On a sunny but windy day in Greystones, lá grianmhar ach gaofar, nature put on an abstract art show. The sunshine brought out intensely the yellow of the lichen on the limestone rocks, while the black lichen encrustation on some rocks contrasted sharply with a neighbouring section of bare grey. Some trick of the camera and light brought out a gorgeous blue in the rock-shadowed sea which had not been visible to the eye.
Lichens are an amazing life form, being an integrated symbiosis of an alga and a fungus. A cross between a frog and a goose would not be more bizarre in concept – fungi are not even plants, while algae are. The fungus provides a relatively strong skeleton while through photosynthesis the alga produces sugars to feed the fungus.
Although not all are easy to distinguish, there are over 1,165 species of lichen in Ireland, varying from the common to the rare. The yellow-orange one, Xanthoria parietina, is one of the common ones in Ireland. The white and often off-white or grey Ochrolechia parella can be mistaken for bird excreta at a distance, or even as the ground-in chewing gum that costs Dublin City Council so much to remove from street surfaces every week. The black one, Verrucaria maura if I am identifying it correctly, covers rocks that are wave-lapped or hit by sea-spray on a daily basis.
These are all hardy adventurers, extremophiles, living in zones exposed to great variations of temperature, all even in one day, as the sun beats down between rain showers or windy spray. And they are very tolerant of salinity, without at the same time being dependent upon it. Perhaps not these species but their ancestors, or other forms like them, were the early colonisers of the land on our planet. Terraformers too, as they slowly abrade the rock upon which they cling, helping to create soil, while black lichen attracts heat to warm up surfaces and the alga in the symbiotes releases oxygen into the atmosphere.
Lichens can live attached to rock, wood and metal, some species even inside stone and on snow.
No plaque or monument celebrates these hardy adventurers but down on the harbour wall was a plaque to another hardy life-form, celebrating the 1910 confrontation there of Chief Secretary Birrell, one of the Crown’s main representatives in Ireland, by Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington and Hilda Webb. They were kick-starting the militant Votes for Women campaign which was later brought into conflict with the Irish Parliamentary Party too but influenced the 1916 Proclamation’s advanced and stirring address: “Irishmen and Irishwomen ….”. That Rising six years after the Greystones confrontation would shock Birrell and sadly, would see Hannah’s pacifist husband Francis murdered by a British Army officer during that momentous week.
Earlier, in a Dublin train station, I photographed a wall of varied limestone, where algae and moss, also terraformers, had made an abstract art collage.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ……!
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.
No, that title is not a cryptic clue for a crossword but instead refers to a very common and much-despised plant with a truly remarkable story. A plant that has found amazing ways of propagation and distribution.
The week before last I saw my first dandelion of this year in bloom in Dublin. On a cold, dark and wet day, it had its sunny bloom shining on a bit of waste ground. And not far from it, a coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara)in bloom too, a relative in the same genus sometimes confused with the dandelion, also in bloom. But this is the story of the ubiquitous dandelion, which we knew as “Piss (or Wet) the Bed”, from a mistaken belief that keeping the blooms in one’s bedroom would make one void one’s bladder while sleeping.
We have two common species of dandelion in Ireland, T. vulgaris and T. officinalis, Caisearbhán and Caisearbhán Caol Dearg (?) respectively in Irish. They belong to the genus or larger family of Asteraceae, one of the two largest genera of the flower family, including so many species, from the diminutive daisy to the giant sunflower.
It is an important early source of pollen and nectar for insects in this latitude, when not many other blooms are about.
The name “dandelion” is a rendition of the pronunciation in French of “dents de lion”, i.e “lion’s teeth”, said to refer to the serration of the leaves reminding people of lion’s teeth. Well, perhaps of a cartoon or heraldic lion, or one as imagined by Europeans who had never seen the animal.
As the season progresses, soon those cheerful yellow blooms will be seen everywhere, on roadside verges and waste ground, in gardens and fields, in woodlands, on hillsides ….. Except in bogs and strangely in some parts of the Burren1, there is hardly a place where it cannot be found, which makes us see it as common and perhaps view it with disdain.
But it is far from being an everyday plant.
PUFF CLOCK AND PARACHUTE BABIES
As children, we thought to tell the time by blowing on the fluffy balls that develop from the bloom in late Summer or Autumn, each puff being an hour and the correct time being the number of puffs to blow the last seed parachute away. It seems unlikely such an impractical idea would have occurred to us and we only did so because we had been told about it by adults.
But there is some wonder in those fluffy balls, full of separate parachutes, each bearing one seed. This is possible because what I have been deliberately calling a “bloom” rather than a “flower” is, properly speaking, a capitulum, a head actually containing many, many little flowers, or florets – and each one of those will bear a seed. It is a wonderful arrangement capable of producing a multiplicity of seeds even if parts of the bloom are damaged.
Each floret grows a silky “parachute”, the plant not only using the wind for seed dispersal (as do grasses with pollen) but developing such a means of delivery to cover great distance.
Upon hitting disturbed ground or even a crevice with soil, the seed takes quickly – the dandelion’s children are great opportunists — and sends down a long taproot, while above ground, leaves grow in a rosette shape upon rosette, later sending out hollow stalks that will bear the bloom of florets. Each bloom “responds to changes in light, in fine weather stretching the florets to the sun and following its course across the sky, or closing the head up as soon as rain threatens, opening also for sunrise and closing at evening.”1 As the florets die, their bracts close and the seeds and parachutes develop inside; then their surrounding bracts drop, allowing the expansion of the full ball of silky parachutes – i.e the maximum possible number of seed-carriers.
When the seeds have gone with the wind, the hollow stem dries up and falls away. The tap-root regularly shrinks and pulls the rosette of leaves tight to the ground: maximum absorption of sun and moisture but also maximum possible cover on ground, making it difficult for other plants to compete close to it.
Unless I dreamed it, somewhere I came across a phrase and image that I considered very democratic but have not been able to find it since. I had thought it spoken by a Shakespearian character but no search has turned it up. As I recall it, a worker or person of “low” social status says that his blood is as good as any royal person’s, for “a king on the march scatters his seed like a dandelion”!
To the average flower or vegetable gardener, the dandelion is an invasive noxious weed, rapidly colonising newly-dug, hoed or even raked soil and competing with what it is desired to grow. And the fact that hoeing the leaves off even a couple of times will not kill the plant, the root sending out new shoots, makes it worse. Using a rotavator chops up the tap root but many of the resulting sections can regenerate and start a new plant.
All this is amazing enough, were it not for the plant’s sex life – or absence of it!
SEEDS WITHOUT SEX
Most flowers, blossoms and blooms exchange pollen, usually with the assistance of pollinators – generally insects and in particular, bees. This fertilises the plants and causes the production of seeds, whether in the form of fruit or nuts or just plain “seeds”. The shape and colour of the bloom attracts the pollinator, knowing that inside there is nectar and pollen to be eaten (or collected, in the case of bees).
Well, dandelion blooms contain nectar and are visited by many insects, including bees – but the plants don’t exchange pollen in order to produce seeds. They produce the seeds alright, as we have seen – but asexually. Without sex. So why produce blooms and nectar at all?
Each new plant is a copy of the parent but no breeding occurs. Another mystery: there are a huge number of different microspecies of dandelion, differing in sometimes minute ways from one another and living and seeding in the same general area (more than 70 in Co. Dublin alone3). ‘In the British Isles alone, 234 microspecies are recognised in nine loosely defined sections, of which 40 are “probably endemic.”4
Let’s imagine an ancestral dandelion plant – how did it come to produce all these micro-species, seeding true but each separate and without cross-breeding? Botanists don’t seem to know: ‘the humble dandelion is, indeed, as the new Webb’s An Irish Flora confirms, “a very difficult genus”, its flowers not always to be told apart, even in the hand. The American ecologist Paul Ehrlich once described the reproductive policy of dandelions as “perhaps the greatest mystery in the world of plant sex”.‘5
FOOD, DRINK, DYE …. AND RUBBER?
All over Europe and Asia the plant has been known for culinary and/ or medicinal qualities but rather than just quote hearsay and unverified publications, I prefer to pass over most of the detail of these alleged qualities as the subject requires more research than I am prepared to undertake at this time.
All of the dandelion plant is edible1, except perhaps the bloom-stem: root, leaves, buds and blooms. Which is probably how this native Eurasian plant came to colonise America (though North America does have its own native species too) – brought there as a culinary plant by European colonists. The green leaves are likely to be too bitter for many tastes unless blanched first – i.e covered to deny them sun for a week or so, when they will turn yellow and lose much of their bitterness but still remain crisp.
Dandelion wine has been made from the flowers (a gallon of flowers for a gallon of wine7, but some other ingredients must be added, as with all European plants with the exception of the grape or the gooseberry). A mildly-fermented drink, dandelion and burdock8, has also been made from a combination of the dandelion flowers and burdock roots.
The flowers have also been dried, then ground into a powder to make a light yellow dye but I lack information on its colourfastness.
The white sticky liquid (latex) in the stems and along the main rib of the larger leaves has been said to remove warts but having tried it myself without success I doubt this claim. Furthermore, I believe the remedy may be confused with a similar-looking white sap from a completely different plant, the petty spurge (also known as “milkweed” and other common names), Euphorbia peplus, which I have found efficacious. However, the white sap in the dandelion has been developed by selective cultivation in one species to replicate the latex of the rubber tree9 and dandelion rubber may one day become a familiar product.
Soon, this seemingly ubiquitous flower of many “cousins” and many uses, an opportunist colonist with thousands of daughters sailing the wind, will be brightening our ways everywhere. Once we know even some of its qualities, can we ever again look at the dandelion with disdain?
1In New Atlas of British Irish Flora, quoted by Michael Viney, “Pissey beds lion’s tooth” etc (see Sources, References)
2Ibid, also Taraxacum – ‘A very difficult genus of a multitude forms, which set seed without pollinating, and never, therefore, interbreed.’ An Irish Flora by D A Webb, Sc.D. 1977, quoted in Wildflowers of Ireland (References, Sources).
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.
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
(Latin America, of animals) feral (having returned to the wild)
Synonyms: alzado, bagual, feral
(Latin America, of people) rural; campestral
(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 cimarronis, 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.
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 Romance6language 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”.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
I and another man had been burgling a building, one which I later recognised as bearing a resemblance in part to a place in which I had once worked. My dreams are often located in scenarios reminiscent of my working life but usually they are of the industrial period, factories, vast or small and dilapidated. The building in my dream was in part from a later period and the office space was reminiscent of a hostel for the homeless in London, where my job had been that of the Deputy Manager.
That hostel had been of course in 24-hour operation, with staff on rota throughout all those hours but, in the dream, it was open only during the day (like some facilities for the homeless whose management have the confidence to tell those who run 24-hour operations how they should manage their establishments and whom they should not exclude).
In the first scene I remember I was in an alley outside the target building and my accomplice appears to have been inside already. The building’s doorway was near the mouth of the alley, which opened on to a main road. I shrank back into the doorway as someone left a nearby building, either at the corner or just around it, calling out something to whoever he was leaving behind. Then the door was opened by my accomplice and I stepped inside.
Having closed the door, I saw that somehow he was already in the office while I was in the entry passageway. Looking at him through the glass of the reception office, I saw he had the safe open already but was awkwardly keeping the office door open with an outstretched foot. He beckoned me in with an impatient gesture.
Entering the office, I kept the door open while he emptied the safe of money. I knew that if the door was allowed to close it would set off an alarm (yes, I know, crazy and why did we not just wedge it open?).
Soon, I was further down the corridor and opening up another safe and taking out bundles of currency notes. Closing the safe, since our intention was to delay discovery of the theft, I brought the money up to the reception office. Now, at this late stage, I began to worry about concealed video recording cameras and drew a scarf partly across my face. I mentioned my fear to my accomplice, who commented that if CCTV cameras were installed, they already had our faces so why worry?
Of course, that was not very reassuring. I began to regret the whole operation.
“So what do you want to do?” he asked.
“I know what I feel like doing,” I replied. “I feel like leaving the money here and leaving. But I am not sure what I really want to do.”
“Leave the money, after all we’ve gone through to get in here?”
“I know, I know. OK, let’s just finish the job.”
“Just keep denying it and they can’t prove anything,” he replied and that is about when I awoke.
*** *** ***
As noted earlier, I felt very unsettled by the dream and could not get back to sleep – so I switched on the bedside lamp to read awhile, a novel by a Cuban writer called Leonardo Padura.
Sometime later, I switched off the light and was soon back asleep. And dreaming again.
*** *** ***
There is only one scene from that dream I remember: a plain room, perhaps a kitchen, a rectangular table, at my long side of which one woman sits on a chair, another on the other side and yet another on the short side, both also on chairs. There is another chair in front of me, empty, into which I am ushering a youngish and tall man I know to be my Irish cousin.
The woman to my left might be my mother but if so, much younger than matches my adult age. The other woman nearest is to my right, sitting back somewhat from the short side of the table and is in her early to mid-twenties. On the opposite side of the table to me, is a somewhat older woman who appears to be in her thirties. Again improbably, I think she is the mother of the younger woman.
I seat the young man on the empty chair and then go to the youngest woman, whom I now know to be a cousin also. She bends towards the older woman and whispers something to her but I take her by the elbow and steer her towards my male cousin, reflecting while doing so that maybe I should have done this the other way around.
As I reach him, I say to my male cousin that “I wish to introduce the delectable S—-” (I am uncertain about the exact adjective I used but it was something like that).
I think they shook hands and then she sat down again.
*** *** ***
The mobile alarm woke me but I was tired, so reset it for another hour and was soon asleep. And dreaming again.
The scene this time was similar to that of an Asian buffet in Moore Street, Dublin, that I frequent from time to time. But the man behind the counter was Latin American, not Asian. I asked him about the Mexican Bay Tree – were its leaves used for flavouring as with the bay tree with which we are more familiar here in Ireland?
He seemed puzzled and asked me where I had heard about this tree.
I replied that it had been mentioned in a book by a Cuban author, Padura. He burst into scornful laughter and exclaimed something like “Ni vive, ni siquiera estuvo nunca ahi!” (“He neither lives nor was even ever there,” i.e in Cuba). And he called out in Spanish to another staff member of the restaurant.
I said then that I was not surprised, for Padura’s main character Conde comments quite negatively on the state of affairs in Cuba, which reflects badly on its management and I felt he could hardly continue doing so if he actually lived there.
The reset alarm went off and I awoke with the rapidly-fading memory of yet a fourth dream (now gone completely).
I would have loved to take these dreams to my mother for analysis but she is dead a dozen years now. She followed the Jungean method and had done some amazing analyses of dreams for members of the family and also for some close acquaintances. Amazing, in terms of perceptiveness and apparent relevance to the individual concerned.
The basis of the Jungean system is to recognise that everything in a dream is from the subconscious, which speaks to the conscious mind in symbols. Therefore things, words and people dreamed of tend to be representing something else and people in particular, whether male or female, young or old, known or unknownto represent parts of one’s subconscious. Carl Jung also spoke of archetypes, representations of events, figures and motifs which he believed all humans shared from the earliest beginning of the human race but which are also overlain with their own specific ethnic and period culture.
So what would my mother have made of the burglary dream? She would of course consult the known archetypes but would also interrogate me about some of the dominant aspects, asking what they represented to me, personally.
What would she have made of the fact that the representation of my accomplice was an Irish “dissident” Republican known to me, along with my fear of discovery? The man could represent dissidence, disobedience of authority (in the conscious world of reality, both of State and of some party leaders) but also honesty, dedication, courage. And my fear? Maybe a real one, of danger from the repressive apparatus of the State. Nothing new there, however.
Then there was the reception office door that must not be closed! I must be open to receive something?
The building in part represented a place in which I had worked once and had been treated very badly as an employee. In the course of my work there I had to take two separate grievances against my manager on the grounds of his impeding my professional development, in both of which I succeeded in gaining access to the steps I sought (training and practice). My manager had taken out two disciplinary procedures against me, both of which turned out to be unsuccessful but which naturally, caused me a lot of stress.
The background was that he had wanted another candidate to succeed in the interview procedure in which I had come highest and he had objected to the decision of the interviewing panel; subsequently they had announced that no-one had reached the required level. I sought feedback on this, seeking the scoring in my case and a senior manager ordered another round, this time with a union rep and an Equalities rep on the panel with the manager in question. Although, as I learned later, I had come highest again, due to the sitting manager’s insistence on another candidate, the panel recommended an isometric test to decide between the two top applicants and I had come out on top of that procedure too.
I was appointed to the post.
When I first met my manager-to-be some days later to discuss starting work at the hostel, he told me he had not been pleased with recruitment procedure. I replied that there were some aspects that had not pleased me either but that we had best leave all that behind us. It was subsequently clear that either he was unable to do that or did not wish to.
But a building in dream analysis often represents one’s own head or, more precisely, one’s brain ….
And stealing from it? I don’t know.
Ma! Are you there? Ma! Ma!
The lack of detail apart from the figures in that dream is striking, forcing one to concentrate on the actors, without distraction.
In reality, on the Irish side of my antecedents, only one siblin of my father had children (six, five brothers and one sister, also just like ours). In the real world, my female cousin is actually named S— but although she might well be considered delectable, is not tall and fair-haired, as she was in my dream. And ALL my Irish cousins are siblings, which made the introduction of one Irish cousin to another ridiculous. In the real world, ridiculous yes – but in the world of symbolic representations?
There were three women in the dream and one male, other than myself. Two of the women played observing roles while the third seemed somewhat reluctant to be introduced to the male cousin. It seems to me that this represents a need for some female parts of my brain to come to greater ease with the male parts. The female represened is family, so is close but as a cousin, slightly distant; the mother figures, one very close (mother) and the other (aunt) slightly distant, observe rather benignly. The male cousin, willing to be introduced, would be a representation of a male part of myself.
The Cuban Author
The book I had been reading was indeed by Padura and in reality I had been wondering about this “Mexican bay tree”, making a mental note to ask the Oracle (Google) about it. And I had wondered about Padura’s comments about Cuba (through his main character). Although I was sure Cuba was no paradise and had heard of a decline in revolutionary standards of the leadership and in society, I wondered whether a) things were as bad as Padura’s character Conde thinks and says and b) how or why Padura lives there if that’s how things are.
So, a straightforward carrying through of waking questions into a dream? Perhaps. But why would they be of such importance as to be dreamed about? It seems one should dig deeper.
The scene presented in the Asian buffet was familiar and yet exotic too, in the food on offer. Cuba is exotic to me as would be, I presume a Mexican bay tree, whatever that is. But the bay tree with which I am familiar has fragrant leaves and I use it often in cooking.
And that’s as far as I can get.
Ma! Are you there? Ma! Ma!
According to Wikipedia
Leonardo de la Caridad Padura Fuentes(born on October 10th, 1955) is a Cubannovelist and journalist. As of 2007, he is one of Cuba’s best-known writers internationally. In his native Spanish, as well as in English and some other languages, he is often referred to by the shorter form of his name, Leonardo Padura. He has written screenplays, two books of short stories, and a series of detective novels translated into 10 languages. In 2012, Padura was awarded the National Prize for Literature, Cuba’s national literary award and the most important award of its kind. In 2015, he was awarded thePremio Principe de Asturias de las Letrasof Spain, one of the most important literary prizes in the Spanish-speaking world and usually considered as the Iberoamerican Nobel Prize.
The reference, mostly about the writer, has some passages which are critical of the regime. And yes, Padura does live in Havana, Cuba.
According to one site, the Mexican Bay Tree (Litsea glaucescens) is an uncommon shrub:
A small, evergreen tree growing to 15-20 feet. Leaves are leathery and elongated in shape, growing up to 3″. They are distinct in having a blue-green coloration to their undersides. Flowers are small, white-green in color. Fruits are small, at most 1/2″ across and ripen to a deep purple-black. There are supposedly a handful of varieties or variants of this species, though minimal attention seems to be given to propagating select types.
According to Wikipedia,
It grows in the mountains, on the banks of rivers and is planted in the garden of houses. It is used as seasoning. It is in danger of extinction,because it has been used extensively for various uses, medicinal and culinary purposes even religious during the celebration of Palm Sunday. The species is one of the most important non-wood trees of Mexico. This species has been exploited for different purposes: religious,dietary and medicinal, where the young branches and leaf tissues are used. This has resulted in a considerable exploitation in virtually all their range.
Of course, these aspects of the plant would have brought a whole lot of other aspects into the dream analysis, except that I didn’t know them then.
This month the shamrock is blooming all around. The cluster flower is not very prominent individually but together can produce a yellow-green carpet effect, yellow for the flowers and green for the leaves.
Who is to say that the shamrock has a yellow flower? Why not the white clover? Well, 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.
But sometimes, the yellow-flowered speciesTrifolium dubium (Irish: Seamair bhuí) can be found growing next to the white-flowered Trifolium repens (White Clover; Irish: Seamair bhán), although they never really intermingle.
The clover family belong to a group of plants that have the ability to fix nitrogen in nodes around their roots and, as a result, provide nutrition for plants that need nitrogen.The plant, like the rest of its family, produces pods but in the shamrock’s 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!).
In cropped or mown lawns, or in poor soil, the shamrock hugs the ground. However, given conditions for growth but having to compete with other plants for sunlight, it will grow long stems reaching upwards.
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 shamrock 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.
The carpet is a lush deep kind of green – not too deep a green though. We didn’t order it but I’m not complaining – I like it. Much better than that yellow one we had for a while a few months back.
Next to it is another kind of carpet – very different. The same green background but covered in big blobs of yellow, brown, orange and mixtures of all three. Even some reds. The blobs are large and small, some shaped like the spades suit in a deck of cards, others like a cat’s iris, some with many points, like a star … Didn’t order that carpet either but I like it too. It might not sound that great but you’d have to see it.
There was the wallpaper too, great stretches already unrolled, ready to look at. A blue-white background with puffs of white and, in the foreground, thin black shapes, some of them decorated with those blobs of colours, like those on that carpet. Great contrast with the thin black shapes.
The carpets and wallpaper were just delivered – no order was placed by phone or email. And no request for payment by cash or credit card. Not even an invoice. Totally free! Hard to believe, I know.
Then there was the perfume. No, not in bottles, in the air. I swear! (Yes, I know that rhymes but I didn’t plan it). It was heady but not in the way that rose is, or honeysuckle, or privet flower. Those aromas make you kind of want to sit down and drowse …. or even lie down and go to sleep. Then you remember the story of the artist who died inhaling in his sleep the aroma of flowers he had in a vase to paint – and you don’t linger too long. Did that really happen? Not sure – best not take the chance. Didn’t take a chance on the dandelion flowers when you were a kid either. Waking up in a wet bed is not a pleasant experience at any age but definitely gets worse, even if rarer, as one grows older.
No, this perfume does not make you want to sit or lie down; it makes you want to jump, run (or at least stride purposefully). It is invigorating. That too was delivered free.
All of this – well, most of it – was donated by the trees. Not the green, surely? Not directly, no … but indirectly, yes. The grass grows in the earth which is fed by dead leaves and other material, broken down by insects and fungi and especially recycled through the digestive tracts of worms. May those gardeners who poison worms on their lawns be forever damned!
Before Ireland was denuded of her mixed forests, what a site she must have been!
All this visual, olfactory and mood-enhancing stuff was delivered free to us but there is, you are right to suspect it, a hidden cost. The weather is getting colder and sitting nearly naked on a beach is definitely out, to say nothing of plunging into the freezing water (well, with some lunatic exceptions). Outdoor cafe-sitting is becoming more of an endurance test than a pleasure. There are days coming when lots of good arguments (convincing at the time anyway) will be found against getting up to go about once’s business.
But then there will be glittering jeweled grass, constellation of stars in the pavement, artwork fronds on glass, white star patterns in things floating from the sky, white blankets over everything or at least over the hilltops in the distance, the special joy of a hot soup, a warm fire and blankets (if you have them) ….
And not too long away, sprouting buds pushing through bark and soil, misty green branches, a different perfume, quickening the blood in a different way.
Deire-Fómhair (‘October’, also “End of Autumn’), an exhibition of art by Eoin Mac Lochlainn, was on show this afternoon in the Olivier Cornet Gallery in Great Denmark Street , Dublin and I went along to view it. An installation and 24 paintings are listed.
It is of course the installation that first catches the eye, mainly due to its size, secondarily its colours and viewing it one must, I think, come to the conclusion that the space is too small for it. Artists I suppose must use whatever exhibition spaces are available to them. Standing back as far as one can, the installation still does not reveal its full potential. But photographing in the gaps between the hanging pieces in the first row, one sees tree-trunks, dappled with slanting autumnal light through dying leaves, moss and lichen pattern on trunks and the autumn leaves themselves.
The installation is composed of 64 painted lengths of rice paper and is lit from behind with accompanying recorded bird song which adds to the ambience. In the leaflet accompanying the exhibition, the artist wrote:
This is a traditional paper which originated in ancient China and has been used for centuries for calligraphy, artwork and architecture. It is as white as alabaster, known for its strength and smooth surface, very delicate when wet but said to last for a thousand years – an enchanting medium with which to work.
Around the wall are a number of watercolour paintings, mostly 15×19, some 12×12 and a few 20×20 and one, very different in style and composition, of 45×33. The latter looks older and by another painter and appropriately so, perhaps, since it is an interpretation of a painting by the German Romantic landscape painter Friedrich (1774-1840), “Solitary Tree”, painted probably (according to Google) in 1822, nearly two centuries ago.
The subject seems to be an oak, its upper trunk dead but with leaves on branches spreading further down. It seems to have weathered many storms and perhaps a lightning strike years ago …. but it yet remains, stubbornly alive.
I do not know what motivated either Friedrich or Mac Lochlainn to take this image as their subject but in the leaflet, the latter has written:
Trees are a link between the past, the present and the future. The majestic stature, the long lifespan and the familiarity give them a monument-like quality but they also have a special aura that is difficult to define. Research has shown that within minutes of being surrounded by trees, our blood pressure drops, our heart rate slows and stress levels begin to reduce.
Less calming no doubt are the images of the watercolours which he titles Dóite (‘burned’ but also: ‘wasted, laid bare, destroyed’). The images are bleak, disturbing, of dead tree-trunks in a wasteland. In the accompanying leaflet, the artist notes:
I have been developing a body of work which explores the effects of climate change and in particular, reflects on the significance of trees.
These images could also reflect the negative effects of acid rain, nuclear or chemical contamination or timber monoculture and the exposure of trees thereby to increased likelihood and intensity of infestation by invertebrates and fungi (as for example the latter is attacking pine plantations in the Basque Country).
The watercolour series titled Cosán Coille and Siúlóid Sléibhe are exquisite colour and tone in a way of which I think only watercolours can be. It is surprising then to learn that Mac Lochlainn’s previous work has been in oils and that he found the change exacting:
In recent years, I switched from oils to watercolours in order to have less of an impact on the environment.
The switch has been both challenging and rewarding – challenging to master the idiosyncrasies of the medium but very rewarding in discovering new possibilities and avenues of enquiry for my practice.
The smaller size of the paintings restrains one from being pulled into them, the way a larger painting might do but that does not prevent them from being beautiful, sometimes in an almost painful way.
Trees have been called “the lungs of the world” and were considered of great importance to the Celts; the Gaels peppered our place-names with references to them: abhall (apple), áirn (sloe, fruit of the blackthorn), beith (birch), caorthainn (rowan), coll (hazel), cuileann(holly), dair (oak), draighneán (blackthorn), fearnóg (alder), fuinnseog (ash), giúis(fir, pine, deal), iúr (yew), sail or saileach (willow),sceach (whitethorn, normally).1 They appear also in many of our folk-songs.
Prices of paintings range from 380 Euro to 1,200 and the gallery offers a service of payment by installment. The artist, Eoin Ó Lochlainn, who happens to be closely related to Patrick Pearse, has had numerous exhibitions in each year going back to 2013 and has won a number of awards. Collections of his artwork are held inAIB, Bank of Ireland, OPW, Revenue Commissioners, AXA Insurance, Foras na Gaeilge, Gael Linn, the Boyle Civic Collection, Wesley College, University of Limerick, Donegal County, Cló Ceardlann na gCnoc.
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 conifersor, 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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).