Bashing Broom and Brambles

Of late I have become an enemy of Scotch Broom…a broom basher, broom beater.  What has Cytisus scoparius done to earn my belligerence? On Vancouver Island it has established itself as an invasive species, displacing and smothering native vegetation. Introduced in the mid nineteenth century, an initial three seeds (so the story goes) resulted in a vigorous plant without natural enemies rapidly spreading over all the south of the island, and onto the mainland. 

At first its yellow blooms and benefits to soil stability and nitrogen content meant that it was often planted alongside roads and as a decorative shrub. Soon however it began to be recognized as a nuisance. Each plant produces thousands of seeds that spread widely and remain viable for decades. Local authorities lack the resources to tackle a problem that demands efforts spread over years. Mowing simply creates a carpet of low-spreading plants, and for herb iciness to work they have to be applied to each individual plant, rather thanks simply spraying the area. So removing Broom and other invasive plants has mostly become a volunteer activity.

I learned of the threats to Vancouver Island’s ever-shrinking natural habitats from Scotch Broom, Himalayan Blackberry and Daphne (Spurge Laurel) when I signed up as a volunteer with Greater Victoria Green Team and View Royal Parks Habitat Restoration Team, and most recently CRD Regional Parks Volunteers.. Having since wrestled with a bunch of blackberry thickets and tugged many a Broom seedling from the soil I now can’t go for a hike without wincing whenever I come across these plants, and despite being a peaceable kind of chap, my fingers itch to attack them.

I have learned the hard way that pulling Broom seedlings with (gloved) hands is hard on the fingers. So I’ve adopted the pliers method borrowed from Marg and Simon of the View Royal team. One grips the seedling with a good pair of pliers and pulls directly upwards, and with any luck the tough seedling will come out along with all its roots. 

A break from bashing brambles, with an almost-destroyed Scotch Broom plant at my feet.

In England I helped to restore canals with the Waterway Recovery Group. However there are no canals on Vancouver Island, and only a few diverted rivers in British Columbia, so I had to seek a meaningful alternative to absorb my spare energies. It looks as though habitat restoration is going to fill that gap.

A half century…

Me, in my tiny basement laboratory (not much bigger than this photo) in 1970. My yellow fever mosquitoes lived in the gauze cage behind my right shoulder. I still had hair in those days, but it was already thinning!

Fifty years ago today I graduated from Imperial College, London with a BSc degree in zoology. I also became an Associate of the Royal College of Science, which sounds rather grand, and provided the most impressive certificate! 

In the late 1960s the zoology department was located on the west side of the Beit Quadrangle, off Prince Consort Road. I spent two years perched on the same bench at the back of the second floor Forbes laboratory, sitting below a glassy-eyed stuffed fish collected in some C19th expedition, peering at, drawing and dissecting specimens of most groups of animals, under the strict mentorship of the lovely, endlessly patient Mrs Dowson. I also studied in a gloomy botany laboratory that had a view of the steps leading up to the Royal Albert Hall, and where we were often entertained my musicians warming up before rehearsals. Then followed a final year studying entomology. 

By my third year I’d already decided that counting greenflies wasn’t my future, and I had developed an aversion to killing things. So my degree was somewhat mediocre, although I claim, tongue-in-cheek, that a 2:2 from Imperial is worth a 2:1 anywhere else! However I loved both zoology and botany, and came away with an abiding love of both animal and plant kingdoms.  I was less enthusiastic about physiology and those areas that focused on bits of animals rather that the whole beast, be it a protozoan or a primate. I think my only disappointment was the cool reception of my brilliant (to me) third-year research project into Aedes aegypti (the yellow fever mosquito), which I’d proposed to eradicate by adding a harmless pollutant to the drinking water gourds in which it laid its eggs.

My course was a traditional one, with a focus on taxonomy and anatomy, but by my third year some of the old-fashioned-ness of the zoology department had gone: the cozy open-stacks zoology library had been subsumed into the grim closed-stacks main library and the departmental museum in the basement, crammed with taxidermy, skeletons and ghostly-pale specimens floating in glass jars, had also gone, I think to the Natural History Museum just down the road. Ho hum!

I’d also thoroughly enjoyed life in late 1960s London, but that’s another story! 

My cohort was small – a dozen of us. For a few years after graduation we met up at irregular intervals, but then we drifted away in different directions, and sadly several of my contemporaries have died before reaching this 50-year anniversary. And I’m afraid that I have forgotten many of the names of those who attempted to teach me. Yes, I remember the head of department Professor TRE Southwood, Professor Humphrey Hewer taking us birdwatching at Silwood Park, Dr Goto’s Collembola, the tragic Dr “Bill” Hamilton’s impenetrable statistics lectures, but that’s about it.  What was the name of the lecturer who named his daughters after sea-squirts? Who were the entomology lecturers? That lecturer who devised all sorts of Heath-Robinsonish devices that included an aphid wind-tunnel and a harness for testing for how long locusts could fly? All those staff at Silwood Park field station, where my main memories are of playing croquet and applying Day-Glo powder to cabbages (don’t ask)? The Internet so far hasn’t helped me remember… I do remember cycling back and forth to Silwood because I couldn’t afford the bus fare!

I decided during my third year that I’d move on to archaeology, and in the summer of 1970 I began my professional career supervising with the team at Dover, Kent. Sadly, and frighteningly, around the world, about half the animals we studied during those three years have now been wiped out, if not made extinct, and that process doesn’t seem to be slowing.  So although I might recognise a personal half century, the world in general has nothing to celebrate.

Wednesday Walk: 10

[Since I’m not able to ramble as much as I’d like at the moment, I’m remembering some hikes from the past.]

The start, with the Edge in the distance.

Along Stanage Edge

A gloriously sunny day in late summer. This is a splendid walk at any time, but on this day it was spectacular. And although the car park near the end was crowded, we met hardly any other walkers along the trail.

Peaceful, rolling countryside to begin with.
The Edge grows nearer
The climb to the Edge
The view is worth the climb!
Abandoned millstones.
Enjoying the view…
A rest before the descent.

My album is HERE.

My Museum Monday: 10


Barbie, 2010

As someone who researches the phenomenon of miniaturisation, I am fascinated by dolls (see also 18th May). So far my museum only contains a few “modern” dolls – an assemblage recovered from an abandoned and burn-out allotment hut, a single charity-shop Barbie and a lone rummage-sale Bratz doll. All are of course miniature representations of humans, and all are unrealistic to varying degrees, the Bratz doll, with her enormous head, being the most malformed, the 2010 Barbie an example of her most common elongated shape, and the 1996 male doll (the allotment assemblage was all either male or ungendered monsters) exaggeratedly muscular. 

Bratz doll, c 2010

Because miniature people, in the form of figurines but also objects that might be described as “dolls” (figurines that were meant to be handled, played with, dressed/undressed, manipulated and not simply displayed), occur in almost every age and every culture, their modern counterparts, and what they mean to us, are of great interest. Douglass Bailey has thought and written about this, as has Paul Mullins. Several university courses use modern dolls as instigators of research and thinking.

Male doll, 1996

This is an area I’ve only touched on so far, so I’ll not dwell on it here. Sufficient to say that I’m determined to explore it further, inspired by these archaeologists and researchers:

Mullins, Paul, 2014. Unapologetic Defiance: the Post-Feminist Barbie .

Mullins, Paul, 2013. Real Girls: Barbies, Role Models, and Play.

Pearson, Marlys, and Paul R. Mullins, 1999. Domesticating Barbie: An Archaeology of Barbie Material Culture and Domestic Ideology.  International Journal of Historical Archaeology 3/4, pp 228-29.

Bahr, Sarah (2020). Ms Understood: Barbie turns 50. Indianapolis Monthly.

Van Buskirk, Gregory, 2018. Antithesis to Barbie: Toys for Little Homemakers. American Icons, Temple University.

Russo, Claire, 2007. Bratz Dolls: An Example of Modern Day Figurines? Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World, Brown University.

Bailey, Douglas; 2005. Prehistoric Figurines: Representation and Corporeality in the Neolithic. Routledge. Taylor & Francis.

(More than) four Friday Photos: 9

[Every Friday I’m posting, for the fun of it, four photographs selected pretty much at random from my hard drives. They were captured with a variety of technologies, from analogue through early digital to my latest cameras, so their quality, both artistic and technical, may vary!]

This week my photos are all from the Northumberland coast, a wonderful place that offers great walking, castles, beaches, cliffs, traces of industry and superb geology. This week I couldn’t limit myself to four photos though, just in case you might think I can’t count!

First, the beautiful, abstract patterns on the rocks near Dunstanburgh:

Next, a view of Dustanburgh Castle against a gloomy sky:

Dunstanburgh Castle
WW2 concrete block, with the Farne Islands on the horizon

On some of the beaches there are relics of the second world war, pillboxes and concrete tank traps to ward off an invasion that thankfully never came.

Lots to photograph at Alnmouth:


Berwick upon Tweed is a town full of interest. I took too many photos to even try to share here, but I loved this never-to-be-opened doorway. If you look carefully, at its base is a section across the cut off track of a little narrow gauge railway, which by peering through a gap in the door, I could see continuing on the inside.

“This Door to be Kept Shut by Order” Berwick. Evidence of narrow gauge railway at its base.
Me and L, Warkworth Castle.

Finally, I don’t often appear in my own photographs unless there’s a handy wall on which to rest a camera for a time-release shot.

Wednesday Walk: 9

[Since I’m not able to ramble as much as I’d like at the moment, I’m remembering some hikes from the past.]

Rio Cajula, Spain

Looking back from the start…

This walk was fun, but was a lot longer than our guide book stated. So a certain companion was a little grumpy by the end!

It included lots of ruins, and great views, despite the heat haze (it was December after all)…

A window through which only ghosts look at the view.
The home stretch at last!

My album is HERE.

My Museum Monday: 9

A tragic story

Vest Pocket Kodak camera, 1915-1926

This is my second vest pocket camera. The first, given to me by a long-ago friend in 1972, vanished a couple of decades later in the chaotic aftermath of a suddenly-ended relationship.

So I was excited to find another identical camera in a charity shop  about 10 years later. I think I paid £4 for it. What was  even more exciting was that it contained an exposed film! What magic might that roll of film reveal? Another couple of decades passed before I managed to get the photography technician at Manchester School of Art, where I was studying for my PhD, to develop the film for me.

I wonder what stories were captured by this shutter and lens…

Then, horror of horrors, another, never identified, student stole it from the drying room. So I never got to see what was on it! 

So now I shall have to search for another camera with an exposed film. Ho hum. Actually both my Olypus OM cameras (OM 1  and OM2) still have films in them, left over from my final pre-digital days back in 2002. I can’t for the life of me remember what might be on them!

The hinged flap and stylus allowing the user to write on the back of the film.

The vest pocket camera dates from 1915-1926, and has an opening on the back, with an attached stylus, with which notes could be inscribed on the paper film backing. Because of its small size, the camera was hugely popular with soldiers during the first world war.

Four Friday Photos: 8

[Every Friday I’m posting, for the fun of it, four photographs selected pretty much at random from my hard drives. They were captured with a variety of technologies, from analogue through early digital to my latest cameras, so their quality, both artistic and technical, may vary!]

I love camping (apart from the mosquitoes). In truth, I love camping in Canada – the British version is a bit sad, and I haven’t done enough on the Continent to be able to compare it. Again, to be honest, Canadian camping, especially in provincial parks, is pretty luxurious, with drive in sites, nice level pads, reasonable privacy (usually), fire pits (when it’s safe). OK, there are usually pit toilets which involve a certain amount of nose-holding, and really busy sites can be noisy, but because camping is part of Canadian culture most people are considerate, and the less-popular parks can offer at least a taste of solitude.

I like everyday, prosaic and often-overlooked details that prompt one to think of “what” and “why”. Why was this ring placed here, and what was attached to it? Was it once used to restrain animals? Or to hang a lamp? I’ll never know the story behind this ring, but it’s fun to come up with ideas…

For some reason, clouds seem lower in Canada. These were trapped in a valley near the US border.

Whenever and wherever we ramble or explore, I am drawn to old railway goods vans that have been re-used as sheds. Most, like this one, have long outlived their working life both on rails and in the countryside, and are beginning to decay into the surrounding vegetation.

Bonus photo!

Two shades of tan: a memory of sun, sand and sea.

Wednesday Walk: 8

[Since I’m not able to ramble as much as I’d like at the moment, I’m remembering some hikes from the past.]

Lathkill Dale, 2012

This is a look back at a ramble on a day that started with weather that looked threatening but ended in glorious sunshine.

Lathkill Dale is not far from Bakewell, in the White Peak, and the route, some of it along the Limestone Way, includes gently rolling countryside and a fine gorge, lots of views, a church or two, old walls, at least one ruined mill, and a little industrial archaeology (mostly signs of quarrying).

Having not been on a long tramp for nearly four months, I am getting very itchy feet. We are now allowed to drive to a location for exercise, so hopefully my Wednesday Walk will soon include some 2020 hikes!

My album, with a lot more images, can be found HERE.

My Museum Monday: 8

I have a number of very ordinary but, to me, fascinating miniature pots, jugs, plates and other tiny vessels, made of glazed or unglazed bisque porcelain. They often occur on nineteenth and early twentieth century archaeological sites, where they are almost always immediately identified as being children’s playthings; “dolls tea services” and the like.

However I harbour a suspicion that like most archaeological certainties, all is not quite so cut and dried.

I have two examples of miniature chamber pots, those necessary vessels that , before the advent of the indoor lavatory, were stashed under most nineteenth century beds, or tucked more modestly into commodes in order to deal with nocturnal urgencies.

Bisque porcelain miniature chamber pots bearing the legend (left) “Evening Exercise” and (right) “After You My Dear”.

That these miniatures were not intended for children is indicated by the fact that, lie many other examples, they bear a tongue-in-cheek message. That on the larger pot reads “Evening Exercise” and the smaller states “After You My Dear”. The larger pot is stamped “Germany” and there is a faint, illegible stamp on the smaller, which I’m guessing was also made in Germany.

The pots were made to satisfy a demand for objects that made fun of what was a necessary but not particularly enjoyable part of everyday, or perhaps everynight life. Perhaps these light-hearted miniatures made the use of chamber pots a little less miserable?

I also wonder if some of the other miniature vessels were the property of adults, acting as keep-sakes, nostalgic references to childhood or simply tiny objects that gave their owners pleasure.