Reasons to be Cheerful.

It is easy to think that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. The terrible fires in Australia, the destruction of the Amazon and the extinction of species in every corner of the globe, makes pessimism natural; but I am not alone in believing that things can be improved.  There are millions of people who care about the environment and millions more who care primarily about themselves, but are realising that their life also depends upon the quality of the air that they breath, the food that they eat and butterflies that amuse them.

So I share this article with you about the city of Ghent that has gone car free. As I read the testimonies from the people who live there about what a profound improvement this has been in their lives I found myself grinning from ear to ear. Change for the better can really happen, things dont have to always get worse, politicians and voters can make intelligent and brave choices and we can make our cities (and our suburbs!) green and pleasant places.

Take a minute to read it and consider what the future could be .

Reasons to be cheerful part 1!

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/20/the-streets-are-more-alive-ghent-readers-on-a-car-free-city-centre?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

 

ps I dont have any photos of Ghent, so this  is Basel on wet day at Christmas!

 

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Living with the aliens.

There is always conflict for the naturalist when confronted with an alien species. On the one hand we are delighted to see a wild animal or to admire a beautiful plant, on the other hand a creature in the wrong place can push a whole ecosystem out of balance and destroy native life. Every country has its own tales of trouble from European starlings in America to Costa Rican toads in Australia and Japanese knot weed in Britain.

When crossing a road bridge in a local village I was astonished to see a large muskrat peacefully munching on a long frond of water weed, as the traffic rumbled on overhead. It was the best view I have ever had and I spent a long time admiring his white whiskers; delicate dexterous paws and ears sunk deep in his thick, silky fur. That thick fur is the whole reason why he was here, so far from his native North America. Muskrats were brought to this area to be bred for fur. When the fur market collapsed in the 1930s, the fur farmers of the Vosge mountains simply opened the cages and just let the muskrats go free. They didn’t take to find their way to the waterways and now they breed naturally .

I enjoyed watching it going about its business. I find all animals fascinating and was reminded of the pleasure of watching grey squirrels feeding and playing In British parks and in my own back garden (we named a particularly bold one Sharlene). They were aliens, they outcompeted the indigenous red squirrel and they are an official pest. However the movement of flora and fauna has been going on since life evolved, on the wind, on the tides ,on the feet of birds and the life around has always had to adapt. The ethical question of which creature has a right to exist is as complex as the evolutionary question of whether  creatures that evolved in one place are more worthy than those who have moved , or been moved, to another place.

And then there are the human creatures, to whom all the same questions apply as to the muskrats under the bridge.

More tea anyone?

 

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The curse of tidy.

A warm week has sent me out into the garden . The place is wet and the mud weighs down my boots,  but the air smells almost like spring and tidying over takes me.

There is plenty of dead vegetation to trim and forgotten leaves to rake and my enthusiasm is intoxicating. However it is only January and there is along way to go until spring. Tidying, trimming and raking wont make the days longer or the earth turn faster,  so not only is my decimation of the garden pointless, it is also positively  harmful.

Last years growth is full of over wintering wildlife: butterfly caterpillars, lady birds and hedgehogs and tidying up is not the same as emptying a kitchen sink of washingup; this is habitat destruction in my own tiny bit of the planet.

So, I move away from the shears and the pruners, put down that rake and leave the garden in peace! There will be time in the spring to make way for the new growth and rushing the season will just make less space for the wildlife that badly  needs somewhere  quiet and safe to spend the winter.

Much better for the planet to have a cup of tea and do nothing!

Shall I be mother?

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Plants before Pandas

This video clip about a young man who is passionate about plants and reintroducing lost species to his own area. It gives me great hope for the future when I see knowledgeable and active men starting with the rewilding of their own area.

I am not chauvinist or nationalistic about any fauna or flora, if we all take care of the wildlife of our own areas then the whole planet may just have a joined up, healthy future!

https://www.theguardian.com/society/video/2020/jan/06/plants-before-pandas-young-botanist-tackling-extinction-own-backyard-video?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

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Holiday reading

I love having time to reading, but only when the world is cold and wet, do I really get properly down to it.

At the moment I am reading “The Garden Jungle or Gardening to Save the Planet“ which was a Christmas present that was spot on. Dave Goulson is passionate about his garden and evangelical about how much wildlife we can all cram into our on private gardens, if only we eschew pesticides, herbicides  and all the other things we are encouraged to buy to make our potential slice of paradise, tidy and dead. I was horrified to read how many suburbs of the USA are regularly drenched in pesticides from the air to “control pests”  and that gardeners have no choice at all in this annual destruction of all the micro fauna on their own land.

I am also reading “Crime au Pressoir “ by Jean-Marie Stoerkel, where bodies are found lying  on the grapes about to be crushed in a wine press in nearby Ingersheim. Somehow it is all linked to the German annexation of the Alsace some 80 years and hopefully reading it will improve my French!

I have just finished “A Portrait of Elmbury “ by John Moore which is a memoir of Tewkesbury in England before the second World War. This is a part of the world I know well, but set in a time I didn’t know. Some of his observations seem crass in our more enlightened times, but some are timeless such as his admiration for the men who only work as much as they had to …”they were not conditioned to believe in the popular fallacy, that work itself is a virtue. They worked when they wanted to and their work was fun. They were in fact a sort of privileged class and their privilege was one which nowadays only a few great artists have.”  I also learnt that farm workers were given great slabs of apple pie to eat first, before the roast beef, to ensure that they didnt just fill up on meat and avoid the abundant produce of the local orchards.

The book  that I just unwrapped this morning, is however the  one I think I am about to enjoy most. “Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers” by Peter Marren is the book I have been waiting for to explain the wonderfully poetical names of moths, both English and Latin. My first dipping proved Marren knows his European languages too and he gives German and French derivations of the marvellous names that always seem so redolent of 18th century country vicarages.

The moth book definitely wins the best cover award. I normally take off dust jackets as they are fiddly and irksome, but this is staying on to remind me of the colourful wonder of the delights still to be found in my moth trap in 2020..

Oh, and I had to include a “Just William ” collection by the incomparable Richmal Compton as I read a story nearly every night to send me to sleep with chuckle!

Happy New Year to all!

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House of Plants.

I need green.

The garden is mud and rain, so I appreciate my house plants hugely at this time of year.

The sitting room is dominated by three large fig trees that live on the veranda in summer, but come indoors in the cold. They block off the book cases, drop yellowing leaves on the tiles and splash dark water everywhere from their saucers when pushed out of the way. Every available surface is covered in lemon and peppermint scented geraniums, devils claw vines, spider plants and exhausted amyrilis plants that are here at home while school is closed.

In the office an old shop shelf unit is groaning under Christmas cactus and the window is almost obliterated by lumpy, leggy geraniums waiting for the summer to explode again. Most of the geraniums are cutting from a single enormous deep red flowering plant, which is far too valuable ( to me! ) to be discarded in the autumn.

The  bedroom is dominated by a gigantic spider plant that is hauled into a hanging basket each summer and has been the mother to hundreds of spider babies .  The spider babies have grown roots in innumerable jam jars and been given away to children, who have grown them into their first house plant in many homes.   When we rented out our home in Brecon I could not find homes for all of plants and I had to leave a spider plant behind, in the hope that the tenant would adopt it. Two years later, when we visited the house I was delighted to see the only changes that the tenant had made, was to add a large tiered book case to the sitting room to display the dozens and dozens of new spider plants he had potted up from the dangling spider babies!

The kitchen widow sill has jade plants and pink leaved collis jostling for light with a hibiscus and the last pink bedding begonia from the garden.  There is just enough room for a seed sprouter currently growing green lentils and a very important space for Pixie the cat to escape from her bully brother Winston when a fight is on between them.

Occasionally  I think I am mad to give up so much of my house to plants and then there is another grey day of rain and fog that keep us all indoors and I know exactly why  I need  them. Green is the colour of life and sharing my space with them is essential to all our survival until the spring!

Winter solstice.

In winter the whole world seems older.

The houses are lit up, but the gardens are empty, only rain and wet birds buffet over the sodden ground. Youthful  pretention is swept away; no awnings and patio furniture; no bbqs; no tofu: just wind and dead leaves.

A kite quarters in the dark clouds; a bull finch calls with its monotonous single note; the wind chimes clash in a sudden squall and the wood smoke blows the years away between today and Bruegel and every long, waiting winter day, still raging at the dying of the light.

 

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Friday 13th election.

Chaff scuds before the wind

low and twisting, it lifts and turns like laughter.

The harvest has long since been gathered

and only the paper that curled around the husks remains behind.

Chaffinches, dun brown and rose chested chatter from rose hipped hedge to empty field,

And when they turn in the late winter light,

no one can tell them apart.

 

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Borders.

UK Border Agency staff at the ferry port in Calais, France.

From View With a Grain of Sand, Selected Poems, Faber, 1996, translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh

Psalm by Wisława Szymborska

Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!
How many clouds float past them with impunity;
how much desert sand shifts from one land to another;
how many mountain pebbles tumble onto foreign soil
in provocative hops!

Need I mention every single bird that flies in the face of frontiers
or alights on the roadblock at the border?
A humble robin—still, its tail resides abroad
while its beak stays home. If that weren’t enough, it won’t stop bobbing!

Among innumerable insects, I’ll single out only the ant
between the border guard’s left and right boots,
blithely ignoring the questions “Where from?” and “Where to?”

Oh, to register in detail, at a glance, the chaos
prevailing on every continent!
Isn’t that a privet on the far bank
smuggling its hundred-thousandth leaf across the river?
And who but the octopus, with impudent long arms,
would disrupt the sacred bounds of territorial waters?

And how can we talk of order overall
when the very placement of the stars
leaves us doubting just what shines for whom?

Not to speak of the fog’s reprehensible drifting!
And dust blowing all over the steppes
as if they hadn’t been partitioned!
Or voices coasting on obliging airwaves,
that conspiratorial squeaking, those indecipherable mutters!

Only what is human can truly be foreign.
The rest is mixed vegetation, subversive moles, and wind.

From View With a Grain of Sand, Selected Poems, Faber, 1996, translated by Stansliaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.

Living roofs.

If it is the fate of the world to keep making people and to shove them into smaller and taller living spaces, then we have to make use of every millimetre of roof and wall to grow green things and make an aerial world, to make up for the terrestrial one that we have so comprehensively scabbed over.

I have written before about green walls and they are becoming more popular, but they are difficult to water and maintain. In Ikea; that shop front of the tiny urban world; so many have to inhabit, the cafe has a huge striking green wall and all the plants are made of plastic.

Most people find even a pocket garden too much work and choose to cover the soil in concrete or decking or even an old bike. When life is a race for time and enough money to keep the wolf from the door, then gardening is a luxury few have the space or energy to indulge in.  That is why I love green roofs.

If the builder has put the right surface on the roof and it collects some moisture, then a carpet of drought tolerant, shallow rooted plants can flourish with no need of   “gardening” at all. Such low input surfaces are never going to support trees or bushes, but they are green, do make oxygen, do clean the air and make a home for tiny creatures and the occasional foraging bird. We are surrounds by surfaces that  could be green. Such roofs on office blocks, schools, bike sheds and shops are just crying out for a little cool green life.

The photo is of a bike shed roof, where even in winter a little line of seed heads adds life and beauty to the concrete apartments beyond. We need to make the best of what we’ve got!

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Dopamine fasting or teaching your grandmother to suck eggs!

Apparently needing the constant dopamine hit of fast food, all the films, series, games, music, social media contact and shopping in the known universe doesn’t actually make you happy.

Well, who would have guessed that one!!

It turns out that our screen fried lives actually need LESS stimulation not more and that the Silicon Valley gurus are actually reducing their over stimulated fried time and ( take a deep breath now! ) trying to remember what day dreaming and just looking up actually feels like.

They call it dopamine fasting.( I call it watching the grass grow.)

Astoundingly it has now been proven that  you need quiet time on your own to have Errr……. thoughts……..!

I am so glad to have lived long enough to see common sense become cutting edge fashion again.

It is sunny today and the dust is dancing in thermal columns of household indolence. I think I’ll contemplate it for a  while as dusting would be to be break my fast with too much exciting activity .

How wonderful it is to see the wheel turn. Pass me another egg!

The bare truth.

I love the shape of winter trees.

Now the tattered remnants of autumn have blown away, the filigree beauty of the trees is revealed shining in a steady cool rain.

In summer all is the soft fur of green leaves, snuggling promiscuously over one another, almost indistinguishable in the pulse of sap and growth.

In Autumn there is some individuality of colour; the different varieties of vines on the hill side are briefly visible as each line of leaves turns a different shade of red in its own time before falling to the ground. Beech and hornbeam flare orange in the woods, before scattering each dry, curled leaf into the wind like sparks from a wildfire.

But in winter, there is no summer hiding, no autumnal showmanship: this is the real shape of the tree. Each limb is smooth, or broken, pruned or leaning slowly out into the sunlight. Each silhouette tells a tale of genes and weather and often the hand of man.

Winter trees are honest, bare and very, very lovely.

 

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Brouhaha in a pear tree.

The fieldfare are here and the starlings too. They have a lot of catching up to do since last autumn and they never stop talking.

I thought brouhaha was a children’s word for a lot of noise until I watched a film with French subtitles for the hard of hearing and saw the noise of many voices in a crowd rendered simply as brouhaha. It is the right word to also describe the racket coming from a pear tree laden with ripe fruit this afternoon. No one had bothered to pick it, the fruit was too small, but the birds were loud in their appreciation of the owner’s forgetfulness.

There seems no limit to the variety of sounds that starlings can make. They pop, wheeze, exclaim, whistle and shriek and they shout over one another with a wonderful lack of inhibition. Add a flock of fieldfare, half drunk on the fermenting fruit and the result is as cacophonous as a bar when the football is on. I love this raucous  sound of autumn; everyone has something to say and are determined to say it.

The first snow has fallen on the Black Forest in Germany and on the Grand Ballon in the Voges; tonight there will snow here in the Jura, but today the sun in shining and the birds are making merry in the pear tree!

 

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Having Hope : 11.11. 2019.

In the forest yesterday we were so close to a deer that I could see the thick, soft fur of her ears; the dark, black iris of her eye and the wet, delicate saucer of her nose, upturned to smell us, to register us and to walk delicately away, unconcerned into the yellowing brush.

A friend sent me a photo of a kingfisher, jewel bright and improbable from the bottom of her garden and suddenly everything is possible, the good and the bad at the same instant, all is lovely and innocent and there is always hope.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/11/mouse-deer-not-seen-nearly-30-years-found-alive-vietnam?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

 

 

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I am not a vegetarian…

I am not a vegetarian, but sometimes I think I should be.

I love the taste of meat, but am disturbed by eating fellow sentient mammals.  Then I consider the fowl and the fish; decide I shouldn’t eat them either and then I am left with the plants. Plants are alive too and are killed so we can eat them. If we eat neither flesh nor fruit, we are left with nothing at all, except our own extinction .

I grew a magnificent  pumpkin from seed. I fed and watered it and then I picked it, sliced it into mighty  chunks and made it into soup. The slices wept moisture and were so beautiful I could hardly bring myself to hack it up. But I did: I cooked it with red lentils, cinnamon and spices , pureed it to creamy perfection and ate it with relish while the rain fell outside. Oh to be human!

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/nov/02/trees-have-rights-too-robert-macfarlane-on-the-new-laws-of-nature?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

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While the house is burning.

 

 

I wish it wasn’t so, but our beautiful home is under profound attack from pollution of so many types.

Many problems need to be tackled by governments and governments are elected by the people who vote for them in democracies.  Governments are slow moving and frustrating at the best of times, so while we try to get them to even consider the environment in their plans, we have to do what we can to improve matters ourselves.

I am painfully aware of how small the things we can do are, but to paraphrase:  better to light a candle than to just curse the darkness, so here is what I personally do.

If you have more ideas please share them on the blog.

We can all learn from each other (whatever our age!)

This list is in order of the newest things I have learnt on the top.

1. Use toothpaste tablets. You just chew one and brush and rinse as normal.  They work as well as tooth paste and produce zero plastic waste.  These come from Germany, but I am sure you can find them everywhere.
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2. Use rock salt underarm deodorant.  It works 100 percent and has zero plastic waste.  This pretty pink egg of salt can in a wrap of paper from funky soaps, but there are lots of others.
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3. Wrap your sandwiches from home in a cotton bees wax wrap every day for lunch.  Zero plastic waste, moist bread!
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4. Use bamboo toothbrushes.  The handle can be used as a fire lighter or composted as it is wood.  Some bristles are still plastic unfortunately, but at least the great big handle isn’t.
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5. Buy wooden toilet brushes.  Zero plastic waste – burnable.
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6. Use wooden headed washing up sink brushes.  The handle is metal and the head
can be replaced when worn out and composted or burnt. Zero plastic waste.
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7. Use solid bar shampoo.  It is just as good as liquid shampoo and produces……ZERO PLASTIC WASTE!
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8. Use real soap in the shower, not shower gel in a plastic container.  Zero plastic waste.
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9. Learn to use an old fashioned razor with replaceable metal blades.  Zero Plastic waste.
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10. Buy vegetables loose, not in plastic packages.  You buy much less and so don’t waste food.  Use a cotton bag to put the veg and fruit in to weigh individually.  Stick all the individual labels on the outside of the same cotton bag to take to the check out and show the cashier.  Zero plastic waste.
11. Compost all your vegetable matter – obviously!

I am still producing way too much plastic waste with:

1. Cat food
2. Meat packaging
3. Snack packages
4. Virtually all processed food packages.

I know that there are solutions to all these things, but I dont live near a city where I can buy loose packaging free alternatives.

One day I will have time to make cat food, buy cuts of meat and get the butcher to put them in glass tubs and make all myfood from scratch, but not yet.

 

In the face of so much plastic pollution it is easy to give up and give in, but I am optimistic enough to think that the small changes made by ordinary people will make a difference and while  we wait for the politicians to make the big changes, we should make as many changes to our own lives as we can before we all drown in plastic!

 

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Just don’t ask me to eat it!

I am almost over my horror of fungi.

This autumn has been extraordinary in the rich variety of mushrooms coaxed up by the rain, but I will never be tempted to eat any of them again.

This particular mushroom cap was thin and as smooth as porcelain. The edge was lined, as if it had shrunk back with delicate avoidance of the falling leaves pattering down all around it.

The aspen leaves were yellow and then black – no warming russets or browns to lull you – they know winter is coming and lay down to die with minimal fuss.

They only leave behind an unexpected perfume without the slightest a hint of decay . Something soft left lingering in the air.

Love..

I love the sun and I love the rain. We have been blessed with a bright Indian summer and sometimes it seemed like the sunshine would never end and it was frankly just too bright and too intolerably shiny.

In the endless good weather my tom cat went decidedly crazy. He stayed out all night and disappeared into the white full moon. This may sound frisky and fun, but we couldn’t sleep when he was out for foolish worry and when we managed to entice him home, him seemed frantic, hunted and frankly deranged! So we have kept him indoors, bought new catnip toys and tried to make friends with him again. He has slowly reintegrated into domestic life, allows strokes, occasionally purrs and kicks the life out of the cat nip toys.

Now it is raining properly . The gutters are running and the roof is pattering. The water butts are bubbling over. We have lit the stove again and everyone (cats included) is calming down in front  of the fire.  Ahh that’s better!

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Harvest Home

We have finally lifted all the potatoes; rolled five fat pumpkins onto the back step to finish ripening and picked the apples from our single apple tree: it feels like the harvest is in.

This, however, is very small fry in comparison to the massive harvest of the real countryside and the deeply bizarre manifestation of its bounty in the agricultural extravaganza in local Mulhouse.

In the huge exposition centre thousands upon thousands of people crowd in to look at stands of  arranged vegetables. This is not the type of flower show that I knew well from places like Brecon in Wales, where lovingly grown marrows were judged for weight and gloss and three perfect sweetpea blossoms were awarded hotly contested rosettes for perfume and hue. This was the deliberate piling of fruit and vegetables into improbable and inedible unicorns, dragons and cathedrals and it made me long for the simplicity of the single sweetpea.

The picture above is of the more recognisable offerings of landmarks from the Alsace town of Colmar in mosaics of potatoes and pumpkins.

 

CA9AAA90-8F7F-4621-86F8-976E8812CB35.jpegThe Statue of Liberty in sprouts was a particular favourite. Bartholdi was a son of Colmar and created the monumental statue in France for the American people. I bet  immigrants to The USA never envisaged their welcoming symbol of a new life picked out in green sprouts as they sailed into New York!