Big Green Bookshop Book Club

I recently signed up to the Big Green Bookshop Book Club. Once you’ve paid your subscription, they send you a very interesting questionnaire. It’s not too long but it really made me think. Essentially it helps them get to know you and your reading tastes and with that information, they then choose a book for you and pop it in the post.

I’m always up for finding new books and new authors and supporting independant shops, especially independant bookshops! So I thought I’d give it a go. I chose to start with the 3 month option and see how I found it (so far I’m loving it, except for the moment of panic when a parcel arrives and I think I’ve forgotten I ordered something!).

So far I’ve recieved two books; Lanny by Max Porter and Feeding Time by Abam Biles. I haven’t read Feeding Time yet but I’ve just finished Lanny and what a book! I don’t tend to reread books but I think I probably will with this one as there’s so much you can pick up on the second time round.

A paperback copy of Lanny by Max Porter

On the surface it tells the story of Lanny, a boy who lives in a village outside London, with all the odd characters you find in books about village life! And of course, those characters have lived in the village for generations, making Lanny and his family very much outsiders.

But Lanny is no ordinary boy, and this is no ordinary village. This is the village of Dead Papa Toothwort who has woken from his slumber in the woods….

And that’s all I will say about the plot and the characters, you should read it for yourself and enjoy the wandering rhythm of the story being revealed.

What I do want to say is how wonderful the language is and how poetic this book is, and how astute the observations are:

“He slides across the land at precisely the speed of dusk…. English seasons roll out of bed… we nurture things slowly and we kill things quick… I’m waxed leaves and hard flint, storing tomorrow’s sunshine in my bark, invisible…”

Max Porter

How beautiful is that?! How soul nourishing and gorgeous?!

At one stage, Lanny is building a bower, like bowerbirds do, and filling it will the best stuff he’s found. And I wondered to myself, what would I put in my bower?

A bower must be decorative, with a carefully arranged display of objects; a dowry.  These objects include shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, bones, berries, plastic, glass or anything else the male bowerbird may find. And it’s not a rough and ready affair.  The male spends hours arranging his display, truly dedicating himself to the task.

I am looking around my flat and thinking about what I am drawn to… my bower would be feather lined, adorned with seashells and pretty bits of stone. There would be gnarled twigs and fairy lights. A space for precious, well thumbed books and well loved teddy bears. Another for photos and sentimental jewellery. Lines from poems and phrases from poems yet to be written. Bubbles, the kind you got as a kid, often in a party bag, and the scent of lemongrass. Tufts of wool retrieved from branches and conkers still with their shine.

My bower would be filled with treasures from nature, memories and words.

What would you put in yours?

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…

Sex in the animal kingdom is vastly more exciting than much of human sex.  Just look at the praying mantis – she literally eats her mate!

The sex lives of animals are just as diverse as the different species are and, despite what some people might have you think, sex in the animal kingdom isn’t just for reproduction.  We can be sure of this because some animals have sex when they aren’t in season and so reproduction is not an option, and others engage in masturbation and same sex sexual activity.  That being said, in this post, I’m going to look at the sex itself and consider other sexual activity in another post.  To start with, let’s take a quick look at how you might attract a mate.

If you’re a male hippo, you might try spraying urine and faeces over the female that’s caught your eye.  A male bowerbird will build an elaborate bower to entice a female.  Other creatures might identify an appropriate male through song or scent or via chemical signals in urine markers.  For sea slugs, it’s a poke between the eyes that gets your partner in the mood…  Violence is also a hallmark for elephant seals, with the male being much bigger than the females.  A male will fight for a beach and then mate with all the females on it.  Whether they want to or not.  Some creatures will even use electricity to try and attract a suitable mate.

In different species, what makes an attractive mate differs.  For female zebra finches, it’s the level of exploratory behaviour that matters whereas for orangutans, it’s all about the males ability to share.  In the orangutan world, a male who shares is important because males can be coercive and sexually violent towards females.

If none of this convinces you of the complex nature of animal sex, perhaps you should check out the leopard slugs mating process, of which there is a handy youtube video.

Lets also take a quick look at pandas; pandas are well known for being terrible at sex but this isn’t the case.  A big issue with breeding in captivity has been trying to pair up same sex pandas and expecting baby pandas…

“The wild panda is a secret stud, fond of threesomes and rough sex… Female pandas prefer the males that can leave their sexy scent marks the highest up a tree.  Scientists have described males adopting a selection of athletic poses – ‘squat’, ‘leg-cock’ and, most remarkably, ‘handstand’ – in order to squirt their pee as high as possible.”
– Lucy Cook

We often assume in the animal kingdom that if monogamy is not the norm for a species, that it’s the male who has multiple partners whilst females have one.  This is not the case.  And biologically it makes sense.  If a female mates with a male and then realises there’s a better male, she’s going to want her babies to come from the second male so they are of the best genetic quality.  Additionally, there is a lot of sexual violence and coercion so the female may have been forced into mating with a male she doesn’t want to reproduce with.  For some males, a gift can entice the female and, in those species, it makes a lot of sense for the female to play the field!

“Female fallow deer deliver only a single offspring per year and therefore have limited chances to get it right.  They often seek the most dominant eligible bachelors for sperm deposits: however if too many females have ‘come-a-calling’ he’s liable to be sperm-depleted or may provide ejaculates with a more limited supply.  With only one offspring per year, it’s vital for females to ensure successful fertilisation, so they often engage in polyandry as a form of insurance.”
– Carin Bondar

When it comes to sex organs, the animal world is also pretty diverse.  Opossoms have bifurcated penises and vaginas which can accommodate these.  Hyena’s clitoris very closely resembles a penis and extends to an impressive 20cm!  The female spotted hyena is the only known mammal with no external vaginal opening, instead they have to urinate, copulate and give birth through the pseudo-penis… Painful!

Looking to the males of the world, we find a beetle with a spiny penis and ducks with corkscrew penises (and females with corkscrew vaginas of course).  Slugs also have corckscrew penises and if they happen to be reluctant to come out again after sex, the partner will just, er, nibble it off…  For the tuberous bush cricket, it’s the testes that cause the problem, taking up most of their abdomen:

“At nearly 14% of their body weight, they are disproportionately large when compared to other species. Just think, a 100kg human would be walking around with 14kg of testicles, which would be mighty uncomfortable.”
Susan Lawler

But if you thought that was mind blowing, wait till you hear about the Drosophila bifurca, or to you and me, a kind of fly.  The male produces 6cm sperm, more than 20 times the length of the male!

We tend to assume that orgasms are strictly a human affair but this isn’t the case at all.  scientists have detected orgasm in many different species including macaques, orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees, although it should be noted these are generally the males of the species.  Perhaps because most human research about orgasms is about men and so the markers of an orgasm are male centric…  But that’s just this feminist’s ponderings about why…

There are also those animals that never have penis in vagina sex.  For example, African mouthbrooder cichlids reproduce orally.  Males will approach a female who then opens her mouth, which is where she carries her eggs, the male then sprays the eggs with sperm and fertilises them. Females will carry the eggs in her mouth until they hatch…

The argonaut octopus also doesn’t need to have ‘traditional’ sex.  Despite being very sexual, they engage in something called tele-sex where sperm is produced in a specially adapted penis which then detaches from the body and swims off to find a female. This penis then impregnants her and eventually the male regrows a new penis.

In another post I will consider animal sexuality but as a taster of what is to come, consider the whiptail lizards – a species made up entirely of females.  Instead of mating in the conventional way, or as a result of having both sets of organs, they make clones of themselves!  That said, they still need to engage in a mating ritual to stimulate egg production…  As only females are available, they take it in turns to act of the roles of males and females.

All of these weird and wonderful sounding sex lives just scratch the surface of how animals reproduce.  And as sex isn’t confined to reproduction, in another blog post, I’ll be looking more into the types of activity animals engage in without expecting babies to come along.

Suggested reading:

Bowerbird: Animal Dreaming


I’ve been so excited about this post!  The bowerbird is fascinating and interesting and amazing!  These architects of the bird world build complex and intriguing structures.  Some even paint these elaborate creations using natural pigments.  They collect treasures from the environment to decorate these intricate displays.  And why?  It is an activity carried out by the males as part of the mating ritual.

This is a painstaking process.  You need to prepare, think ahead, pull together the resources available and then carefully build your work of art.  You may need to steal from your fellow birds, you must keep an eye out for opportunities and you must gather your strength, your creativeness and your treasures.

A bower must be decorative, with a carefully arranged display of objects, a dowry.  These objects include shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, bones*, berries, plastic, glass or anything else the male may find, satin bowerbirds being particularly fond of blue objects. And it’s not a rough and ready affair.  The male spends hours arranging his display.  You must dedicate yourself to the work for this is your future.  If you do not impress the females, your genes will not be passed on.

Bowerbirds have also been observed creating optical illusions in their bowers to appeal to mates. They arrange objects in the bower’s court area from smallest to largest, creating a forced perspective which holds the attention of the female for longer. Males with objects arranged in a way that have a strong optical illusion are likely to have higher mating success.

But it doesn’t stop there.  Once a female has been attracted by the bower, you must start the elaborate mating ritual.  This involves expanding your pupils alternately, a call and dance then waving of wings like a matador followed by headbutting the female…  All of this is to prove yourself worthy to her.

Once a mate has been found, the male will fertilise her and then she has the job of building a nest and chick rearing all by herself.  Presumably leaving the male to continue preening his creation.  Which you will have noticed is not doubling up as a nest.  This feels strange to us when most animal behaviour has a clearer function.

Dowries, the keyword for this card, are gifts or money which is given by the brides family to the husbands family when they marry.  Whilst no actual dowry is transferred between the birds, it does feel like the male is the one offering the treasure instead.  I don’t think she actually takes any of his objects but there is a feeling that they are displaying their wealth and enticing her with it rather than her bringing the offering as in the human sense of the word.  Regardless, I feel that this card and the keyword are asking us to look around and see what resources and treasures we have and to think about our relationship to them and how we treat them.  By resources and treasures I am including knowledge, opportunities, friends, family and environment as well as what you physically own or have access to.  We are all abundant in some way.

*Because of their bone collecting habit, the aboriginal people called the bowerbird the ghost bird.