Let it go!

When we moved into our home seven years ago, the drive was gravel. I think it must have been regularly sprayed with weed killer to keep it  bare and tidy- so we stopped. We collected handfuls of seeds from local wild flowers in the first  autumn and we threw them on the tidy, dead stones.

A blush of green appeared in the spring. Tiny pinks arrived first

 

IMG_1662.JPGand tentative wild marjoram. Dandelions scrambled yellow and I let them flower for the bees and then seed for the linnets to feed on. Yarrow sprang up eventually and garden lavender even set seed and bushes started to grow.

There is still a bare strip where the car comes in and out of the garage each day, but the rest is a riot of colour and life. Arriving home from work to drive through an explosion of butterflies and a wall of bumble bees is a million times better growling over dead stones and when I wake up in the morning, open my bedroom window and look down, I watch finches picking through seeds and house martins swooping through the insects that have found a home on our drive just because we let it all go!

Cuckoo in the nest.

When we lived in Wales we used to keep watch on the nest of a peregrine falcon. It involved long hours ensuring no one stole the eggs to sell to falconers in the Middle East and while we lay in the grass, we also got to watch cuckoos.

The plump, barred birds picked caterpillars off the bushes and squeezed their inner ends down  their throats like a thrifty dentist squeezing the last of a tube of tooth paste. Since then I have rarely seen them and the only confirmation that the they still exist has came from the unmistakable call of the male bird.

When we first moved to France I heard a few each year and then there were none , but this year, while feeding my sparrows, I  heard a call, loud clear and wonderfully unmistakable .

On the same day we stopped by a thin line of reeds between two fields and listened to the sweet call of a very different bird. If you look closely at the photo you can see a very small bird singing. It is a reed warbler and it is smaller than a sparrrow and weighs the same as an envelope. This is the tiny bird that most often raises the young of the cuckoo. Their own chicks are thrown out by the cuckoo hatchling who has never laid eyes on its own parents . By mimicking the sound of a hungry baby reed warbler the cuckoo encourages its diminutive parents to feed the imposer until it dwarfs them in size. When it is fully grown the cuckoo sets off for the rain forests of central Africa, without ever having seen another cuckoo in its life.

It is an extraordinary story of how interconnected we are on this small planet and how a single evocative sound in one part of the world links us to all of the rest .

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Feathering your nest.

A soft feather pillow to sink into engenders peaceful  sleep and it seems sparrows know it too!

I had been shaking out an old feather pillow on top of the potato peelings on our compost heap and some the feathers escaped. They caught on the dry earth and within minutes our local sparrows were down stuffing their beaks with pillow feathers to line their own new nests. They continued to visit all afternoon until every feather was gone and a small trail of white duck down floated down the quiet street in their wake.

Sound scape.

I wake up to rave music.

The sickening machine deep thump like my own heart about to explode. I take deep, deep breaths. Windows kept shut,  the rumble of the kettle and the calming sound of a teapot filling, restores some equilibrium, until the loathsome perpetrator of this insult  lapses somewhere into unconsciousness and the cacophony stops.

Outside is birdsong.

The sparrows chattering companionably. A great tit proclaiming his territory. A marsh tit tapping open a sunflower seed on the the trellis. The electric cackle of a redstart . A chiffchaff. The first deep pollen furred rumbles of bumble bees.

The neighbour’s dog Harry is let out and barks . The first horse from the stable ambles down the road and Harry barks again. The horse shys and his hooves clatter sharp on the tarmac. Harry smiles.

In the garden the hum of bees is louder. The pear tree is in full bloom and every single tiny flower seems covered in honey bees. Blink and the tree seems still, squint and it is writing with pollinating frenzy.

Overhead a buzzard mews plaintively swinging  into a swoop to impress his mate hanging in the paintbox blue sky.

A couple of frantic and obilivious cyclists whoosh by on thin wheels shouting . Another neighbour retrieves the beer can he left last night in the garden before his elderly mother peers out to admire her pink ribboned Easter rabbit decorations.

After lunch there is laughter under the trees over a cigarette. A desolutotry teenager bounces a basket ball for a few minutes.

Magpies cackle and four black kites glide over head in total silence, their universe so huge, so distant and unbounded.

 

 

 

 

Bald Bush!

This forsythia was the only shrub that existed in my garden when we bought this house and the first spring it flowered magnificently. We took cuttings from it and they all rooted easily.

These daughter plants produced wonderful frills of yellow flowers on every inch of the branches, but the mother plant is now nearly bald of blossom every spring.  We thought we were pruning it at the wrong time, so we pruned in the late spring: no flowers, so we pruned in the winter: no flowers, so we didn’t prune at all: still no flowers!

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So then I wondered what had changed from when we first arrived and I saw the bird table we had place right next to it, which attracts a mob of house sparrows all year round, to eat our left over bread. Obviously the bread was not enough as I remembered I had seen a telltale yellow bud in a sparrow’s beak weeks before. In recompense for all the bread I have shared with them, behind my back they have been systematically stripping the flower buds every year, while we have been foolishly fretting about pruning régimes!

I love feeding the sparrows, so I guess I will just have to learn to love my raggedly parti coloured forsythia bush too!

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First cherry blossom.

The very first  wild cherry trees are blossoming . The white flowers are tiny and the mass of buds look like pearls against the dark branches.

In the forest oxslips are pushing up . This plant was growing on the rim of a badger latrine. I am always amused by badgers’ domesticity. They are very careful about where they do their business and favour dry banks where they can scrabble about without getting muddy and then move to a new site when the first gets too untidy.

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Up in the tree tops crows were mobbing a raven and the racket was wonderfully raucous. As we watched the commotion another large bird was flushed up . At first I thought it was a second  raven, but as it sat apart from the row, hunched and muscular we realised we were watching a female goshawk and I thought of “H. Is for Hawk” and felt privileged to be in her magnificent presence.

LBJ

No, not a new sexual orientation acronym, but little brown jobs: the birds that are hard to tell apart on sight, due to unremarkable plumage.

Chiffchaffs are definitely LBJs , but there is no mistaking their call, the onomatopoeic  “chiff -chaff” simple double note that gives them their name. To German ears they sing “zilpzap”and they have seem to have arrived here in the Alsace this very morning. They winter in Africa and summer in Europe. Redstarts seem to have arrived too along with a smattering of dunnocks.

While we listened a large hare loped out from under the hedge and sat a while on his long haunches, ears up to hear and admire some new sounds of spring and a brimstone butterfly that has survived the winter found a primrose.

All my Gardens- part 6 : Brazil – humming birds and highrise.

São Paulo Brazil has about 20 million inhabitants and from my first experience, only one tree.

I could see the tree from my apartment on the fifteenth floor. It was in a school yard a long way down and it was completely dwarfed by the high rises that surrounded it. São Paulo was the most relentlessly urban environment in which I have ever tried to grow a garden and yet a city more in need of green it would be hard to imagine.

When we arrived in our first apartment we stepped over the street children huddled together like puppies under blankets. When I looked out onto the balcony I felt I was falling into the most profound pit I had ever seen, as the earth that should have surrounded the building was being excavated to a terrifying depth, to build the sky scraper next door.

We didn’t stay long.

There were a few more trees near the next apartment we lived in, but they too were dwarfed into insignificance by the dimensions of the buildings.

 

From this second balcony I hung ferns in baskets and tried my best to make a wall of green with ficus trees, crotons and butterfly palms.  Bigonias are native to Brazil and an assortment of types gave colour and leaf shapes to my attempt to block out the view of the city.

Wildlife is more tenacious than we think however, and a feeder soon attracted a spectacular swallow tailed blue humming bird that had swapped a life sipping nectar from blossoms in the topical forest for a city life drinking sugar water from a plastic feeder. The blue grey taneger we had first met eating chilies in our Costa Rican garden appeared again in Brazil on this high rise balcony and even built a nest, as delicate as a wren’s, in an old plant pot. She even laid eggs, but three days of colossal thunderstorms sent apocalyptic lightening and biblical rain across the city and somewhere in the storm she was lost and her eggs were never hatched.

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(I found her photo in an old scrap book)

In our local bar, where we sat at pavement tables shouting above the roar of the traffic, fruit bats picked ripe fruits from the few road side trees. They must have been able to smell when the fruit was ripe and the bats appeared in their hundreds for a few day only hanging clustered like ghouls with their large intelligent canine faces, observing us drinking cold beer far below.

On the edge of Sao Paulo is a wonderful place called Pedra Grande. Before the city grew into the chaotic megalopolis that it is today, an enlighten city father decided to protect the city’s watershed. In order to do this a very large chunk of Atlantic forest around a rock outcrop was spared the axe and to this day Paulistas can walk amongst the real tropical sky scrapers of giant trees and delight in three toed sloths, howler monkeys and magnificent toucans only a short drive from down town. This remnant of paradise was our salvation and we spent each weekend there buried in the deep green and the brilliant colours that make up a tropical forest.

To climb to the top of Pedra Grande is to understand the true shape of the world.

The walker emerges from the shade of the thick forest, scrambles onto the smooth granite boulders and the conurbation of 20 million souls erupts into view. The tens of thousands of sky scrapers bristle up into the smog hazed sky and then slope away into infinity, as the curvature of the planet is revealed in this awful, breathtaking monument to the human ability multiply and to build.

No balcony garden anywhere could compensate for that knowledge.

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