“When will they ever learn?”

That question, the last line of that  lovely old song, “Where have all the flowers gone?” came to my mind the other day, on reading a news item in the paper, under the title of  “Dramatic fall in sperm count”. Now before you try to work out the connection between disappearing flowers and falling sperm count, I’d better admit that there isn’t one, except that the news caused me a great sense of deja vu, of having been here before, and of no lessons having been learnt.

“Sperm counts in the Western world have fallen by almost 60% in the past 40 years,” I read. Although this study didn’t look into reasons for the fall, (why ever not?) previous  research had linked the problem to everything from stress, obesity and – wait for it – exposure to pesticides. Yes, I remember that previous report of some years back; it concentrated on the damage caused by pesticides and stated that the highest sperm count in Europe belonged to Danish organic farmers who didn’t use anything ending in -cides. This led to some frivolous comments about the likely boost to the Danish tourist industry caused by this disclosure, but that was all that happened. Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides have continued to be used lavishly, leading my local greengrocer to liken his lettuces to Rolls Royce cars, as, he explained, both were sprayed seventeen times.

Since then, according to this new report , things have got worse. “I think health authorities should be concerned,” said the lead researcher, noting with surprise that sperm counts were not falling nearly as fast in the developing world. As a non-scientist citizen, using ordinary common sense, I don’t find this surprising: farmers in the developing world simply can’t afford agro-chemicals, hence they remain healthier. Clearly, powerful substances used to kill pests remain on the non-organic  fruits and vegetables that we eat, and equally clearly they continue to do a bit of killing inside the body, hitting sperm hard in men, and who knows what in women.

“We have a huge public health problem that was until now under the radar,” the lead researcher added. I fear it’ll remain there. Scientists keep issuing well founded warnings about hazards to public health, decision makers keep  ignoring them. They also ignore the importance of diet in in the same area and the damage caused by chemical-rich but nutrient-poor junk food,  but  complain about the horrific cost of looking after an increasingly sick, largely overweight population. According to psychology textbooks, after the age of seven children understand the link between cause and effect; can it be that our politicians, policy makers and, above all, our medical Establishment have all somehow missed that connection?

Here are just two examples of how little food is considered in the health-disease equation, although it’s the only substance besides air that we consume from our first to our last breath. The first example comes from a booklet issued by Age UK, advising older people how to enjoy life while ageing. It’s all good stuff about exercise, satisfactory social connections, sound sleep and so on, and somewhere a mere six lines mention the importance of a good diet, adding that “beans are a good source of zinc”. That’s it.  Put it in your pipe and smoke it, of course metaphorically, because smoking is bad for you, too.

The second example comes from my recent thorough examination, a kind of human MoT, at my GP’s surgery. The nice nurse asked innumerable questions, examining my various functions and abilities, and ended the session – without asking anything about my daily food intake. When I asked whether that major subject didn’t figure in her list, she looked surprised and shook her head. (I described that meeting in detail in a recent blog.) No, diet wasn’t included, she said, and wished me well. This omission at the very heart of my health care was depressing and made me ask once more, somewhat despairingly, “When will they ever learn?”

Not that I’ll wait for that. Excuse me while I go and prepare my large, fresh, crisp, beautiful and totally organic dinner. Bon appetit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Condition Excellent

Last week I had a phone call from the local GP surgery where I am registered. “Please come in for a session with the practice nurse,” said the receptionist, as instructed by my doctor, and gave me an appointment. I cherish my doctor, a serene, unflappable woman who has accepted long ago that I was a somewhat irregular but, on the whole, harmless patient, so if she wanted me to see the practice nurse, she must have had a good reason for it.

Well, the reason was that patients over a certain age had to have an annual inspection, a kind of human MoT test, and I had reached that age. (Namely?  Of course you may ask. Except I won’t answer.) The nurse turned out to be young, bright, friendly, and  welded to her computer screen from which she read out a long list of questions. She enquired about my eyesight and hearing – both o.k. – and sundry other bits, pieces and functions  of the body, including my weight. That has been 8 stone, or 50 kg, for the past thirty years – surely I deserved a small medal for that? But none was offered, and when we ran out of physical factors she switched to examining my mental state.

Now this was real fun. She gave me three words, “Banana, sunrise, chair” to see whether I could remember them later. I immediately visualised a banana seated on a chair and admiring the sunrise, so after five minutes I was able to repeat her words. I could have told her about real memory lapses causing real trouble, when for instance I can only remember somebody’s first name, the surname having fallen into what the French call “a hole in one’s memory”, or when the safe place where I had put an important document had become so safe that even I couldn’t find it. But the nurse moved on. She asked me to draw a clock face. I did, complete with hours and clock hands pointing at ten past eleven.  “Oh, I wanted to ask you to put it at ten past eleven,” she said, sounding disappointed. Sorry, can’t help being psychic. Or something.  I hoped she’d ask me to draw a cat, as I am pretty good at that, but the drawing was over, and I was only requested to count backwards from twenty to one. Obviously she found this as idiotic as I, so we both laughed and left it at that.

My condition, she declared, was excellent, I could pass for someone ten years younger. And yes, thanks, that was all. Did she have no more questions to ask? Why no, none. “But you didn’t ask me about my diet,” I said. “Surely, what I eat every day of my life has a big impact on my condition!” She looked baffled. No, diet didn’t figure on her list. I didn’t want to upset her, but my blood pressure rose at yet another example of how official medicine ignores the vital importance of nutrition, how during six years spent at medical school, I am told, only some four hours are devoted to the subject of  diet. And here was this nice young nurse at the beginning of her career – would she reach its end in the same state of abysmal ignorance she was in now?

Not if I could help it. I told her that I was 85% vegetarian, adding only tiny amounts of cheese, fish and two eggs a week to my organic wholefood intake, which greatly surpassed the official requirement of five portions of fruit and veg a day. It didn’t cost more than a diet based on junk food, which with added snacks and fattening empty calories was truly expensive, and it kept me, in her words, in excellent condition. If I lived on white toast, margarine, baked beans, tinned fruit and six cups of tea with two sugars  –  “Oh , I see,” she said. “But that’s what a lot of patients in your age group eat.  And they are … quite well.” She stood up and moved towards the door. The audience was over.

I wonder what she will tell my doctor about our meeting, but I bet that my doctor won’t be in the least surprised by what she hears.

 

 

 

 

Seeds of omission

At long last yesterday I got down to exploring a densely chaotic shelf in an all-purpose cupboard, the kind that starts out as a model of intelligent storage and then gradually fills up with objects of  infinite variety and questionable usefulness.  The ancient Egyptians believed that life was a constant struggle with the all-engulfing chaos, and I think they were spot on, even though my chaos was infinitely smaller than their cosmic one and could sometimes be – briefly – defeated. The time to start was now.

For starters, beneath a few layers of plastic bags and the instructions  for using a long  defunct kitchen gadget, I found a smallish  gold-coloured metal box which had once contained  expensive Belgian chocolates, but now, to my amazement, was full of something less sweet: a batch of unopened seed packets. I could hardly believe my eyes.  How did I manage to forget about this lot? And was it too late to sow them now?

Well yes, it was. According to the “Sow by…” instruction on each packet, these seeds were two to four years out of date, victims of the sense of timelessness that overcomes me each time I am confronted with a resistible task, a sense of surely-it-can-wait-another-week. Or more. “Tomorrow never comes”, sang Frank Sinatra, offering a glamorous excuse to procrastinators. What a waste of money and gardening potential, I thought, fingering the pristine seed packets, but then suddenly remembered reading somewhere that wheat found in the tomb of a pharaoh did sprout after being stored in a stone jar for thousands of years. Should I perhaps – but no, get real, lady, that was probably ultra-special pharaonic wheat, and besides mid-October was no time to sow seeds.

I laid out the small envelopes on the kitchen table. Why on earth did I have six lots of radish seeds, four of them of the “French breakfast” variety ?  I lived in France for years and never saw any French person eating radishes for breakfast, nor was I ever offered any. Could this be another of those cross-Channel love-hate Franglais misunderstandings which make the French believe that the Brits eat le biftek twice a day? “An old radish which has stood the test of time”, one packet states rather offputtingly, making me realize that I don’t really like radishes of any kind. But then why did I buy all those seeds? No idea.

More to my taste, I find three packs of lettuce seeds, including those of Tom Thumb, the smallest kind, “just right for small families” I read on the pack; does that mean one and a half  family  member , or a whole family of small stature? Never mind, here come carrot seeds – they like dry, sandy soil and would have done badly in my rich organic humus – and the seeds of chives, spring onions, runner beans, peas, dark purple beetroot and – wait for it – perpetual spinach; what a nightmare for a spinach-hating child, and to hell with Popeye. Finally a touch of romance: I must have been in a lyrical mood when I bought the seeds of Night Scented Stock, delicate white and pink flowers only  releasing their sweet perfume when the stars light up. At last something to make up for those prosaic vegetable seeds.

What next? I take the seed packets to the compost bin at the bottom of the garden, open them one by one and pour the contents onto the vegetable chaos inside.  From one chaos into another, amen. My volunteer employees, the omnivorous earthworms will recycle the lot. Unless – this thought strikes me several hours later and makes me anxious – what if the seeds decide to disprove their sow-by dates and begin to sprout in the moist, warm paradise of the compost bin? What if they go on growing and thriving, until one day my garden is taken over by huge French radishes, fully intent to stand the test of time?

Let me procrastinate and wait and see. And hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Mouse Memoir

It started  last autumn when my builder removed a flowering weed that had grown around the base of the back door. Its roots, he said, were damaging the wall by growing into it. He was right: the roots had made a small hole between two bricks. He was wrong in not filling it up.

Fast forward to  the start of the cold weather in January. In my cosy kitchen I reached for a bag of sesame seeds in its usual  place and found that it had lost half its contents through a round hole in the side of the bag. Oh no! Oh yes, a mouse. Oh damn. Within minutes I discovered further traces of serious intrusion, including the loss of a whole bag of expensive cashew nuts.  Worse still, the beast had entered several drawers and cupboards and even the oven, chewing the edibles and leaving droppings by way of payment.

The builder came and stopped up the hole with masses of sand and cement. That’ll keep it out, he said. Sure, except that it also kept it  in, somewhere within the walls of this old house, with no exit but a healthy appetite. My attempts to trick it into starvation failed miserably: it always found its way to some hidden provision. If only there were a Rent-a-Cat business, I fantasized, supplying lean and hungry cats, not the feline equivalents of Mae West resting on a satin cushion and languidly eating caviar. Getting real, I rang the local Council and asked for help. The next day the Rodent Officer arrived.  He was young, dynamic and cheerful, all the things I wasn’t. He stormed through the house, examined all possible entry points, deposited several small trays filled with pink crystals all over the place and promised to return in three weeks.

That left me ample time to ponder some mouse-centred problems. For instance, why fill our childhood with images of  lovable Mickey Mouse or brave Jerry eternally outwitting Tom,  only to be confronted with  the unhygienic, disgusting real thing later in life? Of course both fictional mice are big business – an ugly print of Tom and Jerry costs £22! – and so is the huge industry devoted to wiping out the real ones: just one anti-rodent business on the Internet advertises some forty items of various complexity and cost. I was particularly intrigued by their “Humane Pre-baited Multicatch Mouse Trap”, but resisted the temptation of ordering it. Besides, what I felt towards the creature was distinctly not humane.

Friendly advice kept coming. One rodent-savvy friend told me that used cat litter was guaranteed to drive mice away. Sure, but I would have fled, too. Then  I was told to scatter some special dust on the kitchen floor, which would stick to the mouse’s feet and show its itinerary. And no, cheese was not the right bait, only chocolate worked, came the news. Meanwhile every morning I found that the Rodent Officer’s pink crystals had been disturbed and partly consumed, but obviously not lethally, because on subsequent days there were further signs of invasion.

When the Officer returned, he replaced the pink crystals with much stronger purple ones and departed for another three weeks.  It was then, apropos of the resident mouse, that I suddenly remembered my very first London home, a large bedsitter in Nottingham Place (which, on bad days, I called Nothingham  Place.) I was young and very poor, with a good job awaiting me in a fortnight’s time, but no means to survive that empty fortnight. So I sold my precious watch and had to rely on the clock of the London Bible College opposite my window to tell the time. In the daytime, that is. At night it was a matter of guessing. In the end it all worked out well, the job was great, I had a new boyfriend and my bedsitter had become a real home. And then – strange noises wakened me one night. When I put on the light, I saw that the wall near my bed was bulging, the bulge moving hither and thither under the thick wallpaper, making scratching noises. There was no more sleep for me that night.

It must be a mouse, said my desiccated  landlady. This is an old house, she added, there’s room between the plaster and the wallpaper, sometimes mice get in and run around and then leave again. This time, however, I left before they did, full of regrets and resentment. That was a few decades ago, but  now that the memory had returned,  I understood why I was reacting so emotionally to this intrusion, although this time it was the mouse, not I, that had to leave.

Or rather to leave this earth, but stay somewhere inside my house. The Rodent Officer’s purple crystals had done the job, and he assured me that wherever the tiny corpse was. it would soon turn into thin air. Mice don’t even have a proper spine, he said;  they can flatten themselves and get through a hole the width of a pencil. Off he went, the splendid chap, with his little trays of poison and huge knowledge of rodents. And here I was, a lifelong champion and supporter of wildlife charities, trying to save the polar bear and the orang-outangs of Sumatra, not to mention British wild bees, and yet, when a tiny bit of wildlife sneaks into my kitchen, I lose my cool and call in the big guns. H’m.

It’s a funny feeling, being embarrassed by a dead mouse.

 

Small Pleasures

Can’t bear January. It feels twice as long as any other month, while the days don’t seem to get longer, the dark clouds sit on the rooftops, in the enormously boring  sales prices keep plummeting until in the end the shops may pay us to take away some unwanted stuff – it’s a universal UGH of heroic proportions.

But then some small pleasures hop in and the mood lightens.

Today, for instance, I bought a bag of kiwi fruit in my local shop, and when I looked at the label, I saw, “Grown by Zeus, Greece.” I almost dropped the bag. Can it be that my six kiwis had been grown by the chief God of ancient Greece, the King of Olympus, the invincible Thunderer and victor of every battle? Dare I eat them? Does their possession promote me in some small way? Will they taste…divine?

Well, it certainly gave me several minutes of glee, wondering whether Zeus’s need to grow fruit and veg for an English supermarket, instead of chasing goddesses and nymphs, was somehow connected with the current parlous state of the Greek economy. And that brought on images of the Greek sea, the scintillating light, the essence of my best-ever summers in that country …a more than small joy.

Then, still resenting January, its very name made me think again. January, of course: it’s the month of Janus, the mysterious two-faced Roman god who looks both ways, towards past and future, with equal dignity. Most of all he is the god of beginnings. The first hour of the day, the first day of the month and the first month of the year belong to him; so do doors and gateways (and, presumably, janitors, who guard the entrances of apartment blocks in America.) Beginnings. Nice idea. Qualifies as a small pleasure. Perhaps things will begin to get better. Perhaps there IS life after birth, courtesy of Janus.

If by now you wonder whether I am an addict of ancient myths, the answer is yes. My mother used to read them to me when I was a child and I’ve never recovered from those riveting stories. (Naturally they were bowdlerised tales; I didn’t find out about Zeus’s sex life and other interesting extras until much later.) And, on a deeper level, myths are also about us, without the magical bits; the tussles, jealousies, intrigues and passions of the inhabitants of Olympus are played out every day among us on a smaller scale here and now. Personally I find that quite amusing.

But back to small pleasures. My third one occurred today when I dropped in on some friends for a brief chat. There were five of us sitting together, when the house cat, a magnificent Siamese, sauntered into the room, surveyed us and then landed on my lap and made itself comfortable, showing signs of contentment. Anyone familiar with feline psychology will recognize this as a sign of approval, especially from a member of that majestic breed, and I felt accordingly accepted and promoted. Perhaps January isn’t all that dreadful.

Well, that’s all for today, and these were my small pleasures.

What would yours be?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Red Wrigglers

Every evening I walk down the garden path, carrying a green plastic bucket full of fruit and vegetable peels, seeds, leaves, stalks and whatever had been inedible in the day’s food intake. The large wooden container at the far end has a slatted lid, covering the incredible  non-stop 24/7  activity that is my compost heap. At a first glance it looks totally inactive, no more than a multi-coloured mass of plant material in varying states of decomposition, a chaotic still life, or rather still death, of the plant kingdom. But at a second glance that mass – or mess – is teaming with silent life. A corps of grey woodlice, looking like miniature tanks, is marching across the box, accompanied by several shiny, fast-moving beetles, while a large spider scuttles towards the middle with a curious sideway gait, like a Western hero loping towards a gun fight. They all belong here; so do the snails that leave shiny silver trails all over the wooden slats. But what I am interested in lives in huge communities at a trowel’s depth  below the surface: my vast colony of Lumbricidae , AKA earthworms, and they are the true non-stop activists of this heap.

I find them fascinating. So did Charles Darwin, who studied them for forty years and wrote a scholarly book about his findings. He went to endless trouble to find out the worms’ food preferences, which turned out to be wild cherry, carrots and raw fat rather than raw meat,  and he concluded that they “enjoyed the pleasures of eating”. He also tested their sense of hearing by blowing a metal whistle, shouting, and getting his son to play the bassoon very loudly – imagine that most eminent of scientists with his long white beard SHOUTING at worms! –  but to no effect. The creatures seemed to be stone deaf and only responded to vibration.

Back to my box and the here-and-now. I’ve disturbed the worms and they wriggle wildly. What I know about them is that each segmented tube-shaped animal, which is basically no more than a full length digestive system, breathes through its skin, has five hearts and the rare ability to change its sex at will if a suitable mate of the right gender can’t be found. Sounds like an excellent quick fix, but it still takes two to produce offspring, which arrive in small translucent cocoons and look like minute pieces of white cotton. They are often deposited in eggshells or avocado skins for extra protection; clearly, worms are caring mothers.

They are also eyeless, deaf and apparently boring, but they are the life force of the soil and Nature’s champion recyclers. They create burrows, aerate the soil and  help it to retain moisture, they gather autumn leaves and pull them underground, they cope with tough refuse without having teeth (how?) and are partial to teabags and paper. My worms have worked their way through my shredded bank statements and other sensitive papers. but, experts say,  they dislike onions, garlic and citrus peels. Above all, they produce that rare treasure, humus, the fertile topsoil on which plants depend to thrive.

At present two million tonnes of topsoil are lost globally every year, through floods, erosion, wind damage and industrial farming methods. At this rate soon there won’t be much left. Without topsoil, no plants. Without plants, no food. Without food – ?

Consider it. With all our dazzling technological powers, wealth and inter-planetary sophistication we can’t do what these small tube-shaped creatures do day and night, endlessly: produce fertile soil and maintain Nature’s cycle of growth, decay, death and new life. We couldn’t survive for long without them.

If that doesn’t make you feel humble, nothing will.