…in the family of things
Michael Kane

Woodlands…in the family of things

Africa, Vol. 85, No 9, December 2020

“Walking in a winter wonderland”, whether sung by Frankie Vaughan, Dean Martin or Bing Crosby of yesteryear or Michael Bublé or Celtic Woman of today is a quintessential winter song that gets one into the mood of snow and sleigh bells.


But here in Kiltegan our December can be magical in its own way without the sleigh bells but not without the snow. Lugnaquilla Mountain to the north of us has its cap of snow, our fields and woods about us can be tinselled by frost or sparkled by raindrops.


Patrick Kavanagh’s poem A Christmas Childhood paints a very vivid picture of a winter’s morn of his childhood.

Outside in the cow-house my mother

Made the music of milking;

The light of her stable-lamp was a star

And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.


But let’s come back to Kiltegan and to “the family of things” as the late poet Mary Oliver called our living companions. In her poem The Wild Geese Mary invites us to listen to a world that offers itself to our imagination.

…Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese…

So what do we hear or see in the family of things in our woods this wintertime?


The trees are bare and even the briars are no longer a dense screen and so we can see small birds like dunnocks and wrens as they search almost at ground level for berries, fruits and the odd insect that is still there. The robin comes closer to inspect what we are about and perhaps to remind us that this is his territory. The blackbird and thrush are in clear areas under the trees where the fallen leaves hide grubs. They are searching for the insects that are cocooning, pupating or just liking the warmth caused by decomposing leaves. In other areas are the finches and tits looking among the grasses for seeds that are awaiting spring’s call.


Above our heads the jays which had a successful breeding year are noisy as they search out remaining berries of holly, rowan, ivy or hawthorn. The woodpecker is a little bit more secretive and invariably keeps the trunk or branch of the tree between yourself and itself. But if you are quiet you may hear a soft pecking as bark and moss are removed from the tree to reveal the hidden life below of insect, egg and larva – again waiting springtime. The loud wing flaps of the wood pigeon tell you he and his mate are not happy with your presence and are up and away. Smaller birds like siskin, gold crest, linnet and the pine seed eaters are high among the coniferous trees and even though these trees are evergreen, the cones are usually fairly prominent on the branches.


A bird table can bring many of these birds to your garden on cold winter days.


A lot of our wood plants are annuals but some ferns are still showing and Harts Tongue always looks good. The Foxglove or Lady Fingers which is a biennial is showing its first year’s growth, waiting to flower in late summer.


Our red squirrels are in hibernation and may venture out only if there is a rise in temperature. Desist too from scattering clumps of leaves and debris as a hibernating hedgehog may be there.


Forest bathing is regarded as a legitimate and healthy exercise so wrap up warmly and enjoy your own garden or woodland and all the life and interest it offers.

November…in the family of things

Africa, Vol. 85, No 8, November 2020

November – the ninth month! Well it was until January and February were added to the calendar some centuries back that the ninth month suddenly became the eleventh month.


At primary school, ‘back in the day’ we were taught that September, October and November were the autumn months and December, January and February were winter. Since then, we have come to know that such “truths” were not held as universal facts. Folklore and local history had their role in ‘what was what’ or what seemed to be what. One thing we did know then however was that November was the month of Holy Souls and ghosts. The ghosts were those that did not quite make it as ‘holy’ souls and were in fact ‘troubled’ souls who had lost their way. That was then.


Here in Kiltegan we remember all our dead – family, friends, neighbours and benefactors in a very special way each day in November at our Altar of Remembrance. And a prayer there reminds us that:

A long ancestral line of women and men

Proceed ahead of us on our journey…

A beautiful way to remember and celebrate those who have proceeded us.


So, here where I live, while the days may be cold and the nights dark and long, there is within and without light and love that can be celebrated. Celebrated with nature that seems to be ready for a new dance. A different tempo now that the frenetic activity of storage and harvest is over. A new beat can be heard – nature’s winter heartbeat. And our companions in the “family of things” as Mary Oliver called all sentient beings, have prepared well for this time. The hedgehog, bat and red squirrel will hibernate having feasted on autumn’s bounty to build up fat reserves. Smaller birds especially, wrens, finches, sparrows and other LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) will puff up their feathers with air pockets to help with insulation. You will also notice their tendency to flock and roost together at this time.


Robins tend to keep their distance from one another though they will appreciate you doing a bit of winter digging and keep you company. Other birds have taken a different option by heading to where the air is warmer in southern Europe or Africa. Conversely some come to us from cold climes: thrushes, usually bigger than our song thrush, redwings and field fares, all of which travel in flocks and like open ground or fields as feeding places.

On our lake the water or moorhen numbers are augmented by visiting cousins from local rivers and streams and even from abroad. Regular winter visitors are little grebes that look like balls of wool, dive straight into the water from a sitting position, come back up, and after shaking themselves are as dry as ever. Our resident grey heron watches closely. 


The last leaves are falling, carpeting the ground with browns and golds – a home for insects and a larder for birds. Thrushes and blackbirds toss up leaves and unearth a veritable feast of worms and insects who love the decaying matter. 


It is a beautiful time to walk in the woods and  tarry to see what is going on “in the family of things”. Walking or sitting quietly we become aware of the clarity of things. Birds and animals frightened at our coming will make tentative steps back to their foraging. The leafless trees unveil for us a new window into our natural world – where you may spot a wren or dunnock. 


Such is November here at the southern slopes of the Wicklow Hills from where our local stream eventually joins the river Slaney, famed in song and story by our ancestors. We are just ‘after comers’!


As Gerard Manly Hopkins says in his Binsey Poplars, After comers cannot guess the beauty been. So this November let us celebrate, with our ancestors and all of nature present, the beauty of this place we call our Common Home. And respond to its invitations and challenges. All the while, as our November altar prayer reminds us; 

Leaving vivid traces of our history, marking our path with our wisdom.…


And after-comers do not have to guess.   

September…in the family of things

Africa, Vol. 85, No 7, September/October 2020

“Have you anything ready?’ he said. “September/October,” he said. “We’re going to press by the end of the week,’’ he said. I sat and said, “the muse has fled.” As I thought about September the soothing words of Harry Belafonte or Andy Williams or some such crooner came to me from my past: 

Try to remember the kind of September

When life was slow and oh so mellow, 

Try to remember… when grass was green and grain was yellow…

And I was transported! But the beauty of it is that September is here again and we can celebrate it in the now!


It has been a difficult spring and summer and we are being reminded that we are not out of the woods yet. The restrictive times have however given us a new appreciation and a new awareness of nature around and about us.


Autumn. A time when the year changes gear from activity and business to a slow maturing and harvesting. Nature is replete but wonderfully active at the same time. The days are balmy and the first frosts are yet to come.


Late flowering plants like sedum (Ice plant), chrysanthemums and hydrangea offer a feast to bee, butterfly and myriads of little insects. Trees and shrubs are resplendent with nuts and berries and fruits. And grasses that have been let grow and go to seed look glorious especially when ‘lit by a slanting sun’ or bejewelled by raindrops.


Many of our smaller birds are now actively and joyfully eating the seeds of plants such as dock and thistle, that in the past would have had no place in our gardens. Other plants that also have been allowed to grow, host a whole new generation of caterpillars and beetles.


Our swallows and house martins have been scarce this year but are now preparing for their long journey south of the Sahara. Our swifts, in single figures, have already gone by now, as has the cuckoo. Corn crakes and smaller birds like warblers and fly catchers are also departing. Our expected winter arrivals – thrushes and other birdlife – have yet to come, and water birds, geese and duck and the like will arrive later with frostier weather. About 8,000 Greenland Fronted geese are expected by the end of October. Up to 5,000 Brent geese from Arctic Canada will arrive a little earlier.


It is heartening to see groups and individuals becoming more aware of our role in reversing actions that cause decline in wildlife numbers. Many of us can remember a time when you could not venture outside – and not too far from your own door – and see our fellow inhabitants all about us. Now the truth is that even if we go looking for ‘our friends in the family of things’ we may not find them.


I am reading three books at present that I find challenging, difficult and wonderfully eye-opening at the same time. Your local library may have them or you can download them for a fraction of the shop price.


I will start with an easy and short one. Rewild Yourself, 23 Spellbinding Ways To Make Nature More Visible by Simon Barnes. It is a call to see all that is alive in your immediate environment. The Well Gardened Mind, Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World by Sue Stuart Smith, leads us to appreciate that gardening and mental health can go hand in hand. Lastly Climate, A New Story by Charles Eisenstein, which someone has said is “A clarion call to reconnect through love with our living Earth’. This might be a book for long winter nights or collective reading.


There are of course many resources all about us on what we can do to make “Our Common Home” as Pope Francis called our Earth, in Laudato Si’, a home for all its creatures.


I will end with an extract from an autumn poem penned by a friend, Gerry McCarthy now living in Kenya. 


One Voice.

The Vixen wails at the new moon

The heron shrieks in the bog

Daylight fails for the brightening star

Oak trees wade in the fog…


So what say you of the distant star

Of the fox and the calling bird

They are with me, in life’s mystery

Proclaimers of the Word.

Butterflies …in the family of things

Africa, Vol. 85, No 6, July/August 2020

The name butterfly was first used to describe the yellow brimstone butterfly. It was actually known as the “butter coloured fly’ and that later became butterfly. We have in Ireland 34 species of butterfly and over 1,400 different moths. Most of the moths are night flyers. Most have been around for eons but lately, two butterfly species have come to our shore: the Essex skipper and the comma. They have come as a result of climate change, some would say. The comma first appeared in the South East about ten years ago and is now widespread in most of the south of the country. It has now become a resident. Red admirals were also thought to have been migratory but have also been granted resident status! 


Some have short seasons such as the orange tip – plentiful in April to the end of June – and whose favourite flower is the lady’s smock or cuckoo flower, on which it lays its eggs. The caterpillars then feed on its ripening seed pods. 


Some of the more regularly seen at this time, though this may change from area to area, are: the peacock, the small tortoiseshell – it shares our homes over the winter; red admirals – if you have apple trees check them out and the silver-washed fritillary, which is a large butterfly. And then there are the blues, a small butterfly. There is the holly blue, the common blue and the small blue and then our smallest butterfly, the small copper which likes ox-eye daisy and yarrow.


And the browns: the meadow brown, which favours long undisturbed grass for its eggs and caterpillars; the ringlet, which is dark brown and has a white edge around its wing; the speckled wood which has as you would expect, many white round spots on its light brown wings. And of course, we must not forget the whites: the orange tip mentioned earlier, the green veined and the large and small whites which were known as cabbage whites because of their preference for cabbage as a nursery for their eggs and caterpillars.


My butterfly of the month is the painted lady – an exotic sounding name! It comes from faraway places. It used to be called the thistle butterfly because of its preference for that plant. It also likes nettles for its eggs and caterpillars, but you will find it feeding on buddleia, tall verbena, sedum and most flowering plants. This butterfly begins its journey in Morocco, North Africa, reaching here in May and begins its journey back in August. Our May arrivals are the fifth or sixth generation from those that began in North Africa. But it is believed that a respectable height and a good tail wind makes the journey back a one generation affair.


Radar in Hampshire, UK, operated by Rothamsted Research revealed that around 11 million high-flying painted ladies entered the UK in spring 2009 with 26 million departing in autumn.


Butterflies are deep and powerful representations of life and many cultures associate them with our souls and see them as symbols representing endurance, change, hope and life. Butterfly metamorphosis is truly one of nature’s most miraculous events. Female butterflies will only lay their eggs on specific host plants because they’re the only appropriate food for her offspring. Caterpillars start out tiny but with their specialized diet and voracious appetites will grow at an astonishing rate, nearly doubling in size every day! We can help them by safeguarding their host plants – long called weeds – but now becoming known as flowers out of place. Nettles are the common host plant for many of them. 


Some of our herbs like marjoram, chives and thyme are very attractive to butterflies and good for ourselves too. And flowers like michaelmas daisies, tall verbena, buddleia, lavender and sedum or ice plant are very attractive to butterflies as well as pleasing to the human eye and soul. 


In this way we can play our part and help in no small way “……in the family of things”.


Some resources for you to check out: Discovering Irish Butterflies & Their Habitats by J.M. Harding is an excellent book on butterflies and where to find them. www.butterflyireland.com gives very good information and www.butterflyconservation.ie gives a good insight into what is being done in that area. You can also report sightings of butterflies to them.

High Summer …in the family of things

Africa, Vol. 85, No 5, June 2020

Trees in full leaf in their many hues of green; flowers coming into bloom with their attendant pollinators. There is a hum of busy business about this time of the year. 


And so everyday here in St Patrick’s is a celebration of and for trees and of those who planted them. A celebration of the tree itself and all it gives life to and sustains from buzzard to wren to goldcrest (smaller than the wren), from butterfly to bee. Not forgetting every tiny insect and all the creepy crawlies that also share the tree. We are thankful for its fruits, shelter and for just being a tree. 


Birdsong has quietened a bit now but the young, calling out to be fed, can be heard in echoing cacophonies from every tree and bush. Parent birds busily searching for food can be seen with mouthfuls of all kinds of everything. Not a good time to be a worm or insect! 


The swifts are back with their high-pitched screeching and jet-like flight. Their aerial displays are a beauty to behold. They are one of the fastest birds in Ireland spending practically all their time flying. They are grounded only when nesting. In Irish, they are known as gabhlan gaoithe (who goes with the wind), belonging to the ornithological family Apodidae meaning “footless”. Their legs are short and their feet are very small and so they are not able to walk. They are highfliers and cover the journey from South Africa and back every year arriving in early May. They head back between late July and early September. They have been recorded covering 13,000 to 17,000 miles on migration from UK to South Africa and back, eating and sleeping on the wing. They are not related to the house martin or the swallow. 


Sad to say, that like all our wildlife, and especially our avian visitors from Africa, it is estimated that there has been a 40% decrease in their numbers in the last 15 years. Loss of suitable nest sites would seem to be one factor as we replace or upgrade our older buildings like barns and old warehouses. The swift comes to our towns and houses every year for about four months and once a nest site is found, it will remain faithful to it for the rest of its life and the young will do likewise. It is estimated that a breeding pair will consume up to half a million small flying insects. 

The website swiftconservation.ie can advise on what we can do to help and encourage these beauties of our summer skies by providing new nest sites. It also has a very helpful booklet: “We are Swifts – We are in trouble”. 


Here in Kiltegan, the nest sites are under the roof of High Park House, front and back. They also have some noisy semidetached neighbours – jackdaws and starlings – nesting close by on a lower level. House martins nest under the eaves of the main college. Their numbers are down by more than half of earlier years and sparrows have moved into some of the abandoned nests. Sparrows are opportunists and seem to like these high rises. Swallows are also about in numbers and they nest wherever they find a suitable site, usually on a ledge or cross timber in a sheltered spot. Many do so in the farm sheds. Nearby there are some in the outhouses and more in Slí an Chroí and there are two pairs in the boiler house of our office building – a boiler house now out of use since we have moved towards fossil free fuel for our heating. A slatted door gives them easy entry and exit. The sand martins join them above our heads, but they also nest in holes in riverbanks and in old sandpits. They scoop out a hole from which they launch into the air. All three can be seen fly-catching at speed over the lake. And it is possible for the attentive and sharp-eyed watchers to tell them apart – with a little bit of practice that is! The house martins are identified by their prominently white chin and body, the swallows by their long-forked tail and the sand martins by being noticeably browner than the other two. The swifts usually fly higher and faster but can be recognised by the scimitar-shaped wings.


Another scarce African visitor is the spotted flycatcher which is a small bird, robin-sized but of a more slender build. One had frequented an old swallow’s nest in the north wing of the college but has been noted by its absence for the last few seasons. So it was very good to see one among the willows last year. I am hoping to see more of them this summer.


It is also high butterfly flight time. Watch out for them. Take note and we will look at them next month as they will still be around.

Fr Michael Kane from Co Wexford was ordained in 1968. He worked for many years in Kitui, Kenya. He is now based in Kiltegan. 

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