Next time a micro light goes over I’ll be watching for the ibis!
Some writers you love, even though you know you shouldn’t.
Elizabeth von Arnim was rich and incredibly privileged. She was born in to money and married into European aristocracy. She wafted through a beautiful garden admiring the flowers and thwarted in her desire to get her hands dirty only by her attentive gardeners.
And yet I love her passionately.
She wrote about virtually nothing, if you need exciting plots and varied stettings she will infuriate you. If you require complex characters and cliff hanging action, she will bore you. However, if your heart yearns for green spaces, for gardens and perfumes and flowers, if you basically long for solitude and self determination then Elizabeth von Arnim is like walking into a quiet room after the deafening roar of a city street.
She is most famous for Elizabeth and her German Garden, but my personal favourite is the Solitary Summer .
This is opening to “A Solitary Summer”, which is free on project Guttenberg, as it is out of print.
“May 2nd.—Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said, “I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes. On wet days I will into the thickest parts of the forests, where the pine needles are everlastingly dry, and when the sun shines I’ll lie on the heath and see how the broom flares against the clouds. I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no one to worry me. Out there on the plain there is silence, and where there is silence I have discovered there is peace.”
“Mind you do not get your feet damp,” said the Man of Wrath, removing his cigar.”
Elizabeth (1866-1941) was her pen name. She was born Mary Annette Beaucham in Australia, but only lived there for the first few years of her life and her cousin was the famous New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield. She married a German noble man and they lived in Berlin until she discovered that her husband owned a country estate in Northern Germany. The family was moved there and she revelled in the beauty of her garden and the surrounding countryside. She may have been wealthy, but she was still “only “ a woman at a time when women were expected to hold their tongues and uphold social niceties , when she would much rather be alone and free under open skies. Her descriptions of beauty are unsurpassed and I find her observations of humanity refreshingly witty and biting, which to me is an irresistible combination.
Her novel about leaving the rain of London with a group of other disappointed women, to find escape and peace for a short time in an Italian castle was made into a lovely film “The Enchanted April” which I can strongly recommend.
Elizabeth wrote to find her own voice in a restraining world; to revel in the beauty of a garden and to make money. She was hugely popular in her day and after her husband lost his fortune, she kept the family afloat. Eventually she divorced her German count and become an independent literary woman in her own right and grew her own perfect garden in Switzerland .
I would dearly have loved to swap cuttings with her!!
Earlier in the year I found a Roman snail shell close up for for the winter, safely sealed behind a calcerious door. Well, spring is here and the snails are out and about, looking for love. On a damp Sunday afternoon, these two plump snails found each other and slowly, very slowly, did what snails do.
After their amorous interlude, they may have been tempted to go back to bed, as the temperature here has fallen dramatically in the last few days . It seems that the Ice Saints are back again; that strange dip in temperature that is well known in southern Germany and northern Switzerland during during the middle of May.
This odd blip in the temperature is named after the saints days that occur at this time . At the moment we are enjoying cold Kalt Sofia, but my favourite is Saint Pancreas, who is yet to arrive ( maybe there is the wrong type of ice on the tracks!).
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.
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 !
I 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.
And all other lovers of the genius of Durer!
My garden is now officially shut. I glimpse it darkly as I feed the morning birds and sense it fleetingly as I peel the potatoes for dinner, but the rest is darkness between work.
So I turn again to representations of the green I cannot see on a work day in November and the most wonderful of all is Albrecht Dürer’s Great Piece of Turf.
This water colour was painted in 1503 in Germany and the detail and precision surpasses any digital photo I have ever seen. Dürer is more often remembered for the remarkably messianic self portraits of his undeniably commanding and attractive face; but this small picture contains the whole natural world in all its multifarious, magnificent complexity. Here are the grasses; the lace edged tansy leaf; the seeding dandelion flowers and fleshy clasping plantain leaves. Here is the view from the ground, the vole’s eye view; an unnervingly clear eyed botanist’s view, who understood how marvelously interlinked and nuanced the living world is and reproduced it in this unassuming slice of perfection for ever.
I have just finished reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and I have to share it with people who love wildlife all over the world. This book is the most extraordinary insight into the complex life of a forest and of trees everywhere.
Peter Wohlleben was a forester in Germany and his writings are based on 20 years of the daily observation of trees and wide reading in all of the latest scientific research. The result is an outstandingly readable, humane, erudite and even witty book and like the blurb says on the cover “a walk in the woods will never be the same again.”
I am going to resist the urge to simplify or summarise this wonderful book, as the digital world has a tendency to reduce the multifarious and complex into banal sound bites and snippets and this deserves real reading. It doesn’t have to be read cover to cover in one sitting, it can be dipped into and out of whenever the clouds roll over and you want to be indoors, but you will want to finish it and I have even decided where I want to buried based on this lovely, life affirming book!
Published 2016 by Greystone books
Storks are the regional emblem of the Alsace and tourist stalls are loaded with stork hats, stork plates, stork stuffed toys and stork snow domes, but these magnificently huge birds were almost completely wiped out in the twentieth century and numbers went as low as 9 pairs in the 1970s.
Birds were shot at, electrocuted on overhead wires and poisoned. Many starved in their African wintering grounds due to droughts.
They were completely extinct in Switzerland by 1950, but a determined school teacher from Solothurn went to Africa to find chicks, which he reintroduced to his country and here in the Alsace and Southern Germany programmes of captive breeding slowly pulled the White Stork back from the brink.
By feeding birds here to encourage them to avoid the hazardous migration south, numbers have increased to the point where breeding and feeding stations in local villages like Rodersdorf have recently been closed, as the population is thought finally to be stable enough not to need intervention.
The sight of storks returning to their nests on the rooves of local churches, on random telegraph posts and the even mobile phone towers is a sight to gladden the heart at this time of year.
The birds can live for thirty years and nests can weigh from 60-250Kg. Nests can be used year after year and many other birds can nest in the lower reaches of the bigger nests including sparrows and starlings.
Courtship and pair bonding is accompanied by wonderful clacking as they throw back their heads and point their huge beaks upwards. An average of four eggs are laid and chicks that hatch later in the season often do better than those who hatch earlier, as they avoid the perils of a cold wet spring. Successfully reared juveniles may opt to stay in Europe during the winter, especially where food many be plentiful as for instance around the zoos in Mulhouse, Basel and Zurich, but others will attempt the long migration into Africa to feed for insects, small mammals and amphibians in warmer surroundings .
So whether they have crossed continents, just hoped the border in our tri region area, or spent the whole year in the same spot; their nesting brings another generation of these magnificent birds back to my part of France, where they were so nearly lost forever.