Lovely Spring, decorating the tops of our local walls with a delicate sprinkling of blossom.
Peeking out from their cozy cove, what did these little mosses behold but a crowd of budding bryologists in waterproof jackets peering through tiny magnifying glasses, their big eyes just millimetres away from the friendly fronds of some of the neighbouring mosses living on the next wall along.
I was one member of this curious crowd, using a magnifying lens to enter an intriguing tiny world. We were all on a special mossy walk entitled ‘Urban Ramble: Meet Your Local Mosses’. It involved examining mosses on walls, pavements and bollards along a short stretch of road on either side of a big house which is home to the wonderful South London Botanical Institute (SLBI).
The SLBI contains a herbarium (draws full of dried flattened plants, useful for research purposes), a panelled library full of old botanical books, and a themed and formally laid-out botanic garden. The SLBI is also currently running a whole month of free ‘Mad About Mosses’ events – which is how I came to meet this lovely pair.
Of course, I’m no stranger to the delights of moss-appreciation that can be enjoyed on any urban street, but using a magnifying lens was really exciting (so much so that I’ve already ordered one of my own) and it was fun to be a part of an inquisitive and earnest collection of moss-admirers whilst learning how to identify one moss from another – I discovered that these little fellas are called Brian and Camilla, although I’m not sure which one is which.
Actually that should be ‘these little fellas are called Bryum capillare’. My mistake.
Chip chop chip chop all day long, with a great big pair of shears. After a couple of enthusiastic hours my left hand started involuntarily shaking due to the unfamiliar and intensely repetitious movement – and it didn’t stop until two days later.
All this chopping / slicing / hacking was fun though, especially as I was simultaneously enjoying the invincibility of wearing wellies. However, at the end of the day the pond was looking barren and uninviting – empty apart from all these stunted stalks poking up through the surface.
But then I crouched down to take a closer look and everything changed. The colours came alive! The floating debris bestowed an abstract oriental feel. An extra dimension opened up as my gaze reached under the surface.
With a little close attention and a small change in position the pond transformed!
I’ve been thoroughly entranced and excited by tree silhouettes in recent days, and this morning’s misty white skies provided a perfect backdrop for contemplating them.
These particular branches belong to what is quite possibly my favourite tree. I first discovered it after venturing down an unknown alleyway, the end of which popped me out into a lovely little park situated next to a big church.
Inside the little park, right in front of the big church, stood this tree – a London Plane, but an unusually stumpy one. I was, and still am captivated by it.
Never before have I seen so many angular twists and jagged turns within the branches of any tree. I wonder what secret histories are held within these gnarly wizened shapes. What events could have occurred to forge it so?
I look up and imagine exploring the sprawling metropolis that is mapped out in its branches. What hidden gems wait patiently within the labyrinthine tangle of paths and passages?
Note: If there are already leaves on the ground, you can skip steps 1-3 and jump in directly at step 4, although you might want to come back to steps 1 and 2 at a later date.
1. Find a tree.
2. Enjoy it throughout the year – its silhouette in winter, its new buds and blossom in spring, its emerging leaves then flourishing greenery during summer, its beautifully radiant array of changing colours in autumn.
3. Wait until its leaves start falling.
4. Admire all the leaves that have landed on the ground.
5. Pick up your favourite one.
6. Find a bus stop, preferably one where the road surface is more spiky than smooth.
7. Place your leaf on the road (be very mindful of any traffic).
8. Hope that you put your leaf in the right place.
9. Wait for a bus to come.
10. Wait for the bus to leave.
11. Check on your leaf.
12. Reposition if necessary (again, be careful of traffic).
13. Repeat steps 8-12 until you’re ready to move on to step 14.
14. Admire the new piece of street art that you helped create – your leaf of choice transferred to the tarmac, having been ironed-on by a bus.
Especially on a dull and dreary grey day it’s pretty exciting to see a flock of pigeons take to the air. Launching themselves from a selection of window sills, in a big circular swoop they swing by the opposite side of the road before heading downwards to pay a brief visit to the pavement, whence they rise fast in a seemingly organised flap only to return to the sills from which they first set out.
I love that there are so many stages of wing flap captured in this photograph. Each bird looks like it’s been deftly painted with a calligraphic brush stroke.
Pigeons are often vilified for being dirty pests despite them munching up food scraps that certain people dispose of on our pavements, and despite the lack of evidence that they pose any kind of health risk to the general public (literature sponsored by pest-control companies doesn’t count as evidence).
It used to be that pigeons were very highly regarded. They were the first bird to be domesticated – around 10,000 years ago – and have, ever since, had a close relationship with humans. They were kept for food, their droppings were a highly prized and effective fertilizer and they were used for carrying messages, thanks to their incredible homing instincts. They’ve even saved thousands of human lives.
Yes, really they have.
A trained homing pigeon can be released up to 600 miles away from its home, from somewhere it’s never been before, and will be able to find its way back all by itself without consulting any maps or asking anyone for directions. And if you so happened to attach a little tube to its leg, and placed in the tube a note written on a tiny piece of paper, you could tell somebody back home that you were going for a drink after work; unfortunately they wouldn’t then be able to send the bird back to you to request you pick up some spaghetti on your way home – homing pigeons only work in one direction.
Even more useful perhaps than the above example, a pigeon can be used to tell other members of your army that you are totally surrounded by enemies and need rescuing. Or that your boat is sinking and you need rescuing. Or that, on a reconnaissance mission, you’ve discovered where all your enemies are hiding out, so come and get them! There are many examples of pigeons helping out in this way – they were regularly used during both WWI and WWII – and there are even stories of pigeons who kept on flying to their destination to deliver their life-saving messages despite being desperately wounded by enemy fire. Of all the 54 Dickin Medals ever awarded – it’s the Victoria Cross of the animal kingdom, awarded to animals for gallantry in war – pigeons have received 32 of them. With Remembrance Day only last week, it seems a good time to remember these Pigeons of War and those that didn’t make it.
On a lighter note, the world’s first airmail stamps were issued from 1898 to 1908 for the Great Barrier Pigeon-Gram Service, a postal service serving the route from Great Barrier Island to Auckland, New Zealand, which employed pigeons to transport the mail. Imagine buying a stamp to post a letter by pigeon!
An artistic collaboration between a bird and some blackberries.
In a hurry after a massive downpour, carrying a big framed picture under each arm, hoping to make my delivery before the next deluge…I just so happen to glance towards this tree trunk and am treated to a visual soaking instead.
I stop dead, struck by a burst of joy. Unable to continue my journey despite already being late; defenceless in the face of the pure gorgeousness that is now before me – the radiance of the rain-drenched bark and its vibrant patchwork of colours rioting with life and love.
My eyes pop, my brain sparkles, my heart expands. I balance the pictures on my feet so I can hold my camera.
Eventually I tear myself away. After all, I am supposed to be somewhere. But now my step is springier and my face is grinnier; all of me is buzzing with the elation of Amazingness.
Thump! Thud! Thump! All around me spiky seed pods fall fast from the wind-tossed branches above; most of them disgorge their gleaming, beaming insides on impact with the ground.
Luckily the wind dies down. I examine this lustrous, semi-disgorged inside – this beautiful conker – its smooth surface radiant under the glow of fresh autumn sunshine.
One-third remains cozy inside its protective jacket; full emergence is a tantalising possibility. I specify one-third, because today I discovered that a horse-chestnut seed pod splits along three seams and breaks apart into three symmetrical pieces to release its seed – not into two pieces as I had previously imagined.
I found so many gorgeous glistening glossy conkers today. I thought about playing conkers. And then I discovered that there is a World Conker Championship and that I could enter. In fact, anyone can enter, there are still places left. It takes place in two weeks time in Northamtonshire. All competition conkers are provided by the organisers to make sure there is no cheating by using artificially hardened ones – so all you need to arrive with is a competition outfit…!
In other World Conker Championship news: for the first time this year men and women compete against each other! Why they were ever segregated into separate men’s and women’s competitions I have no idea.
And finally, if you were in Leeds or Manchester last week you would have been able to pay for your car parking with conkers! One intact conker could be exchanged for 20 pence worth of parking, up to a maximum of £10. All collected conkers were then donated to a local nature reserve. Hopefully they hadn’t been collected from there in the first place!