“Garlicky” is a great word, redolent of hot, pungent flavour and nose-filling odour: a Pavlovian word that ignites the senses as it’s uttered. Perhaps I love the word because garlic is one of my favourite vegetables, a pleasure to both eat and grow. A Garlic Festival is therefore not to be missed, and my family and I had the opportunity to attend one on the Isle of Wight during a short holiday a couple of weeks ago. We were joined by university friends I’ve referred to previously, as the first one of us to reach a half century celebrated his 50th birthday. There was more to the festival than just garlic, but for me its highlight was seeing the sheer variety of different garlic types that can be grown, testament to how this vegetable has been modified from its ancient wild origins in central Asia. Karin and I bought seed bulbs of four different varieties as additions to the horticultural biodiversity of our vegetable plot, to be planted later in September. These included the notable Elephant Garlic with its massive individual cloves, which, I’ve just learned while researching that link, is not a true garlic at all but rather a variety of leek. We live and learn!
Archipelago is another great word and the time we spent on the Isle of Wight, travelling over by ferry from Southampton, served to remind me that the British Isles, with over six thousand islands of various sizes, is by any standards a significant archipelago. Since at least the explorations of Alexander von Humbloldt, island groups have been known to host unique species, isolated taxonomically and physically from their closest continental relatives. Darwin’s later researches showed that archipelagos such as the Galapagos Islands are important as natural evolutionary laboratories, and in previous posts I’ve briefly discussed his unrequited desire to visit to the Canary Islands. The Isle of Wight is too close to the continent of Europe to have evolved any unique biodiversity but I did pick up the hint of a subtle Island Biogeographic Effect whilst compiling a list of all the bird species I saw over the course of the week. The list topped out at about 30 species, which I thought was rather low. Some of the omissions surprised me (not a single blackbird, for instance) and I saw very few individuals of some other common British species. Now, it could be due to my lousy birding skills I suppose, but it could also be due to the fact that we were on an island, even though it’s less than 1500m across The Solent to the mainland at its closest point. This is close enough for bumblebees to fly to the island: I’ve seen them shadowing the ferry. But nonetheless it might be far enough to affect both the diversity and population sizes of the bird life. Enough wild speculation; I’d be interested to know what serious ornithologists who actually know something about the subject make of this.
As I finish writing this post I’m on the other great island of my home archipelago, sitting in a bar in Terminal 2 of Dublin Airport. I’ve been working at University College Dublin as external examiner for their MSc Applied Environmental Science course. It’s been a fun couple of days reading theses and interviewing chatty, engaged students, which began with a dawn alarm yesterday in order to get to the train station and then Birmingham International in time for a 0850 flight. Whilst waiting for my taxi I popped into the garden and paused to enjoy the early morning stillness before opening up the chicken coop. A large flock of black-headed gulls passed low above me, backlit by a thin sliver of moon and silent except for the shuffle of feathers. From the direction they were travelling I think they were heading from a roost on Pitsford Water and on to destinations unknown. The garden was also busy with early risen blackbirds and a couple of flitting bats, whilst a little later my taxi passed a rangy fox idly trotting through low mist on the Racecourse park. It was urban biodiversity at its most sublime.
All this talk of Northampton is making me feel homesick to be back with the family (Karin, kids, cats and chickens) and start planting garlic. But there’s just time for another Guinness before my gate opens. Sláinte!