Alsace in August.

There have been three weeks of punishingly hot weather here, but today it was finally cool and we could emerge from our firmly shuttered house and enjoy the countryside.

The skies are full of huge storks . All the youngsters have successfully fledged from their roof top nests and have followed every plough and harvester to gather up the crickets, slugs and voles and turn them into gigantic terydactyl sized birds. I love seeing the white storks raise their noisy broods in such public places. They are a wonderful European sucesss story . In the Alsace they were nearly shot to extinction only a few decades ago, but now with bettter education and legal protection these truely iconic birds are flourishing once again. When I arrived in our village 8 years ago, to see a stork in the sky was a real event, but now they feed regularly in the meadows and the local school is putting up a stork basket to encourage the first pair to nest here for many years. Some things do get better!

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When stopping for a rest, I looked closely at this Douglas fir branch . There is a new cone sticky with resin, but there are also the remains of old cones, with just the sharp, strong centre remaining. Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas are said to originate in the Alsace starting with pine tree brought into the house and decorated. The old upright cone stalk looked exactly like the metal spike used to secure candles in times gone by and I wondered if this natural shape had given people the idea of attaching the little candles that illuminate Christmas trees still,  while we stand by with the fire extinguisher on Christmas Eve.

Thirty storks flew high over the garden today. The migration has started – Christmas is coming!!

 

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Unmistakable!

This beauty is a privet hawk moth and is the most spectacular catch of the moth trap this summer. She was peacefully happy to be photographed in the morning, showing off her spectacular underwings before folding them tidily away and resting for a while in the shade of the table leg.

She seemed oddly familiar even though I know I have never seen this wonderful creature before. It wasn’t until I was sending my records in to our local wildlife site

( faune-alsace) that I realised the privet hawk moth is the cover illustration on my Chris Manley Guide to British Moths.

She was even bigger and better in real life!

 

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Sun rise, sun set …..

I love being on holiday and having the time to spend whole days in the garden, not just snatched moments between work and sleep!

Evening primroses are wonderful flowers that uncoil themselves in the twilight and become luminous saucers of pale yellow in the darkness. Watching their opening from a garden seat,  as the blackbirds fuss themselves down to sleep, is one of the great pleasures of high summer. The flowers are open all night and as soon as the bees and butterflies wake up in the morning, they throw themselves into the generous feast of pollen and nectar .

In the early morning, there  is time to explore the fields that we usually blurred by in the morning commute.

Green finches wheeze companiably from the hedgerows; sparrows explode in raucous flocks from the ripe wheat and poured over everything, like thick cream, is the complex beauty of the blackcap’s song.

On the edge of the yellow wheat, poppies are starting to open. The green calyx of the bud is being shrugged off like an uncomfortable hat. The flower stem is vibrating visibly with the effort of releasing the petals. A moment’s waiting as the sun rises and the poppy is open; crimson petals still frilled with the shape of the bud. A moment more  and a bumble bee has found it and vibrates in ecstasy in the brand new black pollened centre of this poppy, that will have dropped every scarlet petal by the mid day sun.

The opening of the flowers mark each wonderful, transient day of our holidays and of our lives. Enjoy!

First Fruits.

Cherries, red currants and raspberries: plump and red and ready!

Last year there wasn’t a cherry and there wasn’t a walnut after a catastrophic spring frost that destroyed so much fruit that no kirsch was distilled and virtually no grapes were harvested in the Alsace to make the wonderful perfumed wine.

This year has been blissfully different. Spring was late, but this meant that not a flower was lost to late frost and now the cherry trees are growning under the wieght of thick black cherries  and magpies are swaying in the boughs drunk on lucious ripe fruit.

My tiny cherry tree has a real crop for the first time. The red currants survived the monster hail storm and the raspberries escaped all dangers and have loved the heat and the extraordinary rain of the last few weeks. There is so much fruit to come that I hope there is space in the freezer to accommodate it all.

However the one thing gardening has taught me over and over again is how changeable life is, how precariously perfectly balanced for a single moment on the grass blade edge between feast and famine . I inhale and savour the first sweet raspberry!

 

A Billion brains.

This weekend we were walking in the Jura, high up enough to be above the line of flowering grasses and therefore cool and comfortable. The flowers were wonderful: purple columbines and strange parasitic yellow broomrapes; odd winged broom pushing up amongst the grass and in the shade of the trees, long  spurred butterfly orchids and sturdy white helebores with egg yolk yellow centres, and everywhere there were ants!

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The ground was alive with them and every track was a motorway of dark bodies. We found a huge wood ant nest and the surface was crackling with ants. I wondered if this was part of one of the famous super colonies of wood ants that have been studied a little further south in the Swiss Jura. It has been observed that each huge wood ant nest is actually linked to the next nest by tunnels and by lines of kinship. Theses ant cities work together and do not fight each other, creating peaceful and enormously sucessful empires of billions of animal living in harmony.

Not all wood ants live like this, but the colonies in the Jura have been proven to be different. They do not waste energy on fighting their own species, but instead tolerate each other and work together to hunt and forage.

They are hunters of other insects, but one of the bettles they never kill is the rose chafer beetle that was in my last post. If they encounter one of these they push it into the ant hill where it lays its eggs in saftey. These grow into larvea that spend a couple of years with the ants eating the pests that appear in the nest and thus keeping things clean for their hosts, before pupating and flying away.

When humans seem impossible, it would seem that the wise thing to do is to contemplate the even wiser ants!

 

 

 

click here for the useful rose rose beetle.

 

 

The Best things in Life are free ….

Living like an eastern potentate, this bejeweled rose beetle staggers through the pollen laden flowers of late spring gorging himself on plenty.

The Dame’s violets or gilly flowers are one of the great successes of my garden. Hesperis matronalis grows wild in Europe, but has long been cultivated in gardens for its sweet smell and tall purple blossoms. I dug this up from the green waste site in the village, when I first took possession of my utterly empty garden and could not wait to populate it with plants.

I bought all sorts of exotic flowers that secumbed to slugs or drought or rot, but the Dame’s Violet grew and multiplied steadily each year, until now it makes a spring show to over shadow everything else.  It seems the best things in life really are free and you can share them with the birds and bees and the Eastern potentates too!

Look!

BCE90CB6-0731-4540-99A3-A6BBAD0A4DC5Its real spring now and swallows are scissoring across the sky catching insects. Old meadows underneath the cherry trees are loaded with flowers before the mowers slice them down to make hay for the pampered ponies of the rich girls from Basel.

Amongst the grass there are ox eye daisies, buttercups and tall goats beards, meadow clary, eggs and bacon, hoary plantains, hay rattle and clustered bell flowers.

The moth trap has caught a few equally beautifully named specimens to admire in the early morning quiet; great oak beauties, muslin moths, pine sphinxes and this pale tussock who came to rest on my cap over night. Evocative names, unfathomable eyes and in the case of the pale tussock moth: disturbingly hairy claspers!

 

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Astonished.

Apparently this is now my third year of blogging on WordPress, which seems astonishing.

I started the blog on a cold wet day, when I just had to write about gardens to total strangers, to somehow compensate for the late spring.

The following spring was glorious, the best apple blossom I have ever seen and cherries already starting to form, when from a summer sky we had thick snow. Just as the snow melted, the temperatured plumeted and every flower and new leaf was coated in thick ice . The ice stayed for a day and a night and we lost every cherry, apple, plum and walnut of the year. It nearly broke my heart.

This year the spring was a little slow, but eventually the blackthorn came out, and now the cherries are in bloom again. They could all be frozen off for a second year, but the forecast is good. The sun is strong, the bees are out in force, even the rain has stopped.

So from my third year of blogging about the same garden in the same lovely corner of the earth, I send you pictures of the cherry trees and good wishes for a fruitful, peaceful year for us all!

 

 

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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.

 

 

Not Yet Open for Business.

This Roman or Burgundy snail still has the doors firmly closed for business. We may be all excited about spring, but this snail is waiting for a good few weeks before pulling up the shutters.

I first found Roman snails as a teenager in the Cotswolds, in rough grass under the limestone  wall around an ancient Roman villa , they seemed to be in the perfect place. They were apparently introduced to England by the Romans and are found all across  Europe in association with limestone. They are the escargot of French cuisine and I admit to finding them delicious cooked in garlic and butter.

It was a great delight and surprise to find these large pale snails in my own French garden . I read more about them, learnt how they can live for 30 years, what a tiny area of land they may travel slowly in a lifetime and how little they reproduce in that life time and suddenly the desire to eat them was gone.

This solid specimen, has a calcium door closed shut until he/she is absolutely sure that the warm weather has come. I will pop it back where I found it and leave it to enjoy its leisurely life in peace in its own good time, safe from butter and garlic!

New season resolutions for Earth Day.

The garden has just started to wake up after a bruisingly long winter. The forsythia is about to burst into golden Easter glory, the daffodils are straightening up to trumpet the new season and the birds are all shouting their spring songs.

There is still snow under the hedge and birds are still very hungry. It seems to be the same every year: every shop in France, Germany and Switzerland has run out of sunflower seeds, bird seed and fat balls just when it gets really cold and the end of season birds need our help most of all to survive until the spring can feed them with insects.

There is horribly worrying research to show how insect numbers are collapsing in Europe because of our love of pesticides and desire to cut every road side verge, grub up every  hedgerow and trim every garden shrub to a stump. Now the research shows that bird number are also crashing and especially here in France. Birds need insects and without them the birds will simply cease to exist.

I have been lucky enough to live in this corner of France for eight years now and in that time I have seen so many hedgerows grubbed up; old trees taken out and not replanted and ditchs shaved and shorn of every plant week on week in the growing season; so that there is nowhere left for wild flowers; for the insects that rely on them and for the birds that feed upon the bugs.

I hadn’t planned on this article being so shouty. Gardens are places to escape bad news, they are peaceful havens of good sense in a crazy world; but even our gardens are linked to the wider world. The birds that fascinate us through the winter feed and breed in the countryside around us. The butterflies that surprise us on a warm afternoon need flower filled meadows to feed on; the bees need orchards to sustain them.

We can’t control what happens in the countryside, but we are in control of our own gardens. I moved to France for space and for the ultimate luxury of a real garden and this has become my sanctuary and often my salvation.  As we look forward to a new season and take pleasure in every unfolding blossom and every green shoot,  let’s decide to make our gardens places of real beauty and wonder for as much life as possible.

Let’s NOT

use pesticides

use hebicides

cut down trees and bushes

be afraid of letting the grass grow

cover the soil we own in concrete.

 

Here’s to a fantastic year full of colour and fruit, beauty and life. Here’s to the gardens, allotments and parks of The World !

 

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“I Could Have Danced All Night!”

The French hunting season is coming to a close and soon it will be safe to walk in the woods again.

When a hunt is on, the hunters are supposed to give notice to the local town hall, so walkers can check where to avoid and to place warning signs at the entrance to the area being hunted over.  Every year an astonishing number of walkers and hunters are shot dead and injured by stray bullets and so extreme caution is advised.

A few weeks ago I was walking home through a wood on the Swiss French border . There had been no notifications on the local website of hunts and no warning signs at the entrance to the wood, so like little Red Riding  Hood into the dark forest I went.

All was well, the path was slippy with rain and snow, but I was making good time when I heard dogs close by barking loudly. There were no dog walkers on the path in front or behind and so the dogs must be along side me in the slope of the forest. Then I heard hunting horns and I started to stride out as fast as I could.  I could hear voices and calling to the dogs, but I could see no one at all. I realised I was in the middle of a wild boar hunt and unraveled the bright pink scarf from my dark coat, in the hope that the hunters would realise I was human and not pig.

There was still nothing to see, but the sound of dogs and horns and yelling voices was getting louder. Then I remember what you did in Africa if you thought big dangerous  wildlife was close : you make as much noise as possible. I wasn’t scared of the boar, but I was scared of short sighted huntsmen with very large shot guns. I was alone with no one to shout to, so I decided to sing at the top of my voice. For some reason “  I Could Have Danced All Night” from “ My Fair Lady” came into my head and so I bellowed the English words as loud as I could as I scurried ignominiously through the undergrowth.

“I never know, what made it so enchanting, when all at once my heart took flight. I only know when he decided to dance with me, I could have danced, danced, danced, all night!”

And so breathless and triumphant I broke out of the forest onto a road where an astonished local was preparing a large fire to roast the musical pig he imagined was being slaughtered by his fellow hunters.

I smiled with as much insouciance as I could muster at his border mixture of bon jour and gruezi  and scuttled on through the woods, back to the safety of my own garden, still humming protective show tunes just to be sure!

Older than liverspots.

 

Sometimes you glimpse another time in an unexpected place. On the dripping rock foundation of a fake castle, glorifying a fictitious romantic past I spotted liverworts: very flat; very green and really very old.
These simple and strange life forms predate all vascular plants by millions of years, have no internal means of transporting food and survive on the whim of a raindrop. Flat and granular against the rock, they glisten in their encasing film of water, surviving all human attempts at immortality,  to out live us all in a single sheet of slime.

 

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Scarlet Elf Cup.

Scarlet elf cup is perfectly named. This fungi is pale orange on the outside, vermillion on the inside and as delicately formed as a tiny porcelain bowl. The cups appear at this time of year on fallen twigs, especially hornbeam and it is one of those wonderful species found across continents on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

This group of Sarcoscypha coccinea was found on a wet Sunday walk in the Jura and may well be the varient . When looking this up on the inter web, I found the same story repeated over and over again: children in the Jura were said to eat elf cups on bread and butter and the cups were used to serve schnapps in.   Now hipster wild food foragers and over imaginative chefs have found many bizarre and unappealing ways of serving wild food that would have been better left to the creatures of the forest; but I have never yet been served them as a sandwich filling or used as a glass here in the Jura. It does go to show how the same misinformation is recycled even in the quiet world of natural history and it leads you to wonder how much more prevalent this incestuous repetition must be in the wider world where we all get our information from the web.    Pass the schnapps filled elf cup!!

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Embrace.

Before my first Christmas in Switzerland I went looking for mistletoe to add to the holy and the ivy of a traditional English winter decoration.

I was living in the suburbs and found ivy easily enough and holly in a nearby copse of trees , but no mistletoe. For me mistletoe is a mystical Druidic thing that loves apples trees, needs a golden scycle to cut it and will inspire strangers to kiss beneath it and is absolutely essential for Christmas.

In the copse  of conifers and hornbeam behind our apartment I found tantalising snippets of mistletoe lying on the ground; solitary twigs of two simple leaves and the odd pale white berry.  I looked up into the trees, searching for the familiar ball shape of a mistletoe plant suspended from a branch, but there was nothing. Maybe someone had been here collecting before me and these leaves were their debris.

Eventually I was reduced to buying an over priced  sprig in a local  florists, but I wondered where they had found it, so far from apple trees.

And then came the New Year storms: howling gales ripping off branches and uprooting whole trees. In the felled conifers were hundreds of little mistletoe plants, living their parasitic lives amongst the thick evergreen branches quite hidden to my ignorant eyes. It had never said in my English botany books that mistletoe lived in pine trees and yet here was the abundant proof, littered on the forest floor.

This week in France, the storms came again and the woods are crashed with fallen limbs and boughs, but I was still amazed to see the mistletoe in the unexpected embrace of the felled pine tree. Such odd, but comfortable bed fellows!

Rien à Déclaré

E3401D3B-4830-481B-BD0F-8C75AB96C701.jpegI have just finished rewatching a very funny Dany Boon French movie set on the French/Belgium border in 1993, the year European  borders were opened and no one needed customs officials anymore.

The film came out in 2010 and shows what happens in a little border town that basically is no longer a border and how the French and the Belgian customs men have to learn to accept each other as fellow human beings. It is a film about the stupidity of racism,  full of slap stick, silly stereotypes and a soppy romantic ending.

It opens on New Year’s Day, when the laws change and the people can move freely and the irony of watching it while waiting for Britain’s borders to slam shut was not lost on me.

I try hard to avoid all controversial subjects in this blog, for all the blindingly obvious reasons . Maybe it will be just as funny when the border guards and customs people separate Britain from our neighbours in Europe. Maybe standing in queues and being suspicious of foreigners will provide us all with a rich vein of reverse humour.

I cross European borders everyday to shop, to visit friends, to go to the doctor, to work: it is as easy as crossing the street. I want everyone to feel as free as I do right now, walls do not always make good neighbours and the fun comes when you don’t need them at all. Then maybe we will all have Rien a déclaré.

November

In the autumn there seemed ages to tidy up the garden, no rush in the mild sunshine to get all those jobs done; but I had somehow forgotten about the dark and the rain and the wind. Between all of that and a full time job, there have been only a few half hours of dry daylight to spare and my lovely garden is soggy, muddy and dank.

It reminded me of the old Thomas Hood poem about this low month.

Only a few more days to go of November and then I can put up the Christmas decorations , make the house silly and sparkly, celebrate the end of another good year and start planning for the next year in the garden!!

November

No sun–no moon!
No morn–no noon!
No dawn–no dusk–no proper time of day–
No sky–no earthly view–
No distance looking blue–
No road–no street–no “t’other side this way”–
No end to any Row–
No indications where the Crescents go–
No top to any steeple–
No recognitions of familiar people–
No courtesies for showing ’em–
No knowing ’em!
No traveling at all–no locomotion–
No inkling of the way–no notion–
“No go” by land or ocean–
No mail–no post–
No news from any foreign coast–
No Park, no Ring, no afternoon gentility–
No company–no nobility–
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member–
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds–
November!

Thomas Hood

“…later flowers for the bees, Until they think warm days will never cease.”

Keats “ Ode to  Autumn” must have been inspired by a day like today. Sunshine has spun out so many  flowers, that it seems impossible cold weather will ever destroy them and frost crisp them: but it will.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease…

 

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