Visiting the caves at Lascaux is a memorable experience. From a sunny exterior you go into dark passageways dimly lit and then into the darker caves, where the prehistoric paintings are briefly lit up and the images of bison, deer and mammoths takes one back about 20,000 years to the age of prehistoric man in the Upper Paleolithic/Late Stone Age era. At this time the surrounding region was periglacial and large herds of herbivorous animals roamed across the land as they searched for vegetation to graze on. No matter that the caves we were looking at were not the original ones, when one emerged again into the bright sunlight there was a dizziness from a combination of still thinking about this ancient world, brought to life so well in the cave setting, and the readjustment to sunlight and modernity.
Life for these people was tough with severe winters confining them largely to their caves and when they emerged they need to take advantage of the short summer to gather roots and to hunt animals. They were well aware of the dangers on the outside and needed to balance risk and reward just as we do.
For those of us who have been in isolation for many weeks and are slowly emerging into activities long in abeyance there is a bit of the same disjointed feeling. The situations is further complicated by the fact that the lifting of restrictions in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are occurring under different plans and different rates. The plan in Scotland has 4 phases and we are still in Phase 1: restricted to a 5 mile radius, allowed to socialise with one other household outdoors and allowed to play golf but with some restrictions. Phase 2 is likely to be introduced on 18th June.
As mentioned in the previous blog “White swans and black birds”, we have had more time to both observe and think about nature. Alongside that, those of us in the vulnerable age bracket are often thinking back to our youth and enjoying revisiting and relearning. My wife still has Enid Blyton’s Nature Lover’s book, first published in 1944, which was a childhood present. The book uses the device of a twice monthly walk, where the children are accompanied by their Uncle Merry and observe the successive emergence of animals and flowers through the seasons. At the back are 3 glossaries of flowers, trees and birds with black and white illustrations. There is even a monthly poem by the likes of Robert Browning, William Wordsworth and John Keats. That for June is “High Summer” by Matthew Arnold.
Soon will the high midsummer pumps come on,
Soon will the Musk carnations break and swell,
Soon shall we have gold-dusted snapdragon,
Sweet-William with his homely cottage-smell,
And stocks in fragrant blow;
Roses that down the alleys shine afar,
And open, jasmine-muffled lattices,
And groups under the dreaming garden-trees
And the full moon, and the white evening-star
Blyton has been a much attacked author: criticised for mediocre material, limited plots and considered offensive for reasons of racism, nationalism and sexism, though her books were hugely popular and read at the time by millions of children in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Indeed in 2008 Enid Blyton was named the best-loved author of all time.
This nature book contains a lot of useful information. Together with the old Observer Pocket Series of nature books, some modern books on flower and tree identification and some apps for plant identification we have been having fun relearning and identifying plants on our walks.
Part of the enjoyment is that common names are not always the same in different regions: yarrow/milfoil, cuckoo-pint/lords and ladies, jack-by-the hedge/garlic mustard to name but three.
Lords and Ladies flower and berries. Jack by the hedge
Walks over this period have also allowed us to observe bird activity week by week. Young birds have a significant and often life-deciding decision on when to leave the nest. Fledging too early when the wing muscles are too weak is dangerous as they may be unable to fly properly; fledging too late means their nests may be discovered by predators such as crows and magpies. Songbirds that experience higher daily rates of predation tend to fledge relatively early.
Every day birds have to make the decision whether to go foraging for food and expend energy or to remain in their roost. With their high metabolic rate flying is expensive in energy terms. Added into this is the risk of predation and the availability of food in connected patches.
The warm weather of April and early May in Scotland has been superceded by two weeks of rainy weather and snails and slugs have been more evident in the garden. The humble terrestrial snail has to decide, literally, when to come out of its shell in order to seek food such as green plants. It can only do so easily when the environment is moist; this facilitates production of mucus and allows the snail to glide along surfaces. Snails usually come out at night or in the very early morning. This reduces their chances of predation by birds and rodents; the less time spent in the open and outside the shell, the less the risk.
For us deciding when and how to come out of isolation and emerging into the wider world is a complex decision and not just a matter of following different governments’ advice as restrictions are lifted in phases. For most, the economic necessity of going to work (if available) is the driving force but all of us have to consider the risks to our health both of working and of socialising. The risk factors of age, ethnicity, underlying health conditions and location are a lot clearer than they were three months ago and can be taken into account, but a lot depends on the behaviour and sense of responsibility of those around us. The impact of the recent frenzied rush to the seaside and to beauty spots around the UK has yet to be assessed but there is no doubt that social distancing in these cases was insufficient for safety. It also reminds us that without a quick and reliable method of testing and contact tracing we are ignorant of the covid-status of those we met outside our immediate environment – and indeed of ourselves.
Written July 15th-18th