COLONISERS AND INNOVATORS PART II

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 5 mins)

In Part I, we remarked that “Plants are pioneers, colonisers, innovators and builders at least comparable to the animal kingdom, to which they are related and …. with a superior record.” We followed their emergence from the waters and their colonising of land, along with various strategies they developed for their new environment. Now we watch them constructing their very own environments and adapting to some of the most challenging climes of the earth.

ENVIRONMENT-BUILDERS

          Most plants have leaves, which is where the photosynthesis takes place; they are in fact sunlight collectors and the plants deploy them to best effect to catch the available sun. Quite a late development, they were flanges on the stems first before becoming appendages further out of the plant’s main body. Most leaves are intricately veined and contain many different layers and parts and although it is within them that photosynthesis takes place, strangely they are mostly short-lived and in cold seasons, even in perennial plants, all but the conifers let them fall.

The greater the volume of material created by plants, the more there was to decompose with their deaths or seasonal decline. Bacteria, already long existent on the planet, evolved to feed on this detritus and break it down into soil, which the same plants or others could turn to their advantage as a medium in which to anchor but also from which to draw nutrients. Other organisms evolved to live on and break down cellulose too, the main building material of plants: fungi, gastropods like snails and slugs, woodlice, termites …..

The plants, with the help of bacteria and other organisms, were creating the environment below them!

But they were and are doing more than that: they are also creating an environment immediately around them. The most concentrated examples are perhaps rain forests, tropical, temperate or cold-climate, retaining a surrounding moisture-laden air, in which not only the local tree species thrive but also providing ideal environments for ferns, algae, orchids and epiphytes and, of course, mosses.

Inside a tropical rainforest.
(Photo source: Internet)
Temperate Rainforest — parts of the Wicklow hills and valleys would almost qualify.
(Photo source: Wikipeda)

Away from forests, sphagnum moss creates a mini-atmosphere around itself and as generations die, their bodies create a spongy moisture-laden medium. This bog is quite capable of existing on an incline, with much of the water being retained by the vegetation and ‘soil’, as may be seen in a number of examples in Ireland, such as parts of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains.

Close-up of sphagnum moss, creator of its own environment and changer of landscape.
(Photo source: Internet)

 

Plants, especially trees, discharge oxygen into the air and consume carbon dioxide during the daytime, for which reason they are sometimes called “the lungs of the world”. They have not only created an environment for themselves, below, around and above but also for so many other life-forms – including ourselves.

LEARNING TO LIVE IN DIFFERENT CLIMES

          Creating one’s climate isn’t always possible and, when it’s not, adaptation is the other option. Plants that adapted to grow in arid areas developed fleshy ‘leaves’ and often stalks, in which to store water and also sometimes long tap roots to find that water. But extensive shallow root networks are good too, to collect the occasional rain water that is quickly absorbed into the soil or otherwise evaporates. The “pores” on leaves through which plants absorb carbon dioxide and allow the gas-exchange necessary for photosynthesis (stomates) also permit evaporation of water, hence many dry-condition plants have fewer of them. Some only open to collect carbon dioxide in the cool of the night and store it for use on the following day. Plants grow trichomes, tiny bristles, underneath their leaves but some arid-dwellers grow them also on top of their leaves; these ‘trap’ a layer of air that prevents or slows evaporation.

Arid-adapted plants, SW USA (Photo source: Internet)

In very wet areas, plants learned to remain active by a number of strategies. Of course they originally came from aquatic environments but for some of them, returning there again after adapting to dry land, produced challenges (think of the changes necessary for land mammals to evolve into seals, otters, dolphins and whales). Nevertheless we have lillies growing in shallow water with wide floating leaves, reeds with upright blade-like leaves growing inside the water margins, thin spears of rushes in damp and water-logged land. That too is the preferred environment of some other plants and grasses, including the rice plant. And of the willows, alders and hazels growing on the banks and stabilising them. In the tropics and semi-tropics, mangroves do a similar job to willows but on a much grander scale – and they tolerate seawater too.

Reeds and two different species of willow on the Royal Canal, Dublin. (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

The alder, a tree with a high toleration of water around its roots, is thought to have been the major post-glacial coloniser of Ireland, following the retreating ice across the land. It is the only native tree which though not an evergreen produces cones, an indication of its early adaptation to cold climate. Cones, when closed, protect the seeds inside against continual freezing and thawing and, when the cones begin to dry and automatically open in spring and summer, allow the seeds inside to drop out to the ground, to be carried by river or on the wind. A closed cone collected and brought home will open as it dries; shake it then and the seeds will fall out. Alder timber, incidentally, remains waterproof for centuries, witness the wooden piles in Venice.

Close view of alder cones and leaves from tree on the Royal Canal, Dublin north city centre. (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

Adapting to cold seasons required protective materials, structures and timing. The deciduous trees (and it is worth noting that many trees have both a deciduous and an evergreen version for different climes) shed their leaves and close down for the winter, the sap retreating down to the roots. Were the sap to remain in the exposed branches it would freeze, expand and destroy them. The leaves drop because they no longer receive anything from the tree; it is going into a kind of hibernation, in preparation for the coming winter.

Many of the conifers have downward-sloping branches, to allow most of the snow to slide off, rather than break the branches with its weight. People who live in areas with heavy snowfall also tend to live under sharply sloping roofs. The “leaves” of the conifers are small, narrow and hard so that most snow falls through them and are also covered in a waxy polymer to withstand freezing. The plant cells can be emptied of water to prevent freezing but a dense waxy residue keeps them open for refilling. So, of course, they have to be tolerant of dehydration. Concentration of sugars also lowers the freezing point and small flexible conduits for water resist the formation of large ice bubbles that can burst those “pipes”.

The “needles” on pine twigs. (Photo sourced: Internet)
The downward direction of the branches of many conifers ensures slide off by snow when it reaches a certain weight — but long before the branch might break. (Photo source: Internet)
Red and white spruce in snow. Though the branches incline slightly upward, they are very flexible and will bend and dislodge the snow overlaying them long before the branch is in danger of snapping.
(Photo source: Internet)

THE YOUNG TAKE TO THE WATER AND THE AIR

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 3 minutes)

Some young take to the water, others to the air …..

          The last weeks of May and first half of June saw the young of many species take to air or water. On my walks in the Drumcondra area of Dublin where I live, although Glasnevin Cemetery and the Botanic Gardens were unreasonably closed (the Botanic is now open but on restricted hours, again unreasonably), the banks of the Tolka river in Griffith Park and the banks of the Royal Canal were open to the public.

A pair of mute swans (ealaí) nested on the stretch of Royal Canal east of Cross Guns Bridge but quite near to it. Well, the female, the pen, at least did, while the cob (male) was usually swimming nearby. So how did the pen feed during the long hatching period? Unlike some bird species, this male does not feed the broody female. Well, the male may take a turn, spelling her to go off and feed herself and difficult to know when that happens, as both genders look so much alike. Fumbling with my phone once I failed to catch a photo of the large grey eggs beneath the shifting body of the sitting bird – three, an East Asian woman told me, using her fingers. Later, I saw both parents with just one cygnet – whether some of the eggs were infertile or two of its siblings died I don’t know.

Mute Swan cygnet in ‘duvet’ on land
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
Mute Swan parents and lone cygnet, Royal Canal, Glasnevin.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Predators can take cygnets but the parents are very good at protecting them and eggs in the nest will not be left untended until the cygnets are hatched – and then it’s straight into the water. When not swimming itself, the cygnet climbs on to a swimming parent’s back and sits there surrounded by a natural feather duvet. From then on, the nest is not needed except perhaps in stormy weather.

A few days later I was fortunate to see another pair of mute swans on the Tolka in Griffith Park, these with no less than seven cygnets! Their parents took them upstream, the cygnets swimming easily, even under the branches of a fallen tree-trunk. Until they came to a mini-weir which the parents simply walked over but their offspring were too small to do that. However, they maintained position for quite a while swimming against the mini-waterfall, their parents seemingly unable to understand why their young could not follow them and, eventually, having to turn back to them. Many mammals, confronted with a similar problem, would simply pick its young in its mouth and carry them over the obstacle and then go back for the rest. A small crowd of Homo Sapiens mammals gathered to watch the proceedings with interest and delight.

Some of the mute swan brood following their parent upriver on the Tolka.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
Can we go under this obstacle?
(Photo: D.Breatnach
Yes, we CAN go under that obstacle!
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
Why aren’t you coming?
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Also out with their young were mallards (Lachain), the ducks and drakes (bardaill). Some had hatched their young as far back as April but most seemed to be doing so at this time period and then it’s straight into the water. I remember witnessing the unpleasant scene of a duck with a clutch of tiny ducklings on the Tolka being harassed by a couple of drakes, one in particular trying to mate with her, she quacking that she wanted no part of it. Contrary to comment by some writers, rape is not unknown in the animal world and though in most species it is rare, mallard drakes are known for it.

Delightful it was however on another day to see a newly-hatched clutch of ducklings zooming around on the water, in their fluffy chocolate brown-and-yellow down looking like aquatic bumblebees, both parents close by.

Duck and very young ducklings, Tolka, Griffith Park.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Walking past the high waterside vegetation of the canal one day I heard a kind of cheeping which I guessed to be the chicks of a moorhen (Cearc Uisce). These waterfowl are very shy and careful too not to reveal their nest locations which are constructed in waterside vegetation only inches above the water level and sometimes actually afloat on a kind of raft. Though egg-laying is in March-April and they will not fledge until about 50 days later, we should be seeing the chicks with their parents already. So where are they?

Moorhen, Royal Canal, Phibsboro, not hanging around to be photographed.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Grey herons (Corr Ghlas) fish the Tolka and the Royal but their nests are nowhere there. They prefer to nest in trees, somewhat incongrously for birds with such long legs. I have never seen their nests in Ireland myself, though I read that a colony is to be found in St. Anne’s Park, in County Dublin. Grey herons take turns on the nest and also in feeding their young – which require a lot of fish and frogs. They would take a duckling or cygnet too, given the chance …. Which is why herons often get mobbed by other birds. In Drumcondra I watched one on house rooftop being dived at by seagulls, no angels themselves but they have nests of their own in higher rooftops nearby.

Grey Heron, Royal Canal, Glasnevin.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

And one day, a Little Egret (Éigrit Beag) spent a little while looking for fish in the Tolka before departing. It’s a relatively new settler in Ireland but no longer rare along the east coast.

Not so much “taking to the water” as already in it are the tiny young of the three-spined stickleback (Garmachán), hatched out in underwater nests cared for only by the male. I have seen shoals of the fry of larger fish in the Tolka too, once heading downriver through the Botanic Gardens; what species they were I don’t know but a large stock of brown trout (Breac Donn/ Rua) lives in the river. Many sprats are at this moment concentrated in different parts of the Tolka.

However, on a number of occasions large numbers of fish have been killed by pollutants in the water. A few years ago it was reported that salmon (Bradán) had been seen making their way upriver and this year I saw some myself in the Tolka. These spawn in freshwater and after a few years their young make their way to the sea, the survivors returning years later to spawn in the river again. If the young are killed before making it into the sea obviously they won’t coming back to spawn in a few years’ time so a fishkill incident in one week can wipe out a species in the river for a number of years. I photographed the sprats of some species of fish a few weeks ago in the Tolka and again this week while walking through Griffith Park (I, not the fish).

Sprats, young of some fish species, Tolka, Griffith Park, 25 June 2020. Difficult to photograph with mobile phone even through not much more than a foot of water. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Among the young taking to the air now are those of the magpie (Snag Breac) and the distinctive and irritating high-pitched calls of the juveniles can be heard just about everywhere, usually from above in the trees. The call is “feed me” and is designed to be difficult to ignore. However, they need to learn not only to fly but to find their own food, so the parents will feed them only on occasion. This corvid is apparently an invader recorded arriving in Wexford in 1676, over two decades after that other invader, Oliver Cromwell. It has settled in well but is recognised as a predator by songbirds and sometimes attacked by them; on the other hand the magpies themselves will gang up on seagulls, hooded crows and cats, when they will give a frequent rattling kind of call.

The juveniles who are calling to be fed were in the egg for 20 days and fledging for nearly a month, which means the eggs were laid in April. The nests are large, a mass of twigs and can be seen in trees all over Dublin.

Some of the cottonwood seed-carrying medium on the banks of the Tolka, Griffith Park, end of May.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
Bullrushes, Royal Canal, Drumcondra, shedding some cotton but not where the main cotton fall is coming from.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
Bedstraw, perhaps, flowers mostly gone to seed.
Royal Canal, Drumcondra; Yellow Flag Iris nearby.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

The young of plants have taken to air too and along the banks of both the Royal Canal and the Tolka the flowers have died and are turning to see-capsules or to pods, while other species are bursting into flower.

Some days the ground was covered in drifts of a kind of cotton and I assumed this was seed-carrying material. But from what? Along the Royal I might suspect the bullrush or reed-mace, with tattered tufts of cotton around the mace “head” …. or perhaps the pussy willow … but surely not in these quantities? However, in Griffith Park clumps of it were drifting across my path and I remembered reading about “cottonwood trees” in stories set in the “Wild West”. Yes, three species of cottonwood are part of the larger poplar family and have been around for 55 million years in North America, Eurasia and Asia and although not native they do grow in Ireland. And poplar-type trees have been planted along stretches of the Royal but in particular in Griffith Park, recognisable by their somewhat rounded leaves and the compact upright growth of their branches, so perhaps they are the source of the cotton? Their name in Irish is Poibleog Mheiriceá Thuaidh, translating as “North American Poplar”; that’s a bit of a long one and if they become more popular (forgive the pun) we might have to start calling them ‘Crann Chadáis’ (Cotton Tree).

But it wasn’t them either.  The culprit was, after all, the willow (Sail) tree; but not the pussy or weeping willow, but the giant willows.

End (A Chríoch)

EXPLORERS, COLONISTS AND INNOVATORS Part 1

Part I: Expedition to the Unknown

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 5 mins)

When plants first “crept” out of the sea and freshwater on to land, it was a perilous undertaking. The shore and in particular the sea shore is a very hostile environment, subject to battering and scouring action of wave, wind and wind-driven sand, alternating between inundation and desiccation and even both in the same day. Those early plants were not just explorers but colonisers and innovators; many died but those that survived changed the world, its very earth and atmosphere.

          There are about 320,000 known species of plants, a total that does not include most hybrids, sub-species or selectively-bred varieties. Botanists exclude from the term “plants” some of the green and all of the brown sea algae as well as the fungi and bacteria. The vast majority of plants are coloured some variety of green because of the action of photosynthesis inside them, which attracts the blue and red ends of the light spectrum but does not absorb green, which is why we see them in that colour. Some 260,000 to 290,000 species produce seeds but algae does not. Mosses and ferns, which are plants, produce spores instead, in common with fungi (which however are not plants).

We study life to place it in an order, to simplify understanding but life diversifies into a huge array.

Plants are pioneers, colonisers, innovators and builders at least comparable to the animal kingdom, to which they are related and, I would argue, with a superior record.

LAND HO!  

          Plants first “crept” out of the sea and freshwater during the Ordovician period, around 470 million years ago; they were probably non-vascular (without “veins”) and without roots, like mosses and liverworts. It was a perilous undertaking. The shore and in particular the sea shore is a very hostile environment, subject to battering and scouring action of wave, wind and wind-driven sand, alternating between inundation and desiccation and even both in the same day. Plants on land carry the genes of the early explorers, pioneers, survivors – high in endurance, adaptability and innovation.

Rootless and low-growing, Irish liverworts and moss.
(Photo: irishwildflowers.ie)

But why abandon the seas, lakes and rivers in the first place? Presumably there is always a pressure in nature to explore niches and new territory, thereby escaping pressures of population, predation, competition and consumption of available nutrition … And while some life-forms specialise in particular environments and nature also pressures in that direction, ultimately that is a highly dangerous strategy, general adaptability to food sources and environments being the best bets for long-term survival and multiplying – as shown by homo sapiens, for example.

First ashore, establishing a literal (and littoral :-)) beachhead, might have been a kind of algal slime. Perhaps it survived only while wet, died, was replaced by other migrants …. but probably at some point some carried survival pockets within them, able to regenerate when moistened anew. Or it might have been some moss or liverwort, later a branched and trailing plant but dealing with the same problems and developing a similar strategy for survival.

We can imagine a conversation, in which one plant organism on the shore questions another:

It gets so dry here I feel I am going to wither and blow away.”

Just hang on there. We’ll get rain soon. And there’s always dew at night.”

I can hardly wait. Remind me why we didn’t stay where were were, with all that lovely moisture.”

Getting eaten by other life-forms. Competition for light.”

Oh, yeah. Sometimes I forget.”

Established seashore plants and lichen on the Saltee Islands, Co. Wexford.
(Photo: outsider.ie)

REACHING DOWN, STANDING UP

          In lakes, plants could simply float upright in the water reaching towards the light (and avoiding being covered in sand or silt) as many water plants do today, or on the surface, as algal mats and bloom do, or for example the various types of “duckweed” that not only float but multiply to cover the whole pond surface. In the sea and in fast-flowing rivers however, fixed plants needed to grasp surfaces and developed means of doing so; but these were not roots as such – more like anchors. Later, as they colonised the land, most plants did indeed develop roots not only to anchor themselves in the ground or to cling to difficult surfaces but also to bring up water, the tap roots for this purpose often going quite deep. Roots also brought up nutrients.

The roots also made it possible to cling to inhospitable surfaces, including even the perpendicular or overhanging and also to exploit cracks and fissures by tunneling into them. In the course of this activity, plants changed their immediate physical environment, by helping to break down stone and also by trapping material blowing in the wind.

But why set up home clinging to a cliff or today, a wall or a chimney stack? Well, plenty of sunshine, for one thing, no competition for another! Of course, not much soil there or even none at all for nutrition – but still, most things in life are a trade-off, right?

How did the seeds get up there in the first place? Wind … or birdshit.

Buddlieia bush clinging to a wall in Dublin (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

Of course, some of the colonisers developed other ways to cling to surfaces, as was the case with the mosses, lichens and liverworts. And they also trapped material and contributed their own to it as they died, regenerated, died …. But without roots that only works when you keep low and hug the ground. If you want to grow tall to reach for sunlight and if you want to exploit soil, you need roots.

Plants at first fed almost exclusively on sunlight it seems, broken down into sugars by chlorophyll in photosynthesis. But those that developed roots also, probably as anchors to prevent themselves being blown or washed away, or to help them grow tall and compete with other plants to catch the sun, learned to draw up water and to feed on nutrients in the soil – phosphates, nitrogen, potassium etc. Some, like the legumes, beans, peas and gorse for example, even learned to extract one of the gases that make up air, nitrogen and, with the help of a bacteria, to fix and store nodes of it around their roots.

Once you have roots, why not grow stems, branches, trunks, whereby you can reach higher and higher, for more unimpeded sunlight and outpacing the competition perhaps. Your building material will need to be tougher, especially for trees, bushes and shrubs, to bear the weight, withstand the winds …. but flexible enough to stretch as you grow and also bow to high wind. Having the ideal material already in cellulose, all that is necessary is some kind of hardening process. A plant might explain to puzzled humans: “Think of keratin and how the same basic substance has been used to make stuff as varied as feathers, fur, human hair and beetle carapaces.”

If you were a plant that had learned to spread fast over distances to catch the sun, covering ground and clambering over obstacles, you might find one day that there is another way to reach towards the sun – climb up the plants that are already up there! Don’t invest in slow build-up and hardening of cellulose – go for fast growth and gripping or winding ability instead, or turn some of your leaves into grasping tendrils. Some climbers such as lianas in the tropics and ivy and honeysuckle in Ireland, are perpetual climbers, remaining in position throughout the year (although the honeysuckle will lose most of its leaves in the Autumn) and extending during the growing seasons. Others climb only in the Spring and Summer and die afterwards, for example bindweed and runner-beans.

Cultivated climbing plants, runner beans, winding around canes in a “teepee” frame.
(Photo source: Internet)

end.

Ivy making its way up a tree trunk.
(Photo source: Internet)

EXPLORERS, COLONISTS AND INNOVATORS

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 15 mins.)

When plants first “crept” out of the sea and freshwater on to land, it was a perilous undertaking. The shore and in particular the sea shore is a very hostile environment, subject to battering and scouring action of wave, wind and wind-driven sand, alternating between inundation and desiccation and even both in the same day. Those early plants were not just explorers but colonisers and innovators; many died but those that survived changed the world, its very earth and atmosphere.

          There are about 320,000 known species of plants, a total that does not include most hybrids, sub-species or selectively-bred varieties. Botanists exclude from the term “plants” some of the green and all of the brown sea algae as well as the fungi and bacteria. The vast majority of plants are coloured some variety of green because of the action of photosynthesis inside them, which attracts the blue and red ends of the light spectrum but does not absorb green, which is why we see them in that colour. Some 260,000 to 290,000 species produce seeds but algae does not. Mosses and ferns, which are plants, produce spores instead, in common with fungi (which however are not plants).

We study life to place it in an order, to simplify understanding but life diversifies into a huge array.

Plants are pioneers, colonisers, innovators and builders at least comparable to the animal kingdom, to which they are related and, I would argue, with a superior record.

LAND HO!

          Plants first “crept” out of the sea and freshwater during the Ordovician period, around 470 million years ago; they were non-vascular (without “veins”) and without roots, like mosses and liverworts. It was a perilous undertaking. The shore and in particular the sea shore is a very hostile environment, subject to battering and scouring action of wave, wind and wind-driven sand, alternating between inundation and desiccation and even both in the same day. Plants on land carry the genes of the early explorers, pioneers, survivors – high in endurance, adaptability and innovation.

Brown & Green Algaes in shallow seawater (the brown uses floats to stay upright but the green doesn’t need it. Just almost out of view is a yellow lichen colonising the stone sea-wall. (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

But why abandon the seas, lakes and rivers in the first place? Presumably there is always a pressure in nature to explore niches and new territory, thereby escaping pressures of population, predation, competition and consumption of available nutrition … And while some life-forms specialise in particular environments and nature also pressures in that direction, ultimately that is a highly dangerous strategy, general adaptability to food sources and environments being the best bets for long-term survival and multiplying – as shown by homo sapiens, for example.

First ashore, establishing a literal (and littoral :-)) beachhead, might have been a kind of algal slime. Perhaps it survived only while wet, died, was replaced by other migrants …. but probably at some point some carried survival pockets within them, able to regenerate when moistened anew. Or it might have been some moss or liverwort, later a branched and trailing plant but dealing with the same problems and developing a similar strategy for survival.

We can imagine a conversation, in which one plant organism on the shore questions another:

It gets so dry here I feel I am going to wither and blow away.”

Just hang on there. We’ll get rain soon. And there’s always dew at night.”

I can hardly wait. Remind me why we didn’t stay where were were, with all that lovely moisture.”

Getting eaten by other life-forms. Competition for light.”

Oh, yeah. Sometimes I forget.”

REACHING DOWN, STANDING UP

          In lakes, plants could simply float upright in the water reaching towards the light (and avoiding being covered in sand or silt) as many water plants do today, or on the surface, as algal mats and bloom do, or for example the various types of “duckweed” that not only float but multiply to cover the whole pond surface. In the sea and in fast-flowing rivers however, fixed plants needed to grasp surfaces and developed means of doing so; but these were not roots as such – more like anchors. Later, as they colonised the land, most plants did indeed develop roots not only to anchor themselves in the ground or to cling to difficult surfaces but also to bring up water, the tap roots for this purpose often going quite deep. Roots also brought up nutrients.

The roots also made it possible to cling to inhospitable surfaces, including even the perpendicular or overhanging and also to exploit cracks and fissures by tunneling into them. In the course of this activity, plants changed their immediate physical environment, by helping to break down stone and also by trapping material blowing in the wind.

Buddleia bush clinging to a wall in Dublin (Photo source: D.Breatnach)

But why set up home clinging to a cliff or today, a wall or a chimney stack? Well, plenty of sunshine, for one thing, no competition for another! Of course, not much soil there or even none at all for nutrition – but still, most things in life are a trade-off, right? How did the seeds get up there in the first place? Wind … or birdshit.

Ivy making its way up a tree trunk.
(Photo source: Internet)

Of course, some of the colonisers developed other ways to cling to surfaces, as was the case with the mosses, lichens and liverworts. And they also trapped material and contributed their own to it as they died, regenerated, died …. But without roots that only works when you keep low and hug the ground. If you want to grow tall to reach for sunlight and if you want to exploit soil, you need roots.

Plants at first fed almost exclusively on sunlight it seems, broken down into sugars by chlorophyll in photosynthesis. But those that developed roots also, probably as anchors to prevent themselves being blown or washed away, or to help them grow tall and compete with other plants to catch the sun, learned to draw up water and to feed on nutrients in the soil – phosphates, nitrogen, potassium etc. Some, like the legumes, beans, peas and gorse for example, even learned to extract one of the gases that make up air, nitrogen and, with the help of a bacteria, to fix and store nodes of it around their roots.

Once you have roots, why not grow stems, branches, trunks, whereby you can reach higher and higher, for more unimpeded sunlight and outpacing the competition perhaps. Your building material will need to be tougher, especially for trees, bushes and shrubs, to bear the weight, withstand the winds …. but flexible enough to stretch as you grow. Having the ideal material already in cellulose, all that is necessary is some kind of hardening process. A plant might explain to puzzled humans: “Think of keratin and how the same basic substance has been used to make stuff as varied as feathers, fur, human hair and beetle carapaces.”

If you were a plant that had learned to spread fast over distances to catch the sun, covering ground and clambering over obstacles, you might find one day that there is another way to reach towards the sun – climb up the plants that are reaching up there! Don’t invest in slow build-up and hardening of cellulose – go for fast growth and gripping or winding ability instead, or turn some of your leaves into grasping tendrils. Some climbers such as lianas in the tropics and ivy and honeysuckle in Ireland, are perpetual climbers, remaining in position throughout the year (although the honeysuckle will lose most of its leaves in the Autumn) and extending during the growing seasons. Others climb only in the Spring and Summer and die afterwards, for example bindweed and runner-beans.

Runner Bean plants climbing a support structure (‘tower’) in a garden. (Photo source: Internet)

ENVIRONMENT-BUILDERS

          Most plants have leaves, which is where the photosynthesis takes place; they are in fact sunlight collectors and the plants deploy them to best effect to catch the available sun. Quite a late development, they were flanges on the stems first before becoming appendages further out of the plant’s main body. Most leaves are intricately veined and contain many different layers and parts and it is within them that photosynthesis takes place but strangely, they are mostly short-lived and in cold seasons even in perennial plants, with a few exception, all but the conifers let them fall.

The greater the volume of material created by plants, the more there was to decompose with their deaths or seasonal decline. Bacteria, already long existent on the planet, evolved to feed on this detritus and break it down into soil, which the same plants or others could turn to their advantage as a medium in which to anchor but also from which to draw nutrients. Other organisms evolved to live on and break down cellulose too, the main building material of plants: fungi, gastropods like snails and slugs, woodlice, termites …..

The plants, with the help of bacteria and other organisms, were creating the environment below them!

But they were and are doing more than that: they are also creating an environment immediately around them. The most concentrated examples are perhaps rain forests, tropical, temperate and cold-climate, retaining a surrounding moisture-laden air, in which not only the local tree species thrive but also providing ideal environments for ferns, algae, orchids and epiphytes and, of course, mosses.

Away from forests, sphagnum moss creates a mini-atmosphere around itself and as generations die, their bodies create a spongy moisture-laden medium. This bog is quite capable of existing on an incline, with much of the water being retained by the vegetation and ‘soil’, as may be seen in a number of examples in Ireland, such as parts of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains.

Close-up of sphagnum moss, creator of its own environment and changer of landscape.
(Photo source: Internet)

 

Temperate Rainforest, Fraga do Eume park, Galicia, Spanish state. Despite the deforestation of Ireland during centuries of British occupation, areas such as parts of Wicklow arguably qualify for the description “rainforest”.
(Photo source: Wikipedia)

 

Plants, especially trees, discharge oxygen into the air and consume carbon dioxide during the daytime, for which reason they are sometimes called “the lungs of the world”. They have not only created an environment for themselves, below, around and above but also for so many other life-forms – including ourselves.

LEARNING TO LIVE IN DIFFERENT CLIMES

          Plants that adapted to grow in arid areas developed fleshy ‘leaves’ and often stalks, in which to store water and sometimes long tap roots to find that water. But extensive shallow root networks are good too, to collect the occasional rain water that is quickly absorbed into the soil or otherwise evaporates. The “pores” on leaves through which plants absorb carbon dioxide and allow the gas-exchange necessary for photosynthesis (stomates) also permit evaporation of water, hence many dry-condition plants have fewer of them. Some only open to collect carbon dioxide in the cool of the night and store it for use on the following day. Plants grow trichomes, tiny bristles, underneath their leaves but some arid-dwellers grow them also on top of their leaves; these ‘trap’ a layer of air that prevents or slows evaporation.

In very wet areas, plants learned to remain active by a number of strategies. Of course they originally came from aquatic environments but for some of them, returning there again after adapting to dry land, produced challenges (think of the changes necessary for land mammals to evolve into seals, otters, dolphins and whales). Nevertheless we have lilies growing in shallow water with wide floating leaves, rushes with upright blade-like leaves growing inside the water margins, thin spears of rushes in damp and water-logged land. That too is the preferred environment of some other plants and grasses, including the rice plant. And of the willows, alders and hazels growing on the banks and stabilising them. In the tropics and semi-tropics, mangroves do a similar job to willows but on a much grander scale – and they tolerate seawater too.

Selection of waterside plants, reeds and different types of willow tree, growing along the Royal Canal, Dublin, yesterday. (Photo source: D.Breatnach)
Immature cones of the alder showing among leaves of the tree.
(Photo source: Internet)

The alder, a tree with a high toleration of water around its roots, is thought to have been the major post-glacial coloniser of Ireland, following the retreating ice across the land. It is the only native tree which though not an evergreen produces cones, an indication of its early adaptation to cold climate. Cones, when closed, protect the seeds inside against continual freezing and thawing and, when the cones begin to dry and automatically open in spring and summer, allow the seeds inside to drop out to the ground, to be carried by river or on the wind. A closed cone collected and brought home will open as it dries; shake it then and the seeds will fall out. Alder timber, incidentally, remains waterproof for centuries, witness the wooden piles in Venice.

Adapting to cold seasons required protective materials, structures and timing. The deciduous trees (and it is worth noting that many trees have both a deciduous and an evergreen version for different climes) shed their leaves and close down for the winter, the sap retreating down to the roots. Were the sap to remain in the exposed branches it would freeze, expand and destroy them. The leaves drop because they no longer receive anything from the tree; it is going into a kind of hibernation, in preparation for the coming winter.

Many of the conifers have downward-sloping branches, to allow most of the snow to slide off, rather than break the branches with its weight. People who live in areas with heavy snowfall also tend to live under sharply sloping roofs. The “leaves” of the conifers are small, narrow and hard so that most snow falls through them and are also covered in a waxy polymer to withstand freezing. The plant cells can be emptied of water to prevent freezing but a dense waxy residue keeps them open for refilling. So, of course, they have to be tolerant of dehydration. Concentration of sugars also lowers the freezing point and small flexible conduits for water resist the formation of large ice bubbles that can burst those “pipes”.

AWARENESS

          Seeds know which way is “up” and which is “down”, which is quite an amazing thing; the tap root of a seed, germinating in the dark, goes downwards while its shoot grows upward.

In fact, the plant seed also knows the right time to germinate – too early in many climes and it will be killed by frost, too late and it will have insufficient time to develop before the next cold period or will be unable to compete with other seeds that sprouted earlier, depriving the late-comer of sunlight and possibly nutrients. The decision is made by a number of factors feeding into a small cluster in the seed tip, consisting of preventative and initiator command centres. When the initiator section’s hormones exceed that of the preventative, it is time to germinate. Not very different from our brains’ decision-making process, is it?

Also, cut a living branch and often the plant will mobilise to produce one or more shoots at the cut-site. But should that cut be enclosed within soil, the tree or bush will produce roots instead – it ‘knows’ the difference. This knowledge the gardener takes advantage of when she “air-layers” a shrub or tree by nicking a branch, then covers the cut with soil wrapped in a plastic bag, waiting for a root to develop and then cutting the cloned sapling free, ready to plant.

Air-layering a branch, possibly from a a peach tree. The branch inside the wrapping has been cut, packed around with soil, to fool the plant into sending out a root.
(Photo source: Internet)

Without eyes, plants are also capable of detecting where the light is; if one places a climbing plant seedling in a dark cellar with a small window high above, the plant will climb towards the window, striving to reach the light. The sunflower and the flowers of some other plants turn towards the sun, following its progress across the sky. Many flowers, including those of the dandelions and daisies all around us at this time of year, close when the day ends. A “Swiss Cheese Plant” I once had managed to slip one of its suckers — like a long surface root — down the back out of sight and when I eventually discovered it, the sucker had gone under the carpet and had extended around six feet towards the window.

Of course, it may have been searching for moisture.

Plants can sense moisture and do go looking for it, something at which eucalypts are particularly adept. Unfortunately, this can cause problems for other trees and shrubs growing in the same area, as the eucalypts suck up the water from greater depths (the eucalypt doesn’t care however nor do some of its planters). During the severe drought in parts of the USA last year, it was reported that trees were breaking open water pipes with their roots to get at the precious liquid. It appears that the reports were mistaken but instead the roots were extending towards the detected moisture from leaks in the pipework. Of course, then the roots might widen the gap ….

Some plants at least are also ‘aware’ of being attacked, for example by an infestation of caterpillars. Those that have reserves of a defensive poison at their disposal are not only able to deploy it but also to communicate to other nearby trees of the same species, so that they too deploy the poison – before the caterpillars have even reached them! It is thought that the trees communicate underground, through their roots.

Plants also know when their offspring have reached enough numbers and a sufficiently advanced stage so as to put their energy into maturing them, rather than producing more growth or even more seeds. Presumably they receive a chemical signal when enough roses have bloomed, been fertilised and the rose hips, the fruit containing the seeds, are swelling. Likewise when the beans inside a runner-bean pod have swollen and will shortly be ready to burst the pod and drop to earth. Gardeners know how to fool the plants into continuing to produce for a longer period by “dead-heading” dying flowers and picking runner-bean pods when they are still very young.

THORNS, SPINES, POISONS, GAS – AND HELPERS

           Among the many features that plants have developed are an impressive array of defences. Filamentous algae, with low mass investment and constantly renewing, probably did not need defences nor perhaps did the plants that first came ashore. Defence against what, after all? But later, as soon as animal life began to develop on land …..

Here in the north-west of Europe we are familiar with thorns and spines on the trunks and branches of the rose and briar, blackberry, gooseberry, gorse, blackthorn and hawthorn. It is not always on the trunks and branches that the sharp spikes are to be found, as we are reminded by the prickly leaves of the thistles and holly. Thorny and spiny defences are repeated around the world on other plants from acacias to cacti and many others. Thorns stab, rip and tear but spines lodge in the skin and continue to irritate, some forming sites of infection.

Well at least you’re safe among grass, right? Not necessarily, for example the dune builder grasses, marram or beach grass, can cut the skin of mammals moving through it. In other parts of the world they have aptly-named ‘sword’ and ‘saw’ grasses. Some of these cut with a thin edge but many with tiny hair-like spines growing on the underside of grass blades, called trichomes, defend against herbivorous invertebrates but may also cause “grass itch” in some people.

Mostly, these are a defence against grazing animals or protection against the theft of the plants’ fruits. Other plants have developed poisons, which they employ not only against mammal and bird grazers but also against insects such as caterpillars (as commented earlier) and locusts; examples in Ireland are the foxglove and the deadly nightshade or belladonna, a relative of the tomato and potato. Another is the hemlock, a relative of the carrot, parsley and angelica plants – even its sap can burn your skin. An invasive shrub or small tree, the cherry laurel, carries arsenic within its wood, leaves and berries and can be seen in many gardens, parks and growing wild around much of Wicklow.

Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade plant in flower with some immature berries (ultimately rich purple colour).
(Photo source: Internet)

But trees have also been observed to emit chemical compounds that attract the enemies of parasites or grazers feeding on the trees.

Poisons can be employed against competing plants too, as does the hydrangea, a shrub with lovely luxuriant flowers in your garden (or indeed in a public park in Howth) but a seriously invasive plant in the wild as it eliminates its competition and grows unchecked. It does this by a relationship with a bacteria around its roots that produces a poison to kill competing vegetation. However, the native pine also produces an allelopathy in its discarded needles, inhibiting the germination of other plant seeds and growth – it is not only the blocking of sunlight that keeps pine forests so free of undergrowth.

The onion carries an aroma warning that rough handling of the bulb will produce a gas attack on eyes and nasal passages, as known to any who have handled them in food preparation.

Plants employ some poisons continually but others selectively, as in ripening seeds (for example in the seed pods of the laburnum) or in sensitive growing tips (for example the fiddleheads or curled growing tips of bracken, toxic to grazers). The daffodil is a lovely plant and safe to handle but digging up the bulbs and mistaking them for wild onions can have fatal consequences for the eater. And as we have seen elsewhere, leaves can become poisonous as trees mobilise chemicals from tree to tree when under attack by caterpillars.

Growing tips of the bracken fern, known as “fiddleheads” – poisonous to grazers.
(Photo source: Internet)

However, some plants welcome insects as protectors too, as for example with a species of ant that lives in some acacias and helps keep the tree free of pathogens.

When considering plant poisons we are reminded too of the stinging nettle, which introduces its defence to us in childhood, never to be forgotten. In North America, one would always remember a brush with its poison ivy. The Giant Hogweed, also a member of the carrot and parsley family but invasive to Ireland, causes a very painful rash following bare skin contact.

There are many localised wars going on out there.

FLAUNTING FLOWERS – AND FLIERS, SAILORS, ROLLERS AND HITCHHIKERS

          Along with all their other innovations, plants evolved some very impressive ones in procreation, particularly in dispersing the next generation. Pollen, a fine powdery substance that is the equivalent of mammal sperm could be and was spread by the wind. The development of the flower and blossom brought in a partnership with animal pollinators to greater efficiency. Attracted by nectar and to some extent pollen, both insects and some birds visited male plants flaunting their flowers and unconsciously picked up pollen which they deposited at another flower they visited, thereby soon fertilising female flowers.

Flowers were developed in a huge variety of shapes and colours in order to attract pollinators — and then came smell. Some botanists speculate that scent was first used by some plants to discourage insects and grazers which, if true, is amazing enough. To then go on to develop scent to attract pollinators is a leap that staggers the imagination. Flowers and blossoms using smell are particularly noticeable at dusk and night, a time when flowers are hardly visible, when presumably they are visited by moths.

A hive honey-been, one of the most common pollinators, approaching a flower (perhaps a dandelion’s) intending to collect nectar and perhaps pollen but will certainly collect the latter inadvertently. Note the collection bag on its legs.
(Photo source: Internet)

Early plants did not have seeds so the whole paraphernalia around them had to be developed from other existing parts with originally different functions (some of us could convert a bicycle, a machine for locomotion, into an electric power generator but still ….)

Behind the flowers of many species is a little node which when fertilised begins to swell and form a fruit, with the developing seeds inside — or single seed in the case of Prunus species, the plum family, for example. This is another amazing trick of the plant – it has produced attractive fruits, full of sugars when ripe, to attract animals (such as ourselves) to pick them and either discard the seeds as we eat the fruit or pass them through our gut to be deposited on earth — along with a handy dollop of manure. A botanist investigating the occurrence of isolated copses of trees on the grassy plains of the South American Pampas concluded that horses were eating the nuts of the parent trees some distance away then, as they travelled across the plains, at some point defecated with some intact nuts among their faeces: some years later – a grove of trees. Of course horses have only been in the Pampas for a few centuries and probably the other local grazers don’t eat saplings.

Nuts are also stored in different caches by some mammals and birds, for example here in Ireland by squirrels and magpies. They don’t always dig up all the stores later – perhaps they forget where some of them were – and in the spring, those nuts become saplings.

Well enough. But producing fruit and nuts is a lot of work and depends on the assistance of animals, especially mammals and birds, for dispersal. Some plants scorn to use them and instead employ the wind. Dandelions, thistles and many other plants send their seeds off on downy parachutes, often to land kilometres away. Some, like the sycamore, grow “wings” on their seeds which, when dry, spin away on the wind and not only that but when they strike mud are sometimes twisted by the wind on their “wing” to ‘screw’ the seed into the soil.

Many plants with pods, for example the legumes, will have their pods crack open when dry to “spill the beans” upon the soil. That is not good enough for the gorse or furze, the pods of which explode on a summer’s day, shooting the seeds away. One such day I sat among gorse bushes on Killiney Hill and was startled to hear what sounded like a weak pistol shot. Then another …. and another …. and all around me the bushes were shooting out their seeds, the lucky ones to create new bushlets (yes, I did just make up that word) the following year.

The casings of chestnuts, both edible and the ‘conker’ variety hit the ground, some cracking open as they do so and roll away from the tree. The casings of the edible ones are spiny, which no doubt afford the nuts inside some protection from being eaten (and trodden) until they are covered by fallen leaves or strike a root into the ground. Again, the lucky ones will become saplings and, enough sunlight (and goats) permitting, grow to become trees. The Mexican “jumping bean” rolls itself away from its parent, turning over and over, albeit slowly.

With fruit and nuts we saw plant offspring being cached or stowing away inside birds and mammals. But some hitch-hike on the outside too, like the burs that work their way into animal fur and into our woolen clothing. These are seed cases covered in tiny hooks, said to have been the inspiration for the invention of velcro fastenings in clothes. The cleaver or “sticky-back” may attach many of its small burs to a passing mammal, while the burdock, with its much larger burs, is more likely to hitch a ride in ones or twos. Tiny seeds of many grasses stick to wool, fur and hair too, especially when damp. But many other grasses with larger seeds, including cereals, grow “ears” with spikes attached to each seed and these too, when dry and ready to go, get picked up by the wool or fur of passing traffic.

Hitchhiker seeds — the ‘fruits’ of the burdock after flowering become a bur to attach to passing traffic.
(Photo source: Internet)
All aspects of the Cleaver plant (“Stickyback”), another hitchhiker for its seeds.
(Photo source: Wikipedia)

The pines even use forest fires to spread seeds from inside their cones on the hot wind – each seed has a little vane around it to help it sail the wind. Sure, many will burn before they sail or blow into another fire – but some will survive. The alternative is just to burn.

The coconut, on the other hand, floats its fruit to distant shores – it is not for tourist brochures that the palms grew fringing tropical beaches. Falling coconuts roll away from the tree too – if they don’t hit some unfortunate large animal first. Many other plants use floods to populate different areas, often creating stronger banks or islands as their offspring grow, sometimes even changing the very course of a river or stream. The various willows and alders are adepts at this, as are many kinds of reeds and rushes.

The latter kind of colonisation may be by seeds but there are other methods too: severed branches or leaves that grow roots into water, uprooted saplings, tubers and bulbs. Bulbs, rhizomes and strings of tubers have been used by many plants to store food for offspring, nascent new plants hiding below or on the ground. Even when a field of potatoes is harvested, there are often tiny potatoes remaining that escaped the harvesting procedure – the following year, they may be seen, sprouting new plants.

Some plants are capable of employing all of the various methods of reproduction and distribution: seed, tuber, branch or leaf regeneration.

A somewhat similar method to strings of tubers – and possibly their actual origin – is the underground runner, like a root running just below and parallel to the surface, sending out shoots upwards and roots downwards at intervals, each of those becoming a new plant, a clone. Many grasses employ this procedure, some bunching close like the bamboo and others spreading away in different directions, as for example with the couch or scutch grass. The latter may be to the despair of the gardener, who however will use runners of the strawberry to grow new fruiting plants.

Grasses are a late and special kind of plant that can be grazed down to ground level and grow again, year after year. This provided a renewable food source for animals that could convert its leaves and seeds into sufficient energy – enter herds of goat and sheep, horse, donkey, zebra, deer, antelope, bison and cattle! And therefore enter their predators too, in particular the big cats, canines and – homo sapiens. She in turn would domesticate some of those species, including another predator as helper, the canine. That combination would change the world quite significantly and when homo sapiens learned to cultivate some of the grasses for their seeds, i.e cereals, well ……!

End.

NB: Thanks to Oisín Breatnach for editing work (all subsequent errors etc are mine) and Osgur Breatnach for reminding me of the onion in a separate discussion.

REFERENCES & SOURCES

Early appearance of plants: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/02/land-plants-arose-earlier-thought-and-may-have-had-bigger-impact-evolution-animals

Leaves: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leaf

Native and invasive plants to Ireland: http://www.wildflowersofireland.net/

Deciding when to germinate: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/seeds-use-tiny-brains-decide-when-germinate-180963625/

Tiny bristles in grass: https://www.quora.com/Why-does-grass-make-you-itchy

Ants protecting acacias from pathogens: http://www.messagetoeagle.com/acacia-tree-uses-ants-as-body-guards-and-rewards-them-with-shelter-and-food/

Plants inhibiting germination of competitors: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allelopathy

Poisonous effects of bracken on ruminants: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00580-018-2636-2

Trees summoning the predators on caterpillars: https://lt.org/publication/how-do-forest-trees-defend-themselves-against-insects-under-natural-conditions-and

Features of the alder: https://books.google.ie/books?id=uvNgBQAAQBAJ&pg=PT46&lpg=PT46&dq=how+long+does+alder+timber+remain+waterproof&source=bl&ots=h-

DATE-CALLING ACROSS THE CITY

(Nature In the City series)

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 5 mins.)

These nights in March and early April you might hear and might have heard as far back as January, nearby or in the distance, a short sequence of barks: Bar! Bar! Bar! – something like that. Or rarely, a sequence of four. These are calls from a male fox, telling any vixen within hearing distance that he’s available – and any other males, to keep away.

          I think I have only heard them after midnight but then at various times throughout the night.

While humans in our society are practicing social distancing due to the Coronovirus-19 pandemic, the foxes are seeking social closeness. Or some of them are.

The dog fox is not after casual sex – if he mates, he will stay with the female and, when she is lactating, feed her and the cubs. Of course, that is more easily done in the city than in many rural locations, with the amount of food that is discarded by human society. Also, foxes are generally not hunted in the city where, if humans carry guns, it’s usually in order to shoot other humans.

The fox has to advertise and so does the vixen, because she will only come into estrus for one three-week period in the year. If dog fox doesn’t come calling then, he won’t be welcome later. If you have heard her calling for a mate, you won’t forget it: an almost unearthly scream which, if you didn’t know about it, would have you believing in the bean sí (banshee) or possibly a woman being attacked.

Should she find a mate, she will prepare a den, usually an adapted or newly-dug burrow, where the cubs will be born around 50 days later. They need the mother’s warmth until three weeks old to avoid hypothermia, so she cannot leave the den. Her mate, the dog fox, will go out each night and bring her back food and, when the cubs are but a little older, bring them some too – in his stomach. Regurgitated semi-digested food might not sound salubrious but the cubs could not manage anything else along with their mother’s milk. Sometimes there might be another but unmated female in attendance too; unmated companion females can give the vixen a break a little later so that she can go out foraging and hunting for herself.

Humans wean their young off milk with finely-mashed or even partly-chewed solids which, before baby foods were widely available, had to be prepared by parent or child-minder (frequently an older sibling). But then the human child has many years to come to full adulthood whereas the fox has to accomplish that in a year or a little over. In the wild, adult foxes generally live only as long as five years, while in captivity they can reach three times that.

The European Red Fox (Photo sourced: Internet)

A PEST?

           It is probably best not to feed foxes, which are after all wild animals that may become overly familiar, not only with their feeder and with their belongings – but with their neighbours’ things too. On an allotted piece of ground I rented from the local London authority years ago and where I cultivated vegetables and some fruit bushes, by day I often came across a chewed toy or a shoe, presumably taken from a nearby back garden and played with for awhile.

Finishing at dusk, I sometimes saw the ghostly shapes of adults and cubs, not fleeing but giving me a wide berth nevertheless.

Stories of them attacking and killing small dogs and cats are probably apocryphal for a number of reasons, chief among them being that they have no need to attack such animals since they have no shortage of food in the city. Also little dogs are not usually roaming around at night and, in a fox-watch documentary about urban foxes in I think Bristol city decades ago, every time a confrontation between a fox and a cat was filmed, it was the fox that backed down.

Unless one is keeping poultry or rabbits in pens or runs outside, it is hard to see how foxes can be classified as pests or seen as causing us problems. Even in rural areas, a ewe is quite capable of protecting a lamb from a fox, an animal which after all is not much bigger than a cat.

None of that information prevented Boris Johnston, when he was Mayor of London, from proposing a cull of the city’s foxes. Having observed this gentleman in action as the Prime Minister of the UK, most people will probably not be surprised that he had failed to learn from a comparatively recent history, because despite a large and expensive culling program in the 1970s, the fox population jumped right back.

PROTECTION?

          In a previous article published on the Rebel Breeze blog (Scream on a December Night) I wrote the following:

Some people have suggested that the red fox should be granted protected species status but it is difficult to see the rationale for this, since it is on the species of “least concern” list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Pigeons receive no protection and, though often fed by people who consider them cute or pretty, do have a negative effect on our urban environment and, in the case of seagulls, who are protected, may be responsible for the disappearance of the many species of ducks that once were common in Stephens’ Green. Rats and mice are not deliberately fed or considered cute by most people (though I have kept both myself and found the individuals tame and harmless and, in the case of rats, quite intelligent) and humanity wages war upon them with traps and poison.

Do urban foxes require management? Zoologist Dave Wall, who has studied Dublin’s urban foxes for some years, thinks not. In his opinion, the fox population in Dublin has remained constant since the 1980s. According to statistics regularly quoted but never referenced that I can find, Dublin fox families occupy on average 1.04 Km². Given a rough and probably low estimate of six individuals per fox family (a mated pair and two unmated females and two cubs) and a Dublin City area of 115 km² would give us a fox population of 663 in the city. That might seem a lot, until one hears that London holds an estimated 10,000.”

end.

CIMARRON: GOING FERAL AND ETHNIC PREJUDICE

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 15 minutes)

LANGUAGE IS A TREASURE CHEST – 2

I observed in Language Is a Treasure Chest 1 that it is full of wonders but that it has some horrors in it too. And I found it to be so again.

I was reading a novel in which the word “Cimarron” appeared and, doing some quick research on the word, I came across a 2004 query in an email website or page called Word Wizard:

What is the etymology of the word cimarron? I’ve always been told that it means “runaway slave” in Mexican Spanish. Can anyone verify this?

The reply is dated the same day:

From Greek. It refers to people who live in perpetual
mist and darkness, akin to the ‘land of the dead’.
Latin ‘Cimmerius’, Greek ‘Kimmerios’, Assyrian
‘Gimirri’ even the bible ‘Gomer’ Gen.10:2 and
Esk. 38:6.
In Western United States it refers to a stretch of 
land that gets rainfall when other near by areas are 
desert year round.

Apart from the topographical reference, I thought the expert’s explanation highly dubious. And in fact I happen to know something about the Spanish-language origins of the word.

The searcher replied:

Thanks, Jim. I just wonder what connection this word has to Hispanics of Mexican origin because it shows up in their surnames (although not as common as Lopez or Vargas or Garcia). Is it just Mexican in origin or did that also come from Spain? So the “runaway slave” theory has no foundation then?

The expert’s reply did come back with a Spanish-language connection and he may be on to something with the topography, though I think he has it the wrong way around (as we shall see).

The “runaway slave” theory is not so obsolete.
Mexico did not have slaves (Outlawed in 1810)but
American slaves who fled to Mexico had to pass
through lands with water, or else parish
(sic).
When relating their tales of woe to the locals
the word ‘cimmaron’ arose to describe their flight
through the South West desert.

Very curiously, there was no further contribution to the discussion. I tried to leave my own but had to register, which I have done (though wondering if worth the trouble) and am now awaiting confirmation1.

A view of the Cimarron National Grassland, the largest piece of public land in Kansas, a 108,175-acre property in the southwestern part of the state. It was recovered from the Dustbowl ecological devastation by soil recovery and management practices. (Photo source: The Armchair Explorer – Kansas)

THE FOLK MEMORY WAS TRUE

          Continuing with a little light online research I find that the Castillian-language (Spanish) origin is the explanation most often given, with rarely a reference to Greek or other classical or archaic languages. For example, in yourdictionary.com:

American Spanish cimarrón, wild, unruly ( from Old Spanish cimarra, thicket): probably origin, originally referring to the wild sheep (bighorn) found along its banks

While in Wiktionary:

cimarrón (feminine singular cimarrona, masculine plural cimarrones, feminine plural cimarronas).

  1. (Latin America, of animals) feral (having returned to the wild)

  2. Synonyms: alzado, bagual, feral

  3. (Latin America, of people) rural; campestral

  4. (Latin America, of plants) of a wild cultivar.

But …. what about the “runaway slaves”? Under the title Cimarron People, Wikipedia has this to say: The Cimarrons in Panama were enslaved Africans who had escaped from their Spanish masters and lived together as outlaws. In the 1570s, they allied with Francis Drake of England to defeat the Spanish conquest. In Sir Francis Drake Revived (1572), Drake describes the Cimarrons as “a black people which about eighty years past fled from the Spaniards their masters, by reason of their cruelty, and are since grown to a nation, under two kings of their own. The one inhabiteth to the west, the other to the east of the way from Nombre de Dios”. (location in Panama — DB)

While we may indulge ourselves in a sardonic smile at commissioned pirate Francis Drake talking about the cruelty of others, or about slave-owning by a country other than England in 1570, we remember also that at the time Spain was the main competitor with England in the rush to plunder the Americas – and had got there well before them.2 Both colonial powers were already plundering Africa for raw materials and slaves.

The meanings of animals having gone “feral” or “returned to the wild” would easily have been applied by the society of the time to escaped African slaves, a society which, despite evidence to the contrary including agriculture in Africa, would have considered indigenous inhabitants of Africa as people living in the “wild”. Once escaped and no longer under European control, they would be seen as “returning to the wild”.

So what happened to the Cimarron People? Their settlements were subject to punitive raids by the Spanish, killing people and burning crops, so that in the end they came to a treaty with their old enemy. The Wikipedia entry says no more except that the “Cimarrons” and the English quarreled (not surprising, given that they were of no further use to the latter). I believe some of their settlements in Florida were raided and burned by US “pioneers” and soldiers and that the remainder became part of the Seminoles, a native American tribe that resisted the USA in the longest and most costly of the USA’s wars against the indigenous people, the Native (North) Americans. The Seminole had many tribe members of part-African origin in their midst.

And here – a surprise: The word “Seminole” is derived from the Muscogee word simanó-li, which may itself be derived from the Spanish word cimarrón, meaning “runaway” or “wild one”!

So, in line with what that on-line searcher back in 2004 had heard, no doubt a folk belief, the word cimarron is, in Mexico (and in the USA), of Castillian (Spanish) language origin and is connected to escaped slaves of African origin.

Some of the sources for “cimarron” also give us “marron” or “marrón” which is also related to escaped slaves and, in English, became “Maroons”. The Maroons, escaped slaves who inhabited mountainous regions of Jamaica and elsewhere became a great problem to the English settlers (after they took the island from the Spanish) which they failed totally to quell, the Maroons emerging victorious in many military engagements. In the Cockpits area of Jamaica, I have read, there is a place called Nanny Town, which is believed to be one of the settlements of the Maroons; their chief was said to be a woman called “Granny Nanny”3, whether because of her former slave occupation or for other reason4. In the end, like the Spanish with the Cimarron People, the English had to treat with them. Sadly the treaty required the Maroons to return newly-escaped slaves, which they did and for which they received payment.

Marroons in treaty with the British, shown here in a reversal of the actual power relations in the “Pacification with Maroons on the Island of Jamaica, by Agostino Runias (1728-96).
(Source image: Internet)

However if instead of being a voluntary escapee to go to a wild place you were forced by people or circumstance, well then, like Alexander Selkirk’s “Crusoe”, you’d be “marooned”!

Well then, what about the “cimarron strips” in the southwest of the USA? Could the word refer to strips of land “gone wild”? Or could the expert replying to the question in 2004 have been on to something?

If the slaves escaping through the desert from the USA to Mexico did indeed make their way through strips of watered land (not just for the water, as the expert speculates but for vegetation to conceal them), then there is a connection between escaped slaves and these strips of land. But not as the expert sees it, rather the other way around: since the escaped slaves, the “cimarrones” were travelling the strips, they would be called by those who knew about it (escapee hunters, escapee helpers and just observers), “cimarron strips”, i.e “those strips through which the runaway slaves travel.”

CHRISTIAN ETHNIC PREJUDICE

          However, if the word comes from Castillian (Spanish) what were the origins of the word in that language?

Perhaps a year ago, I was reading a book that described the Spanish State as having been characterised, contrary to many other European states, by mass expulsions and exiles on a number of occasions throughout its history5. Naturally enough, first on the list of expulsions was the well-known example of the Moors and the Jews. Those who were not slaughtered by the forces of the “Christian Monarchs” of Ferdinand and Isabella in the “reconquest” were obliged to convert to Christianity or to leave “with only the clothes on their backs”. This also occurred in Portugal.

Those Jews who left were the Sephardim or Sephardic Jews, who spoke Ladino, an archaic kind of Iberian Romance6 language with Aramaic and Hebrew words, along with the Moors, who spoke an Iberian-Arabic mixture or Arabic. The key of their houses or gates have been handed down to this day in families of both groups.7

Many converted, often referred to by Christians as “conversos” (Jews) or “moriscos” (Arabs) but were constantly under suspicion of reverting to their old religion even with the threat and constant trials and torture of the Spanish Inquisition. According to what I have read they too were sometimes called “marronos”, i.e in the eyes of the Spanish Christian ruling class, those who had been “domesticated” (Christianised) but had “returned to the their wild way”, (Moslem) i.e “gone feral”.

Forced conversions that had to appear genuine: “The Moorish Proselytes of Archbishop Ximenes”, Granada, 1500 by Edwin Long (1829–1891). (Image source: Internet)

Wikipedia on Marrones in Iberia confirms: The (Spanish) Inquisition was aimed mostly at Jews and Muslims who had overtly converted to Christianity but were thought to be practicing their faiths secretly. They were respectively called marranos and moriscos. However, in 1567 King Phillip II directed Moriscos to give up their Arabic names and traditional dress, and prohibited the use of Arabic. In reaction, there was a Morisco uprising in the Alpujarras from 1568 to 1571. In the years from 1609 to 1614, the government expelled Moriscos.

THE BUSH FROM THE NUT?

          And is “ci” or “cy” in “cimarron” then merely a prefix? The word “marrón” exists as a colour in Castilian and a number of Romance languages and came into English as the colour “maroon”. Its development is taken as originating from the colour of the large ripe chestnut, rather than given to it later. Of course there are a number of words for colours or tints which have a botanical origin, “orange” being an obvious one.

Castanea Silva, the edible or Sweet Chestnut.
(Image source: Internet)

Alright, then the nut and tree might have been associated with uncultivated or “wild” areas, similar to those to which the “cimarrons” would escape. But where did the “ci” suffix come from? Somewhere in the midst of what I have been researching I came across an explanation, derived from Latin, meaning “towering”, “high” etc. But can I find it now?

The online sources are telling me that the relevant pages are up for deletion and I can join the discussion. No thanks, I do not have anything like sufficient knowledge to enter a debate on that, nor the patience of an academic to research it thoroughly.

But “high” and “wild” could easily correspond, given that valleys and plains lend themselves more easily to cultivation, as a rule, than mountainy areas, which might remain wooded or with with thick undergrowth. And that might also give us the “bush” or “thicket” referred to in a number of references for “cimarron”, which in turn might describe the “cimarron strips”. In parts of Latin America (and for all I know, in all of them) such as Chile, a “cimarra” is also a thicket or densely-grown area. The article in the Language Journal (see reference) comments that the “arra” cannot be a Romance language word-ending but even if true it seems to me that the author (or authors quoted) might be unaware that among those from Iberia who colonised or settled in the Americas, Romance language speakers were not alone. There were also Basques who spoke Euskera/ Euskara and for evidence, they applied a number of toponomics and left family names from the Basque Country (Basque descendants make up to 10% of the population of some Latin American countries). And “-arra” would be a common enough suffix or word-ending in Euskera.8

Opening title for the weekly TV Western series Cimarron Strip, starring Stuart Whitman, Judy Gleeson, Percy Herbert and Randy Boone. Though popular, only a years’ worth of episodes were screened.
(Image source: Internet)

OKLAHOMA PANHANDLE AND THE CIMARRON STRIP

          In the 19th Century wars between the Mexican Republic, the USA and the Native Americans in the area, it was carved up with less and less left to the Native Americans.   Prior to the American Civil War, white Texas wanted to join the Union as a slave state  and due to a US federal law prohibiting slavery north of 36°30′ parallel north, white Texas surrendered a strip of land north of that latitude. The settlement (temporary of course), left a strip as “Neutral Territory” (one can only imagine the temptation for African slaves in Texas to make for there).  After the Civil War big cattle ranchers moved in, disregarding treaties and named the area the Cimarron Strip.

Map of Oklahoma territory and “Neutral Strip” before the American Civil War.
Image source: Wikipedia, Texas Panhandle.

But that was because the word Cimarron was already in the area, from the “Cimarron Cutoff” leading to a crossing of the  Cimarron river.  And yes, there was a popular 1967-1968 TV series called “Cimarron Strip”, starring Stuart Whitman.  But, though I used to watch it, that is only faintly related to the story of the word that set me out on this journey.

End.

FOOTNOTES

1Which days later had still not arrived – perhaps the site is no longer in operation, which would explain the silence after those two posters.

2Columbus voyage to America 1641 and Spain’s first colonial settlement 1565 (now Florida); Mayflower expedition to America with English settlers 1587 (now Virginia). However, Europeans had founded settlements much earlier, as with the Norse in the 10th Century and very likely Irish monks in the 6th Century. But it was the English and Spanish who conquered most, the Dutch, French and Portuguese less. The descendants of the English settlers after gaining independence from England completed the seizure and colonisation of most of the North American continent, while English colonists remaining loyal to the English Crown seized land to form what is now Canada.

4All the folk tradition, albeit conflicting on some points, declares that she had not been a slave which leaves one to wonder how she might have reached Jamaica from Africa without having been enslaved.

5 I borrowed the book from the public library and cannot remember its title at the moment.

6“Romance languages” is the name give to the group on Indo-European languages such as Castillian (Spanish), Catalan, Galician, Portuguese, Romanian, Italian and French. They are sometimes called “Latin-based” or “Latin Languages” but there is some dispute about the origins and developments of these languages.

7 Ironically, the door or gate “key” is also a symbol of return for Palestinian refugees driven from their homes by Zionist massacres, threats and fear during the founding of the State of Israel.

8 Among toponomics of North America’s southwest Durango (Colorado and Mexico), Navarro and Zavala Counties (Texas) are perhaps the best known; while Aguirre, Arana, Bolívar (Bolibar), Cortazar (Kortazar), Duhalde, Echevarria (Etxebarria), García, Guevara (Gebarra), Ibarra, Larrazábal, Mendiata, Muzika, Ortiz, Salazar, Ugarte, Urribe and Zabala are but some among a host of family names of Basque origin from the American south-west to Latin America. And of course the country of Bolivia, from Simon Bolívar, a Basque surname from a Basque toponomic.

SOURCES, REFERENCES:

http://www.wordwizard.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?t=1342

https://www.yourdictionary.com/cimarron

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/cimarr%C3%B3n

Excerpt on-line from Language journal, Linguistic Society of America, Leo Spitzer, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1938), pp. 145-147: https://www.jstor.org/stable/408879?seq=1

Cimarron People: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cimarron_people_(Panama )

Seminole People: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seminole

Marrons, Marrónes, Maroons: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamaican_Maroons

Marronos” in Iberia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moors#Etymology

Marooned: https://www.etymonline.com/word/maroon

Marrón/ maroon as a colour, derived from the nut: https://www.etymonline.com/word/maroon

Basque diaspora to Latin America: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basque_diaspora

Family names of Basque origin in Latin America: https://www.academia.edu/7889462/Basque_legacy_in_the_New_World_on_the_surnames_of_Latin_American_presidents

Basque words ending in -arra: https://www.ezglot.com/words-ending-with.php?l=eus&w=arra

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oklahoma_Panhandle#Cimarron_Territory

 

“IT WAS FUN WHILE IT LASTED”

Diarmuid Breatnach

The indicator climbed the temperature gauges and the ice caps melted. The seas rose and in many of the more developed societies, the rich and better-off had to relocate from scenic coast sites further inland, having to move again as the seas moved higher still but some, the more cautious and far-seeing among them (not a trait in great supply among their kind), transferred to mountains.

Melting Artic ice threatens the Polar Bear but also raises sea level around the world.
(Photo source: Internet)

The prices of property rose and the construction industry had another boom, which was great for those who had directorships or investments in construction companies or materials. Or in banks, which gave out interest loans like they would be out of fashion the following year (which they well might, some said with a laugh – but a hollow one).

Far away from the Artic, a flooded village, probably in the Indian Subcontinent.
(Photo source: Internet)

In the less-developed parts of the world, all the fishing communities had to move further inland and fishing was harder, with lines and nets getting entangled or shredded on the branches of trees and shrubs that were now submerged. Besides, the waters were polluted with flooded sewers, drains, latrines, dumps ….. and plastic.

Some of the nuclear power stations had been built near coasts and they were flooded. Some had exploded, causing unimaginable disaster. Well, what used to be unimaginable. Vast areas of sea, including all that lived in them, from algae and plankton to the great whales, suffered radioactive contamination.

Wind and wave turbines were swamped too and wrecked by storms. Oh, the storms! The changing climate brought great heat to formerly temperate and cold climes while those that had been hotter grew sometimes cold, sometimes even hotter. Those changes created cyclones, hurricanes, great storms that destroyed so many constructions of all types.

Overall, the greatest impact of all this on the human population of the planet was a huge loss of generated energy. Oil and gas fields began to run out and remaining extraction installations to cease working as they were wrecked by storms, flooded or destroyed by climate protesters.

Power station polluting the air. But without power ….!
(Photo source: Internet)

Electrical energy became scarce. Entertainment companies, which would normally have done well in times of disaster, went bust since fewer people could receive their programs. The Internet was taken over by governments for civil defence. All kinds of sophisticated equipment could no longer work. Radio replaced TV in most homes and mobile phones went out of fashion. Bicycles soon outsold cars.

Human-powered friction generators of many types began to be produced. Batteries of all kinds were in great demand, especially the rechargeable ones. Solar panels reached astronomical prices on the black market, the only place they were available. People were killed over them: sometimes as gangs fought for control over a diminishing supply, sometimes as someone was sold a dud and went looking for the seller for a refund.

Now, a strange thing happened – they began to run out of oil-based material. Hard plastic was still around but leak-proof and waterproof polythene bags were hard to find. So too with oil-based material used in clothing, such as acrylic. Bark could be used for clothing but there weren’t enough trees to keep up with the demand. There was less wool and leather as the sheep and cattle herds diminished. After awhile, that was less of a problem as there were less humans to clothe anyway.

(Photo source: Internet)

Employees of State companies and departments considered essential – by their employers – lived in walled communities protected by watchtowers and armed guards. And the rich lived in there too. Being rich meant a lot less than it did in the good old days but still a lot more than most people had now: meals every day, hot and potable cold water in good supply, good shelter, access to waste disposal, available medical supplies and recreational drugs including alcohol, armed protection and transport for self and small family circle. Security workers of all kinds became highly valued and former gang members formed themselves into security companies. Some police departments became private security firms and so also did some military. Although they didn’t talk about it most of the time, the rich lived in fear that their security compounds, walled villages and high-rise fortresses would be overrun. Or that their security services would stage a takeover, which is why they generally employed two companies at the same time and kept them in competition with one another.

Another fear was that there would be no replenishing of their huge stocks of food and goods when they were all used up, which was going to happen someday. Not enough production was still going on and what there was tended to be exchanged in barter, rather than coin or scrip.

Dainfern, northern suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa, has a four-metre electrified fence with cameras and vibration sensors protecting more than 1,200 houses. Photograph: Jeffrey Barbee

The poor lived in fear too and not just of starvation or of getting sick without access to medical services but of gangs taking what little they had left or of abductions of self or of family members to supply services of all kinds to gang members. Of wars between gangs. Of being in the wrong gang area when a rival gang staged a takeover.

Huge sections of the human population were wiped out, through loss of essential services, starvation, exposure, dehydration, fire, heat, cold, drowning, epidemics, resource wars with other states or internally. Along with them went pets that did not succeed in becoming feral and cattle, sheep and horses. The pigs went feral pretty successfully, overall as did some chickens. Many, many specialised species or in fragile ecosystems became extinct. Over time, some new species began to evolve.

It is said, though the story might be apocryphal (a word perhaps suitable for an apocalypse), that in one of the compounds of the rich overrun by a gang or insurrectionary group, depending on which version one hears, a former petroleum magnate put on trial was asked why he and his kind had not stopped destroying the climate, even after it became clear to even the most stupid politicians (which can reach a very high level of stupidity) what they were doing to the world.

It is said he related the fable of the frog and the scorpion.

In case you don’t know the story, it goes like this: A scorpion wants to cross a river but knows he can’t swim well enough to do that, so he goes in search of a frog. When he finds him – the frog of course keeping his distance – he asks him to take him on his back across the river. The frog replies that as soon as lets him on his back, the scorpion will sting him and the frog is not ready to die yet.

The scorpion pleads with the frog, who sees that the scorpion really means it. And it would be very handy for a frog to have a dangerous animal like a scorpion in his debt. So he agrees.

The frog hops down to the shallow water and the scorpion gets on the frog’s back. The frog tenses in fear but nothing happens. The frog starts to swim, feeling more and more relaxed. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog. As the poison courses through his body, the frog speaks to the scorpion: “Why did you do that? Not only did you break your promise and kill me but you will die now too, you will drown.”

“I know,” says the scorpion. “I just couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

It is also said that in another compound overrun by hostile forces, as a couple of drug company executives were being taken out to be shot for crimes against humanity, including climate destruction, one of them turned to the other with a smile.

“Cheer up”, she said, “It was fun while it lasted.”

end.

A BASQUE COUNTRY REGION – BIODIVERSITY AND CULTURE

Diarmuid Breatnach

          People visit the Basque Country for different reasons — among the touristic reasons are cuisine, folk culture and beach-type tourism including surfing. For some there may be business reasons and possibly on the other end of the spectrum from them there is the political aspect – interest in and solidarity with their struggle for independence and to a lesser extent perhaps, socialism. Eco-tourism and archaeological interest are probably not high on the list for most people but I’d suggest it would be worthwhile to include sites dealing with such aspects in any itinerary.

Many Basques would tell you that their country has a long way to go in environmentally-friendly practices – or at least in those less harmful to the environment; if true, it serves to illustrate just how far behind the desirable are the practices common in Ireland. Everywhere in Basque village or town, one sees the recycling containers in their five different colours for paper, plastic, metal, glass and organic waste. One frequent complaint is about timber-production forestation practices and though much of the Basque country is green with trees, many of those trees are conifers or, even worse, Basques will say, eucalypts in mono-cultural acres. The latter are indeed widespread and are said to suck the moisture out of the soil so that after they are felled, little else can grow there.

Environmentally-friendly timber production is less intensive and more diverse in species, less harmful to biodiversity of plant and animal life and more protective of the soil from erosion, flooding and desiccation. But to business — and therefore mainstream political interests — it is slower in turnover of profit. The perils of this concentration on early profit gain have been underlined this year with the infestation of the main crop pines, the “Monterey pine” (Pinus radiata) by the ‘Mycosphaerella dearnessii’ fungi and ‘Mycosphaerella pini’, said to have originated in Central America, which turns the foliage (needles) brown, eventually leading to the destruction of the tree.

Pines infected by fungi in the southern Basque Country (Photo: El Correo)

That all said, at grassroots (forgive the unintended pun) and often municipal level, there is great interest and support for biodiversity in the Basque Country and discussion around the subject is much more socially widespread than one would find in Ireland or in most of Britain (though perhaps not in some other parts of Europe). There are many national parks and reserves of great beauty and even city Basques tend to have a culture of collecting edible fungi in the woods in the autumn and of hill-walking or mountain-climbing at various times of the year. And small farms can be found dotted throughout the countryside.

Education about the environment for adults, children and even tourists is taken seriously and, apart from schools, centres promoting environmental care can be found in many areas. One such site of interest is the bio-diversity and heritage centre of Madariaga, the Ekoetxea, in the Axpe de Busturia area between the towns of Bermeo and Gernika These are interesting towns in themselves of the coast of Bizkaia (Biscay) province and Gernika was of course made famous by its bombing by the Nazi Luftwaffe, in the service of the fascist generals (Franco et al) in 1937, during what probably most people call the the Spanish Civil War and others, the Iberian Anti-Fascist War. Bus and train services connects both towns and pass through Busturia, both services having a stop or station in Axpe. The bus and train services run at mostly half-hourly intervals, the train all the way to Bilbao, on a single track for much of the line, up and down trains alternating.

I dropped in to a charming tavern in Axpe named after the Basque flower, Eguzkilore: literally “Sun Flower”. This is not the “sunflower” which Van Gogh famously painted, so named because it turns to follow the sun through its journey across the sky; the Basque flower (Carlina acaulis) is a member of the thistle family and is thought to resemble an idealised image of the sun. Dried specimens are often found hanging over the front door of Basque houses as a good-luck symbol, quite probably a remnant of pagan sun-worship (like the Irish “St. Bridget’s Cross” and indeed the traditional Basque symbol of the lauburru is very like that Irish symbol too and interestingly, the Basque tradition related to me was that it was borrowed from the Iberian Celts).

Dried Eguzkilore attached to the outside of a Basque house near the front door (Image sourced: Internet).

The Eguzkilore tavern is owned by a friendly young couple, a Catalan woman and Basque man: he of course speaks Euskera and Castillian (Spanish) fluently, whereas she is fluent in Catalan, Castillian and English, speaks Euskera well and smatterings of other languages. Although I know from experience that their cuisine is excellent, I ordered only a simple kafe esnea there and after finishing it and a chat, set off up the road to the Madariaga Ekoetxea (“eco-house”), an easy walk of perhaps fifteen minutes. Turning left at the roundabout at the crest of the hill the centre was easily visible by the clock-bell tower and the taller viewing tower.

This latter was a defensive construction quite similar to the keeps constructed in Britain and Ireland by the Norman invaders, livestock quartered below and people living on floors above; one of the staff told me that it had been inhabited until the 1930s. Now the floors have been ripped out except for the top one, accessible by a short journey in a lift and once there one can view around something like 160 degrees: steep hills close by beyond the road, land sloping away towards Gernika and distant mountains on another side, beach of the estuary and some marshlands on another.

A view of estuary and marshlands from the Tower observatory — it was a rainy day and the photograph is taken through glass
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
Closeup view of estuary and marshlands from the Tower observatory — it was a rainy day and the photograph is taken through glass
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
A view of river/ inlet mouth and headland eastward from the Tower observatory — it was a rainy day and the photograph is taken through glass (Photo: D.Breatnach).
The view southward from the Tower observatory is not so appetising but shows the steepness of the hills there. From those wooded slopes owls hooting may be heard night after night.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

The Tower was in fact the last part of the centre which I experienced. It was a showery Sunday in mid-October and the centre was fairly quiet, less that ten vehicles in the car park and nobody but a receptionist immediately available upon entering the building. I used my limited Euskera in addressing her, which is my practice in the Basque Country, and which is usually – but not always – appreciated. The native language has become “politicised” here (as some say it has also in the case of Irish in Ireland), which is another way of saying that it was banned under the Franco dictatorship, that people of a Spanish unionist turn of mind often resent it and native speakers, learners and independentists want to encourage its spread and use in everyday life. Of course in a cultural type of centre in the Basque Country I would not expect any negative response and I was answered politely in Euskera with a quick conversion to Castillian when my limited store of Euskera ran out.

WATER AND BIODIVERSITY

I had seen a small charge advertised outside but there was none on that day or perhaps that time of year to see two standard exhibitions, one on water and the other on biodiversity. The one on water informs visitors that water is a circulatory system: 1) most of it falls from the air in rain or humidity, some of it on to land and some on to lakes or on to the sea; 2) some of that which falls on land is taken up by soil and vegetation and excess runs off into streams, rivers and lakes; 3) some also soaks through permeable or semi-permeable strata of soil and rock and forms underwater reservoirs and lakes. 4) The excess runs out in underground rivers and streams, emerging eventually to empty into seas and lakes, where 5) the sun heats up the top layers again, creating clouds, many of which precipitate on to land, renewing the circle.

Photo panel of rock and limestone deposit formations in a Basque cave.

The diagrams, photos and videos demonstrated this process well and attractively and there were samples of varieties of sandstone and limestone to examine at close quarters. For me, the photos of underground caves formed by the water wearing away the limestone and the various and sometimes fantastic formations caused by chemical-rich water dripping for millenia were the most impressive along with the few examples of invertebrates adapted to life without light and mammals using natural caves were the most interesting, while others might have found the supplying of water to the public of greater interest (and certainly this is an important issue in many countries and not least so in Ireland).

Photo panel of troglodyte spider eating something.
Sleeping bat hanging from stalactite in cave.

 

One of the fantastic shapes created by decades or even centuries of chemically-laden drips. (Photo: D.Breatnach)
Photo panel of cave chambers with humans present for scale.

The section dedicated to bio-diversity is divided into different parts, including a room with video screens showing different types of humans (ethnic, gender, possibly sexuality, culture, age) and others dealing with plant, fungi and animal life. Passing through a type of broad corridor with explanations of what is a definition of biodiversity in many languages, one enters a brightly-lit room seemingly constructed entirely of panels, each one of an animal: birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, insects and other invertebrates. Not only the walls but floor and ceiling appear constructed of the panels, a vibrant bright room somewhat evoking the effect of stained glass with light shining through, a church celebrating the diversity of animal life, perhaps.

A kind of foyer before the rest of the exhibition (Photo: D.Breatnach)
The room “made of” panels of bio-diverse life, like stained glass: ceiling and two walls.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
Floor in the illuminated panels room.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Walking onwards, one finds a hall filled with large cubes, standing haphazardly upon one another, each carrying the image of an animal or plant. The names of the species are given in Euskera, Castillian and Latin. I find myself at times wishing to see the names in English and then chiding myself for the unreasonableness of this wish. There are images of plants to be seen too, some of plants which we are informed are native to the country and one found only there.

The “Life Cube Hall” (as I think of it).
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

ATTRACTIONS IN THE WIDER AREA

A slim informational folded leaflet is available in a number of languages, one version being in English and French, not only about this centre but about a network of them managed by the “Basque Government” (i.e the Government of three of the southern Basque provinces, Biskaia, Gipuzkoa and Alava). These are visited every year by 100,000 people, the booklet informs us, 25,000 of which are schoolchildren; the ekoetxea which I visited receives 2,000 schoolchildren out of a total of 45,000 visitors annually.

Dragonfly and Water-Scorpion panel. The first lives in the water as infant, hunting prey , before its metamorphosis to flying hunter. The second lives always in the water, usually in the higher reaches, also hunting. Its “tail” does not sting people but its proboscis can, though not seriously.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
A view of the ‘Cube Life Room’ between cubes. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Another, more substantial booklet available in English which shows signs of translation probably from Castillian gives more information on the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, the wider area in which the Madariaga Ekoetxea is located. This booklet advertises nature trails for hiking or biking, restaurants for Basque cuisine, a cave occupied by prehistoric humans, the Gernika Tree and General Assembly building and museum, markets and folk festivals, cider and wine-houses, painted forest, hermitages, bird-watching and sea activities including surfing and whale and dolphin-watching. Strangely (or not), in its caption about Gernika, it has nothing to say about the bombing of the town in 1937 nor, in its references to human habitation and culture of the wider area, nothing either to say about the Spanish Civil (i.e Anti-Fascist) war or about the occupation of the area by the fascist troops and the repression that followed, nor about the suppression of their language under Franco.  

An information panel tells visitors that there are 3,335 different mammal, bird, fish, reptile, amphibian, fungi and plant species etc. in the the Urdaibai reserve and that 85 are in danger of extinction or are of special interest.  Some panels showing examples of these would be welcome as would more about the wildlife native to the area (like what species are the owls one can hear hooting at intervals through the night from the forested hill above Axpe, for example).

End

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Eguzkilore plant: 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlina_acaulis

Ekoetxea Urdaibai: info@urdaibai@ekoetxea.eus 0034 946 870 402

Madariaga Ekoetxea: http://www.ingurumena.ejgv.euskadi.eus/informacion/madariaga-tower-basque-biodiversity-centre/r49-madaria/en/

The Monterey Pine and fungal infection: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinus_radiata

The Pine infection in the Basque Country (article in Castillian): 

https://www.diariovasco.com/gipuzkoa/pinos-gipuzkoa-heridos-20180607001828-ntvo.html

 

Extant and Extinct mollusc shells.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Different species’ seeds containers.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
European Mink cube.
The centuries-old clock tower; the clock is on the other side but the bell rings out the hour. Also visible are the solar panels.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
The Madariaga Tower (Photo: D.Breatnach)
The estuary and trees (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Wild in the City — Shamrock, early June

JUNE – early

Shamrock

 

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

Nobody can say with absolute certainty which specific plant is the “dear little shamrock” and perhaps it was a name given to several plants. The most widely accepted candidates are the species Trifolium dubium (Irish: Seamair bhuí), with yellow flowers or the white-flowered Trifolium repens (White Clover; Irish: Seamair bhán). The yellow-flowering one, a native plant to Ireland and the European mainland, goes by a number of common names in English: Lesser Trefoil, Suckling Clover, Little Hop Clover and Lesser Hop Trefoil.

Close-up yellow flowers of shamrock (Trefolium dubium).
(Image sourced: Internet)

Right now, the yellow is flowering. Once established, this plant thrives on lawns that are regularly mowed and it has little competition for light or alimentation (though it may not grow as lushly as in damper places) and there it establishes colonies, shamrock patches among the mown grass. Now, in early June, the lawn is dotted with patches of yellow flowers, to be visited by insect pollinators, soon to produce seeds. The plant, like the rest of its family, produces pods but in this case, the pods are tiny and contain only a single seed. Pods protect the development of seeds until they are ready to shed (or in some cases, like the gorse or furze, to explode).

Colonies of shamrock among lawn grasses (Photo: D.Breatnach)

People who like their lawns smooth and well-tended may resent clover patches since they tend not to wear as well as the mixed grasses with which lawns are seeded. Nevertheless, the plant is benefiting the soil and indeed the nearby grasses. It belongs to the clovers, belonging in turn to a very large group of plants in as different in appearance from one another as peas and beans on the one hand and furze (also known as gorse) on the other (but many bearing fruit pods). They are the legume group, plants that concentrate nitrogen in nodules around their roots, making many of them good crops with which to precede plants that require a lot of nitrogen, such as the cabbage family or cereals.

Shamrock flowering in short grass.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Amateur botanist and zoologist Nathaniel Colgan (1851-1919) once asked people from around Ireland to send him specimens of what they believed to be an Irish shamrock and identified the five most common plant species, of which the two most common were the yellow (flowering) clover followed by the white. A hundred years later, Dr Charles Nelson repeated the experiment in 1988 and found that yellow clover was still the most commonly chosen. According to Wikipedia, yellow clover is also the species cultivated for sale in Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day and is the one nominated by the Department of Agriculture as the “official” shamrock of Ireland.

Once flowering is over, probably in August, one can dig up a small section and transplant to flower box or pot in order to harvest sprigs of it for St. Patrick’s day on March 17th (a tradition that is nothing as old as people might think).

But nobody planted the yellow in the lawn – it got there by its own natural methods, possibly by wind or in animal excreta. Unlike the lawn on which it has set up its colonies, which was seeded on raked earth or, more likely, laid in grass turf rolls, it is in fact a part of wildlife in the city.

end

SPRING IN TREE, FLOWER AND SONG

Diarmuid Breatnach

As we have been shown this year, if we did not already know, Spring comes in its own time. Roughly around the calendar yes, but not exactly. It’s not like the clothing merchants, who withdrew the gloves in March and left people like me, who regularly lose them, with frozen hands unable to buy cheap replacements while the models stood in windows in shorts and bikinis.

But spring wild flowers are already out and have been for weeks, though the city is not a great place to see them. However in gardens, parks, canal banks and on empty sites, the dandelion, much disregarded as a decorative flower has been flaunting its bright yellow flower for weeks and will continue to do so for quite a while yet.

Some variety of Speedwell and Cat’s Ear (Photo D.Breatnach)
Furze (Aiteann) in bloom (photo: D.Breatnach)

In early April I spent a few days in Wicklow by the Dartry river. In a very short walk to Ashford I encountered eight types of wild flowers in bloom, including furze (or gorse), daisies,

Fumitory maybe (pink), mystery white flower on stalk and Groundsel on a bit of waste ground.
(photo: D.Breatnach)
The humble daisy (Nóinín) looking splendid on some waste ground.  (Photo: D.Breatnach)

groundsel, cat’s ear, speedwell, and of course dandelion. On a longer walk heading away from the river I came upon primrose, lesser celandine and wild or barren strawberry (not knowing how to tell the two apart at this time of year). And a mystery plant also (see photo). Swathes of wild garlic (creamh), grew both sides of the country road; I had long thought this plant a foreign import but it seems I was wrong. It certainly spreads when established however, as witnessed by this Wicklow road and wooded areas of Dalkey Hill where I have also seen large patches of it. My father transplanted some to our garden but rarely used it in cooking – or if he did, not often enough, for it soon took over large areas of the smallish garden.

Wild Garlic (Creamh).
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
Blue Tits even upside down on bird feeder (note that the tree is the Cherry Laurel, an invasive tree species).   (Photo: D.Breatnach)

 

 

At a Wicklow hotel garden’s bird feeder, blue tit, chaffinch and some other species flicked in to take a snack and flicked out again, making it very difficult to photograph them but which of course did not bother them at all.

Returning through Ashford (Áth na Fuinseoige) I came across one of our

Chaffinch (Rí rua) picking up some of the spillage from the feeder on the ground. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

feathered anglers, the smaller grey heron. Patience personified, this species stands in the water waiting for the appropriate moment to strike, apparently not feeling the cold. But perhaps this one did feel it, for it stood on the bank.

Grey Heron (Corr réisc) on the Vartry riverbank.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

The Gael reckoned the start of Spring with the feast of St. Brigid (and probably the Goddess Brig before her), February 1st, when the ewes come into milk, with their expected birth of lambs. As Brigid/ Brig was associated with butter in some traditions it is possible that some early butter was made from sheep’s milk, though that is not recorded in records, as far as I know. The lambs and many other animals born in Spring had no choice regarding when to appear – that had been decided in the Autumn or Summer of the year before when their mothers mated. Birds, on the other hand, who are more vulnerable, mate in the Spring itself.

In Dublin city until perhaps a week ago, there was very little sign of Spring apart from the lengthening of the day. The blind wandering poet Antoine Ó Raifteirí (1779-1835), writing in the month of January, was already anticipating spring in one of his better-known poems:

Anois teacht an Earraigh beidh an lá dúl chun síneadh, 


Is tar éis na féil’ Bríde ardóigh mé mo sheol;


Ó chur mé ‘mo cheann é, ní stopfaidh mé choíche 


Go seasfaidh mé síos i lár Chondae Mhaigh Eo.

He’s thinking of heading home to County Mayo, he feels Spring coming but will wait until Bridget’s feast day to “hoist his sail” and since it’s in his head now won’t stop till he gets there. We might have been anticipating Spring ourselves in January this year and into February — though cold and wet enough — but if so we were in for a shock towards the end of the month and into March with “snow dumps”.

The birds have to set up their territory even so and in fact the robin (Spideog) was marking its territory in song sporadically through December and January, often enough even at night in the city and particularly near street or train station lighting. The polygamous wren (Dreoilín), if not already at it followed in February. The seagulls at their nesting sites on roofs were calling and mating in mid-March but may have been delayed a little by the snow; however they are hardy birds. Some blackbird males have been singing since March and now are all in full throaty song. In March also we heard the high-pitched “peeps” of those acrobats, the tits as they foraged for invertebrates through the branches of tree and bush and at the end of April, also the bursts of chaffinch song which remind us often of caged canaries — and why not, when the canaries are often taught that very bird’s song to sing.

The Lesser Celandine, I think (Grán arcáin)
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

January was the time to hear adult foxes in the city, the somewhat frightening scream of the vixen and the two or three-times bark in quick succession of the dog fox. This month the cubs, born a month earlier, will venture out of their den and may be heard sometimes by night at play too, though this is more likely in the months to come.

The mystery plant with flower or hood bud (going by the leaves, not ‘Lords and Ladies’).
(Photo: D.Breatnach)
The Primrose (Sabhaircín) leaf, bud and flower.(Photo: D.Breatnach)
Wild (or perhaps Barren) Strawberry (Sú talún or bréige) in blossom.  (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The trees and ground plants apparently respond more to length and angle of sunlight to tell them it is time to grow from seed or to burst open into bud and some of them are doing so now in late April, for example the birch (Beith). Others delay and the ash trees (source of our camáin or hurley sticks and much else) are still in their black hard bud stage in late April and the oak waits along too. Trees that flower tend to do so first and put out leaf later, as the blackthorn (Draighneán donn) did in February with its little white blossoms which will develop into sloes (airne) later in the year. In March hawthorn (Sceach geal), willow (Sail, from which we get “The Sally Gardens”) and elder (Ceireachán), all of which may be seen in gardens or parks (and the elder growing even on empty sites) were already green-misting in tiny leaf and are now well advanced. The “candles” of the horse chestnut (Crann Cnó capaill), to be seen in parks and in some leafy suburb streets, are however forming alongside the tree’s large leaves right now at the end of April (Aibreán) and the rowan (Caorthann) and sycamore (Seiceamar) of the whirling seeds are also in stages of leaf.

Slender Speedwell perhaps (there are a number of different species). (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Spring is really coming for us but for many plants, mammals and birds, it is already here.

end

PS: When checking The Tree Council of Ireland for tree species names in Irish, I was shocked to find that they do not supply them. Nor reference the huge number of places across the land whose names in English are corruptions of the original Irish place names derived from the names of trees.

Links for more information:

Identifying wildflowers by month through the year: http://www.irishwildflowers.ie/this-month/april.html

Wildflower information, photo and names in Irish, English and Latin: http://www.wildflowersofireland.net/plant_detail.php?id_flower=220

Song of the Chaffinch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVyW9t5wX3U

Native trees in leaf throughout the year: http://www.thegardenshop.ie/native-trees