Saturday 22 October 2016


This is about the naming of living things. It is a theme on The Blob. If you haven't read Henry Reed's 1942 anti-war poem Naming of Parts "The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers: They call it easing the Spring." You urged to do so NOW, it will take 2 minutes and set you up for the day.

'Periwinkle' is rather a loaded word for me. My father had no siblings and very few cousins because he came from a family of shy breeders.  He had two female cousins, one of whom lived in a magical house on the shores of Lough Derg - right opposite where Dau.II and I had our Swallows and Amazons adventures two years ago - and where, as children, we were trusted to row out into the middle of the lake before the cows were milked.  The other cousin was Periwinkle, a lesbian who lived half-way up a cliff in Glengariff, Co Kerry. We never met this redoubtable lady, not even when we passed through the town on a disastrous caravan holiday in 1970. My father had her in the East Wing of his mind, firmly kept at a distance and not invited to tea.

After repatriating a buoy to Dunmore East a couple of weeks ago, I dropped into Cheekpoint in the hope of a cup of tea; and I wasn't disappointed. Here's the goss: an mac an tí has gotten his old job back at the oyster farm [prev] down the coast. I think his parents and I agreed that the brutal hard work, the salt-water boils, the chilblains, the scratches, the boots full of water, would do him no harm. At least he wasn't getting hazed and humiliated and treated like an imbecile: the kind of fate that might fall to him working in easier conditions in a factory or office. It's like my girls working in the catering trade with the burns, the heavy-lifting and the smell of cabbage. When you're 20 you have resilience. I don't think we relish the though of our children still doing hard physical labour when they're 40.

Apart from the welcome tea, I landed a great story and some information. Oysters Ostrea edulis are farmed in sacks made of heavy duty plastic netting: with small holes for the seed oysters and larger mesh for those ready for market. These bags are secured on benches out in the tideway so that, when the tide is in, the water freely circulates through the bags and the oysters can feast on the plankton. With increasing frequency - probably because of nitrate run-off for farmer's fields up river - the bags get covered with a green fur of algae, inducing a failure of the vital freely circulates parameter of the business. I was told <punchline alert> that some bright spark in the oyster trade had the idea to insert a handful of whelks into each bag so that these would graze on the algae and that would keep the holes clear . . . and diversify the product line, because there is a market [mostly among them foreign johnnies on the continent, of course, but they still pay in €uros] for whelks. That is going the way of Bren Smith and his mixed sea-food farm in Long Island Sound. Down with mono-culture!

Because The Blob is read by foreign johnnies, I am at pains to include the Latin Linnaean binomers for any identified species which appear in the text. There are after all 50 words used in England for Taraxacum officinale, I can't expect folk in neighbouring counties to know what I'm talking about with devil's milk plant or dandelion let alone some poor woman in Ukraine who is struggling with English as a second language. But T. officinale is incontrovertibly what it is in the universal language of science.

Accordingly, I looked up 'whelk' to discover its Latin name - if the core diversification idea has any merit, then my French and Portuguese oyster-farming readers [they would ostréiculteurs and ostreicultores and would be a Venny select group of people] will want to follow suit. Well it turns out that what I know as 'whelk' Buccinum undatum is a voracious carnivore making its living by eating the contents of bivalve molluscs like oysters - they can rasp through the shell with a sand-paper radula - so introducing that species would be a disaster in the oyster farm. I think the novel remedy must be Littorina littorea, a smaller herbivorous sea-snail which grazes on algae in shallow water and salt-marshes. Now, insofar as I know anything about the naming of molluscs, I know that as the periwinkle, an edible mollusc smaller than whelks. I don't think that my father's cousin was named for a snail, however; periwinkle is also the common name for Vinca major, a creeping perennial herb with a striking blue-purple flower.

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