Monday, 18 February 2013

The common thread

The common thread

After the last of our children moved out, my wife and I sold from the three-storey terrace in Hammersmith, which had been the family home for almost 27 years, and relocated to a large, four-bedroom house in Wheatbarry. 

Many couples our age want to downsize to a smaller place. We were quite the opposite. Having lived at close quarters for almost three decades, Heather and I both appreciated the increased personal space afforded by our change of address.

Our new home had previously been occupied by a pair of elderly sisters who were both disabled. It came fitted with a stair lift, and one of the smaller ground-floor rooms had been converted into an assisted bathroom. The estate agent who showed us the property suggested that we rip the former out. The latter, he advised my wife, could be converted into a sewing room.

Although living in a house without a space dedicated to needlework had been a constant challenge, and had undoubtedly put a great strain on our marriage, in the end we decided to disregard his advice and keep the downstairs bathroom, although in deference to his suggestion it is now referred to as “the sewing room.” After much debate we decided  that it would be a good idea to hold onto the stair lift as well, since it’s a good model and I’m sure that one of us will need to make use of it sooner or later.

After spending many years sharing a garden with three other properties, I have adjusted well to the novelty of having a large, open space all to myself.  At the far end, there is a row of four, very tall cedar trees. When we first arrived there were five. The one that we lost was shedding its branches in high winds and turned out to have weak roots. We had it removed before it could fall and crush our neighbour’s greenhouse. 

Every year a tree surgeon - a young chap called Vincent – comes around and gives the surviving quartet a health check and a bit of a prune. His professional opinion is that they are weak specimens and will eventually go the same way as their fallen sibling. He calls them Victory Cedars - Four of many thousand that were planted in England to commemorate the end of the Second World War. The seeds were apparently given away by one of the national newspapers. People dutifully planted them in their gardens, or in public spaces, often with great ceremony.

I first met Vincent a few hours after we moved in. I opened the front door just as he was attempting to put a leaflet, advertising his services, through the letterbox. The back garden had been neglected and was in a bit of state. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind having a look at the trees. He said he was happy to do it and returned the following day.

At the time Vincent was just starting out in the trade and was using a second-hand van to move his gear around. Despite his best efforts to remove the transfers promoting the business of the vehicle’s previous owners, you could still discern the outline of the words “The pie man,” along with an accompanying phone number, on both side panels.

He was very rough and ready in his approach to his work. His method of reaching the upper branches of the cedars, which were a good 15-20 feet off the ground, involved shimmying up thick, hairy ropes, that were a cross between jungle vines and giant dreadlocks. They were disturbingly warm to the touch, as if alive. Small, naturally-formed pockets appeared intermittently along their length. He would jam the various tools of his trade into these tiny openings.

“They are really quite extraordinary things,” I remarked, the first time I laid eyes on them.

“I got them in Romania. They’re made by birds...They’re incredibly strong.”

To emphasise his last point he reached out to and gave one of the dangling ropes a firm downward tug.

We didn’t know each other very well then, and I assumed that he was pulling my leg. Later that day I did a search online and discovered that, just as he claimed, the ropes had indeed been woven by a small relative of the House Sparrow called the Puțină Frânghie Filtru (the Little Rope Maker).

They are tiny, wren-sized birds with unremarkable brown and cream plumage and very short tail feathers. Their erratic, bobbing flight paths imitates the movement of a small stone skimming across water. Like Swallows they breed communally. Their nesting colonies take the form of thick ropes that are sometimes several hundred feet in length. These are woven over many centuries and passed down through the generations. They were once a common sight in Eastern Europe hanging down cliff faces and the walls of old buildings. The activity of bacteria within the ropes causes them to generate heat and act as incubators for the clutches of eggs, which are laid in small pockets formed in the weave.

During the winter the birds migrate to parts of southern Africa. In their absence their nests are co-opted by climbers, although in many countries there are strict laws governing when they can be used recreationally, so as not to disrupt breeding. In the past it was common to see them  employed as bell pulls in Romanian churches, although that practice is now outlawed.  

Incredibly, an examination of the materials used in one of these cords found well-preserved strands of human hair, over 500 years old. Using DNA profiling, scientists were able to link this hair, along with other less venerable follicle samples, to several generations of a family who lived on a farm nearby. During their lifetime each person shed hair that was taken by the birds and woven into this common thread, tying the family to the area and binding its individual members together down through the centuries.

When Vincent returned the following year he had ditched his Romanian ropes in favour of professional-looking climbing gear. I went out with a mug of tea and some biscuits, to find him suspended in a harness ten feet in the air.

“What happened to your old ropes?” I called out, as I approached across the dewy lawn. The steaming tea sloshing against the steeply angled sides of the mug.

He explained that somebody had purchased them from him on EBay for £3000.

“They’re a protected habitats now, aren’t they. You can’t take them from the wild like you used to. That’s pushed up the market value. I couldn’t turn down money like that.”

He lowered himself to the ground and took the mug of tea from me.

“My wife used to refer to you as Tarzan.”

“To be honest, they looked good, but they were bit of an affectation.”


By Mark Sadler.

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