Saturday, 26 February 2011

It's me sunny disposition wot keeps me sane!

(Image credit: SOHO satellite)

As Douglas Adams had the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy observe wryly, space is really big. You might think it's a long way to the chemist's shop, but that's peanuts compared to space. Or something like that... In that vein, it is likely, without much question, that our Sun really is the biggest thing in your, my and everyone's little lives.

We know that most life on Earth derives its energy ultimately from sunlight. And while the Sun will eventually - a few billion years hence - have consumed too much of its fuel to sustain the outward expansion against gravity, will collapse to a tiny dense dwarf star then, for reasons I cannot be bothered to Google now, expand in size out to the orbit of Jupiter, consuming Earth and the inner planets, for now, we generally have a pretty positive view of how important Sun is for us (sunburn warnings notwithstanding). Therefore, it must have come as a surprise to many to read recently that, on account of a forthcoming solar storm, we were all doomed. What do you mean, what's a solar storm? And why, on its account would doom be forthcoming? Ah, you need to read the most excellent ScienceBlogs article on solar storms:


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Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Signs of the times: Autumn #8

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

"...These men, this particular three in brown
Witnessed by birds will keep the scene and say
By their configuration with the trees,
The small bridge, the red houses and the fire,
What place, what time, what morning occasion
Sent them into the wood, a pack of hounds
At heel and the tall poles upon their shoulders,
Thence to return as now we see them and
Ankle-deep in snow down the winter hill
Descend, while three birds watch and the fourth flies."

John Betjeman (from: Winter landscape)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn picture 8
A short Autmn post this time, as the only new natural features of note are the parasol mushrooms in the foreground. The huntsmen and their hound pack are partially obscured by a large blackthorn bush, heavy with its fruit, the much-favoured sloe. I wrote previously about the blackthorn and its uses, including the use of sloes to make sloe gin (which we made a batch of last Autumn and which is reaching maturity in our kitchen as I write).  I will write more about foxhunting iaround a future picture from the Ladybird Winter book, where an actual fox hunt is illustrated. The scene here is festooned with dew-heavy spider's webs, a classic scene of Autumn.

The text accompanying the above picture says "The toadstools in the foreground are sometimes called 'parasol mushrooms'. It is doubtful whether they are good to eat and inadvisable to try." A little strange really, as the Parasol Mushroom, Lepiota procera,  which the drawing certainly resembles, is described quite unambiguously in my main mushroom guide (Roger Phillips: "Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain and Europe." Pan Books) as "Edible - excellent"! I wonder if the writer was just unsure himself about which fungi were edible and which would have serious consequences if eaten and so opted on the side of caution (an excellent policy in the absence of sure identification!). Other related species, such as the Shaggy Parasol, can, if eaten, lead to gastric upsets in some people. I'm unable to report on the success or otherwise of this mushroom species since the Ladybird books were first published as we generally have very poor information on the distribution, status and trends in our mushrooms and toadstools.

Wild food from the park – January

Stirling King's Park in Winter - not the obvious place
to start looking for a square meal perhaps?

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that wild food is an important part of my ongoing interest in the nature of Scotland (and elsewhere). The adventurous O and I have, for several years, explored the opportunities for picking, harvesting, cooking (where appropriate) and eating wild food (mostly fruit, nuts, roots, leaves, seaweed and fungi), both locally and on our travels around Scotland. During 2009, we successfully completed a wee project, to try to find wild food to eat from our local park (the King’s Park in Stirling) in each month of 2009. That was before I began this blog so we have decided to repeat our efforts during 2011. All that is required to satisfy our project’s objectives is that, each month, we include in a meal food or drink collected or made from ingredients collected from our local park. The meal can include anything else that’s necessary and doesn’t have to be exclusively based on wild food from the park (we’re not fanatics!).

We might also include wild food collected and preserved in earlier months but that can’t count towards that month’s contribution (otherwise, we could just drink homemade elderflower cordial every month). We reserve the right to eat the same thing in more than one month (season’s rarely last a single month!) but we will aim to use it in a different way each time. The park has woodland, grassland, walls, trees, shrubs, etc so there are lots of opportunities to find wild food. When we tried this project in 2009, the winter months were always likely to be the most challenging but, as you’ll see below, an unusual wild food that we learned to eat recently has helped us start the 2011 attempt with something a little special.

One caveat – please don’t take my posts as evidence that something you’ve found is edible and safe to eat. We have spent a long time learning how to identify edible and poisonous plants, fungi etc. We absolutely don’t eat any wild collected food of which we aren’t absolutely sure of the identity and you shouldn’t either. Please take advice, go on courses and guided wild food walks, consult with specialists (especially for mushrooms and other fungi) but DON’T eat anything you can’t identify as safe (and don’t try to identify things to eat based on my blog).

So, to January and wild food from the park. If you’ve been reading my posts for a wee while, you might remember that I mentioned back in the summer (July) that we had found some Jew’s Ear fungus colonies growing on dead elder branches in a quiet corner of the park. You can read about that here, where you’ll see I wrote that, no doubt, we’d be eating them soon enough. The Jew’s Ear fungus or jelly ear fungus (Latin name: Auricularia auricula-juda ) does indeed look like a gelatinous ear and is dependent on a certain part of the life cycle of the elder tree (Latin name: Sambucus nigra), growing on dead and decaying elder branches. And we’ve found that there is much more of that in the park than we had initially realised:


Furthermore, as a source of wild food in winter, Jew’s ear fungus is something of a star. Not only does it produce fruiting bodies (i.e. the visible fungus) in winter when most fungi do not do so but, in our park, it continued to grow and produce new “ears” right through the very coldest weather this winter, when the temperature was well below zero for weeks on end and everything in the park was frozen solid. Even then, the fungus survives being frozen solid, can be harvested frozen, and can then be kept in the fridge for days without breaking down. A kind of wonder food it seems, as it can even be dried, then reconstituted by soaking in water. One of our fungi gurus, Dick Peebles of Fresh Direct Foods advises me that a related species is, in fact, sold in dried form in the Far East then reconstituted for cooking with. So, we picked quite a large bag of Jew’s Ear Fungus in early January.

We decided to have a go at making Jew’s Ear Fungus ravioli and so O made a pasta dough with Scottish-milled strong white bread flour and rolled it out through her pasta gadget.

The ravioli filling was made by lightly frying finely chopped Jew’s Ear fungus, shallots, parsley, garlic and chopped smoked Argyll mussels (from our local Farmer’s Market), along with some leftover boiled blue potatoes to give the filling some bulk:

After seasoning, the ravioli were assembled:

Ravioli production line

then boiled gently for a few minutes

before serving with drizzled olive oil, a grating of Parmesan, ground black pepper and finely chopped parsley. A wildly tasty and satisfactory start to our 2011 “Wild food in the Park” experiment!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Signs of the times: Autumn #7

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.


"... the hazel bush o'erhangs the thrush,
the spreading thorn, the linnet..."

Robert Burns (from: Now Westlin Winds)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Autumn Picture 7
I love hedgerows. Quiet life goes on apace in a well-managed British countryside hedge, minding its own business between rounds of flailing, cutting or hedge laying (a traditional form of management for renewing a “leggy” and “gappy” hedge). This picture shows two common species of plant found in our hedgerows, especially older hedgerows. A hazel bush displays a fine crop of hazel nuts, while a dog rose below it has both scarlet red rose-hips and parasitic pincushion galls. The small blue-grey and ochre coloured bird in the middle of the hazel bush is a nuthatch. In the background, hedge clippings are being burned by a farm worker, while cows stand in the smoke of the fire to help keep biting flies away.

I wrote previously about the dog-rose here. Although I won’t repeat that story now, I do love to see wild rose hips, little shiny fat red blobs of encapsulated sun energy. It was the memory of spoonfuls of amazingly sweet and tasty rosehip syrup fed to both of us as children (as a rich source of Vitamin C) that encouraged my wife and I to have a go at making a batch a couple of years ago as part of our adventures with wild food. It was tasty but not quite how we remembered it, ours being runnier than that sweet, gloopy, golden-red/orange liquid of our childhood. The pincushion galls, the fluffy structures ont he rose stems, have been grown by the rose around the irritation caused by the larvae of small gall wasps of the family Cynipidae. In other words, the gall wasp is a parasite of the rose and induces the plant to provide a shelter for its developing larvae which feed on the rose’s tissues until ready to emerge as a winged wasp.

The hazel (Corylus avellana), a native woody shrub/small tree and one of the early post-glacial colonisers of Britain, is also one of the most useful and probably still one of the most used plants in our countryside. As well as the obvious production of hazelnuts, the hazel’s sticks and branches have been and continue to be a mainstay of the world of basket-weaving, fencing and countryside crafts (e.g. stick-making or “dressing” as it is known), and hazel was usually the wooden element of the wattle and daub (stick and mud) houses people were building in early (Bronze Age?) England at the same time that the early Scots were building multi-storey stone towers or “brochs” (but, heyho, we were all savages up here back then, weren’t we?). Hazel produces long, straight sticks easily after coppicing (cutting back down to the ground), and people have been coppicing hazel for 4000 years in Britain.

The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora indicates that there has been no change apparent in the distribution of hazel since 1962. A supposed increase in the number of occupied areas in Scotland since then is likely simply to be the result of better recording. The New Atlas indicates that “high numbers of livestock, deer and squirrels can limit regeneration, and conifer planting and the cessation of woodland management may reduce abundance locally.”

The bird in the picture, the Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) is a species always associated with trees – in woods, parklands and gardens. It is the only bird species in Britain that can easily walk vertically down tree trunks, on account of the arrangement of its toes. Nuthatches feed on invertebrates, seeds and nuts, wedging nuts into crevices and bashing them open with their strong, sharp beaks (“nuthatch”, from “nut hatchet”). Nuthatch abundance in the UK has increased rapidly since the mid 1970s and the upward trend continues.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) identifies that this increase (a population increase of 178% between 1967 and 2008) has been accompanied by a range expansion into northern England and southern Scotland. The average date of egg laying by nuthatches has advanced by a whole 11 days between 1967 and 2008. Perhaps the expansion of population and range is changing in response to a warming trend and earlier Springs.

Monday, 7 February 2011

No more passengers...

Just a quick reminder of the folly of humanity and a burst of Joni Mitchell's sentiment that sometimes you don't know what you've got till it's gone. I have just finished (in 10 days of absorbed reading) "The Neanderthal Parallax", a trilogy of science fiction novels by American author Robert J. Sawyer. I'm not reviewing the books here and I don't wish to provide any spoilers for anyone who wants to read them. Suffice to say, one of the details of the setting is that huge flocks of passenger pigeons are still around due to an interesting plot device - and mammoths and mastodons as it happens, but they're another story.

I learned what extinction of species meant via the obvious examples we all learn as children, i.e. the dinosaurs and the dodo. But my Dad had modern prints of the paintings of the famous French-American artist and naturalist John James Audubon who, in the 19th century, became famous for his amazing paintings of the birds of America, the publication of which is, in itself, a quite remarkable story (for another time perhaps). And it was through those prints that Dad told me the story of the Passenger Pigeon, for Audubon painted this species among many others. The Passenger Pigeon is, however, no more, another extinct species to bring shame on us for our our failed stewardship...

John James Audubon's Passeneger Pigeons
The Passenger Pigeon (Latin name: Ectopistes migratorius) was a native bird of North America that occurred in almost unbelievably large flocks, perhaps up to 2 BILLION individuals at a time. Its migratory movements across North America were recorded by early European settlers as taking place in dense flocks a mile wide that took several HOURS to pass overhead. The sky would literally have been dark with birds.

Bringing safety in numbers against natural predators, such density was to be its downfall when Europeans arrived on the North American continent. A combination of trapping and shooting in huge numbers and, it is now hypothesised, the additive effects of habitat loss from forest clearances along the migration corridors, led to a decline in population size that almost beggars belief. The hunting of passenger pigeons was commercialised principally to provide cheap meat for slaves. The combination of human pressures led to a decline to extinction in the wild by the start of the 20th Century, having been probably the most numerous bird species in the world at the start of the 19th Century. The decline was slow between 1800 and 1870, then catastrophic between 1870 and 1890.

It turned out that the wild population probably became too small to support the communal courting and mating behaviour needed for optimal reproduction. The last authenticated wild bird was seen on March 22nd 1900. Reports of other, unauthenticated, sightings cropped up into the 1930s, but the species really had gone for good.

Unforgiveable folly, heartbreaking loss, irreversible consequences. Extinction really is a one-way trip, whatever the fanciful fiction of Jurassic Park might have suggested. Look at the beautiful painting above by Audubon, of a pair of passenger pigeons, and ask yourself how much you'd give to be able to see a flock of two billion of them today.

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Sunday, 6 February 2011

R.I.P. Gary Moore, another of the Lizzies gone...

I have just heard the sad news that rock guitar legend Gary Moore, has died in Spain. A truly talented rock and blues guitarist who was a stalwart of the band Thin Lizzy for a while, and a great solo artist. I saw him play live at the Edinburgh Playhouse once and, after the gig, was given a signed photo from the tour bus. He was a startlingly good guitarist, live and on record. I hope this wee film does his memory justice.
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