Alsace in August.

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

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

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

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

 

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Breathe in.

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

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

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

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

In the eye of the beholder.

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

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

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

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

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

Eye, eye!

 

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

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

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

 

 

In plain sight ( 2)

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

 

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July (lying in a hammock)

The afternoon heat rises, the brown cases of lunilaria, peeled back to reveal the secret moonlight of the seed septum, scratch light along the stones.

Small bees vibrate in the Russian Sage .  Blue tit fledgelings are unexpectedly insistent: hungry, hungry, hungry in the sallow.

And then again, the quiet.

The church clock dolles out the half hour of stillness, one note at a time . The crow with sore throat calls familiar.

Nothing.

A frill of swallow song thrown over head and then gone.

A car. The ravens roll distant above the forest .

The bees…the bees….. bee…. b…

 

 

( for James Wright)

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Water

I peered into the water butt and thought of Seamus Heaney’s great poem about looking down into ourselves, into history and into myth to find poetry.

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As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.

Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall

Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

Unmistakable!

This beauty is a privet hawk moth and is the most spectacular catch of the moth trap this summer. She was peacefully happy to be photographed in the morning, showing off her spectacular underwings before folding them tidily away and resting for a while in the shade of the table leg.

She seemed oddly familiar even though I know I have never seen this wonderful creature before. It wasn’t until I was sending my records in to our local wildlife site

( faune-alsace) that I realised the privet hawk moth is the cover illustration on my Chris Manley Guide to British Moths.

She was even bigger and better in real life!

 

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The symphony of the rain.

Bright sunlight is rolled over by dark clouds.

The dry garden waits.

The butterflies disappear. In the distance the low rumble of thunder begins. A single note of rain on the dusty branches. A shiver of upturned tree leaves shakes through the garden. Above the sudden clash of lightening and the drum roll of rain begins. Faster and faster all expectation is filled with the music of rain, an orchestra of trees and tin roofs and water butts gushing and spewing sweet water. The rain is dancing upwards now as the huge drops explode on the stones, treatening destructive hail, but resolving instead into a gentle melody of steady rain and the silver strings of the replenishing water butt.

The swallows reappear in high chorus, hunting insect  pushed down by the clouds. The blackbirds thinks it is dusk and sings again. My tomcat slides by yowling indignantly at being wet, as if I were responsible for the rain.

I only wish I could take the credit for this much loved gardener’s song : sweet rain on a dry earth!

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Elizabeth (and her German Garden)

Some writers you love, even though you know you shouldn’t.

Elizabeth von Arnim was rich and incredibly privileged. She was born in to money and married into European aristocracy. She wafted through a beautiful garden admiring the flowers and thwarted in her desire to get her hands dirty only by her attentive gardeners.

And yet I love her passionately.

She wrote about virtually nothing, if you need exciting plots and varied stettings she will infuriate you. If you require complex characters and cliff hanging action, she will bore you.  However, if your heart yearns for green spaces, for gardens and perfumes and flowers, if you basically long for solitude and self determination then Elizabeth von Arnim is like walking into a quiet room after the deafening roar of a city street.

She is most famous for Elizabeth and her German Garden, but my personal favourite is the Solitary Summer .

This is opening to “A Solitary Summer”, which is free on project Guttenberg, as it is out of print.

“May 2nd.—Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said, “I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes. On wet days I will  into the thickest parts of the forests, where the pine needles are everlastingly dry, and when the sun shines I’ll lie on the heath and see how the broom flares against the clouds. I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no one to worry me. Out there on the plain there is silence, and where there is silence I have discovered there is peace.”

“Mind you do not get your feet damp,” said the Man of Wrath, removing his cigar.”

 

Elizabeth (1866-1941) was her pen name. She was born Mary Annette Beaucham in Australia, but only lived there for the first few years of her life and her cousin was the famous New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield. She married a German noble man and they lived in Berlin until she discovered that her husband owned a country estate in Northern Germany.  The family was moved there and she revelled in the beauty of her garden and the surrounding countryside. She may have been wealthy, but she was still “only “ a woman at a time when women were expected to hold their tongues and uphold social niceties , when she would much rather be alone and free under open skies. Her descriptions of beauty are unsurpassed and I find her observations of humanity refreshingly witty and biting, which to me is an irresistible combination.

Her novel about leaving the rain of London with a group of other disappointed women, to find escape and peace for a short time in an Italian castle was made into a lovely  film “The Enchanted  April” which I can strongly recommend.

Elizabeth wrote to find her own voice in a restraining world; to revel in the beauty of a garden and to make money. She was hugely popular in her day and after her husband lost his fortune, she kept the family afloat. Eventually she divorced her German count and become an independent literary woman in her own right and grew her own  perfect garden in Switzerland .

I would dearly  have loved to swap cuttings with her!!

 

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Sun rise, sun set …..

I love being on holiday and having the time to spend whole days in the garden, not just snatched moments between work and sleep!

Evening primroses are wonderful flowers that uncoil themselves in the twilight and become luminous saucers of pale yellow in the darkness. Watching their opening from a garden seat,  as the blackbirds fuss themselves down to sleep, is one of the great pleasures of high summer. The flowers are open all night and as soon as the bees and butterflies wake up in the morning, they throw themselves into the generous feast of pollen and nectar .

In the early morning, there  is time to explore the fields that we usually blurred by in the morning commute.

Green finches wheeze companiably from the hedgerows; sparrows explode in raucous flocks from the ripe wheat and poured over everything, like thick cream, is the complex beauty of the blackcap’s song.

On the edge of the yellow wheat, poppies are starting to open. The green calyx of the bud is being shrugged off like an uncomfortable hat. The flower stem is vibrating visibly with the effort of releasing the petals. A moment’s waiting as the sun rises and the poppy is open; crimson petals still frilled with the shape of the bud. A moment more  and a bumble bee has found it and vibrates in ecstasy in the brand new black pollened centre of this poppy, that will have dropped every scarlet petal by the mid day sun.

The opening of the flowers mark each wonderful, transient day of our holidays and of our lives. Enjoy!

I am watching you!

Summer is so full of life. It is difficult to know where to look.

Huge oaks thrash in a thunder storm; the ears of a hiding fawn flick above tall flowers; a wet butterfly waits for the sun under a rain soaked flower.

Cameras give us the chance to see somethings we missed the first time. This angle shades moth is a tribal mask watching us more intently than we think!

(Thanks to Bruce Piercy for this photo).

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First Fruits.

Cherries, red currants and raspberries: plump and red and ready!

Last year there wasn’t a cherry and there wasn’t a walnut after a catastrophic spring frost that destroyed so much fruit that no kirsch was distilled and virtually no grapes were harvested in the Alsace to make the wonderful perfumed wine.

This year has been blissfully different. Spring was late, but this meant that not a flower was lost to late frost and now the cherry trees are growning under the wieght of thick black cherries  and magpies are swaying in the boughs drunk on lucious ripe fruit.

My tiny cherry tree has a real crop for the first time. The red currants survived the monster hail storm and the raspberries escaped all dangers and have loved the heat and the extraordinary rain of the last few weeks. There is so much fruit to come that I hope there is space in the freezer to accommodate it all.

However the one thing gardening has taught me over and over again is how changeable life is, how precariously perfectly balanced for a single moment on the grass blade edge between feast and famine . I inhale and savour the first sweet raspberry!

 

Putting your finger on it!

Sometimes the garden grows so fast there isn’t time to breath. Our weather has been very hot and very wet. The air is saturated in moisture and the garden feels like a hot house. The weeds are growing, the trees are growing,  the flowers are growing and the slugs are multiplying.

The air is perfumed. Lime trees are in full bloom and the perfume somehow reminds me of my mother’s washing powder and all seems clean and safe. The sweet chestnut is also in flower and the feathery blossoms are heavy, exotic and unfamiliar and they make make me sneeze.

The moth trap is full of the usual suspects. The light emerald wouldn’t leave my finger and the little emerald with its raggy wing seemed determined to make a point, but what it was, is as elusive as perfume and the racing days.

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Lurid

« Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room. »

I thought of those opening lines from Sylvia Plath’s Mushrooms when I saw this wonderful boletus mushroom pushing up unexpectedly on the edge of the field. It has been hot and crackling with electricity here, as storm after storm explodes over the countryside.

The plants are tropically lush and the mushrooms early and plump with rain.

This lurid boletus seemed sturdy enough to push a tree aside. A scrape of the turgid yellow flesh revealed red pores which turned  bight blue as they instantly oxidised in the stormy sky.

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A Billion brains.

This weekend we were walking in the Jura, high up enough to be above the line of flowering grasses and therefore cool and comfortable. The flowers were wonderful: purple columbines and strange parasitic yellow broomrapes; odd winged broom pushing up amongst the grass and in the shade of the trees, long  spurred butterfly orchids and sturdy white helebores with egg yolk yellow centres, and everywhere there were ants!

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The ground was alive with them and every track was a motorway of dark bodies. We found a huge wood ant nest and the surface was crackling with ants. I wondered if this was part of one of the famous super colonies of wood ants that have been studied a little further south in the Swiss Jura. It has been observed that each huge wood ant nest is actually linked to the next nest by tunnels and by lines of kinship. Theses ant cities work together and do not fight each other, creating peaceful and enormously sucessful empires of billions of animal living in harmony.

Not all wood ants live like this, but the colonies in the Jura have been proven to be different. They do not waste energy on fighting their own species, but instead tolerate each other and work together to hunt and forage.

They are hunters of other insects, but one of the bettles they never kill is the rose chafer beetle that was in my last post. If they encounter one of these they push it into the ant hill where it lays its eggs in saftey. These grow into larvea that spend a couple of years with the ants eating the pests that appear in the nest and thus keeping things clean for their hosts, before pupating and flying away.

When humans seem impossible, it would seem that the wise thing to do is to contemplate the even wiser ants!

 

 

 

click here for the useful rose rose beetle.

 

 

The Best things in Life are free ….

Living like an eastern potentate, this bejeweled rose beetle staggers through the pollen laden flowers of late spring gorging himself on plenty.

The Dame’s violets or gilly flowers are one of the great successes of my garden. Hesperis matronalis grows wild in Europe, but has long been cultivated in gardens for its sweet smell and tall purple blossoms. I dug this up from the green waste site in the village, when I first took possession of my utterly empty garden and could not wait to populate it with plants.

I bought all sorts of exotic flowers that secumbed to slugs or drought or rot, but the Dame’s Violet grew and multiplied steadily each year, until now it makes a spring show to over shadow everything else.  It seems the best things in life really are free and you can share them with the birds and bees and the Eastern potentates too!