Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz……

There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep. — Homer

I’m coming out of the closet and telling the truth.  I’ve just emerged from a little afternoon nap, and it was great.  This noble siesta, more commonly known as a snooze, kip or slumber, is wonderful, and yet no matter how good I may feel, in the back of my mind there is a nagging voice calling me a lazy-lay-about.  I must silence this internal dialogue as it is interrupting one of the most effortless ways for me to maintain my health and well-being.

I long to be a guilt-free, habitual nap-taker, but I’m not, at least not yet.  I love naps, but often feel the weight of an historic work ethic, which has for decades scoffed at napping as a sign of laziness.   Lately, though, there is some support emerging for the benefits of a midday snooze.  In other words, napping boosts our alertness, creativity, mood and productivity in the later hours of the day.  Hey, where’s my blanket?!  According to a Harvard study, I’d know if I had only taken that 45-minute nap, because doing so improves memory.

When did napping become the exclusive pastime for children or the elderly?  When did we culturally find ourselves on such a straight and narrow path?  I mean, honestly, isn’t real butter tastier than margarine?    I want to embrace the good life, complete with its leisures and pleasures and throw up a giant “NO” sign to the world of control and deprivation offered up by self-help disciplinarians.  Give me frivolity or give me death!

Imagine my relief to learn that there are a number of famous and powerful people who proudly announce themselves as nap-takers.   Consider this:  Leonardo da Vinci took multiple naps a day and slept less at night and I think it is fair to say he wasn’t exactly lazy.  That French Emperor, Napoleon, is also known to have indulged in the daily nap.  To boost her energy, Eleanor Roosevelt snoozed before speaking engagements and John F. Kennedy ate his lunch in bed and settled in for a nap every day.  Winston Churchill’s afternoon nap was a non-negotiable and he maintained that it helped him get twice as much done each day.  Brahms napped at the piano  — perhaps soothed to sleep by his famous lullaby.   Many famous writers have napping sofas in their writing rooms.  Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Einstein and surely there are many, many more.  Are any of these folks lazy slackers?  I think not.  With these success stories as my guide, I am ready to embrace finding a way to nap daily, shedding the guilt as I nod off.

There is a car park along the B3357 road into Tavistock and Roger and I like to stop here for an ice cream and a walk with Sam.  Regardless of weather, there are always walkers, ice-cream enthusiasts and tourist taking photos of the wild ponies.  Also, there are always people dozing in their cars.  I call this car park the “nap zone” because there is not a single time I’ve stopped when I haven’t spotted someone asleep at the wheel.  Given that napping reduces stress and lowers the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and excessive weight gain, I would happily turn into this car park and declare “Yes!” to the offer of a 99 Flake and a twenty-minute kip!

Our culture is set up to go on and on and so we do, but are we designed to keep going without rest?    The National Sleep Foundation recommends a short nap of 20-30 minutes for improved alertness.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the Roman’s regularly took naps to reduce their own empire-building burnout.   In fact, they saw napping as a physical necessity.  I’ve found that the very task of researching the subject of napping is proving helpful in my own creativity by relaxing my mind and resting my body.  The very idea of embracing a nap was born from waking up from one and feeling, well, great!

Roger and I are working hard to restore Crockern.  Our progress is slow, and the labour is at times demanding.  We also have responsibilities.  Chickens who like to get out and about with the sun.  An energetic collie who wakes with the dawn chorus and lets me know it is time to rouse myself, regardless of how much sleep I’ve had.   But what I’ve noticed is that Sam and the chickens, without any guilt or “by your leave”; take indulgent naps when they have the chance in the middle of the day.  In fact, all the other mammals in our midst seem to steal sleep for short periods.

Regardless of my obligations, I feel duty bound to get sufficient sleep.  There are no treadmills, yoga classes or tonics that will maintain my youth, reduce stress and maintain my sanity as will a nap.   What a gift to humanity is napping.  Just lie down, drift off into dreamland and reap the benefits.  Could it get any easier?  When something so pleasurable, packed with health benefits, is on offer, I’m thinking bring it on!

Who knows, dear reader, if you’ve gotten to this point, you may wish to find a comfy spot and do the same.

Napping

Napping Queen, feel the sleep on the trampoline….oh yeah……

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A Little Bird Told Me

Thirty minutes of looking through binoculars made me feel nauseous, but I couldn’t stop as I watched an elegant bird, cloaked in grey, white and black feathering above unmistakably long legs, hunting for fish.  I can appreciate the Grey Heron’s studied quest in the West Dart River, because each time I spot a small brown trout dashing from cover to cover, I feel happy.

West Dart River, Dartmoor

The West Dart River, where I did not capture a photo of the Grey Heron.

It’s nearly May and I’m still waiting for the leaf buds to open unfurling the new foliage.  While I bide my time, our visiting birds are returning.  Two weeks ago, we put in our asparagus bed and as we buried the root crowns, we noticed light catching the long tail of a small bird diving and swooping overhead.  Once again, this familiar, but long absent bird, was in our sights.  After nearly six months, we welcomed the return of the Swallows.   Miraculously, the Swallows appear to have no loss of energy or grace as they carry on hawking for insects, after their long travels from Africa to navigate back to their ancestral homes, under the guttering of our house.   I can’t help but wonder how do they travel these incredible distances with such ease?

Drawing of a Swallow from the RSPB website.

Drawing of a Swallow from the RSPB website.

The dawn chorus is fully amplified now with Blackbirds and Robins waking up first.  A bit later, the sounds of the Dunnocks, Wrens and Blue Tits layer in additional voices.  Recently, I’ve made a challenge for myself to learn our local birds by their call.  This is no easy task as I frequently struggle to isolate a single sound among the hundreds let alone attach it to a specific bird type.  My learning tool is the RSPB website (http://www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/birdguide/) with its recorded birdsong library.  When I see a bird I recognize, I look it up on the website to listen to its song.  I then try to commit to memory the birdsong with the bird so that I might one day ID the birds without seeing them.   I may never fully achieve my goal, but that doesn’t stop me reveling in the privilege of bearing witness to all this singing.

There are a few sounds that I comfortably recognize:  The syncopation of the Great Tit or the cheery songs of Skylarks, Robins and Blackbirds.  A distant laughing call from the Green Woodpecker in the trees across the river is easy to identify, though I’ve yet to see this happy bird.  In any community choir there are likely to be found those voices that carry the melody, the counterpoint harmonies, and sadly, the “honker” who lets out a sound that only family can love.  In our bird song chorus, this unpleasant barking noise is incongruent with the striking beauty of the Heron who emits it, one of whom I watched wade up the river in search of food.  Each time I hear them, I am reminded of the cry made when missing a nail and instead accidentally hitting a thumb with a hammer:  “Ow!” (Pause)  “Damn!”

Drawing of a Grey Heron from the RSPB website.

Drawing of a Grey Heron from the RSPB website.

Lately, the air is filled with another easily identified sound, that of the Cuckoo, who returns in spring and summer for a short stay.  This dove-sized bird, with its sleek body and long tail, makes a familiar call and I am instantly taken back to my childhood home, which was filled with clocks.  Over the years my Dad has amassed an impressive collection:  Grandfather, Banjo, Grandson, Regulator, Anniversary and, of course, the Cuckoo clock.

One of the Cuckoo clocks hanging in my Dad’s house has family history.  In 1907, my maternal grandmother, Pauline, her sister Louise, and their parents immigrated to the United States, through Ellis Island, from a small village in South Western Germany near the Black Forest.  Pauline and her mother kept in touch with their extended family in the village, sending care packages of food, clothing and small toys to her cousins who were experiencing food shortages during the war.  As a thank you years later, Pauline was sent a handsome Cuckoo clock made by craftsmen in The Black Forest, near her birthplace.

Pauline’s Cuckoo clock is made of dark brown wood in the shape of a chalet with a peaked roof and is decorated with intricate carvings of leaves and animals.  Its most distinguishing element is the Cuckoo bird that jumps out of a trap door to sing its song on the hour, belting out enough calls to denote the time.  There are two pinecone-shaped weights hanging on chains beneath the clock to wind its cog-driven timing mechanism within the chalet.  An additional decorative touch is a carved oak leaf hiding the regulating pendulum swinging below.

Like the Swallows, House Martins and Cuckoos, we all return to our ancestral homes, those places that gave the initial shape to our way of understanding the world.   It may be a return to the actual place where we can touch the walls, smell the air, and in the case of some of the birds around Crockern, repair nests and hatch young.  Or perhaps, our migration is nothing more than a return journey through memories triggered by a simple sound.  “Cuckoo.  Cuckoo.”  I’ve moved a good distance from my formative years in Ohio, but can quickly be enchanted and transported back to the familiar when I hear the song of the Cuckoo in our valley.  The call of this highly secretive bird declaring its territory and hoping to attract a mate, makes me feel as though I will soon see my Dad, as I did every day when I was a child, winding his clocks and coordinating their chimes as he sets to conduct his own dawn chorus.

Chaffinch at Crockern

A little Chaffinch at Crockern.

Ways of Seeing

Moss mimicking the landscape in the distance

Moss mimicking the landscape in the distance

One of the things I’m coming to appreciate since moving to this untamed wilderness, known as Dartmoor, is how a single place can provide a multitude of experiences.    Understanding the tiny and subtle changes, rather than only the dramatic shifts, that come with the passing of the season is best, I think, observed by being in one place.  We may have given up the convenience of a corner shop when we moved, but we have gained a privileged insight into the lives of other creatures through our unexpected encounters with them.

In the movie Smoke, Harvey Keitel takes a photograph from the same corner shop every morning at the same time.  His dedication to this daily process fixed in both time and location teaches us, the viewers, that life may be seemingly unchanging until one pauses to notice the little details, changing the perception of the every-day-familiar.

We’ve recently been gripped by another prolonged cold spell and yet the season is slowly and surely advancing.  The tiny increments of winter turning into spring are almost unnoticeable, were it not for the later arrival of the sunset each day.   As the days grow longer, the evenings are providing an extra hour of light and with it, birdsong.   I love hearing the melodic tunes of Robins and Blackbirds as they kick it out with purity of tone and impeccable phrasing, just like The First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald.  We have at least two pairs of each making their homes nearby the house.

Our friends were visiting for a week recently with their 5-year old.  While Mark provided much needed help (and master skills!) on the plastering of the ceilings, Lorenzo provided a way to view our world anew.  With each “Why?” – his preferred and nearly exclusive question – I found his natural curiosity infectious.  His impersonation of the chickens as he was feeding them, reminded me to never stop observing.

Chickens

Getting their attention.

Lorenzo feeding the chickens

Lorenzo feeding the chickens

Across from our barn is a collection of mature trees – Ash, Rowen, Oak, Sycamore, Beech, Laburnum — under which there are now clumps of snowdrops, each with their delicate stalks holding a drooping white flower as they stand their ground declaring spring to be on its way.   My friend Paul wrote recently in an e-mail, “I miss snowdrops.  They’re so quick off the mark, so optimistic!”  He’s right:  Snowdrops, along with tender daffodil shoots and the extended daylight, are our hopeful signs that this cold snap is not forever.

Early Snowdrops

Early Snowdrops

Across the river, atop the hill sits a pine forest and living in the treetops are several Grey Heron.  We’ve spotted at least six.  Are they building nests for their future families?  All the birds seem to be preparing for breeding season.  The mating calls are starting and brightly coloured males are strutting their stuff, including an unusual display of sexual prowess:  several Great Tits positioned on the fence with their wings widely spread were showing off colour, form and aerobatics like regular Flyboys.   All about us, nests are being mended or newly constructed, including at least two by the Jackdaws in the barn.

Not everything survives, however.  Up on the hillside outside our house was a dead sheep.  We are not certain what caused this ewe to perish, but her remaining carcass has been the focal point for most of the dogs accompanying their owners on walks.  Despite her fatality, there are about 100 heavily pregnant ewes on the moors surrounding us.  These sturdy creatures have mostly stayed away from climbing onto our walls, but there are a few who have it hardwired into their brains that they must clamber into our yard.  We continue our vigilance in maintaining the walls and recently have resorted to leaning less attractive wood pallets against the preferred sheep entrance points.  We are hoping to keep the little lambs out after they are born.

Born they will be, too.  I’ve been invited to help the local farmer with the lambing season.  I’m thrilled to do this, and confess that I’ve never done anything like it before.  It was agreed that if I got in the way or proved useless – a definite possibility – I’d be sent on my way.  I’m feeling a little tentative about the lambing since the last birth I attended was that of a hamster when I was 7.  After the litter was born, the mother hamster ate her young.

New line of defence to keep those determined sheep out.

New line of defence to keep those determined sheep out.

Sometimes, it’s not my eyes, but my ears, that guide me to something new.  Sam and I took a brisk walk one morning when the moors were covered with a dense fog obscuring any visibility beyond the immediate path, which I now know well.  With the thick, white, ethereal cloud cover drifting and swirling about, I understand how one could easily get lost in Dartmoor.  As we negotiated a boggy bit of the path, I heard a spooky bird call with its somewhat unpleasant “chirp, chirp, chirp” in the foreground and a haunting Theremin-like moan in the background.  I was uncertain what I was hearing, so looked to Sam for signs of alarm.  He seemed relaxed, so we carried on and with our next steps, I spotted a medium sized brownish bird zigzagging low to the ground.  A Snipe!  I remember going on Snipe hunts when I was young.  These are practical jokes designed to leave the uninitiated out in the woods while everyone in the know heads back to the campfire for a good laugh.  Recently in the UK, the Snipe has undergone some declines in numbers, placing it on the Amber list for the RSPB, so it is a treat to spot one, and know that they do exist beyond the silly pranks of older siblings.

 

Theremin player (found on the Internet)

Theremin player (found on the Internet)

Walking past the window overlooking the river, Roger spotted a buzzard hovering with wings spread as it snatched up its prey from the reeds.  We grabbed our binoculars and as we spied on his dining, we noticed holes in the ground nearby:  A badger set!  How long have we been looking at this particular spot of land without seeing what was there?

Badger Set in hillside

Badger Set in hillside

We know we have badgers.  I’ve seen one in the garden.  We’ve had our birdfeeders pulled from their hanging positions, only to be found the next morning dragged through the fence and into the fields beyond.  While bent and now broken, they still hold the bird food we set out each day.  To avoid further damage, we now take the feeders in at night and leave the bent poles from which they hang, standing in the ground as if afflicted with osteoporosis.  Spotting this badger set is thrilling so we set out for a closer look.  Crossing the river, climbing up the hill and negotiating two barbed-wire fences, we found at least ten holes scattered about the hillside, each with its telltale arched oval opening.  These are unlikely to be the badgers responsible for the damage to our bird feeders, as badgers evidently don’t swim unless they must.  Somewhere on our side of the river there is another badger set for us to discover.

In a few weeks, the Vernal Equinox will arrive.  Such a great day as it marks the point when the sun gives over to the northern hemisphere, making our days longer and lighter.  With the increased daylight, we will have more seasonal changes to observe, including the return of many of the migrant birds from their African winter homes.  I’m looking forward to welcoming back the Swallows, House Martins, Warblers and the Cuckoo who makes its brief spring home in the trees beyond the house.

Don’t ask me “Why?” but I just enjoy seeing – and hearing – all of these visitors around Crockern.

Let them eat bread!

For Roger’s birthday a few years ago, I gave him the gift that keeps giving:  an all day class on bread making.  Early one March morning, he headed off to an artisanal bakery to return that evening armed with an apron, recipes, a half dozen loaves of Roger-made-bread, and unbridled enthusiasm.  This last bit was essential as bread baking at home is very different from a commercial kitchen.  In the beginning, through trial and error, Roger turned out a few loaves that I affectionately referred to as “doorstops”.   A harsh assessment, perhaps, but true.  With time, he developed his signature bread that we all love.

We being Sam, the chickens and us.

When I head outside to do any of my daily chores, the chickens will come running pell-mell to see what’s on offer.  When it is a slice of Roger’s bread, they forget all their shyness and manners and start jumping up to take bread out of my hand.  They fight for it in ways that would make bargain shoppers at a clearance sale proud.  And in the midst of this feeding frenzy sits one proud dog suppressing his instincts to edge out the hens and gobble up the bread.  He waits, watches, and then takes a big helping torn off for him when the chickens aren’t looking.

It’s funny that Sam and I should conspire to keep his bread eating from the chickens.  Will they care?  Will they remember?  Will it make them feel badly?  Or, does Sam enjoy getting one over the chickens?

Sam sizing up his best options for getting some bread.

Sam sizing up his best options for getting some bread.

Sam's strategy of looking away to secure a bite or two of bread.

Sam’s strategy of looking away to secure a bite or two of bread.

This race for treats does not extend equally to worms.  Unlike the chickens, Sam shows no interest.  Recently, I created a scene of pure carnage when I decided to unearth an old stone walkway, delighting the chickens with newly found treasures.  This path was covered with grass, mud and years of neglect.  I can’t say what prompted me to start pulling up the muddy turfs, but once I got started, I could hardly stop.  Obsession and single mindedness had something to do with it, but there was also a joy observing the crazy behaviours of chickens on a worm-eating frenzy.

Meanwhile, Roger created his own overwhelmingly messy scene when he took down one of the ceilings in the house.  He removed awful painted interlocking pine planks, revealing sparse, inadequate and highly flammable sheets of polystyrene.   Polystyrene was a popular insulation from 40 years ago, but anyone who has packed a picnic lunch into a chill box made of this stuff, knows that the coolness has left the scene within hours.  When used to insulate a roof, it is incomparable to what’s available now.  The part of the roof above this ceiling did not need repair, leaving this insulation replacement to be done from the inside up toward the exterior slates.  As I was making a muddy mess cooking up a worm feast for the chickens, Roger was yanking down the last marginal barrier we had to the slates in preparation of installing something far more effective.

The polystyrene has been removed.

The polystyrene has been removed.

Insulation is not unfamiliar to me.  When I was in the ninth grade, I competed in the State of Ohio Science Fair with my project on Conduction, Convection and Radiation of Heat comparing different insulation materials.  My Dad built a small doghouse for me to conduct my experiments.  While this structure was awkward to carry to the science fair, it was a wonderful contraption with an interchangeable front panel allowing me to insert the different materials:  wood, fiberglass, glass, and polystyrene.   Using a fairly imprecise thermometer, a heat lamp and a timer, I measured the changes in temperature inside of this insulated doghouse, to compare the efficacy of the various materials.

At the tender age of fourteen, that science experiment was an equal mix of excitement and humility.  I thought I knew my stuff until I encountered several brainy kids who really did know their stuff.  It pains me to confess it in writing, but I was seriously outclassed in the State capital.   The ability of some of these kids to test their null hypothesis exceeded even the most logical, intuitive and cunning skills of Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew to solve nefarious crimes. And, I was surrounded by these people!  After First Prize was awarded to the kid who did some sort of study of molecular structures, I have never forgotten the word “polymers”.    Some lessons are learned during big events.   I sat in the bleachers next to my Mother, feeling somewhat glum while looking at my “Thanks for Participating in the Ohio State Science Fair” certificate, and I privately committed, from that day forward, to pay more attention in all of my classes.  During the acceptance speech delivered that afternoon, I learned from the Fair’s anointed winner that polystyrene was a polymer.  How did I miss that in my own research?  What I did know – and secretly hoped that the newly exalted one had missed in her research – was that this lightweight and widely used foam had some degree of insulation powers.  If I hadn’t learned it at the tender age of 14, I have learned it living (and wearing many layers) in this old stone house:  it may work, but it isn’t great.

Sanding the exposed beams.

Sanding the exposed beams.

The finished beam.

The finished beam.

This is the walk I found.

This is the stone walk I found.

As we weigh all the options as to which heating system will be our best choice for economic, environmental and maintenance considerations, we are still charging ahead with increased insulation and draft elimination.  What use is a nifty new boiler if we don’t address these issues?   Insulation in a house is as basic as bread in a diet and, while good, no one can live on it alone.  The chickens need to both feed and forage for the ultimate in health and happiness.  Ours raid the bird feeders, scratch for worms, bugs, seeds, grit and they eat the layers pellets that we provide.   They also like a mixture of shredded carrots, cucumbers and Greek yoghurt.  If we aren’t careful, they would eat the Polystyrene.   But these chickens have picked up a thing or two from Sam:   There will be some bread coming for them each afternoon and it is definitely worth the wait!

The winning loaf!

The winning loaf!