Monday 2 January 2012: Clouds, weeds and reeds
Almost back to reality today, though the holiday spirit will hang on a little longer, until after my birthday on Wednesday. I continued key-wording and sorting photographs this morning, interspersed with cleaning and tidying our bedroom, which had suffered under the onslaught of Christmas decorations and presents.
After lunch Chris and I went for a long walk round Holme Fen with the dogs. He's currently making decisions about his future, so it gave us a chance to chat about all his options. I shall be interested to see how it all pans out! Wildlife was pretty sparse, although we saw a rather handsome male goldeneye on the mere, along with a scatter of little grebe, gadwall, teal and tufted duck and rather more cormorants, coots, mallard and assorted geese. We were a little early for sunset, but I never fail to enjoy the sight of the golden sun behind the reeds.
The umbellifer heads alongside the reeds are hemlock Conium maculatum, a common weed of fertile fen soils and one which is famous for its poisonous properties. The specific name maculatum describes its most distinctive feature - a deep or dark red, almost port-wine coloured, mottling on the lower half of the stem. This varies somewhat from a regular, neatly spotted effect to one which can leave the lowest part almost entirely red, gradually becoming more "spotty" further up. In the summer the plants, which can grow to 3m tall, smell curiously like house mice, and I often know that it's present on a site by its scent, well before I actually see it. As the alkaloids it contains are volatile and can even cause toxic reactions when inhaled, I'm not sure this is wise!
Hemlock's most famous victim was the Greek philosopher Socrates who was ordered by the authorities in Athens to do away with himself for daring to ask awkward philosophical and ethical questions and thereby corrupting the minds of Athenian youth. Hemlock was commonly used in Greece for executing the condemned, though whether out of mercy in that the degree of physical distress to the criminal was less than with other toxins, or perhaps precisely because it does leave the mind clear until death intervenes, thus allowing the dying person plenty of time to reflect on his crimes, is uncertain.