The Otters’ Children

Earlier this year, there was a call about a story competition. I needed a break, having been caught up in reading some pretty dry academic texts, and this sounded like fun. I was working on a story about a worm whisperer (no surprises there!) telling the tale of a woman who was able to communicate with worms and helped improve composting. My brain was in story mode and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

Then I had two dreams, one night after the other. The first night, I dreamt of a small, squat tower in a green land and watched as red rivers bubbled up from the four corners of the tower. The second night, I dreamt of otter women going out into the land and communicating in their varied ways. Both dreams were vivid and stayed with me through the days that followed. I’m not sure what these dreams say about my state of mind!

I stopped writing the story about the worm whisperer, sat down and the following story came out of my fingers. I can’t explain it any other way than that it nagged me until I wrote it down. It came out pretty much as it is on the page below, but once written down, it nagged me again – it needed to be read out loud. Gavin agreed and he asked me to read it to him.

As I told the story, there were a couple of words that didn’t quite sit right, like bumps in a smooth road. Hearing it out loud, I knew that the written words had got in the way when I typed it up at first, that I had put in too many words in one place and the wrong word in another. With minor changes, the story became as it now is.

I submitted it for the competition, but I knew already that the competition team were looking for something more like the worm whisperer story. Then I thought it would work well as a children’s book, so I looked up publishers. Like the difference between reading on the screen and reading out loud, none of the options felt right.

This story is not mine to own or sell, so I’m offering this under a Creative Commons licence so that other people can tell it. I have probably picked up these story ideas over my lifetime, so I’m sure someone will recognise them from somewhere and tell me where they come from. I have a plan to record an audio version with photos from my local area as a backdrop, but I know that will take me time to do.

In the meantime, I’m sharing this with you. I look forward to hearing where the otters journey to and who they meet along the way.

The Otters’ Children

Once upon a long ago, a tower stood at the heart of a green, green island. The tower was small, square and squat, made of large blocks of stone that were a dark, dark grey. The tower was old and had been there longer than memory.

One day the same as any other, as the sun rose, light glimmered on the earth around the tower. From each side of the small, square, squat tower, a thin trickle of water ran and seeped into the earth. The trickle became a steady flow, the water finding a path through the earth until four streams chuckled from the tower and travelled into the land. More water, and the streams became rivers, reaching from the tower to the sea. As the rivers touched the sea, the land sighed and the rivers from the island’s heart flowed red as blood.

All was quiet except for the sound of water gurgling and murmuring. Then a flash and a splash and a ripple in each river as something moved in the depths. Four she otters lifted their heads, one in each red river rising from the small, square, squat tower at the heart of the island. They scented the sky, looked to the land, and turned their noses to the sea. They dived and swam and played along their rivers until they reached the sea. They dived and swam and played in the sea until they reached land again, one to the east, one to the south, one to the west and one to the north.

Reaching new shores, they stepped out of the water. Gone was the silk fur, the claws and tails. Four women walked on the land, leaving otter prints in the sand and silt. The otter woman in the north spoke to the many creatures of the land, water and sky. The otter woman in the west spoke to the many faces of the land, water and sky. The otter woman in the south spoke to the many plants of earth and water. The otter woman in the east took clay from the river and a twig from the earth and started to draw on the walls of caves. She spoke through her drawings with the voices of the many creatures, the many plants and the many faces of land, water and sky.

The earth was filled with the sounds of many voices. Time passed, as it does, and other creatures walked upon the earth. The otter women laughed and loved and lived in harmony with all their companions. Their children were many and each child carried the gifts of the otter women into an uncertain future.

Like four red rivers, the children of the otter women travelled out into the lands. With time comes forgetting and some forgot that they could talk to the creatures, to the plants, to the land, water and sky. And yet, the children of the east continued to talk through pictures, some pictures became words, and the words spoke in many voices. Words and pictures spread across the earth and in the mesh of communication, a truth became clear. Some of the voices were falling silent, voices of the creatures, the plants, the earth, the water, voices of the descendants of the otter women and their kin. The waters ran red once more and the heart of the world wept for loss.

And then the children of the otter remembered. They remembered that they could speak to the creatures of the land, water and sky. They remembered that they could speak to the faces of the land, water and sky. They remembered they could speak to the plants of earth and water. They remembered that they could speak to each other with different words, words of hope and growth and change and future. Together, they worked to save the voices that were falling silent, the long work of restoring lands, waters, airs and kin across the earth. Together, they worked to find the way to live lightly and in harmony with all their companions.

One day, not so very long ago, a small group of the otters’ children had an idea. They could tell a different story, call out to the otters’ children across the earth and remind them of what could be achieved together. Tell a story, they called, tell a story of our future, a story of hope and growth and change. The stories spoke in many voices and each was a flash and a splash and a flicker of something deeper. A deep change was coming from the heart of the earth and the hearts of all the otters’ children.

A tower stands at the heart of a green, green island. The tower is small, square and squat, made of large blocks of stone that are a dark, dark grey. The tower is old and had been there longer than memory. From the four sides of the tower flow four red rivers. They flow from the tower to the sea and from the sea to the future. And the future is good because we remembered.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Image is: Fischotter, Lutra lutra by Bernard Landgraf {GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)} from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fischotter,_Lutra_Lutra.JPG

Riches of pepper

I’m in the depths of transcribing at the moment, which I’m really enjoying, but it doesn’t leave much time for reading. So this week, I’m heading off on a tangent.

I have a ritual when it comes to opening a new packet of black peppercorns.

I slowly snip open the packet while holding it close to my nose. I breathe the dark peppery smell deep into my lungs. And I always feel incredibly rich and privileged to have a packet of black peppercorns to enjoy. I have felt this way for as long as I can remember.

I was opening a packet of pepper earlier this week and I thought, hmmn, I wonder where that comes from, that association of wealth with pepper. I was thinking perhaps Tudor times. I was curious, so I did a quick search to find out more.

Sarah Philpott’s (2013) post on salt and pepper gives a good overview of the history. From that, I found that pepper, my “black gold”, has been shipped from India for the last 4000 years or thereabouts. I praised the wisdom of Alaric the Visigoth and Attila the Hun in demanding a pepper ransom from the Romans, and taking peppercorns to the Egyptian afterlife sounds like a very wise idea. It makes me think of Death’s comments on the lack of mustard in the afterlife, though if curry can make it, maybe there is hope for pepper.

Whether you love pepper, as I do, or see pepper as a commonplace addition to your food, it is important to be aware of the impact of purchasing cheap pepper. Johannisson & Bengsten’s (2011) news item for the Ecologist shows the hidden costs tallied in the lives of pepper farmers and their families in India and Indonesia.

Sarah Philpott talks about the scandal in Victorian times when ground pepper was found to have been mixed with other additives. Now, while the ingredients might state that the packet contains nothing but black peppercorns, the reality is that it may carry a far greater price. Opening my packet of pepper takes on a deeper meaning.

I now know that my pepper comes through the Fair Trade Alliance Kerala, where farmers are working to support each other and with other fair trade groups across the globe. The Fairtrade Premium is reinvested to help farmers switch to organic farming, protecting the farmers, their families and the land from the impact of pesticides and fertilizers. A disaster management fund is in place to support farmers in times of crisis. Small-scale farmers are no longer isolated.

Where possible, we purchase organic, fairtrade products because similar issues are commonplace for the majority of the products we purchase, with poor payment impacting all farmers locally and globally. We need to start paying the true price for our goods and services.

It’s a simple choice to make, if you can. See Katy O’Brien’s link below for information on fairtrade herb and spice options.

References

Johannisson, F. & Bengtsen, P. (2011). Pepper: how our favourite spice is tainted by a deadly legacy. The Ecologist news article, 25 January 2011. Available at: https://theecologist.org/2011/jan/25/pepper-how-our-favourite-spice-tainted-deadly-legacy

O’Brien, K. (2018). Did you know you can buy Fairtrade herbs and spices in the UK? Blogpost for The Fairtrade Foundation, 3 August 2018. Available at: https://www.fairtrade.org.uk/Media-Centre/Blog/2018/August/Did-you-know-you-can-buy-Fairtrade-herbs-and-spices-in-the-UK

Philpott, S. (2013). Salt & pepper. The History Vault Features, Issue 1. Available at: https://www.thehistoryvault.co.uk/salt-pepper/

Ghosts on the windowsill

It is spring and I was watering and repotting houseplants the other day when I stopped to look at my leafy companions. Sitting side-by-side were three plants whose original owners have since died. That got me thinking – we write wills to distribute our bits and pieces at the end of our lives, but do we think about our plants?

A quick search on the interweb and I get plenty of suggestions about what to do if a plant is dying, but not what to do if you discover you are suddenly in charge of someone else’s plants because they hadn’t/couldn’t make prior arrangements before they die. That’s now on my to-do list; I’m seeking out a plant guardian who will take care of my plants if I’m no longer able to do so. It’s the least I can do for all the fine, clean air and calm, green, de-stressing companionship they have given to me.

As for the memories of plant-owners past, Freeman et al. (2012) discuss plant memories, or plants-as-memories, in the gardens of New Zealand homeowners. As in my case, there are histories associated with the plants, how old they are, why they were planted, the memories associated with who gifted, planted, played with and shared space with them. Freeman et al. emphasise the importance of the role the plants play in the mental wellbeing and emotional support of their human co-habitants, highlighting that there is little research focus on this value to date, though awareness of these benefits is increasing.

In the spirit of sharing the ghosts on my windowsill, what follows are three brief introductions to the plants who brought this to my attention: Aunt Ella’s busy lizzie, Auntie Brede’s tiger’s eye and Margaret’s jade tree.

Aunt Ella’s busy lizzie

Busy Lizzie plant in pot

The original plant lived on the turn of the stairs in Aunt Ella’s house in Tuphall Road. Aunt Ella was my husband’s aunt and she was kind enough to adopt me too. She caught me eyeing up the plant, as it was a glorious flowering mass. In good form, she snapped off a bit and gave it to me. Following good family practice, I wrapped it in a bit of damp tissue and brought it home to plant up. It has grown very well, sitting in a pot I inherited from my paternal grandparents. Like its parent plant, it flowers gloriously and needs a bit of a trim to defy its triffid qualities every now and again. There is a very nice spider that lives in the middle, who wanders out to complain when I water her too much. Aunt Ella moved into sheltered housing about five years ago and passed away in 2017. I have no idea what happened to the original plant. Part of it though, is growing happily with me.

Auntie Brede’s tiger’s eye

Photo of tiger's eye begonia with busy lizzie in the background

Auntie Brede was my maternal grandmother’s cousin, so in good Irish respectful terms, she was Auntie to all the assorted small people. She was renowned for being able to feed hordes without the slightest effort and won my brother’s heart by cheerfully letting him climb her wall shelves and rummage in her cupboards for biscuits. She passed away over twenty years ago, but her memories, and her plant, are still here. The tiger’s eye begonia (the name I’ve always known it by) that lives with me came from a cutting of a cutting that Auntie Brede gave my mum when I was small. My mum no longer has the original plant, so I’m growing a cutting to give back to her.

Margaret’s jade tree

Jade plant Margaret was our neighbour when I moved in with Gavin to a flat on Gilmerton Road in 2004. She had a jade plant that expired when she was away on holiday, so I gifted her with a new one. I maintained a range of plants on the windowsills in the common stairwell and one day, Margaret came out of her apartment to ask me if the jade tree could come back into my care. I was happy to look after it, so it moved to the windowsill outside her door so she could see it as she went in and out. Shortly afterwards, she passed away and the jade plant moved with me when we went to Haddington. That jade plant now has many siblings across the Lothians, as I harvest cuttings now and again for our student “grab a plant” wellbeing sessions at the vet school.

My partner in plant “crime” is Louise and we both share cuttings from our plants and from plants around the school sitting on colleagues’ windowsills. We have joked that no one ever really buys a spider plant anymore, that they are offshoots (pun intended) from family plants of long ago. My windowsill ghosts also include a red peace lily gifted to me when I left Stevenson College over 10 years ago and a Christmas cactus I adopted when I found it abandoned in an office at the vet school. There are memories in the garden too, with plants that have traveled in damp tissue carried by friends and family members to take root and keep us company.

The very least I can do is ensure someone cares for them when I go. I’m off to make a list!

Reference

Freeman, C., Dickinson, K. J., Porter, S., & van Heezik, Y. (2012). “My garden is an expression of me”: Exploring householders’ relationships with their gardens. Journal of Environmental Psychology32(2), 135-143. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2012.01.005 [#paywall]

Bees in lime trees

As today is World Honey Bee Day, it seemed appropriate to finish a post I started in July! What can I say, I’m a slow blogger 🙂

Bumblebee on lime blossom in Haddington, East Lothian
Bumblebee on lime blossom in Haddington, East Lothian

Our travels this summer took us to Svalbard. The most notable difference for us between Svalbard and our home in Scotland were the bees.

Bees, our Longyearbyen guide told us, are not seen in Svalbard. Coulson et al. (2014) reported that any honey bees found in Svalbard are classed as “accidental migrants”, with the bumblebee completely absent from the archipelago.

The contrast was most strongly demonstrated the day after we returned home. As we walked under the lime trees beside the River Tyne in Haddington, each tree hummed with a variety of pollinators, including honey and bumblebees [55.954270, -2.772102 to 55.951603, -2.773239].

Below is the recording I made as I walked by the river. Note that I started giggling as the bagpipes started up, further proof, if proof was needed, that I was recording in Scotland!

I found out more about solitary bees in this thought-provoking video from Team Candiru, tweeted by the London Beekeepers (@LondonBeeKeeper) on August 12th 2016.

The Solitary Bees from Team Candiru on Vimeo.

As a further celebration of all things East Lothian-bee related, we treated ourselves to a jar of local Cockenzie spring honey from Jacobite Apiaries, via our local food assembly.

Three cheers for East Lothian bees, and it is lovely to be home!

 

Reference:

Coulson, S.J., Convey, P., Aakra, K., Aarvik, L., Ávila-Jiménez, M.L., Babenko, A., Biersma, E.M., Boström, S., Brittain, J.E., Carlsson, A.M. and Christoffersen, K. (2014). The terrestrial and freshwater invertebrate biodiversity of the archipelagoes of the Barents Sea; Svalbard, Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 68, pp.440-470.

Sustainable Dying – Re-use and Recycle

This article on organ donation reminded me of a conversation I had with my dad a few months before he passed away. Planet with plant from Pixabay.com

His mum had donated her body to science, and he planned to do the same himself. Then we saw an article about donating your body, and realised that we hadn’t taken any of the steps to ensure that could take place – no forms completed, no notification made, not enough time left. He knew then that it was not an option for him.

I’ve always carried my donor card, but realising that it might not be enough, I’ve ensured in as many ways as I can that it is clear I am happy to be an organ donor should my varied odds and sods be of value when I no longer require their services.

I like to think my organs would be happy to have a second life, to be reused and recycled to help someone else. Previous owner: one careful lady driver 🙂

I also have multiple sclerosis, and again in the newspaper spotted a piece about brain donation to help with research. A talk with my specialist confirmed the details, and I have now signed up to the UK MS Tissue Bank. I particularly like the idea that my brain and spinal cord may get the opportunity to travel around the world if they are assigned to a project outwith the UK, which is certainly possible. I think they’d enjoy the trip, and why should they stop living simply because the energy that makes me ‘me’ is no longer residing here?

Two things to note: 

  1. the letter from the Cambridge medical students and the life stories of those who have benefitted from transplants in the articles mentioned above are inspiring – as are the stories of those brave enough to give a living donation (I’m not that brave!)
  2. don’t underestimate the strength, love and understanding of your family – choosing to donate needs their acceptance and agreement too

So go on, give your fantastic body the option to go on doing good after you’ve moved on to pastures new 🙂 

NHS How_to_become_a_donor

Setting seed

Allotment plan on graph paper
Plotting the plot

Spent last Sunday plotting the allotment (excuse the pun!) – what we had last year, what is staying in place (fruit bushes and trees), and what we have planned for the new year.

It’s good fun – the allotment itself is tucked under its cardboard duvet and we’re envisioning the future.

In work, something similar is happening. A couple of years ago, two colleagues and I started the process of setting up a shared veg garden for staff and students. Now, the Easter Bush Veg Garden is looking tidy, all the plots are assigned, and we’re dreaming of well-tended plots where at the moment we have weeds and muck (of the mud rather than manure variety!).

Thanks to the FCFCG newsletter, I heard about the Here We Grow funding available from Dobbies for project gardens like this. Boy, would that help with the paths and communal herb garden! Keep your fingers crossed for us 🙂