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!???

Cats locked at home to save rare birds.

This article is in French about German cats and in the spirit of internationalism and Catdom I paraphrase it!

In one Southern German town cats have to stay indoors for months. They are not allowed out to stop them eating the rare crested lark during its breeding season.

I love cats and birds, who is right?!!

Insolite. Bade-Wurtemberg : un passereau menacé, les chats confinés !
— Read on www.dna.fr/insolite/2022/05/18/bade-wurtemberg-un-passereau-menace-les-chats-confines

A World Turned Upside Down.

New year: old year.

Covid hasn’t gone, but maybe we have changed instead.

Everybody has had their own adaptations to the new reality that nobody wanted, everybody has had their own privations, some small, some fatal. Work, family, school, friends the list goes on and on of the things changed by the pandemic that seems to never end. The things we miss seem endless too, but in a world turned upside down, we have maybe learned to see things differently and not to miss the things we took for granted before.

My cat is perfectly happy upside down on the sofa. He is warm, there will be food, maybe someone will dangle that left over Christmas ribbon close enough for him to play with. He has lost one of his lovely long front teeth, but he doesn’t seem unduly worried by it.

He quite likes the world upside down, he can get used to anything.

Cat with the snow falling

Cat with the snow falling
Contemplates the spaces where the snow is not,
The sliding spaces that come and go
Talking of Micheal Angelo
And of nothing
Filling and falling,
Falling.

Cat confused for an instant by the particular,
That piece of snow that will not go,
The one that makes a streak and catches the eye
But then her eyes cannot follow it any more
And it falls with all the rest
Merges into the general white,
The soft white
Falling
Falling
Falling.

For Kate. 1962- 2021

Hearing the quarter moon.

It is warm and still. I forgot to water my two tomato plants and the half row of beans that have shouldered above the soil.

My neighbour sneezes: the sweet chestnut is in flower. Somewhere a food processor churns, or is it a washing machine or a heat pump? Someone calls in a cat who wants to hunt the light night away. The cars have gone, a lone motorbike rips through the silence . Curfew is an hour away and the air is sweet.

Very small white moths appear. The hobby sheep bleats in the bottom of his lucky garden .

A mosquito whines along the gathering darkness, shutters are descending and the last blackbird fusses out of the cherry tree, a half eaten fruit in his yellow beak.

I think there is still a glass of wine undrunk indoors, so I leave the watering can by the butt, bow to the brightening moon and go quietly inside.

The moths are back again.

This morning there were oak beauties, clouded drabs, dotted borders and Hebrew characters .

Oak beauty

Their names are beautiful and are now more familiar. Identifying moths was once something for the high summer when I had holidays and time to breathe. Last year when lockdown started and covid gave me fear and the time to appreciate it , I started trapping moths much earlier for distraction and escape.

It turns out moths fly much earlier in the year than I imagined and I found a whole host of new species that would come to the light in surprisingly cold nights. I trapped much later in the year and become familiar with the species who over winter and are found in the late autumn and the spring, bookending the year with unpretentious names like clouded drabs.

Clouded drab

I checked my own photographic records of these glimpses of the night and in between the snaps of transient moths were the others pictures of the year, the garden, the cats, roses and snow and nothing else. It was as if time had stood still – same cats, same sunshine, same peonies.

Horrors have raged around me. I have been lucky to spend more time than I expected amongst the quiet moths.

Rash promises in Covid year.

I promised to tell you how my attempt to grow my own loofas went.

I bought the seed last winter when cutting down on plastic seemed the most important thing in the world. Well, the seeds germinated well and

the seedlings grew. I identified a good place against a wire fence to plant them out and watered them in. Then it turned wet and the cats were both sick and the slugs came out and ate the plants down to the ground when I wasn’t looking!

End of story.

What is astonishing about this little tale is that a whole year has gone by since I bought the seeds and the whole world has grown so strange since then.

I feel as if I haven’t been out of the garden or house since then. Time has folded in on itself so much since then that I am not sure I ever planted the loofa seedlings at all, or what I was hoping to achieve by growing them.

I have spent an inordinate amount of time this covid year staring at my two cats Winston and Pixie and marveling at their markings. They are brother and sister who were living in a neighbor’s greenhouse as kittens. We took them in and have always been fascinated by how many wild cat genes they might carry.

There are wild cats here in the edge of the Jura and I have seen cats on the edge of the forest with the tell tale fat banded tail and the black Pom Pom on the end.

Pixie and her huge tail.

Pixie has the classic wildcat tail, when she is being really agressive or scared, it quadruples in size and my little affectionate Pixie becomes a fluffy monster. Her larger brother Winston has some of the wildcat markings, but no where near as many as his sister, he has sleek velvety fur and classic tabby cat stripes. They both have wildcat cat ear tufts.

Winston with his tabby stripes.

This useful illustration of the markings on a cats back is the best I have found for telling a tabby from a real wild cat.

It could be Pixie A (wild cat) and Winston B, ( tabby cat ) but as they are sister and brother I think all that it proves is that cats, just like humans are a bit of everything and wonderfully mixed up like us all!

Notice the markings on the head and the spine. She has 5 bands on her tail and a black line across her shoulders. Wild cat!

Living in Lockdown

The virus has swept like a terrible wave over so much of the world, destroying lives, businesses and mental health. Some places like the UK and the USA are still watching  the waters rise and trying to keep their heads’ above water, some places are still denying that the ground is even wet and a few places are seeing a little dry land reappear and wondering if it safe to put a foot on it at last.

The region of France where I live (Alsace) has been very badly hit by the wave. The government responded well (eventually) and everyone has stayed home for two months so far.

Fasnact carnivals,  evangelical prayer meetings and football matches  did take place when all the signs were there that the infection levels were rising ; but no one was brave enough to call a stop and so thousands of people were infected by being in unnecessary crowds.

Once the infection had been taken back to homes and hospitals and the death toll mounted, suddenly everyone was being brave by staying isolated and slowly, slowly, painfully slowly the infection rate has slowed right down. Yesterday the local paper said our region was very close to being «  green »  which might mean  some normality can return .

It will never be quite the same again, nothing will bring back those who died and the corrosive fear of infection has eaten into so many aspects of life.

However, staying home, closing schools and businesses and bars and restaurants and garden centres and cinemas does seem to have worked here. It hurts like hell and I don’t underestimate the damage done to everyone, but the wave of infection can wash away eventually.

I write this to anyone frustrated or angry that their life has been disrupted or fearful that it will never end: the tide does turn and the sand does start to dry out.

Next stage the sun comes out .

My cat is a drug dealer.

My cat has a drug den and today I finally destroyed it.

For years the roots of white valerian plants have attracted our cats to rub the soil and to actually eat the earth around the plant. This has made them feisty, fierce and frankly stoned, which I have put up with and found vaguely amusing . However the habit has spread. The valerian patch is now frequented by all the neighbourhood cats, who come to our garden to get high too. This causes fights and blood has been drawn on many occasions.

We first dug out the big plant and left a few muddy bits of root on the back door step. By dawn the roots were mysteriously all gone and the cats were furtive and jumpy.

We covered the patch were it had grown in wood ash. Our cats came in dirty and grey. We covered the patch in a sheet of plastic. The other cats dug along the edge and left the soil polished with their ecstatic rubbing on the earth where the plant used to grow.

So today I got dirty and dug up every tiny shoot and leaf. The drugs plants are in the photo and it is hard to imagine that they could exert  such a hypnotic pull on every feline for 10 kilometres, but it is true.

This photo shows Pixie rubbing round the shoes I wore to break up the joint. She is relaxed now. Wait until she realises the truth, when she goes to get her fix first thing tomorrow morning!

Cat high.

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Unexpected time(s)

What a strange place the world seems today.

I stood a long way from the woman buying fruit in the farm shop and I collected the newspaper from the post box wearing thick yellow marigold gloves.

The tartan crisscross of aeroplane vapour trails is not so dense across the sky today and fewer car loads of sullen children were raced to school. The shops sold less landfill cheap clothes. A man found a board-game at the back of the cupboard and a woman decided to make a slow cook meal that she had never found time for before.

The air was a little cleaner, a cat settled down to sleep in the sun and the spring soil stirred.

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House of Plants.

I need green.

The garden is mud and rain, so I appreciate my house plants hugely at this time of year.

The sitting room is dominated by three large fig trees that live on the veranda in summer, but come indoors in the cold. They block off the book cases, drop yellowing leaves on the tiles and splash dark water everywhere from their saucers when pushed out of the way. Every available surface is covered in lemon and peppermint scented geraniums, devils claw vines, spider plants and exhausted amyrilis plants that are here at home while school is closed.

In the office an old shop shelf unit is groaning under Christmas cactus and the window is almost obliterated by lumpy, leggy geraniums waiting for the summer to explode again. Most of the geraniums are cutting from a single enormous deep red flowering plant, which is far too valuable ( to me! ) to be discarded in the autumn.

The  bedroom is dominated by a gigantic spider plant that is hauled into a hanging basket each summer and has been the mother to hundreds of spider babies .  The spider babies have grown roots in innumerable jam jars and been given away to children, who have grown them into their first house plant in many homes.   When we rented out our home in Brecon I could not find homes for all of plants and I had to leave a spider plant behind, in the hope that the tenant would adopt it. Two years later, when we visited the house I was delighted to see the only changes that the tenant had made, was to add a large tiered book case to the sitting room to display the dozens and dozens of new spider plants he had potted up from the dangling spider babies!

The kitchen widow sill has jade plants and pink leaved collis jostling for light with a hibiscus and the last pink bedding begonia from the garden.  There is just enough room for a seed sprouter currently growing green lentils and a very important space for Pixie the cat to escape from her bully brother Winston when a fight is on between them.

Occasionally  I think I am mad to give up so much of my house to plants and then there is another grey day of rain and fog that keep us all indoors and I know exactly why  I need  them. Green is the colour of life and sharing my space with them is essential to all our survival until the spring!

Love..

I love the sun and I love the rain. We have been blessed with a bright Indian summer and sometimes it seemed like the sunshine would never end and it was frankly just too bright and too intolerably shiny.

In the endless good weather my tom cat went decidedly crazy. He stayed out all night and disappeared into the white full moon. This may sound frisky and fun, but we couldn’t sleep when he was out for foolish worry and when we managed to entice him home, him seemed frantic, hunted and frankly deranged! So we have kept him indoors, bought new catnip toys and tried to make friends with him again. He has slowly reintegrated into domestic life, allows strokes, occasionally purrs and kicks the life out of the cat nip toys.

Now it is raining properly . The gutters are running and the roof is pattering. The water butts are bubbling over. We have lit the stove again and everyone (cats included) is calming down in front  of the fire.  Ahh that’s better!

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Slow Gardening.

After a week away from the shed, the bind weed came in through the window and started using the shafts of the hoes and spades to climb up.

Today is the last day of August, the last of the summer months. There should still be plenty of good weather to enjoy here, but part of me is pleased to slow down as the frantic pace of a hot, wet summer of growing eases off.

There is still plenty to do in the vegetable plot. The cucumbers and courgettes are rioting. The pumpkins have been slow to set fruit, but four whoppers are now growing in an absolute jungle of leaves and runners. Unlifted potatoes are starting to sprout and must be dug up and curly kale seedlings need thinning for winter growth. The patient parsnips have been growing all summer and a few sweet potato plants have crawled between everything, their tubers waiting for discovery.

But they can wait.

Autumn will be here soon enough.

I think I’ll let the bind weed wind round the spades a little longer.

 

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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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How to moth trap.

This post is for those who would like to trap moths and discover what is flying at night when they are safe in bed. If moths give you the heebie-jeebies then skip this post!

I am sure there are other ways of doing it, with other equipment, but I am just sharing my own experience for those who are curious.

I have been trapping for about 12 years on a regular basis.  I had been out with other naturalists many years ago in Wales, but it wasn’t until my husband bought me a trap for a present that I started in earnest.

 

First thing you need is a moth trap.   

https://www.watdon.co.uk/   Watkins and Doncaster provided Charles Darwin with his equipment.  They send across the world and they know what they are doing.  I recommend their basic plastic bucket trap to start with and two bulbs (in case you smash one!).

All a trap is, is a UV light bulb which attracts the moths, above a plastic funnel.  The moths then fall down into the bucket below, where they perch on cardboard egg boxes in safety for the night.

The next morning you switch off the light, open the trap gently and carefully remove each egg box one by one. You then photograph the moths (in case they fly off!) and then try to identify them using a good guide book.

I use British Moths by Chris Manley published by Bloomsbury.  I have not found a similar single volume guide for France.  I am certain there are excellent guides for where you live.  There are also some excellent free on line identification sites.  I use https://ukmoths.org.uk/systematic-list/ and also http://montgomeryshiremoths.org.uk/ which is very good for showing what is around at the right time of year.

You make a note of the weather and date and keep a list of what you find in English and or Latin.  I tick off all the species that I have confidently identified in my guide book, so that I can find them again more easily.  I later send my list and photos to my local naturalist organisation, https://faune-alsace.org  so that my records can be compared with others, but you can skip this bit!

That is the bare bones and I am aware that it sounds unutterably dull and nerdy.  The reason for doing it is because you get to see the most wonderful creatures with your own eyes, while drinking a cup of tea on the back step of your own home and that takes some beating as a wildlife experience.  I have been lucky enough to live in Zambia and to spend months on safari, I have lived in Costa Rica for four years and in Brazil for two and spent as much time as possible in the forests, rivers and oceans, seeing wildlife that most people only see on David Attenborough tv programmes and yet I have never enjoyed wildlife in such comfort, or been so amazed on a daily basis as I have been when moth trapping in my own back garden!

 

Tips.

  1.  It takes a long time to learn the common moths that you will encounter on your patch.  It has taken me 10 years to be confident with the common moths and even then I make mistakes.  There are a lots of moths and many of them look the same!!!

2. Start by identifying the ones with clear colours or markings.  Leave the dull ones until much later.  There is no shame in being confused.  If the guide book says the moth that you have spent hours identifying is very rare in your area, then you probably have made a mistake.

3. Keep your moths cool.  If it is warm and the trap has been left in the sun before you open it, then they will all fly away before you identify them.  Move your trap into the coolest shade you can and let them settle before taking out the boxes.  If you do this, you do not need to put them in collecting jars to look at.  They will sit happily on the egg box while you admire them.

4. Take a photo on your phone or camera, so you can look back at them and identify them when you have time.  This final phase often requires a glass of chilled wine and a sofa!

5. Let the moths fly off when they want to, or shake onto a bush.  My cats used to try to eat them, but now treat them with feline disdain.

 

Enjoy!!

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1. UV light and plastic funnel.

2. Box containing old egg boxes and electrical connection.

3. Lead to mains or to a big battery if you want to set up the trap in a remote place.

4. Identification guide.

 

Goodbye to the Ice Saints.

Yesterday was cold Sofia, the last of the ice saints day. May 15th is the fest day of Saint Sofia and traditionally the last really cold night of spring.
In this part of the world mid May is often surprizingly cold and no one who understands anything would put out a tender plant before that date for fear that frost would kill it. We have had hot February and March, warm April, but the first half of May has been true to the folk calendar: cold and wet!
The grass and the potatoes are loving this weather and the spring flowers have lasted spectacularly well, but I am watching the moon which seems full tonight. Full moon always heralds a change in the weather. The ice saints have had their season, Pixie the cat watched them go and now the warm weather can begin!

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Complicated.

The world is very simple and very complicated. Every breath we take is a  marvel and the memory of some music that we still hear.

This morning is snowing. White flakes are mixing with the falling petals of the plum tree. The cat is outraged and runs in and out of the kitchen, snow flakes melting on his dark warm fur, mewling for explanation.

I am reading about my home city of Liverpool and its role in the slave trade, that leaves its echos in the street names and in its faded riches. One of the sea men who worked on the terrible ships trading human beings for money  was John Newton, who was infamous for his profanity and disrespect, which was so intolerable that he himself was left by his captain in West Africa and was enslaved before being rescued by his family.  This man finally understood the horror in which he had been complict and became a clergyman in England. He wrote the hymn Amazing Grace, which has been sung in churches, fields and homes ever since, encompassing in such moving words and music how human life can move from darkness into light.

 

I was sent on my trail back to Liverpool by a wonderful book that I have just finished called John and Elvis by Mathew Langford.

The John is John Lennon and the Elvis needs no explanation.  It was so readable that I devoured it in a couple of days. The plot is an imagative interweaving  of their respective biographies, that echos with their music and the places that they inhabited and the need for us all to make some sense of this extraordinary, contradictory, amazing world.  I recommend it, as the snow falls on the cherry trees and my snow flake cat looks out on the garden with existential confusion .

 

 

 

Winston and the slow worm – again!

The garden is waking up. There are bees on the willow flowers, daffodils braving the frosty clods and Winston the cat has caught another slow worm. These warm, smooth, legless lizards spend the winter, safe in compost heap, but when the sunshine rouses them, my cat is waiting to pounce.

The good news is that he doesn’t hurt them. With gentleness unusual in a feline killer, he picks them up in his mouth, brings them to the nearest human and drops them unmolested at our feet. The slowworm stays very still, is happy to be picked up and Winston mewls and yowls proudly until he is praised and petted for his “ catch”.

The reptile is returned to the warm rotting heap; Winston frisks about full of the joys of spring and the sun shines on!

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..Mad March

I could be in  Tenerife right now. I’m sure the sun is shining and the waves are glittering, but I’m not there, and I’m glad!  The problem with other places is the getting to them. Hours of checking in and checking out, passports, cramped seats and jampacked flights full of people you hope never to see again are just the prelude. Then there is the location of the hotel. Then there is the finding of the place you so hopefully booked, so long ago, which looked such a great deal, but turns out to be hours away again from where you expected, adjacent to a motorway and next to a noisy bar and under some piledriving construction.

I know where my houses is, and I like it. The wind may be roaring, the sun intermittent, fretful and only momentarily  glorious, but the bed is comfortable, the food and wine to my taste, and  the cats on the sofa are relaxed and purring, purring.

The mad March  wind blows the first spring flowers up and away into a noisy maelstrom . Rain splatters against the windows and into my face as I race into the garden to chase a flying garden chair, but I right now I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else and I don’t regret my cancelled holiday for a moment.

There goes the bin over again, but here comes the sun and I think that was a rainbow!

 

 

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Fit of festive fun.

In an excess of festive madness Pixie kicked over the two plastic sheep. One has gone slightly yellow and the other is white, but lame and falls over its own volition. The nativity scene was brought from Italy by my grandfather and withstands its annual banishment to a cardboard box in the attic with little distress.

The three wise men are slowly edging closer, bearing their incomprehensible, but desirable gifts. The ikea table of destiny is lengthy and the chance of being booted awry by my fiesty cat is a very real and present danger.  I therefore wish them well on their perilous journey to deliver their wisdom and gifts to the son of man.

Pixie is very capricious.