November 2010

I love a this little blog.  It is the trials and tribulations of a crofter, the Musings of a Stonehead.  It is worth remembering just how hard life crofting in the harsh enviromment can be.  Real work.  Last year they had only four months snow free.  In rest of the UK snow is not part of normal life and so our slick wheels of life clog up and jam.  This crofter along with many many more people simply have to get on with it all in order to survive.

image from musings of a stonehead

image from musings of a stonehead

It is minus something silly here at the cottage. Everything around us that can freeze has frozen. This means that it is officially the end of barbecue season. Every weekend we eat as much fish as we can get and we love the barbecued flavour. This means that in rain, gale and in winter darkness we find ourselves with head torches on and, ridiculously, barbecuing. This was all knocked on the head on Friday night when the lovely Sharon came in from the garden and incredulously demanded to know at what temperature butane freezes. From then a discussion began were we debated the chemistry of gas cylinders. The use of the word ‘freeze’ is wrong as the ‘gas’ is actually a liquid below zero (ish) and at those temperatures it is reluctant to become a gas and cook fish. That is why we do not use butane (yellow cylinder) for our kitchen cooker and use propane (red cylinder) instead. The geekyness of it all gave way to the practical; we must grill and winter is truly here.

Later that night I was doing part of my nightly routine. I was standing, in the dark, in the living room holding the little man for a snorey cuddle while his lovely mother prepared herself for his supper. The two of us stared out at the countryside (just me actually, he just snored at the countryside) and we spent a few moments absorbing the beauty of it all, the frozen landscape, the whiteness. Then two quick blue flashes flickered on the horizon. For a few seconds I waited for the crack as I was convinced it was fireworks. But then it came from a place on the horizon where I was sure there was no houses. Then there was no noise. It was late and so I did not give it much thought. I just mentally filled it as strange.

Over the weekend I forgot about it until a friend told me that he saw two bright blue flashes that he could not explain and wondered if I had any ideas. His blue flashes happened at the same time as mine but his were much brighter and were from a different direction on the horizon, again with no sound. We put our heads together and with the help of two physics colleagues we have our explanation:


No; lightning. We triangulated our observations and came to the conclusion that it was lightning in the Mourne Mountains. The directions lined up and the brightness also matched. But the most remarkable things were the colour and the fact that I observed it at all. If I had not been looking in that direction I would not have seen it. I estimate myself to be nearly fifty miles away. The current high pressure system means cold weather but crystal clear air. The colour was probably a result of the weather too. The flashes would have bounced off the sides of mountains and hills that area all highly reflective and iced white. For me the science does not detract from the strangeness of it all and the snorey beauty of the moment.

Today we planned to go somewhere. We planned to pick one of the forests on the horizon and walk in it. When the time came to decide we ended up going nowhere. We did not stay still, instead we ignored the far off forests and walked the roads around our home instead. We walked by the snowberries and wind stripped hedges. We stopped by the river and burn and stood in silence. We spotted a dipper in the village river, busy finding food and dipping about in the gravel. We discovered a craft fair and bought a candle that smells of the season. On the way home we made mental notes of the holly trees and planned outings with buckets and scissors in the coming weeks. Then the little man began to stir from within his snug little harness. He raised his head from his little bear suit and made noises that we have learned to mean that he will soon be awake and demanding that all must pamper his needs. We were feeling a little hungry ourselves. Some of the forests far off were still undiscovered but our home was now a little bit more familiar and it was the best of winter days.

cat’s pawprint in snow by hedgeman

An early morning walk revealed some obsessive compulsive behaviour in our cats.  The snow tracks of their nocturnal wanderings showed their preference for the straight edges of things and a desire to frequently turn only 90 degrees.  The snow also gave me an opportunity to look for any fox tracks around the chicken coop.  I am glad to say that only the cat tracks were visible as their tracks momentarily used the coop as part of their geometric games.  Although a large bird had pottered and stood momentarily on the top of the coop.  The size of the tracks makes me think it was probably a rook.  Would a sparrow hawk have such big feet?  Would an owl choose such a perch?  Most likely an early morning rook.

Later that morning I stood by the window and sipped Saturday caturday coffee while watching the feathers flutter and fight around the bird feeders.  I was glad to see a new Robin join the ranks as the last one had become cat food.  Then I suddenly saw something that made me gasp.  There in the snow in the yard were the prints of a bird the size of which I had never seen in a garden.  I was perplexed.  What kind of bird could possibly make those prints?  A Raven?  A Heron?  With unhidden enthusiasm I shared the mystery with the lovely Sharon.  Without even giving me a moments thought she reminded me that I had let the chickens out earlier.  She took the wind from my sails and I spoke no more.  Scunderred.

The moon is wanning now.  In its fullness it was called the dark moon as the night has taken over all our lives at the moment.  It, itself, was far from dark and in its last moments of fullness it displayed a spectacular optical phenomenon in the form of a moon halo.

My compact camera really does not do it justice.  RJCobain does a much better job with the same moon on the same night. Orion can be seen in the bottom right corner of the picture.  It was said long ago that the moon halo was a sign of rain and that if you count the stars inside the halo that will tell you the days of rain to come.  It was also said that if you rub half a potato on a wort and then bury the potato, the wort will go away.  On a similar note, although not an old story, a friend of mine once had a headache.  He sat for the evening with a cat on his head and his headache went away.  Clearly cats on heads cure headaches.

stay cheerful in the coming dark and cold

It really is winter now.  I can tell because I leave the house in darkness and rush home from work to find darkness.  Some thoughts add a nice edge to this melancholy.  Thoughts of the now like the fact that the lovely Sharon was visited today by a truly culchie guest.  A pheasant (not a peasant)  joined her in the garden today and wandered around in the  with the chickens.  This is a sign that we truly are in the country.  I shall have to order my Barbour jacket soon.  Although, I think I might hold off for a bit as I hear that country wear such as hunters,  Barbour and quilted jackets have become the in thing in cities. I won’t bow to conformity.

Another thing to think of is times past.  For some reason I am reminded of our holidays this year.  We ventured to the ring of Beara and enjoyed the sunshine rain.  When we were there I wondered why it had that name and imagined it as the last place in Ireland for bears ( a silly thought of mine) But I now find out that it might have its meaning in the beara or beira or Cailleach.  This was an old hag of Ireland.  She has connections with the weather that arrives in winter and she is connected with rivers, lakes, wells, marshes, the sea and storms; with rocks, mountains, boulders, megalithic temples and standing stones; and with cattle, swine, goats, sheep, wolves, bird, fish, trees, and plants.  She seems to have all bases covered.  It was believed that on becoming 100 years old she must return to the sea and be reborn.

unknown source

This is all old stories, but another old story we discovered on beara was far more interesting; That of the old way of buttering eggs.  The host of our BandB had discovered this method of preserving eggs and wanted a brave test subject to try it.  The idea is that the egg is picked just after being layed to ensure that it has minimal chance for bacteria to pass into the pores.  With the egg still warm, salted butter is rubbed all over the egg.  A egg prepared in such a way can last for as much as nine months.

At breakfast the host and I sat with an egg each (eggs which were well past their useful dates) and nervously tasted a scrambled egg each (she calimed that she never wanted to try it on her own).  It definitely had a different texture, being grainier than the normal egg texture.  However, the flavour was not much different.  The lovely Sharon passed the tasting offer as she had the little man sleeping and knitting himself together inside her belly.  Later that day we came back and the host and I laughed.  The lack of vomiting and stomach cramps went unsaid and we carried on as normal, as all brave faces do.

rooks and starlings

The murmuration of starlings can be seen these nights.  One of these can be seen on the human work migration out of Belfast as we all pass the Lagan.  The murmuration swims and pulses through the evening sky as they get ready to roost for the night. Some of these starlings come from the surrounding countryside but apparently most of them migrate from lands far off.

a murmurqation of starlings by ad551

They are amazing mimics of other birds voices and sometimes human speech.  The strangest fact* I could dig up about starlings was an old battle between the starlings and rooks.  On the evening of 2nd November 1930 starlings (estimated to be 10,000) battled with rooks at Fermony, Co Cork.  They battled for hours and rebattled each night until the 9th of November when the physically larger rooks had their numbers reinforced to around 2,000.  Apparently such battles are recorded in the folklore of Ireland, Gaelic Scotland and Eastern Europe but nowhere else.

*From Birds of Ireland by Glynn Anderson

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