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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Harvest Home

We have finally lifted all the potatoes; rolled five fat pumpkins onto the back step to finish ripening and picked the apples from our single apple tree: it feels like the harvest is in.

This, however, is very small fry in comparison to the massive harvest of the real countryside and the deeply bizarre manifestation of its bounty in the agricultural extravaganza in local Mulhouse.

In the huge exposition centre thousands upon thousands of people crowd in to look at stands of  arranged vegetables. This is not the type of flower show that I knew well from places like Brecon in Wales, where lovingly grown marrows were judged for weight and gloss and three perfect sweetpea blossoms were awarded hotly contested rosettes for perfume and hue. This was the deliberate piling of fruit and vegetables into improbable and inedible unicorns, dragons and cathedrals and it made me long for the simplicity of the single sweetpea.

The picture above is of the more recognisable offerings of landmarks from the Alsace town of Colmar in mosaics of potatoes and pumpkins.

 

CA9AAA90-8F7F-4621-86F8-976E8812CB35.jpegThe Statue of Liberty in sprouts was a particular favourite. Bartholdi was a son of Colmar and created the monumental statue in France for the American people. I bet  immigrants to The USA never envisaged their welcoming symbol of a new life picked out in green sprouts as they sailed into New York!

 

Reasons to buy a House.

We live on a strange line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand Hamster of the Alsace.

4B10C8D7-6E65-453E-9817-7210FFB85615The Giant Hamster of the Alsace is a remarkable creature. It is one of the most endangered animals in France and one of the least loved. It is almost 10 inches long, covered in golden fur with a bizarre black and white spotted tummy, big eyes and delicate paws. The French care so little about this wonderful teddy bear, that the European Council had to fine them millions of euros before the government did anything at all to help the last 180 animals in the country.

A small band of concerned naturalists brought the giant hamsters’ plight to the authorities and may just have saved it in the nick of time, but it is still critically endangered in France .  I guess there is something inherently funny about the concept of a giant hamster and I wonder if that is part of the problem.

The real problem for Giant Hamsters is maize. The low land parts of the Alsace are absolutely covered in it. This monoculture has been a disaster for so much flora and fauna in Europe. The plant takes for ever to germinate and the bare soil is washed away every year in spring rains.  The farmers plant right to the field boundary leaving no millimetre for wild flowers and animals. Anything that might get a toe hold in an uneven corner is sprayed dead with weedkiller and/or mowed flat.

Hamsters need grain and alfalfa, cabbages: in short a mixture of agriculture and wild food. Food is pulled down into underground burrows and used to feed themselves during their six months of hibernation safe below. They can’t eat maize and they can’t travel distances between suitable areas of food, especially when housing , motorways and hyper markets have covered covered the lowlands too.

These sturdy, intelligent burly creatures reproduce only once a year, have small broods and do not respond well to captivity; so getting their numbers up has been as difficult as breeding giant pandas! The population is still critically low at only 200 and they need to creep up to a massive 1500 to have  sustainable numbers.

I saw my first Hamsters at the NaturOparC (sic) in Hunawihr where they are doing their absolute best to pull this unloved cutey back from the brink of extinction in France.

It seems curious that first world country like France can allow such an iconic and adorable creature to be lost . They are already extinct in neighbouring Switzerland, and so I wish the last few all the luck they can cram in to their round furry cheeks.

 

 

 

This cracked tile shows one standing up on its hind legs displaying the distinctive spottey tummy.

photo by M. Watson via Animals Animals.

 

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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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What ho!

Spring rain plumps the flowers, germinates the seeds and also brings out some very strange creatures to make the beast with two backs!
In the forest there are great deep ruts left by felled tree trunks. After sufficient rain they fill with water and the newts that have spent the winter in crevices and warm piles of leaves creep slowly out to find each other and to coldly embrace in their waters.
This photo was taken through the shallow water of such a local pool and the difference between the sexes is very obvious (the female is large, green and mottled). These are alpine newts, native to this part of Europe, but also found in the UK, where they were probably introduced by a PG Wodehouse inspired newt fancier.
I love their slow, waddle; their stocky inelegant bodies and their secretive, ephemeral lives. Just call me Gussie Finknottle!

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Thaw.

Loss is the sound of a skirt shaken; long hair tossed; snow shrugging from a dark winter pine and whispering down to the ground.

I walked in the thawing wood.

Everything was movement and sound and I felt as if I was walking in the company of multitudes shivering and sliding softly around me. At first the thaw was disorientating, too much movement and unexpected sound and then I became accustomed to the slippery urgency of snow falling into water, everywhere, all around, sliding.

Across the forest path: pigs, little ones, middle ones, aunties, mothers, utterly silent on tiny delicate feet. Fifteen wild boar passed noiselessly right in front of us and followed their line out across the damp snowy field: a line of  black piggy perfection against the waning white slush.

St Martins in the field – Oltingue.

There was ice on the path, the shape of a horse hoof in the half thawed mud and a broken twig of mistletoe. A tractor growled far away, a kite mewed over head.

In a very old church, a skeleton lay exposed to the infrequent congregation, oddly indecent amongst the pews. A prankster stole his skull a few years ago. They say.

On the altar spiders strung their careful webs between the wings of the praying angels and on the spotted altar cloth there was a delicately tied bundle of vine cuttings. Medieval faces of devoation, chipped off by irreligious revolutions, watched impassively as the year turned.

Outside, the churchyard is plump with the granite graves of gilded lettering and pyramids of winter flowers and unlit candles.

As I walked; (careful not to go withershins ) round the old church, brief sunlight illuminated an extraordinary scene on the exterior church wall. This opulent scene must have been covered over for hundreds of years. The old church has just been replastered as this scene of  Constantinople, Rome, Jerusalem or heaven its self has just come to light again.

Everything is tantalisingly unclear. I can find nothing to explain it.

What do you see in it?

“There will come soft rains…”

It has been raining here. Wind in the fir trees, wind rattling the shutters and soft, almost incessant rain.

The summer and autumn were long, hot and dry. The neighbours were noisy and open windows let in little cool air and plenty of racket; so when the temperature finally dropped it was a pleasure to close the windows and listen the gentle drum of rain on the roof.

My favourite stream in the woods has been dry for months, but after so much rain I felt sure it must be running again.

Today we squelched up passed the bare trees and luminous moss to find clear water running over scoured rocks.

The sound was deliciously simple and clean. The great sponge of the forest had soaked up enough rain to allow the stream to flow above ground again, sweeping away the dark autumn leaves of the bed to reveal the bright pale limestone beneath. The rain patered on the brim of my felt hat. The harts’ tongue ferns glowed green in the winter gloom; a whirl of chaffinches shook water from the smooth beeches and the ravens laughed high over head : “there will come soft rains…”

 

There Will Come Soft Rains

Sara Teasdale, 18841933

(War Time)

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground, 
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

From The Language of Spring, edited by Robert Atwan, published by Beacon Press, 2003.

Christkindelsmarik (Christmas Market In Alsatian )

Christmas trees have history . Pagans used ever greens to bring life to the darkest day of the year and they have been brought into homes down the centuries around the shortest day of the year to comfort us with the knowledge that the world is not dead and that birth will happen.

The very earliest recorded public Christmas trees are from Latvia and Lithuania and the idea seemed to have traveled south to Germany where a tree was set up in 1570 decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels and paper flowers. Martin Luther is credited with putting up the first tree in a home and the fashion spread.

This year was such a good apple harvest here, but the pressoir is finally closed as nearly all the apples have been brought in and juiced or turned to cider.  However some trees still hold on to their apples. Perfect red or yellow apples hang from leafless branches like an opening for Sleeping Beauty .The  idea of collecting and even gilding such winter apples is obvious and hung on fir trees they were the prototype for the glass baubles and decorations of our artifical trees today.

Queen Victoria’s German husband brought the Christmas tree tradition with him to England and an engraving of the family admiring their decorated tree started a fashion that swept the country.  I love the detail that the same engraving was reproduced in the USA , but the woman was without her crown and the man without his mustache in order to make the figures look like an American family – and so the Christmas tree became fashionable across the Atlantic and eventually the whole world!

Strasbourg Christmas market is the oldest in the  world. The capital of the Alsace also calls itself the capital of Christmas. German and French alternately, Strasboroug has kept alive the traditions of the Christmas tree for over 400 years. The shootings in the colourful market earlier this week by a deranged criminal with a gun were frightening, but the stalls will be open again this weekend, the police have done their job and the last uncollected apples on the trees are still telling the story of light in the darkest time of the year.

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Birds don’t recognise borders.

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

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

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

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

Heart of a Witch.

The autumn leaves were falling in a dry rustle around us as the trees slowly, reluctantly gave into the darkening days and sighed down to the woodland floor. My eye was caught by something bright red:  careless trash, I assumed, but stopped a moment to check.

Among the leaves was something far odder, older and much fouler than a discarded sweet wrapper. Spongy, fleshy, organic and disturbing, on an October afternoon I had stumbled upon a witch’s heart lying decomposing on the forest floor.

Clatharus ruber has many names: witch’s heart; stinking basket; Stinking cage and it is found in Europe and also in the Americans. The cage of rubbery bright red life erupts from a white egg and the first naturalist to describe it in the 16th century thought it was a marine animal . This fungus appears and decays into a stinking mass in 24 hours. This film clip shows the whole gruesome process:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pdN4pJXEDuE.

It took the contents of my water bottle to wash the stinking fungal spores off my fingers. The smell is utterly repellent. You would have to be a carrion fly to appreciate it, but I am glad I got to hold the heart of a witch for just a few jellified, soul shuddering moments!

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Easy pickings: prickly pickings!

 

I was pleased as punch with the first few cherry tomatoes that the garden produced this season and as the dry, hot weather has gone on; with just a little effort,  I have filled bowl after bowl with the sweet red jewels. Previous attemps to grow tomatoes have resulted in little to eat and a lot of black blight, but this year has been a fruitful union of the right seeds and the perfect weather.

 

 

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Much sparcer, and far more difficult to pick have been the first sloes from our garden. Sloe berries come from blackthorn and the bush is well named, as the thorns are hard and very spiney. This blackthorn bush self seeded into a corner of the garden that we didn’t mow, along with birch, willow, larch, budlia, plum, laurel, fir and even an oak sapling.

We let the wild patch alone and the blackthorn has grown big enough in 8 years to be covered in white flowers in the spring time and now thick with black fruit in the autumn. In England you don’t pick sloes until they are crisped by the first frost, but I have learnt from experience that in my corner of France/ Germany/Switzerland, if you wait until the first frost, the berries will have ripened and fallen off by then .

So in the wild corner of the garden I did mighty  battle with the thorns and picked enough fruit to turn a couple of bottles of gin into sloe gin for a treat this Christmas. They will do their frosting in the freezer and I will add them to gin and sugar next week.

So you see gardening for wildlife is not entirely altruistic after all!

Mutability

Thank you to all those made wonderful guesses at the identity of the mysterious dripping wombat/ hedgehog .

The extraordinary solid wheeping dome was the start of a bracket fungi called a Red Belted Bracket ( I think!).  It takes years to mature and the original photo showed the first pulse of the fruiting body on a felled pine tree.

At first I thought a cyclist had left a water bottle on the pile of cut wood as it gleamed with droplets. I stretched out my hand tentatively, maybe the drops were solidifying resin, but no, they were ordinary water and lots of it. The log on which it was growing had been cut for months and there has been no rain for weeks and yet the fungi had found water to pump out all around itself in a sheath of jewels. As we clambered over the log pile we found the fungi in all states of development. The final unmistakable bracket was creamy white underneath, sweet smelling and still fringed in perfect droplets like tears.

A beautiful piece of creation and a salutary lesson in the mutability of fungi and how difficult they can be to safely identity as they change almost out of recognition as they grow.

 

Blink.

Today was hallucinogenic lace. Threads of nothing from branch to no where and then gone. Lines across the eyes that lift and leave and we feel that it meant something, but it couldn’t, it wasnt there.

The spiders were balloning. Fine autumn weather and wolf,house and crab spiders take to the air throwing out gossamer lines to launch the next generation on the wind. Such wonderful faith in the future, they throw themselves on the hallucinary beauty of the breeze. We blink our slow eyes and almost miss the marvellously minute migration in the air all around us.

Chocolate dusting

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

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

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

Ode to Autumn.

This has been a real autumn. The grapes have loaded the cottage eves heavy enough to fill bottle after bottle of sweet grape juice. Last autumn there was nothing at all after a terrible frost struck following a precociously  early spring. There were no apples, no plums, no walnuts and no grapes. The apples press next door was utterly silent and the wine growers of the Alsace said the couldn’t cover their tax bills.

This year has been a wonderful contrast. The clink of bottles filling with apple juice has been continuous since the pressoir opened a week early. Thanks to the generosity of a friend with apple trees, we have 70 litres of cider bubbling in the garage . This weekend we harvested our own seedy red grapes. I got spectacularly stung by a wasp that hit me between my fingers as I picked and put my swollen hand in a sling for two days!

The real grape harvest started three weeks earlier than usual in the proper vinyards and it promises to be an excellent year for wine.

Here on the coldest edges of the wine country, we have enjoyed a lovely pass the parcel of plums and apples, mirabelles, and blackberries as each neighbours passes their lucious surplus on across the hedge.

This really is a proper autumn!

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Apples going to be crushed for cider.

Pivot..End of August…..

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

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

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

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

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