On Monday they open the borders.

The virus has done so many things, most of them bad.

Closing international borders has been one of the oddest results of a virus that can be sneezed across a transatlantic airplane or between lovers walking in a forest.

I cross between France and Switzerland six times a day to get to work and back. At the weekend I often cross into Germany and back a few times to buy cat food and to get a kebab at my favourite Turkish kebab shop.  This has all stopped.

Even the crossings in the forests used by cyclists and hikers and runners every day have been boarded/ bordered up!

232F932D-67C8-42B7-933F-D57D19E1CB78Due to the unfathomable decision of the UK to leave the EU, I reclaimed my Irish heritage, so I could continue to be European. The open borders within  Europe seemed to me a slice of sanity, sophistication and friendliness in an increasingly fractured world.

Then the borders were closed.

It felt like a real war, not against the virus, but against each other. If ever there was a time for the EU to work together, this surely was it. All of the countries working together on health policies, quarantine advise, common lockdown could have been so powerful, but instead each country went their own way.

I dont know which country got it right and which got it wrong, but I do know that closed borders have increased unease and even fear for so many people who were  used to living in this open area that used to seem like it was my extended home.

On Monday they open the borders between France and Switzerland and Germany for everyone. I took some photos of the little closed borders between neighbouring villages and even between neighbouring trees.

I hope I never see them closed again.

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Pentecost, Whitsun, Cheese Rolling, Roseday!

It is the celebration of Pentecost today and the first day the church bells have rung for a real church service, not just to show solidarity and thanks to all the carers during this strange and awful time.

The extraordinarily, peerless blue weather has continued; linnets have sung from the birch tree; red kites have quatered over the garden and swifts have screamed down the sky for the sheer joy of being alive.

Pentecost or Whitsun has an ancient history and the Christian celebration of the holy spirit descending from God has its roots in the Jewish harvest festival which took place 50 days after Passover.

It is seen as a renewal of life and rose petals are showered from ceilings of some Italian churches and alters decorated with red geraniums, roses or even poinsettias in the Southern Hemisphere as the red is the penetecost colour of the spirit.

Whitsun is the time to start summer outdoor activities. In England Morris dancing should be in pub gardens and village greens. It is the day for Cheese rolling on Cooper’s Hill just outside of Cheltenham in the Cotswolds. This year it was cancelled because of the virus, but I was delighted to hear that a local rolled a proper double Gloucester Cheese down the hill, with no cameras or social media hordes, just to keep the old tradition going.

I didnt use litterpicker tonges to collect the news paper from the box today; my neighbours are sharing Sunday lunch with friends in the garden today and I collected a meal for the first time  from my favourite local restaurant, wearing a face mask, but with a huge smile underneath !  This is virtually the first food, for three months,  that I havent prepared or cooked myself and every single mouthwatering, three course morsel, was magnificent. I had to load the dishwasher, but hey , the sun is shining, the roses are perfumed and spirit is definitely on us all!

Sorry for the bizarre typo ! Spirit, not spitit!! Still thinking about transmission of the dreaded lurgy, I am afraid!!

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Blossoming.

This pear tree was full of starlings in the autumn gorging on the ripe fruit and the sound was a riot of clicks, whirrs and chirrups.

Brouhaha in a pear tree.

The world is so much quieter now. The hiss of tyres has gone and the roar of easy jet overhead has faded. I can hear the tawny owls at night and the  colony of jackdaws on the church tower is audible from my garden for the very first time ever.

It is impossible not to enjoy this peacefulness, but impossible too to ignore that the quiet has come at the price of loneliness, fear, economic crisis and terrible illness.

I listened to The Queen addressing Britain and the world beyond today and her calm, compassionate dignity suddenly made me cry.

The brouhaha tree is in full flower today. It is absolutely covered in bees and their buzzing is loud, sociable and full of life, as will all our lives be very, very soon.

 

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In the lion’s teeth.

It’s snowing here, but soon the sun will be out again and the dandelions will be in flower again – such is the fickle nature of spring. Faffing about flowers when the virus has us all enthralled seems absurd, but we must stay sane and nature turns unperturbed by our concerns.

Those of us fortunate enough to have lawns are watching them grow and as the world beyond the garden seems increasingly unsafe, we attempt to impose order on our own small patch. I think the first blog I ever wrote four years ago was a plea not to mow the lawn in the spring time and here I am again with the same plea for peaceful inaction!

Dandelions are beautiful.

Their huge golden flowers are the first food for so many bumblebees, honey bees and butterflies. If you are home instead of the office, then lie on the grass and watch a bee burying itself in the profusion of pollen that dandelions offer up. Watch the bee revel in the yellow gold, its whole body dusted in it and the pollen sacs on each back leg bulging with the riches it will take back to the hive.

Then put away the mower for a few weeks and let the dandelions be.

The English name for them is a corruption of the French “dent de lion” – lion’s teeth and they are “ lowen Zahn” – lion’s teeth in German too. Both names come from the shape of the seed, not the flower. The common French name is “pissenlit “ which literally means piss the bed, which is the diuretic result of eating too many of the delicious leaves!

I am eating a lot of dandelion leaves at the moment. I am eating them Greek style which is  boiled or steamed for a few minutes and then dressed in olive oil and salt. You will be relieved to know they have not lived up to their French name so far!

So enjoy the spring flowers on your lawn: feed the bees: eat free greens and stay healthy!

 

 

You cannot confine the spring!

Spring knows nothing of fear.

The lane behind our house is awash with foaming white blackthorn blossom. The bushes are like waves breaking static white tops against the bluest sky – a Japanese woodcut of mountainous water frozen into the spray of spring blossom .

The cherry trees are just starting to flower, balancing sunshine and the forecast of snow in their unfurling buds.

On the kitchen window sill the first seedings are germinating for the vegetable garden. I normally get my seeds in the supermarket over the border in Switzerland, as their varieties do well here; but in the scramble to stock up on food, they were forgotten and I am keeping well out of the shops now.

Luckily I have managed to order seeds online and the second lot arrived yesterday, to my great delight! Some postal staff will not deliver in the Haut Rhin, as the infection rate here is so high and the prospect of an empty vegetable plot for the whole year was very dispiriting. However,  wonderful Spring Seeds have sent a good fist full of seeds to start things going. I have flat leafed parsley and chilli beginning to grow and their first leaves give great good cheer!

The commercial growers of  fruit and veg are asking the French hairdressers and waiters and all the others who have been sent home,  to help pick the spring produce which is growing right now in the greenhouses and fields. Most of the workers who normally pick the vegetables are not ill, they are migrants and they cannot enter the country as the borders are all closed and without their work the food will rot.

The world is very interconnected now. The butterfly wing flap of a closed border is felt in unpicked field. An open postal service allows some leaves to unfurl on a window sill hundreds of miles away and spring progresses one leaf at a time.

 

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Sunlight on the shanty shed.

It has been cold here after a week of such sunny spring weather that made the fear of the virus seem very silly and melodramatic. Everything has been growing and blooming and the birds have been tumultuous, everything must be OK, mustn’t it?

But the news from Italy has been so bad, so many people dead and the hospitals here overflowing with people who need respirators that are already being used by the critically ill.

Replacing the ancient shanty shed has been put on hold, as has so much of life and the tattered roof is now flapping in a cold wind.

But the roof is just keeping out most of the rain and when the sun flashed out for a minute, it lit up the white frothed blossom of the blackthorn bush safely sheltering behind the shed.

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Apricot Blossom.

My neighbour’s apricot tree is in full bloom and if you squint your eyes hard you can  just make out a red kite in the top left corner against the blue, blue sky.

 

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Making a home where you can ….

February can seem a low point for life. The signs of early spring are cribbed with fears of snow and frost to come, so the sun on our back seems fearfully precipitous.

Luckily, other things are not so fearful and flourish in the most unlikely places.

The photo was taken of recent wire fence, ugly in its utility, fencing in a slab of shorn and tidied land. However the lichen and the moss were not disdainful of the plastic coated wire . They sensed opportunity, a habitat in which to grow and each intersection was frilled with light green life, finding a safe and unlikely foothold.

February is full of modest, opportunistic life!

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A future buzz!

Bees show the health of our environment on so many levels. When Notre Dame in Paris burned , we looked on aghast , and the bee keepers on the roof of the ancient cathedral thought the carefully guarded hives on the roof were doomed.  But it turns out that the bees were more resilient than we thought and they have survived against all the odds and are peacefully sleeping, waiting, like us all, for the spring.

I wish all our European bees a busy, borderless 2020!

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/31/they-survived-fire-and-lead-poisoning-so-what-happened-next-to-notre-dames-bees-aoe?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

 

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Holiday reading

I love having time to reading, but only when the world is cold and wet, do I really get properly down to it.

At the moment I am reading “The Garden Jungle or Gardening to Save the Planet“ which was a Christmas present that was spot on. Dave Goulson is passionate about his garden and evangelical about how much wildlife we can all cram into our on private gardens, if only we eschew pesticides, herbicides  and all the other things we are encouraged to buy to make our potential slice of paradise, tidy and dead. I was horrified to read how many suburbs of the USA are regularly drenched in pesticides from the air to “control pests”  and that gardeners have no choice at all in this annual destruction of all the micro fauna on their own land.

I am also reading “Crime au Pressoir “ by Jean-Marie Stoerkel, where bodies are found lying  on the grapes about to be crushed in a wine press in nearby Ingersheim. Somehow it is all linked to the German annexation of the Alsace some 80 years and hopefully reading it will improve my French!

I have just finished “A Portrait of Elmbury “ by John Moore which is a memoir of Tewkesbury in England before the second World War. This is a part of the world I know well, but set in a time I didn’t know. Some of his observations seem crass in our more enlightened times, but some are timeless such as his admiration for the men who only work as much as they had to …”they were not conditioned to believe in the popular fallacy, that work itself is a virtue. They worked when they wanted to and their work was fun. They were in fact a sort of privileged class and their privilege was one which nowadays only a few great artists have.”  I also learnt that farm workers were given great slabs of apple pie to eat first, before the roast beef, to ensure that they didnt just fill up on meat and avoid the abundant produce of the local orchards.

The book  that I just unwrapped this morning, is however the  one I think I am about to enjoy most. “Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers” by Peter Marren is the book I have been waiting for to explain the wonderfully poetical names of moths, both English and Latin. My first dipping proved Marren knows his European languages too and he gives German and French derivations of the marvellous names that always seem so redolent of 18th century country vicarages.

The moth book definitely wins the best cover award. I normally take off dust jackets as they are fiddly and irksome, but this is staying on to remind me of the colourful wonder of the delights still to be found in my moth trap in 2020..

Oh, and I had to include a “Just William ” collection by the incomparable Richmal Compton as I read a story nearly every night to send me to sleep with chuckle!

Happy New Year to all!

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The bare truth.

I love the shape of winter trees.

Now the tattered remnants of autumn have blown away, the filigree beauty of the trees is revealed shining in a steady cool rain.

In summer all is the soft fur of green leaves, snuggling promiscuously over one another, almost indistinguishable in the pulse of sap and growth.

In Autumn there is some individuality of colour; the different varieties of vines on the hill side are briefly visible as each line of leaves turns a different shade of red in its own time before falling to the ground. Beech and hornbeam flare orange in the woods, before scattering each dry, curled leaf into the wind like sparks from a wildfire.

But in winter, there is no summer hiding, no autumnal showmanship: this is the real shape of the tree. Each limb is smooth, or broken, pruned or leaning slowly out into the sunlight. Each silhouette tells a tale of genes and weather and often the hand of man.

Winter trees are honest, bare and very, very lovely.

 

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Brouhaha in a pear tree.

The fieldfare are here and the starlings too. They have a lot of catching up to do since last autumn and they never stop talking.

I thought brouhaha was a children’s word for a lot of noise until I watched a film with French subtitles for the hard of hearing and saw the noise of many voices in a crowd rendered simply as brouhaha. It is the right word to also describe the racket coming from a pear tree laden with ripe fruit this afternoon. No one had bothered to pick it, the fruit was too small, but the birds were loud in their appreciation of the owner’s forgetfulness.

There seems no limit to the variety of sounds that starlings can make. They pop, wheeze, exclaim, whistle and shriek and they shout over one another with a wonderful lack of inhibition. Add a flock of fieldfare, half drunk on the fermenting fruit and the result is as cacophonous as a bar when the football is on. I love this raucous  sound of autumn; everyone has something to say and are determined to say it.

The first snow has fallen on the Black Forest in Germany and on the Grand Ballon in the Voges; tonight there will snow here in the Jura, but today the sun in shining and the birds are making merry in the pear tree!

 

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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.