A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

The Fly

How large unto the tiny fly
Must little things appear!-
A rosebud like a feather bed,
Its prickle like a spear;

A dewdrop like a looking-glass,
A hair like golden wire;
The smallest grain of mustard-see
As fierce as coals of fire;

A loaf of bread, a lofty hill;
A wasp, a cruel leopard;
And specks of sale as bright to see
As lambkins to a shepherd.

Walter de la Mare

A CLOSER LOOK AT A CAPE ROBIN-CHAT

Cape Robin-chats (Cossypha caffra) are widespread throughout southern Africa and have adapted very well to human habitation, which helps them to become a familiar sight in many gardens. They are among my favourite garden birds and I am mindful that although Cape Robin-chats are predominantly ground foragers, they prefer to have shrubs or bushes nearby should they need to beat a hasty retreat from a perceived danger. There is plenty of cover for them in my garden!

Even though they are quintessential members of the dawn chorus, I haven’t seen a lot of them lately for I suspect they are currently keeping out of the way of a cat that has moved into the neighbourhood. I nonetheless still see them either very early in the morning or at dusk. In the absence of being able to visit other places of interest, I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at one of them. Its short white eyebrow (speculum), rufous chest and grey are easy points of identification. Looking at the photograph below, I am struck by its conspicuous nostril.

Their outer tail feathers are orange, with a faded brown streak which is more easily seen when in flight. The flight pattern of Cape Robin-chats is jerky and you might notice that they flick their wings and tail when airborne. I have pointed out in other posts that they have a striking black band across the face that resembles a highwayman’s mask. Their black bill is short and straight, with a slightly down-curved upper mandible, and their eyes are a lovely, warm brown.

Chris Mann has penned this rather lovely poem about a Cape Robin-chat:

Cape Robin

Before the dawn’s faint grey had flushed the bush

  and gleamed its hooks and fruits, before the dusk

had snuffed them out and brought its dangers near

  the robins pegged their boundaries out in song.

 

We heard them call and sing from perch to perch

  and wondered why our house, so blunt and stiff,

without a worm or midge to dart upon,

  should stand within the radius of their care.

 

That we should share the same small patch of earth,

  yet stay familiar strangers, that they should hear

our coaxing human talk, yet fly from us,

  is as our different pasts and roles ordained.

 

This listening to another creature’s speech,

  our kind or theirs, this care for privacies

that nest inside another’s weave of language

  ensures our beings blend, our distance keeps us near.

THE HUMBLE DANDELION

The Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), probably a native of Europe is now a cosmopolitan weed in this country, dismissed by most gardeners as being particularly troublesome when they decide to grow in otherwise well-manicured lawns! This reminds me of the interesting poem, Dandelion, by Jon Silkin:

Slugs nestle where the stem

Broken, bleeds milk.

The flower is eyeless: the sight is compelled

By small, coarse, sharp petals,

Like metal shreds. Formed,

They puncture, irregularly perforate

Their yellow, brutal glare.

And certainly want to

Devour the earth. With an ample movement

They are a foot high, as you look.

And coming back, they take hold

On pert domestic strains.

Others’ lives are theirs. Between then

And domesticity,

Grass. They infest its weak land;

Fatten, hide slugs, infestate.

They look like plates; more closely

Life the first tryings, the machines, of nature

Riveted into her, successful.

Far from simply being a weed, dandelions have proved to be useful plants both as salads (leaves) and medicinally (roots). Dandelions are also used to make healing teas, wine and skincare products – by those who have the knowledge to do so. Apparently the buds, flowers and leaves can eaten fresh any time you want a healthy snack!

That is the more serious side of dandelions. What about the irresistible urge so many people – not only little children – feel to blow the puffball of the puffy white dandelion seeds apart?

Like so many people the world over, I believed from early childhood that this was an opportunity to make a wish. Some people are certain that the seeds will carry one’s thoughts and dreams – if that were so then I feel sure there can hardly be a puffball left as we blow them apart in order to connect with our loved ones during this long period of lockdown – thank you COVID-19! Take a moment to watch the video here to see why the seeds float so well: https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/why-dandelion-seeds-are-so-good-at-floating

Whatever beliefs you may attach to them, there is great visual appeal in watching the parachute-like seeds waft away in the breeze. As dandelions generally thrive in difficult conditions, they are thought to symbolise the ability to rise above life’s challenges – something we all need to work at during this pandemic.

ALIEN AUDIT (5): BINDWEED

Unless you are particularly vigilant, you might barely notice its presence until it is too late. The slender tendrils appear tentatively, waving in the breeze before latching on to the closest purchase. These thin thread-like vines wrap themselves tightly around plants or other upward objects … before you know it, entire plants can be covered – or even items leaning against a wall.

Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) is an invasive species throughout South Africa. Because this rampant vine has a tendency to choke plants, it is problematic in both gardens and in cultivated fields. Bindweed is low growing, with medium green narrow arrowhead-shaped leaves on vigorous slender stems. Some of you may recognise blackjacks in the background – another drought-resistant invasive.

The flowers are funnel-shaped with colours ranging from white to pale pink. These tiny trumpet-like flowers look attractive – especially in a drought-stricken garden like ours.

Beware though, because before you know it, this Bindweed will have taken over your garden with great stealth you will it difficult to get rid of it. This is because simply pulling it off the affected plants is not enough: it actually has an extensive taproot system of creeping underground stems (rhizomes) that can go down as far as five metres into the soil! Walter de la Mere warns us that:

The bindweed roots pierce down

Deeper than men do lie,

Laid in their dark-shut graves

Their slumbering kinsmen by.

By entwining itself around plants, bindweed eventually strangles them or can get so heavy it drags the plants over. It is best not to let it flower and go to seed for the seeds can remain dormant in the soil for up to twenty years – ensuring that you will have a constant battle on your hands. One simply has to pull them out on sight. Yet, as James McKean warns us, this won’t be the end of them:

There is little I can do

besides stoop to pluck them

one by one from the ground,

their roots all weak links,

this hoard of Lazaruses popping up

at night, not the Heavenly Blue

so like silk handkerchiefs,

nor the Giant White so timid

in the face of the moon,

but poor relations who visit

then stay.

SUNSTRIKE

It was a very hot day when I happened upon this scene:

It really bears no relation to it, but the Douglas Livingstone poem, Sunstrike, immediately came to mind:

A solitary prospector
staggered, locked in a vision
of slate hills that capered
on the molten horizon.
 
Waterless, he came to where
a river had run, now a band
flowing only in ripples
of white unquenchable sand.
 
Cursing, he dug sporadically
here, here, as deep as his arm,
and sat quite still, eyes thirstily
incredulous on his palm.
 
A handful of alluvial
diamonds leered back, and more: mixed
in the scar, glinted globules
of rubies, emeralds, onyx.
 
And then he was swimming in fire
and drinking, splashing hot halos
of glittering drops at the choir
of assembled carrion crows.

I have not identified this beautiful creature.

Postscript: Having looked at the beautiful photographs on https://nextgenherpetologist.co.za/2016/07/26/cape-girdled-lizard-corylus-cordylus/ I am inclined to agree with Lettingnaturebackin (see comment below) that this is a Cape Girdled Lizard.