The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved – loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves. – Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
One positive spin-off from this pandemic is that I am almost ‘forced’ to devote time to sorting through, sifting through, and clearing a lifetime’s accumulation of things. Not that we are planning to move, or even to renovate, but these days of confinement are conducive to such tasks – especially when the ongoing drought means that gardening is not a healthy or worthwhile option! Among the mundane have been some interesting and serendipitous finds. Take the quotation from Victor Hugo above: this is so appropriate at a time when we are socially isolated and have to rely on electronic means of communication; when we cannot see our loved ones in the flesh or give them a hug.
Then, only a day or two later I found this poem slipped between papers in a file I was about to toss into the black garbage bag. Actually, it caught my eye when it floated out and landed face up on my study floor:
I think “And you learn to build all your roads on today because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans” is particularly appropriate during this uncertain period in our lives, as is “And you learn that you really can endure … that you really are strong”. So many of us have had to endure so much, yet we know that we must make the most of what we have and keep looking towards that uncertain future with a positive frame of mind.
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.
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:
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 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
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.