Bird’s nests and White Helleborines – orchids in the woods.

This uninspiring orchid may not be colourful, but it is extraordinary.

The bird’s nest orchid Neottia nidus – avis gets its name from the tatty shape of the root ball that looks like a bird’s nest . It gets all its nutrients from a fungal association with the soil and it needs no green chlorophyll at all. It makes no leaves and the flower comes straight up out of the earth in the late spring.

If the spike is obstructed when it is about to emerge, it can apparently flower and set seed underground, which is not fully understood and all the more disturbing for it!

It can be pollinated by a range of insects including very small creatures that can crawl over the flowers and carry away the pollen.

It is often found ( as this one was) close to the flowering stems of the large white helleborine Cephalanthera damasonium which also grow under beech trees in leaf litter.

The bird’s nest orchid and the large white helleborine both need nutrients from fungus that can only grow in deep humous rich leaf litter and so can sometimes be found in the same beech woods. The helleborine has green leaves and stem, but can tolerate deep shade, because of the extra food it’s fungal association gives it. The pure white flowers seem not open fully, but that is an illusion . Once one starts to look for them, at this time of year, their white petals flare up under the dark canopy of the beech trees and they can be surprisingly common.

A reason to keep the French / English relationship ship going! A wing and a prayer: is there hope for Britain’s loneliest bat.

Our rarest mammal lives on its own, with no known relatives this side of the Channel. Did the greater mouse-eared bat stray here from France? And is it time we invited over some company?

— Read on www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/may/10/greater-mouse-eared-bat-britain-rarest-mammal

Bright in the sun.

The blossom trees held their breath in the snow and the storm and today they exhaled.

The white cherry blossom studs the forest tops and in the orchards, the perfect pink of apple blossom opens out on to the clean pale centre of this most lovely of flowers on this the most perfect of April days.

Things are not always perfect, but in the brief moment when they are, we can rejoice.

Basho , the great Japanese poet famously wrote:

It is with awe

That I behold

Fresh leaves, green leaves

Bright in the sun

Seen from a car.

We went driving today along the Rhine river. The Rhine is the artery of industrial Europe: on one side Germany and on the other France and all along this stretch there are vats of hydrochloric acid, vast cement works, gigantic silos of grain, parks of containers full of goods from China and Bangladesh and factories making glass and airplanes and shopping trolleys and everything that we take for granted in our 21st century lives, but don’t want to actually see.

In the water were some swans, pochard and mallard. A canny heron and a few tufted ducks and above was a very early spring sky blowing though a beautiful cloud scape before the storm struck.

Three vignettes stood out.

Before the motorway a small group of people were lifting a wreath of flowers over a memorial to some one killed in the traffic. An elderly lady with two younger men were momentarily frozen in a very private moment of remembrance as we drove on by.

Much further on a tall, dark young man with a large backpack walked very quickly along the motorway verge. He looked tired but purposeful and I wondered how very far he had walked , from where and which side of the river he actually wanted to be on.

On the edge of a village a pétanque court was actually in use. There were dozens of men playing in the normally abandoned sand. Their faces were unmasked and they were animated with competition, excitement and humour .

The great old river is still very much alive.

Plan B

As Covid rears it’s ugly head again in this part of the world, plan B is definitely in place and we find the wonders of the woods as absorbing as vin chaud or tinsel at a Christmas market.

Now all the leaves have been whirled away by wind and rain, there is much more light in the forest . On the floor, some plants positively gleam with fresh growth in the winter sun.

Oddities like hazelwort show fat green pennies of leaves against the moss.

Hazel wort

Hart’s tongue ferns have such a wonderfully evocative name as their leaves curl out like the tongue of an amorous male deer .

Harts tongue fern

The hard shield fern is almost invisible except in the winter, when it shines out fresh and vivid amongst the fallen leaves.

Hard shield fern

Maidenhair spleenwort sounds at odds with itself. Maidenhair sounds delicate but spleenwort sounds positively painful. However, the fern itself is beautiful and it falls by steps from the wet rocks.

Maidenhair spleenwort

This young male fern is flourishing in the winter light.

Male fern.

And finally, with the promise of a Christmas flower is this stinking hellebore. The name is harsh as I have never actually smelt it’s apparently bad smell and it is the wild relative of the Hellebores that grace our gardens and decorate tables at Christmas time.

Stinking hellebore in bud
Continue reading

Not in a hurry.

The flowers are from the green dump in the village . Every autumn my neighbours throw away their geraniums and cut down flowering plants, while the sun is still shining and the first frosts are hopefully weeks away.

I don’t understand this .

Why be in a hurry for the winter and bare soil?

I collected the lovely pink geranium flowers and marigolds to brighten my table and decided to spin out the autumn evening with some local wine. It is grape harvest time right now in warmer valleys along the Rhine. I am drinking a table wine of no great repute, but it has the floral taste that I am in no hurry to discard in the rush to clear the soil and let the long winter in!

Beauty in decay.

Autumn is just starting here.

The leaves on the trees have only just started to turn, but other leaves are ready to drop. This sunflower leaf is yellowed and over. I haven’t cut down the old flowers, as goldfinches and marsh tits hang from the ripening heads, picking out seeds.

Migratory birds come over the garden . Swallows and martins are nearly all gone and when the wind picks up, red kites catch a ride over to the south.

Up in the Vosges Mountains the battle sites of the First World War are still softening into the landscape. Terrible sites of slaughter, that were blasted of every tree and man, are beautiful in the autumn.

If you look closely at the photos you can see that the hedge is actually the original barbed wire that separated German and French soldiers. Today, the rust seems organic and the trees have regained the dispute heights .

There is real beauty in such decay.

Make a little space.

Nature will push on through if we just give it a little space.

The Rhine is one of the most industrialised rivers in the world. It’s banks have unloaded the coal and the wood and the chemicals and the shipping containers from China for a very very long time. It is the scar line of Europe and it has been fought over and died for and its waters have been canalised and concreted, polluted and poisoned beyond recognition. But is still flows strongly and given a bit of space, it is returning to its wild abundance.

A small section of the Rhine has been allowed to flow freely. The meanders and shallows that should be there have been put back. Willows have been allowed to root and the swans have come back. It is one of the biggest rewilding projects in Europe, but it is still tiny in comparison to what has been lost.

There are kingfishers and dragonflies where there was just concrete and today there are fish in the shallows and 150 white storks feeding as they moved across the planet going south.

There are bird hides and wardens and ladies on bicycles astonished by the richness that they never knew was there. They didn’t know, not because they were unobservant, but because it didn’t exist before in living memory. It has been hugely expensive , better we never let it get so bad, but as we did, the restoration of this little elbow of the Rhine has been worth every euro.

When nature is given a little space, it floods back in all its exuberant fabulous beauty whether it is between the slats of a fence or the banks of great river!

https://www.sundgau-sud-alsace.fr/en/LAW/A-renature-space-on-the-Rhine-Island.htm?HTMLPage=/presentation/sites-naturels.htm&action=&page=1&commune=&categorie=&genre=1900009&nom_recherche=&langue=1&ID=252004325&TYPE=1900200&langue=1&sessionalea=

To keep ourselves amused.

When lock down seemed doomed to go on forever and vaccines seemed like an mythical rumour, I planted some carrot seeds in an old pair of wellington boots. My husband made holes in the soles for drainage and away I went!

The seeds germinated and grew a bit . I watered them a lot and even fed them. Eventually I pulled the much anticipated roots up and the profoundly underwhelming results are there for all to see.

Thank goodness the vaccines have been much more impressive!

Thanks to the plummeting death rates: lockdown down is now over for the vaccinated in France; cafes, theatres and restaurants are fully open again. It feels strange to be with others again, but at least you know the people around you indoors are also vaccinated , as they have had to show their pass to get in. I know the vaccine does not guarantee complete safety from infection, but the more people have the jab ( and luckily France has enough vaccines that everybody who wants one, can have one) the chances of getting very sick are diminishing all the time.

Hopefully next spring won’t be so confined and bizarre that planting carrots in old footwear will seem like a good idea!

What boredom will lead to!

Yellow Morel

Some fungi you remember from their smell, some from sight and just a few from their sound.

This yellow morel was under an open hedge and was already broken, so I picked it up and as I did so the honeycomb shape made the oddest dry hollow sound, unlike any fungi I have ever heard . I have never even considered the sound of fungi before, but on retrospect I expect a largish mushroom to sound solid and sturdy but this was light and reverberated to the touch.

Yellow morels are apparently very good to eat, but I am very wary of eating fungi as they are so astonishingly different at each stage of their development . The only thing I have ever confidently eaten was a giant puff ball as it simply cannot be anything else once it has reached football size!

Foraging for fungi is very fashionable but I was once nearly killed by a forest mushroom sauce at my favourite French restaurant. I have never been back and I have never eaten mushroom sauce again, much better to admire them and even to listen to them then ever to actually eat them!

Browned off.

So, this is the second Covid spring.

In the first it seemed impossibly beautiful and the skies were peerlessly blue to frame such cherry blossom as I have never seen before. The contrast between the beauty of the mild spring and the awful news of deaths and disease swirling around us seemed absurd.

Covid ebbed and flowed. By the time the cherry blossom was ripening into fat luscious cherries, it seemed maybe there would be summer holidays and life would continue, but after the reprieve of summer the winter was long and cold and Covid spiked again and again, although we were all told it was going to be fine and over by Christmas . Vaccination was going to save us all and the next year would be fine and this would all be bad memory.

But then came the new variants and people kept dying. The vaccines have trickled out so slowly and the shops and restaurants and cinemas and clubs have closed and it seems like they may never re – open again.

It is our second spring in lockdown in France. It seems like no one has been vaccinated and in Switzerland it is even worse. They even closed down the vaccination centres during Easter so as not to annoy people with appointments.

It is all unprecedented.

It is no one’s fault.

Complaining when one is healthy and not exhausted from caring for the sick seems petulant and selfish, but like the cherry blossom frozen by the late snow, I too am browned off/fed up.

There won’t be many cherries this summer. The record low temperatures have done for the vineyards in much of France this year, so there won’t even be much wine.

I never thought there could be two Covid springs.

I like decay.

Before spring covers the world with growth and exuberant life, I am strangely aware of the the aged and decaying world beneath.

There are so many old buildings falling beautifully apart around me in the villages and I am irresistibly drawn to the roofs steep and sliding down to the earth.

Roof joists look like the ribs of animal carcasses picked bare by the winter crows and kites.

The roof of this barn came down in the last storm and the wind pulled it apart from the eye of sky that you can see in middle of the shot.

There has been little human to distract the eye during these covid times. Faces are not faces covered by mask (though I wholeheartedly endorse the wearing of masks to keep us all safe!) , but when faces and expressions are shuttered, I look more closely at the buildings and try to read them instead.

It is the older buildings, those with history and character who attract me and the beauty of their ageing, is both poignant and absorbing.

Spring on the Table

February is the longest month for me as we wait for Spring, so I cheat and go out and buy it!

This selection of bulbs and plants is from a wonderful nursery over the border, where rows and rows of perfumed primulas, cheeky pansies and thousands of other plants thrive in perfect conditions under atifical lights and modulated heat.

They will cheer up my kitchen table for a few weeks and the bulbs will go out into the garden to maybe flower again next spring, if they survive.

The borders of France are officially closed to stop the spread of Covid, but this time they are open to neighbouring Switzerland for those who live within 30 kilometres of the frontier. This means that I can shop over the border and the awful sense of severance and dislocation that happened during the great lock down of the spring 2020 has not been repeated. It seems incredible that Covid should still be dominating our lives, but it is. The virus is not political and it is not nationalistic: it is a horrible fact that we have to deal with with patience and fortitude, though I often lack both.

One thing that has changed for me since the great lockdown of 2020 however, is the purchase of a wonderful electric bubble car which has given me mobility again. My tiny Citroen Ami, goes a maximum of 45 kilometres per hour, is so cute people wave at it and can be recharged at an ordinary plug in garage!

I adore it and I feel confident and free after years of hating driving and feeling intimidated and inept.

Spring will come!

The photo also shows Winston investigating the Ami after its delivery. He also approves mightily,

Holding on to the good news.

Covid is raging across the world and life can seem to have shrunk to a penny piece, but there is still wonderful good news to hold onto.

Here on one of the busiest and most polluted rivers in the world , ospreys are returning to breed. A huge international rewilding project is returning a little bit of the river Rhine to its natural state and wildlife is moving straight back in to rebalance the world.

At the other end of our astonishing planet blue whales, which were nearly hunted to extinction, are reappearing again after hunting was outlawed.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/nov/19/blue-whale-sightings

Good people who shout loud enough and who care, can make a difference. Wildlife just needs a hand and it will come back: things can get better for us all!

Photo by Sue Round

Big world.

It is such a huge world out there.

We may feel cribbed and confined by a world on hold, but the clouds still race by and the seasons turn and turn again even though we can’t believe the calendar has moved on.

It turns out that the beautiful is much closer than we realised and that clouds fly by with even greater freedom unentangled by the nets of jet vapour trails.

There are flocks of chaffinches arriving already from the north to feast on the mast from the beech trees. The bend of the road, by the cow pasture, is greasy with the walnuts crushed by cars tyres. The apple press next door is working ten hours a day to crush a bumper crop of apples into juice and sweet cider from the heavy laden trees of the three countries that touch branches just here .

And over all of it, the sky and time flies by.

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.

C3FE6533-D91E-4E3A-AE82-F01CC6D96692

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!!

31D7CFC7-172D-4176-896E-466FD9157B7B

 

6594376E-2A90-494F-A9B1-CAC8F4AC5E92

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.

 

E05547D3-7CE6-4038-AEF3-E02341FDE335

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.

 

6052B20F-62A5-45C2-B291-A09542D606F4F83713AA-40A3-411C-9943-BA28778C81B8

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.

EC352613-F443-45AF-803C-C5948F6A7B34

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.

 

02508365-C9EA-41EC-9B4E-1720C1BB3BE0

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!

586E1C31-8830-4E5D-9DC5-E563F5F634C0

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

 

A5788296-A98A-43F7-B222-479536E98CB4