No Mow May – retrospective.

I stopped mowing my lawn as soon as I had one.

We once rented part of a very old bake house that belonged to Garsington Manor in Oxfordshire. We were responsible for a dank patch of grass next to the village pond. In the first no mow spring, early purple orchids came up.

We moved to Wales and eventually put down a deposit on a bungalow on the edge of a venerable town. Masses of ox- eye daisies came up along with red campion and dandelions . We were not yet brave enough to let them all grow, but soon learnt that you could mow paths through your “meadow” and this semblance of order kept the neighbours happy.

In the tropical countries in which we subsequently lived, lawns were rare and generally composed of tough mat grasses that had never been meadowlands, but not cutting the grass still allowed bigger ant hills to flourish and ant loving birds to feed.

In France we bought a flat slab of lawn surrounded by low maintenance evergreens and chicken wire. Our cat was deeply unimpressed, as there was no where to hide and absolutely no life to hunt. We agreed with him and took to diligent neglect or re-wilding, as it is more fashionably called.

Birch trees, ash, dogwood, spindle and wild privet self seeded and in a corner we let them all grow. In the grass; hawks bit, eye bright, ladies smock, bugle, daisies and dandelions, sedges and plantains, fox and cubs, primroses and cowslips, teasels, evening primroses and mulleins appeared in their seasons. We collected local wild seeds and threw them in for good measure. The ox eye daisies and the hay rattle never took, like wise the foxgloves, but then it all depends of what type of soil you have and when you eventually do cut the grass.

If you never cut the grass, then bushes and finally trees will take over. We allowed this happen in a part of the garden and now that part is full of nesting birds and mice and hedgehogs. The cats now have so many places to hunt, sun and to hide that they are happy to stay safe in our garden away from the traffic and the thundering computer driven tractors.

There is no down side to not mowing your lawn. You have more time to enjoy your garden, the garden is infinitely quieter and the difference to the amount of life that will live with you in your garden, is absolutely staggering .

No Mow May, No Mow June and a bit of mowing if you don’t want a forest glade. What could be easier!???

Changing the Guard.

The hedgerows are still bare: a few colts foot and celandines have nosed out above the soil and in the woods there are tiny oxslips and lungwort flowers, easily overlooked amongst the dead leaves.

BUT:

The spring migrants are here!

The chiffchaff is throwing his voice like confetti up into the leafless trees. The secretive dunnock has slipped in on the warm air and the electric crackle of the black redstart is fizzing from the barn tops. Every storks’ nest has two gigantic birds stood aloft and they throw back their heads and rattle and clack to one another with insane glee.

In the ploughed fields there are still a few bramblings and in my garden the feeders are covered with siskins, who don’t seem to know that winter is over yet. The cold weather seed eaters are still cautious, but the warm weather insect eaters are already here. They are ready to risk the changing of the guard and for a few days yet they meet in the neutral territory of the early spring.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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=

Hearing the world

I forgot my binoculars again, so I had to listen instead.

First there was the conversational croak and squark of frogs. Heavy flops into water and ripples covering the commotion with quiet again. Then there was hissing of ducks, flapping and bell beat of swans wings pushing away invaders. Then a scream like a stuck pig from the reeds. Water rails are rarely seen but unmistakable in their piercing indignation.

Then I was convinced we were being followed as there were rustles behind us but no footsteps. Leaves flinked against the sunlight, branches just moved. Finally we saw the twisting dark line of a red squirrel, so little and so lithe, jumping from hazel branch to hazel branch, stripping the green nuts as she went.

Down on the ground, she looked for the dislodged nuts, but was pulled back up into the leaves by any disturbance, as fast as a children’s toy whipped along by a thread.

Planes growled out of the airport (the covid silence is long gone) . A strimmer ripped up the quiet and then a golden oriole called and its rich exotic tropical note soothed the natural sounds back to the foreground again.

Shall I stay?

The storks are a great success story in my part of the world. When I arrived here 14 years ago, to see one or two was a great event. Then we found reintroduction sites where nests were protected and numbers grew. We saw storks more regularly and sometimes in great numbers when they migrated south in the winter.

Now we often see great groups of up to 20 huge stately birds picking through the fields with fierce concentration. They nest in all the villages around , but we are just a little too high up and so far no pair has chosen us.

This summer has been cool and very wet and stabbing their great beaks into the earth in search of food has been easy. Many more stork chicks have been reared and last years birds need roof tops spaces to build their nests for next year.

A few weeks ago, for the first time, a young stork perched on the roof of an old house opposite and threw back his head and clacked his beak loudly . He was calling for a mate, advertising the real estate he had located and trying to tempt a female to establish the first nest in our village.

So far he had no takers, but he is the first to try and I really hope he will find a mate who will love this place as much as I do and that the storks will return to my village.

Up and down

The teasels are flowering.

The circle of purple flowers opens both up and down the flower heads and they remind me of the wonderful lines about the candle burning at both ends.

“My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –

It gives a lovely light.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Thistles: 1918.

When the brief firework of flowers are over, the seed heads will ripen and the dried heads will stand all winter long to feed the meticulous goldfinches when there seems nothing left to eat in the world.

The prickly, unpromising Teasels really are a “lovely light” at both ends of the year.

wanted and not wanted.

Without the rain nothing grows, when it is dry we fret, when it is wet we moan.

It has been endlessly wet and very cool. The trees are loving it. There have been too many dry years and the stress has left them vulnerable to disease, but not this spring.

This spring has been full of rain and now it seems full of baby birds. In the cold, wet months they have managed to hatch and to rear their sodden young and now the foliage is full of hungry, demanding fledgelings and frantic feathered parents .

There were lines of fluffy sparrow chicks in the feeder house this morning waiting for mother to transfer the sunflower kernels into their beaks. In the wet cherry tree marsh tit chicks scolded and whined as they demanded food. Hidden in the spindle bush are baby blue tits also waiting for their share and on the grass a harassed male blackbird yanks half drowned worms out of the yielding earth for his enormous off spring. The young blackbird is as lumpen and unhelpful as a teenage boy, but his father dutifully crams him with food nonetheless.

My presence is disturbing them, rearing young in the rain is not easy.

They want the food I provide, but they don’t want me round.

We want the life that the rain gives but we don’t want the clouds.

Ode to a Nightingale.

The pear blossom is over, the cherry blossom is still splashing down and the pink edged perfect apple blossom is just showing between the twin green leaves that seem to offer up the simple flowers to an April morning.

In the thicket a real Nightingale sang. Her song is so rich, so varied, so burbling, so beautiful it needs Keats to do it justice. This poem seems so apt and poignant today, just as it did for Keats struggling with TB and still transported by the astounding beauty of the bird’s song. It is a long poem, but well worth reading again, or for the first time.

“Immortal bird” indeed.

Ode to a Nightingale .

John Keats- 1795-1821

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
  My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, 
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains 
  One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: 
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
  But being too happy in thine happiness,— 
    That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees, 
          In some melodious plot 
  Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, 
    Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

2.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
  Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth, 
Tasting of Flora and the country green, 
  Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth! 
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
  Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, 
    With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, 
          And purple-stained mouth; 
  That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, 
    And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

3.

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget 
  What thou among the leaves hast never known, 
The weariness, the fever, and the fret 
  Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; 
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
  Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; 
    Where but to think is to be full of sorrow 
          And leaden-eyed despairs, 
  Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, 
    Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

4.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee, 
  Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, 
But on the viewless wings of Poesy, 
  Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: 
Already with thee! tender is the night,
  And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, 
    Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays; 
          But here there is no light, 
  Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown 
    Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

5.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, 
  Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, 
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet 
  Wherewith the seasonable month endows 
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
  White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine; 
    Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves; 
          And mid-May’s eldest child, 
  The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, 
    The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

6.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time 
  I have been half in love with easeful Death, 
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, 
  To take into the air my quiet breath; 
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
  To cease upon the midnight with no pain, 
    While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad 
          In such an ecstasy! 
  Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
    To thy high requiem become a sod.

7.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! 
  No hungry generations tread thee down; 
The voice I hear this passing night was heard 
  In ancient days by emperor and clown: 
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path 
  Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, 
    She stood in tears amid the alien corn; 
          The same that oft-times hath 
  Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam 
    Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn. 

8.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toil me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Holding on to the good news.

Covid is raging across the world and life can seem to have shrunk to a penny piece, but there is still wonderful good news to hold onto.

Here on one of the busiest and most polluted rivers in the world , ospreys are returning to breed. A huge international rewilding project is returning a little bit of the river Rhine to its natural state and wildlife is moving straight back in to rebalance the world.

At the other end of our astonishing planet blue whales, which were nearly hunted to extinction, are reappearing again after hunting was outlawed.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/nov/19/blue-whale-sightings

Good people who shout loud enough and who care, can make a difference. Wildlife just needs a hand and it will come back: things can get better for us all!

Photo by Sue Round

On hearing the first cuckoo of spring.

The heartbeat, ethereal  sound of the first cuckoo, heard and almost not heard in the echoing quiet of our lockdown world. No easy jet roars tearing up the air and stitching us in with trails of pollution. It is now so quiet that I can hear the call of the first cuckoo right over in the valley along the alder stream where I remember them last spring time.

What a long time ago last spring seems!

Walking where we wanted, seeing whom we pleased, being unafraid.

And yet this spring I have heard more birds than I ever had before. I have spoken to more neighbours over the garden fence and wall than ever before. And most remarkable of all; a neighbour tells me he has seen a lynx in the forest for the very first time! My neighbour has cut timber in the forest for 30 years and he knows how rare and remarkable this sighting was.

This spring is so different.

Delius was inspired by the sound of the first cuckoo and so please take a moment to catch a little calm and listen to this gentle music in celebration of some normality.

 

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Black bird singing….

I love the sound of blackbirds.

For me they call the day into being and they settle it to rest at night. Their song  is the first thing I hear and blackbird’s rich burbling waterfall of notes is strong enough to be heard through sleepy double glazed bedroom windows and irresistible enough to draw me out into every falling garden dusk.

Each bird has its own sound kingdom ruled from a roof top or tall tree and it proclaims its ownership not in battle or borders, but by pouring the rich cream of its delicious notes over everything that can hear it.

In my garden the blackbird announces the start of the day from the tallest birch tree. Each phrase of its wonderfully complex and satisfying song so round and light they seem to hang on the thin birch twigs like jewels .

At dusk the notes are more defined and the bird chuckles them out like comfortable gossip about the day gone by.

It is always the very last bird to stop singing and the very last to roost: afraid to miss out on anything .

In high summer its final notes are often  the prelude to the appearance of the bats and their silhouettes against the gathering dark are sometimes merged as silence finally falls.

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Apricot Blossom.

My neighbour’s apricot tree is in full bloom and if you squint your eyes hard you can  just make out a red kite in the top left corner against the blue, blue sky.

 

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Today sounded like spring!

Some days have felt like spring: warm sun and gentle air; some days have looked like spring; early bees and daffodils, but today was the first day that sounded like spring.

The air is still cold, there is snow on the mountains and bad news on the radio, but migrants have come on the wind and their song was lovely!

The edge of the woods were loud with bird song, thrushes and blackbirds, a skirl of starlings that could sing like kites and golden orioles and their own whirling popping selves. A raven chuckled over us, green woodpeckers yaffled, black woodpeckers deep drummed and a long eared owl wheezed unseen . There were blue tits, great tits, wagtails and coal tits and then best of all; most unmistakable and gorgeous a chiffchaff sang with its throat full of spring time and the promise of summer.

Two brimstone butterflies appeared, a fantastically edged comma butterfly found some sunshine and ludicrously, a pair of large ruddy shell ducks landed on the top of our neighbours chimney pot, called companionable to one another and flew away!

I dont have pictures of any of these things. Close you eyes and listen for them,   though you may have to listen very hard to hear the butterflies!

The photos are from the woodland.

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Magpie flying in the storm.

Magpie flying in the storm

a straight line against the flying white

chaos of snow.

Snow in all directions

the air made visible in all dimensions

above, below, between

and the magpie dark, a flat arrow

just making for home

in one single dimension

pulling desperate order along

on it’s piebald tail.

 

 

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Greedy for the light.z

Greedy for the light they press soft leaves to the cool glass

The stems yearn over one another

Etiolated by desire.

The storm splatters rain hard against the window

The roof lifts a little in the wind

Groaning to resettle it’s self on the February house.

The empty quater of view is suddenly red kite –

Angled tail and feathers quartering the lift and bluster of the day.

Inside, the leaves press harder.

 

 

 

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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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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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