Friday, 1 July 2016

July: pond-dipping and Jenny Greenteeth

"By July, the waters of the parish - ditches, rhynes and cuts, carefully demarcated according to size - are thronged with life.  Yet as I walk or cycle past, all I see are various shades of green: the dark, turbid carpet of blanketweed, ranging from near black to moss-green; and the paler, lime-green film of duckweed.  Beneath this covering, below the water's surface, life is no doubt thriving.

Time for a spot of pond dipping.  As a child we did this all the time, though it wasn't such an organised activity as the term 'pond-dipping' suggests; we just went out with our nets and jam jars and fished for tiddlers.
….  The surface of the water is alive with activity, another good sign.  Mayflies are here, as are dozens of whirligig beetles, whizzing insanely around like dodgem cars, but never actually crashing into each other.  Peter nets some and we take a closer look: the black shell appearing almost silver, as if a small drop of mercury has been applied to its surface.  The next pass of the net produces more treasures, which are swiftly transferred to a white metal dish, of the type we used to see in doctors' surgeries….

Meanwhile, Daisy and Charlie are catching fish by the netful: tiny silvery creatures rather like miniature whitebait.  A closer look reveals three small spines -- sticklebacks, of course.  We explain the stickleback's extraordinary life cycle to the children -- how the males make a nest and look after the young  -- but they are more interested in catching even more fish.  These include a few browner individuals without the spine: minnows.

Stickleback and Nest,  F. Whymper   
Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, Washington University

A smaller rhyne, just across the road, is covered with lime-green: the run-of-the-mill common duckweed, and the larger giant duckweed, a deep auburn-red in colour.  Duckweed's ability to completely cover the surface of the water, giving an illusion of solidity, has given rise to a chilling folk tale*: the story of Jenny Greenteeth.  Jenny is supposed to lure little children into her watery lair by tempting them to walk on the solid-looking duckweed, causing them to fall through and drown.  My own children watch agog as I relate this story, presumably designed to warn earlier generations of the perils of venturing too near water.

Wild Hares and Hummingbirds  Stephen Moss

*Also known as grindylows,  greenskinned water hags with long hair and sharp teeth, especially in the north;  possibly a throwback to the lake-dwelling monsters, Grendel and his mother, in the Old English poem Beowulf.   In Kevin Crossley-Holland's translation,  when Beowulf dives into the lake,

"the seething water
received the warrior.  A full day elapsed
before he could discern the bottom of the lake.
……vindictive, ravenous for blood, …
Then she grasped him, clutched the Geat [Beowulf]
in her ghastly claws;…"



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