Heart of a Witch.

The autumn leaves were falling in a dry rustle around us as the trees slowly, reluctantly gave into the darkening days and sighed down to the woodland floor. My eye was caught by something bright red:  careless trash, I assumed, but stopped a moment to check.

Amongst the leaves was something far odder, older and much fouler than a discarded sweet wrapper. Spongy, fleshy, organic and disturbing, on an October afternoon I had stumbled upon a witch’s heart lying decomposing on the forest floor.

Clatharus ruber has many names: witch’s heart; stinking basket; Stinking cage and it is found in Europe and also in the Americans. The cage of rubbery bright red life erupts from a white egg and the first naturalist to describe it in the 16th century thought it was a marine animal . This fungus appears and decays into a stinking mass in 24 hours. This film clip shows the whole gruesome process https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pdN4pJXEDuE.

It took the contents of my water bottle to wash the stinking fungal spores off my fingers. The smell is utterly repellent. You would have to be a carrion fly to appreciate it, but I am glad I got to hold the heart of a witch for just a few jellified soul shuddering moments!

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Easy pickings: prickly pickings!

 

I was pleased as punch with the first few cherry tomatoes that the garden produced this season and as the dry, hot weather has gone on; with just a little effort,  I have filled bowl after bowl with the sweet red jewels. Previous attemps to grow tomatoes have resulted in little to eat and a lot of black blight, but this year has been a fruitful union of the right seeds and the perfect weather.

 

 

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Much sparcer, and far more difficult to pick have been the first sloes from our garden. Sloe berries come from blackthorn and the bush is well named, as the thorns are hard and very spiney. This blackthorn bush self seeded into a corner of the garden that we didn’t mow, along with birch, willow, larch, budlia, plum, laurel, fir and even an oak sapling.

We let the wild patch alone and the blackthorn has grown big enough in 8 years to be covered in white flowers in the spring time and now thick with black fruit in the autumn. In England you don’t pick sloes until they are crisped by the first frost, but I have learnt from experience that in my corner of France/ Germany/Switzerland, if you wait until the first frost, the berries will have ripened and fallen off by then .

So in the wild corner of the garden I did mighty  battle with the thorns and picked enough fruit to turn a couple of bottles of gin into sloe gin for a treat this Christmas. They will do their frosting in the freezer and I will add them to gin and sugar next week.

So you see gardening for wildlife is not entirely altruistic after all!

Mutability

Thank you to all those made wonderful guesses at the identity of the mysterious dripping wombat/ hedgehog .

The extraordinary solid wheeping dome was the start of a bracket fungi called a Red Belted Bracket ( I think!).  It takes years to mature and the original photo showed the first pulse of the fruiting body on a felled pine tree.

At first I thought a cyclist had left a water bottle on the pile of cut wood as it gleamed with droplets. I stretched out my hand tentatively, maybe the drops were solidifying resin, but no, they were ordinary water and lots of it. The log on which it was growing had been cut for months and there has been no rain for weeks and yet the fungi had found water to pump out all around itself in a sheath of jewels. As we clambered over the log pile we found the fungi in all states of development. The final unmistakable bracket was creamy white underneath, sweet smelling and still fringed in perfect droplets like tears.

A beautiful piece of creation and a salutary lesson in the mutability of fungi and how difficult they can be to safely identity as they change almost out of recognition as they grow.

 

Dawn

I open the bathroom window, the cat leaps onto the window sill, huge eyed she surveys the black garden. The houses are dark, the shutters are down. Above the hill a crescent moon reclines on thin clouds.

A tawny owl calls soft and is answered, soft, soft. Bat, or is it bird, black against grey, very close. One cluck, another and then an indignant coal scuttle of falling notes clattering hard against the leaves: the blackbirds are awake – there is orange in the sky.

The church spire appears and a black redstart ticks the waking minutes from the rose arch. The Rome flight takes off and the plane leaves a dirty streak of noise across the sky followed by another and another. The pale blue morning is now tartan with orange vapour trails.
Two crows weave through, chatting companionably together against the immense  sky. The sparrows are awake, a car hisses by.

The donkey, that I have never heard in my entire life, brays to the crows.

The cat jumps down.

 

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Gardening Organically

I found this great post and I just pressed the reblog button in my enthusiasm. I didnt have time to ask for permission and I really hope The Wildlife Gardener doesnt mind my hasty action, but it is a really good piece and it expresses the need to ditch the chemicals much better than I can!

The Wildlife Gardener

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It’s tempting to reach for the chemical sprays or powders when your walk into your garden and find your favorite rose overrun with aphids or Japanese beetles, or find your cauliflower beset by cabbage worms.  After all, what harm can a localized spray possibly do?

The answer is quite a lot.  The fact is 90% or more of all insects are beneficial and harmless, and no matter how “localized” the spray, the chemical will kill all insects, not just the “pests.”  A diverse collection of insects in your garden/yard translates into good pollination and fruit development, and a natural, non-toxic check on the growth of “pests.”  We need insects in the ecosystem.  The alternative would be hand-pollinating our fruit and vegetables to continue our food supply; clearly not a viable or reasonable alternative.

Beneficial insects, if allowed to flourish, will curb the spread of pests.  The two most effective ways to encourage…

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Blink.

Today was hallucinogenic lace. Threads of nothing from branch to no where and then gone. Lines across the eyes that lift and leave and we feel that it meant something, but it couldn’t, it wasnt there.

The spiders were balloning. Fine autumn weather and wolf,house and crab spiders take to the air throwing out gossamer lines to launch the next generation on the wind. Such wonderful faith in the future, they throw themselves on the hallucinary beauty of the breeze. We blink our slow eyes and almost miss the marvellously minute migration in the air all around us.

Chocolate dusting

These bracket fungi remind me of Christmas spice biscuits: white sugar and a dark chocolate top, all dusted with cocoa powder. The honey fungus to the left look like marzipan decorations, but I am not eating any of it. Foraging maybe fashionable these days, but a spectacular number of people die every year from picking and eating the wrong mushrooms. I am fascinated by fungi, but know enough to recognise how different the same species can be, at each stage of its growth. Even the most experienced can make mistakes and while this can just lead to a badly upset stomach, it can also lead to fast, fatal poisoning. So I just admire from a distance and eat real chocolate instead!

On the same walk in the woods, where I spotted these deceptively edible treats, I saw a commotion in a fir tree which took a moment to understand. There was ungainly flapping and an odd hissing/cooing noise. The flapping was a buzzard and the hissing was a very small red squirrel racing along the trunk of the tree to escape. The buzzard chased it up the tree and then down again, flapping its wings against the trunk to dislodge the mammal. The squirrel ran for its life making the strangest soft cooing noises. Eventually it reached the safety of the floor and buried its self in the undergrowth. The buzzard flew heavily away with a disgusted croak.

I have seen a buzzard with a dead red squirrel in its claws, but never watched them hunting like this before. We don’t get Grey squirrels here at all and the red squirrels are much less obvious. I have always thought of buzzards hunting voles and rabbits, but when you see how crafty they are in the depth of the forest, it is no wonder the red squirrels with their soft voices, are so cautious and hard to see.

Apple.

Eve reached up,
The tree was small and her arms were long and strong.
The dry stem snapped between her fingers
And red fruit fell plump into her outstreched hand.
She inhaled the perfume, felt the cool skin against her warm cheek and
The first bite was deep.
The knowledge bitter,
But the taste was so, so sweet.

Ode to Autumn.

This has been a real autumn. The grapes have loaded the cottage eves heavy enough to fill bottle after bottle of sweet grape juice. Last autumn there was nothing at all after a terrible frost struck following a precociously  early spring. There were no apples, no plums, no walnuts and no grapes. The apples press next door was utterly silent and the wine growers of the Alsace said the couldn’t cover their tax bills.

This year has been a wonderful contrast. The clink of bottles filling with apple juice has been continuous since the pressoir opened a week early. Thanks to the generosity of a friend with apple trees, we have 70 litres of cider bubbling in the garage . This weekend we harvested our own seedy red grapes. I got spectacularly stung by a wasp that hit me between my fingers as I picked and put my swollen hand in a sling for two days!

The real grape harvest started three weeks earlier than usual in the proper vinyards and it promises to be an excellent year for wine.

Here on the coldest edges of the wine country, we have enjoyed a lovely pass the parcel of plums and apples, mirabelles, and blackberries as each neighbours passes their lucious surplus on across the hedge.

This really is a proper autumn!

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Apples going to be crushed for cider.

Magic 2

This may look like a huge loofa, but in fact it is the saw dust from when we last sawed logs for the stove. In the intervening months mysterious and secretive ant lions have found this dry spot and excavated tidy death traps for passing insects. The larvae wait, jaws upwards waiting for unspecting minibeasts to tumble in. I never cease to be amazed how wildlife will find a home everywhere, if we just leave a little time and muddle for them to enjoy!

For those of you who came up with wonderful ideas for Magic 1 post – Flighty was closest!
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It was a chunk of a large blue staining boletus mushroom found in the woods. Apparently it is edible, but nothing so garish gets between my gnashers!

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Pivot..End of August…..

Nine o’clock at night and it is night, as the end of summer darkness has come quickly. The commuters have all gone. The swishing tyres are silent. On the curve of the hill a tawny owl calls . Again and again more distant now as the darkness thickens.

My near neighbour is clearing the dinner plates. Her voice is full of urgent news and chatter. There are no spaces for replies. Through the lighted window her daughter stretches up her arms after a full meal. The chatter disappears, the owl returns. In the street a car drives away. The daughter and her boyfriend leave her parents to a quiet, tidy house.

Madame Charlotte’s feral cats appear: quiet, black, quite aware that I am no threat to them, they drink from the hedgehog bowl and delicately sniff out the cat food discarded by my pampered hygienic moggies. I think I can hear earthworms slithering. An apples falls heavy from a tree onto the cooling grass behind me.

In front, Madame Charlotte’s 45 year old son parks up under the eves of the old barn. He lets out a prodigious belch and fumbles into the house. The lone bat leaves the high eves and goes out across the orchard to feed.

The mosquitoes are feeding on me. Time to go in: the autumnal kitchen door slams behind me.

Wide Eyed.

Deadly Night Shade has a beautiful name in English and in Latin. It’s English name ushers us in to dark oblivion, but the Latin name shows us something more dangerously seductive. Atropa Belladona, used as a poison works quickly and effectively, but used in very small doses it apparently dilates the pupil of the eye and makes the user strangely attractive to the viewer – she becomes the bella donna.

Blossoming and fruiting together on its long stems, this Deadly Night Shade seemed well hidden by the forest. The fruits are black and disturbingly luscious, but I think no eyes dilated on seeing them here beneath the cool beech trees. Atropos, the fate who can cut the thread of human life, held her breath. Everything was quiet and innocent in the woods: only the names of the flowers breathed murder and lust.

 

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“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood….”

 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost.

 

I thought of this much anthologised and loved poem as I walked in the woods today.

Frost wrote this poem in 1915 and sent it to his great friend the English poet Edward Thomas. The American and the English man were walking in the woods in Gloucestershire, as they often did. They were talking about the war that was engulfing Europe and wondering which path to take, both literally and metaphorically. A game keeper challenged them with a gun and an altercation ensued that continued at the game keeper’s cottage and saw both poets threatened. Frost laughed it off and used the event to inspire this poem, which he sent to Thomas. Thomas saw the poem as a gibe about his indecision about  if  he should enlist as soldier or not. This poem was apparently instrumental in his final fatal decision to sign up .

Thomas signed up and was sent to France. Two months later he was dead, killed in the terrible slaughter of Arras.

“The Road not Taken” by Robert Frost  is a great favorite of mine and so is “Adlestrop”

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by Edward Thomas, but ( “telling this with a sigh” ) one poet lived a long and productive  life and the other died young. Hopefully not all of our choices have such profound consequences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alsace in August.

There have been three weeks of punishingly hot weather here, but today it was finally cool and we could emerge from our firmly shuttered house and enjoy the countryside.

The skies are full of huge storks . All the youngsters have successfully fledged from their roof top nests and have followed every plough and harvester to gather up the crickets, slugs and voles and turn them into gigantic terydactyl sized birds. I love seeing the white storks raise their noisy broods in such public places. They are a wonderful European sucesss story . In the Alsace they were nearly shot to extinction only a few decades ago, but now with bettter education and legal protection these truely iconic birds are flourishing once again. When I arrived in our village 8 years ago, to see a stork in the sky was a real event, but now they feed regularly in the meadows and the local school is putting up a stork basket to encourage the first pair to nest here for many years. Some things do get better!

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When stopping for a rest, I looked closely at this Douglas fir branch . There is a new cone sticky with resin, but there are also the remains of old cones, with just the sharp, strong centre remaining. Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas are said to originate in the Alsace starting with pine tree brought into the house and decorated. The old upright cone stalk looked exactly like the metal spike used to secure candles in times gone by and I wondered if this natural shape had given people the idea of attaching the little candles that illuminate Christmas trees still,  while we stand by with the fire extinguisher on Christmas Eve.

Thirty storks flew high over the garden today. The migration has started – Christmas is coming!!

 

Breathe in.

Stripping lavender flowers from their stalks is the most peaceful task I know.

As you sit beside a basket of trimmed flowers and rub your fingers along each stem, the seeds are crushed: gently releasing a perfume that soothes the soul and relaxes the mind as it rises. The bowl  slowly fills with soft light flowers. Plunging your hand in and stiring releases more perfume, until you can taste lavender on your tongue and feel it on your eyelashes. The world is slowed down. You breathe deeply and everything seems safe and clean, fresh and very very  young.

I always leave the lavender until it is seeded, as the flowers attract clouds of butterflies and bees that I would not deprive of their perfumed food. The seeds smell just as intensely as the flowers and this way I have the pleasure of their perfume and the sight of the butterflies too.

A few bunches are hung up for decoration and the rest will fill cotton bags to scent pillows and sheets in the linen cupboard. The smallest lavender bag will go in my work bag. When I need reminding of my garden I rub it between my fingers and I am back in the green shade inhaling the complex glory of lavender in a safe, perfumed summer garden.

In the eye of the beholder.

I know the photo will make some shudder, but to me this is beautiful.

Oak Egger moths are big and bold and so covered in fur they seem designed for the arctic . It has been too hot here for doing anything during the day, so I get up at dawn to enjoy what little cool there is . Gently opening the moth trap still makes me feel like a child on Christmas morning discovering the presents left by Santa. A flurry of tiny white moths always escape at once, but then I slow lift out the egg boxes one by one and see what the night has brought with enough time to photograph and to check names in the book.

Identifying is satisfying; sending  in records to the local wildlife trust is worthy, but often I don’t want to do either.

Who cares what they are called, when they are there on your own hand, regarding you with their unfathomable eyes?

Sometimes science can wait. I just want to stare back.

Eye, eye!

 

The odd creature in the large reading glasses is me, but the monster on the left is a large elephant hawk moth caterpillar. He was lying flat to the stem of the evening primrose plant, but when confronted by my alarming visage he retracted his elephant snout ( hence the name) swelled up his head prodigiously and waved his huge eye markings at me in an impressively menacing way.  He was quite harmless, but his display of monster mimicing should repel all but the most agressive predator!

We have had some welcome rain, which has brought out a banquet of slugs for the hedgehogs. Last night I found a youngster drinking deep from the water in the saucer of a just watered plant and later this afternoon , in broad daylight, a larger hedge hog was drinking unconcernedly from the saucer of water I always leave on the lawn.

This large, old plant saucer has provided water for generations of hedgehogs, for wasps and sparrows and black birds. It isn’t pretty, but it has been a life saver, so keep an eye on the wild visitors to your garden by keeping the water topped up. You never know what you might see!

 

 

In plain sight ( 2)

The garden is alive with butterflies by day and moths by night. Some moths are bright and some butterflies are drab. This ringlet took a break from feeding on marjoram flowers in the sun and rested a momement amonst the drying seeds. Blink and you miss it, but she had found the perfect camouflage and sat awhile until I had time to photograph her and then she flitted on in her unfathomable world.

 

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