moments


There is a joy to the bounty that is the autumn harvest, especially apples. For weeks now I have been eating bread and cheese sandwiches every work day and fried apples on toast at the weekend. Nigel Slater has a wonderful recipe for the fried apples on toast that is much tastier that it sounds. I also place a bowl of sliced apples, tossed with a teaspoon of lemon juice, at the homework table. It does not stay full for long. However, there is a creepier side to autumn harvesting.

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Every evening, either the lovely Sharon or I have to venture out between the raspberry canes to fill a colander. A daily colander seems enough for, raspberries with porridge (with maple syrup), raspberries for our break time snacks and raspberries for the little lady’s breakfast. A head torch is required as well as bravery. Nature can be rewarding but sometimes requires a high price. As soon as I step between the plants, the spider webs begin to accumulate on my head and face. There is no point brushing them off, it is a waste of time. I must embrace an attitude of stoicism, and just get on with it. Daddy long legs are disturbed, harvestmen fall on me from the higher leaves and moths fly straight to the torch attached to my head. Then there are the spiders. Little white and yellow spiders that crawl all over me. They often seem to become passengers on me and are discovered a short time later after having come in from the garden. I am sure I have been bitten by them, or something, on my arm, back and hand. Yet the little lady must have her breakfast. There is one reassuring thought in my foraging mind.  At least I know none of the spiders in the dark are the super big Huntsman spiders. No, at this time of year they have all gone indoors away from the cold, only to be seen as they run across the floor. Then our brains quickly try to figure out what it is seeing, before we scream and reach for a very heavy book to defend ourselves with.

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Friday evenings are a lesson in child logistics that parenting lessons do not prepare you for. Exhausted from a busy week I rendezvous with the lovely Sharon in a nearby town. The routine is that I take the little man and the littlest man to pick up the shopping, go home, pack it all away and then make everyone’s dinner. The lovely Sharon takes the little lady to a dance class and has to go to a coffee shop and sip an americano for an hour. This evening she claimed she was busy and had to use the time to do some Born-Haber cycles and other thermodynamic calculations. It sounded like more fun than shopping to be honest, but I have learnt that it is not constructive to share such observations.

 

Before getting the shopping the boys insisted that we had to go to the toilet. For the little man and the littlest man this is a weekly routine that takes too much time. This evening it turned into an impromptu science lesson on the importance of dietary fibre. The lesson stopped when my lesson objective got lost and the little man began counting all the bananas he would eat in a week, a month, a year.

 

Click and Collect is a wall of lockers outside. It is usually a fun game for the little people to  find the locker numbers. Today it asked me for age verification. There must be a bottle of wine behind one of the doors. Suddenly the game became fun for me as well. I typed in the lovely Sharon’s date of birth (as she completes the online order in her name).  INCORRECT – ONE TRY REMAINING. Confused, I typed it in again. INCORRECT – LOCKED OUT. I rang the lovely Sharon and explained. She was incredulous, “How can you not know my date of birth?” After some more explaining it transpired that I did indeed know my wife’s birthday. However, when completing the order on the previous evening she momentarily, or accidentally, did not. So what date did she put in? If the year is the same then there are 364 other possibilities and I had two tries before I got locked out again. Unless her birth year was a leap year. It did not seem the time for mental maths. I had to get into these lockers or I might go hungry tonight. Eh, I mean, my children might go hungry tonight.

 

I called the help line and completed the security questions as if I was the lovely sharon then explained the situation. I was asked if I had spoken to my wife. Immediately I knew the implication and again explained that contrary to all probability, I did indeed know my wife’s date of birth. Then I was advised to go into the store to see if someone could override the lockers.

 

After I explained to the little people that it was not Friday toilet time again, we found the staff at the helpdesk being kept busy by a long queue. Eventually it was our turn just as all four became free to help. This could have gone one of two ways. Either they were all simply work colleagues who stoically got on with their jobs or they got on well with each other with witty banter and it could be more embarrassing for me. One of them cracked a joke. They all laughed. I sighed. I began to explain before someone interjected, “…and you put in your own date of birth?  We get that a lot.” Gentle laughing and sympathetic nods from all four staff. Then I tried to explain that I had not put in my own date of birth and had not put in my wife’s date incorrectly. How I wished that the lovely Sharon was here to explain this herself. I would have enjoyed that much more. They had to track down someone with the ability to override the locks on the lockers. I took the boys to look at the toys as I waited and expected, “Man at reception doesn’t know his own wife’s date of birth,” to be blasted over the tannoy. Sense prevailed and it remained quiet.

 

During the drive home I was indignant. How could my own wife really assume I did not know her date of birth. The cliche! It’s just a simple number. It’s not like not knowing your own children’s ages. That one I have to think about, but in fairness, all three of them keep changing it so I think I can be forgiven.

I kept reading about taking a micro adventure and had little chance to do it. The chance arrived. After a long day in the hills I looked at the tent in the boot of the car, then at the rain-less sky, then at the tent, then at the sky. I closed the boot. With rucksack hefted on my back and my walking stick in hand, I headed away from the campsite and away from the tent. As I left, an unknown camper spotted me heading off at a strange hour and waved, “Have a good adventure.”

Down the road, past the river. Through the hazel coppice, into the forest. I paused at the usual spot; the three thousand five hundred year old burial mound. Could I share the forest tonight? I sometimes imagine what this man’s life must have been like. In my mind he begins as a warrior hero figure reinforced by movie tropes. Then I settled upon the reality that he was probably just like everybody else. The same desires, fears and anxieties. The same need to find purpose and shepherd our children; prepare them in any way we can and hope that they are the best of us. I have visited this mound often and sometimes imagine the ghost of this man coming back for a chat. Think of the wonders I could tell him; what we have created and achieved. Although, if he asked how we have looked after the earth since he left it a few thousand years ago I might have to change the subject as quickly and subtly as possible.

Earlier I had chosen a spot to sleep. The land rose away from the path and into the dark forest before dropping a little, plateauing for a few meters, and then plunging down steeply into the river below. I found a flat area and made a mental note of a characteristic tree on the path, one that I could find again when I returned in the evening.

When I did return and find the characteristic tree I walked into the forest and found something I did not spot on my initial recce. A plastic spike with an insect trap and a pit-fall trap below it. Someone must be sampling insects and wanted it not to be found. Yet they wrestled with the dilemma of not being able to find it themselves. So, they placed it on the plateau just beyond the high point in line with the characteristic tree! We all think the same way; me, the mystery naturalist and all of us. We all follow the patterns of thought in our heads.

The gas stove was fired up while I cleared a patch of forest floor for my sleeping bag and bivvy bag. A bivvy bag is essentially a rain coat for a sleeping bag. Not a complete waterproof barrier, but enough to survive a little rain if it arrived. Once the cup of tea was ready I settled down with a good book.

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Quite a while later the darkness was slowly pouring in and I decided to try and let the tide of sleep take me into the night. Midge flies bit as I texted the lovely Sharon my eight figure grid reference just in case I was devoured by earwigs and millipedes and she had to try and find my body. Days later I found only one small deer tick feeding from my arm; a small price to pay for a micro adventure.

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I woke up a few times. I woke to note that the farmer across the small valley had finally stopped lifting the hay at 1 A.M. On one occasion I woke to fight the irrational urge to flick on my head torch and look behind me and check if nothing sinister was in the forest. The logic in my head was that there could be nothing worse than a fox or a badger who was more afraid of me than I was of them. The other logical path was that if it was a scary man-eating forest monster from the depths of hell, it was not going to be put off by my head torch, so I should just stay still and try to go to sleep anyway.

The rain began at 6 A.M. If I had been in a tent, the sound of rain would have forced me deeper into my sleeping bag and further from embracing the reality of the world outside. The opposite was true in a bivvy bag so close to the morning. Get up, get a pot of coffee on the gas cooker, get warmed up and get on with the day and next adventure.

After the service we headed into the hall for biscuits and juice. The little people rushed for the biscuits.  As it was so close to lunchtime only two biscuits each were permitted. And, the little man has a ritual of getting a biscuit for him, and a biscuit for me. Then he returns for his second biscuit later. Today I had to take a detour to talk to someone and told them to head on in. I was gone for only a few minutes and it was obvious that something major had happened. The little man was in floods of tears and inconsolable. The lovely Sharon explained; he had accidentally eaten my biscuit. My heart fell apart. Do I need to point out that it was not because my biscuit was gone? He was standing there waiting and simply got lost in the moment. One biscuit gone. Oh look, there is biscuit number two. The lovely Sharon and I tried to calm him down and reassure him that there are plenty of biscuits. He began to breathe more smoothly again and seemed placated by the idea of a biscuit mission. The lovely Sharon walked him across the hall with purpose, then they walked back with him in pieces, sobbing and inconsolable. Apparently there were no chocolate biscuits left and the original one he chose for me was a chocolate biscuit. This was a roller-coaster of emotions for the both of us.

 

I sat down with him on the floor at the edge of the hall and held him as we watched his siblings running and screaming, oblivious to the biscuit saga.

 

Calmer now, he said he was thirsty.  We walked back across the hall and got a cup of orange juice each. While there, he was presented with a plate and asked if he wanted a biscuit. He looked at me with a question in his eyes. He had done the maths; his biscuit and mine so close to lunch. I nodded, of course he could have another biscuit. Then, with one swift motion lacking any hint of thought or hesitation, he grabbed a biscuit and snapped it in two. He handed me half and  my heart fell apart again.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

There is something in the woodshed; alive and mysterious.

I decided that this heatwave was an appropriate time to chop firewood. As I spent days living with the drone of the chainsaw, chopsaw, and the sweet smell of freshly cut wood, I had time to meditate on the extremes of things. The heat was just barely tolerable with regular breaks to drink pints of dilutable lemon juice and yet, as I stacked the wood I could see the frozen winter in my mind’s eye.

Every time the cutting tools were turned off and my ear protectors removed, the silence was shocking. Except for the drone of a housefly……and that wasp……that’s not a wasp…the penny is in the air.…it moves like a wasp…...penny in the air…..it sounds like a wasp…….but it’s too dark to be a wasp…the penny dropped. It was a honeybee. It’s been a couple of years since we had bees here. We do see them about in the spring on the apple blossom and this means that there must be hives within three kilometres. This would have surprised me prior to actually becoming a beekeeper before discovering, through beekeeping associations, how many beekeepers live and keep hives in the area. Yet this bee was not in the garden, it was in the woodshed. Then I saw another, and another, and another. About twenty bees were buzzing about in a confused way distributed all over the woodshed. All this was happening just after I realised I needed to stop cutting and go and get washed before heading out to dinner with the lovely Sharon. It was our annual date night in celebration of our wedding anniversary. I left the woodshed scanning every corner and wooden beam for a cluster of bees. Then outside I continued to look everywhere; nothing. Completely confused I washed and dressed into something more presentable than saw-dusted old clothes and ear defenders. Then I remembered where to look, the most obvious place, the old hive I left out as a bait hive in the garden. And there they were; bees. I glanced at the hive and then was off; we were late for dinner.

Later that night we returned home and the lovely Sharon and I found ourselves leaning down over the hive with our stethoscope. There are two easy ways to establish if a bee hive is occupied. The first option is to use a stethoscope pressed against the side of the hive to hear the air conditioning hum of the bees. The second way is to give the hive a good thump while loudly inquiring if anybody is home and holding an ‘about to sprint’ stance. I tried the stethoscope first; silence. I tentatively tapped the hive and whispered, “Anybody there?”. Nothing.

Were they just shy? Were they scouts for a swarm bivouacked on a tree half a mile away?

The next morning the hive was, well, a……hive of activity. Are they a big swarm? Small swarm? Are they friendly or nasty? Are they here to stay? All of these are mysteries at the moment. All I can say is that they are here. We have bees.

 

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