Thursday, 22 September 2011

Weevils in the bud - Just Like A Woman

So there we were, in the Garden of Eden.  Fruit in our hands, beauty in our eyes, trumpets in our ears. I wasn't required to do a thing.  Flowers grew and small animals danced.

I bent to pick another enormous wild strawberry ( flavour and size go together in heaven). A small brownish nose peeped out of the purplish sedum at my feet - and I could just distinguish a tiny, creamy body, circled like a piece of reinforced piping. The whole thing waggled about with a kind of wretched, pointless energy, perhaps a sort of savagery even. I was looking at the vine weevil grub, portent of despair. 

I stood my ground with the sedum.  That is, I dug it up, collected the grubs, took a few limbs off the plant, beheaded them and stuck them firmly in the ground elsewhere ( for sedums, you can call these "cuttings").  I then split and replanted the cleaned up root system, having checked it very carefully.

Of course at this time of the year vine weevil children are just settling in for 6 months eating, mining right into the roots.   I have had plenty of opportunity to study these little beasts at the two distinguishable stages of their development.   But rarely have I seen such cheek from the young mobsters,  they mostly remain underground, doing their wicked work of eating the roots from the inside, so you don't even know where evil lurks.  You find out in the spring, when you discover that heuchera leaves part directly from the soil, all underlying parts having been destroyed.  All sorts of plants are attacked, but, with unexpected rationality, they prefer a thicker, juicier root if they can get it.  I do not believe they enjoy bindweed, which just proves there's some sort of error at the heart of things.  Here are some ordinary sedum in a different garden, God knows what's going on in there, but perhaps their ordinariness will save them.

Many years ago, when I first found a potful of grubs, I picked them out and tried leaving them in a saucer of insecticide with a bit of soil for comfort but essentially in full contact with the poison, presumably drinking it.  Nada.  They were still the same size and just as randomly lively, legless but still waggling about, a full two weeks later.  So expressive, and annoying, that pointless, hopeless movement.

I tried another thing.  Emptying a big pot where a plant had died, in the spring one year, I did not feel up to binning that large amount of good compost,  so I tried picking the grubs out.  Squishing them is very nice, a bit like bubble wrap.  But, I thought, why not enlist the wildlife, let's leave the compost spread out here, on the slabs, where birds feed.  They'll surely pick them out for me.

Well, a bit.  But not enough.  No real commitment to hunting them out from underneath.  Chickens would have done it, but I didn't have any chickens.  So, passing over the soil-soaking chemicals, which may be fine, but I just don't have the psychological strength  to use, I  have turned to nematodes, the biological control. They have been successful for me in the past.  If you think you've got vine weevil, the warmer autumn  months  are your best chance to get the nematodes onto them.  If you think you haven't got vine weevil, well, you know what I'm going to say next.

Stand back! Here comes the mother, from Wikipedia, not my own

The interesting thing about these little beasts, apart from what they're for, which nature knows and I don't, is that they are ALL female.  Take that in if you will.  I believe it's our fault, perhaps apocryphally so don't quote me, but I think I heard it was an adaptation to DDT.  The vine weevil battalions responded by ditching  the men; they were perfectly capable of endless solo reproduction, up to 1500 a season per womanly adult, it seems.  I leave you to check my facts - I may not know them as well as I seem to.

What a lovely neat link I can make here, straight to one of Dylan's big guns - Just Like A Woman, from Blonde on Blonde.   I'll attempt to pick the bugs out of it, for myself as much as you, for this is a song that seems to speak directly to the listener, and if she's female, she'll know the news is not all good.

For a start, there's that contrast, between the woman and the girl.  The full-bodied creator versus the immature, damaged damage-doer.  It takes me back to my youth, listening and worrying, thinking "well, all that strong, womanly, taking, aching and making: I wish I were like that, but I'm rather afraid I'm not".  The whole image seemed both distant and suspect.

The only way to identify with the song was to be the breaking one, the little girl one.  We women hoped it was charming  to be so sensitive, knowing there was something wrong with that hope.  But we so easily recognised those moments of little girlhood.  The result was that some of us felt diminished and uncertain.  A mangled feminism allowed us to add an element of blaming (men) to that particular list of weaknesses.  So it went on. The song stays in your head, but for me, is always a bit of a worry.  The singer is finding a woman wanting in terms of strength of character - exactly where it hurts most and where many of us, male or female,  may fear a deficiency.

But I'm grown up now!  So I'm over all that.  After I've told you about this next photograph I'll give you my grown up reading of the song.

This flower should not  be out at this point in the year, but  the plant has produced a few late buds.  It's eucryphia lucida and I think it's also called Ballerina in this pink version.  It's rather a  perfect little girl, nodding a  sweet head, dressed in pink and white.  Ribbons and bows would cheapen it.  I may have exaggerated its size so don't expect a thing like a camellia.

For those who wish  to know more I would add that it grows on a thin evergreen shrub or near-tree.  The plant has little presence when not wearing its heart on its sleeve, fading easily into the background.  It doesn't appear to be difficult but may prefer part-shade and as little lime as possible - if you feel like giving it its own way.   It's a plant that engenders affection, one whose flowering you anticipate with pleasure.  A nice thing to add to a town garden.

That all makes us feel a bit kinder to the little girl doesn't it?  But now for what may have seemed blindingly obvious to many of you for years, the song isn't really about her at all.  There's only one person close to breaking down in the song, it's the singer, who can't stand the pain in here, becomes inarticulate ("ain't it......clear?") and has to leave.  This is not the inadequacy of the female - it's the so-called "crisis of masculinity".  You know, all that stuff about repressing the softer side etc.

Looked at with older post-maternal eyes,  it's possible to distinguish an anxious young man, whose needs are great and who hasn't space for the needs of his female companion.  Everything is laid out here - the neatness of the projection onto her, next to the painful sense of panic so dramatically displayed in the central section.  I used not to believe that; I thought he was just telling some sort of truth, now I see he's engaged in a battle with himself, which he absolutely has to win.

I wonder if I will win my own battle, not to make a trite comparison to vanquishing vine weevil, when the song still makes me a little bit sad.  I see my own worried young self, who has taken so many years to hear the obvious.  I see any sensitive young person, struggling to be unmoved and fearful of the demands of a relationship. I see the shells hardening, necessary but hurtful and hurting.


  1. I would welcome comments, arguments, refutations or just exclamations!


  2. By the way, the first "post comment" button doesn't work. You have to do "preview" and then when you have typed out the secure word, click "post comment"