Water World

This picture is the underside of a Victoria amazonica leaf that had just been hauled out of the water at the botanic gardens in Basel. It was so huge and so extraordinarily spiny it had to be photographed .

Last night I watched the incomparable Green Planet from the BBC with the similarly unequalled David Attenborough. He showed the aquatic battles for light that go on in clean rivers and wetlands between the plants that float and fight so slowly in this apparently peaceful world . The most memorable Timelapse shots were of the gigantic shoots of the Amazon waterlilly sweeping the water clear of other plants to make space for the titanic unfolding of a new leaf. The leaf was armored with the fiercest dagger spines which I well remember gingerly touching in the sunshine outside of the hot house, as the Basel trams rumbled on by . The spines could crush and pierce anything that got in its way as the leaf covered the water in its metre wide plate of photosynthesising aggression.

Ironic that the flower is seen as symbolizing peaceful serenity.

Shows how little we really know!

Not much to see.

It is the brown time.

Ploughed fields and bare trees in the sleety rain. The clouds are full of snow that doesn’t fall and sun that blinds momentarily and is then gone swallowed by a slab of racing grey .

We are counting red kites for the LPO ( French bird charity) Red kite survey. They are rare in the Alsace outside of the Vosges Mountains and just where we live on the edge of the Jura Mountains. I see one most days from the garden and more when they move through on migration in spring and autumn.

I am glad to be in the car, as all the various hunts are out this cold Sunday and the chance of being shot seems abnormally high.

Over two days of watching we have seen 13 red kites ( Milan royal) all together, but a few may have been the same bird counted twice.

There have been a few blackbirds, crows a raven and a kestrel and then thousands of little birds flowed over the brow of the hill. Chaffinches and bramblings poured over unexpectedly and covered the bare trees like so many leaves against the sky.

Nothing to see really.

New plants, new glasses

This article from the Guardian news paper describes the astounding new species of plants that have been found across the world this year.

It also shows how many are endangered and how often it is deforestation to make space for palm oil plantations that is to blame.

I just checked the ingredients on my goat’s cheese pastry parcels that we had just eaten for lunch and sure enough , there was palm oil in the pastry. It is a cheap, almost ubiquitous ingredient and I am determined not to buy a single thing that contains it ever again.

My New year resolution is always wear my glasses in the supermarket and check more carefully in future!

Hundreds of new species include pink voodoo lily and an ylang-ylang tree named after Leonardo DiCaprio
— Read on www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jan/06/ghost-orchid-that-grows-in-the-dark-among-new-plant-finds

A World Turned Upside Down.

New year: old year.

Covid hasn’t gone, but maybe we have changed instead.

Everybody has had their own adaptations to the new reality that nobody wanted, everybody has had their own privations, some small, some fatal. Work, family, school, friends the list goes on and on of the things changed by the pandemic that seems to never end. The things we miss seem endless too, but in a world turned upside down, we have maybe learned to see things differently and not to miss the things we took for granted before.

My cat is perfectly happy upside down on the sofa. He is warm, there will be food, maybe someone will dangle that left over Christmas ribbon close enough for him to play with. He has lost one of his lovely long front teeth, but he doesn’t seem unduly worried by it.

He quite likes the world upside down, he can get used to anything.

10 New Year’s Resolutions for Laidback Gardeners

In 2022, why not spend more time enjoying your garden and less on working in it! Ill.: Claire Tourigny ByContinue Reading

10 New Year’s Resolutions for Laidback Gardeners

I so agree with this post . Less work on mowing and leaf collection and spraying noxious chemical means more time to smell the roses and enjoy the garden and all the life it can support!

Here is to a wildlife and time rich 2022 in the garden for all!

“ … created for the sublime..”

Desmond Tutu said so many wise things about reconciliation and how to argue against injustice, but this one speaks so eloquently about how the natural world and the need for conservation coexist that I quote it again in hommage to the great man.

“We were made to enjoy music, to enjoy beautiful sunsets, to enjoy looking at the billows of the sea and to be thrilled with a rose that is bedecked with dew… Human beings are actually created for the transcendent, for the sublime, for the beautiful, for the truthful… and all of us are given the task of trying to make this world a little more hospitable to these beautiful things.”

Tardigrade on the table!

After writing my last blog where I mentioned tardigrades possibly lumbering through the moss, my husband was inspired to dust off his microscope and we finally went looking for them in earnest.

Moss bears like damp places and after a very wet year our garden is full of moss. We took a random clump, soaked it overnight in a little water and put a drop of the water from the moss on a slide.

Within minutes my husband yelled that he could see one. I haven’t looked down a microscope for a spectacularly long time and took a much longer time to make out the tiny translucent blob that had to be arrowed before I could see it.

Without his help I don’t think I would have seen it, but once I was convinced it wasn’t a trick of the light, I could see the hoover bag body and the stumpy legs of this astounding creature . I had almost considered them to be mythical : but there it was, a real tardigrade!

Swimming in the drop of water were euglena , algae that can swim . All the rules are being broken by looking closely at the moss at the foot of my humble bird table.

“ To see the world in grain of sand, infinity in an hour…” Blake .

Happy Christmas folks!

A tardigrade through a much more powerful microscope!

There is life everywhere !

Empty gardens turn my eyes to other things and I am always delighted to see life in the oddest places . My bird table has a lichen on its roof and it flares pale green in the wintry light .

This is probably Parmotrema perlatum and it is indicative of cleanish air. Lichens are a very ancient symbiosis of an algae and fungi combining the abilities of both to create an organism capable of living in virtually every place on the planet and colonising the most unpromising surface for life .

There are two other types of lichen just on this little bit of wood. I can’t identify them with confidence but their compact, complex beauty astounds me.

The post of the bird table is streaked with green algae and it seems fluorescent on this dark day. At the foot of the table is an up turned slab that is being slowly smothered in moss. I have thought of brushing it off, but for what reason? Why would a bare concrete slab be more lovely than this moist moss garden that I like to hope harbours mysterious tardigrades clambering slowly through like teddy bears?

Oh and the sparrows come for breadcrumbs and scraps everyday on the table of the bird feeder. They harry me with indignant squawking should I forget them and dare to step out of the house empty handed.

They are not however the only life here, the table it’s self is almost more extraordinary, if a deal quieter, than the hungry birds themselves!

Breakfast for the birds

Cat with the snow falling

Cat with the snow falling
Contemplates the spaces where the snow is not,
The sliding spaces that come and go
Talking of Micheal Angelo
And of nothing
Filling and falling,
Falling.

Cat confused for an instant by the particular,
That piece of snow that will not go,
The one that makes a streak and catches the eye
But then her eyes cannot follow it any more
And it falls with all the rest
Merges into the general white,
The soft white
Falling
Falling
Falling.

For Kate. 1962- 2021

Plan B

As Covid rears it’s ugly head again in this part of the world, plan B is definitely in place and we find the wonders of the woods as absorbing as vin chaud or tinsel at a Christmas market.

Now all the leaves have been whirled away by wind and rain, there is much more light in the forest . On the floor, some plants positively gleam with fresh growth in the winter sun.

Oddities like hazelwort show fat green pennies of leaves against the moss.

Hazel wort

Hart’s tongue ferns have such a wonderfully evocative name as their leaves curl out like the tongue of an amorous male deer .

Harts tongue fern

The hard shield fern is almost invisible except in the winter, when it shines out fresh and vivid amongst the fallen leaves.

Hard shield fern

Maidenhair spleenwort sounds at odds with itself. Maidenhair sounds delicate but spleenwort sounds positively painful. However, the fern itself is beautiful and it falls by steps from the wet rocks.

Maidenhair spleenwort

This young male fern is flourishing in the winter light.

Male fern.

And finally, with the promise of a Christmas flower is this stinking hellebore. The name is harsh as I have never actually smelt it’s apparently bad smell and it is the wild relative of the Hellebores that grace our gardens and decorate tables at Christmas time.

Stinking hellebore in bud
Continue reading

Wild Night

Sat in bed with a John LeCarre and a sleepy tom cat: the dish washer made an unfamiliar squeezing noise on its energy saving cycle in the kitchen downstairs . The cat pricked up his ears, the noise was outside, was outside the window in the dark.

I have heard herons call harsh overhead at night and once a saucer faced barn owl nearly brushed my cheek as I leaned out to admire the stars.

I opened the window and the sound was loud, high and ethereal. The sound was in waves, something was passing over head and then again and again. Finally the wonderful calls were fading towards the church in the distance.

I have been known to rail against technology and it’s intrusive, reductive nature, but tonight I loved it as a bird call app allowed me to confirm that the calls were cranes before the sound had faded from my memory.

Cranes migrating in the moonlight over my cold muddy garden. Cranes calling constantly to one another as they beat amongst the winter clouds in unknown number. Cranes leaving the cold north for the warm south.

I returned to the cat with their wild freedom ringing in my ears.

When the leaves are gone…

When the leaves are gone you can see the shape of the land,

When the leaves are gone, only wood can hide you,

When the leaves are gone there is no flounce, no pretense,

When the leaves are gone the air moves freely and the dance is over:

For a while.

The last taboo

It used to be that sex was the thing no one talked about and now not talking about it is considered weird, but still no one wants to talk about death. My theory is that somehow we consider that just by thinking or talking about it, this will make it more likely to happen. Well, just like taxes it is the only inevitable thing in life and I do think about the practicalities of it occasionally.

I don’t want my last action to be pollution of the earth, or sky so I am delighted to find out about Dutch mushroom coffins that turn your body into compost swiftly and with style!

I also love that the company calls purchasers of their idea ” future trees”.

The future really can be green!

Here is an article to

https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/17/europe/loop-mycelium-mushroom-coffin-eco-funeral-spc-intl/

Sit back?

The dahlias are dug up. The gladioli that just out flowered the first frost, but never put on any weight around the corm, are drying in the sitting room and hoping that the cat won’t wee on them.

The pumpkins are now safe in the cellar. I thought the cat had weed on one of them, but in fact I had maligned the poor cooped up beast and the unexpected moisture was just the result of rot. The other pumpkins are fine and soup will soon be made.

The last beetroot are being eaten cold with vinegar and flower seeds are being distributed to any one that I can persuade to take them.

It may seem time to sit back and do nothing as the year rolls in, but there are vines and roses to prune; bird feeders to fill; pine needles to sweep and that bag of onion sets that is about to sprout, to be finally planted out.

“Haa, haa “, crow the ravens as they pair up in the cooling November air.

Small World.

There are so many environmental problems facing the world that I have to admit to feeling often overwhelmed . The news gives us the big picture and our own eyes and ears show us the reality in our own backyard. My safe place is the garden and so I nurture it and I celebrate it, but it is so very small .

I can’t even protect the hedgehog that feeds in it, or the blackbird that sings over it, as they need more space than I can ever provide . When they leave my garden they can be strimmed or shot or just go hungry. The moths that I identify so diligently need places to pupate and leaves to eat. The red kite that soars overhead needs voles to eat and the voles need rough ground to burrow in and the bats that weave the night together, need old trees to sleep in and safe roofs to bring their babies up in.

The sky and the earth do not belong to everybody, what ever magical thinking we may indulge in. The earth can be covered in concrete, sprayed with poisons and ploughed to dust. The sky can be emptied of the trees that should be swaying in it and the clouds can be full of unbreathable pollution.

So, shall I just plant taller hedges? Stay sane by staying small? Plug my ears to the sound of encroaching construction, chain saws and crop sprayers?

I have started with my husband and very knowledgeable neighbours to catalogue every hedge and tree in the village . We hope this might eventually stop the grubbing up and chopping down that happens on daily basis in the name of tidiness and profit.

We have to have faith . That is all we have.

Still flowers.

As a child I always considered the cold didn’t start until after Guy Fawks and this year the weather seems true to a long time ago in Cheshire.

Flowers are hanging on where they have been spared mower and strimmer and I have seen a handful of poppies, some hard heads and a spray of harebells still flowering on field edges. In the garden petunias and marigolds and a few geraniums are still bright. The dahlias have been touched by the frost but not yet slain and some very late gladiolus are a spear of colour against the falling leaves.

When I started gardening in a real garden ( as opposed to my previous tiny international balconies ) I thought I needed to be true to all the gardening manuals I had read and to cut down everything and to tidy and clean up, ready for the winter. Then I lived with my garden for a few years and realised that a “ tidy” garden was in fact a very boring and a virtually dead garden for far too many months of the year. There was no where for the caterpillars to pupate, no corners for the hedgehog to forage in and no where for the birds to perch and peck.

So I have learnt to ignore the outdated gardening manuals and to leave the clearing up the garden for as long as possible. Yes, I am encouraging slugs and snails and things that will eat my flowers and vegetables, but I am also encouraging life and trying to live with it. I don’t grow things that cannot withstand a few slugs and snails, white fly, black fly etc etc . I don’t use weed killer or insecticides not because I love all insects, but because why would you spray poisonous chemicals around your own home when you don’t have to? The world is full of enough noxious ness without adding to it just to conform to a very misguided and outdated concept of “tidy” .

So my garden continues to harbour the last flowers, the hedgehog poo that shows she is still feeding in the weedy corners and the caterpillars looking for a quiet spot to dream the winter safely away.

This year.

It hasn’t been a particularly fruitful year this year. No walnuts, no plums, virtually no black currents, no sloe berries for the gin. The late raspberries have been good and I managed to make a salad made of my own beetroots, late celery, the single apple from my tree and a few walnuts kept over from last year.

The grapes at the front of the house were not even worth picking.

They have been left on the vine and the blackbirds are loving them. Amongst the curling leaves there is great clicking and scolding as the birds vie for the plumpest remaining grape. I think we have had more entertainment from their competition than we ever did from the few litres of grape juice we usually make from our tiny harvest.

After all my positive thinking about how the vaccine will bring greater freedom, it seems I am unlucky enough to be taking one of the very few medications that prevent the taker from making antibodies to Covid. After three jabs I am still unprotected and not venturing far a field.

The vaccines have brought infection rates down hugely and saved so many lives which is wonderful news .

Nothing has changed for me since spring 2019. This hasn’t been a personally fruitful year but the wet summer has at least been a bonanza for the birds!

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!