Saturday, 29 May 2010

Drizzly day

I'm not a big fan of the rain, unless it's torrential downpours accompanied by a light and sound show. Today it's drizzling. It's gray. It's dreary. It's May! It's sort of like home when fog covers the valley for most of May and June. We've come up with cute slogans: May gray; June gloom. And gloomy it is. I was hoping to go celebrate the weekend with a long walk down the riverside or frolicking in the fields, photographing plants and wildlife. Instead, I'm being a wuss, staying inside, and baking. I'm trying to appreciate the rain. The greenness of England is one of the things I love most about it. Rainy days are the price you pay for such beauty.

Earlier, I was looking out the kitchen window, eating corn on the cob (a summer food) in my pajama's and being squirted in the face as I bit into the kernels. A wood pigeon emerged from beneath a little copse of hawthorn that grows along side the building. It was sheltering from the rain. Then it stepped out and sat with its back in the rain and its head undercover. Two more wood pigeons emerged, and then the little family of three went picking at the leaves of a plant I couldn't identify. I watched them as the rain washed the open window and the cool arm swirled around its edges. A crow flew by, circling the building at the level of the third floor. A gaggle of geese silently glided towards the river. A pair of swallows flew towards campus. A lone cyclist pedaled down the path by the river.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Snow Goose Remembered

70 years ago yesterday, British citizens answered the calls of allied forces stranded on the beach at Dunkirk. With their own boats (over 700 of them, many pleasure craft and non-commercial vessels) and of their own will, they made their way across the channel. Over 9 days more than 300,000 men were rescued and moved to safety on English shores. Yesterday, a flotilla of more than 100 boats set off from Ramsgate to Dunkirk yesterday in remembrance of the amazing feat.

Paul Gallico wrote about this event in his precious story, The Snow Goose. His main character, a disabled lighthouse keeper and lover of geese, is one of those brave boat owners who sets off across the sea to rescue the stranded soldiers. It's his chance to redeem himself and contribute to the war effort which he is otherwise prevented from contributing to due to his disabled status.

This is the second time within a week that I've been reminded of The Snow Goose. On Sunday, BBC 4 radio had a program about favorite and overlooked classics of British literature. The Snow Goose was the winning book. In the show, the authors background was discussed and excerpts were read, but also a trip was taken to a listener's house who claimed to have something of interest. What he had was the lighthouse. Peter Scott was the illustrator for the book and the lighthouse was his. The listener had purchased it on a whim and fixed it up. There was talk about blurred lines between what were Scott's ideas and what were Gallico's. That's not a discussion I care to get caught up in. What I know is that Scott wasn't opposed to illustrating the text so he couldn't have been that upset about it if it was in fact his idea. The other thing I know is that this book is delightful. It's fairy tale for grown ups and well worth a read.

Snow GooseThe Snow Geese: A Story of Home

Thursday, 27 May 2010


Had an amazing visit to Ronald Blythe's house today, Bottengoms. It's an amazing yeoman's cottage from the 1600s, tucked away from the country roads of north Essex, just a mile or so south of the river Stour (either pronounced to rhyme with flower or tour).

Upon arrival, we were invited in for a cuppa tea. We first were taken on a grand tour of the house. Or a grand tour of the grand house. It's amazing place. Home of the artist Paul Nash for many years, the walls are graced with original works of art by him and others. There are bookshelves full of books--one shelf alone is dedicated to the Ronald's own books. We got to see the different rooms, investigate the markings on the timber framing, stand in the sloping guest bedroom, oogle at the art, admire the writing room, the many fire places, and sitting rooms. It's a truly charming place, made all the better by our host, Ronald Blythe. At 88, he's been around to meet most everyone and has stories he seems quite happy to tell. After the tour, in which works of art were introduced and stories told, we sat down for tea and cake, more stories were told. Then we went for a stroll around his magnificent garden, half-wild, and then for a walk down the lane. Upon our return to the house, Ronald had set out the glasses for a bit of wine to be shared. Not one of us wanted to leave, but we did, reluctantly, after about 3 hours in a magical pocket of the world.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Once stung: a nettles story

Yesterday I had my first encounter with the stinging hairs of a nettle plant. One of my classmates and I were walking to town along the river Colne. There's a path that runs along the south side of the river, it's also known as cycle path 51. It was my first time walking that way since plants started coming back to life and it's really coming back to life. The squat, hardy hangers-on of winter have unfurled themselves outward and skyward. The trees have filled out and are in blossom. Whole patches of white flowers from hawthorn shrubs. Tall, stalking weedy like plants, some with white lacy flowers at their tops. We saw a crane and swans. Then, in the middle of the path, was a large portion of a toppled tree. It spanned the whole path. My classmate offered to turn around and find another way. But being determined not to be put off the path by a bit of branch and foliage, I looked for the easiest path around and took the one most traveled . . . right through a path of stinging nettles. It wasn't as bad as it could have been considering I was wearing a skirt and flip flops. A few steps into my detour of choice, I felt some stinging, so I hesitated. Once I realized it was something I was stepping in, I moved forward as fast as I could.

Once, on a hike down Southern California's Topanga Canyon I kicked dirt at a fire ant hill. The ants were pissed off and attacked, mounting my shoes and then my socks. That day I learned three important lessons. 1) Fire ants know how to get revenge; 2) Those little bastards can bite through socks! and 3) If you're going to do anything to a fire ant hill, do it from a distance not less than three feet. One bite was right over a vein on my ankle and that burning sensation traveled up my leg. I felt those stings for the rest of the hike and then some.

Luckily, the stinging from the nettles only lasted about 10 minutes. In that 10 minutes, we walked along as I waited it out to see how it would go. Would it get worse? Stay the same? My walking buddy and I mused about the possibilities. He shared a story that he once got stung and it lasted for 24 hours. Imagine my relief when the stinging stopped after 10 minutes. My ankle started to show signs, a path of hives, about the same time that the stinging died down.

About 6 hours later, around midnight, the itching started and it continues this morning. Some websites I've visited say the itch can last for a week. So far, it's a minor nuisance compared to other skin irritants I've had the pleasure of encountering as a very hyper-allergic person. Mosquito bites drive me nuts. (Though bites from mosquitoes from different regions swell to different degrees.) Traveling around Australia, I was regularly bitten by bed bugs, which are possibly only worse than mosquito bites because one bug will leave a line of bites. It was there that I learned to scratch around the bites. It satisfied the urge to itch without irritating or breaking the bite and further encouraging histamine release. My first pet-related hives from two cute rats. Chicken pox: oh, how I loved to scratch them and have the scars to prove it. Wikipedia lists onion as one of a list of possible ways to help with the itching. I may rub onion on my ankle later.

I once had nettle leaves in a pasta dish. My friends Gabs and Darnell went out into the nettles to pick the leaves to put into the pasta sauce. I thought they were so brave. Only a few months earlier I had first learned of nettles and was told that they contained neurotoxins that could kill a person. When I was in the Daintree Rainforest, I was told about the stinging tree or gympie-gympie which is considered the most dangerous plant in the Daintree and the world's most painful plant. Once it's little hairs stick into your skin, the pain can last for months to a year and with enough of the neurotoxin it can lead to death. . . . As tough I needed one more thing to be worried about coming into contact with in the Australian rainforest.

I didn't grow up learning about nettles. I don't think they grow in my part of the world where the soil isn't exactly moist and the climate for most of the year is somewhere between warm and dry to hot and dry. Where I come from, we worry about poison ivy and poison oak, neither of which I am good at recognizing. To guard against my ignorance, I remember the saying "Leaves of three, let them be" and I avoid anything with a red leaf. When the leaves are red, I could probably point out poison oak.

You think it's something I'd be committed to learning and avoiding. When I was in kindergarten, I was playing in the backyard of a family friend's house and their son, who was my age, went through a patch of poison oak. He blistered and was miserable for a week. Another time, we were on a camping trip and my brother wandered off into a green area to relieve himself only to be found a few minutes later wiping himself with poison ivy. I still remember the look on my mom's face and the way she carried him, by the armpits, into the showers.

Maybe if I'd had an encounter with either, I'd have all the incentive I would need to identify and avoid them in the future as it is now my goal to be able to identify nettles and avoid them. That is the way of the world these days (and exactly the problem with environmental issues): What doesn't directly affect our lives, we can ignore. I'm sure that's in part due to the way we function: with so much information to take in and remember, it's impossible to keep it all up front. It's brain muscle: if you don't use it, you lose it. Time to start using it.

Wish me luck on today's riverside adventure.

(Many thanks to the pottery artist at the Buffalo Tank for the beautiful mugs and enlightening conversation.)

For more on stinging trees:

Thursday, 6 May 2010


I'm working on writing up the walk I participated in back in November for an essay that's due tomorrow (but is behind schedule). I'm reflecting back on the journey, the conversations, the people that I shared the adventure with and doing it all from the comfort of the indoors (and occasional outdoor cafe but with limited battery life, that doesn't last long). Meanwhile, Roz, organizer of the BB2B walk, is battling the ocean. Kira bati to Mandang. Go, Roz, go!

Oil on Water

An estimated 39 million gallons of oil have spewed into the Gulf of Mexico since April 20th. If my math is correct, and if that were gasoline that I could pump into my car's 16-gallon tank which I refill on average once a week, I could run my car for 46,875 years. Now, I admit I don't know how much gasoline you get from a gallon of oil. Probably depends on the type of gasoline and the process by which it's made, so my calculation is a big if. But even assuming that you can get 1/2 a gallon of gasoline from 1 gallon of oil would mean I could run my car for 23,437.5 years (or 23,437.5 of my cars for a week). I'm hoping cars powered by gasoline will be long extinct before that.

I sat next to a sweet old man on the plane coming back to England. He's an electrical engineer by day, stamp collector by nights, weekends and holidays. He started talking about engineering disasters like the one in the gulf and directed my attention to Piper Alpha. Piper Alpha was an explosion on an oil production platform in the north sea in 1988. 167 men died in that explosion. (More on that: His point of telling me this was that is never one thing that leads to an explosion of that magnitude, but rather a series of small things. He was curious to find out what the small things were that lead to the recent explosion.

I'm surprised at the methods for "fixing" an oil spill. Burn it. (What will the ppm of co2 be this year? will it have a noticeable effect?) Box it. (Golf balls?) Disperse it. Chemicals? One interview I heard (I think the lady was from NOAA) said that the chemical dispersant didn't clean the oil, it simply broke it up and made it sink from the surface into the water column. As little globules in the water column it can be eaten by fish who mistake it for food and it also has a better opportunity of being swept up in an ocean current and carried to distant places. On top sure is ugly, but at least you can see it, track it, tell what's happening.

A BBC report on the spill had a reporter dive under the spill with Philippe Cousteau, son of the famous Jacques, in hazmat suits and with cameras to see what was happening in the areas where chemical dispersant had been used. They were horrified. They described the swirling globs of oil as storm clouds brewing. Philipee called it a nightmare. (video:

Horrible ineed. Horrible enough to bring a Louisianna politician to tears. Horrible enough to cause President Obama to put a moratorium on off-shore drilling. Horrible enough for him to call out the oil companies and for the head of the Minerals Management Service, the department that oversees oil extraction in the US, to resign. It's an opportunity for the relationship between oil and politics to be exposed for what it is; to potentially change the relationship; to potentially get a few earth-loving people on board with the environmental movement, plug in cars, alternative energy. Maybe it's enough to get Sarah Palin and the tea partiers that fund her to stop chanting "drill, baby, drill".

I'm curious how the sea life has been and will be affected. No one seems to know. One report I heard had someone saying that it's not a big deal, environmentally speaking. I suppose for BP, they're thinking it's a big deal because they're loosing a precious amount of oil in a time when they're having to reach father and deeper for oil than they have before. This can't be good for their image. They've gone from British Petrol to BP to Beyond Petroleum to Beyond Polluting? Beyond saving? Bet the new guy wishes he'd kept up the renewable end of the business so at least he could claim that they're really dedicated to finding alternatives to oil so they won't risk disasters like that in the future. Another interview I watched showed some high up in BP walking along an oil stained/slimed beach. He seemed rather horrified by what he saw, and not just because he was standing over oil that was draining his pockets rather than filling them. May this be a turning point.

Everyone's been pointing the finger at BP. I think rightly so. But I'd like BP to point the finger back at us a bit, tell us that this oil business is a dirty business and we're up to our necks in it. If we don't like what we're seeing, then we need to change our ways. Supply and demand, right? BP is just supplying it because they know we want it. (I admit it's more complicated than that, but we fund wars over oil so why wouldn't they cash in on it?)

I landed in London on election day. It took a few weeks after the election for things to get sorted, for a new coalition government to be formed after the election didn't yeild enough votes for any party to win hands down. Politics seems to be all about bargaining. Giving up things to get what you want. Obama did it with health care; cashed in his political bargaining chips to get the bill passed and traded off-shore drilling in the mid-Atlantic for it. I wish politicians would start seeing environmental safety and health as being related to human safety and health as something that is simply not up for negotiation.

I can appreciate the engineering challenge that is spotting this gusher. I can appreciate that BP is working on it. I hope the fix isn't simply a band-aid. I hope there's also deep reflection. Hurray to Obama for stepping up and accepting responsibility. Let's hope it's not just lip service.

Top Kill:
Political ripples:
"Clean Up":
Moving video: Obama talks and spill images