Kaskhstan. All My Gardens Part 8

The strangest place I have ever tried to garden was Kazakhstan.

Our first apartment had two balconies. The first faced into the courtyard of the concrete blocks . It had a washing line and you could glimpse the steppe from the top floor as it rolled out, brown and flat to distant Russia. I realised that growing things here would be difficult when after a couple of seeringly  hot months my washing froze to cardboard cutout stiffness over night.

The other balcony was boxed in with wooden sides and glass. On the shelves there were still pickles and jams, left by some previous tenant, making use of the cold space to store carefully preserved food, as everyone used to do before the supermarkets came. There was no window sill for plants, but there was an extraordinary view of the Tian Shan mountains . This was Almaty, at the far south east tip of Kazakhstan, the old capital and the most stunningly located city sprawling between the snow capped mountains linked to the Himalayas in the south and the central Asian steppe to the north.

When I lived there remnants of the former USSR were every where, but so too was the newly independent Kazakhstan rediscovering its nomadic and Muslim roots.

In our first year we managed to grow nothing, but the school had a remnant apple orchard, which was so perfumed and perfect in the spring it made me cry. Almaty is supposed to be named after the father of apples and the genetic parent of all apple trees does apparently originate in the country.

Bonkers the magnificent came with us from Zambia and after a lot of bribery and some crying, we got him through customs in one piece. He hated the apartment, there were no chameleons to chase and indoor life did not suit him. We put him on a cat lead and took him to the orchard, but he collapsed as though his back was  broken and then escaped up a tree, only to be retrieved with a broom.

We found another apartment in the centre of the city . It had another boxed in balcony full of pickles under which trams rattled and shuddered. This was in the same street as the magnificent state opera house, which broadcast its music for free on summer evening to those who could not afford the tickets to the plush boxes, but who could listen to the outstanding performance on the street, cooled by the great glaciers fed fountains .  Bonkers preferred this apartment, as the balcony that faced the courtyard was laticed with bird cage wrought iron and he could catch a breeze while watching the bats plunge out of the plane trees and listen frustratedly to the scops owls calling in the summer time.

He was never allowed out, as he would not have found his way back up to our top floor home and there were rats bigger than he was by the bins. The rats grew plump on the bread left out by my neighbours who considered it a sin to throw bread away and so it was left carefully off the floor for whoever, or what ever may need it.

To assuage his terrible yowling I ocassionally carried him down to the courtyard, where he would be admired by neighbours who would bring their own imprisoned moggies to their own windows to be introduced in a mixture of Russian, Kazakh, English and German.

On the bird cage balcony I grew red geraniums; hung spider plants and tradescantia and grew the best sweet peas ever, trailing up the iron work until the summer heat burnt them off . French marigolds grew well and a jasmine reminded me of Zambia and of Greece. Everything had to come in before the temperatures crashed for the long cold winter, the double glazing closed and the city wide heating  turned our sunny kitchen into a greenhouse.

I remember tiny bunches of the first real  flowers from the steppe: miniture  tulips and irises sold by old ladies infront of the cathedral on my birthday and wishing I could explore more of the steppe myself, and feeling the cold air falling from the mountains on my back and wishing I could really explore them too.

We explored the balcony and watched an extraordinary city instead.

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ALL MY GARDENS PART 7 : ZAMBIA .

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Carnival with forsythia.

It’s Shrove Tuesday and I forgot to make pancakes.

After an interminable month of grey skies and rain, the sun appeared for a whole, wonderful ice cold day. Greenfinches appeared in the birch tree, a few field fare burbled over and two loud ravens called across the blue sky, their heavy dark wings beating the air. In a thermal of heat, red kites and buzzards spiralled up, mewing and fighting in a confusion of lust and aggression.

Shrove Tuesday is the day to use up all rich foods before the abstinence of lent and the only memory we have of it in Britain is flipping pancakes in a village race.

In other countries it is part of carnival ; that hedonistic party before the forty days and forty nights of lent that prepared the faithful for Easter.

In my current neck of the woods (Basel ) carnival  is an oddly irreligious scaring away of the spirits of winter with three beautiful days of grotesque, frightening masks, discordant music, drums and solemn drunkenness .

My small contribution to frightening away the winter is to bring my first branches of forsythia into the house and watch them slowly bloom in the warmth of sunshine and firelight.

“I Could Have Danced All Night!”

The French hunting season is coming to a close and soon it will be safe to walk in the woods again.

When a hunt is on, the hunters are supposed to give notice to the local town hall, so walkers can check where to avoid and to place warning signs at the entrance to the area being hunted over.  Every year an astonishing number of walkers and hunters are shot dead and injured by stray bullets and so extreme caution is advised.

A few weeks ago I was walking home through a wood on the Swiss French border . There had been no notifications on the local website of hunts and no warning signs at the entrance to the wood, so like little Red Riding  Hood into the dark forest I went.

All was well, the path was slippy with rain and snow, but I was making good time when I heard dogs close by barking loudly. There were no dog walkers on the path in front or behind and so the dogs must be along side me in the slope of the forest. Then I heard hunting horns and I started to stride out as fast as I could.  I could hear voices and calling to the dogs, but I could see no one at all. I realised I was in the middle of a wild boar hunt and unraveled the bright pink scarf from my dark coat, in the hope that the hunters would realise I was human and not pig.

There was still nothing to see, but the sound of dogs and horns and yelling voices was getting louder. Then I remember what you did in Africa if you thought big dangerous  wildlife was close : you make as much noise as possible. I wasn’t scared of the boar, but I was scared of short sighted huntsmen with very large shot guns. I was alone with no one to shout to, so I decided to sing at the top of my voice. For some reason “  I Could Have Danced All Night” from “ My Fair Lady” came into my head and so I bellowed the English words as loud as I could as I scurried ignominiously through the undergrowth.

“I never know, what made it so enchanting, when all at once my heart took flight. I only know when he decided to dance with me, I could have danced, danced, danced, all night!”

And so breathless and triumphant I broke out of the forest onto a road where an astonished local was preparing a large fire to roast the musical pig he imagined was being slaughtered by his fellow hunters.

I smiled with as much insouciance as I could muster at his border mixture of bon jour and gruezi  and scuttled on through the woods, back to the safety of my own garden, still humming protective show tunes just to be sure!

Older than liverspots.

 

Sometimes you glimpse another time in an unexpected place. On the dripping rock foundation of a fake castle, glorifying a fictitious romantic past I spotted liverworts: very flat; very green and really very old.
These simple and strange life forms predate all vascular plants by millions of years, have no internal means of transporting food and survive on the whim of a raindrop. Flat and granular against the rock, they glisten in their encasing film of water, surviving all human attempts at immortality,  to out live us all in a single sheet of slime.

 

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Scarlet Elf Cup.

Scarlet elf cup is perfectly named. This fungi is pale orange on the outside, vermillion on the inside and as delicately formed as a tiny porcelain bowl. The cups appear at this time of year on fallen twigs, especially hornbeam and it is one of those wonderful species found across continents on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

This group of Sarcoscypha coccinea was found on a wet Sunday walk in the Jura and may well be the varient . When looking this up on the inter web, I found the same story repeated over and over again: children in the Jura were said to eat elf cups on bread and butter and the cups were used to serve schnapps in.   Now hipster wild food foragers and over imaginative chefs have found many bizarre and unappealing ways of serving wild food that would have been better left to the creatures of the forest; but I have never yet been served them as a sandwich filling or used as a glass here in the Jura. It does go to show how the same misinformation is recycled even in the quiet world of natural history and it leads you to wonder how much more prevalent this incestuous repetition must be in the wider world where we all get our information from the web.    Pass the schnapps filled elf cup!!

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Stormy Weather.

It’s National Garden Bird survey weekend (  Jan 27th and 28th ) here in France organised by the LPO and national museum. A few clicks on the computer will log you into the Observatoire des Oiseaux des Jardins website, add a “garden” (like a profile), and key in your data.                                                             http://www.oiseauxdesjardins.fr

This will allow  you to record all the birds that you see in a one hour slot on Saturday or Sunday . This annual  snap shot of the country allows the naturalists to really see the numbers and diversity of the birds that share our gardens with us across they country. This year they are particularly interested in hawfinches, coal tits, and bramblings.

I haven’t seen much of my regular coal tit this year and fear he has simply been blown away in the awful and continuous winds that have battered us this winter. A stocky parrot like hawfinch visited once this year but I think the weather has been too warm for more than the odd brambling to stray south from Scandinavia.

This weekend I did a dry run of observing the birds for a full hour and the hardest thing was actually sitting still and giving my whole attention to birds feeding around the bird table and not allowing myself to be  distracted by the messy kitchen! There were no surprises, but I found that great tits,  when full of peanuts from the feeder, will sit on one tiny black leg to digest their meal and the solitary coal tit is actually three individual birds and that we get up to 11 tree sparrows (with their chocolate cheek markings) who, unlike  their house sparrow neighbours , can hang upside down on a fat ball. I recommend having binoculars, pen and paper and a cup of tea to hand when you start your one hour watch and then you can really enjoy uniterupted peaceful observation of the busy lives of birds.

The wind has brought down so many trees, that I am surprised there are any birds left. When an oak tree came crashing down in the fiercest storm a red squirrel ran across our lawn disoriented and homeless.

B354BDC8-38DD-48CD-B273-505C3646A621 Near our village is a beautiful ephemeral stream . It only runs when the water table is completely full and most of the year the water sinks back into the porous Jurassic limestone and flows underground . After a spell of rainy weather I like to check if it is running, but most often I am disappointed as the rain is absorbed by the grateful forest, leaving nothing  to see.  After the daily déluges of this  winter however, it is finally above the ground, flowing strongly and tumbling clear from one green pool into another, glimsed lovely  between the trees.

There are some compensations for the cloudy skies!

Embrace.

Before my first Christmas in Switzerland I went looking for mistletoe to add to the holy and the ivy of a traditional English winter decoration.

I was living in the suburbs and found ivy easily enough and holly in a nearby copse of trees , but no mistletoe. For me mistletoe is a mystical Druidic thing that loves apples trees, needs a golden scycle to cut it and will inspire strangers to kiss beneath it and is absolutely essential for Christmas.

In the copse  of conifers and hornbeam behind our apartment I found tantalising snippets of mistletoe lying on the ground; solitary twigs of two simple leaves and the odd pale white berry.  I looked up into the trees, searching for the familiar ball shape of a mistletoe plant suspended from a branch, but there was nothing. Maybe someone had been here collecting before me and these leaves were their debris.

Eventually I was reduced to buying an over priced  sprig in a local  florists, but I wondered where they had found it, so far from apple trees.

And then came the New Year storms: howling gales ripping off branches and uprooting whole trees. In the felled conifers were hundreds of little mistletoe plants, living their parasitic lives amongst the thick evergreen branches quite hidden to my ignorant eyes. It had never said in my English botany books that mistletoe lived in pine trees and yet here was the abundant proof, littered on the forest floor.

This week in France, the storms came again and the woods are crashed with fallen limbs and boughs, but I was still amazed to see the mistletoe in the unexpected embrace of the felled pine tree. Such odd, but comfortable bed fellows!

All my Gardens part 7 : Zambia .

A77E0D1E-4FB5-4EC7-B121-BAC78324D5BCIn my memory Zambia was soft dust, jacaranda trees, chameleons and a black and white cat.

We took a job in Africa to escape the soul crushing megalopolis of Sao Paulo  in Brazil. It was like moving from Mars to the moon. We still had work and a home and books, but nothing else was the same.

Our little African house came with a tiny garden of overhanging bougainvilleas around enough lawn to sling a hammock across and a patio with a rusting metal table and chairs, behind a lattice work of alternate bricks held up by a tenacious and magnificent jasmine plant.

We lived in the capital , but even  in the city there were stars such I had never seen since camping in Costa Rica and the heavens seemed very close indeed. Every Saturday we could hear beautiful music and pick up trucks passed by crammed with traditionally dressed Zambians singing. Eventually I understood that these were funerals.

There was a small vegetable garden and the bright orange soil splashed the whitewashed wall after the rains. We tried hard to grow things, but despite the sun and the rains nothing flourished and we began to understand how infertile tropical soils can be.

Amongst the pepper plants we found a chameleon. Watching it was like regarding the inhabitants of another planet as it’s golf ball eyes rotated to watch us slowly and its pincher hands  clasped and climbed in an hallucinary dream.

Bonkers the cat was obsessed with the chameleons. He owed his life to my worry about snakes and spiders. I had insisted that a Cat would be essential to protect us and so he appeared to keep us safe. I asked if anyone had a cat with kittens and if so could I have a short haired, female, black cat, if possible. A month later a black and white, long haired male kitten was given to me in an ornate bird cage. He was small enough to sit in my hand and we fell in love.

Bonkers ran up curtains, fell off and broke his leg. He burnt his whiskers on the embaula. He crawled into the engine of a car and got badly run over. Our extraordinary Zambian vet brought him back from the brink over and over again and Bonkers the Magnificent survived .

There were excellent market gardens around Lusaka and trays of bedding lobilia, zinnias , begonias and candy tuft could be bought to bring a bygone  suburban England to this lovely, lush country.

We walked to work each day and the enormous road side trees carefully planted for beauty rained down purple, gold and cherry coloured petals onto the quiet side walks.

In our garden the jasmine was loaded with so many flowers for a few months that it pulled down the wall and we could reach the avocados and mango’s shining in the foliage beyond, while Bonkers stalked the chameleons and the singing trucks drove by.

 

If any one is bored on a cold Sunday these are parts 1-6 of All my Gardens:

All my Gardens- part 6 : Brazil – humming birds and highrise. 

All my Gardens-Part5 England and almonds.

All my Gardens -Part 4: Costa Rica and the big world.

All my Gardens – part 3: Wild Wales.

All my Gardens: part 2 Garsington Manor and beyond.

In Cold Time (All my gardens :part 1)

 

 

 

The Glowing Branches of Life .

After continuous winter rain, when all seems flattened and sodden, lichen glows almost unearthly in the gloom.

Lichen is an extraordinary composite creature made up of an algae or Cyanobacteria and a fungi living together in harmony. The algae can photosynthesis and make carbohydrates from the weakest sun and these feed the fungi, which in turn provides a protective home for the algae and a way to trap the water which they both need.

Lichen can grow on bare rock, on tree trunks on twigs and statues, it can grow in ancient forests and gravelly deserts and has even been taken into space and back with no ill effects.

There are 20,000 known species of this communal  creature, that does no harm at all to the medium on which it grows. It is not a plant and some growths of lichen  maybe the oldest living things on the planet.

After rain, the protective cortex becomes transparent and we can see the variously coloured algae layer underneath . This lichen was growing on the red twigs of dog wood blown down by the storm. On such dark winter days the lichen is positively luminescent and shades of tantalising green and orange flare out to remind us that the natural word is always  still alive and is still all around us!

 

2018 – Work to be done!

A New Year and new hopes.

The garden is muddy, the leaves are unswept and the birds are always hungry. In the forsythia the flock of sparrows squabble. A shrew has dug up a tulip bulb and red kite swoops low to check on the edibility of the cat.

In the undug vegetable  patch parsley uncurls a few leaves after the snow, a red cabbages resigns itself to never being  picked and the mullein rosette settles the ashes from the wood stove amongst the soft, warm down of its winter leaves. It is all still here! There is work to be done!


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