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.

The symphony of the rain.

Bright sunlight is rolled over by dark clouds.

The dry garden waits.

The butterflies disappear. In the distance the low rumble of thunder begins. A single note of rain on the dusty branches. A shiver of upturned tree leaves shakes through the garden. Above the sudden clash of lightening and the drum roll of rain begins. Faster and faster all expectation is filled with the music of rain, an orchestra of trees and tin roofs and water butts gushing and spewing sweet water. The rain is dancing upwards now as the huge drops explode on the stones, treatening destructive hail, but resolving instead into a gentle melody of steady rain and the silver strings of the replenishing water butt.

The swallows reappear in high chorus, hunting insect  pushed down by the clouds. The blackbirds thinks it is dusk and sings again. My tomcat slides by yowling indignantly at being wet, as if I were responsible for the rain.

I only wish I could take the credit for this much loved gardener’s song : sweet rain on a dry earth!

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Weekend.

There is so much to write about at this time of year I don’t know where to  begin. Winston brought me a slow worm and dropped it delicately at my feet to admire. Pixie brought me a vole and chased around the kitchen and killed it. The garden is filling with flowers. There are orange tipped butterflies on the wild ladies smock blooming in the lawn. There are violets in the tussocks and wasps shaving the wooden garden bench to make their nests. The cat drug valerian is managing to grow faster than they can rub it back down in their ecstasy . We have seen our first swallows and our first house martins as they swooped on by . The ants have woken up . There are bee flies on the honesty flowers and humming bird hawk moths on the cowslips. The blackthorn is still beautiful . The peas and the potatoes are planted. The only absurd part of this wonderful race of fantastical spring glory is that some joker still expects me to leave it all on Monday and go to work!!

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Cat high.

In a muddy winter the passage of kitty paws has made feline motorways across my garden. The deepest ruts run from one hedge hole to the next, as my cats and the feral hordes from over the road go off to hunt mice and birds or to snooze under the hedge; but one track seemed to lead nowhere until I remembered the cat crack lurking in the innocuous corner of a flowerbed.

Last summer I realised my cats were rubbing themselves obsessively against a wild white valerian plant that had seeded itself in the garden. In the winter the plant had died down to nothing, but the narcotic allure of the root remained. Every cat in the neighbourhood had been slithering  themselves against the root, digging the earth away to expose it and yesterday I spotted Winston the cat actually licking and swallowing the mud around it. I have tried to protect the root of the valerian with a cage, but in their drug crazed  frenzy, the cats just knock it down and roll across the memory of the plant, mouths open, eyes closed; getting their daily fix of unexpected kitty herbal high!

 

Valerian and cats.

 

 

Adaptability.

EC9CFFB2-BD9D-43C2-8395-B84A29A6648CLast weekend there was forsythia blossom and frog spawn in the ditch and this weekend there is thick, thick snow covering over the world again.

Like Juliet’s father in Romeo and Juliet “ my fingers itch “ to be planting and tidying in a spring garden . However it is Pixie the cat on the warm radiator who understands real adaptability and the contentment that only cosseted cats can ever achieve!

Last week I found an old apple tree blown down in a storm. No over zealous farmer had tidied it away and chopped it up for fire wood ; the bole of exposed roots had made a new cliff of light horizontal out of what had once been vertical and deep. Moss and fungi had colonised the new surface, unidentifiable creatures had dug out homes: adaptability is everywhere – except in my itchy fingers!!

 

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Down to earth in Switzerland : All my gardens part 9.

Our  flat in Switzerland was like posh student accommodation. Two very small bed rooms and an open plan room with a lot of glass, but no window sill to rest my plants upon.

I never realised how much I needed walls until I moved to Switzerland. Before that I had taken them for granted, but the Swiss are very modern, love glass and see little need for walls. If you couple this with a very high population density then you have dinning rooms that loom strangely in space, over each other. You can admire each other’s cooking, cutlery and even flatulence at disturbingly close quaters with total strangers. I couldn’t get used to such intimacy and did the same as we did in Brazil, blocked it out with plants.

We bought weeping  fig trees that loved the reflected heat of our “ wintergarten” and raced away. In the wonderful Swiss second hand store or “brokie” I found a set of shop shelves, with wheels which I loaded with devils ivy cuttings, filched spider plant babies and some geraniums abandoned at the end of the summer that I fed and costeted. They responded by flourishing and giving us some semblance of verdant privacy.

The flat had no balcony, but it did have a set of concrete steps up to the front door that were ours alone. As soon as our first winter was over, I started to buy plants and to move them outside. I started with yellow primroses from the coop and graduated, as the sun strengthened, to ivy leaved geraniums, that trailed red flowers over each open step. In the wonderful botanical garden I snipped a few modest cuttings of lemon, peppermint and rose scented geraniums, potted them up and nursed them and soon it was almost impossible to get up the step and into the flat for perfumed and coloured plants.

Watering became an obsession, as each plant was in a planter small enough to fit each individual step and one day of sunshine could dessicate  the whole pot.

We had been given very precise instructions when we rented the flat about what was allowed and what was “verboten”. Using the washing machine or showering after 10 at night was not allowed; hanging out washing was not allowed and shaking a table cloth out of the window was punishable by death. I was therefore very careful not to irritate my neighbours below by over watering and dripping on their doorstep. However after two years of squeezing more and more plants into our improbably small space, My Swiss neighbour actually volunteered to water my babies when we went away and started to talk to me!

At the top of the steps we put the tiniest BBQ known to man and if we each sat on a different step there was just space for us both to eat a chicken leg and for our cat, Bonkers the Magnificent ( who had survived Zambia, Kazakhstan and  six months quarantine in England) to survey his new, peaceful and eminently edible kingdom.

 

Kaskhstan. All My Gardens Part 8

All my Gardens part 7 : Zambia .

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

All my Gardens -Part 4: Costa Rica and the big world.

 

 

 

 

© cathysrealcountrygarden. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material and images without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cathysrealcountrygarden with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

Kaskhstan. All My Gardens Part 8

The strangest place I have ever tried to garden was Kazakhstan.

Our first apartment had two balconies. The first faced into the courtyard of the concrete blocks . It had a washing line and you could glimpse the steppe from the top floor as it rolled out, brown and flat to distant Russia. I realised that growing things here would be difficult when after a couple of seeringly  hot months my washing froze to cardboard cutout stiffness over night.

The other balcony was boxed in with wooden sides and glass. On the shelves there were still pickles and jams, left by some previous tenant, making use of the cold space to store carefully preserved food, as everyone used to do before the supermarkets came. There was no window sill for plants, but there was an extraordinary view of the Tian Shan mountains . This was Almaty, at the far south east tip of Kazakhstan, the old capital and the most stunningly located city sprawling between the snow capped mountains linked to the Himalayas in the south and the central Asian steppe to the north.

When I lived there remnants of the former USSR were every where, but so too was the newly independent Kazakhstan rediscovering its nomadic and Muslim roots.

In our first year we managed to grow nothing, but the school had a remnant apple orchard, which was so perfumed and perfect in the spring it made me cry. Almaty is supposed to be named after the father of apples and the genetic parent of all apple trees does apparently originate in the country.

Bonkers the magnificent came with us from Zambia and after a lot of bribery and some crying, we got him through customs in one piece. He hated the apartment, there were no chameleons to chase and indoor life did not suit him. We put him on a cat lead and took him to the orchard, but he collapsed as though his back was  broken and then escaped up a tree, only to be retrieved with a broom.

We found another apartment in the centre of the city . It had another boxed in balcony full of pickles under which trams rattled and shuddered. This was in the same street as the magnificent state opera house, which broadcast its music for free on summer evening to those who could not afford the tickets to the plush boxes, but who could listen to the outstanding performance on the street, cooled by the great glaciers fed fountains .  Bonkers preferred this apartment, as the balcony that faced the courtyard was laticed with bird cage wrought iron and he could catch a breeze while watching the bats plunge out of the plane trees and listen frustratedly to the scops owls calling in the summer time.

He was never allowed out, as he would not have found his way back up to our top floor home and there were rats bigger than he was by the bins. The rats grew plump on the bread left out by my neighbours who considered it a sin to throw bread away and so it was left carefully off the floor for whoever, or what ever may need it.

To assuage his terrible yowling I ocassionally carried him down to the courtyard, where he would be admired by neighbours who would bring their own imprisoned moggies to their own windows to be introduced in a mixture of Russian, Kazakh, English and German.

On the bird cage balcony I grew red geraniums; hung spider plants and tradescantia and grew the best sweet peas ever, trailing up the iron work until the summer heat burnt them off . French marigolds grew well and a jasmine reminded me of Zambia and of Greece. Everything had to come in before the temperatures crashed for the long cold winter, the double glazing closed and the city wide heating  turned our sunny kitchen into a greenhouse.

I remember tiny bunches of the first real  flowers from the steppe: miniture  tulips and irises sold by old ladies infront of the cathedral on my birthday and wishing I could explore more of the steppe myself, and feeling the cold air falling from the mountains on my back and wishing I could really explore them too.

We explored the balcony and watched an extraordinary city instead.

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ALL MY GARDENS PART 7 : ZAMBIA .

https://cathysrealcountrygardencom.wordpress.com/2018/03/10/down-to-earth-in-switzerland-all-my-gardens-part-9

 

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All my Gardens part 7 : Zambia .

A77E0D1E-4FB5-4EC7-B121-BAC78324D5BCIn my memory Zambia was soft dust, jacaranda trees, chameleons and a black and white cat.

We took a job in Africa to escape the soul crushing megalopolis of Sao Paulo  in Brazil. It was like moving from Mars to the moon. We still had work and a home and books, but nothing else was the same.

Our little African house came with a tiny garden of overhanging bougainvilleas around enough lawn to sling a hammock across and a patio with a rusting metal table and chairs, behind a lattice work of alternate bricks held up by a tenacious and magnificent jasmine plant.

We lived in the capital , but even  in the city there were stars such I had never seen since camping in Costa Rica and the heavens seemed very close indeed. Every Saturday we could hear beautiful music and pick up trucks passed by crammed with traditionally dressed Zambians singing. Eventually I understood that these were funerals.

There was a small vegetable garden and the bright orange soil splashed the whitewashed wall after the rains. We tried hard to grow things, but despite the sun and the rains nothing flourished and we began to understand how infertile tropical soils can be.

Amongst the pepper plants we found a chameleon. Watching it was like regarding the inhabitants of another planet as it’s golf ball eyes rotated to watch us slowly and its pincher hands  clasped and climbed in an hallucinary dream.

Bonkers the cat was obsessed with the chameleons. He owed his life to my worry about snakes and spiders. I had insisted that a Cat would be essential to protect us and so he appeared to keep us safe. I asked if anyone had a cat with kittens and if so could I have a short haired, female, black cat, if possible. A month later a black and white, long haired male kitten was given to me in an ornate bird cage. He was small enough to sit in my hand and we fell in love.

Bonkers ran up curtains, fell off and broke his leg. He burnt his whiskers on the embaula. He crawled into the engine of a car and got badly run over. Our extraordinary Zambian vet brought him back from the brink over and over again and Bonkers the Magnificent survived .

There were excellent market gardens around Lusaka and trays of bedding lobilia, zinnias , begonias and candy tuft could be bought to bring a bygone  suburban England to this lovely, lush country.

We walked to work each day and the enormous road side trees carefully planted for beauty rained down purple, gold and cherry coloured petals onto the quiet side walks.

In our garden the jasmine was loaded with so many flowers for a few months that it pulled down the wall and we could reach the avocados and mangos shining in the foliage beyond, while Bonkers stalked the chameleons and the singing trucks drove by.

 

If any one is bored on a cold Sunday these are parts 1-6 of All my Gardens:

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

All my Gardens-Part5 England and almonds.

All my Gardens -Part 4: Costa Rica and the big world.

All my Gardens – part 3: Wild Wales.

All my Gardens: part 2 Garsington Manor and beyond.

In Cold Time (All my gardens :part 1)

 

 

 

Reading the holidays

We have been off visiting and the birds have abandoned the garden after just a few days without seed, grain or bread crumbs.

So, there is nothing to look at, but plenty of books to read in this blissfully quiet time of year. So what am I reading? Well as usual, I am reading lots of things at once, which is confusing only when the characters meet in my dreams in an after lunch snooze.

Firstly, I am reading “A Visit to Don Octavio” by Sybille Bedford which is a wonderful piece of period travel writing in which two American  women explore Mexico and discover its lush delights and also that, as Don Octavio says, “You will be very uncomfortable and not at all happy”, if they stray from his elegant hacienda.

I am also reading “William the Outlaw”by Richmal Compton and “William the Bandit” as the pitch perfect vignettes of 1930s Britain, with their caustic line drawings which could not have been bettered  by PG Woodhouse and are definitely wasted on children.

To keep me sane on the plane, I escaped in wonderful Muriel Sparks’ “The  Mandelbaum Gate” and the turmoil and intrigue  of the Israel and Palestine border was as heady in 1960s as it is in 2017. I still don’t know what happened to BarbaraVaughan and must read on.

I have just picked up Oliver Rackham’s “The History of the  English Countryside” and am already captivated by his photos of the long lost elm trees of England and for interludes I am savouring the perfect poems of Sasha Dugdale in her collection “Joy”.  “ How my friend went to look for her roots” is more toothsome than a  hazelnut cluster!

 

 

 

Second Sunday in Advent and Pixie singing.

5FE41AE6-C8F1-4A53-B449-0A34B1E91BF6It was wonderful that many readers enjoyed Louis MacNeice  “Sunlight on the Garden” and it made me bold enough to share his even greater poem “Snow”. I hope you like it .

Snow

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay window was

Spawning snow and pink roses against it

Suddlessly collateral and incompatible:

World is suddenly than we fancy it.

 

World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.

 

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for word

Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes-

On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands-

There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

 

Louis MacNeice