Nine Things We Learnt This Week

1. Margaret Thatcher, rehabilitated?

Scourge of the Left, in an Aquascutum suit

“But this portrayal of Maggie the seductress, ‘twirling through Young Conservative balls in strapless gowns,’ as the Sunday Times gushed at the weekend, sums up everything that’s wrong about the way Mrs T has been repositioned. She wasn’t a harmless socialite, she’s not a style icon; she was a ruthless politician, who looked 80s because it was the 80s.”

2. Wallis Simpson, rehabilitated?

Unfit for a King?

“English Heritage, giver of blue plaques to People Who Matter, is the latest to bitch-slap her corpse. Last week, it denied a request by a member of the public to stick a plaque outside Wallis’s 1930s London home. But Wallis matters. She drew to the surface many of the foul bigotries of the age: xenophobia, ageism, rampant snobbery and a desire for women to be submissive, uneducated, unthreatening little dolls.


So why today does English Heritage continue this old, old vendetta? Its official reason is an affair that she allegedly had with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador to Britain in the 1930s. However, there is no evidence that this actually happened. It is true – and unforgivable – that she visited Germany in 1937 and shook the Führer’s hand. But she did not ‘make’ her husband into the Nazi he became. It was his idea: he wanted to play the King and Nazi Germany was the only country that would have him. Wallis spent her life as a whipping girl for her husband’s failures as king. Nobody could accept that Edward didn’t want to rule us; it had to be witchcraft, didn’t it?”

3. She’s not too fond of slaughterhouses, either.

A cynic might say it’s sick-making

“Few pigs turn their snouts up at the chance to roll around in mud. But Cinderella the six-week-old saddleback has adopted a different motto – four wellies good, four trotters bad – after being diagnosed with mysophobia, a fear of dirt.”

4. Those clever Brits.

“Britons consume about 180 million pints of milk a week. At least two thirds of it is sold in plastic bottles, which began to replace cardboard containers in the Nineties. Campaigners claim that if all the plastic milk bottles in Britain were replaced with pouches, 100,000 tons of plastic waste would be saved from landfill sites every year.”

5. No Comment

“Gynecologists say that in the past few years, more Muslim women are seeking certificates of virginity to provide proof to others. That in turn has created a demand among cosmetic surgeons for hymen replacements, which, if done properly, they say, will not be detected and will produce tell-tale vaginal bleeding on the wedding night. The service is widely advertised on the Internet; medical tourism packages are available to countries like Tunisia where it is less expensive.”

6. We need to count the loot.

7. You can also use grapes.

“Illegal ‘tiger bone wine’ is still being made and sold by some animal parks in China, say campaigners.

The Environmental Investigation Agency says staff at two parks offered to sell the drink, made from carcasses soaked in rice wine, to its researchers.”

8. You think?

“Police services covering 87 per cent of Canada’s population reported 892 hate-motivated crimes in 2006, of which six in 10 were motivated by race or ethnicity, Statistics Canada said Monday.”

9. Another reason why same sex marriage is unnatural.

“Notably, same-sex relationships, whether between men or women, were far more egalitarian than heterosexual ones. In heterosexual couples, women did far more of the housework; men were more likely to have the financial responsibility; and men were more likely to initiate sex, while women were more likely to refuse it or to start a conversation about problems in the relationship. With same-sex couples, of course, none of these dichotomies were possible, and the partners tended to share the burdens far more equally.

While the gay and lesbian couples had about the same rate of conflict as the heterosexual ones, they appeared to have more relationship satisfaction, suggesting that the inequality of opposite-sex relationships can take a toll.”

The Slow Science of Phenology

More incontrovertible signs of spring arrived this week: spring peepers and chorus frogs began their eons-old ritual of calling, mating and reproducing, road construction crews are similarly multiplying, and Peterborough County is choking under its first smog alert of the year.

I’m most interested in the frogs.  For a number of years, I’ve been informally recording in my journal the date of their annual appearance.  Last year, they first gave song the evening of 28 March; the year before it was 3 April.  This year, mostly owing to the depth of the snow cover, it was 14 April. This relates to a fascinating subset of climate change science, a small revival of phenology, an old methodology describing the rhythms and changes of the seasons and their recurring effects on the natural environment, including plant and animal life. It’s an approach which draws on natural history methods of drawing inferences from simple observation over a number of years, and involves looking at selected indicators.  So, for example, an observer might record the dates of ice breakup on her local stream, or the first flowering of the red maple on her front lawn.  Observations over time provide evidence of the effect of climate change on the environment as a whole.

Canadian records, alas, are scarce, though there is an effort to begin such recordkeeping on a mass scale through the Plantwatch program. A similar project is ongoing in the United States. In Britain, where observations have been kept for much longer — indeed, the science of phenology was a sort of national pastime in the 19th Century — some disturbing changes in the seasonal cycle have been noted.  In southern England budding oak leaves are bursting some 26 days earlier than in 1950, and several butterflies which normally make an appearance in April are being spotted as early as January.  The impact of this change on the ecosystem, combined with a dramatic loss of natural habitat in Great Britain since the Second World War, is anybody’s guess.  The data is highly suggestive: climate change, it would seem,  has being going on for far longer than what is conventually imagined, marked by the minute, subtle changes in plant growth and animal behaviour.

Harbinger of the future

The cool thing about phenology is that it’s climate change science anyone can do, armed only with pen and and a stout notebook (or for moderately computer literate, a simple spreadsheet).   You can think of it as a scientific version of the Slow Food movement.  Patience and consistency are necessary.  But even the simplest observations, over a number of years, are invaluable. You can collect data for Plantwatch, or you can create your own list of indicators. 

My own list looks like this below.  You will notice it’s short and simple, and is based on what I can easily observe given my own time constraints.  (Serious phenologists have lists numbering in the hundreds.) It’s probably appropriate for rural areas of eastern Canada and northeastern U.S.  In urban areas, the list would contain, I think, more ornamental plants. I will set up a page on this weblog containing my own observations.

Ice off pond (Normal early April)
Spring peeper song (Normal mid-April)
Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) bloom (Normal late April)
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) bloom (Normal early May)
Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) bloom (Normal mid-May)
Last Spring Frost (Normal 3rd week May)
Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) bloom (Normal late May)
Crabapple (Malus sp.) bloom (Normal late May)
First sighting of Monarch Butterfly (Normal mid-June)
New England Aster (Aster nova-angliae) bloom (Normal late August)
First killing frost (Normal mid/late September)