of my favorite meadows around our village. photo 2-2

They grow wild every year. Sometimes they are used for grazing, some years they’re just left to their own wild devices.

The composition of wildlflowers is different with each year and each season. Some years have more purple. This year is trending 3

Each of the fields, even if they are only on opposite sides of the small country road, goes its own way when it comes to plant 5

And these are a few of the herbivore fertilizer units that populate the meadows at various times during the year. They are also the happy recipients of the meadowflowers and grasses that get cut and baled, once at the end of spring and once at the end of summer.

The local stud, that big white fellow in the middle, amongst a few of his admirers.

The local stud, that big white fellow in the middle, amongst a few of his admirers.

The air is alive with cowbells, birdsong and the hum of insect activity.

All in all, not a bad life for a dairy herd, or for the runner who passes them on a daily 4

Memory and Reunion

The blue pulse flow of the Colorado River approaches the brown tidal flow of the Gulf of California. Photo: Sonoran Institute

The blue pulse flow of the Colorado River approaches the brown tidal flow of the Gulf of California.
Photo: Sonoran Institute

A few days ago, the Colorado River flowed into the Gulf of California for the first time in twenty years. The pulse flow, a one-time release of water into a stretch of the Colorado River that has been dry for decades, began on World Water Day on March 23. It was estimated by project coordinators at the time that it would take two weeks for the pulse, which was intended to simulate the annual floodwaters that once irrigated the Colorado river basin and flowed into the Gulf, to reach the Colorado Delta. Sandbars, scrub and underbrush meant it took more like six weeks.

Researchers have been planting trees and seeds in the irrigated areas, aiming to re-establish some of the ecosystem along the non-agricultural branch of the river. Did the delta greet the river as an old friend, and did the river recognize the gulf where it once flowed?

The Colorado River meets the delta and flows into the Gulf of California (15 May 2014) Photo: Francisco Zamora/Sonoran Institute

The Colorado River meets the delta and flows into the Gulf of California (15 May 2014)
Photo: Francisco Zamora/Sonoran Institute

Another reintroduction of old companions took place in the wild Southern Carpathian mountain range in Romania. Seventeen European bison (Bison bonasus), hunted to extinction in the region two centuries ago, were brought in from Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and Italy to begin a rewilding effort. The bison has been making a comeback across Europe, but with around 5000 individuals across several countries, Europe’s largest herbivore is still listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List.

The hope of organizers Rewilding Europe and WWF-Romania is that the presence of the wild bison will help re-establish biodiversity through grazing and browsing. Over the next few years, several hundred more bison will be brought into the area.

It will be so interesting to see how the land and ecosystems respond to the presence of these long-absent inhabitants of meadow and forest.

Is it possible to reawaken land memories, and memories of land in animals?

European bision (Bison bonasus), also known as wisent Photo: Zimbrii/Rewilding Europe

European bision (Bison bonasus), also known as wisent
Photo: Zimbrii/Rewilding Europe

Variations on a Theme

Peonies (without flash)

Peonies (without flash)

It’s the season of peonies, one of my favorite flowers. We have several peony bushes out in the garden, but a good friend brought over a bouquet yesterday that included a couple of spectacular blossoms.

I tried to capture the color explosion once without a flash, and once with a flash, using my phone camera.

The flowers are the same, but the flavor of each image is different.

This week the fates conspired to provide me, not only with beautiful flowers, but with a variety of Balvenie whiskies.

We usually have a bottle of Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year Old around, so that’s nothing unusual. Over the past week or so, we’ve been traveling, and we picked up two other bottlings in duty-free areas of the airports we passed through.

We have a Balvenie Triple Cask 12 Year Old, as well as a Balvenie 21-Year-Old Portwood Finish.

Peonies (with flash)

Peonies (with flash)

Last night we tried the two next to one another.

We started with the oldest. The Portwood 21 Year Old is pretty special. It’s matured in traditional oak casks, then transferred to port casks for final ageing. This whisky is such a treat, and is really worth savoring. It’s very rich, has a warm but subtle hint of peat and oak, and for me, tasted of tart apple cider with honey, red berries and malt. Luscious.

The Balvenie Triple Cask series has three bottlings: 12, 16 and 25 years. As far as I can tell, all three are only sold as ‘travel exclusives’, i.e. in duty-free shops. The whisky goes through three types of casks:  ‘traditional refill casks’, ‘first-fill ex-Bourbon barrels’, and  ‘first-fill Oloroso sherry butts’.

Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it well, because the Triple Cask 12 Year is mellow, smooth, with just a whisper of smoke, dried apricot, sherry, burnt sugar and vanilla.

Maybe it wasn’t fair to try the Portwood first, because the Triple Cask tasted almost simple by comparison. But once we settled into it, the younger whisky was also a delight.

And after those two whiskies, even the water tasted wonderful.

A few other fine variations for Sunday.


Toxic Addictions


A study published this week adds further evidence that there is a direct correlation between the decline of honeybee populations and the ongoing use of certain pesticides, namely, neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids share some chemical similarity with nicotine. Like nicotine, they are both toxic and addictive.

They also have a similar trajectory in the media.

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

Fifty years ago, United States Surgeon General Luther L. Terry M.D. released the first report of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health. Years of research and thousands of articles definitively related smoking to cancer and bronchitis in humans.

It’s well documented that major tobacco companies knew about the lethal effects of their products on human health for decades, and yet continued to promote their products as beneficial. The science that underpinned health studies was questioned, consumer freedom of choice was touted, dire economic impacts were predicted should smoking be banned. And the effects of an outright ban would indeed have been dire – for the tobacco companies.

So cigarettes remained on the market – but a sea change in their perception had taken place. And while tobacco profits went down (at least in some areas of the world) for a very few tobacco-producing companies, the lowered cost of health care for tobacco-related illness has to be considered an overall economic gain for the vast majority of humans, smokers and non-smokers alike.

And so to the makers of neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been around since the 1980s, but only really gained widespread use in the 1990s.

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

The European Union banned the use of some of these insecticides for a period of two years to see whether a ban would have any positive effect on declining honeybee populations in Europe. The United States has hesitated, citing a lack of evidence between bee declines and insecticides.

Insecticide manufacturers, having long claimed that insecticides couldn’t possibly be the sole cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, have also been warning of economic and crop collapse should the insecticides – which have only been in use for thirty years of the 10,000+ years of human agriculture – be discontinued.

I found one estimate that the estimated sales turnover for these products has increased ten-fold since their introduction, and they comprise one-quarter of crop control chemicals sold. The more profitable they are, the more resistance there will be to a ban.

Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax) Artist: Kris Martin

Lost Wax: Empty honeycomb husks (bronze/lost wax)
Artist: Kris Martin

90% of the U.S. corn crop is currently neonicotinoid-treated, and as a crop protection mechanism, these products have been triumphant. Still, I have yet to see mention of major corn crop failures in the countries where neonicotinoids are banned.

The value of a healthy bee pollination infrastructure is far more difficult to estimate, because we only talk about economic value as it relates to crops and human interaction, not in the larger context of maintaining healthy ecosystems that include – but are not limited to – crop land.
For me, the similarities between neonicotinoids and nicotine are striking.

People started to quit smoking in the years and decades following the 1964 report on tobacco.When will the body of evidence lead to a sea change in public opinion when it comes to our toxic addiction to these insecticides?


Tangled Web

Snakes & Ladders - Painted quilt Artist: Denise Furnish

Snakes & Ladders – Painted quilt
Artist: Denise Furnish

Like weeds, when we talk about invasive species, we usually know which ones we mean. They’re the ones we don’t like.

So, when we talk about non-native species of plants and animals, we don’t usually mean horses or sheep, or wheat or barley or rice or potatoes – none of which are native to many of their current habitats around the world.

No, we mean animals like the albino California kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula californiaeon the Spanish island of Gran Canaria, the progeny of escaped pets which are now decimating the native birds and lizard populations.

Or the voracious demon shrimp (Dikerogammarus haemobaphes), a Black Sea native that has been discovered in UK waterways, and whose impact on native species is as yet unknown.

As of April 2014, the European Parliament has approved new legislation aimed at controlling and eradicating non-native species that are considered damaging enough to be considered ‘invasive’ and dangerous to the survival of native species.

Albino California Kingsnake

Albino California Kingsnake

Originally planned to be capped to fifty species, the blacklist will be now be unlimited, because there are simply too many species having a negative impact on native European biodiversity.

But what about the common rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum)? While it’s not native to the United Kingdom, it has been widely used in hybrids, and is a well-liked botanical addition to gardens. And like many non-native garden favorites, it can be wildly successful at escaping and carpeting indigenous habitats.

If it makes the black list, will all varieties be banned? And how would that affect gardener’s preferences and choices – or the nurseries that breed rhododendron hybrids? Pet or plant, we always want what we want, when we want it.

Non-native species might be beloved as a domesticated varieties, but only as long as they obey our arbitrary rules of life, reproduction and geographical spread. Which they don’t, and almost never do.

Rhododendron ponticum, native to southern Spain, covers a hillside in Snowdonia, UK Photo: M Williamson

Rhododendron ponticum, native to southern Spain, covers a hillside in Snowdonia, UK
Photo: M Williamson


Reading the World


By nature, humans generally like to share what they know – at least, they like to share parts of what they know. The very form and manner we choose to visualize what we know in a way that can be shared with others says a lot about how we see the world.

Tree of Knowledge

Tree of Knowledge

For example, one of my ongoing favorite phylogenetic trees, OneZoom, chooses fractal swirls, branches on the tree of life that rotate into ever smaller tendrils, ever closer detail. To me, this reflects our modern ability to see creatures, objects, energies, that are ever smaller. There’s no end to how small we can go.

But visualizing knowledge in the form of branching plant limbs and trees is nothing new.

The Petroleum Tree (1957), an illustration of petroleum uses. Via: Slate

The Petroleum Tree (1957), an illustration of petroleum uses.
Via: Slate

There’s a beautiful book out, The Book Of Trees by Manuel Lima, that takes a look at the roots of all these trees.

We pick other illustrations, other approaches, but the tree is an old beloved standard. It’s like we’re hardwired to depict knowledge, any kind of knowledge, in some kind of plant or tree-like form.

Given our roots, and given how important trees are to human life, I suppose it’s only natural. What would our visualisations of knowledge look like if we’d only ever seen desert, or rocks, or shallow pools of water?

Tree of virtues and vices (1121) Via: Papress

Tree of virtues and vices (1121)
Via: Papress