Saturday, 29 September 2007

Welcome to Puddock Acres

Mind you, cutting the grass does have its consolations - and I don't just mean the bulging biceps and the free exercise. I get to cut paths like this through my woodland. Welcome to Puddock Acres!

Widow's Biceps

I'm recovering from what I hope will be the last grass cut of the season. This year was the first year that I had to cope with all the grass cutting completely alone and I was worried that I wouldn't manage. But I was determined to try. I reckoned that if I couldn't cope then I would have to move. The house and the land are really too much for one person - too big, too much work - but I was not ready to move away and leave behind the memories of my life with my husband, unless there was no alternative.

So I decided that if I could manage the grass - and there's a lot of it - then I might be able to stay on here; if not, then that would be telling me something too.

And I have survived! In fact, I am fitter and stronger, thanks to all the work, than I have been in twenty years. It is demanding work and takes 6-8 hours every ten days or so - that is, four one-and-a-half hour sessions to get it all done. That is a lot of pushing and pulling on a slope! I've got muscles in places I didn't know I had and biceps the size of - well, what biceps are supposed to look like.

So I have proved something to myself. I have kept on top of the grass on my own for a year. But it takes a lot of time which means that other things, not least the interesting work in the garden, is neglected. I wondered why the garden was so weedy and was berating myself for not staying on top of it. But then I realised that, as it takes four sessions to cut the grass, the first four dry days in a ten-day period (and this is Scotland so dry days are not that frequent!) are taken up by the damned grass. I can't start on the weeding, never mind planting, or sitting around watching the flowers grow, until the fifth session. Usually there have been a rainy few days, so by the fifth session the grass needs cutting again.

Also, although I'm not that old, I'm not going to get any younger as the years pass - damnable isn't it? If I found the grass cutting hard going this year, what will it be like in five years, or ten?

So today, as I finished the last cut of the hardest, steepest patch of grass, I patted myself on the back - or would have if I'd had the energy. As it was I was completely knackered. Why am I doing this? Who am I doing it for? I've proved to myself, and the world, that I can run the place single-handed. But am I enjoying it? That's the question now. It's a pig.

Or maybe the question has as much to do with being more ready to move on, as with the effort involved in keeping the grass down. In March, at the beginning of the growing season, I was six months closer to the death of the Golfer. Now, at the end of September, I have spent another 180 days without him - another 180 days to get it into my thick skull that he ain't coming back and that this, whatever it is, is my life now. And I'm not sure that cutting an acre of grass on a 40 degree slope is my idea of fun in this new life.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Bugs and things

I like to walk the paths through Puddock Acres every day. The trouble with that is that you tend to grow so used to what's there that you stop looking. Also, having been here for getting on for ten years, I keep thinking I've seen all the wildlife there is about the place. I am delighted to say, though, that every year one or two new flowers and even the odd new bird appear. But still, I know that I do not pay enough attention as I walk and so miss much more than I see.

So I was thrilled to notice, out of the blue, (must have been feeling particularly perceptive) not one but two tiny bugs on a fencepost - both brand new to me and both really small and easily overlooked. I am now hooked on a whole new (tiny) level of nature watching.

I haven't been able to identify them yet - haven't found them in any guides. The first is some kind of shield bug; I'm pretty sure of that. It is a startling green, with striking red and brown markings on its back. It's about the size of a ladybird; a bit smaller perhaps:

The other bug I have had less luck with. It was on the same post, just a few inches away from the shield bug. I think it may be a juvenile something but I haven't as yet a clue what that something might be.

I am now hooked on bugs. It was bad enough before, keeping eyes peeled for slugs and fungi and flowers but now I have to examine every fence post for new creatures.

Monday, 17 September 2007

The Magnificent Slug

Having brought slugs into the conversation with my last post, I couldn't resist posting one of my favourite photographs. I took this a couple of years ago. It was another of those occasions where I was sitting in the house, saw something weird in the garden and grabbed my camera. I'd never seen a slug like this before. It's Arion ater - the Great Black Slug. There it was, contentedly munching on a toadstool. I had no idea slugs ate fungi (I had no idea about most of nature as will be becoming apparent) but apparently slugs, and these ones in particular, love them. When you see half-eaten fungi around the garden it's usually slugs that have been at work.

I was thrilled to get some good close-up shots of it but this one in particular caught my eye. If you look at it full-size you can actually see his 'teeth' nibbling away at the edge of the toadstool. Having these photographs, I could see in fantastic detail its wonderful markings, which reminded me of Durer's Rhino. Look at the beautiful markings, that jet-black colouring.

I am now very fond of the many slugs I find about Puddock Acres. They get such a bad press it's hard to find a webpage about them that isn't just about eradicating them in the garden. Maybe I should start a Slug Appreciation Society.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Slugs, Edible Houses and Being Miserable

I am low today. What is it that alters mood and makes one day good and another bad? The anniversary of the death of the Golfer is approaching so that's a partial explanation. Hearing the first mouse of the winter in the roof above my bedroom last night doesn't help either. After an untroubled summer round Puddock Acres, winter rots my confidence, with the promise of leaking roof, snow, dark, dark nights and rodents that I don't want to kill but I can't bear in the house either.

So I'm feeling a bit reflective, a bit sorry for myself and a bit plain miserable today. I walked through the wood to cheer myself up - it usually does, but today all I could think of was the times we walked it when he was ill. Damn the painful memories - what use are they?

Today is the first cold day we've had - summer gone now, butterflies gone, swallows gone. But there's still plenty to look at. The fungi are burgeoning - more varieties here than I'd ever seen in one place before and precious few I can put a name to. I think I'll make up my own names for them. There would be the Sponge, the Summer Russet, the Hedgehog, the Piecrust, the Orange-Peel (I think that one has already been named that officially).

And the slugs don't mind the cooler, damper days - they are out in force. I've grown very fond of the silly things and I wish I'd had my camera with me today as I found one right inside a hollowed out mushroom - right inside it - munching away at the walls. What must that be like in human terms? I crouched down and watched it contentedly browse. Can you imagine the bliss of standing inside a small room and it being edible? The only thing I could think of was the cottage in Hansel and Gretel. I've never seen a more contented slug - made me smile.

So, for all of you out there who are grieving or lonely or just having a bad day and bearing in mind this is supposed to be a nature blog, here is a sustaining and rather beautiful little poem by Gerry Cambridge from his book of poems and photographs of Scottish nature "Nothing but Heather!"

Dandelion Seeds

From somewhere -
from the Pennines, from Skye,
will arrive the puff of air
to make us fly.

In each barbed seed
(as in a nib of gold)
though they call us weed
is light untold -

to scatter like suns
in the Cosmos's breath,
and billow long tons
of blooms from death.

Now that's what I call a sustaining poem! And I am ready to face another day.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

The Cruellest Cut - a thorny issue

Now that September is here, the growth of the grass has slowed down. This means that I don't have to cut the grass quite so often, which frees up my time to catch up with other tasks round Puddock Acres. So I've been thinning the hedgerows that surround the land. These hedgerows are natural, wild things so are full of the kind of shrubby plants that do well here - mainly gorse, with bramble, dog rose and honeysuckle running through it - breathlessly picturesque but very prickly.
So, as I hacked away, I knew that they were going to bite back. In between swearing sessions, I fell to musing on which was the jaggiest. (Honeysuckle, of course, is blissfully free of thorns.)

Bramble has a reputation for being prickly and I'm sure there is a fair amount of blood mixed in with the brambles gathered on roadside verges at this time of year but frankly, in this company, it is merely a bit of a nuisance. The stems are soft and the thorns tend to be equally so.

Gorse is another story. It is famously unfriendly; its thorns are long and stiff; its branches entirely covered in the damn things. Picking up any branch has to be undertaken with extreme care. This lady describes well many people's attitude to the stuff. I have a love/hate relationship with it. It is a thug, it is a nightmare to control but its brilliant yellow flowers are a joy and I have even grown to love its musky scent; it also provides useful protection for tree seedlings and flowers. So as long as I can cut it back every couple of years I'm quite fond of the old ruffian. What's more, it is not the spiniest thing to deal with in the garden. That's right - gorse is only number 2 in the thorny stakes.

It is the good old dog rose that is the champion Puddock-impaler. I had been going to award the gorse the ultimate accolade but as I was being scratched by the gorse branches, an insignificant twig of dog rose brushed against my thigh and I was hooked. As you can see from the picture above, the thorns are like fish hooks so once they are in you do extra damage getting them out. The thorns are also as tough as metal - you can't just laugh them off like the brambles.

So, dog rose wins the prize for irritating me the most - but I wouldn't be without it. The thrill of having hedges filled with honeysuckle and rose, with all that perfume and all that colour, just about gets me through while I bathe my scratches!

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

The Gentleman in Black Velvet

Last autumn I was very lucky to see, and capture on camera, a mole. My near neighbour had begun construction on a barn and, I think, had consequently made this little chap homeless. I saw him bumbling across the front lawn and grabbed my camera.

It appeared to be making exploratory digs on the surface - snuffling here, scraping there. Moles are famous for being almost blind and this little chap seemed to be totally unaware of my presence. I was able to get very close to take my pictures, although he was well embedded in the grass so I never got a picture that I was completely happy with - although the one below, of him furiously digging with his tail in the air, makes me smile.

Moles are rarely seen, as they live their lives almost entirely underground. Usually all you see are the molehills. You can find out more about them from the Mammal Society

I don't know when I'll see another mole. I live in hope. But I'm glad to have the photographs to prove to myself that it wasn't a dream.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Autumn cleaning

What is it about the sight of dried leaves on the path before me that gladdens my heart? It shouldn't - when the leaves start to fall, I know that the long, cold, dark nights are ahead. Already, the sun is below the treeline for most of the day; soon, I'll only glimpse it through the trees; and that will be that for six months.

And yet, as I set out to walk the paths of my wood, my heart leaps at the sight of those dead leaves on the path. Is it memories of one of those key events from childhood - kicking through piles of leaves on a cold autumn day in your wellies, holding tight to your mother's hand? Partly - kicking up those leaves as a child was one of the rare occasions when you were allowed to be destructive; and oh! the satisfying noise those leaves made!

I think that we of the northern climes are particularly attached to autumn. I love summer but it doesn't feel as though it fits me in the way that autumn does. When the leaves begin to fall, the colours of tree, grass and plant become gentler after the dazzle of summer flowers; the sun is lower and the light it casts is golden and dappled. But it's more than that; I think there is a sense of satisfaction and connection as nature begins to tidy up for winter. When the leaves fall, the air is cooler and the beasties, including the dreaded midges and ticks, disappear so walking is a pleasure again; the grasses and plants die back to the clean earth, the form of the trees is revealed - I think there is something deep in the human heart that appreciates autumn as the tidying-up of the year; the storing, recycling of nutrients. Just as we pickle and preserve and stack logs and stock larder shelves, or at least we used to, we see the same process reflected in nature with ripening conkers and rose hips and leaves falling.

Photo of the Week

Here's a rather uplifting photo I took a while ago. There is a huge tree - a Douglas fir I think - that interrupts an otherwise stunning open view of the countryside around Puddock Acres. Normally I resent it but when I saw the rainbow shining behind it, I thought it would make an interesting pic, so I forgave it - for a while anyway.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Lost World

Since I've been driven in by the dreaded midges, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share with you a fascinating little book I found in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago. It's a slim volume - a year's diary of a woman living alone in a croft in the West Highlands of Scotland. The book is called From a Highland Croft and it's written by Wendy Wood. I've found it inspiring to turn to when I've found the going tough here in the pond since the Golfer died.

In preparing this post I did some research on the net into the author and was surprised to discover that she was not the simple countrywoman I had thought - see here and here. So much so that I wondered if her tale of simple country life could still be trusted. I decided that, at the worst, she was an early downshifter and that, in any case, her prose is so lyrical and the picture of a way of life now all but gone that I had to share it. Here's a quote from her September entry - can you guess what year the book was published in? I'll reveal the date at the end of the post - I think you'll be surprised.
When the wind rises, the air is full of the swish of silver birch, occasionally interrupted by the clatter of falling oak or alder leaves, crisp and dry. There is a tang in the air and I am getting anxious about the bigging of my new byre.

There is something very primitive about prising stones out of the hillside with a crowbar and rolling them down. There was something decidedly primitive too about the adder that was coiled up asleep below one stone and met my hand as I levered. The sharp edge of a spade soon severed his connection with life, and by morning the birds had cleared the pieces.

Meanwhile, the cattle sale is due and that is the greatest day of the year for us...Some of the crofters have as many as eighteen miles to drive their beasts to the sale, five miles of which is dangerous going, where contest among the animals for place may throw them to destruction.

The owners arrive at the place of sale hungry enough to want a kebbock of cheese apiece of a size that would need a peat cutter to make inroads on it. Once the beasts are safe in the sale field on the side of the hill it is time for a dram, followed by a ceilidh round the fire.

Lots are drawn for the places on the sale list, each glen hoping to sell after the bidding has warmed up and before the buyers are cold - if the buyers would just go to the hotel now and have a dram!

Men hate to part with their beasts, but the money gained is the rent and the grocer's bill and the cost of feeding stuff for the year, plus a 'fairing' for the family which is to be bought down at the shop before starting for home in the gloaming.

Wonderful stuff! So, when did you think this lady was describing life in rural Scotalnd? 1952 - only fifty years ago - almost in my living memory. I am still blown away when I think of the way our lives have changed - in many ways for the better of course, but we have also lost something.

I'd like to share more of Wendy's life in her croft with you all; I hope to post an extract every month and I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do.

By the way, I should add that harming or killing adders is now illegal in the UK.

When Midges Attack!

I was going to work in the garden, honest I was. In fact, I was working in the garden. But it's both mild and overcast so the midges were out in force and I was soon under attack. I can cope with a few midge bites but if I all ow myself to be bitten too many times I can end up feeling pretty grotty for a day or two so it's safer, though VERY annoying, to give in, come back inside and wait for either bright sunshine or colder weather, neither of which they're so keen on.

There are three significant pests here by the pond - midges,ticks and leeches. Each is irritating, not to say disgusting, in its own way but only the midge can drive sensible adults running for the house.

Thursday, 6 September 2007


I love September. Apart from anything else, you can free yourself from the daily hope of a decent summer. It's curiously comforting - no hope being better than dashed hopes. (It's being an existentialist that does it - see my other blog )

The swallows are beginning to gather on the wires; the birds have begun singing again after the silence of late summer; the golden fields are full of Swiss Roll bales of hay. Here's a September poem for you:

Sun streamed down, warming the earth.
The scythe was stone-sharp.
The year came round to this.

Breaking the icy ground
Scattering the seed
Chasing the crows
Praying for rain, then sun, then rain, then sun again
All had led to this.

Corn falling
Sweat breaking
Stook gathering

A good year or a bad
Would depend on him today.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Deer, deer

Photo of the Week

Thought it was time for another deer picture. Very pleased to catch these two both looking up at the same time. Usually one or the other (or both) were browsing the flowers off my roses or the blossom off my trees.

These are roe deer. You would normally expect to see them looking a duller shade of brown but in the summer their coats redden up to this rich terracotta shade. Because of this they can be mistaken for red deer at first glance.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

A Plethora of Peacocks

I was thrilled when cutting my grass paths yesterday to see a dozen or so Peacock butterflies rising up from the ground as I moved along. They were all on the ground, I guess drinking dew from the damp grass.

I've never seen so many before. Peacock butterflies used to be rare up here but have been spreading further north - they say due to global warming, and who am I to argue?

I like to think though that the changes I have made here in the last two years have helped. Nettles are vital to Peacocks, as they lay their eggs on the leaves and then the plant acts as the food source for the caterpillars, so no nettles, no Peacocks. In the new Puddock regime, I leave as much as I can uncut and so this year I had a bumper crop of nettles - loads of nettles, loads of Peacocks?

You can read more about these beautiful butterflies here:
and there's a great page, showing the progressive arrival of them through the UK this spring:

My garden is Mordor on a bad day

Okay, so I've posted a few pretty pics of the multitude of photogenic wildlife in my two and a half acres. But it isn't always sunshine and the scent of honeysuckle here - oh no! Often the place drives me mad and I wonder why I'm bothering to stick it out when I could be in a nice normal house where Pizza Hut delivers and I can walk out for a coffee.

I was re-reading Lord of the Rings last winter (a nice wintery evening thing to be doing) and I came across this passage in The Return of the King. I am now convinced that J.R.R. Tolkien must have been on holiday near here when he was writing this bit of the book because it is spot-on:
Upon its outer margins under the westward mountains...was a dying land, but it was not yet dead. And here things still grew, harsh, twisted, bitter, struggling for life. In the glens...on the other side of the valley low scrubby trees lurked and clung, coarse grey grass-tussocks fought with the stones, and withered mosses crawled on them; and everywhere great writhing, tangled brambles sprawled. Some had long stabbing thorns, some hooked barbs that rent like knives. The sullen shrivelled leaves of a past year hung on them, grating and rattling in the sad airs, but their maggot-ridden buds were only just opening. Flies, dun or grey, or black marked like orcs with a red eye-shaped blotch, buzzed and stung; and above the briar-thickets clouds of hungry midges danced and reeled.
Do you get the feeling that he was having his revenge on some ghastly holiday? I bet it was near here!