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July - "I remember, I remember where I was used to swing, and thought the air must rush as fresh to swallows on the wing..." by Thomas Hood

Making progress with the cottage garden July has been a month of mixed magic across Britain this year. The glorious summer weather has presented problems for many people while others have been in a good position to make the most of the outdoors. I've watched the hay and silage continue to be harvested around us and remembered tales my grandparents would tell of hay making in their day. I can still picture Grandad Bobby, with his scythe, mowing the grass along the edge of his orchard and me being told to stand clear! In Lincolnshire there was, for many years, some division about the effectiveness of the scythe compared to the sickle. In the area known as the Wolds, the scythe replaced the sickle in the nineteenth century but, in the Fens, there was resistance. The sickle was used by women as well as by men. It required great strength to wield a scythe effectively. Of course there are some women who are able to use a scythe - but I'm not one of them! I tried when I was a Lincolns

APRIL - "Any fool can know. The point is to understand." Albert Einstein

Tulips are better than one!

April 2021 has been a month of change across the world. There have been many positive headlines  running alongside the worrying and dubious political ones. Education is the key! You don't need a degree to work out a path through asphyxiating and slanted news stories which are meant to keep you in check! We can educate ourselves to do this. Look at the minutiae and then identification becomes informed and relatively simple. We can't then be taken for a ride! It's the same with a knowledge of the natural world - look at every little thing in close-up and you will be confident in your analysis of the facts. It's not self indulgence because what you find may be useful for other people seeking to improve their environment - or to someone else just embarking on an amazing new interest. You'll certainly be a brighter human being - sharing your light just because you can't help yourself!

For a long time I've felt concern that our education structure may put up barriers for some kids. The system can only go so far in expanding their horizons. The development of such children seems limited within the scope of family and, if they're lucky, individual inspirational teachers. We all have our pet subjects. When I was at Epworth County Primary School a very long time ago, we had a teacher who came in for one afternoon each week. Being at the top end of the school and therefore feeling very smart, we nicknamed her "Guillemot" because she was always telling us about birds and nature generally. I suppose she must have dwelt on seabirds as, otherwise, she would have been Sparrow or Raven or Larch or something else! Nature was her pet subject - and she knew a lot about it. I don't doubt that her own children had an excellent grounding in nature study. When I became a teacher I was a bit overawed by the expertise of my colleagues so I decided that, if a pupil should ask me something I didn't know the answer to, then I would research with them and we would work it out together. This has stood me in good stead forever! I've encouraged children to find out for themselves and I've learned a lot accidentally.

We need to help ourselves to an understanding of the world around us. Don't believe everything you're told - work it out for yourself. You won't gain popularity - in fact you'll scare some folk away - but you will be comfortable with yourself and your beliefs and you'll maintain honour and dignity.

Into the April Wood

The other day, a brave little bird flew across our path and into a young tree where it settled in a bit of a daze. My daughter had her phone so she took a photograph while I tried to internalise the movement and size of it. My first thought was the right one.  A whitethroat! Or was it a ...? When we arrived home we looked it up - and, yes, it was a whitethroat. I've spotted them before at about the same time of the year and about a quarter of a mile from there. They followed the stars to get to our shores and, by detecting the earth's magnetic field and using it to set their course,  they will find their way back, in the autumn, to Africa - south of the Sahara. Respect!

Back home from that walk, I was stopped in my tracks, while cleaning the back of the house, by the most exquisite song. There are few more beautiful bird songs than that of the tiny wren. He sounded to be in the back hall with me. I peered through a clear strip of glass in the door. Much of the door glass is frosted which meant he didn't pick up on my careful movements. I didn't have to scan the yard for long. There he was! He was perching on top of a large wind-felled branch which we had gleaned, Goody Blake-style (ref. Wordsworth), from our square and propped up by the gate. He had no intention of stopping anytime soon. He went on and on and on! Bliss! I keep checking for activity around the two bird boxes just feet from his seat. The wrens have used one of them before.

The next day the dog walkers came home with a vile-smelling dog and a phone recording of the cuckoo singing for them. The cuckoos have arrived in Caithness! Orlando had been rolling in something dead. He loves to sprinkle eau de death on himself. It took three people to clean him up - not me - I cunningly volunteered to make the tea! In the evening, in spite of all the cleaning, he still had a faint aroma of decomposition about him so we fastened the stair gate!

Snakeshead Fritillary

But April stories should be about new life. The blossoming of Spring!  The buds are plumping up on the trees and the slugs and snails shamelessly spread slime over paths and patios. My family tease me mercilessly by referring to our back yaird as the patio. It may be fine to call the outdoor sitting area a patio in Spain - and countries with Spanish influence - but this is Scotland! We have a yaird. There is so much money in the patio business when all we need is a perch with a view over the garden and its inhabitants. The tiny wren is happy with his vantage point! Don't get me wrong - I make the yaird into a pleasant outdoor space each spring (it gets a bit out of line in the autumn/winter) but I keep it simple. The patio business will not benefit from me when I only want to spend time out of doors!

I sit out as often as I can. I close my eyes for a while and take in the sounds and smells around me. This year's finalists include the blackbird, wren and herring gull. The robin, siskins and finches give them a good run for their money and the tits do their best, with the sparrows and starlings throwing in their noises off, but, after disqualifying the rude jackdaws for not really trying at all, I've narrowed it down. The herring gull must take third place because percussion is exciting but doesn't please me in the same way as sweet melody. Now, how to choose? I'll probably have to go with equal first!

"You speak like the very spirit of earth, imbued with a scent of freshly turned soil" (Nathaniel Hawthorne). 

Smells, odours, fragrances are as much a symbol of the springing of the year as is birdsong. As I turn over the soil to join the gift of plants to the herbaceous border, it hits me! That heavenly scent which has graced our planet for millions of years can never be described in human language. Hedgehogs grunt its virtues, birds carol its beauty, flowers nod towards its qualities but you and I are at a loss.

The rhubarb is late. The gooseberry bushes look healthy. There is a tiny amount of blossom on the small pear tree and the apple trees which were planted only last year have fat buds. There is much confusion in the garden at 53 after the long winter and winterly early spring. We thought we had done well up here in Caithness. We had weathered what Winter had thrown at us and felt satisfied that we'd had our share. April came with an osprey sighting - and a tick! Things were warming up.

April Dawn

I went outside early on Easter Sunday. I took a turn around our town garden and enjoyed the freshness of it all. The pink-tinged sky indicated stormy weather. And it came! Later in the day it became very windy with snow in the wind but only a little had settled by bedtime. The next day was bitterly cold and a blizzard marked the end of our dog walk. The day after that we set off in the car with Orlando, intending to do the regular walk at Newtonhill. We had to turn back. We did town walks for a few days and, when we managed to get up the hill, we were stunned by the beauty if it all. The little forest was perfectly Christmassy - even more so than in the depths of winter. We wondered if it was due to the settlement of extra snow on the new growth - or perhaps it was the shading of greens apparent beneath the white stuff. The next day I took a video of our spring-winter-wonderland from the kitchen window and, on the walk, I spotted dandelions through the snow. Did this equate to Noah's dove finding the olive branch? Two days after that I wrote in my diary, "No snow today." And we've had spring weather since then - with cold nights and mostly sunny days.

Another dawn (26/04/21) - and we're thankful for it - but it's dreich! Nonetheless, the soft, gentle rain is perfect for the newbies planted in the garden - and it didn't stop the cuckoo singing a greeting to us as we walked the dog. This was the first time for me this year - so very special. In 2018, I didn't hear it until May 6th. 

Myosotis (Forget Me Not) after rain

Last week, with the sun beaming down, the April walks were glorious. Today's walk was not sunny but the birdsong was powerful and, as well as the newly arrived cuckoo, we heard the grasshopper warbler trying to fool us with its ventriloquism! A pheasant screeched out something to make sure we didn't forget the regulars and two roe deer, flashing their pale rumps, grazed near to us so that we kept Orlando close. Geese communicated with each other overhead but they were in the cloud so we were unable to identify them. Rooks and buzzards drew attention to themselves from the trees in the excluded woodland and new fresh green growth was everywhere.

Hellebore (buttercup family)

Our tiny wild patch at the bottom of the garden continues to produce multitudinous celandines while the dandelions are poised to take over there. Just stop for a moment and look at them. They really are so beautifully balanced. The image of bees settling on dandelions in early spring is special. Dandelions are not the most nutritious plant for bees but, before the other plants flower, they may be the only source of protein they have. In the countryside, dandelions have always been valued. The flowers are used in the making of beer and wine while the leaves may be used in salads. Don't use the ones on the roadside though as they are affected by pollutants. If you are averse to caffeine in coffee you can use chicory instead and dandelion root may be used as a substitute, in part, for chicory coffee. 

Who remembers Camp coffee?  Granny Ivy had it every morning - made with milk. It is a syrup flavoured with coffee and chicory and can also be used in baking. She didn't have breakfast - just a cup of tea - but beavered away with the housework until mid-morning when she sat down with her cup of coffee. Then she was up again to get on with lunch - which we called dinner because it was the cooked meal of the day.

The moon, last night, had a magical cloak around it. Tomorrow (27th April) it will be full - the pink moon. In the early morning it should be possible to get a good view - but it's unlikely to be very pink! I sometimes find myself wondering what the recently-born lambs, all around us in Caithness, think when they see a supermoon such as this one. When we are fast asleep in our beds of a spring night, do they look up from their mamas' woolliness and notice the moon? I like to think so. Every little thing deserves close consideration. I hope I never stop wanting to know.

Bee-Willow, Bee-Willow, Bee-Willow (apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan!!)