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.

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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Reasons to buy a House.

We live on a strange line.

We didn’t know it when we bought our house. We bought the place because it just felt right, as soon as we arrived and we weren’t really looking, but we bought it anyway. Ten years later we are still here and all you have to do is look up on a day like today to know why we really choose it.

Tens of thousands of birds have passed over our garden today. Their wings are rustling above our heads. Flock after flock, flinking and beating. The first time you see them you just grin with astonishment; the second time you try to really listen and the third time you decide that the dry sound is like a rain shower through summer trees, almost gone before it reaches the ground.

They are pigeons coming out of Central Europe and flying west across France and into Spain and Portugal. Thousands  and thousands of birds crossing right over this odd intersection of Germany, France and Switzerland and over my back garden on a still sunny Sunday afternoon.

It appears we unwittingly bought a house on a major migration route for birds.

Spring and autumn birds flow over us. Down the lane serious birders set up telescopes and send in records of raptors and rarities to international migration sites.  My husband scans the skies from the comfort of the porch and convenient cups of tea. I look up when I hear the birds: air pushing, confident beats of stocky powerful wings and he indicates that the whole sky from edge to edge is black with the improbable smoke of the migrating pigeons.

So that’s why it has always felt like the right place!

Sky lace.

The swallows and martins are almost gone.

Over the garden they have poured in their hundreds, companionably calling as they weave their way to far away Africa.

Ted Hughes  wrote that they were stitching the sky and so I have always thought of them, but there were such thick clouds of them last week that I thought maybe they were lace making against the clouds, pulling delicate nets of fine worked lace  behind them.

Our house in on a migration route from Europe to Africa and every year the birds pour over us. Swallows and martins, chasing hobbies, red kites, honey busards, even the odd osprey and flock of blue, blue bee eaters stream over, sometimes high and sometimes low enough to feed from the insects rising from our garden.

The image of the fine lace woven by  the flight  patterns of wings for an instant and then rewoven, reassembled and pulled delicately across the whole world amuses me, something so much lighter and freer than a net : starting in the barns and eves of Europe and then being pulled by the interlacing wings all the way to Africa, a world unified  and beautified by birds!

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Other Eyes.

 

There is so much bad news , so much that scrapes the skin  from your flesh and leaves just flinching, flayed nerves alive to every sadness. And so we turn our eyes away, watch a moth bulging at our self indulgence with blissful alien incomprehension, listen to the hoot of an owl, calling between the roar of the jets, read haikus, allow a late flower to suprise us and to delight us and we hold on as the world turns and turns and we hold on, hold on.

 

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Living in the Modern world.

This swallow was nesting above the cutlery shelf in a busy English beer garden. Drinkers clattered by collecting knives and forks, ketchup and vinegar and bar staff plonked down ploughmans’ lunches, Sunday roasts and Branston pickle sandwiches on their way to tables ringed by hungry drinkers.  The swallow ignored them all  and safe between the electrical wires and heating ducts brought butterflies and bugs back to its brood of hatchlings .

I have put up artificial, purpose made nests for swallows and house martins all round my house, just above my garden which is heaving with insect banquets and the birds have spurned them all. I have laughed at the improbability of my neighbour ever populating his huge new house martin monster hotel as he insists on constantly shaving the grass beneath with noisiest  lawn mower known to creation. However, it seems I have been totally wrong about what these birds want, as this picture proves. To attract swallows to nest in harmony give them chatter, clatter, the smell of cooking and the fumes of plenty of good bitter beer!

The first time.

Today was the sound of kestrels learning to fly, keening, crying , mewing, mewling, over and over as they flopped and fell and soared and swooped for the very first time out of crowed malodorous nests in dark church towers out, out into the wide blue sky flying with clouds and martins and jackdaws and the clacking of stork bills and the unrepeatable perfume of lime trees in flower for the first time, the first time, the very, very, first time in to the new world.

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A Prickly customer.

We spotted a large hedgehog out in the afternoon sun in our garden yesterday. She seemed in good health and unafraid. Something seemed to be sticking out of her mouth, but it was very hard to get a good look when she hid by a wall.

My husband thought it was a little bird foot, but this seemed ridiculous. We left her in peace and she trundled off into the bushes. On the lawn was a half eaten young sparrow, which one of our cats had caught from the bird table and then eaten the breast in typical faddy cat fashion. The bird was also missing its feet.

A check of the guidebook confirms that cute hedgehogs will eat carrion and like nestlings that fall out of the nest.

We make bread; the crusts go every day to the sparrow; the sparrows make a lot of babies; the cats catch some young sparrows; the hedgehog eats the left overs and makes more hedgehogs.  Nature is never wasteful and never soppy!

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Gifts of the rain.

Heavy rain brings quiet mornings.

Snakes of pine needles on the path show where water flowed in the night.

Poppies are slow to open in the cool hours and there is time to watch them shrugging     off their sepals to  expose their dark hearts to the hungry bees.

Droplets cling to the folds of lady’s mantle leaves – the name from the shape of the folds in the Virgin Mary’s cloak.

And the birds: such a rich waterfall of music from the birds, as they take the cloudy day for dawn and sing each fresh washed note over and over again.

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Breaking free.

Spring is a liberation for the heart and the soul: the return of life is everywhere at this time of year.

On the path, a blackbird’s delicate egg shell speaks of something set free and in the air above, black caps cascade music against white clouds. At my feet, beneath the still bare trees, there are tiny white oxalis flowers, bruise blue lungworts, splatters of seven leaved cardamines and whole slopes of improbable violets, such as I have never seen in an April wood before.

There is herb Paris and wild strawberries, sweet woodruff and dogs’ mercury, oxslips and celandine, lords and ladies and bachelors’ buttons and more and more and more pushing up from the moist earth under a confetti of wild cherry petals; all for this apparently inauspicious, inelegantly sounding, miraculous year of 2019!

Dancing with Kites.

 

Over the garden a red kite mewling like a kitten, so close I could reach out my hand and brush the polished perfect feathers.

Kite silhouette again the racing  blue sky, the cat crouches low and the bird is gone, piping and laughing into the clouds.

And now another and another.

They twist around each other, wings touching the roof tops delighting in the fitful wind, hail flung after them and the sunlight chasing them.

Flame forked tails angle and the birds turn, quartering the spring sky into slabs of changing colour. Four birds over my tiny garden, calling to each other for the whole spring day.

Flirting, testing partners, laughing: dancing.

 

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Rambling bramblings.

Squeals of delight come easily to children and rarely to the truely grown up. Adult life consists of such profoundly dull things that an unforced squealing is considered an audible anomaly. That is why bramblings are so wonderful.

The odd jaunty red brambling amongst the chaffinches or sparrows in the garden is a smile inducing pleasure, but a wintering flock streaming overhead as the darkness falls evokes a real squeal.

Some years they don’t come. Apparently the prevelence of beech mast has to be just right to tempt them south from their Scandinavian homes in such numbers: they dont take wing in their millions for nothing. But when the conditions are right they arrive in huge numbers and feed voraciously in the woods of Southern Germany, Eastern France and northern Switzerland. We were once in the forest when they descended to forage and every leaf was alive with flicking, delicately rustling birds, as thousands and thousands fed quietly around us.

This year we have seen few on the ground, but suddenly the air has been fabulously full of them. Somewhere relatively close, the bramblings have been roosting on mass and the skies right above our muddy garden have been filled with their sturdy determined silhouettes returning at dusk to their temporary roost.

The first flock flying over make you stop what you are doing and shout for others to look. The second flock makes you shout louder, the third, the forth and the fifth flock leave you rooted to the earth in immobile delight. When the flocks streaming overhead are indistinguishable and there is no sky between them, then you realise you are seeing millions of birds and squealing is the only possible response!

We tried in vain to find the roost, but by the time we had time to give up doing the dull things that grown ups do, the bramblings in their extraordinary, unbelievable millions, had gone somewhere else.

I hope they will be back next year.

Birds don’t recognise borders.

I found out about a orchard planting initiative in my village almost by accident. An old fashioned piece of paper dropped in my letter box said a field was being planted with trees the next day and volunteers were welcome. 

A long field on the edge of the village was staked out with pegs and bare rooted pear and apple trees lay waiting to be pruned and planted. A knowledgeable man snipped off almost every branch with great care and precision and holes were dug to place the trees in. A pleasant community endeavour you might think, but what was was more remarkable than that people were giving up Saturday for the good of birds, was the fact the the land was in France, the trees were Swiss and the people were French, Swiss, German and British.

This slice of hope in  a crazy world was funded by an anonymous donation in Switzerland that was to help little owls increase their tiny claw hold in Europe. The land was donated by a French family who love birds and the work was undertaken by locals, Swiss volunteers from over the border and school children. Little owls were extinct in the area, but very careful management and cooperation between bird lovers in three different nations is slowly recreating the tree and hedge rich habitat they need to survive and move effortlessly between countries. The generosity of someone I will never know, across a border that means nothing to wildlife, may hopefully help the spread of this beautiful bird.

While borders seem clanging shut across the world, this seems something to celebrate!

The power of noise.

It was cold. The winter sun was rising reluctantly and shafts of sunlight momentarily threw the fog into tangible white blocks. Sounds in the woods were muffled. Invisible ravens called overhead and the planes took off one after another; their roaring lingering in layers above the mist.

Into this soft cotton wool world someone threw a grenade and the tree tops exploded in noise.  I craned my neck back to see what bird or animal was responsible.  A flock of small birds was whirling in the highest branches.  The fog was too thick to make out colour and marking, only their size was discernible : blue tits? Chaffinches? Bramblings returning from the north? However numerous they were, such small birds could not be making this ear splitting cacophony. And then I realised, I knew this noise. This was mistle thrush turned up to 11! The crackle of mistlethrush is a sound of winter in the forest as they work through the mistletoe that grows on the high pine trees, but I had never heard them so loud.

They are highly territorial birds and will defend an apple tree covered in mistletoe from all commers, but I never knew they could repel a huge flock of finches deep in the forest by the sheer force of their voices. There were hundreds of finches foraging for seeds and insects in the tree tops, but they didn’t stand a chance against a couple of loud mouthed thrushes, who had this patch of woodland staked out for their own winter larder.

 

Slicing out the sky.

When the leaves are gone, there is less to distract us from the enormity of winter skies. Little, colurful birds cluster around the seed feeders and the fat balls, but the blank, cold skies are left for black birds: for the crows and for the best of all birds : the pitiless raven.

As the flowers shrivel in the first frosts, she bristles out her throat, throws back her head and laughs long and loud into the empty air. The dreariest time of year is the ravens’ flirtation . While we fret and fart with wretched leaf blowers in our tidy corners of the world, the ravens shout into the wind, roll  extravagantly, over and over with the sheer joy of aerial mastery, wings heavy bell beat in the frozen air. Their’s is delight in cold; delight in dark. This is their time to pair, to impress with improbable devilry; to call to their mate and to slice out a piece of sky for their own winter territory . In their magnificent racous laughter, they wait for the carrion that will feed their young in the months before spring returns.

On not being tidy.

There is a great desire to tidy up the garden at this time of year; to sweep away, to cut down and the housewife in me itches to do away with all the dying vegetation in a great autumn cleanup.

It has taken me a few years of enjoying my own garden to realise that this urge really stems from the mistaken belief that tidying away the old season, will hasten in the new. Old flower stems, mushy leaves and lank shrubs seem to cry out for a short back and sides, but having subjected my garden to such tidy mindedness in my first few years of real gardening, all I was left with was brown soil, bristling shrubs and flat grass. As there are months and months to go before the first bulbs appear and leaves soften the stark branches, I slowly realised that there is no rush to clean up and precious little point to loosing the interest bequeathed by the dying year.

Not being tidy means the seeds have time to ripen in the seed heads and the dry stems give architectural beauty lost in the tidy garden . Spiders sling their webs between the stalks and the first frosts jewel them with diamonds. The leaves shelter the worms, the beetles and the bugs that will feed the hedgehogs and the bushes are roost sites for sparrows and larders for bluetits. The unpicked grapes are pecked off by the blackbirds and the apples forgotten in the grass will feed the starlings.

The weeds that have escaped the tidy hoe in the vegetable patch find space to miraculously flower and prickly blue borage is noisy with the last honey bees.  Nothing is to be gained by pulling them up. There will be time much later in the long, long winter to make space for next year’s explosion of life.

Until them I will resist the urge to tidy and let my garden move at its own  pace: quietly, messily giving life to the winter world.

Dawn

I open the bathroom window, the cat leaps onto the window sill, huge eyed she surveys the black garden. The houses are dark, the shutters are down. Above the hill a crescent moon reclines on thin clouds.

A tawny owl calls soft and is answered, soft, soft. Bat, or is it bird, black against grey, very close. One cluck, another and then an indignant coal scuttle of falling notes clattering hard against the leaves: the blackbirds are awake – there is orange in the sky.

The church spire appears and a black redstart ticks the waking minutes from the rose arch. The Rome flight takes off and the plane leaves a dirty streak of noise across the sky followed by another and another. The pale blue morning is now tartan with orange vapour trails.
Two crows weave through, chatting companionably together against the immense  sky. The sparrows are awake, a car hisses by.

The donkey, that I have never heard in my entire life, brays to the crows.

The cat jumps down.

 

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Gardening Organically

I found this great post and I just pressed the reblog button in my enthusiasm. I didnt have time to ask for permission and I really hope The Wildlife Gardener doesnt mind my hasty action, but it is a really good piece and it expresses the need to ditch the chemicals much better than I can!

The Wildlife Gardener

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It’s tempting to reach for the chemical sprays or powders when your walk into your garden and find your favorite rose overrun with aphids or Japanese beetles, or find your cauliflower beset by cabbage worms.  After all, what harm can a localized spray possibly do?

The answer is quite a lot.  The fact is 90% or more of all insects are beneficial and harmless, and no matter how “localized” the spray, the chemical will kill all insects, not just the “pests.”  A diverse collection of insects in your garden/yard translates into good pollination and fruit development, and a natural, non-toxic check on the growth of “pests.”  We need insects in the ecosystem.  The alternative would be hand-pollinating our fruit and vegetables to continue our food supply; clearly not a viable or reasonable alternative.

Beneficial insects, if allowed to flourish, will curb the spread of pests.  The two most effective ways to encourage…

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Chocolate dusting

These bracket fungi remind me of Christmas spice biscuits: white sugar and a dark chocolate top, all dusted with cocoa powder. The honey fungus to the left look like marzipan decorations, but I am not eating any of it. Foraging maybe fashionable these days, but a spectacular number of people die every year from picking and eating the wrong mushrooms. I am fascinated by fungi, but know enough to recognise how different the same species can be, at each stage of its growth. Even the most experienced can make mistakes and while this can just lead to a badly upset stomach, it can also lead to fast, fatal poisoning. So I just admire from a distance and eat real chocolate instead!

On the same walk in the woods, where I spotted these deceptively edible treats, I saw a commotion in a fir tree which took a moment to understand. There was ungainly flapping and an odd hissing/cooing noise. The flapping was a buzzard and the hissing was a very small red squirrel racing along the trunk of the tree to escape. The buzzard chased it up the tree and then down again, flapping its wings against the trunk to dislodge the mammal. The squirrel ran for its life making the strangest soft cooing noises. Eventually it reached the safety of the floor and buried its self in the undergrowth. The buzzard flew heavily away with a disgusted croak.

I have seen a buzzard with a dead red squirrel in its claws, but never watched them hunting like this before. We don’t get Grey squirrels here at all and the red squirrels are much less obvious. I have always thought of buzzards hunting voles and rabbits, but when you see how crafty they are in the depth of the forest, it is no wonder the red squirrels with their soft voices, are so cautious and hard to see.

Pivot..End of August…..

Nine o’clock at night and it is night, as the end of summer darkness has come quickly. The commuters have all gone. The swishing tyres are silent. On the curve of the hill a tawny owl calls . Again and again more distant now as the darkness thickens.

My near neighbour is clearing the dinner plates. Her voice is full of urgent news and chatter. There are no spaces for replies. Through the lighted window her daughter stretches up her arms after a full meal. The chatter disappears, the owl returns. In the street a car drives away. The daughter and her boyfriend leave her parents to a quiet, tidy house.

Madame Charlotte’s feral cats appear: quiet, black, quite aware that I am no threat to them, they drink from the hedgehog bowl and delicately sniff out the cat food discarded by my pampered hygienic moggies. I think I can hear earthworms slithering. An apples falls heavy from a tree onto the cooling grass behind me.

In front, Madame Charlotte’s 45 year old son parks up under the eves of the old barn. He lets out a prodigious belch and fumbles into the house. The lone bat leaves the high eves and goes out across the orchard to feed.

The mosquitoes are feeding on me. Time to go in: the autumnal kitchen door slams behind me.