Blackberry Picking

The race between the frost and the late sunshine is being run hard in my little garden. The blackberries are glossy, but still a day or two away from sweetness: the frost is forecast for the approaching full moon.

I thought of Seamus Heaney’s disquieting poem “Blackberry Picking “ where he is acutely aware of the childish desire to hoard all sweet things along with the adult recognition of the transience of life.

Poets can spoil everything by always showing us the skull beneath the skin.

...the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.

……..

Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney, “Blackberry Picking” from Opened Ground: Selected poems 1966-1996

It’s easy to feel pessimistic about the climate. But we’ve got two big things on our side | Bill McKibben | The Guardian

One is the astonishing fall in the cost of renewable energy. The other is the huge growth in the citizens’ movements demanding action, says academic and climate campaigner Bill McKibben
— Read on www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/oct/15/climate-crisis-cop26-bill-mckibben

We have to keep believing in a better future. Technology is helping and the push of intelligent people to make our leaders listen is helping too!

Blink.

This extraordinary scrap of life was slowly traversing the path.

It seemed to be a cross between a feather duster and a plastic cat toy: a pulsating gobbit of implausible life. The photo shows the pink tufts and psychedelic green body, but it does not show the strange black winking eye on its back. The eye appeared to open and close as the caterpillar squeezed along and no doubt this was evolved to frighten away a hungry bird. The bright hairs are to make the caterpillar inedible, if the winking eye was not enough to keep it safe through the winter.

Should this fearsome tiny fright makes it to spring time, it will be a pale tussock moth, grey and furry and quite unlike this wonderful punk adolescent caterpillar phase caught indignantly crossing the path this cold afternoon.

Not in a hurry.

The flowers are from the green dump in the village . Every autumn my neighbours throw away their geraniums and cut down flowering plants, while the sun is still shining and the first frosts are hopefully weeks away.

I don’t understand this .

Why be in a hurry for the winter and bare soil?

I collected the lovely pink geranium flowers and marigolds to brighten my table and decided to spin out the autumn evening with some local wine. It is grape harvest time right now in warmer valleys along the Rhine. I am drinking a table wine of no great repute, but it has the floral taste that I am in no hurry to discard in the rush to clear the soil and let the long winter in!

‘Volcanoes are life’: how the ocean is enriched by eruptions devastating on land | Volcanoes | The Guardian

Worrying about the environment is such a depressing part of 21st century life that volcanic destruction seems like light relief. It is weirdly liberating to contemplate such spectacular destruction which is nothing at all to do with humanity.

The eruptions on the Canary Islands are awesome ( in the correct use of the term!) and the larva spewing out over the land is extraordinary. This article deals with the larva going into the sea and how marine life is enriched by it.

Enjoy, for once, the power of nature that you cannot control or be held responsible for!

Lava is destroying much of La Palma but the last eruption in the Canaries appears to have ‘fertilised’ the surrounding seas
— Read on www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/05/volcanoes-are-life-how-the-ocean-is-enriched-by-eruptions-devastating-on-land

Beauty in decay.

Autumn is just starting here.

The leaves on the trees have only just started to turn, but other leaves are ready to drop. This sunflower leaf is yellowed and over. I haven’t cut down the old flowers, as goldfinches and marsh tits hang from the ripening heads, picking out seeds.

Migratory birds come over the garden . Swallows and martins are nearly all gone and when the wind picks up, red kites catch a ride over to the south.

Up in the Vosges Mountains the battle sites of the First World War are still softening into the landscape. Terrible sites of slaughter, that were blasted of every tree and man, are beautiful in the autumn.

If you look closely at the photos you can see that the hedge is actually the original barbed wire that separated German and French soldiers. Today, the rust seems organic and the trees have regained the dispute heights .

There is real beauty in such decay.

Curious southern right whale nudges paddleboarder in Argentina – video | Environment | The Guardian

A rare encounter was caught on video when a Southern Right whale seemingly plays with a woman on a paddle-board and pushes the board gently forward observing its movement as it swims directly beneath it.
— Read on www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2021/sep/02/curious-southern-right-whale-nudges-paddleboarder-in-argentina-video

This short video is extraordinary. I have just been collecting the tiniest wild marjoram seeds to give to a friend and then I see this gigantic, intelligent mammal watching a human with obvious curiosity and I am star blown by the range of life on this beautiful planet!

Night of the Light Emeralds.

This morning the lawn was spangled with light emerald moths, caught in the grassy dew and just waiting for the climbing sun to dry them out.

The moth trap was also full of them and it seemed as if every blue wall was studded with them . Their colour fades until they can be as pale as paper, but the white line across the wings is always diagnostic.

September is a cross over month. The summer Jersey Tigers and Large yellow underwings are still here and the yellow shells are still flying, but the autumn pinions, snouts and marbled carpets are turning up too. Some caterpillars are eating voraciously, hoping to make cocoons that will over winter in the leaf litter to provide us with the moths and butterflies of next season. The more I find out about moths, the more I realise that so many species over winter on the ground in leaf litter and hedges, which makes me even more determined not to tidy up my garden completely, but to leave plenty of “scruffy “ overgrown places for the cocoons to survive.

We have to resist the urge to tidy, trim and blow if there is to be any wildlife left.

That said; I am struggling not to move this knotgrass caterpillar off my rhubarb plant. I want the moth and my rhubarb to survive!

The eternal dilemma of the green gardener!

Locked away

This time of year I collect seeds.

The whole plant is now locked away in the tiniest of seeds.

Sometimes they will germinate in Autumn rains and survive the winter, but most often the seed will just wait it out until the spring comes and conditions are right to explode into life.

Seeds are so tiny in comparison to the plant they may become. All that complex information for life is locked away safely in the dry seed and it’s survival is so improbable that it makes collecting the autumn seeds seem like the most important thing I can do . I know seed catalogs are full of technicolor promise for the spring, but these are seeds that I know will grow again. I collect nasturtiums, sweet William, dames violet, wall flowers and lettuce. Some things will just seed without needing to be collected like roucoula , columbine and marigolds. Some will need the lure of the seed catalogue like chard and pumpkin and fennel, but all will be an astounding testimony to what can grow out from the locked away life!

Race against time.

There was no summer this year.

If I had been Mary Shelley, sheltering from a similarly sodden season in Switzerland, I should have written “Frankenstein”, but I am not suitably talented or tormented and so I spent my time identifying moths and cutting back hedges.

Now that it is officially autumn the sun has finally come out and we can stop lighting fires and sit in the garden instead.

Migration has started. The wires are beaded with massing swallows and just occasionally the tropical burble of bee eaters can be caught as they head south . The village roads are full of motorbikes touring through the Jura before the cold penetrates their very expensive leather kits. Local farmers thunder by bringing in hay that has lain too long in the rainy fields and the wood from the forest is being brought in by every ancient tractor still working.

Everybody is sawing and stacking wood. The village may not grow grapes or make cheese, but it has plenty of trees and there is always wood for the winter.

My dahlias have only just started to flower and they are in a race with the frost . One or two flame coloured flowers are betting on the autumn being warm still. I am a pessimist by nature and prefer to place my bet on our wood stack!

Lightening Strike

This oak tree was struck by a bolt of lightning and the scar rips right down to the roots.

The line seems absurd, too precise and yet it came from the electrical discharge of the sky to the earth in devastating perfection.

The tree did not burn, but it is dead, shocked from its slow life into improbable death in a blinding instant.

Make a little space.

Nature will push on through if we just give it a little space.

The Rhine is one of the most industrialised rivers in the world. It’s banks have unloaded the coal and the wood and the chemicals and the shipping containers from China for a very very long time. It is the scar line of Europe and it has been fought over and died for and its waters have been canalised and concreted, polluted and poisoned beyond recognition. But is still flows strongly and given a bit of space, it is returning to its wild abundance.

A small section of the Rhine has been allowed to flow freely. The meanders and shallows that should be there have been put back. Willows have been allowed to root and the swans have come back. It is one of the biggest rewilding projects in Europe, but it is still tiny in comparison to what has been lost.

There are kingfishers and dragonflies where there was just concrete and today there are fish in the shallows and 150 white storks feeding as they moved across the planet going south.

There are bird hides and wardens and ladies on bicycles astonished by the richness that they never knew was there. They didn’t know, not because they were unobservant, but because it didn’t exist before in living memory. It has been hugely expensive , better we never let it get so bad, but as we did, the restoration of this little elbow of the Rhine has been worth every euro.

When nature is given a little space, it floods back in all its exuberant fabulous beauty whether it is between the slats of a fence or the banks of great river!

https://www.sundgau-sud-alsace.fr/en/LAW/A-renature-space-on-the-Rhine-Island.htm?HTMLPage=/presentation/sites-naturels.htm&action=&page=1&commune=&categorie=&genre=1900009&nom_recherche=&langue=1&ID=252004325&TYPE=1900200&langue=1&sessionalea=

To keep ourselves amused.

When lock down seemed doomed to go on forever and vaccines seemed like an mythical rumour, I planted some carrot seeds in an old pair of wellington boots. My husband made holes in the soles for drainage and away I went!

The seeds germinated and grew a bit . I watered them a lot and even fed them. Eventually I pulled the much anticipated roots up and the profoundly underwhelming results are there for all to see.

Thank goodness the vaccines have been much more impressive!

Thanks to the plummeting death rates: lockdown down is now over for the vaccinated in France; cafes, theatres and restaurants are fully open again. It feels strange to be with others again, but at least you know the people around you indoors are also vaccinated , as they have had to show their pass to get in. I know the vaccine does not guarantee complete safety from infection, but the more people have the jab ( and luckily France has enough vaccines that everybody who wants one, can have one) the chances of getting very sick are diminishing all the time.

Hopefully next spring won’t be so confined and bizarre that planting carrots in old footwear will seem like a good idea!

What boredom will lead to!

Hearing the world

I forgot my binoculars again, so I had to listen instead.

First there was the conversational croak and squark of frogs. Heavy flops into water and ripples covering the commotion with quiet again. Then there was hissing of ducks, flapping and bell beat of swans wings pushing away invaders. Then a scream like a stuck pig from the reeds. Water rails are rarely seen but unmistakable in their piercing indignation.

Then I was convinced we were being followed as there were rustles behind us but no footsteps. Leaves flinked against the sunlight, branches just moved. Finally we saw the twisting dark line of a red squirrel, so little and so lithe, jumping from hazel branch to hazel branch, stripping the green nuts as she went.

Down on the ground, she looked for the dislodged nuts, but was pulled back up into the leaves by any disturbance, as fast as a children’s toy whipped along by a thread.

Planes growled out of the airport (the covid silence is long gone) . A strimmer ripped up the quiet and then a golden oriole called and its rich exotic tropical note soothed the natural sounds back to the foreground again.

Shall I stay?

The storks are a great success story in my part of the world. When I arrived here 14 years ago, to see one or two was a great event. Then we found reintroduction sites where nests were protected and numbers grew. We saw storks more regularly and sometimes in great numbers when they migrated south in the winter.

Now we often see great groups of up to 20 huge stately birds picking through the fields with fierce concentration. They nest in all the villages around , but we are just a little too high up and so far no pair has chosen us.

This summer has been cool and very wet and stabbing their great beaks into the earth in search of food has been easy. Many more stork chicks have been reared and last years birds need roof tops spaces to build their nests for next year.

A few weeks ago, for the first time, a young stork perched on the roof of an old house opposite and threw back his head and clacked his beak loudly . He was calling for a mate, advertising the real estate he had located and trying to tempt a female to establish the first nest in our village.

So far he had no takers, but he is the first to try and I really hope he will find a mate who will love this place as much as I do and that the storks will return to my village.

The fungus and bacteria tackling plastic waste – BBC News

Plastic is blighting the world. I try to avoid it, but my bin is still shamefully full of it.

I have managed to avoid some by not using plastic bottled soaps, shampoos and toothpastes, but it is literally a drop in the ocean.

I have tried writing to cat food manufacturers to ask then to make pouches of cat food in biodegradable packaging , but got no where, so I was heartened by this article that particularly mentions Nestle who make the cat food that my planet destroying fur balls demand.

Fungi maybe the answer to concreting over the world by making building materials and it might just save us from plastic rubbish too .Why future homes could be made of living fungus

Here’s to the mighty mycelium!

Bacteria, fungus and enzymes can all digest plastic, but can they work at a useful commercial scale?
— Read on www.bbc.com/news/business-57733178

Up and down

The teasels are flowering.

The circle of purple flowers opens both up and down the flower heads and they remind me of the wonderful lines about the candle burning at both ends.

“My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –

It gives a lovely light.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Thistles: 1918.

When the brief firework of flowers are over, the seed heads will ripen and the dried heads will stand all winter long to feed the meticulous goldfinches when there seems nothing left to eat in the world.

The prickly, unpromising Teasels really are a “lovely light” at both ends of the year.

Cosy in compost

This wonderful shining knot of slow worms were coiled up together in the warm compost bin. They aren’t worms or snakes, but harmless legless lizards that share our garden and eat the slugs.

We used to be delighted if we saw one basking on a sunny day all golden smooth in the bright light. Winston the cat used to bring them to us occasionally, unharmed but tailless where they had dropped their wriggling tail in the hope of distracting a predator while they escaped. He seems to have grown out of that habit and the slow worms have happily raised families in the warmth and safely of the lidded plastic compost bin. There were at least six when the lid was raised to deposit the daily offerings of tea leaves and potatoes peelings and most just slid away amongst the cuttings and warmly decomposing compost. You can see three heads of the ones who were slower to move.

Apparently they can stay intertwined when mating for 10 hours, so there may have been good reason for their sluggishness!

I like to think of our kitchen “rubbish” breeding such beauty!

“Eye Eye”

Some mornings the moth trap produces a real wonder.

While noting the usual suspects ( footmen, yellow underwings, magpie etc etc ) I saw a hawk moth on the egg boxes. At first I assumed it was a poplar hawk moth, but it’s body was curled up like a convulous hawk moth so I took a closer look . As I gently took out the egg box on which it was sitting , it flashed two extraordinary blue and pink eyes at me.

The eyes were startling and bright and were unexpected enough to deter most predators. Just as quickly they were hidden again under dull coloured fore wings and the eyes were closed.

Many moth names are expressive or simply odd, so it was a little disappointing to find that this wonderful creature has been given the pedestrianly obvious name of Eyed Hawk-moth Smerinthus ocellata

Maybe you can suggest something more fitting to this eye catching beauty!

Suggestions please?

Adam Zagajewski

This is the only lily that survived the hail storm . It is damaged but it’s perfume is undiminished and breathtakingly lovely.

It made me think of this wonderful poem by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. I was looking for a copy of the poem on the Poetry Foundation Website and I found that he had died only a few months ago. This poem has circled in my head since I first read it . The poem is universal , deeply human and the author was a great poet .

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

By ADAM ZAGAJEWSKITRANSLATED BY Clare Cavanagh

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

While I wasn’t looking.

Nearly a year ago, on a very hot day, a solitary wasp built a mud nest under my kitchen window sill. It filled the mud dome with food for it grubs and then it sealed the young in and flew away.

I have checked on it periodically, hoped it was still alive after a very cold winter and an icy spring. It was well sheltered from the hail by the overhang and while I was busy doing something else , the young bit their way out of the rock hard dome and literally flew the nest.

I wonder if a new wasp will be back to build again. It is cool and wet this year and these wasps are on the edge of their range, so maybe they will not venture north again this year.

The moths are about three weeks late this year. I have been mothing in this garden for so long now that I know when each species should appear. The yellow underwings are here: the large and the broad bordered: the first fan foots are here, the ubiquitous hearts and darts are here in proper numbers and the uncertains are definitely on the wing. Dark arches are appearing, common footmen and little magpie moths are in the moth trap and on the windows. Orache moths have turned up and today a lovely furry headed poplar hawk moth took a liking to my pencil and sat on it all rainy day. You can see my note book of species noted each day under his wings as he sheltered the endlessly rainy day away on the dry garden table.

Lemonade

If the world gives you lemons make lemonade.

Just over a week from the devastating hailstorm that trashed the garden, there is some regrowth .

One courgette plant and one pumpkin plant survived and have put out very small new leaves. A few bush bean plants are still growing despite being splashed with mud. The stumps of lettuces have inspired a new ring of leaves and the bush fuchsia is making buds at the apex of each smashed stalk.

The roses are shocked out of summer and only a few undamaged buds have opened in stunned smallness . The peonies are long gone and even the stalwart ladies’ mantle is an unretrievable broken mass on the grass. I have been most surprised by the havoc reeked on the lavender, which was just budding and really shooting up. The hail has pockmarked virtually every flower stem and over the passing week they have slowly wilted and finally collapsed over the foliage.

I was going to throw a party to celebrate that fact that we are both now retired and survived many years of teaching. The garden has been my personal refuge, from the digitised soullessness horror of modern education. Now the garden gives me less pleasure, so I went to the co-op and bought some hanging fuchsias and begonias, new tomatoes plants, fennel and cabbage and parsley.

I thought trying an actual lemon plant would be pushing the metaphor way beyond its climatic boundaries.

I think the party will have to wait, until there has been more regrowth, but the lemonade jug is ready and waiting just in case!

In the shelter of a hedge.

This rose grows in the shadow of a thick hedge. It flowers each summer mostly ignored.

When a catastrophic hailstorm destroyed my garden a few days ago it was sheltered from the devastation and now its lone bloom is the most valued thing that there is left.

When we moved to our house 12 years ago, our new neighbours warned us about the hail storms that can trash everything in minutes and sighed at our desire to grow soft fruit and grapes. We listened politely and went ahead with planting raspberries and currants and vines. There were a few hail storms and one year we lost our potatoes, but nothing was too bad.

The thunder started early in the afternoon and went on for so long I just thought it was part of the music that was playing.

The hail stones were 2-3 cm in diameter. They broke plant pots, roof tiles and chipped off the plaster from the walls of the house. They bounced like ball barrings or frozen gob stoppers and smashed foliage as they fell. The lettuces were pulverised, the pumpkins, courgettes and green beans were pounded into the mud and the potato plants shredded into skeletons.

After spectacular lightening and yet more thunder, the heavens finally opened . Hail thundered down with a size and ferocity I have never encountered in any tropical country.

There is a single bud left on my lovely lilies . The peonies were atomised and my best ever year of roses were over in ten minutes of ice and biblical vengeance.

I have been clearing up as best I can but my garden is a very sorry sight.

The rose by the hedge was protected by the thick overhang and while the rest of the garden is broken and battered, this neglected rose escaped completely unharmed .

Gardens grow metaphors like weeds.

Hearing the quarter moon.

It is warm and still. I forgot to water my two tomato plants and the half row of beans that have shouldered above the soil.

My neighbour sneezes: the sweet chestnut is in flower. Somewhere a food processor churns, or is it a washing machine or a heat pump? Someone calls in a cat who wants to hunt the light night away. The cars have gone, a lone motorbike rips through the silence . Curfew is an hour away and the air is sweet.

Very small white moths appear. The hobby sheep bleats in the bottom of his lucky garden .

A mosquito whines along the gathering darkness, shutters are descending and the last blackbird fusses out of the cherry tree, a half eaten fruit in his yellow beak.

I think there is still a glass of wine undrunk indoors, so I leave the watering can by the butt, bow to the brightening moon and go quietly inside.

Sherbet

I wish I could write about smell in the way I can write about sounds and sights .

This iris is astounding in its colour and fabulously complex symmetry, but the part that delights me the most and that I cannot capture is it’s perfume .

All I can manage is that it smells of sherbet and fizz and something just sensed and then lost. It smells of limestone and bath salts and it instantly makes me smile.

The roses are just starting to blossom but that is a whole nother symphony of perfume; each one deserving of a post to its self as they unfurl between sunshine and deluge.

The rain that jewels each petal magnifies their beauty and scent and threatens to lump them into crumpled heaps of rotten blossom before their time.

I think I will just have to stand in the rain and revel in the unexpected sherbet while I can!

Spider Babies

I was drinking tea on the bench outside (unbelievably it was warm enough!) and I noticed a couple of little moving balls in a web slung between bench and wall.

On closer inspection I saw that each ball was composed of hundreds of minute spiders. Some were huddled together closely and others were venturing slowly off along a maze of fine web. Each tiny spider was newly hatched and off to find a place to spin its first web in the garden. They were utterly perfect in their tiny ness .

Their mother had laid a cocoon before she died in the winter and her off spring had waited patiently for the warmth before they emerged. If I blew gently on them they scurried, so I left them to themselves and by the next day they were all gone.

It reminded me of that childhood classic “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White and I thought how extraordinary it was that I should have lived so long and never seen this marvellous event before.

A garden is always full of wonders!

wanted and not wanted.

Without the rain nothing grows, when it is dry we fret, when it is wet we moan.

It has been endlessly wet and very cool. The trees are loving it. There have been too many dry years and the stress has left them vulnerable to disease, but not this spring.

This spring has been full of rain and now it seems full of baby birds. In the cold, wet months they have managed to hatch and to rear their sodden young and now the foliage is full of hungry, demanding fledgelings and frantic feathered parents .

There were lines of fluffy sparrow chicks in the feeder house this morning waiting for mother to transfer the sunflower kernels into their beaks. In the wet cherry tree marsh tit chicks scolded and whined as they demanded food. Hidden in the spindle bush are baby blue tits also waiting for their share and on the grass a harassed male blackbird yanks half drowned worms out of the yielding earth for his enormous off spring. The young blackbird is as lumpen and unhelpful as a teenage boy, but his father dutifully crams him with food nonetheless.

My presence is disturbing them, rearing young in the rain is not easy.

They want the food I provide, but they don’t want me round.

We want the life that the rain gives but we don’t want the clouds.

Chicken of the Woods

This wonderful fungi specimen was growing on an old willow tree. Unmistakable, the Latin name Laetiporus sulphureus refers to its sulphurous colour and the country name chicken of the woods, refers to the taste of the flesh. Anyone who reads these blogs regularly will know my feelings about actually eating fungi . This seductive fungi can cause gastric upset in some people, but not often. If it grows on yew it can contain the poisonous chemicals of the tree.

This beauty was growing on a huge willow and willows give us the Salic acid from which aspirin are made. So, if you ate this chicken of the woods, could it cure your headache at the same time?