Thursdays Special ~ The Arboreal Position And Why We Can’t Live Without Trees

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These late day views overlooking Wenlock were taken back in December. Many of the trees, especially the oaks, beeches and field maples, had hung on to their leaves, which in turn were gathering in, and reflecting the winter sun. Looking at these photos now makes me appreciate how well treed we are in our hollow beneath Wenlock Edge, this despite two thousand years of farming.

But then you simply cannot have too many. Our shamanic ancestors were wise in their conception of the world tree at the heart of all existence: trees are essential to our survival. Without them we would have a lot of problems breathing. According to science writer Luis Villazon at the BBC’s Science Focus each of us requires around 740 kilos of oxygen per year, which amounts to 7 or 8 trees’ worth.

But that’s not all. As well as providing us with the air we breathe, trees also stabilize, create and replenish soils. They support biodiversity. They affect the climate including rainfall patterns, and their destruction rapidly leads to desertification and soil erosion. They provide us with many useful products, and in the future we may come to rely on them as a source of essential and cheap medications to which everyone can have ready access.

In the light of all these arboreal gifts, going out and hugging a tree now seems an eminently sane thing to do. In fact I recommend it. At the very least, it will lift the spirits. The tree might like it too.

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Please visit Paula for her February Pick A Word and be inspired. There is a choice of five prompts, each of which she illustrates superbly: radiating, alimentary, frontal, arboreal, remote.

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Power Lines: But Who Has The Power?

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I suppose we English take the presence of electricity pylons for granted. They march across our countryside enabling us to make toast and boil the kettle, watch TV and keep the packs of supermarket frozen peas frozen,  to heat our homes and charge the appliances we think we can’t live without – cell phones, tablets, laptops, cameras.

It makes me wonder though – how much power we actually need, and just when we might get around to deploying clean, renewable energy sources. Next stop fracking.

These particular pylons dominate the fields around Benthall Hall above the Severn Gorge, and until last year transmitted energy generated at the now decommissioned Ironbridge Power Station.  I’m not sure how our lights stay on these days, or who to ask about it – which to me suggests a worrying situation.

We regard the provision of electricity as our natural right, while at the same time rarely considering how little personal power we have in how it is produced and delivered. We probably don’t know who owns it – this absolutely essential resource. The same applies to that other absolute necessity – the clean water that pours from our taps. So I’m also wondering if we haven’t surrendered too much power – blithely assuming that the corporate owners (whoever and wherever in the world they are) will always act in our best interest and give us what we need?

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This week at Black & White Sunday Paula asks us to show her ‘towering’.

Ironbridge Power Station Cooling Towers: Monuments To Global Warming?

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Here’s a piece of history to look down on. It was captured a couple of winters ago from Wenlock Edge – steam rising from three of the four great cooling towers that served Ironbridge power station on the banks of the River Severn. A last gasp if you like, for in November 2015, after fifty odd years of coal-fired production, and a last minute fling with wood chips, the station generators were switched off.

The cooling towers, however, remain. Their future is uncertain – to be demolished or re-used: who knows.

What is known is that until the last-ditch biomass conversion, Ironbridge Power Station was among the UK’s dirtiest electricity producers. In 2003 Friends of the Earth were calling such power stations (most built in the 1960s) carbon dinosaurs. FOE made their point by producing a table of the worst carbon emissions polluters, each rated by a fossil factor based on the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of electricity produced. Ironbridge was ranked at sixth place with a fossil factor of 9.4. By way of comparison the table included a gas-fired power station with a fossil factor of 5.4.

Of course pollution is nothing new in this part of Shropshire. The Severn Gorge through Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge has a several hundred year heritage of carbon fall-out. Much of this history is preserved and explained in the Ironbridge Gorge Museum complex that includes ironworks, china works, workers housing and a decorative tile museum housed in the original factory.

The place makes strong claims to be the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. It was here from 1609 onwards that the Quaker Darby family pioneered the use of coke instead of charcoal in their blast furnaces, and worked flat out to promote cast iron in every possible permutation – from steam engine boilers and cannon to garden seats and hat stands.

By the late eighteenth century, a new class of well-heeled see-Britain tourists would write of the fiery outpourings of forge and furnace as if they had ventured into hell itself. There was the ear-splitting clang of steam-hammers, the sulphurous fumes, the heat, smoke, the monstrous machines, and unnerving ingenuity of the men who had contrived this living techno-nightmare.

There was also the shocking novelty of the world’s first cast iron bridge which alone attracted thousands of tourists. New coach services and a hotel with bridge view were laid on specially. Built in 1779 as a public relations promotion for versatility of cast iron, the Iron Bridge still draws hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world. And the Gorge that it spans, just a step or two downstream of the power station, is designated a World Heritage Site.

All of which is a touch confusing when you start to think of it. Too much irony by half in the Ironbridge locality.  On the one hand dirty coal-fired power stations are bad. I think everyone is agreed on that. On the other hand, heritage is good: it preserves important things that we need to know about, and every year up to half a million people come to Ironbridge to celebrate Britain’s industrial past.

But here’s the rub, also much provoked by today’s Guardian headlines about the world’s likely failure to meet the global emissions target. If carbon emissions cause global warming, and the ironmasters of Coalbrookdale were responsible for inventing coke fuelled manufacturing, and promoting its use, then suddenly Shropshire has a very discomfiting claim to fame. This present-day scenic agricultural county is the place where it all began – man-made global warming?

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Black & White Sunday: From above

#globalwarming

And It Was A Right Bees’ Breakfast This Morning Over My Garden Fence…

 

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It was every bee for itself over in the poppy patch behind the garden sheds this morning: the apian equivalent of a supermarket trolley dash. Honey bees, little brown bumbles, dinky stripy bumbles, blooming big scary bumbles and white-tailed bumbles diving in for the poppy nectar while the air all round filled with happy bee hum.  Some were feeding with such speed and voracity that their baggage compartments were definitely approaching the overloaded mark. Now and then they would take a feeding break on the poppy’s crown while they dusted themselves down and redistributed the pollen cargo.

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The gathering technique is also fascinating. They dive into the base of the flower and speed round beneath the stamens, feeding on the nectar while every part of them hoovers up pollen from the anthers. Even with the biggest bumbles, once they get into their stride, all you can see are the stamens ruffling round like curtain pelmet tassels in a stiff breeze. Whoosh, and it’s on to the next feeding station.

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I probably don’t need to say it again to those who follow this blog, but then no chance should be wasted. The wellbeing of our planet, and of humanity, and of the continued production of much of our food depends on protecting and nurturing bee populations any way we can. Masses are being killed off by pesticides and habitat loss. So loud applause for the opium poppies that came of their own accord to our boundary fence, and are doing their bit for bee world. Rah! Rah! Hurrah, poppies!

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Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge: Details

Scattered Leaf And Light At Croft Castle ~ Spring Happening

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Yesterday our Thursday outing took intrepid Farrell Safaris over the Shropshire border and into Hereford. Our destination was Croft Castle in the wonderfully named village of Yarpole. The house is a castellated fifteenth to eighteenth century fantasy with magnificent turrets (only for show) –the whole set in glorious parkland of veteran trees. The present house replaced an 11th century castle, and the Croft family who occupied it then, continued to preside over this corner of England for nearly a thousand years. All is now in the care of the National Trust. And if anyone reading this intends to visit, then take a good tree book. And also your walking shoes as there are several long walks including one to the Iron Age hillfort of Croft Ambrey.

I’ll post more about Croft another time. For now I’m trying to keep on theme with Paula’s Thursday’s Special. This week it is ‘scattered’ so please pop over there for more renditions.

Now for a scattering of tulips in the walled garden:

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And oh well, I know you really wanted to see the Castle, so here it is framed by the branches of a very ancient conifer. There’s some good cloud-scatter too.

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Happy Earth Day From The Shropshire Hills, Some Of The World’s Oldest Rock Formations

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Not so much Monarch of the Glen as Sheep on the Long Mynd,  a hill so old that it has some Pre-Cambrian geology named after it. I’m talking here of Longmyndian shales, siltstones and sandstones (sedimentary rocks) that were laid down in shallow seas at a time when this part of the earth was moving up the planet from Antarctica.  This would be around 560-550 million years ago.

The Long Mynd (mynd means mountain in Welsh) lives up to its name too. It is a very long plateau with steep valleys, and was formed by a very big CRASH when sea levels fell and the seabed deposits collided with a plate of volcanic hills to the east. The result was the folding, tilting and compressing of the Longmyndian shales, siltstones and mudstones along the Church Stretton Fault. This was around 550-400 million years ago.

The Longmynd then continued to be knocked into the shape we see today by the following Ice Ages when glaciers shunted around its flanks, making it an island amongst frigid wastes. When the ice finally began to retreat around 30,000 years ago, rain and melting snow fed streams that cut steep valleys or ‘batches’ into the Mynd’s sides.

Isn’t geology wonderful when you forget about the hard words, the mind-boggling quantities of time, and just admire the consequences?

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One of the Mynd’s best known features is Carding Mill Valley where these photos were taken. Since Victorian times it has been one of Shropshire’s most popular countryside resorts. Generations of Salopians (Shropshire folk) will have fond childhood memories of spending Bank Holiday Mondays picnicking there, feeding egg sandwiches to the sheep, getting soaked in the stream, and going home with green bottoms from sliding down the hillsides.

Today both valley and Long Mynd are in the guardianship of the National Trust that not only manages the landscape, but provides very excellent homemade refreshments in the Edwardian Pavilion tea-room  that’s coming up next.  If, while you are looking at that, you also scan towards the top of the hill, directly above the pavilion’s main roof, you might just discern the verge of a very hair-raising single-track road that takes you over the top of the Long Mynd to the small village of Rattlinghope, known locally as Ratchup. I have a grim memory of driving down there in a car with dodgy brakes, and only intermittent passing places beside precipitous drops.

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Unlike the geology, the landscape you see in the shots is not natural, but man-made. The valleys would once have been wooded. Archaeological finds from c 3,500-2000 BC indicate that Late Stone Age (Neolithic) people were travelling along the open top of the Long Mynd ridgeway, an ancient trade route between Cumbria in the north, Wales to the west, and Cornwall in the south-west. Earlier Mesolithic hunter-gatherers came this way too. But the main clearance probably took place during the Bronze Age (c.2,000-1,000 BC). These people farmed in the Shropshire Hills and buried their dead in cairns and burial mounds all along the ridgeway.

In the next photo you can just see the green ramparts of the Iron Age hillfort Bodbury Rings. It is lying right along the hilltop skyline towards the summit, and ending directly under the moon. This was a summer herding camp of the Cornovii people, and dates from around 400 BC.

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We may not know very much about the past peoples who lived and died in this landscape, but they did leave behind clues that showed us that they honoured it in significantly sacred ways. That would be a good thing to remember on this Earth Day. Much of the world is in dire need of loving care. We are lucky in Shropshire to have so many people, and charitable bodies who do take care of the place for everyone’s pleasure and inspiration.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

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Earth  Daily Post Prompt

I’m also linking this to Jo’s Monday Walk for when she’s regularly back with us. I think she would like this walk up Carding Mill Valley.

#ShropshireHillsAONB  #NationalTrustShropshire  #CardingMillValley

Bumble Bee Bliss & A Change In The Weather

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April and it’s all change. On Saturday I was whinging about the snow that had invaded our early morning landscape. By Sunday we were sitting coatless on Benthall Hall’s tea room terrace, and consuming carrot cake and hot chocolate with the sun on our faces. It was February when were last there, and grey and stormy, with no possibility of sitting outside. Now we were in danger of overheating with a nice grey hen pootling around our feet, and the air filled with bee-hum. Later, when we ambled around the gardens, we came upon these newly opened rhododendron flowers and a very happy bumble bee. To say it was gorging itself is an understatement. Up to its armpits in pollen it was. Food at last. Bzzzzzzz.

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Check in at Cee’s Flower of the Day for  more floral displays.

Corncockle Sunset ~ Nature Photo 6

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These are the seed heads of a lovely plant that was once to be seen in English  corn- fields, but is now almost extinct in the wild. And here it is in its full flowering glory…

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…the Corncockle aka Agrostemma githago aka Kiss-me-quick.

This stately annual plant was also the target of shock-horror media hysteria a couple of years ago.

And why? You may well wonder.

It apparently all began with a well-meaning gesture by the BBC’s Countryfile programme. Courtesy of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, they were giving away packets of wild-flower seeds that contained corncockle. There was huge demand. Suddenly everyone was sowing wild flower gardens.

Next some individual in Royal Wootton Bassett, a small market town in Wiltshire, noticed that the plant had appeared in a garden created by the Brownies in the local park. He, having ‘googled’ it, raised the alarm, pronouncing the plant deadly. The Town Council then had the plant fenced off and eliminated, and it all became a matter for the national press as more and more sightings of the plant were made across the land.

The Telegraph’s headline positively screamed with indignation:

BBC spreads poisonous wild flowers across Britain

And from the Daily Mail we have:

The plant that can kill

In an eminently sensible press account Patrick Barkham of the Guardian  tried to bring  perspective and rationality to the panic:

This kerfuffle is a huge overreaction, given that many of our most popular garden plants are poisonous, including daffodils, laurel, ivy, yew, hellebores, lupins and particularly foxgloves. In fact, we have lived alongside poisonous plants for centuries, and many toxic species are particularly useful to medicine and are used in life-saving drugs. Even parts of plants we eat, such as potatoes, are toxic.

And the real story?

Corncockle, it seems, arrived in Britain back in the Iron Age over two thousand years ago. Its seeds were present in imports of rye grain from Europe, and it soon became established on the lighter soils of southern England. Thereafter, and into the 20th century the plant could be found among the nation’s arable and cereal crops. Then improved methods of seed cleaning were introduced, and together with extensive herbicide use, this led to the plant’s virtual extinction in the wild.

The plant does  have toxic properties. This is what  Monique Simmonds, Head of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew’s Sustainable Uses of Plants Group has to say:

This plant, like many we have in our gardens, does contain compounds that can be toxic if eaten in large amounts or eaten frequently over a period of time. The toxic compounds are in higher concentrations in the seeds, which are hard and very bitter. If eaten by a child, the child would most likely be sick or complain of a stomach ache. There is no evidence that eating a few seeds would cause acute toxicity.

In the past, problems associated with toxicity occurred in Europe when flour contaminated by corn cockle seeds was consumed in bread, and this contaminated bread was eaten over a period of time. The fact that there are very few reports about any form of toxicity to humans in other parts of Europe, where the plants are more common, indicates that although toxic, the plant is not considered a high risk.

Plants for the Future website explains further:

The seed and leaves are poisonous, containing saponin-like substances. Although poisonous, saponins are poorly absorbed by the human body and so most pass through without harm. Saponins are quite bitter and can be found in many common foods such as some beans.

What concerns me about this story is how easily people can be stirred into panic and demonizing tactics by manipulative and exaggerated press coverage. And over a flower that has absolutely no appetizing qualities whatsoever. Of course that doesn’t mean we should not be aware of the toxic qualities of plants. We definitely should be. People sadly do die from eating poisonous plants. But we don’t need to feel afraid of their very existence. The problem is when we lose connection with our natural environment, it leaves room for the kind of scare-mongering that seeks to make us feel like victims – and all, and only to sell newspapers. Obviously this goes for many more serious issues and situations too.

But then you never do know. Maybe the denizens of the plant kingdom have it in for us. Maybe they are just biding their time, thinking up cunning ways to lure us into eating their poisonous parts.

Quick! Surround the lupins and hellebores! Cut them off at the roots before we’re driven to eat them and DIE!

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

 NB. For well-informed details about poisonous plants see The Poison Garden website.

 #7-daynaturephotochallenge Day 6

Too Long Out Of Africa

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I had been wondering to myself whether I would post some of my Africa pix for the nature photo challenge, and thought I probably wouldn’t. Then the ‘Landscape’ challenge cropped up, and so here  I am, killing two birds with one shot. Or it might be two. Also, for whatever reason that has nothing much to do with me, post editing or anything, this view of the Maasai Mara (edge of the Ololo Escarpment to the right, desert date tree to the left) has acquired the look of a painted landscape. I think it was probably taken at dawn, out on game drive from the Mara River Camp, one of the last places we stayed before ending our eight-year life in Kenya and Zambia.

The desert date (Balanites aegyptica), much like the baobab, is one of Africa’s treasure trees, and has multiple uses. It grows in the driest places across the Sahel and savannah regions of the continent, and fruits in the driest of years. It is thus highly valued by nomadic herders since both fruit and foliage provide useful forage for camels and goats during times of drought.

Also a nourishing and restoring skin oil can be made by milling the fruit, its cosmetic and therapeutic qualities long known of by the Ancient Egyptians. (Samples have apparently been discovered amongst pyramid grave goods). And you can buy it now. Fair trade producers in Senegal, West Africa are producing the oil commercially.

Other traditional uses include making fish poison from the bark, and using the termite resistant wood to fashion farm tools. Better still, an emulsion can be produced from the fruit – harmless to humans and warm-blooded mammals (Trees of Kenya  Tim Noad & Ann Birnie: 27) and used to clean up drinking water supplies. It kills the freshwater snails that carry bilharzia, and the water fleas that carry guinea worm, both causes of distressing and debilitating diseases in many parts of Africa.

The continued existence of this tree is also related to the continued existence of elephants. In the wild they are the main conduits by which seed is processed and made ready to plant. Having passed through the elephant’s digestive tract, it is then conveniently deposited in its own dollop of manure. Another example of how all in the natural world is intimately connected, and we kill off bits of it (stupidly thinking they don’t matter) at our peril.

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Elephants at high noon beside the Mara airstrip. You can see the green tops of desert date trees above a gully in the distant heat haze.

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Anna at Una Vista di San Fermo invited me to join the 7-day Nature Photo Challenge. This is my Day 4. Please also go and see Laura’s magnificent dragonfly at Eljaygee, and Sue Judd’s elegant study of daffodil decay at WordsVisual, and Gilly’s absolutely mega termite mound at Lucid Gypsy.

Landscape