Crawdads, house martins and a Bentley

Another book recommendation from Mrs TD was Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens (Corsair paperback, 2019; first published in the US in 2018). I was sceptical when I started reading, thinking it was turning into a fictional misery-memoir/romantic murder mystery (not a particularly digestible mixture). Mrs TD said to persevere.

I did, and found myself enjoying it. The murder mystery is quite tightly plotted, and there’s a colourful depiction of Kya, the young protagonist whose abusive father drives all her siblings and even her loving mother away from their squalid shack in the middle of a North Carolina coastal swamp. When the father abandons her too, when she’s only about ten years old, she learns to fend for herself and develops a fierce independence, tempered by a fear of being taken in by the authorities. Their success in getting her briefly into a school teaches her only that she was right to be wary of ‘civilisation’.

The romantic part of the novel is a bit contrived, I thought. Kya is a sort of Little Mermaid figure, out of her element in the world of ordinary people, as they are in her world. They call her disparagingly ‘The Marsh Girl’, and spread rumours that she’s feral and dirty.

But she still falls in love with one of the young men from the nearby town, and he with her. As with the mermaid, their story is fraught with danger and difficulties. The complication involves another relationship that veers badly out of control for her.

The strongest aspect of the novel is the vivid realisation of the natural world Kya is so at ease in. Owens has previously published non-fiction in her role as a wildlife scientist in Africa – this is her first novel. Her naturalist’s expertise is well deployed without becoming too intrusive. She’s able to make the reader see and hear the birds, insects and other animal and vegetable life in the teeming, lush swamp.

Kya also reminds me of Mowgli, more at home among the wildlife than with humans. The gulls are her closest friends. The herons watch her with curiosity and fearlessness. The swamp creatures copulate with and eat each other with heedless abandon. Some of this (a little crudely) points up what’s going on in the human story.

I suppose it was an ideal escapist read for these trying times. I’m still struggling to engage with more demanding reading; this novel provided an insight into a completely different and unknown world.

The language often had me turning to Google: local terms like ‘hush puppies’ (not the uncool shoes), ‘po’boys’ and ‘crawdads’. These are crayfish, and the expression in the title about where they sing is a local saying for something like ‘over the rainbow’ or ‘back of beyond’, because of course crayfish don’t sing. I don’t think they do.

View from the country towards the cityJust to finish here’s a picture from my walk early this morning. The recent sunny weather has been replaced by grey and cloudy skies mostly for several days here in Cornwall. This is the view towards the city from a field a half mile or so from my house. You might just be able to see through the haze the spire of the cathedral, piercing the horizon in the middle of the picture. The Carvedras viaduct that I wrote about here recently is also just about visible towards the right.

Yesterday we made a rare trip to the supermarket to buy provisions for ourselves and an isolated neighbour. Only one person per household allowed in at a time, so I prowled the carpark while Mrs TD did the food shopping (we take it in turns). The timing was good: I saw the first house martins of the spring, two of them slicing the sky over the rooftops in scimitar swoops.

Also spotted in the carpark: a middle-aged man in rock-star shades parked an enormous blue Bentley. A few minutes later the young security guard who’d been supervising the socially-distanced queue walked up to the car, opened its doors with the keyfob remote, and started taking pictures with his phone camera. He told me he’d praised the car to the owner as he entered the store, and the guy handed over the keys and told him to go take a closer look. “Really?” the young man asked. “Sure,” said the man. “It’s only a car.”

This young man was so excited he FaceTimed a friend and filmed himself in front of the car, and sitting in its opulent leather seats. “It’s like driving your lounge,” he beamed at me. He couldn’t believe the owner could be so offhand about handing him the keys to this expensive car the size of a battleship. It made his day – and (with the house martins even more so) mine.

Stitchwort, periwinkles and politicians

I’ve continued with daily rural walks with Mrs TD – our permitted exercise during the present CV19 crisis. We’re averaging about 4-5 miles per day, so get to see how new growth is burgeoning as spring warms the earth, watering it with April’s sweet showers.

Stitchwort

Stitchwort

I downloaded a plant identifying app, as I was becoming frustrated by not knowing what so many of these fresh new flowers were. These delicate little white ones are everywhere in the hedgerows and field fringes at the moment. My app tells me they’re greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea), a species of chickweeds.

Various sites online inform me that this wild flower is strongly associated in folklore with fairies. Whoever picks it will be ‘pixie-led’, or enchanted by the bitter-sweet realm of faerie, and become disorientated. One of its local names is adder’s meat, apparently because children were warned that if they picked this flower they were sure to be bitten by this lurking snake. Another consequence of picking it was said to be thunder or lightning. It was also known as satin flower and easter-bell starwort – the latter because of the configuration of the flower’s five petals.

The name stitchwort derives from the old belief that the plant could cure a stitch in the abdomen. A more ancient Greek herbalist claimed that if a pregnant woman drank a potion made from it, she would give birth to a son.

As for ‘wort’: this is from the OE ‘wyrt’ meaning root, vegetable, plant, spice. In the past it tended to be an element appended to the part of the body or the ailment for which the herb or plant was supposed to benefit when taken medicinally. Alternatively, it was an element attached to the time of year at which it flowered (as in easter startwort or St John’s wort – around 24 June).

Periwinkles

Periwinkles

In an earlier post I included a picture of a pale blue-violet periwinkle growing in the hedge at the bottom of my garden. Recently we’ve come across many clusters of them. The OED online gives its etymology as from post-classical Latin pervinca, with various explanatory suggestions – that it’s from a magical formula, or associated with pervicus, ‘stubborn’, possibly from pervincere, ‘to conquer completely’ (with “various suggestions” but no details). Another online etymology suggests it was in Middle English associated with beauty, a paragon, but also, weirdly, with evil.

Ancient yew tree in the grounds of Epiphany House

Ancient yew tree in the grounds of Epiphany House

It’s a member of the genus Vinca, but I have no idea what this name might signify. It does seem to accord with the ‘conquer’ meaning of the Latin which it resembles, but this may be coincidence.

Mrs TD asked for her thoughts to be included in today’s post. I’ll add some more pictures from our recent walks to lighten the mood a little.

She’s upset with our government’s apparently worsening response to the pandemic. Measures to suppress the spread of the virus, as done in parts of Asia and in Germany, such as testing, tracking and isolating, weren’t taken, and those that were came too late.

The notion of ‘herd immunity’ was poorly judged. Let the weaker members of the community be sacrificed for the good of the rest, seemed to be the strategy. A chilling form of eugenics, in fact.

Here's a red campion to brighten this part of the post

Here’s a red campion to brighten this part of the post

Our prime minister was successful in the election because of his bluff, blustering ‘Get Brexit done’ approach. He’s not the man for a crisis that threatens people’s lives. What’s needed now is a different kind of leadership, based on honesty and integrity.

She wanted to add that she dislikes the rhetoric and imagery from the field of the military that’s used everywhere by politicians and the media: we ‘battle’ or ‘fight’ this ‘invisible enemy’. When the PM was in intensive care, infected by the virus, his stand-in said he was ‘in good spirits’– this while thousands of others were dying. This implies that those who don’t survive the horrible disease lack the ‘spirit’ or fight to combat it. Why can’t our politicians be straight with us, and use appropriate language? Treat us like adults, not children. Stop massaging the truth. Be transparent and honest.

She also feels disempowered. Who do we contact to say we’re unhappy with the way things are going? Parliament sat (in virtual form, mostly) for the first time in weeks yesterday, so those in charge have acted with impunity.

Blossom beneath the Carvedras viaduct (see earlier post)

Blossom beneath the Carvedras viaduct (see earlier post)

One good development, she says, is that the social care system is finally getting the recognition and attention it deserves. Whenever we mention (and praise) the excellent work done by the NHS, we should include the care sector. We’d both like to thank all of those working so hard for us: in the health and care sectors, but also vital workers like deliverers of goods, postal workers, those who work in the shops and supermarkets that are still open, and many more who tend to be taken for granted (and are poorly paid).

We understand that our government has had a huge task in trying to deal with this crisis. Some things have been done well. But they need to change the way they communicate with us.

Here, to end on a brighter note, is another fine gatepost.

Trewinnard gatepost

Trewinnard gatepost

 

 

More ramblings, a viaduct and holy well

During our recent walks Mrs TD and I have commented on the birdsong, which seems louder than we’ve ever heard it. Maybe it’s our imagination, or else it’s because there’s so little interference from other sounds like road traffic and aircraft. We’d been disappointed not to see more wildlife in our rural ramblings, until the other day. As we walked down a country lane, a deer leapt from the wooded hill beside it, dashed across the road right in front of us, and into the field on the other side. Seconds later another followed, its hoofs clattering on the tarmac.

This horse's two friends were camera shy

This horse’s two friends were camera shy

They looked like adult female red deer: no antlers, but quite large. They darted away so quickly I didn’t have time to take out my phone to take a picture. But what a delightful sight.

The horses in a field were less remarkable, but just as handsome.

Nearer to home is this viaduct. It Carvedras viaductcarries the railway lines across the valley just outside Truro station. It’s called Carvedras viaduct, after the old name for this part of the city, where once there was a Dominican friary (more on this in a minute).

The original viaduct before 1902. By Unknown author – A postcard in the Geof Sheppard Collection, Public Domain

The Plymouth-Truro line was opened in 1859 as a single broad-gauge track (2.14m) for goods vehicles. The 70-mile route traversed numerous deep valleys which required the construction of 42 viaducts. The engineer Brunel recommended the use of wooden fan supports braced on masonry piers to keep costs down. Replacement of these with all-masonry piers began in the 1870s, as it became apparent that this had been a false economy: the annual maintenance of the timber structures was very expensive.

In most cases the new piers were built alongside the old ones. As you can see in my pictures, the original Brunel stumps of piers are clearly visible beside the newer, late-Victorian ones that carry the lines today. The old single-track line began to be replaced from the late 1880s with two standard-gauge lines (for most of the route, but not all). These renovations and replacements weren’t completed for decades.

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

The original stumps of piers beside the new viaduct structure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opened in 1902, the replacement Carvedras viaduct is 26m high, 295m long, and has 15 piers. Truro is a city established at the confluence of three rivers and valleys (which is perhaps where its original name in Cornish comes from), and the first viaduct the railway crosses as it approaches the city is even more spectacular, the longest of all 42.

These viaducts are impressive feats of engineering, and have a cathedral-like grace and beauty. Jackdaws and seagulls are very fond of them as places to congregate, perch and watch the world go by.

We can see Carvedras from our back door, with the cathedral beyond.

We can see Carvedras viaduct from our back door, with the cathedral beyond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

St Dominic's Well Carvedras houseSt Dominic’s Holy Well is cited in a number of sources, online and in print, as located in the front garden of Carvedras House, beneath the viaduct of the same name. I was able to get this (not very clear) picture by leaning over the front wall. According to Wikipedia it was built in the 17C, but was presumably restored from a much earlier site that had been located in the grounds of St Dominic’s Friary, said to have stood in the grounds of Carvedras Manor. The friary was established in the 13C:

It was an important missionary centre with a church and chapter house. It is known that at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538 the Friary had a Prior and ten friars.

One of the annoying consequences of the current situation is that the local library is closed, and I’ve been unable to research this topic beyond the limited resources available online. Maybe once this crisis is over I’ll return to this subject and add some detail. For example, I don’t know what Carvedras signifies in Cornish; ‘car’ is fort, but I have no idea what ‘vedras’ means.

Mrs TD's sourdough loavesHere to finish today’s CV19 update is a gratuitous picture of some delicious sourdough bread Mrs TD baked. It should cost a fortune to buy at the baker’s: it took her a week just to produce the starter culture (if that’s what it’s called).

Other good things are coming out of this sad time. On my morning walk the other day I passed a house with a tray of lovely fresh cauliflowers outside, and a sign saying: Please take one – free. And a hand-drawn picture of a rainbow, with the people in Britain are displaying as a symbol of hope and solidarity.

And here’s a glorious tree in blossom that we passed on this morning’s walk.

Tree in blossom