Posts Tagged ‘allotment’

… and the Smug Feeling …

DSC03468There’s a reason I’m clinging onto the guttering while perched on a too-short ladder footed on a board (that until twenty minutes ago held six terra cotta pots of over-wintering fuchsias in our greenhouse) on top of the roof of the laundry room roof.

Our elder daughter and her partner were coming over today. He was bringing his extendable ladder that would reach from the ground to the roof and we would clean all of the accumulated moss and debris from said guttering. Debatable which of us would actually be mounting the rungs: he being allegedly a feared of heights and me suffering from the remnants of some kind of virus (Mostly recovered now, thanks for asking).

But then we discover that. The ladder. Doesn’t. Actually. Reach.

We’ve tried roping another ladder on to it. But, even for me, it looks risky. The vertical sides don’t marry up and thirteen metres of marine-standard rope won’t make it any safer. It won’t fall down and it is lashed tightly enough that the whole won’t collapse, but there’s a dangling propensity for sideways slippage before I’m even half way up. Discretion is the better part of most things, especially when you are taking on verticality eh?

So we root around, trying to bodge together a tool that’ll reach from the lower storey roof along the guttering so we can scrape the rubbish back to us and scoop it out. A dessert spoon, a garden rake, hand trowel?

Then, looking across the gardens from this lofty flat roof perch I espy Ian in his back garden. Maybe he can help. He’s got a big van that’s positively bristling with ladders.

I call out to him; there are only five gardens between us and I’m kind of famous for having a big voice (trust me that’s a whole different story). His partner is in the garden with him, kneeling by the aviaries there. They both look around. Funny how we always look at eye level first: then see me.

We converse about types of ladder and the two of us set out from our back garden to get the ladder.

No need, as it turns out. Before we reach the end of the road Ian’s big wagon is trundling round the corner.

He’d been checking out his bonsai collection he tells us. Funny really, he’s always friendly and helpful, but a big guy, skin covered with tattoos and hardly the sort that’d strike you as a bonsai practitioner (if there is a special term for this I don’t know it – yet!). Our kids (kind of grew up together) and he’s a marvellously generous big guy with a skin full of tattoos: not at all what you might expect from those mischievously misleading first impressions.

He gives us a brief introduction to his hobby and I’m fascinated (“You don’t call it privet if it’s a bonsai: that’ll be a ligustrum,” he informs us).

His ladders are perfect! Secure, heavy and easy to manoeuvre. Strangely the back guttering is fairly full of moss, but the front one has absolutely none. Theories pass between us: prevailing wind direction seems the obvious one. Remember that a theory is, after all, only the latest explanation that best fits all the known facts (including the Theory of Evolution). So, the job is accomplished in double quick time and we sit in the wonderfully warm sunshine around the wood burning stove in the Dell at the bottom of our garden. Even though it is a warm, blue-skied day the upwards change in temperature is tangible as we step nearer to the stove. Coffee, cake, the satisfaction of a job done and – yes – the smugness that can only come with knowing you have clean gutters.

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“Gotta Have One O’ Them!”

I’m looking across the roughly dug allotment plot wondering if it isn’t all just a waste of time. Too, too late, of course: we’ve just paid the allotment rents for another year in one of those rush of blood to the head moments; all fire, plans and enthusiasm. None of which is there as I lean awkwardly on my spade. Predictably my elbow slips and I smack myself on the chin in a most undignified manner. Thankfully nobody seems to be watching.

Back at home, inside a centrally heated room, looking out at the heaving-with-mating-toads pond last night, everything was going to be so simple. Rake out the soil, level it off, sprinkle some lime, line out the rows …

In those marvellous trouble-free visions there hadn’t been a biting late February wind and Storm Doris had never been conceived, then arrived and shattered and distributed three quarters of the greenhouse glass across neighbouring plots, driving one thumbnail sized shard into the side of a shed at eye-level. And the soil had obeyed even the slightest nudge from the hoe blade which sparkled pristinely in the heavenly spring sun. The sun which, this morning, was nowhere to be seen, being masked by racing clouds which every now and then leaked showers of lacerating hurled at the face raindrops.

I had managed to use boards salvaged from skip-dived pallets to make a reasonably – to my eyes, at least – level edging to the plot, neatly, for a while at least, containing the soil and anticipated crops. And I’m in the middle of consuading* myself that the edge actually is spot on when I am joined by a neighbour: Stewpot.

“Nothing like a straight edge to set the plot off well, is there?” he asks, politely, patting me on the shoulder, smiling when I shake my head.

“ … and, er, that is nothing like a straight edge is it?”

Did I think he was being polite? Just a moment ago?

But this banter is the stuff of allotment relationships. At least here, in this part of the UK. Staffordshire that is.

“Well,” I reply, “I was always told nature abhors a straight line!”

“Well ,Nature would be right comfortable on your plot then I reckon.” Suddenly there are three of us; Biker Bob has wandered over. Is looking over my shoulder, squinting, smiling broadly.

Bob and Stewpot have never met: I do the introductions. There is talk about Storm Doris (of course there is, this is England and, as an Italian friend of mine says “it is no surprise you talk about the weather, you ‘ave so much of it!”).

Mobile phone cameras are used to show photographs (and a video) of the wind in action. This technology is truly amazing isn’t it.

Stewpot confesses that he’d love to have a motorbike: preferably a race replica that’ll do nought to sixty in science fiction times and sound like a beast!

But with a partner expecting a child in about six weeks he realises it’s a dream that’ll have to wait.

“Rubbish!” puts in Bob, “you want one, get one now.”

“If they say no, it’s too dangerous then do what my neighbour did. Since he was thirteen he’d wanted a motorbike. Kawasaki’s were the thing then: green meanies we called ‘em. Shit-hot on the tracks but all of ‘em standard green. Bit like your Model T Fords. Any colour … as long as it’s black.”

“His mom said it was too dangerous; his dad’d come off one and had to have a leg amputated. Kept the bikes he did, but had to adapt the controls and had a helluva job balancing for a while. Yu can imagine!”

Then he was sweet on this girl and she wouldn’t ride one ‘cos it’d mess her clothes …”

“… and, if you’re not careful – actually even if you are careful – one thing leads to another and, like him you’re a grandfather and you don’t know where the time went.”

“So, now he’s ready to get a motor bike.”

“But what about the grandkids,” says his daughter, and don’t be so bleedin’ daft says his wife and his mates down the pub laugh and talk about incontinence. So he tells ‘em he’s changed his mind; that he wants a micro light instead. Buys himself a voucher on some web-site thingumajig and they all troop off to the old airfield. It was busy in the Second World war but it’s a massive out of town warehouse site now, like so many of ‘em.”

The find he place. A blister hanger left over from the War. Filled, floor to roof with wings, frames, tools, cabling, karabiners, a couple of broken propeller blades, helmets, sick bags and about twenty certificates in frames on the wall.

Turns out this guy has been a world champion. Stunting, film work, a dozen or so crash landings that he confesses to and a smile as wide as the Amazon in flood.

His daughter takes the pilot guy to one side, gives him the be-careful –with-my- dad spiel. Adds “he’s too old to be doing this kind of thing really but he wanted to try …”

Next thing he knows he’s suited up, sitting in a canvas seat with his butt near-scraping the ground and heading towards a fence at a rate of knots. Then he remembers he can still breath and air whooshes out between his pursed lips. The front lifts up and the fence, the ground, the roads are falling away below him … and he loves it!

He gets talking, over this inter-com thingy to the pilot. Fact is, they get on like the proverbial house on fire. He gets told about the daughter’s “word in your ear” and can’t resist it:

“What can this thing really do?” he’s asking, eagerly.

So he gets thrown through a couple of curves and to cap it all off – a wild, exhilarating loop the loop. He can’t believe he’s actually asked for it, let alone done it: but he has. When they land on the ground his family’s faces are carved from thunder clods; if looks could kill the pilot would be six foot down and long forgotten.

“Gotta get one of them !” he keeps repeating on the silent drive home, “gotta get one of them for myself!”

Next birthday his family buy him …

… a motor bike!

 

 

 

 

 * That’s a little more than persuasion, with a large dose of con-trickery thrown in (of course!).

Caption This:

You know, there are days when you’re walking to your plot …

… you spot something …

… and think “why haven’t I got my camera?”

I had mine slipped away in my over-shirt pocket when I spotted this,

But I’m damned if I know what more to write about it.

Any suggestions?

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Rents ?

So, not possible to hum and ahem any longer. Time to bite the bullet, make a decision and find some money: the last scheduled day for rent collection.

Another year of allotmenteering?

Seems a wonderfully masochistic time of year to be taking on the tasks again. End of the financial year, traditional labour markets, agricultural workers seeking employment ? (there you go: more procrastination … or was it just simply playing with big words?). But also the time of year at which it may be easier to give up on a plot. You haven’t been up there over the winter, there’s been no need; you haven’t really missed it (have you?) so easier not to begin again ?

That time of year again. In our particular case, however, there is also the background tension brought on by the “boundary dispute” and the lack of definitive action on the parts of the allotments committee – and decisive action by landowners, the local parish council – either they can prove they own the land – or they cannot. (Isn’t it really that simple?). Every time we are on our plots we are confronted by the issue. And the neighbours in the house who put a very credible case. But, as simple plot holders we cannot give them an answer. It is literally out of our hands.

The allotment committee, for their part, seem to be dismissive and altogether too blasé about it all: it isn’t happening to them and it isn’t their responsibility – yaddah yaddah blah blah. Can they not see the wider ramifications of the breach: there is literally no barrier for a good ten metres, a flimsy hedge for a further thirty metres and access to anyone with the gumption/desperation/energy to hop across a lawn to what will be a wonderful picking ground (crops, machinery, vandalism)? With an opposite hedge taken out the way is clear right across to the next road. I imagine someone running away from the police. Up the Wolverhampton Road, quick dodge into Cemetery Lane, whoops a dead end ( see what I did there?), so I’ll leg it across the lawn, on to the wide rolling allotments, get lost among the shed s and compost heaps …

So, until this actual morning I am not sure we were a hundred per cent convinced that renewing the plots was the way to go.

Fast forward. We are up at the site, drive past the (now three) shipping containers that stand for shop/storage buildings at the top of the hill, park at the bottom. Three? There were two (a shop/admin space) and a store for bags of compost (bought in by an entrepreneurial committee four years ago) opposite a sectional concrete garage holding garden chemicals, bamboo canes and the like. The third is for … ? We then walk back up the slope to pay the moneys. And make the points – once again. It really is like talking to a brick wall sometimes. A brick wall? Ironic that; in a few weeks’ time it might be all we have to talk to*!

But also to catch up with those we haven’t bumped into since, er … last October-ish. A real shame the committee didn’t keep up the idea of a fire-pit, bacon sandwiches and a cuppa; which made socialising easier – and kept the hunger away.

Who isn’t paying for another year? Why are we now blessed with another container? What has happened to So-and-So ? I do a bit of horse trading: exchanging four lengths of timber for a couple of blueberry bushes. Mutual benefits there. Find out about the container: it is to store tools in; apparently we have an apple juicer, a patio heater, a strimmer, a marquee available for hire.

We bump into Tadpole Bob. He shows us photos on his phone (amazing that we now take these gadgets for granted) of the damage Storm Doris did to his greenhouse on site. Panes of glass lifted out, carried up to twenty metres away and smashed against posts and sheds: one shard was actually driven into the planking of a shed at about eye level. Good job he spotted it, it could have caused a nasty accident some time down the line. We discuss the serendipity of the lady who – sadly – was killed by flying debris in Wolverhampton during the storm. But he also has a warning about today’s storm (Ewan) which is due to hit at one o’clock. He has some work to do, since, he smiles, he was bracing the glasshouse against westerly winds and these will be from the north east; he has more glass to replace too. We beetle, non-too subtly, away.

We have digging of our own to do. Tidying up. Replanting the fruit bushes (there are three rows of them don’t you know!) that have come from the threatened “disputed ground” and I think it eminently sensible to move them now – before the real growing season starts) and raised beds to weed out. An hour (or so) later we have completed the turning over of the thick, gloopy soil on the plot. Taking out the pernicious weeds, burying the annuals (a native kind of green manure?). It will dressing with lime, and raking out flat and even, but, for the first time since harvesting it feels like we are up to speed. A lot of the plot dug, seeds ready to be planted, the challenges of anew spring heading towards us. Time to plan ahead again.

That time of year …

… and we’ve taken the plunge: still in it!*

 

 

*The house owner plans to build a high wall to replace the mixed hedgerow that currently grows between us.

The Unladen Weight: A Soap-Box Moment.

All those planting seasons ago when I ventured to start this blog I had no real plan other than to have a bash at describing events, effects and reflections generated by renting a standard allotment plot in South Staffordshire; lazily thinking that, surely a lot of human life and the human condition might be reflected within the confines of those hawthorn hedges.

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The title is a nod of the head to a sage comment made at the time by my friend, co-gardener and wife (often referred to in the blog as the Plantation Owner’s Wife. You see, at the time allotments were nowhere near as popular as they are at present and the plots I was offered (“Take it or leave it!” were the exact words) was over shadowed by a monstrous, thick hedge over flowing with pernicious weeds (squitch (couch grass), mare’s tails, docks and nettles) and hadn’t been dug for at least a decade. A ramshackle ”greenhouse”, bodged together from window frames and plywood and held together by hope and gravity stood in a sea of comfrey, next to a three feet high pile of stones and scraps of industrial carpet. Now I knew that I could make something out of it, but my wife simply sighed and said:

“They saw you coming if you’ve said yes to that!”

Whoops!

Hook, line and sinker became Muck, Line and Thinker. I hope and apt description for some of my ramblings. And the overgrown mess became a very productive, inspirational plot alongside the beginnings and developments of friendships, banter and experimentation with new crops and techniques.

Image result for allotments images

But the blog is salted with asides from my other lives and connections and bits and pieces picked up (books read, radio programmes heard (or misheard) observations on life and – hopefully – an injection or two of humour).

Indeed only last week I heard a comment by a primary school teacher in passing.

“I think it was on telly …” she was saying as I overheard unintentionally “… they were saying every child ought to b taught to recognise every British bird. I though t what a great idea. I couldn’t do it; I don’t know ‘em all.”

There was a pause. Neither of the two people she was with passed comment.

“Then I thought,” she went on, “that’s not enough. Maybe they should also be taught to know every kind of tree …”

At this point they were walking out of earshot. I was intrigued. By her honesty (in admitting her lack of knowledge) and the concept. I can recognise a lot of our bird species. I began to learn them from my grandfather, then from field guides and by asking. Trees too.

I have often been accused of having a grasshopper mind (ever tried to catch a grasshopper?) and of divergent thinking. As if either of those things is in any way wrong!

On hearing this snippet I am thrilled (“what a great idea, I love it!” a tiny fraction of my (tiny, let me say it so you don’t need to eh?) brain is cheering. But another part is remembering, and applying, something I heard on radio some years ago;

“Why not do both … and more!”*

It sounded so liberating: teach the kids the names of the birds. But how to do it? Show ‘em pictures of a chaffinch, a snowy egret, a marsh harrier. Copy out the names underneath? Just not appropriate. In my opinion – and my experience – I learned the names of the birds that were in the garden, in the farmyard, in the fields, on long, rambling no-purpose walks. I don’t remember setting out to learn the names of every bird, or every tree. Such knowledge as I might have crept up on me. And I didn’t learn the names in isolation, but linked to their behaviours, their location, their habits and habitats.

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Because I was curious. Because I am curious still.

I learned as a result of what I happened to be doing: chopping kindling, getting the cattle in to be milked, fishing for tadpoles in the local brook, collecting conkers. A kind of sympatico osmosis, because I wanted to.

Now it is true that if we want to conserve today’s wildlife and landscapes we have to engage youngsters, show them the delights of the countryside, the web of inter-relating causes and effects. “if it’s not important to them, if they don’t have knowledge and a perspective they won’t vote to save it in the future” argument is absolutely valid. And the schools starting to get involved in the Forest Schools Initiative are going some way towards it but there is a deeper role for parents and families to play. Because, it seems schools are straitjacketed and delivering a very narrow assessment-driven curriculum. So ..…

… and anyway:

What about species of flowers, breeds of farm livestock, models of cars … the unladen weight of an African swallow ?

* It was a question asked of a theatre director – what should drive theatre programmes: bums on seats or eyes on stalks?

 

Snow Moon: Pause for Reflection?

I’m learning such a lot from social media (though I realise it may not all be correct, know what I mean fellow conspiracy theorists?).

For example every full moon, apparently has a name, so last night’s February’s full moon is known as the Snow Moon*. According to a U.S. almanac web-site this tradition dates back to the native American tribes during colonial times, but has an element of prediction:

“And the Native Americans were right. On average, February is the USA’s snowiest month, according to data from the National Weather Service.”

N.B. I am living in central England, and the names of the full moons have graduated across the Pond. Last night this coincided with a penumbral eclipse. However both were invisible as flat grey clouds blanketed the skies.

And, sure enough Cochise, snow was falling gently this morning when I raised my head. First thoughts were about whether the football game at Bolton (I am a long-standing Walsall fan) would still be on and what travel arrangements did we need to make?

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But then logic and wonder (not usual bed fellows) took over. Stock up the bird feeders. Spend a calming few minutes watching from the back bedroom window. Grateful visitors swarm in: chaffinch, goldfinch, long tailed tits, a single robin, blackbirds that spend more time squabbling than eating, a pair of crows, their would be neighbours the magpies, a house sparrow looking brightly coloured against the snow.

A whole blizzard of starlings drop in; their ability to feed from every single piece of equipment becoming obvious. There is a wood peckerish quality about these garrulous birds: their bills, their ability grasp a vertical surface, the fact that they will nest in tree trunk holes. Blue tits, the same pair I speculate that are working on the entrance to the new nest box high in the lime tree have ceased their courting and visit the table: eager and greedy.

Over the eight foot fence a cat that has been sneakily sheltering beneath a no-longer-used trampoline, slinks away between broken fence panels.

There is a sense of déjà vu here. Facebook has reminded me of a photo I took in 2013. Scarily similar.

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The crow versus magpie saga continues as I watch their WWF tag-wrestler-style behaviour on the lawn. The smaller magpies trying to exert some kind of dominance repeatedly fail to do so. The crows are wary, but not even slightly intimidated. This magpie pair have conceded the existing nest site to their larger cousins, but still visit it regularly, while also starting to build –from scratch – a new platform nest. On two separate occasions the crows have popped in and, literally picked it apart and dropped it from a great height. It is, after all, no more than thirty feet from their own nest-to-be. The mags cannot take the hint and, to date, have re-built it twice.

I am reminded of the Spy v Spy cartoons that appeared in Mad magazine.

Image result for spy v spy mad images

But, doesn’t this behaviour also mirror the “boundary dispute” in progress up at the allotment. No malice between ourselves and the house owner, but dispute between official parties (of course it is not quite so simple) that is going on and on. Most recently the house owner has removed his front hedge and intentionally or not the contractors doing the job have also taken out some of the hedge between the allotments and the Wolverhampton Road. Again we have a case of watch-this space as arbitration/discussion/resolution are at least as far away as they were before.

I am brought to mind of a “small talk” conversation with one of The stewards at Walsall Football Club last Saturday. We were discussing the weather (usual topic for English people – we have so much of it after all – and I said we needed a sustained cold spell to get rid of snails and slugs. Wise chap, humouring ing the paying customer, nodded sagely. Is today the beginning of a cold snap?

By the time I am setting out for the traffic marmalade that passes for roads between here and Bolton, the snow has turned to rain.

*Other web sites are available and one such talks of the green comet which should, cloud permitting be visible from earth for a couple of nights. Green Comet? My mind is racing; surely a DC super hero? Whose alter-ego is a mild mannered allotmenteer?

Super-powers ?

Hmmm …

Any suggestions ?

Twitcher’s Temptations

How the weather can alter, catching you out at every turn if you’re not prepared. And how blasé were we, getting used to easily-above-freezing overnight temperatures in January?

On the very days we have front windows and the patio doors that lead out to the back garden replaced the Midlands experiences a blast of Arctic wind and overnight frosts of some severity. All credit to the two cheerful guys sorting out the glazing, listening to Radio Two and joking about wearing shorts (surely only postal delivery workers do that in winter?) going about their business – great job by the way. (Sealed units in the previous windows had leaked and for two years (or more) we’ve been trying to see through layers of condensation as well as the leaded lights.)

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Water in the wheelbarrow, stupidly left in the right way up (usually I stand it up against the allotment shed door) didn’t thaw for three days straight. Giving me an idea:

We have been trying, unsuccessfully of course to get rid of the pondweed (“duckweed”) in our back garden pond. Ever since, in fact, a well-meaning fool (I see him every morning in the mirror) had the idea that it would encourage wildlife to visit the pond and cut out the process of eutrophication. But, by golly its persistent! But during these freezes its all trapped in a surface layer of ice so, using a handle less shovel I simply slid the panels of frozen water out of the pond and onto the lawn. Where they sat, un melted for a couple of days. Nothing is simple, needless to say and about a handful of the fast-multiplying plants evaded capture, but for a while at least I can pretend I’m winning.

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The cold weather had a dramatic effect on bird visitors too. And the amount of time they spent in the garden. Greenfinches came (absent for so long), a trio of waxwings, a single (male) reed bunting, a very speedy coal tit joined the regulars at the “service station”. There was a high flying flock of lapwings (one of my favourite birds as a youngster) and the return to our skies of buzzards.

Then it’s the first official day of the RSPB Great Garden Birdwatch – and it is warm and raining!

Ridiculously, when you consider it, in reality it doesn’t matter. But I was psyching myself up to record a bumper list of visitors. Instead in the time I planned to do the observation – between nine and ten in the morning (this following the time when I add feed to the range of feeders about the garden – and birds being creatures of habit as well as opportunists it seemed to make strategic sense) – I sit in the upstairs bedroom (better view of the whole garden) and ponder. There was a guy on breakfast TV from the RSPB who broadcast some statistics/comparisons.

The Big Garden Birdwatch has been going for more than thirty years now (last year half a million people sent in their records). But the time-to-observe has been extended, its over three days now. I get it: it gives more people the chance to take part and, importantly organisations like schools (where grounds can be key to wildlife) but it also makes me wonder how valid comparisons can be. I’m not thinking this in a negative way: indeed I love the idea of the rise of “people’s science”.

Also the instruction are not simply tally mark every time you spot a species, and, rather harshly, I am not certain every participant will understand exactly what is needed to make the results credible. This swill, if I am correct mean dubious results.

But – and this is extremely snobbish of me – how accurate will observations be? How well do others (it’s always others isn’t it, because we all know that what we are recording is a hundred per cent accurate don’t we? Editor’s note.) There is what we know as the “pterodactyl factor” where gullible people have been convinced that here was a rare species in the vicinity. How does the RSPB deal with this?

I suddenly realise that there are wood pigeons feeding from the table –and I dash outside (very unscientifically) to rebuild the woven-from-canes roof I have put there to prevent the ungainly monsters snacking on the precious food. I have to confess my partiality here: wood pigeons are not popular with allotmenteers – and they gobble up the food so rapidly that other species must starve. Wood pigeons indeed remind me of Hercules cargo planes: big, grey, safe and heavy … and I prefer the helicopter antics of the tit family or the marauding style of the Spitfire-like starlings.

And then, I must confess I am sorely tempted to add some of the birds that have been here over the past forty eight hours (the waxwings: surely it won’t make a big difference – and they were definitely here ironically in the top of the rowan tree that was stripped of the looked-for red berries well before Christmas by redwings!). But I resist. Because this is the twitcher in me trying to take over, to show off, to have better results (because nobody is watching right? Nobody checking?) It would be pointless. I know that these other species have visited the garden and that should be enough. I smile; just a few moments ago I was casting aspersions on the integrity of others and look what just happened!

The whole bonus might just be, of course, the increase in the number of people joining in and being interested in what is going on in their own gardens! This should lead to engagement in the wider environment. It is well served by the number of people, I guess, feeding birds and the range and quality of bird feeds available – from almost every shop in the high street.

It is also fed by the wonderful RSPB website which promises additional tasks monthly that people can undertake at home to increase wildlife habitats/provision. And not all just about birds. Gotta be a good thing!

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The Cynical Gardener

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The English Professor at Large

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Cornelia's Blog

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