Monday, 29 November 2010

Lightning strikes, alien abduction and lashings and lashings of estuarine mud

Star Ascidian Botryllus schlosseri on seaweed,
Gyllyngvase Beach, Falmouth, Cornwall

Oops, my little blog - I’ve been neglecting you!

Now, what to write? Hmm (scratches chin wistfully)…

OK, well it seems appropriate to begin by focussing on the weather. It’s cold. It’s very cold. It’s very, very cold. There is snow. However, whilst the bulk of Cornwall woke up to a blanket of the stuff, our village is only just receiving its first flurry of the day. Mind you, we had our fair share of weird weather over the weekend.

Friday, whilst travelling home from an evening event at a village school in the wilds of West Penwith, we were faced first with heavily-falling snow and then with slippery, unlit roadways. Once home, whilst there was evidence of some snowfall, the breathtaking bitterness of the cold air was more noteworthy, and getting indoors and under the duvet was a matter of utmost priority.
All was well for a couple of hours but it soon became clear that I was in for a dose of the chills, and sure enough, my knees and fingers had turned purple. So, a late-night hot shower it was for me, then. After hastily stripping off, I jumped under the shower, and with teeth a-chattering and knees a-knocking, I waited for the shivering to subside. Meanwhile, the outside world was being pounded by giant h ail stones, and everything was rapidly turning white. After about ten minutes, I was finally beginning to once more feel vaguely human but was not yet ready to extricate from the warm, comforting water. Then, it happened. The lights went out and I was plunged into darkness. Seconds later, out of nowhere, the cottage and my ear-drums shook to the sound of an almighty clap of thunder, and I found myself standing under a freezing cold shower, not able to see a thing and laughing hysterically at my own misfortune!
After realising that the lights (or hot water) weren’t going to return to their former status, I had no choice but to fumble for the shower’s off-switch, clamber out of the bath and grope for a towel, before joining my Lovely OH in his blind quest for candles, matches and a torch. A quick peek out of the window revealed several other candle-lit, confused faces all doing much the same but we remained none the wiser, and could only presume that the brief storm was in some way responsible for our lack of electricity. In fact, I later found out that the church tower was struck by lightning, and that the sound was heard for miles around, which is all rather exciting!
Soon afterwards, the street light soon came back on, providing some welcome illumination; however, all that would work indoors were our plugged-in lights, which emitted only a strange, dim, orange glow - no other power seemed to be getting anywhere, although a plugged-in laptop insisted on bleeping away as it fluctuated rapidly between battery and mains power. So, after turning everything off, we took ourselves off to bed, in the hope that things would look brighter in the morning.

Then, a couple of hours later it happened. My Lovely OH was awoken by a loud, unstoppable buzzing coming from the fusebox, which went on for about half an hour and didn’t stop even when the mains switch was turned off. After donning some clothes and boots, a foray into the outside world proved fruitless (although the buzzing could still be heard outside of the house, and it was at this point that alien abduction was anticipated). After initially stopping, the buzzing resumed a few hours later, and soon after, normal electricity supply was reassuringly restored. Other than some unresolved former issues, all now appears well, and there are no obvious signs of alien interference…

So, that’s the weather dealt with, other than once more emphasising that it’s rather cold here (but probably not as cold as most other parts of the country)!
Life in Weirdo La-La Land has been pretty much as normal with nothing exceptional to write home about, or rather, nothing that I really feel like writing home about. Rather annoyingly, I missed the deadline for my DLA (Disabled Living Allowance) appeal; however, I’m trying not to dwell on this, especially as given the state of the UK’s economy combined with intended benefit reforms, my chances of actually ever being granted it are very, very slim.
On a more positive note, I had my DSA (Disabled Student’s Allowance) assessment a couple of weeks ago, and as well as the usual stuff, I had the opportunity to have a special 'colour test', which compares your ability to read comfortably based first on different coloured filters, then via assessment of personal preferences to saturation and the like, after which the results are analysed and a suggestion is made for the ideal lens colour to help appease the dodgy neurons which are overacting to light/colour/contrast and causing all manner of problems from sensitivity (pain) to tiredness/fatigue. To cut a long story short, I'm going to be getting a brand new pair of glasses, complete with groovy turquoise lenses - hoorah!

Meanwhile, I’m finding my ‘other’ life as a PhD researcher most enjoyable. In addition to my own research, I’ve been assisting with undergraduate zoology field trips, which I must say have been very tough-going: mainly involving rummaging in rockpools on the beach, and delving (with gloved hands) into estuarine mud! Mind you, I do also have a big box of marking currently awaiting my attention. 

And on that note - time to skedaddle…

Sea Slater(?) being preyed upon by a Stalked Jellyfish (Stauromedusae),
plus some amphipoda carrying/protecting their young,
Gyllyngvase Beach, Falmouth, Cornwall

Chameleon Prawns Hippolyte varians,
Gyllyngvase Beach, Falmouth, Cornwall

Short-spined Sea Scorpion Myoxocephalus scorpius,
Gyllyngvase Beach, Falmouth, Cornwall

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Mutant psyllids and a return to academia

Pale Tussock Calliteara pudibunda larva Sep 2010

OK, so I’ve been slacking, blog-wise. No need to rub it in though - I’m doing a good enough job of feeling guilty without any outside intervention!

So, what’s been happening? Narcolepsy-wise, things have been ticking along pretty much as usual; in fact, if anything, I’ve recently had more good days than bad, which is a very welcome turn of events. Needless to say, I’ve been making the most of this, although I’m grounded enough to know that this rare ‘reprieve’ is only temporary. Still, I’m going to enjoy it whilst it lasts!

Well, the big news is that I’ve finally begun my PhD - hoorah! I’ve survived a week of pretty full-on induction sessions, had an introduction to the world of teaching in higher education, and met some lovely fellow researchers. And other than a few wobbly moments, when I found myself struggling to remain in the land of the living, I got through it all and came out the other side in one piece. Cognitive behavioural therapy - pah!

Now, talk about a come-down. I knew it was too good to be true. The post has just arrived, and guess what? Yep, my recent communication regarding my initial failed attempt to secure a particular benefit has fallen on deaf ears - again. In many ways, I’m not at all surprised, as this seems to be the norm, but it’s not just the money, it’s the fact that the information painstakingly prepared in support of my application is time and time again being blatantly ignored, as the stated reasons for my lack of entitlement contradict completely the information and evidence I have given to the powers that be. Still, I’m NOT going to let the b***ards grind me down, and I will simply grit my teeth and power through to the next stage of appealing the decision. Like I haven’t got enough to do already! Oh well, nobody ever said it was going to be easy…. [wry smile].

OK, letter dismissed. Back to more important things. Bugs! To be precise - psyllids. Tiny, tiny insects that hang out on plant foliage. I won’t go into detail about the remit of my PhD project, but as you’ve probably managed to deduce, psyllids feature heavily. As such, the last week or so has been dominated by attempting to obtain insider knowledge of everything ‘psyllidic’ - by no means an easy task, as the group is massively understudied. But, I do now feel as though I’m getting somewhere, and you know me, I love a challenge! Mind you, when trying to get back to sleep this morning, every time I closed my eyes, bizarre alien bugs, which looked remarkably psyllid-like, immediately appeared in front of my eyes. Hmm, methinks I might have been overdoing it somewhat.

Typically, having finally managed to expel the mutant psyllids from my silly brain, I eventually gave up on getting anymore sleep when I realised that the telephone had been ringing for quite some time. Immediately, with thoughts of bad news careering through my mind, I staggered downstairs, where I found that I had been beaten to it by my OH, who was standing by the ‘phone, sporting a somewhat quizzical look. ‘It’s a mobile number. Do you know where my wallet is? It might be X’. Well, it wasn’t X; however, it was another friend, who, it turns out, had taken charge of a rescued young vole, which she’d found whilst walking along the coastpath, the vole apparently disorientated and determined to live a marine life, as it was observed repeatedly heading into the sea. ‘Help, what do voles eat? What do I feed it on? What do I do next?’ So, no sooner had I got myself out of bed than I was out there in Cyberspace researching how to look after poorly and/or convalescing voles. We’re off to see it this afternoon, complete with detailed care and management notes, and I will provide an update as soon as there is more news.
Rain-covered webs of the Garden Spider Araneus diadematus Newlyn Sep 2010
Well, much as I’d like to remain here recalling my many encounters with all things wild and wonderful (spiders, butterflies, aphids, snails, slugs, caterpillars, millipedes and a very friendly robin, to name but a few), I feel compelled to abandon my memories to the re-discovery of our cottage, which has been missing in action since the Small Person’s 5th birthday celebrations a fortnight ago. 
Oh no, but how could I forget my very own Birthday Bug Hunt? Now that I’ve whet your appetite, I think I’m going to have to save that for another post… in the meantime, enjoy the piccies!

Comma Polygonia c-album Marazion, Sep 2010

Monday, 20 September 2010

A Typical Day in the Life of a Narcoleptic

[A week or so ago…]

Yesterday I received an email in which the author kindly invited me to ‘meet for coffee’ and to perhaps accompany her in a spot of shopping the following day in our nearest town. Normally, any mention of ‘town’, especially in conjunction with the word ‘shopping’, would be more than sufficient to cause me, metaphorically, to don my imaginary sports shoes and run to the hills. However, no doubt in some vain attempt to appear ‘normal’ (if only to myself), I accepted.

OK, so what is it about ‘town’ and ‘shopping’ that has the ability to render me a quivering wreck of nervousness? Well, I’d like to think that it’s all psychological, an issue conjured up by my mind, and thus something that in theory the power to conquer is contained within. Oh, if only it were that simple.

I awake the next morning after a full night’s sleep, as usual dominated by non-stop dream of varying degrees of excitement but action-packed all the same. Again, as usual, half-remembered snippets of these dreams darted back and forth in my mind, and would continue to do so for the day to come – as fleeting flashbacks serving to momentarily confuse my already overworked brain!

This morning there was no sleep paralysis or ‘false waking’ to accompany my waking moments, which has to be a bonus, and I manage to hoist myself out of bed with only the customary fuzzy head and routine aches and pains with which to contend - plus some trepidation at the day ahead.

After a good breakfast and my daily round of medication, it is soon time to depart for my rendezvous. I’m only five minutes late, which is something of an achievement! Keeping appointments and adhering to a pre-determined schedule or timetable isn’t my forte – not because I’m lazy, absent-minded, nonchalant or merely rubbish at time-keeping but because, quite simply, the unpredictable nature of Narcolepsy means that forward-planning and commitment is often futile. Whilst the average person might be able to state with some conviction that at such and such a time on Tuesday they will be doing such and such a thing, I cannot enjoy such luxury. Perhaps I would be doing ‘such and such’ but equally, perhaps I would be unwillingly prostrate on the settee, having involuntarily been forced into a ‘moment’ of slumber.

Now, don’t be mistaken into thinking that the narcoleptic slumber is a pleasurable experience. Like one of the statements sometimes used to promote awareness of Narcolepsy, "a nap is only nice when it's a luxury, not a necessity". It’s not a warm, contented feeling of sleepiness, such as that experienced after a satisfying day’s work or after consuming a delicious Sunday lunch. It has a tendency to manifest itself in full-force with no prior warning – none of the gradual slowing down in preparation for the end of the day. No such luck!

More often than not, my eyelids will begin to droop, if I’m still on my feet, the ability to maintain equilibrium and thus remain upright will become a battle that I know I will ultimately lose; similarly my ability to focus will be severely compromised, people’s voices will rapidly turn into a muffled nonsensical background noise, whilst inexplicable and disjointed thoughts, images, words and sounds will flash in and out of my mind, intermingling with the regular world shared with those whose consciousness isn’t impaired by R.E.M. intrusion – a temporary alien world that at best is amusing (if somewhat confusing) and at worst is excruciatingly terrifying.

Experience has taught me to no longer fight the overwhelming desire to sleep, as more often than not, it’s a battle that I will lose, suffering the consequences in the process. Perhaps the most disconcerting of these consequences is that in fighting to remain awake, my body seems to retaliate by telling my heart to beat in a very alarming manner – lightly but very rapidly, and continuing for as long as I remain in Noman’s Land, until I’m able to rouse myself sufficiently, whereupon it quickly reverts to a normal rhythm. Numerous heart-monitoring tests have revealed nothing untoward, so when this happens, I attempt to remind myself of this and make every effort to remain calm although it’s not easy.

So, to nap it is. Rather amusingly, medical guidance on the management of Narcolepsy recommends a ‘regular nap of 20 minutes’, after which the person allegedly will awake feeling refreshed. As I’ve already mentioned, unpredictably is rife in life as a Narcoleptic, and forcing oneself into a 20-minute nap at a set time every day is akin to finding hen’s teeth dangling from the ears of a flying pig. Life would be considerably easier if I could state categorically that at 2pm every day I would be unavailable due to a prescribed, enforced ‘siesta’ and that for the remainder of the daytime hours I would be alert and wide-awake, functionally normally. Wow, how much simpler and more enjoyable would life be if this were the case?!

So, when the oh-so familiar overwhelming need to sleep rears its ugly head, I know to immediately find somewhere comfortable (or at the very least, safe) to curl up into a suitable sleeping position, lay down my heavy head, and prepare to quickly enter the Land of Nod.

Now, at this point, I wouldn’t blame you at all if you’d conjured up an idyllic image of little ol’ me, curled up in a flower meadow, reclining against a conveniently placed haystack with a contented smile on my face, the warming sun shining down on my extremities, with the calming sound of buzzing insects and birdsong serving as an accompaniment to my golden slumbers. Pah, if only! If I’m very lucky, I might be treated to a minute or two of deep sleep, when all thoughts and dream processes are unfamiliarly absent but in reality, I tend to drift in and out of consciousness, mostly lingering in the frustrating world of ‘real life’, hearing every sound within my earshot but remaining still and silent, with eyes closed, physically unable to participate, and appearing to any observer to be fast asleep, oblivious to the world around me.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, I’d made it into town only five minutes after the appointed time, and taking a deep breath, happily greet my friend.

Now, I’m not one for shirking my self-appointed responsibility as an ambassador of Narcolepsy awareness, and as such, most of my friends know about my condition. And this is the case with my friend. However, sometimes it’s nice to pretend to be normal, to grit my teeth, put on a happy face and go about my business as others seem to do. And whilst I’m not self-centred enough to think that I’m the only person dealing on a day-to-day basis with the negative impact of a medical condition, sometimes it feels as though I’m very much alone with ‘my’ issues. However many times I attempt to describe life with Narcolepsy, and however many words I write on the subject, and despite however many ‘understanding’ nods of the head I witness, unless you have Narcolepsy, there is simply no way that you can begin to comprehend the sensation of a debilitating sleep attack, combined with the fear of a hypnagogic or hypnapompic hallucination and sleep paralysis and the embarrassment of a cataplexy attack, and the social unacceptance of the reclusive and introverted nature that is oft-imposed.

So, here I am, trying to appear normal, wanting to discuss the everyday stuff of life and to escape for a short while into my fantasy of being someone whose life isn’t dominated by the undesirable impact of Narcolepsy.

Although Sleep Paralysis had thankfully taken the morning off, I'm not yet in the clear. ON waking, outside, I was perturbed to see that the blue skies and sunshine of the previous day had vanished, to be replaced by a stifling blanket of white cloud. Now, white cloud and my brain are not friends. On the psychological front, I find myself preoccupied with the urge to locate a giant knitting needle with which to pierce the sky, thus allowing whatever lies behind to flood in – I don’t mind what, be it sunshine, rain, snow or hail, anything has to be better than claustrophobic seamless white cloud. On a more physiological front, my eyes are incredibly sensitive to the overall whiteness, and I’m forced to go around with permanent screwed-up expression on my face, as I squint ineffectively. Naturally, this in turn leads to a headache, increased jaw pain and fullness of ears, and the usual extra dizziness as a direct consequence of squashed Eustachian tubes. But that’s another story altogether…

Not only is it overcast and stifling but it’s very disconcertedly both chilly and muggy at the same time, and I soon find myself uncomfortably damp and clammy. Still, I’m determined to remain in charge of the situation, continuing to chatter away as a form of distraction therapy. This seems to work for a short while, until I find myself in a sports store. For a start, a sports store is about as far from my choice habitat as is possible, and not unexpectedly, I’m somewhat out of my comfort zone, surrounded by footballs, hockey sticks, running shorts and tennis balls. But this isn’t my biggest problem.

The biggest problem is the store’s ambience, more specifically, the lighting of choice. Whichever direction I look, whichever way I turn, however much I triy to avert my eyes, there is simply no escaping the ever-presence of gaudy fluorescent lighting that dominate both floors of the store. Like many people, I’m particularly sensitive to fluorescent lighting. Not only will it induce a headache and tired eyes but more significantly, in my case, exposure to it will bring about a cataplexy attack. Fortunately, my cataplexy attacks haven’t ever caused a full body collapse – arguably the most misinterpreted image of Narcolepsy incorrectly purported by the media – when a sufferer will collapse to the fall as though suddenly falling asleep. Cataplexy, in fact, is a ‘loss of voluntary muscle tone’, considered to be peculiar to people with Narcolepsy, and can manifest itself as a moment of blurred vision, a stumble or a weakening of knees, a temporary stutter, a loss of grip leading to the drop of a say a hot cup of tea, a drooping of the head, an all over body weakness, or in some cases, a drop to the ground, all of which could last from a (barely noticeable?) few seconds to half an hour or longer.

Not long after entering this particular store, I can feel the effects of the lighting, and am aware that I am taking short, shuffling steps, remaining close to walls, rails and merchandise displays to steady myself should the need arise. I continue in this fashion, all the while trying to distract myself from the rising anxiety that customarily accompanies cataplexy attacks – although this is far from a novel experience, and I know that, theoretically, they will do me no harm, the feeling of not being in control of my own body still renders me psychologically ill at ease. I’m ‘OK’ until, whilst ascending a staircase, I feel the familiar sensation of being pulled downwards. The sensation is only fleeting but it’s sufficient to begin the ringing of alarm bells inside my head. My heart-rate quickens, my head begins to spin, the clamminess of my hands increases, and despite my mental processes of self-assurance, I know that I have to get out, leaving my friend to queue and pay for her goods unaccompanied. Feeling guilty but somewhat relieved, I wait outside the store entrance, outwardly simply passing the time of day by casually leaning on the wall but inwardly feeling far from casual. My knees still feel weak and wobbly, my hands are trembling, and boy do I feel a fool?!

What on Earth is so scary about what in appearance is a dodgy knee, a missed footing or a sudden loss of balance? Well, I guess unless you have Narcolepsy then you’ll never know, but as I’ve already suggested, I believe that it all boils down to a loss of control, a stark reminder that I’m an animal, a physical entity and not a higher being. My entire self is contained within and determined by the workings of my body. And if that body malfunctions, in my case on a regular basis, then I’m at a loss to do anything about it, instead I’m forced to pander to its every needs. Of course, adjusting my thought processes might do wonders here but that’s far from straightforward, and however realistic a task that appears when I’m feeling ‘normal’, unfortunately, at the crucial moment, survival instincts – the fight or flight response - kick in before I have a chance to anything less extreme. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy here I come then?!

Well, here I am, loitering outside a sports store, attempting to gather my composure, whilst people rush back and forth, laughing, shouting, chatting. When my friend appears, I smile, put on a brave face, and light-heartedly brush off my behaviour by casually remarking, ‘The lights were getting a bit much’…

Fortunately no further explanation is deemed necessary and we continue with the job in hand. I wobble in and out of a few more shops, ‘locking’ my knees to avert any serious mishaps, no doubt looking for all intents and purposes like an old-fashioned marionette as I do so, but safe in the relatively comforting knowledge that despite my overall cataplectic lack of coordination, I’m unlikely to end up as a motionless dishevelled heap on the floor.

Meanwhile, the nagging thought that a ‘coffee’ had been suggested is preying on my mind. Why? You might be thinking. Surely sitting down for a coffee is an experience to be enjoyed? Firstly, I don’t drink coffee. Not a problem in its own right but an issue that despite all good intentions has a tendency to segue into a full-blown discussion about Narcolepsy, about how ‘life without caffeine is unimaginable – I couldn’t function without it’, especially considering its recreational use! In many people’s minds, medical personnel included, caffeine is the easy answer to every Narcoleptic’s problem. For some it may offer some assistance in dispelling Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS) but for me, it is a no-go area (other than when it forms part of the chocolate that I consume only very occasionally).

So, water for me it is. But of course, it’s not as simple as that. Firstly the issue of a venue’s choice of lighting rears its ugly head yet again – any hint of fluorescent lighting and I’m out of there. Secondly, rather key to my level of alertness, general ability to avoid EDS, and overall sense of wellbeing, is the need to keep my brain occupied at all times – something intellectual that involves some degree of non-automatic thought is best. Talking animatedly with a friend will usually suffice, although the danger with this is that my emotions become over-stimulated, leading to both cataplexy and sleep attacks – it’s a fine line we Narcoleptics have to tread - talk about a Catch 22 situation!

Well, I have to admit that it is some relief to me when my friend suddenly turns to me and asks if I’d mind if we gave the coffee a miss, as she is concerned about the pressing need to get home to her family.

I check the time and decide to brave the bus home, rather than phoning home to request a life. Not having the wherewithal to negotiate the short walk to the pharmacy to collect my prescription medicines (there are too many hazards to contend with when I’m on my own, the worry that I could inadvertently stumble in front of passing traffic being the main one), not to mention having to hold a sufficiently coherent conversation with the pharmacist when my brain and vocal chords are giving the distinct impression that they are anything but synchronised, I satisfy myself with the hope that my prescription request made it through and that my medicines would be delivered in only a couple of days’ time. At least when getting the bus, now that I have a bus pass, I only have to utter my destination, before sitting down and keeping myself to myself whilst concentrating as much as possible to remain ‘with it’ enough to know when to disembark. Fortunately my stop is the last one on the route and with any luck, should it appear as though I were refusing to remove myself from my seat, the bus driver would turf me off before I ended up back where I started!

The bus is ten minutes late in arriving, and I’ve been attempting to ward off a sleep attack by stimulating my mind by means of absorbing the information in the window of the nearby estate agent, walking slowly backwards and forwards (knees still in locked position), and eventually sitting down before I fall down.

When the bus comes I find myself a seat towards to back of the bus, where the potential to drop off unnoticed is more achievable, only to discover that directly above my head is yet another pesky fluorescent light. As moving is now not possible, I have to hope that staring continuously out of the window will negate any unwelcome effect of the lighting.

Well, I make it home relatively intact if still a little clammy, and definitely decidedly drained. By this time it’s 12.30pm. I’ve been out for only two hours, doing, theoretically, nothing more strenuous than pottering around the shops. I go inside, present my lovely smallest family member with a small gift of poster paints, and lower my weary body onto the settee, the intention being to spend the afternoon catching up with some long-overdue admin work.

All is going to plan until there is no denying it, my eyes are getting more and more heavy, the words and images in front of me on the computer begin to swim, the books on the front room bookshelves appear to dance, and before long my eyelids are remaining closed for longer than they are open – most definitely not your conventional blinking. It’s no good, my admin work simply isn’t going to happen. With a wry smile, I routinely inform my family members that I have no option but to take ‘a quick nap’ and that I hope it won’t be long before I see them again. I arrange myself into a comfortable position, cosseted in a duvet that is conveniently folded up on the settee, and allow my eyes to close properly.

Although I’m by no means awake, I’m able to hear every sound created by life around me – birds singing, the television continuing to entertain the Small Person whilst my Other Half quietly curses as he determinedly cleans the kitchen, and later the fun and games being had by my two loved ones, which I, rather sadly, can only participate in as a temporarily blind and mute voyeur, bound by the tethers of my brain as it confines me to a surreal and often very unpleasant, personal and isolated place somewhere between sleep and awake.

My ‘nap’ continues for several hours, and I’m properly roused only when my Other Half departs to the fish & chip shop to purchase dinner for all of us – so much for the nutritious, balanced meal that I’d been planning.

I manage to get myself into a seated position, whereupon there’s no gradual coming to, as I’m forced into holding my own in an intense conversation with a 4 year-old. Still not fully back in the land of the living, I drag myself off to empty my bladder before busying myself with tidying up the Small Person’s mess, too woolly-headed to embark on the daily ritual that is persuading her to clear up all the toys that have somehow become strewn across every available surface. I manage to fill my belly with some particularly yummy chips and re-attempt to get some work done. But despite being prostrate for a good proportion of the day, my brain is having none of it, and I resign myself to the realisation that all I’m mentally good for is email checking, a spot of social networking, some mundane game-playing on the computer and a wonderful cuddle with my lovely Small Person.

It’s not long before I feel my bed calling, and I gather myself together, perform the necessary ablutions and collapse into bed. Fortunately I manage to read for a short while, so perhaps all is not lost. I soon fall asleep, only to find myself immediately transported to a land of excitement and high adventure, where I remain until it’s time to get up the following morning. Boy, am I exhausted when I wake up!

And so it begins all over again…

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Take your walk, to the shady leaf or stalk...

Large White Pieris brassicae caterpillars in munching fest

Well, it’s been a while... It feels very much as though some key components of my world have been conspiring against me to prevent life from ticking along in its usual manner, and as a consequence, I’ve been getting behind with a number of tasks, my blog being one of them.

So, where do I start? Lot's been happening, so there’s the very real danger that this entry could turn into a long and meandering voyage through the recent depths of my mind and hastily scribbled notes, and as such could be something of a long one. However, due to the cable on my new laptop power thingy being considerably shorter than I’m used to, I’m unable to position my laptop in such a way as to use the keyboard comfortably, and am already suffering the effects in my right hand especially. And, as I’m already living with a knackered left upper arm for similar reasons, perhaps my ramblings will be prematurely curtailed…

On the Narcolepsy front, as usual as I’ve had one or two good days, when I can almost pretend I’m vaguely ‘normal’, and as usual, there have been a good number of real stinky days, when even the smallest of things have been a battle, namely remaining sufficiently awake to function in a way even vaguely close to normality (upright would be a start!). I’ve also suffered at the hands of bureaucracy but will save you the details, only to say that this time the metaphorical gloves are on and I will not be going down without a fight.

To be honest, contrary to one of the purposes behind this blog, I’m not really in the mood to talk about Narcolepsy, as I’m finding it all rather tiresome at the moment (no pun intended), especially when later today, one of my tasks has given me no choice but to dissect its every impact on my life in such a way as the abovementioned bureaucrats can understand it. It also doesn’t help that due to unintentionally dozing off mid-Epley manoeuvre this morning, it looks like I’ll be blessed with a nagging headache and bleary brain for the remainder of the day, not to mention extra crackly and troublesome ears due to my interrupted exercises but that’s probably another story altogether. Hey, c’est la vie though, and at least the sun is shining today!

Now, where was I? Ah, nature.

Bright-Light Brown-Eye Lacanobia oleracea caterpillars
Caterpillars, hmm? They’re everywhere - hanging out in my garden, hiking along the coastpath, marching down the road, dangling from branches in trees, munching through patches of overgrown vegetation in my wildlife garden-to-be, and also living in a well-furnished container atop the family DVD collection. The latter specimens were found clinging to a cultivated Primula sp. in our garden, and took some identification, not being a caterpillar I have any recollection of encountering previously. After much consultation of the caterpillar bible (Porter, 1997), the only likely candidate I could find was the Dog’s Tooth (Lacanobia suasa); however, this is considered scarce in Cornwall. So, off to the Cornwall Moth Group I went, and after eventually posting some photos (NB. I am once more with functioning camera), the considered opinion (thanks to Leon and Phil) is that my two new family members are larvae of the Bright-line Brown-eye (Lacanobia oleracea (Mamestra oleracea)), a caterpillar with similar markings to the Dog’s Tooth but much more common in Cornwall. It turns out that there are two morphs of L. oleracea, one being the brown form that is similar to L. suasa, and one being the green form that is depicted and referred to in Porter. Out of curiosity and a perhaps unhealthy parental attachment to my new ‘children’, we have decided to rear the caterpillars to adulthood, so watch this space…

Despite managing to forget my gardening gloves yesterday, it was with some excitement that I took myself off for a lone visit to the piece of land that I’m involved in converting to a wildlife garden. One of the reasons for my extra excitement was that at long lost I was in possession of a fully-functioning camera, and I was rapidly rekindling my love of simply wandering around seeking out all manner of things to photograph. And as it turned out, I was not to be disappointed.

Turnip Sawfly Athalia rosae caterpillar
Due to a temporary period of neglect on the renovation front, the site is currently home to several impressive patches of Oilseed Rape (Brassica napus), and whilst there are many reasons why I have gripes with this particular species, I have to admit to, rather reluctantly, being forced to sit somewhere on the fence with regard to its environmental impact, due principally to the support it provides to a large variety of invertebrates and birds (e.g. Gruar et al. 2006; Stoate et al. 1998; Wilson et al. 1996). A not-so-close examination of the plants revealed that it to be home to a very respectable population of both Large White butterfly (Pieris brassicae) and Turnip Sawfly (Athalia rosae) caterpillars, all merrily munching their way through the previously-unwanted crop, plus a single unidentified pale geometrid species. In addition to the caterpillars, numerous spiders were sitting in webs spun across leaves and stems, a handful of earwigs scuttled this way and that, whilst above my head, a small murmuration of starlings sat on the telegraph wires, chattering away as I went about my business.

Still on the caterpillar front, a couple of weeks ago, whilst pottering in the garden, the Small Person (she of the new-found caterpillar-detecting skills) spotted a small but perfectly-formed Elephant Hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor) caterpillar casually clinging to brush of a garden broom. Presumably due to its age/size, this specimen appeared much darker in colour than usual and lacked the mottled appearance of those I’d encountered in the past; however, its distinctive eye-spots and tell-tale cream-tipped hook were all present and correct. Promptly named as ‘Pretty Heart’, the lovely creature was taken to show my Other Half before being returned to the garden, where it was placed on fresh Hoary Willowherb (Epilobium parviflorum), upon which Pretty Heart, rather gratifyingly, immediately began heartily munching.
Elephant Hawkmoth Deilephila elpenor caterpillar
Image credit: Lily M 2005
Well, time is pressing on, so rather sadly, it looks like any further ramblings, observations and anecdotes will have to wait for another time…


Gruar, D., Barritt, D. & Peach, W.J.(2006) Summer utilization of Oilseed Rape by Reed Buntings Emberiza schoeniclus and other farmland birds: Capsule Oilseed Rape was the preferred breeding season habitat for Reed Buntings on arable farmland and reduced this species' dependence on wet features Bird Study 53(1): 47-54.

Porter, J. (1997) The Colour Identification Guide to Caterpillars of the British Isles: Macrolepidoptera Viking Press, London.

Stoate, C., Moreby, S.J. & Szczur, J.(1998) Breeding ecology of farmland Yellowhammers Emberiza citrinella Bird Study 45(1): 109-121.

Wilson, J.D., Taylor, R. & Muirhead, L.B.(1996) Field use by farmland birds in winter: an analysis of field type preferences using resampling methods Bird Study 43(3): 320-332.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

A South Downs Sojourn

Southern Green Shieldbug Nezara viridula
Image credit: Luis Nunes Alberto, January 2008

‘Will you please stop harassing those ants?!’ 
‘But they like it…!’

I would love to say that this request was directed at the Small Person but no, it was I who was the recipient, and I place the blame almost entirely at the rather delicious feet of Nature Chris from CBeebies’ 'Green Balloon Club'. During the show’s ‘holiday visit’ to the Isle of Arran, the gorgeous ginger-haired one demonstrated how, by gently inserting and wiggling a stick into an anthill, one’s efforts would normally be rewarded by a show of teeming ants. With this in mind, when faced with a field full of anthills what else could I do - if only to rekindle a fond TV moment?

Having left the Small Person in the more-than-capable hands of her Nanny, my lovely Other Half and I were enjoying an hour or so on our own, exploring a wildflower meadow on the eastern edge of the South Downs. It was a warm day, intermittently sunny and overcast with a light, refreshing breeze. Off we went, hand-in-hand, to see what we could find. Needless to say, the hand-holding didn’t last long, as the urge to rummage, fondle, poke and probe quickly took over (amongst the plants and undergrowth…you dirty-minded people!).

Whilst my Other Half was off peering at flowering plants, or ‘botanising’ as we’ve taken to affectionately label the activity, I was seeking out things of the more mobile variety, and I was not to be disappointed. Being late summer, the air was alive with the ceaseless chirrup of grasshoppers and field crickets, and virtually every step taken produced an orthopteran leap of varying magnitude. Common and Chalkhill Blue (Polyommatus icarus and P. coridon) butterflies flitted this way and that, their deeply-hued thoraxes shimmering alluringly in the sunlight, hoverflies darted about under my nose, and closer examination of foliage revealed 7-spot ladybirds (Coccinella 7-punctata), shiny red soldier beetles (Rhagonycha fulva), flies and small bugs galore, and a particularly bright Southern Green Shieldbug (Nezara viridula), the latter a recent arrival in the UK from its native Africa.

But it was the anthills that insisted on continually grabbing my attention. Being something of a self-confessed ant aficionado, it was hardly really surprising, and I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t get down on my hands and knees for a closer inspection of each and every earthy mound. Not all of the anthills released pourings of their occupants when gently poked but those that did, well, I could have watched them for hours! It is my understanding that the species making its home in this particular meadow is Tapinoma erraticum, a small black ant, superficially similar in appearance to Lasius niger, found in the south of England, usually in coastal areas. Interestingly, the species has no sting and appears not to squirt formic acid; instead, as its defence, it uses its ability to run like the entomological equivalent of the cheetah, thus outrunning other ant species! This information is rather reassuring, as at one point in my investigations, I did discover that my left arm was being used as an ant racing track…

Of course, being a wild flower meadow, it would be rude not to mention the plants. I was relying on my lovely Other Half to keep all botanical records; however, the notebook used is currently awol, so I’m having to delve into my memory to come up with a very abbreviated list of plants seen. The South Downs is an area of chalk downland, thus geologically very different from our usual stomping grounds (Cornwall, in particular West Penwith, being predominantly granite), which means that there were a good number of species not routinely encountered during previous ‘botanising’ ventures.

(Very) abbreviated list:

• Black Medick Medicago lupulina
• Blue fleabane Erigeron acer
• Common Toadflax (henceforth to be known as ‘Toadflaps’ in honour of a friend’s slip of the tongue) Linaria vulgaris
• Fleabane Pulicaria dysenterica
• Hemp Agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum
• Mugwort Artemisia vulgaris
• Perforate St. John’s Wort Hypericum perforatum
• Ploughman’s Spikenard Inula conyza
• Ragwort Senecio jacobaea
• Red clover Trifolium pratense
• Rosebay Willowherb Chamerion angustifolium
• Stinging Nettle Urtica dioica
• Sycamore Acer pseudoplanatus
• Traveller's Joy Clematis vitalba
• Wild Carrot (NB. I particularly enjoyed playing ‘Spot the single red flower in the centre of the flower head’) Daucus carota

Rosebay Willowherb Chamerion angustifolium
Image credit: Bff, March 2010

Thursday, 12 August 2010

A slimy alien being...

Common Knapweed Centaurea nigra
Image credit: Maedin Tureaud

On Tuesday, after spending most of the day stuck inside, by late-afternoon I was in danger of going more than a little stir-crazy, and so it was decided that the Small Person and I would take ourselves out for an amble around the village. What followed was a lovely walk in refreshing light rain, incorporating traipsing through a couple of recently-ploughed muddy fields (dry but oh so dusty), getting on our hands and knees to smell the delicious perfume of Scented Mayweed (Matricaria recutita), finding a very bizarre slime mould (more on that later), observing the efficacy of the council’s attempts at Japanese Knotweed  (Fallopia japonica) eradication, fondling some beautiful Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) flowers (so, so pretty), and attempting to judge how long it would be until the blackberries would be ripe enough to pick.

Another highlight of the walk was experiencing the simple ambience of a field that in the last year or so has been left to become a more natural meadow, having previously been mown from here to eternity. A wide path has been mown through the field, in such a way that the vistas produced by the natural growth of thistles, Hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), Ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) and all manner of wild plants are both pleasing to the eye and to the heart. Mind you, due to the wetness of the tall grass, we were unable to reach the old drinking trough which is now home to all manner of am aquatic life, including newts (species as yet unknown). However, I will definitely be back there again soon.

Now, back to the slime mould. All around the edge of the municipal cemetery in our village are planted stately Monterey Pines (Pinus radiata). Unfortunately, the trees are nearing the end of their natural lifespan, and in recent years, a number of them have been felled, leaving behind interesting tree stumps. Not being one to walk past a tree stump without a quick peek to see what life it is supporting, I soon found myself peering this way and that, poking at this, sniffing and that, and it was then that I came across something that I don’t recall ever seeing previously. What I was looking at was about five centimetres in length and one centimetre wide, was pale yellow in colour, and looked like a mass of tiny opaque eggs. Tentatively venturing a gentle touch, I found it the ‘alien being’ to be unexpectedly soft, so decided to leave it alone to avoid any inadvertent damage, making a mental note of its appearance and circumstances.

Once home, after a rather long-winded hunt on the Internet and in various Mycology books, I found my intriguing specimen - the immature form of the slime mould Tubifera ferruginosa, which when mature looks very different. I haven’t included a picture (for copyright reasons) but here are some links to piccies:

I’m hoping to go back there this afternoon, to see how it’s coming along; that is, if it stops raining.

Perseid meteor shower, 2009
Image credit: Jared Tennant
And don’t forget, it’s the peak of the Perseids meteor shower tonight, so fingers crossed for clear skies and a lack of light pollution.

Unexpected pleasures

Greater Water Boatman Notonecta glauca
Image credit: Holger Gröschl 2003
Don’t you just love those impromptu days, when a flying visit to a friend turns into a delightful few hours of laughter and good company? This is what yesterday afternoon was like; however, the morning and night before did their utmost to convince me that I was in for a rough day, so ‘Ha ha, that’ll teach ‘em’!

One of the less obvious symptoms of Narcolepsy is insomnia. In fact, the common assumption that Narcolepsy means that a person with the condition sleeps excessively is, in reality, a misconception. Rather, in the simplest of terms, Narcolepsy is a disruption of the sleep-wake cycle, meaning that whilst a person is prone to falling asleep at inappropriate times or in unusual situations, a person is also likely to be awake at ‘inappropriate’ times. My personal experience of this aspect seems to be an out-of-sync circadian rhythm, whereby every once in a while, I will be wide awake until the small hours, only to be woken two hours later by the Small Person, who keeps more conventional hours. On other nights, it’s not unusual to be forced into bed by overwhelming sleepiness at only 8pm!

Well, the night before was one of my insomniac nights - the upside of this being that during which I achieved a massive amount of long-overdue household admin! After completing my mission (3am), I was still not ready to sleep, so decided to do some light reading before finally going to sleep at about 4am, only to dream of lying in a tent over and over again watching camels and capybaras loom nearer and nearer until vanishing into nothingness the moment they were upon me.

As predicted, at 6am, it was, ‘Mum, can we get up?’, ‘Mum, can I have breakfast?’, ‘Mum...’. Eventually, my grunted and/or monosyllabic responses convinced the Small Person that if she wanted to get up, she would to have to do so by herself, and I was left to return to my slumbers. All was going well, until the desire to empty my bladder became overwhelming, and I knew that any attempt at further sleeping would be fruitless.

So, I roused myself and took myself downstairs to the bathroom, which overnight seemed to have been filled with all of the painting equipment (including a small wardrobe) from the Small Person’s new bedroom. Used to my Other Half’s strange behaviours by now, I thought nothing of it, and simply squeezed my bum onto the toilet. Frustratingly, despite being desperate, I couldn’t go to the toilet, but instead found myself calmly thinking, ‘Oh, that’s because my brain thinks that I’m still asleep and that this is a hallucination… never mind, I’ll try again later’. So, off I went, back upstairs and back into bed. Only then did I realise that I hadn’t actually left my bed, and that all this really was a hallucination - to be specific, a ‘hypnopompic hallucination’ referring to a hallucination that occurs upon waking, the other being ‘hypnagogic’ (upon falling asleep) - or, as I like to collectively call them, the HH’s.

I took a deep breath and willed myself to wake up, using all the strength I could muster to force my eyes to open and my brain to function normally in the ‘real’ world. Eventually it worked, and I lay blinking away, determined not to let my eyelids close for more than a second, knowing that if I did, I’d be straight back in Weirdo La La Land (another term of affection). It took some effort, believe me, but eventually I made it off the bed, disorientated and with a fuzzy head. Anyone would think I’d had a good old night on the town - if only!

Usually when I’ve had a night/morning like that described above, for the remainder of the following day, I’m of use to neither man nor beast, and my inner recluse will come to the fore. But yesterday was different. The Small Person’s company had been requested by a lovely neighbour whose daughter and her young family were visiting, and mid-afternoon, off we traipsed (rather excitedly) to the house over the road for a ‘play date’. After a few tentative moments, the Small Person was off happily being a train, running around and around the garden, in and out of tunnels, over piles of slate, before resting to paddle in the pond and to investigate the resident bugs (Greater Waterboatmen (aka ‘Backswimmers’) Notonecta glauca), then ultimately eating beans on toast and a strawberry fromage frais. Meanwhile, the so-called ‘Grown Ups’ chilled out with some basking in the greenhouse (accompanied by some staring in awe at the super-huge tomatoes), a recline in the summerhouse, and a cup of (peppermint for me) tea in the kitchen. A bug hunt behind the village hall is scheduled for today or tomorrow, and magnifying glasses are at the ready!

My neighbour is a horticulturist, and as such, her garden is a plantsman’s delight. In addition to the Water Boatmen, our leisurely afternoon was accompanied by bees, bees and more bees, butterflies (Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) and Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), black ants (Lasius niger) and all manner of flies.

'til tomorrow...

Monday, 9 August 2010

Do flies go paddling?



‘Mum? Do flies go paddling?’

‘Um, what?’

‘Do flies go paddling?’

‘Well - perhaps, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen any wearing wellies or swimsuits…’

This question was sprung on me whilst preparing breakfast this morning, and it led to a rather surreal discussion about what it would take for a fly to drown whilst ‘paddling’, the conclusion being that a huge wave of water catching the fly unawares would definitely cause one or two problems. The question also led to a rather less surreal and arguably more interesting discussion about those insects that have evolved to live at least some of the lives in water (without drowning!), such as mayflies, stone flies, caddis flies and dragonflies - all partially aquatic, and diving beetles, water boatmen, water scorpions and some species of springtail, which spend all stages of their lives in water. After succeeding in spending three-or-so minutes discussing some of the means of leading a fully aquatic life, unfortunately, the desire to consume a sweet-smelling bowl of cereal on the part of the Small Person soon took precedence. I guess that’s what happens when you’re only four-and-three-quarters!