I suppose it widens our experiences if we try something new.  With this character building in mind I decided to try something old; tree tapping. Collecting the sap of particular trees at Spring time is apparently something that humans have been doing for quite a while.

There was a time, not so long ago, when I did not know the names of the trees.  Then I  made a determined effort to try and be able to identify trees and plants.  It was a long process and I feel like I have only just begun with respect to plants. The trees seemed easier to commit to memory. Then one tree started to stand out as a favourite.  Not the Oak or the Beech; the Birch won my heart.  Its shape, its bark, and even the sound as the wind blows through the leaves. I think it was in an interview that Ray Mears once said that he could identify many of the Native trees just by the sound of the wind through them.  I adore the birch so much that I cut down a fair sized horse chestnut as it was too close to a younger birch. It was bullying the birch and adding the chestnut to the wood pile gave the tree space to simply be itself; be a beautiful birch.

Tapping a birch tree is something that I have been tempted to do for a while.  The window of time for tapping is narrow; only about two weeks.  I have sometimes wistfully looked at birch trees well outside from this critical time. Strangely, the thought of tree tapping never enters my head at the appropriate moment.  Until now.

I stabbed the tree with my knife and drops of clear birch tears formed on the blade.  I collected my equipment; hose, bottle, string and drill.  Three feet from the ground, and at an upward angle, I drilled a one and a half inch hole into my favourite birch tree.  Straight away the sap began to drip out and I plugged the hole with the hose.  That’s it. It seemed comically ridiculous to make a hole in a tree and get a drink out of it.  I collected a small amount  and proudly presented it to the lovely Sharon to share the first tasting. She looked at me quizzically. No, suspiciously. It was clear she had a lack of trust in me and my botanical identification skills. I tasted it myself, this rejuvenating tonic from nature and fortified with forest spring, life itself unfolding.  And it tasted…..of water with a hint of something strange.  No sweetness at all. Was it really a birch?  Had I drunk the poisonous sap of some strange tree?  Doubt dripped into my mind. No, my favourite tree cannot be a lie, it would never do that to me.

Later research revealed that some foragers do admit that the sap tastes pretty much like water with a hint of “earthiness”. The plan, if I collect enough, is to boil it down to make a syrup for pancakes.  I may have to cheat a little by adding sugar. It’s a bit of effort, and it may end up re-purposed on the compost heap, but I think it’s important to try new things.

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The bad news; the doctor says I have, most likely, broken a rib (or ribs). He did say there is a possibility that it might just be bruised and I would know for sure in about a week. If it is bruised then it will be better in a week. If broken; four weeks.

It was all because of the lack of sensible shoes. Snow was blanketed over solid ice. Flat leather shoes did a cartoon run on the ice, moving nowhere, before giving up.

The good news; now that a doctor has given his professional diagnosis I might get some sympathy from the lovely Sharon. It’s not real for her if I self diagnose. A doctor once told me that I have an overactive hypochondrial gland. He said it was not dangerous and not to google it as I would just be upset.

So, a broken rib/ribs it is. I can’t really complain as it is only painful if I laugh, sneeze or breathe.

The bread maker stopped working. Making bread has become a habit here now. Three or four times a week the machine would be loaded with flour, water, salt and yeast. By using the machine I am not fully cheating; it’s only used to knead the dough and heat it a little as it does its first rise.  I shape it by hand, let it rise again, and then use the regular oven to cook it (turned up to ‘can’t go any further’ on the temperature scale). The oven has been customised with a baking stone. To use a baking stone sounds a bit fancy, but it is actually a thick paving stone I cut down to size with an angle grinder and placed on the bottom shelf of the oven.  It is a permanent feature now as it is too heavy to move.

Of course, the bread machine  was a luxury item. It decided to stop kneading just before the third batch of dough needed for a family pizza night. The little people’s cousins were due to pour into the cottage that evening with laughter and noise. So much noise.

The loss has not been missed.  Kneading by hand has made me go back to a bread book for advice on the correct kneading techniques. I prefer the french kneading method. And inevitably, a few interesting bread ideas were only a few pages away.  An added bonus has been the enthusiasm of the little lady helping me make the dough. Anything that gets the little people involved in growing or making food seems wonderful. Although, the last time she helped me, involved keeping her eyes on the TV and occasionally punching the dough. Then with eyes still unwavering from the TV, the little lady added that the bread would be alright as she was helping

Then there is the silver lining of the aesthetics. The sight of the earthenware bowl sitting on the mantelpiece over the wood stove.  The living room seems to be the warmest place to encourage the yeast. And the smell of the dough after a sponge has been fermenting overnight. A sponge is all the water and yeast mixed with only a third of the flour and none of the salt. Made the evening before, it bubbles away and adds flavour to the bread. Kneading this by hand releases all kinds of sweet and strange smells.

So the failure of the old bread maker has forced me back to joys of proper bread making and brought it to the forefront of life here instead of whirring away in the corner of the kitchen. The mixer has been with us for so long that it was a little bit sad to decide to throw it out.  It sat forlorn for weeks until I made the move to unplug it and add it to the ‘take to the rubbish dump’ pile building in the garage. Just before I did, I futilely flicked the switch and hit start just in case. It sprang into life! What do I do now?

Darkness will fall quickly and there is much to be done.

Storm Ali brought down half a tree in my sister’s garden.  Soon after I appeared with a chainsaw and a trailer.  Now I must chop it all up and stack it to season.  It sounds like a chore, and it is, and it is not.  It is a delight to cut and chop in cool air and under a setting crescent moon.  Tonight I fitted a new chain to my saw.  The old chain had its teeth sharpened down to bits so small that they nearly crumbled away.  The new chain  tore through the wood effortlessly, and scarily. The chainsaw is dangerous.  Even more dangerous is the moment when I am cutting and I sense a grin on my face.  This should not be fun.  I quickly regain a sensible attitude and remind myself to be safe.

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After cutting and nailing a roof onto my makeshift pallet wood shelter; I begin chopping with the axe as the darkness falls.  Head torch on.  I keep chopping.

A while later the littlest man arrives to help with his own head torch illuminating his little window in the dark.  Chopping stops and the tidying begins.  We tidy up under a barrage of questions about every tool and what it does. After a while we wander into the garden and sit on the bench switching off our head torches.

“Can you see the stars?”

“Yes, and I see the moon.  There”

I quickly point out a moving star overhead. “Look, that’s a satellite way up in space.”

“Is it a shooting star?”

No.  I try to explain that we don’t see shooting stars very often. It fails to placate his disappointment and then I draw his attention to the stars of Cygnus.

“Those stars are in the shape of a giant swan flying across the whole sky.”

“Is there a Giraffe in the stars?”

I would love that to be the case.  More disappointment. We look at the stars and try to make out the colours.  Yellow, Orange, Red, Blue. His attention keeps being drawn to the bright ‘stars’ near the horizon close to the moon.  I really want to point out that they are both planets, but he is three years old and there is really no need to be pedantic.  Then with excitement he spots…

“Look at that blue star there!”

I’m sorry, I had to draw the line here;

“No, that’s a light at the end of the neighbour’s gate.”

“Is it bedtime now?”

“No, it’s just dark time.”

“No, daddy, it’s Autumn time. That’s why it is dark.”

I stand corrected.

 

 

 

 

 

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Picking apples is a difficult game to play.  Too early and they can be inedible.  Too late and they are left bruised on the ground with the wind laughing around you.  For weeks now I have been gently twisting them on their stalks to see how much they are stubbornly holding on, knowing that they can just decide to give up in the time of only a few days.  The other problem is that different trees are ripe at different times.  One tree, who’s name we do not know, drops its apples in late August.  I deliberately let the wind tell me when these are ready as it gives such a heavy crop.  Once I see a mess of windfalls on the ground I decide that in one week I will strip the tree. These are the apples of crumbles, chutneys and frozen puree cubes to be dropped into cooking porridge on cold winter mornings.  Some of these apples are simmering away in the cottage tonight in a tomato chutney.  I could say that the place smells of spiced vinegar, but that is not quite the truth; it screams of vinegar.  Monty Don’s book  tells me that it must simmer for an hour.  Our experience of getting a decent consistency with chutneys is to take whatever it says with a pinch of salt (or a tablespoon of salt).  Double the time in the book, then add another hour.

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Fork to Fork – By Monty and Sarah Don

It is to be windy soon.  Tonight, after homework was completed, I passed out colanders*  to the little people and we ventured out for the annual apple harvest.  The little man inevitably gravitated to the bold red apples of the ‘Discovery’ tree looking like it was straight out of a child’s drawing.  I headed for my favourite, the ‘Katy’ tree, with its small explosions of autumnal flavour.

*bugs fall through the holes.

The harvest from the Discovery was good, and this is a crucial tree.  The apples are sweet and red with a white flesh that is marbled with red anthocyanins that have migrated from the skin.  They look strange and taste fantastic if sliced thin with a drop of lemon juice  placed on each slice.  Hungry from a long day of school, the little man and the little lady will quickly disappear a plate of these slices if it is placed in front of them.  Sometimes I have to take my hand away quick if I am to keep my fingers.  Unfortunately the third hungry person, the littlest man, just looks at me and shakes his head; not a fan of apples.

It was hard to say no when she wanted a bunny rabbit. She wanted it for so long.  I carefully explained that having a pet is a big responsibility and a bit of work is involved.  Yes, yes, she knew. She still wanted a bunny.  Eventually she realised that I needed a bit of convincing and recruited the whole family to keep on at me that we really should get a bunny. I tried again to explain that it would need looked after; the nice jobs like feeding and brushing, and the less nice jobs like cleaning out the hutch and picking up little rabbit poos.  Once she got everyone pleading along with her, I gave in. We now have a rabbit.

His name is Thumper.  I wanted to call him stew and sometimes I remind him of this with a whisper from the other side of the room. I know his comically oversized ears can hear me.

For most of the time it has all been joy and everyone has helped look after Thumper.  It is a lot of fun for us all to have him as a new member of the household.  So, has she embraced looking after a pet?  Yes, but yesterday I had to sit her down and remind her about the responsibilities.  Remind her that it is not all joy and sometimes there can be frustrations with pets and the pets cannot be blamed.  This all came out when Thumper bit through her laptop cable that she uses for work. I reminded my wife that she really wanted a bunny and promised to look after it. I explained that we have to keep things out of his way and he is only following his instincts. I also pointed out that we should be grateful that he chewed through the low voltage and not the other, high voltage, end of the cable.

Here is a picture of Thumper the laptop slayer.

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I believe him to be a breed called the Dutch.  A few days ago I told him this in case he didn’t know.  I told him he was gentle and easy going and that I read it on the internet, including, “To sum up, the Dutch is a very versatile breed that is used for showing, pets, and even meat.”  Later that evening he hopped over to me in the living room, sniffed me on the leg, then bit me.  He then calmly hopped away as if he had much more important things to do.  After I yelped, I laughed.  I  like his style and I think me and Thumper are going to get along just fine.

A long time ago I was alone in the mountains, at least I thought I was. I strolled down and around a slope and stopped in my tracks. Perched on a rock was a Raven. A massive Raven so black it seemed like a hole in the world. It turned and looked at me unsurprised. The Raven knew I was coming and knew we would meet even if I didn’t know it. The look it gave me was that of irritation, and if I could hear its thoughts I imagine it muttered and sighed, “human” while rolling its eyes. Can ravens roll their eyes? Then it decided to unfold its three foot wingspan and lift off so gracefully it looked like it was swimming into the air.

I miss the mountains. I haven’t been there in a while. I also miss the calls of the ravens. The coarse language that fills the air and echoes against granite. Part of the joy of the wild places is to see the wild blackness that is a Raven. A very long time ago they were once common and then got pushed to the edges of the land, living in the places humans rarely went. Then, some years ago, they began to return. A bird that fills a similar ecological niche, the Red Kite, was in a worse position. The Red Kite got pushed to the edges then over into extinction in the UK. The Red Kite is back, with a little help from humans. The Ravens have been slowly returning on their own.

We took a short glamping (camping in a glamping pod) trip to Rathin island with the sea at our doorstep. It was not long after setting foot on the island that I was thinking about Red Kites as a huge raptor flew around our heads. For a brief moment I did think it was a Red Kite due to its size and careless attitude it took flying so close to humans. I was wrong, it was a buzzard and we would see it a few more times during our stay. It turns out that wildlife lives more obviously on Rathlin. We saw birds, lots of birds, and seals. We even saw a hare. Although, the hare was in the grim situation of being eaten by a gull after falling off a sea cliff.

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Returning home we found more wildlife. I walked over to the hens and I knew straight away that something was wrong. They were making their alarm calls and all bunched up in a corner with the rooster on the front line, standing proud, standing guard. Over the edge of a beech tree root a dark head, with a liquid black intelligent eye, looked directly at me and then ducked down out of sight. There was an injured crow in the chicken run, but what kind of crow?

I caught the crow and knew straight away that it was not a rook. Rooks are the most common crow we usually see, and make up most of the crows that sometimes fly in huge flocks returning to rookeries at dusk. It was too big for a rook and did not have the bit on its beak that looks like bone not covered by skin nor feather. It was a big bird. It could be a carrion crow or……… a Raven.

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My opinion kept oscillating between these options until I settled on a Raven. Too big for a Carrion and smaller than the Raven I encountered up close in the Mourne Mountains. A young Raven? It was black. Heavy black beak with deep black eyes. Black claws with black nails. Reinforcing my opinion that it was a young Raven; it had the beginnings of the rainbow sheen of oil on water. Then it would move in the light and return to inky black.

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The Raven?

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An image from ‘The Raven: A Natural History in Britain and Ireland’ by Derek Ratcliffe

I fed it wet cat food then took it to the vet. They don’t seem to get a lot of Ravens. It’s size and strangeness caused a bit of excitement amongst the veterinary staff; lots of Game of Thrones references. The vet diagnosed a broken wing and thought it had a reasonable chance of recovery. After treatment it would be handed over to a wildlife rehabilitation charity, then back to the wild.

Was it a really a Raven? In flight the Raven has large diamond shaped pointed tail feather and a Carrion crow has a tail feather with a straighter edge. Of course I never got to see it in flight. After leaving the vet I kept a more open mind and an open eye looking for crows. The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon kicked in swiftly. Only a mile from our home I spotted a overly large crow gliding down to some tree tops. As it closed in it flattened out and pulled out all its air breaks, its silhouette terminating in a large diamond shaped tail.