Derek – Friday 2nd October 2020

The Cereal Project has finished. Most of the plants are dead; once we have removed the ears of corn, the rest is straw. They are in cardboard boxes which have taken a lot of punishment since the first sowing in March. The boxes are bulging, some close to collapse. We pull out the plants and throw them on the nearby compost heap. Then remove the boxes with their compost, half of them collapse under the weight. They’ve survived two seasons with sun and rain, and watering on dry days, but lifting is just took much. The boxes will compost easily, as they are soft and impregnated with soil. We throw the soil on the heap too. It’s tired, the goodness drawn out over the months.

Of the ten cereals, three we leave for another week or so. The rice has plenty of green stalks, but will not seed now, with the colder weather and long nights. The teff is not completely dead, so we let it complete its cycle. And the winter wheat, which came from birdseed, was probably sown late (by an unknown songster) and its ears are still green.

As we lift the boxes, woodlice scuttle out. They have had a perfect habitat under the cardboard boxes; waterered every day, soil seeping out, and the boxes protecting them from light and predators. Once exposed, they dash frantically away, searching out the nearest dark place. This is instinctive behaviour. Or more simply, light is painful.

They are the most common of woodlice (Oniscus asellus), and belong, like all woodlice, to the superfamily of arthropods, which means jointed limbs. The arthropods include the insects, spiders, and crustaceans. Woodlice belong to the latter group, along with lobsters, crabs and extinct creatures like trilobites. The majority of crustaceans are aquatic, and the ancient ancestor of the woodlice was too; they retain the need for moisture, seeking out damp places. There is though a form which live in the desert, having adapted over the aeons to the dryest of environments. It is likely the ancestor of the woodlice left the seas in the Carboniferous around 300 millions years ago, the era when coal was laid down from giant ferns and other early plants.

Woodlice live mostly on rotting vegetation, there are masses of them in our compost heap, where they help to break down the vegetation. They have seven pairs of legs and two tentacles on their heads called flagellum. The cuticle covering their segments is their exo-skeleton, protecting them, and giving achorage for muscles. The exo-skeleton has to be shed as the animal grows.

With the overlapping sections of the body plates, they remind me of armadillos from South America. A species known as the pill woodlice will curl up into a ball when threatened, rather like the armadillo. This is known as parallel evolution, when unrelated species adapt a similar strategy. A more familiar example is with whales, which are mammals, but in the sea have become fishlike in body shape as they have adapted to the same environment as fish.

Also under the boxes amidst the woodlice is a cylinder millipede. They are also arthropods, older even than woodlice. Fossiles of them being found in the Silurian (430 million years ago).

Leaves are turning and beginning to fall, these red and brown signallers informing us of the coming dormancy for trees and shrubs. At the end of the month the garden switches to winter opening hours. We hope the weather is mild before our hours change with the clock, to make up a little for days lost during lockdown.

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