Silent Night

We don’t realise how noisy the world is until it stops.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve in my part of France everyone leaves work and heads for home to prepare dinner and to then to eat with their family. The cars are silent in the garages; the tractors are quiet in the barns; the chainsaws are stilled in the forest; the planes overhead are gone and even my crazy neighbour with the leaf blower is wonderfully, miraculously quiet.

And then the quiet flows back , like silk, like oxygen and all your senses are filled to the brim with it.  Deep, ancient and profoundly satisfying the silence washes through you at last.

I realise how many owls there are calling from the forest on the hill. I had imagined there was only one and now I hear three distinct rich calls in the mild air. Stepping out to turn on the lights I hear sharp piercing barks of foxes very close.

On Christmas morning I open the bedroom window to a road utterly devoid of traffic and admire mist curling and dispersing on the forest as two ravens roll over the tree line conversing loudly in their own air.

The day is as quiet of human noise as the night and as I walked in the woods each bird call seemed perfectly delineated and clear. Field fare clucked in the apple orchards, mistle thrushes chattered, jays scolded, magpies gossiped, bull-finches peeped a single note, black wood peckers mewed like buzzards, song thrushes rolled out music and above it all the jubulient winter ravens shout.

 

 

 

 

Dead Books

I love books. I love the sight, the smell and the touch of them. When I walk into a room and see a line of books I feel at home.

On entering a hotel room, I found this selection on the wall and reached out my hand to pull one down and dive in. They were glued to the wall. An interior designer had stuck the pages together and glued the poor books straight onto the wall. What a frustratingly awful monument to form over function – a cemetery for the soul.

At least the bed was soft.

Vantage Point

The cold has been relentless for the last month. Minus five each night and breiefly above freezing in the sunset part of the day. I know this is chicken feed for North Americans but for so early in the winter, this has been very cold for our part of France. Everything is ringed and rimmed in frost and it  has formed so thickly night after night in the shade, that it now looks as though heavy snow has fallen.

Each morning is utterly clear and pink streaks the sky and laces between the bare trees. At dusk every branch is clear against the pale sky and at night the stars glitter with a cold violence in the darkness.

My cats fluff themselves up in their second generation wild cat coats and step delicately into the frost. Pixie refuses to put her front right paw down at all and hops ludicrously alarming the hungry birds, until she is let back into the warm and settles down to admire the cold from the vantage point of a warm radiator under the window.

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But they are all black!!

 

How to tell one black bird from another?

The eponymous black bird ( merle noir) is the easiest to identify. It is often the first bird to sing in the morning and the last to sing in the evening. The males are glossy black with bright yellow beaks. Females are brown and can be confused with thrushes; but the male is unmistakable and can be attracted into the garden in winter with apples strewn on the ground.

Jackdaws (choucas) are bigger and make noises like star war lasers. They are not very common locally and are mostly likely spotted in family groups on top of churches or on the chimney pots of older houses where they like to nest. Hence the longer French name: choucas des tours.

Rooks (freux) are similar in size and colour , but have a bare patch on the base of their beak, which is easy to spot close up . They like probing in turned earth for invertebrates and can often be seen in large groups on some farm land. They don’t seem to favour maize fields, so you are less likely to encounter rooks locally

Crows ( Corneille) are ubiquitous. Their raucous noise and jaunty walk bring them to our attention in both the countryside and the suburbs, but they will only come down to earth in larger gardens, as they need space to swagger and strut. Crows are black all over and very smart. Research has shown that that have the problem solving ability of a four year old human. They use tools, they play and they learn faster than a four year old. They can be found in pairs or in large groups. My favourite group live on a bend in the local road we have dubbed crow corner, where they guard a stand of walnut trees and lay the nuts on the roads for cars to crack open and hide unopened nuts in the grass for the long winter ahead.

Crows are sometimes confused with Ravens (grand corbeau) as both are all back, but ravens are the largest black bird of all in this area and you are only likely to see them in the forests or edges. Their bills are heavy and their tails are wedge shaped. They don’t come to gardens unless you are in the habit of putting carcasses on your bird table. They have the loudest, deepest cack, cack caw and at this time of year are a joy to watch wheeling and rolling high overhead, as they show off to potential mates . They lay their eggs early in February to feed their hatchlings on the unfortunate creatures that did not make it through the winter.

 

 

“marvelous designs”

First Snow in Alsace

The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.

Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.

As if it did not know they’d changed,
Snow smoothly clasps the roofs of homes
Fear-gutted, trustless and estranged.

The ration stacks are milky domes;
Across the ammunition pile
The snow has climbed in sparkling combs.

You think: beyond the town a mile
Or two, this snowfall fills the eyes
Of soldiers dead a little while.

Persons and persons in disguise,
Walking the new air white and fine,
Trade glances quick with shared surprise

At children’s windows, heaped, benign,
As always, winter shines the most,
And frost makes marvelous designs.

The night guard coming from his post,
Ten first-snows back in thought, walks slow
And warms him with a boyish boast:

He was the first to see the snow.

 

Richard Wilbur.                                    Collected poems 1953-2004

 

Walking out on a frosty morning in the Alsace, I was reminded of the wonderful line “frost makes marvelous designs” from Richard Smith’s poem .

Smith saw action in some of the fiercest final battles of WW2 around Colmar, as the Germans fought to the death to hold on to this long disputed slice of Europe. As part of the American force liberating the Rhinelands he considers that poetry was the only way to make sense out the chaos of conflict and this haunting poem still conveys fragile hope in the midst of the devastation of war.

“A Providence in the fall of sparrow”

Shakespeare thought sparrows were so ubiquitous that he used them as an example of something so common that only God could find their death significant . In Europe they have been so common that we often over look them, but in fact there are many less of them than they used to be. Populations have crashed due to intensive farming, sowing winter crops that leave no stubble in the fields and our obsessively,  over-tidy gardens .

Like all wildlife the humble sparrow needs untidy patches with wild flower seeds and the split grain of sloppy harvesting that leaves something over for the birds.

It was in just such a rare scattering of maize seed on a country lane that I encountered a huge flock of mixed common sparrows and tree sparrows busily feeding on the ground. As they fed they kept up a incessant chatter that makes one of the most cheerful of bird sounds I know. It is the background noise of childhood and the sound of quiet gardens made rorcous, alive and safe .

As we approached they fell utterly silent and then wheeled away in an indignant cloud. They wheeled over our heads, so numerous that they looked like smoke for a moment before descending on a couple of old apples trees .  Their descent into the trees was so sudden and complete that they seemed to fall into the branches as if dragged down by a powerful magnet. No squabbling for places or hesitancy; they knew exactly where they were going and were silent and hidden within seconds.  Humans have grown up with sparrows, even evolved with them: we know that when the birds are singing there are no predators near and we are all safe.

When the singing stops we are still afraid.

To keep some closer to home I put out bread crumbs every morning on a bird table away from my cats. My reward is the sound of a dozen sparrows chirruping each day and their simple song make me feel a little safer.