Christmas Kiss – Dec 2018

Hello everyone! Here we are at the end a year in which we experienced the whole gamut of weather conditions these islands of ours can throw at us. The icy blasts in February, courtesy of the Beast from the East, were countered-balanced by weeks of sweltering heat in June and July. An extended period of very little rain saw the pond in Quarry Wood nigh on completely dry out for the first time since we acquired the land nineteen years ago.

Now, as I sit here in front of my books and laptop, we are being battered by the sort of rain not uncommon in the monsoon season of a subtropical rain forest. As a result, the reserve wadi is recharging with satisfying rapidity.

It has been a year when, if you believe the media, the world seems to have become aware of the perilous state of our planet. It would be unseasonably churlish to stress the fact that many of us were concerned about plastic waste, mass extinction and global warming forty years ago, so I won’t, but we were! More about these topics in the new year when we will be considering to what extent the health and biodiversity of our little reserve and its surrounds is an indication of the state of the natural world in general.

Nevertheless, as we enter the season of goodwill to all, it is worth mentioning one of the specific issues associated with anthropic activity. Thanks to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a significant promotional campaign by Charles Dickens and the Teutonic traditions of both ‘Good Queen Charlotte’ and Prince Albert, we bedeck our homes with copious amounts of festive greenery.

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum
Wie treu sind deine Blätter!

Very nice it is too! However, the upshot of adorning our households with Ma Nature’s finery is that we offer a whole host of mini-beasts the opportunity to come in and share a bit of unseasonal warmth. Most of these are harmless and, as is the case with most of the domestic fauna throughout the rest of the year, we are oblivious to their presence. However, speculation is rife as to whether those dreaded Arachnids, Ticks, are numbered among these Christmas visitors. There is no doubt that they remain active throughout mild winter months, but the risk to humans was deemed minimal after an extensive study carried out by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in 2012.

Be that as it may, it would be prudent to be wary and cover up when visiting tree farms. Just last month the European Parliament identified several possible causes for the increase in the numbers of infected Ticks and Lyme Disease throughout the Continent, these included global warming, climate change and the spread of invasive plants. The Commission has vowed to combat the ‘silent epidemic’ and will ensure that uniform surveillance programmes, standardised diagnostic tests and treatments are put in place throughout the Union. MEPs have also called for mandatory reporting in all member states affected by the disease and for the promotion of individual Tick prevention and control.

I feel this is an appropriate juncture to revisit my last article and recommend Lorraine Damonte’s excellent children’s book, Spot The Tick In England, as a stocking filler (see Beware the Tick, October 2018). It could save you months, if not years, of sickness, discomfort or worse!

I am sure Lorraine would not mind me switching from her very important little book to a truly extensive written work, produced almost 2000 years ago.

Those who have studied the Sandal’d and Toga’d Ones (see What have the Romans done for us? – Nov 2009; Fungal fatalities and festive fare – Dec 2012; A question of perspective – Dec 2013; Prince with a thousand enemies – Mar 2014)  will be familiar with one Gaius Plinius Secundus, or, as many of us know him, Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), army and naval commander, naturalist, philosopher and prolific author. His most notable work, Naturalis Historia, is divided into thirty-seven books which are organised into ten volumes covering a vast range of, what we today would term ‘scientific knowledge’. Pliny started his book in AD 77 and had not made a final revision before his death two years later. He died in Stabiae, near the modern Italian town of Castellammare di Stabia, possibly while trying to rescue some people in his boat from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii.

By all accounts he was an avid reader and scholar and considered himself unique among his countrymen with his comprehensive approach to the study of the natural world. That feeling of self-worth is exemplified by his finishing sentence, a prayer to the Earth Mother asking for his work to be blessed:

Hail to thee, Nature, thou parent of all things! and do thou deign to show thy favour unto me, who, alone of all the citizens of Rome, have, in thy every department, thus made known thy praise.

What has happened to our jolly festive musings I hear you cry! What is all this talk of Ancient Romans, volcanoes and encyclopaedic tomes? He has not even mentioned the Winter Solstice yet!

Well, Dear Reader, vincit qui patitur, as Pliny’s contemporaries would have quoted. It so happens that chapter ninety-five in the sixteenth book of Naturalis Historia finishes with a fascinating description of the Druids’ veneration of Oak trees and, by association, a familiar parasitic plant that has travelled down the centuries into our Christmas traditions.

Of itself the robur is selected by them to form whole groves, and they perform none of their religious rites without em- ploying branches of it; so much so, that it is very probable that the priests themselves may have received their name from the Greek name for that tree. In fact, it is the notion with them that everything that grows on it has been sent immediately from heaven, and that the mistletoe upon it is a proof that the tree has been selected by God himself as an object of his especial favour.

The robur in question is the Common Oak (Quercus robur) and it is believed that the Mistletoe was almost certainly Loranthus Europæus, which is more likely to be found on Oak than Viscum album, the species usually found in this country. Interestingly, Pliny does not specify which particular god is bestowing his favours upon them.  He then goes on to describe how it was harvested with a golden sickle under a waxing moon before commenting on the various properties accorded to the plant:

It is the belief with them that the mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity to all animals that are barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.

So there we are, when we give someone a Christmas peck under the Mistletoe we are playing out the last vestiges of an ancient Druidic fertility ceremony. No sacrifices needed!

Mr. Pickwick, with a gallantry that would have done honour to a descendant of Lady Tollimglower herself, took the old lady by the hand, led her beneath the mystic branch, and saluted her in all courtesy and decorum.”

Charles Dickens- The Pickwick Papers (1836)


Happy Christmas One and All!

Put me right at

Paul Johnson