September 2011

unknown source

unknown source


unknown source

Just more evidence that you can’t upgrade the brain’s firmware.  It’s disturbing that this cannot be overruled by conscious thought.  Then again, it’s just as mad when you realise what our eyes see and what we think we see.  That’s another can of worms.  I spent about ten minutes today trying to explain to my year 11 class that when we see yellow on the TV there is no yellow light coming from the screen.  It just tricks our brain into thinking it sees yellow.

Today was a particularly well balanced day.  It was the equinox.  On top of that, I got to teach some nice topics such as atomic theory.  It is always a joy to reveal, to students, how it was that mankind discovered an element on the sun before it was discovered on earth.  It was all discovered in a time before space travel and before computers.  These are not the things that discover truths, ideas are.

The A-level students are ready for the discovery of Helium (named in honour of the sun, Helios, where it was discovered), their minds are prepared.  A junior class are not as prepared but they are ready for the seeds of scientific strangeness to be planted.  I told them how time travel forwards in time is an aspect of Einstein’s theory of special relativity.  Of course they refuse to believe, and this is the bit I love.  I then tell them that it is true and proven.  I tell them that there are satellites with clocks on board travelling at speed around our earth.  They are travelling fast enough for time to slow down on board the satellites and the clocks now all out of sync.  I then tell them that, if they desire, they can walk down the street and buy a device that listens to all these clocks that are wrong.  It listens and thinks.  It realises that the wrong time of a satellite is due to its fast speed and it listens some more.  After pondering the problem for a moment it compares all the wrong times and figures out where it is on the planet.  Without this time travel effect GPS would simply not work.

After all this I arrive home on the autumnal equinox as the leaves are falling on the roads.  I arrive home and find the little man.  He is close to that time, close to completing his first orbit around the sun.  Tempus fugit.  Fugit irreparabile tempus

A few weeks ago I came home from work to find the big plum tree in the garden bare, bereft of plums.  These plums were the best kind for eating; Victoria.  They were plump (sorry) and ripe for eating, but they were gone.  There was no evidence of the offender, no plums or stones on the ground.  This was the beginning of the mystery that is the great plum theft.

Birds were the first suspect.  The problem with the bird theory was that Victoria plums are quite large.  One remote possibility was a murder of rooks sweeping down and stripping the tree bare.

A human was the next suspect.  My jam mentor, ‘P’ at St George’s Market, was certain that a human was the culprit.  I assured her that this was impossible as the cottage is a little out of the way and the tree had been cleaned better than any human could achieve.  Last year I had to cut, melt, and bend a bit of pipe in order to get some of the high plums.  And even with my plastic pipe plum plucker (patent pending) I was not able to get every last plum.

On Friday ‘P’ informed me that she had discussed the matter with some of her friends and that the nasty thief was more than likely a squirrel.  It seems to be the most logical explanation even though I have never seen one near the garden.  Apparently it only takes a few rotting fruit and the right weather conditions to grab the olfactory attention of a squirrel.

This morning I tested one of the lesser plum trees.  It is an unknown type of plum that does not have the appeal of the victorias.   It was ripe so I stripped the tree (it’s not as tall as the other one) in the early hours of this morning.  We are a little weary of jam making and are searching for alternatives.  A plum crumble or two may use up the bulk of the crop but we decided to start with breakfast.  Tonight I put some of the plums in a pan with some honey and vanilla.  It sat on the very minimum of heat that our cooker could produce. After fifteen minutes the plums melted into themselves before they were scooped up into the fridge.  Tomorrow morning they will be added to a little yoghurt and granola for the finest of starts to the day.  I look forward to this, but I know that the joy will be empty.  I know that I will look to one of the jars of redcurrant jelly and I will be filled with longing.  A little redcurrant jelly with roasted squirrel would be the finest of breakfasts.

We rushed about on this Friday night. We fed the little man his dinner and then bundled him into the car. We headed into the darkness and the rain, heading for Larne.

To be honest we wanted to stop, pick up the chickens, and then head straight back home. It was Friday night and it was late. It was past the little man’s bedtime and we were both work weary. But, this is not how these things work. When we arrived at to pick up the new chickens we found ourselves being lost in chat with the farmer. She chatted and we chatted back, and we felt no rush or urgency in the moment. We relaxed into it instead as the little man slept in the car.

The hens were loaded into the box and she threw in a free one. We popped them in the boot of the car and then chatted some more before heading back into the night.

The three new additions are now in the coop with the hens. It has been advised that talcum powder over the new hens and the old helps to mask the smells and prevent fighting. We have no talcum. Spray deodorant was the next option advised, but we use deodorant bars (like bars of soap, sort of). We will have to keep a close eye on them for a while to see them all through the stressful social transition. Our chickens have just doubled overnight.

After school I shifted my mind into the mode of an assassin. I took on the persona of cold, calculating, methodical and ruthless. I was on a mission; the queen must die.

In the beginning of our relationship I had worried and fretted over her and I feared that my inspection might have killed or damaged her. The whole hive hinges around the queen and her health. But now she had given us two healthy queenly daughters and I have a mind to take her away from her bees and give them to one of the other hives; the weak hive.

Uniting two hives is said to be a very unnatural thing to do with bees, but it is necessary. One of the hives here at the cottage is so very weak and not moving along with enough pace. It does not even seem to be taking any feed down. However, it does have a young and mated queen. The idea is to take the hive and a stronger hive and place a sheet of newspaper between them. They sense each other and begin to eat through the paper with a mind set on fighting. The theory is that, by the time they have actually eaten through the paper, the smells mix enough for them to begin to forget who is the enemy and who is friend. The only problem left is the two queens. One school of thought is that they fight to the death and the best one wins. The risk is that the winner is damaged and the bees kill her anyway. The other school of thought is that you kill the queen you don’t want yourself. This was the mind I had when I arrived at the hive of Grelder. Grelder the witch

The last time I had looked in the hive was while I was stealing honey. I had been feeding them quite a lot, but had not actually looked in since the thieving. The first frame was heavy with stores, then more stores, then stores again, stores, stores and stores. I went through the hive twice and never saw Grelder. I saw no baby bees or larvae, or eggs. Not a single trace of evidence of Grelder at all. Had she passed away? That would be nice (assassin mode here) but it is more likely that she was hiding as she is a sneaky old witch.

The hives are together now. We tried the Independent to keep them apart, then the Belfast Telegraph. In the end, only the Times was big enough to cover the space. I guess they just that kind of bee. They are in the garden here at the cottage and the noise from them is heavy with the thirst for fighting. Only a thin leaf of broadsheet is keeping them apart. It could all end in tears, but I admit that to minimise them getting too upset I made sure it was not from the sports section. I hate the sports section. Teams play games; big deal!

This is the monster that lives under the little man’s bed.

He’s actually a friendly monster, but he looks tired in this picture.

I took the little man along the hedgerows after his dinner.  We browsed the local natural larder looking for blackberries to pick.  I remember that in some years late September was often too late for all the good berries, but not this year, not this area.  The amount of bramble bushes was very thin on the ground, literally.  Even what was present was not even close to a ripe crop.  I grazed on a few under-ripe berries as the little man vocalised from his rucksack.  At least there is the hope of sloes along a different lane.  In the spring I made a mental note of the landmarks near a full blossom of creamy blackthorn.

We stopped off at a neighbour’s house and tried to barter half a dozen eggs for some local blackberry knowledge.  It just confirmed what I, and the vocal one, had observed.  We would need to trek further afield to the nearby forest.  It was not within walking distance and would have to wait another night.  Instead we headed back to the cottage and picked up a jar of honey for a different neighbour who had still not received delivery.  It is customary for me to deliver a jar to the neighbours on behalf of the bees.

haws before the birds strip them

We walked in the wind and over bits and pieces of fallen twigs and branches.  It really does have the feel of September about it, and it is his first.  Last year he was carried around by his mother as her little passenger, her little soul inside.  This year he is perched on my back wrapped up in his winter fleece and peaks out through his hood, my little soul along for the ride.  He wore a pair of shoes on his feet.  The first time he has covered up his feet with anything other than fresh air or socks.  Shoes are on my own feet these days, a sign more obvious to me than the grey skies and falling leaves that winter is on its way.

This is the book to read tonight.  It is the book to curl up in bed with as the gathering storm begins to arrive and spill its energy.  It is the book that reminds us of nature’s power and how we are impotent against it.  In 1839 a storm hit Ireland that was beyond any other storm in memory.  It is said on that night the fairies left Ireland.

In 1839 the gusts were estimated to be in the range of 115mph.  Tomorrow the gusts are expected to be 90mph.  The numbers may seem close but a small increase in speed is a large increase in energy.  I expect it will be windy and possibly damaging tomorrow but it is just a reminder of what is possible.


The Night of the Big Wind is the book for tonight, but I have to admit; I can’t put down ‘Findings’.  It is that good a book.

The moon is full.  It is the harvest moon, and in our minds it feels like it should light the way of the farmers as they bring in the crops when the light fades.  Instead the clouds whip past it as the storm creeps up on us slowly.

Tonight I put the little man to sleep in his new bedroom.  He was moved up to his penthouse a few days ago from the room beside our own bedroom.  His room is directly above ours but it feels like a world away.  Several times during the night we would each take a random turn in going up the stairs to look in on him and listen to his snoring.

Tonight he snoozed in my arms and we listened to the wind outside.  His is an attic room with velux windows that tell every raindrop and gust, and I am jealous.  I used to sleep in such a room.  My father and I built it together.  We built the wooden frames for the walls, we put the plaster on, then paper, then paint.  We wired it all up with plugs and lights and then I slept and listened to the storms.  I loved that I was on the top of the house and the most exposed to the elements.  In winter I was the coldest and in summer I was the warmest.  It is a strange confession, but I must admit; that, even now, if I have trouble sleeping I imagine that there is only the thinnest of membranes between me and the elements.  It is enough for me to be comfortable but not enough for me not to know that it is a blessing.

We listened to the wind together and he slipped into slumber.  He has the attic room now but I won’t mind if he gets a little afraid of the worst of winter storms.  I won’t mind if he wants his dad to sleep next to him on the floor.  I won’t mind at all.

Last night I read a bit more of a book. It is hard to break little habits and make room for reading; a good habit that is easy to break. I am not one that thinks much about the actual writing of a book. I don’t think I have the experience or authority and usually just like a book full of geekness, facts and weirdness. Sometimes a book comes along that changes my mind and I find myself eating the words. This book is such a book. The chapters themselves are so far about things like finding a whale on a beach, but the words are poetry. I am not even through to the middle and I already know I am going to hate finishing it and I am already thinking of who to lend it to.

Findings by Kathleen Jamie

This morning the tradition of Saturday morning pancakes has returned after a break in that habit. The lovely Sharon is making Banana Bread and the little man is in his walker with his arms help high at the patio door. Toys are being slammed against the glass to attract the attention of the cats. Yelps of joy can be heard from him when they humour him with occasional glances.
It will be my turn with the dessert soon.  A vanilla, lemon and honey cheesecake is the intention (with our own honey).  The lovely motherly Sharon will move from sweet to savoury as she prepares little pots of meals for the little man’s dinners.  The kitchen will soon take on the smell of steaming vegetables and cheese sauces, and it will fell like Sunday dinner is imminent.  While we are doing all this we can’t help but keep looking out the window.  The season is changing more rapidly now and the coming storm be sure to push it along faster.  At the moment it is far out at sea but is only a day or two away.   The bees will be fed tonight, and then they will be strapped down ready for the winds, ready for rain, and ready for the storm on the horizon.

the coming storm

Our staff room cannot hold teaspoons.  They start off in healthy numbers and then, very slowly at the start, they begin to disappear.  The problem seems to creep up on us all and then suddenly we have to face it head on when there are only two spoons for a staff of nearly one hundred.  The yoghurt eaters, out of necessity, have to be a shrewd bunch.

People think I try to get in early so that I can get some work done or maybe beat the traffic.  The truth is that I like to eat my porridge with a tea spoon.  I try to get in before eight am to make sure I can get a spoon.

Today a kind soul bought a stir of spoons, a pile of them that seemed opulent.  I am ashamed to say that I got home from work today and ritually emptied my suit pockets of pens, keys and random bits of paper……and…… a teaspoon.  I am now wracked with guilt.

I arrived home on Sunday evening and did a quick walk around the cottage to see how things have been in my absence. The bees were quiet in their boxes and in need of a feed. I have to feed them as much as possible over these next few weeks to allow them to build winter stores and replace all the honey I stole. A quick look at the chickens accounted for three of them. The one missing chicken was, eh…. resting near the coop. It was lying in a corner and looked peaceful, very peaceful. A closer look confirmed that it was as stiff as a board.

I went back into the house and asked the lovely observant Sharon how the chickens were today. She replied that they had been fine to which I replied, “even the dead one?” Once she got over the shock she confessed to regularly looking out to see how they were but never actually counting them.

For a while now we had suspected that one of them kept getting egg-bound and then occasionally laid super large and strangely textured eggs. Just before I left for the mountains I inspected them all for general health and they all seemed fine. Although it is entirely possible that I inspected one of the hens twice and missed one as they all look identical to me. In fairness it is possible that I inspected the same hen four times while the other three watched with curiosity and disbelief.

So, she probably died of an infection from being egg-bound and a brief inspection of her lifeless body suggested that this was likely the case. We plan to replace her soon. We hope to get two young hens so that the transition and social dynamics are not too stressed. I wonder if the lovely Sharon will notice?

It wasn’t really a week as Monday was a bank holiday spent investigating forests with the lovely Sharon and the little man who took the form of a very animated rucksack that kept going “baa badaa badaa badaa”, and “doyi doyi doyi doyi”.


Tuesday morning found me standing watching the island of Ailsa Craig forming in the mist with the smell of sea and diesel fumes around me and the percussion of an Irish ferry below my feet.  A minibus was packed to the gills and we all headed for the Cumbrian Mountains in anticipation and apprehension of the expedition to come.


The first day of the expedition found the groups weary and slow on their feet.  At this point I began to worry that their route selection did not meet their fitness.  The instructor and I wandered by the paths to meet the groups and, once I discovered that he was a wilderness survival expert, I bombarded him with questions; “what’s this?” “and this?”  “can I eat this?”  We nibbled sorrel that still had the remnant of its spring apple skin flavour and he taught me how to taste the leaf tentatively in case I might make the deadly mistake of picking the leaf of a lords and ladies.


In the evening the sky was clear and I found a lonely student bivvying beside, instead of inside, his tent.  Soon we were joined by the whole group and, when they should have been tired, they were learning to spot the big dipper, the pole star, Pleiades and the moons of Jupiter (with the help of my binoculars).  The questions slowly turned from science, to religion, to philosophy and then back to the stars again.  With all our heads swollen with difficult thoughts I drifted off down the path to my tent.  I crawled into my bag and zipped up the tent before I realised my stupidity.  Why spend the night under canvas when I could stare at the stars until sleep took hold.  I lay with my head outside and watched some shooting stars and a few satellites as the sky turned.  Eventually I fell asleep with a chilled face, then woke and retreated into my shell a few hours after that.


On the second day the groups seemed to find their mountain legs and speeded up a little. Near the end of the day, before leaving the group for a wild camp in a remote valley, the instructor encouraged me to join him in a run down the mountain.  In fairness, it took little encouragement.  With a steep gradient of a bracken coated valley below us I needed very little in the way of coercion.  We ran, and I was reminded of the joy and fear of running in the mountains.  A certain momentum is achieved and it felt like a kind of surfing of gravity and earth.  As it was over a year since I had done any kind of running in the mountains there was a price to pay.  The next day the pain began, and increased on the next, and the next, and the next.  For days I walked normally uphill and on the flat, but hobbled like a cripple on even the most gentle of downhill gradients.  Stairs required a steady grip on the hand rail and a measure of decorum to maintain a straight face.


The groups carried on their epic journey.  I am not being flippant when I say that the expedition will have been the hardest thing they have ever done and will probably remain so for some time.  On the third day they excelled themselves in terms of endurance and they encountered horrible grim weather in the morning and still summer sunshine in the evening.


On the final day we made them take the shorter foul weather route due to gusts coming from a risky direction.  The groups did not get upset but instead whooped with joy at a few tiny kilometres being sliced off the total.


Just after lunch they arrived at the end.  Exhausted, battle weary and in bits and pieces.  They threw off their packs as they were curses and collapsed in the sunshine.  In the morning they had dismal weather and they took on the appearance of drowned rats.


The next day I once again found myself on the Irish ferry passing Ailsa Craig.  This time we were all tired and looking forward to home and civilisation.  When we docked, we all shuffled down into the hull to fill the minibus for the final leg home.  The door slid open and everybody drew back.  It is hard to describe the smell of a minibus occupied by damp and dirty rucksacks and boots, and previously occupied with sixteen people for a very long journey.  All I can say is that we all made a shocked noise in unison that we all understood without the need for any kind of language.


I poured myself through the front door on Sunday evening and the lovely Sharon fed me stew that my father had made and I had just enough time to hold, feed, and put to bed, the little man.  The week had been a busy one and a difficult one.  Not the walking, the camping, or the sleeping on a one inch thick mattress that seemed to float on a bed of mud.  No, the hard part was being away from home and missing the little man and I told him this as he fell asleep and muttered “doyi doyi doyi doyi”.