This morning, when I was cycling to church with the first red streaks of dawn just emerging over the horizon, there was a splash to my right. Then a bird flew over the road close in front of me, carrying what looked like a fish under its body in its talons, held with its streamlining facing forwards, in much the way ospreys tend to*.
It was undoubtedly an owl.
Barn owls, in this area, do often hunt along the watercourses by day, a curious pattern, which I’ve tended to put down to the presence of rodents on the banks. And I cannot be certain either of the species of owl (I see more barn owls, but hear more tawny owls) or that I was not mistaken in supposing its prey to be a fish. However, I recognised – and was surprised by – the fish, before I looked at the bird, and there is a river in the locality: it is perfectly possible, particularly given the splash.
I am intrigued. Has anyone else noticed or found evidence of similar behaviour in British owls?
*In David Attenborough’s “Life of Birds” a fishing osprey is featured in the second episode, “The Mastery of Flight,” carrying a fish in just that way apparently to reduce drag.
Some thoughts on making an aspect of ecological living work
I suppose it’s compulsory to mention human caused climate change in any article on ecology – so I will say I’m highly sceptical of it! This is mostly due to seeing most of what is put in front of us as bad science from the methodological point of view: misused statistics, dubious chains of proxy data, tiny samples, lack of falsification conditions, insufficient data for the conclusion drawn, lack of attention to the extent and nature of pre-human natural shifts in temperature and sea level, over-reliance on models, insufficient attention to and research on other possible theories*.
However, there are plenty of excellent reasons for believing in ecological living. Human-caused climate change or not, an ongoing lack of sustainability can reasonably be expected to ultimately destroy our habitat in some way – which is not exactly a good idea. We are supposed, according to Christian theology, to be the stewards of creation, which means using and not abusing it. Overuse of things isn’t really good for us as people (Emily Smucker puts it well here, when she talks about wanting to refuse consumerism on the grounds that it is a form of greed).
On the other hand, it is necessary to accept that people aren’t automatons, and cannot just do this or that, without thinking about the practical implications. Precisely what percentage of the washing up I do by hand is recycling is difficult to judge, but I have enough physical difficulties that it is quite a substantial task. And I suspect it would be or is found to be by a lot of other people in a variety of situations. It’s true that I think the question of “do you have to be this busy?” is a legitimate one, but I also think that the answer would probably be some variety of “yes”** for enough people, that it is necessary to look at the practicalities of ecology too, and look for ecological ways of doing things which are not a massive burden. After all, the more easily any single ecological thing can be done, the more effort someone will have to spare for another thing of the same type.
So, finally, to the specific freezer bag problem. I live alone in a rural place without a car. I generally have a shopping delivery once a month. This means I don’t eat very much fresh food, but tend to live out of my freezer. I’ll buy a packet of sausages or mince, or a joint, and divide and freeze it. I also cook more than one portion of things at once to freeze, or freeze a cooked portion of something that takes longer to cook, such as lentils, or of things that go off and can be frozen like bananas (for cooking – they aren’t a food that returns to its fresh state after thawing). And I often take a packed lunch with me on Sundays or festival days when the service is at 11 and it is usually rather late for lunch by the time I get back. I initially did pretty much all my freezing in bags, which was a lot of bags. And having mostly got on top of washing the recycling, I decided single use plastic was a good thing to target, because it is a major source of straightforward environmental pollution and damage, and I think it is very unlikely that the alternative I’m trying to use – plastic boxes – is actually worse for the environment***.
My aim was to eliminate the single-use freezer bag, as used by myself in my own kitchen. I’m not trying to do anything about single-use plastic packaging that comes with products, nor am I particularly concerned about, for example, the freezer bag I’ve been carrying my books in every day for the last few months. It might be good to find an alternative, but it could not be justly described as “single use plastic”. I haven’t yet tried to tackle shopping bags, except for reusing them when I can, though I’m getting to a point where I probably could.
The first problem I encountered was the sheer expense of purchasing that number of boxes. It may be cheaper overall – I can’t tell at this stage – but buying another packet of plastic bags every month at a small regular cost is very different from trying to lay out a few hundred pounds in an appropriate variety of sizes of freezer box. And (second problem) it is necessary to have a variety of sizes because rigid boxes take up more space in the freezer anyway. Adding a lot of wasted space because the boxes are bigger than they need to be isn’t practical. I’m still working on both these issues, and am gradually building up a stock of boxes. In some ways doing this over a year or two is better anyway because it’s becoming clearer exactly what I need. Optimising use of freezer space is still a bit of a fog – I’m still puzzling that one out – but square boxes of the same size do at least stack quite nicely in a chest freezer. I tried folding silicone boxes, which squash down, and those I have have been useful, mostly for fruit, but they are more expensive and in some ways harder to handle.
A folding silicone box, closed flat and fully open.
The third problem is where on earth do I store that number of boxes and lids between uses? And for a further complexity, they need to be stored in an organised way which actually makes it easy to get them out and use them. I made sure I got a lot of duplicates of the same type of box, which are easier to store together and recognise as being of a particular size. I’m in the process of adding on-worktop storage, having carefully put the same size of little box in things like ice cream tubs on the top shelf of my cupboard until I ran out of space. On worktop storage is likely to be fine because the under cupboard worktop space in this house isn’t really useable anyway due to the cupboards being low. Putting all the boxes of the same size together with the lids with them is, I think, probably essential, but apart from that, how to do it would probably need to be worked out separately for each kitchen/house.
The fourth problem was the problem of labelling the food. I’m hoping to find reusable labels, which could just be stuck on the box and left, though at the moment I’m using paper stick on labels. I hope the extra environmental burden of a square of sticky paper per use is less than that of a plastic bag, but this is the sort of hidden environmental cost that tends to throw me when trying to work out what to focus on.
I found that having rigid boxes was an advantage when it came to rewarming food in the microwave, because the box can be heated whereas the bags can’t. And it is easier to scoop liquid food out of a box than of a bag.
The main picnic problem proved to be that most of the rectangular boxes haven’t got sufficiently secure or liquid tight lids to be used on their own in a bag. Granted it is easier to put coleslaw in a box, but I then ended up putting the box in a freezer bag to prevent it leaking – and it needed it. I had more success with screw-top yogurt pots on this point. And I got to packing the different boxes into an old ice cream tub rather than a bag, which works up to a point, but again, takes up more space. On the other hand it is more protection for the food.
I haven’t completely succeeded yet. The baked potatoes in my freezer are still in bags rather than boxes. On average, I probably use one freezer bag, and sometimes some clingfilm, per picnic – less than I used to. What I’m expecting to find with this one, is that having once solved the problems, the practical (not merely the environmental) advantages to using boxes rather than bags will outweigh the difficulties.
So, to summarise, the problems I had were:
1: the start-up cost of boxes v.s. bags
2: the fact that freezer boxes take up more space in the freezer
3: the need to find and organise easy-to-access storage for the boxes between uses
5: lids too insecure for enclosing carried food on their own.
Solutions, such as I’ve found them, have involved:
1: buying boxes of the same type one set at a time, and accepting that in the meantime I will run out of boxes sometimes and need to supplement with freezer bags. Reusing brought boxes: e.g. ice cream tubs.
2: studying the best size and shape of box for what I typically have to store in the freezer (in my case, I have a lot of 200ml boxes, and even more 400ml ones). Using some folding silicone boxes.
3: choosing duplicate sets of the same size and shape of box, choosing boxes which will fit inside each other when out of use, having boxes to put each type of box and their lids in together, extending storage onto unused worktop space
4: No completely satisfactory solution yet; using disposable stick on freezer labels
5: Using screw-top yoghurt pots or boxes with clips on the lids when important
Disposables have their place. But I am glad to be on the way to eliminating this particular not-really-necessary-in-my circumstances disposable from normal use in my kitchen.
I hope, some time, that I meet a turtle that’s alive because I did it.
*Most of this comes from dinner conversations with family members who are physicists, and cite things like actually trying to get the hockey stick curve from the published numbers. However, the “lack of falsification conditions” is more of a philosophical comment.
**This is a question that fascinates me in a lot of situations. I wrote on “have to” in as far as it seems to me to be a linguistic moral problem here. “Have to” in domestic life seems to refer to a very wide degree of pressures from “realistically we wouldn’t be able to eat,” through a range of things which matter but aren’t essential to life such as “we’d never be able to travel to see our parents,” “we’d never have any sort of holiday,” “we would lose the house which we have made our home,” “our teenagers wouldn’t all be able to have their own room,” to a completely different set of things such as “my vocation demands full time work,” “the needs of young children really do require this much attention”, to things which really can’t be considered “have to” issues such as “we would only be able to go on two luxury holidays abroad per year rather than three”. The thing I would emphasise is, again, the fact that we do still have a choice to some degree despite the pressures on us to choose in a particular direction.
***The main risk, I think, in replacing disposables with reusables is the possibility that either the ultimate waste product or what’s needed for effective cleaning – hot water and chemicals – is actually worse for the environment than the disposable was. However, it is at least a reasonable assumption that one needs less energy and chemical to wash a plastic box than one does to make a plastic bag, and that the waste product is not worse and probably better. If anyone has specialist knowledge to confirm or deny this, I’d be very interested to hear.
The donkey features prominently in the coming Sunday’s festival: Palm Sunday, the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.
Old Testament texts quoted in connection with the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem include the prophesy in connection of the kingship that belongs to the tribe of Judah in Genesis 49:10-11 (1):
“The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes” (2)
And Zechariah 9:9:
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” (2)
An interesting sidelight on this is the comment on horses in the next verse:
“And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth.” (2)
In the New Testament, the three words translated “ass” or “donkey” appear nine times (or possibly eight (3)), six of which refer to the Palm Sunday entry. (Two of the others refer to Jesus’s comments that if it is all right to rescue/water animals on the Sabbath, it is all right to heal people on the Sabbath). Luke, in the corresponding passage on the entry into Jerusalem refers four times to a “colt” (polos) but not to a donkey (hypozygion, onos, or onrion(4)).
The average size of a donkey is just over a metre(5). They are mammals and members of the order Perissodactyla (odd toed ungulates) which includes the rhinoceroses and tapirs, as well as the horses, donkeys, and zebras. They are hindgut fermenters, digesting tough plant material primarily in the intestine, unlike ruminants such as cows, which ferment food in their foregut (6).
Donkeys are more efficient at metabolising their food than ponies and are highly social: which needs to be respected with regard to their welfare. It is apparently rather easy to overfeed donkeys in the UK (7).
The donkey is descended from an African wild ancestor, initially domesticated about 6000 years ago in the North of Africa (8).
Pictures from the tomb of Tutankhamun depict a wild ass hunt (9).
Donkeys appear in quite a few of Aesop’s fables, including “The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey” and “The Ass bearing a Shrine”.
In Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Bottom the Weaver is magically given an ass’s head (10).
1. Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, part two, Incorporated Catholic Truth Society 2011, p. 4.
2. King James Version
3. According to the notes in the RSV, Luke 14.5 reads “son” in some ancient manuscripts and “donkey” in others (RSV p. 66). The Holy Bible; Revised Standard Version, second Catholic edition; Ignatius Press 2006; p.66
4. Clinton Morrison, An Analytical Concordance to the Revised Standard Version of the NewTestament, The Westminster Press, 1979, p. 40 and 104.
I think I might have run out of funny excuses for posting a photo of an animal rather than writing a proper post. But at least, I think it could be said without too much fear of contradiction that this amazing little creature isn’t cute. After a morning spent doing philosophy the notion that it might be possible to say something without fear of contradiction seems an extremely alien concept!
The reason for the lack of a “proper” post is that I was writing a piece on Parental Autonomy, which needs more work than I can give it this morning to be rendered intelligible. In the absence of my deciding that the argument is impossibly flawed, it’ll hopefully be up next Thursday or sooner.
I never cease to be amazed by the range of extraordinary and extreme things which animals have evolved to do to survive.
Flying fish, beetles that squirt boiling liquid, mammals with elongated legs and necks which require all sorts of complex structures to make circulation possible. Eggs and placentas – I rarely cook an egg without marvelling at the structure – insects that give birth to already pregnant daughters, birds that fly across oceans and deserts to nest, fish that come out of water to lay their eggs, and wasps that build mud pots to protect their young. Creatures that throw bits of their breathing apparatus at an attacking predator, or which have developed venom which kills prey in seconds.
But I don’t think anything can rival this creature in the sheer weirdness of its current evolutionary survival strategy, which it can at least be reasonably argued
I realise I have been dreadfully remiss in not fulfilling the proper duties of a blogger – I have not acquired a sweet little kitten to post cute pictures of whenever I don’t have the time and/or inclination to write a “proper” post.