Room to live

Our numbers are overwhelming the planet, even here with our population of 5 million. We need, it seems, tiny living spaces to accommodate us all and to prevent urban spread onto productive land and wildlife habitat.

A friend and I went to an open home in a new complex of high-density townhouses on Sunday. The house we went into was suitable for paper-thin people with foldaway furniture; elbows clenched to sides at all times and breathing restricted to shallow breaths. There was a tiny square of artificial grass with room for only a vertical garden built on the fence. Overlooked in all directions. No room for parking. And the houses are not cheap. No trees, no birds. The open space opposite with views to the river will soon be crammed with similar housing.

They have all been sold. Many to investors, I would think, who will use them as rental properties or airbnb. There was something disturbing about the hype of the open day: the slick real-estate people with fake tans, the shiny brochures, the gourmet food truck. The developer’s website shows two possible floor plans: square or rectangular, take your pick.

I am a ‘homebody’ and I was torn between feeling out of place in the house we visited and imagining ways to make it homely. But it was not a space I could be comfortable in. You would need to be mainly away from home – at work, or elsewhere, using the house for sleeping, showering, eating – although there’s little room for cooking.

My house is a simple wooden one built in 1930; about 100 square metres on a 455 square metre section. Compared to the new townhouses it seems to have room for all aspects of living and is warm in spirit. It’s the only house I’ve owned and the only one I can imagine living in. I’ve gradually improved it, painting inside and out, removing layers of paint on wooden doorways, panelling and window frames, rewiring and insulating it and, of course, gardening, over the 35 years I’ve lived here. Having a flatmate in the early days helped pay the mortgage.

Design programmes on television show people building spacious houses with landscaping and views, and the on-trend infinity pool. How alien this must seem to many people. Too much of it and it becomes distasteful.

Preferable are the houses which people build themselves or which are restored or which are centred on shared spaces and gardens.

But so many people have few choices. A woman in a programme about Cornwall said a house should not be seen as a financial asset but as an essential of life. In that part of the world, locals cannot compete with the prices people from outside will pay to have a holiday house there which sits unoccupied for much of the year. Instead, young people get work where they can, living a kind of nomadic life in caravans and sheds.

While the purpose of pandemics is to decrease the population when numbers threaten to overwhelm resources – a harsh solution often seen in the natural world – I like the idea of re-thinking our perception of what housing should be: Essential.

Being human

Poetry has a way of getting to the core of being human. Joe Bennett’s column in today’s newspaper is centred on the poem Naming of Parts by Henry Reed, first published in 1942, which makes a sad, ironic comment on human behaviour by contrasting the beauty of spring with the hard metal of weaponry.

And so I think of the pleasure of wandering in my garden in the morning as I go to collect the paper from the gate. It is like swimming in new growth which is now waist- and shoulder-high in places, while the golden kowhai reaches overhead.

Then, I sit down to read the paper and re-discover all the complications of human life. Housing shortage, global pandemic, racism, war, disputes, cruelty, and the current new series of articles entitled “This is how it ends” (alluding to Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men) about the sixth mass extinction and climate change.

On the lawn outside my window the hens peck. Sparrows, blackbirds and starlings come down to see what’s on offer. The foxglove flowers are beginning to open. Their lives are as simple and as complicated as the circle of life.

And we humans are superior beings because we have a brain. Find the evidence in poetry.

Hungry Hedgehogs

A number of “calling cards” around one of the chickens’ automatic feeders indicated that a hedgehog had been helping itself to the chooks’ food.

I solved the problem by putting pieces of wood under the treadle so the weight of the hedgehog would not depress it and open the feeder.

However, I was late home one night last week and found not one but two hedgehogs at the feeder, an adult and a little one.

Are those little hedgehog footprints on the paper?

In the photo you can see the pieces of wood which I put under the treadle, but the hedgehogs are waiting for me to go away before they depart. Perhaps the little one is too curious to roll up in a ball as the adult has done.

Four days on, and the hedgehogs are still befouling the feeder area. While the chooks are eating they often spill food and I guess the hedgehogs are attracted by that – as are sparrows. So a barricade is required at night time. A rubber doormat may do the trick, unless the hedgehogs can climb… Their feet are like hands and there are lots of hand holds here.

Could a determined hedgehog climb over this obstacle?

It’s raining mud!

No “hallelujah” to this phenomenon.

I was mystified by splatters on the deck this morning. My first thought was that a flock of birds had flown over and all let go at once. When I realised that the splatters were also on the roof and the solar panels, I wondered if an aeroplane, flying high above, had emptied its bilge tank. The splatters seemed to be like those you might find on your car after driving past an agricultural muck-spreader with a following wind. But, as I hosed and brushed the surfaces clean, it seemed that I was dealing with mud rather than bird – or other – droppings.

A quick check on the internet led me to discover the phenomenon of mud rain, where dust is swept into the air and brought down by rain, leaving muddy splatters as the water evaporates. This could be a result of our recent storm. It’s strange, though, that the affected area was just one end of the deck and one end and one side of the roof. Perhaps there was just one little dusty cloud up there.

A mighty artichoke has fallen

Strong winds woke me in the night. I could hear the trees being battered and wondered what the wind sounds like for people living in houses with no trees.

I thought of the tender new buds and new growth and the apple blossom. The main victim, however, was a large artichoke plant.

Luckily, the crushed dome and silver beet sprang back when I moved the fallen plant. I probably won’t be able to save the artichoke, but a smaller plant beside it is still standing – and producing buds. I planted both at the same time and wonder why one grew so much bigger. Perhaps it was the chicken manure under the rhubarb beside it, or just a genetic quirk. I, for example, am of modest height while my siblings are tall.

The chooks, sensibly, are huddled under the outdoor table as the wind and rain continue. Little flocks of sparrows join them from time to time.

Waiting for the storm to pass.

A lot of rain has fallen, making puddles on the lawn. I hope the grass, only ever mowed by the chooks, will be encouraged to new growth, particularly where it has gone to mud and required paving stones to protect it.

Flooded lawn. The dome, rescued from the fallen artichoke, is back in shape.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of…October.

Hello again!

Each new flower is like a discovery, yet my photos of a year ago, four years ago, six years ago show that the same sudden appearances have surprised me each spring. Today, it was the first rose.

Chinensis mutabilis

The kowhai trees are flowering enthusiastically – better than before, surely?

The apple tree seems to have been encouraged by pruning.

Each new blooming is superseded by another: Camellias then lilacs, magnolia stellata then forsythia, violets then forget-me-nots, aquilegias and Solomon’s seal, bluebells then hebe, lavender and bay, rosemary then banksia, and the beginnings of fox gloves, cabbage tree flowers, and karo.

The blueberry is flowering profusely and the first flowers are appearing on the strawberry plants in a hanging basket, with promise of summer fruit.

And, on the beach on Sunday, eight inflatable rescue boats on exercises meant the surf patrollers (my nephew included) are gearing up for the summer season.

At the chicken lounge and dust spa

A bale of straw with a tarpaulin roof gave the chooks an extra outdoor space to scratch about and sun-bathe. It became a favourite spot and for a while they laid their eggs in a nest behind the bale.

This week, an added straw bale upgraded their lounge to ‘deluxe’ and, with their dust bathing spot nearby, they have a ‘chicken lounge and dust spa’.

After all the dust-bathing and preening, Dora admires herself with a selfie before showing off her fluffed tail feathers.

Vera and Betty visit the self-help health bar, with carpeted foot treadle, for a snack. Hmmm…Vera is in need of a pedicure…

Bliss

Knots

The only proper knot I know how to tie is a reef knot, which I learnt at Girl Guides: left over right and right over left, it never fails. I learnt the bowline once in my yachting days, but forget exactly how it goes when I’m on the spot so I just use the loop and slip knot I “designed” myself for tying garden twine to stakes. Sometimes I just use the old granny knot and then several more to make sure it holds, so I was chuffed to hear a television DIYer say, “If you don’t know knots, tie lots of knots” (Dick Strawbridge on Escape to the Chateau).

My clothes line runs from a tree to the house and this terrible looking knot, or series of knots, has held it up for several years.

While tidying my book shelves during lockdown I rediscovered a book of knots I’d bought years ago but never used. I found some pieces of cord in my sewing stuff and had a go. I enjoyed the process and the results – although I’ll have to practise over and over to remember how to do them without looking at the instructions.

The book gives the history of each knot. It claims that in Neolithic times knots were used to tie a stone to a stick, build shelters and make bridges. Apparently gorillas use knots – both Granny and Reef knots have been identified in their nests. Birds have been observed using knots in their nest-making too.

If a knot becomes misshapen it is said to have “capsized”. This must originate from the association of knots with sailors who invented and named many of the knots we use. A marlinespike or marlingspike is a metal instrument with a pointed end used to separate rope strands. Here, I made the nautical connection with Captain Haddock’s ancestral home in the Tintin comics: Marlinspike Hall.

Following this lockdown past-time, I turned to sorting out my diaries and associated paraphernalia, and came across my 1966 diary. Perhaps the 15 February was when I learned to tie the Reef Knot for the first time.

This was a short-lived diary – it finishes on the next page, unsurprisingly. Parents of ten year olds: be reassured that even if your child is writing with random use of capital letters, no full stops, incomplete sentences and misspellings, they might grow up to tie knots – or even earn a degree or two and become an English teacher!

Grumpy

Occasionally, I have a grumpy day. It’s quite enjoyable. More than being just irritable, it’s got an energy to it which gets me moving through the day, thinking amusing grumpy thoughts and clomping about the house and garden.

A friend tells me she doesn’t think she ever gets grumpy. She suggests being grateful for things as a cure – but I don’t want a cure, I want to make the most of it. I’m grateful for being grumpy.

The word “grumpy” even suits the mood. Sure enough, when I looked it up to see where it originated, my dictionary said “imit. origin” – meaning that the word is a sort of onomatopoeia, the sound of it imitating the mood.

A quick bit of research suggests that grumpiness can be caused by a variety of things: lack of sleep, stress, hormones, underlying illness. Stereotyping makes grumpiness an affliction of older men. My dad was pretty grumpy as he got older, but I think that could be put down to most of those symptoms listed above. In my case, it’s like a wind change – awesome.*

Not long after a grumpy day a couple of weeks ago, I noticed the chooks were in a marauding mood very like grumpiness. I was dashing after them protecting plants from being scratched up. They even broke into my green house, trampling the beans and eating the miner’s lettuce. I had put a pot of parsley by the garage door as they hadn’t shown any interest in parsley before. Well, that changed. Before I could put netting around the plant it was mostly bare stalks. What could account for that mood change? Afflicting all of them at once!

I’m back to my placid self, as are the chooks – no, hold the phone, I’ve just heard cries of alarm: they’re in the planter again despite my defensive efforts with netting and bricks. Sigh.

Marauding chooks

That this doesn’t make me grumpy, just resigned to chicken nature, suggests that there’s something mysterious which causes my occasional grumpy days. I look forward to the next one.

*I’m reminded of the lightning-charged beginning chapters of Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked this way Comes.