Clouds over Kenya

IMG_0024

This probably is not the kind of scene most people associate with Africa. It looks more like a stretch of bleak English moorland in December. Anyway Kenya it is, and it was taken one August in a Maasai group ranch conservancy, bordering the Maasai Mara National Park.

May to September is East Africa’s winter, and the skies are often overcast and leaden. The nights, and even the days can be chilly. Kenya, anyway, covers many of the world’s climatic zones either horizontally or vertically – from the hot and arid Northern District, bordering Ethiopia and Somalia, to the alpine heights of Mount Kenya with its glacial peaks. There are also the airy, and rarely too hot, highland plains around Nairobi, and the steamy humidity of the Mombasa coastal strip to the south.

Much of the nation’s weather is determined by the cycle of Indian Ocean monsoon winds. These, unless disrupted by El Nino effects, bring two seasons of rain – the long rains in March to May, and the short rains in November-December. In between, many areas receive little or no rain. Western Kenya, however, receives more regular rainfall courtesy of Lake Victoria Nyanza which makes its own weather.  Meanwhile in the fertile Central Highlands above Nairobi, altitude and forest combine to make June and July the season of heavy mists. It’s all a bit dreary, but the mist does have its uses – for instance, ripening the maize crops for the August harvest.

napier grass on the Rift

Smallholder farms and July mists in the Kikuyu highlands, north of Nairobi

*

In the late 1990s Team Farrell was often out and about in the Kikuyu highlands, visiting smallholder farms. And the reason we were doing this in the fog season was because the Team Leader, aka Graham, was – besides running an agricultural crop protection project on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government – gathering data for his doctoral thesis on smut. If you want to know more about our smut forays (of the plant variety that is) your can find out more HERE.

Rift lane after July downpour

Rural road after an unseasonal July downpour. Poor communications embed poverty, making it hard for farmers to get produce to market before it spoils.

*

tea fields and workers' houses

Lowering skies over Limuru’s tea gardens with tea pickers’ housing.

*

Kikuyu farmstead 1

Kikuyu farmhouse.

*

banana trees 2

Wintery fields in Muranga where the Del Monte pineapples grow.

*

And just sometimes, even on the gloomiest Kenyan winter’s day, the sun breaks through the clouds:

Kikuyu child 3

 

Jennifer Nichole Wells OWPC: cloudy     Go here for more bloggers’ cloudy offerings.

Seeking Spring ~ A Walk on Wenlock’s Wild Side

100_5445

I knew there was only a small window of opportunity. At nine thirty yesterday morning there was sunshine. Go out there at once, I told myself. The way the weather is these days, it might be the last you see of it. Carpe diem and all that.

So seized it I did, and it was certainly warmer to the touch than it has been for many days, and as you can see from the above photo, the ancient, and thus arboreally wise lime trees on the Linden Walk definitely think it is spring.  Drifts of green. Blissful.

P1010309

The dog walkers, too, were out en masse, owners chatting amiably on the Linden Field quite as if it were – well, spring. And despite Thursday’s appalling election results (Scots Nationalists excepted) and the return of a government that treats food banks as something to be proud of, and regards the nation as a resource for unbounded fracking, everyone I met seemed pretty cheerful. I will thus make no further mention of Tory attrition and spoil the moment.

The little green building you can see in the background behind the dog walkers is Much Wenlock’s Bowling Club HQ. It occupies a re-cycled railway carriage, a relic from our erstwhile lovely railway that once ran beside the Linden Walk and, until the 1960s, when the wretched Dr. Beeching axed thousands of miles of Britain’s railways, linked Much Wenlock to the outside world. But enough! Too much negativity already.

I headed off behind the Bowling Green to see what was growing on Windmill Hill. This quest was motivated by Meg at Snippetsandsnaps. In response to an earlier post here, she said she would like to see more of what happens on the old limestone pasture on which the windmill stands. I’d mentioned the wild orchids for one thing, so I thought  (given our erratic climate) I’d better go and check if they were flowering yet.

100_5459

They weren’t. Still too early. But the first thing I spotted were the cowslips, also known in Olde Shropshire as cowslops. The richly eggy coloured clumps were growing here and there. In the past they would have grown in yellow meadowsful all around Much Wenlock. I even remember them. When I was a child, my parents would make a point of driving out from Shrewsbury where we lived, simply to visit them. We’d have picnics amongst them.

P1010322

Once, too, cowslips were an important resource. In the days before modern farming methods seriously reduced their habitat, Wenlock’s school children would absent themselves from class at the National School in order to help with the annual gathering. The flowers were used to make herbal infusions to combat coughs and bronchitis, and in a town regularly doused in limestone dust from the quarries, bad chests would have been a common problem.

Doubtless, too, the town’s doctor, William Penny Brookes, (he who inspired the modern Olympics and planted the avenue of lime trees that we have just walked along), supported such an activity. He practised for the last fifty years of the 19th century and, as well as being a physician, he was also a highly knowledgeable herbalist, having trained both in medicine in London and herbalism at the renowned University of Padua.

And this was by no means quackery in action as some are wont to call herbal medicine. After all, from where does Big Pharma get so many of its notions if  not from trying to concoct synthetic (patentable) analogues of the deemed active chemicals teased from botanical compounds? All of which is to say, we lose our plant heritage at great cost to our future well being, to say nothing of the planet’s well being.

Besides which, flowers can mean fun and festivities. Cowslips were also used to make wine, and to strew the paths of spring brides. Mm. Just think of the air filled with their subtle, sunny scent in times when May was WARM.

And talking of warmth and nuptial pursuits, the next thing I came across while snapping cowslips, was a pair of mating molluscs, also known Cepaea nemoralis (Linnaeus, 1758), Britain’s commonest snails. Spring has certainly made this pair frisky, but I will spare you the more intimate shots, and leave you with their rather pleasing  Northamptonshire dialect name of pooties. Canoodling pooties then.

100_5452

Windmill Hill has more than its open, calcareous pasture. There are wooded flanks to the north and south and here, beneath the trees, I found violets and celandines. You can also see leaves of tiny wild strawberry plants (north of violets), germander speedwell (northeast of the celandine), and sprigs of Dog’s Mercury at the bottom of the shot.

P1010366

*

And coming up is Dog’s Mercury (Mercurialis  perennis  or Boggard Posy) in full flush. This unremarkable looking plant is a member of the spurge family and very toxic, a fact reported in a letter from Shropshire in 1693 and published that year in the Philosophical Transactions of the  Royal Society, 203 VIII. The letter gave a detailed account of how one  Mrs. Matthews had gathered, boiled and then fried the herb with bacon for her family’s supper. Two hours later there was much purging and vomiting followed by heavy sleeping. Sadly one of her children died after remaining unconscious for several days. Mr. Matthews, however, reported going to work the next day three hours late, but feeling as if “his Chin had bin all Day in the Fire.” He had therefore been forced keep his hat at his side as he worked, filled with water, so he could keep dipping his chin in it.

100_5469

*

This next plant, Arum maculatum,  also has toxic characteristics. And it has a host of intriguing country names, some of them certainly alluding to what William Shakespeare referred to in Hamlet as ‘country matters’. For instance we have Lords-and-ladies, Ladies and Gentlemen (Shropshire version), Devils and Angels, Willy Lily, Cows and bulls, Red-hot-poker. Then there are the more curious Jack in the Pulpit, Cuckoo-pint, Fairy Lamps and Shiners. Its hooded sheaths (spathes) do glow in a faintly sinister, not to say priapic fashion in the shadiest spots. When done flowering, and presumably duly fertilised, the sheath collapses in a disturbing manner. In the autumn, though, there are spires of fire-red berries that light up gloomy days.

As to usage, in the times when people still wore lacy ruffs, the arum roots were crushed to make starch, although the processing apparently gave the launderers nasty blisters on their hands. It presumably did not do much for the ruff-wearers’ necks and faces either. So yes, it’s also good to remember the toxic properties of plants along with their more healthful aspects.

P1010337

*

And now for something seriously edible, if you like garlic and onions, that is. The Wild Garlic or Ransoms (Allium ursinum) grows in profusion at the foot of Windmill Hill, and especially along the banks of the old railway line. Those who don’t care for the smell will appreciate its vernacular names of Stink Bombs and Stinking Nanny.

P1010304

But you can certainly cook, or add to salads, both the leaves and the flowers, and their flavour is not as strong as the smell suggests. Excellent wilted in olive oil with pasta, for instance, or in soups – cream of potato and wild garlic say.

This wild garlic photo was taken while the sun was still shining, and as I said at the start, I knew it wasn’t going to last. Even if I hadn’t read the Friday forecast of rain by noon, followed by more rain all day, the green woodpeckers would have warned me. As I headed down the hill and along the old railway line their cries, known as yaffling, dogged my footsteps. It’s interesting how this member of the woodpecker family likes to alert everyone to a coming downpour. In Africa it is the red-chested cuckoo that performs reliable rainbird duty.

100_5494

Those yafflers were dead right too. As I turned for home, the sky was leaden, and the first drifts of rain were falling through the trees. Bye bye sun!  But then the old railway line is a good place to be whatever the weather. It is one of the town’s most popular footpaths, and it is hard to imagine that along it the Great Western steam engines once came rattling into Wenlock – the Olympic special bringing thousands of spectators to the annual Wenlock Olympian Games on the next-door Linden Field; goods trains from South Wales coming to collect limestone from Shadwell Quarry behind Windmill Hill. These days, then, there a trees as well as leaves on the line (NB for those living outside the UK,  ‘leaves on the line’ has long been the old British Rail’s excuse for non-arriving trains.)

Finally, I’ll leave you with a few more shots of botanical specimens discovered round Windmill Hill and along the railway line. Clearly the natural world is busy cracking on – full of vim and vigour – even as I shiver in the cold wind, and hang on to my much layered clothing. That’s good to know though – that nature will out, even if, as time goes on, it may not quite do what we expect.

100_5488

100_5483

100_5490

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Reference: Richard Mabey Flora Britannica

Forces of Nature

This post was also inspired by Jo’s Monday Walk at restlessjo, a great venue for walkers, whether in body, mind or spirit.

 

Lions before the storm

IMG_0005

 

Before the storm we fall in with lion –

six scions out from the pride.

Unmaned, cub-spotted, they slump amongst thorns,

smug in their big-cat skins.

They know we’re here.

So now we’re adrift on the storm’s swell:

coming like lambs to lay down with lions?

Caught in their lure we listen to their breathing;

the rise and fall of soft flanks.

Our breath marks time.

Waiting – till a drift of rainfall stirs them.

Watching – till they they rise to make their kill.

 

IMG_0008

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

Jennifer Nichole Wells: OWPC Storm

Is it really spring?

P1010198

Here at Sheinton Street we are wondering if spring has  come. Certainly it looks like spring. We have had daffodils, crocus and cherry blossom, and now the crab apple tree is blooming. But this is not spring as we know it. For one thing the winds have been icy, and unrelenting day after day.  For another we completely missed out on April showers, and when they finally came on Saturday night, they came all at once and pounded away what blossom was left on the damson tree. I’ll be surprised if  the Shropshire Prune has any fruit this year. Out in the very wet garden on Sunday morning the tulips looked positively shivery. Dishevelled too.

P1010199

Definitely brrrr all round. There’s an old English saying that advises, ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May is out,’ and I can tell you there will be no clout casting in this house – probably not till July.  Time to stoke up the wood burning stove, and see how the baked spuds are cooking.

 

Happy May, Everyone, Whatever Your Season

An Intricate Mind: Alan Turing 1912-1954

100_5256

100_5248

Alan Turing Memorial, Sackville Gardens, Manchester: sculptor Glyn Hughes

*

Here is the statue of man whose decoding of German Enigma Code is credited with shortening World War 2 by two years, and so saving thousands of lives. After the war, working in Manchester, he played a key role in developing ‘Baby’, the first digital computer. He had the brilliance of intellect and foresight that should have been considered a national treasure. Yet in 1952 he was charged with engaging in homosexual acts, tried and convicted of gross indecency. The penalty was prison or chemical castration through the administration of oestrogen. He chose the latter. But because homosexuals were considered security risks, he forfeited his security clearance. In 1954 he was found dead. At the inquest the coroner concluded he had committed suicide by taking potassium cyanide. He was forty two.

There have various theories about his death: that he staged it to look like an accident; that it was in fact an accident; that he was assassinated. In any event we can only guess at the scale of his future contributions to the domains of science, mathematics, and computer technology had he lived. In 1950, concluding his article in the journal Mind, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, he himself said:

We can see only a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.

 

In 2013 Turing was granted a royal pardon, and British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, expressed his regret at the way the eminent mathematician had been treated. Today, Turing’s great-niece, Rachel Barnes is lending her support to the campaign Turing’s Law that wishes to see 49,000 others given posthumous pardons. She says that while the Turing family was delighted by Alan Turning’s pardon, they felt it unfair that it was not extended to others similarly convicted.

Turing relative demands pardons for gay men convicted under outdated laws

And all I can say is: see where bigotry takes us. And if you want to see what kind of funny, humane man Alan Turing was, and discover something of his intricate thinking, then read the article Computing Machinery and Intelligence at the link above. It begins with the words:

I propose to consider the question, “Can machines think?”

Intricate