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!

 

 

“Livin’ in a box, livin’ in a cardboard box….”

This cabbage white butterfly hatched out and is now in the shed waiting for spring. It was so fresh and yellow I thought it must  be a citron, but the butterfly recorder assured me it was just a sparkly cabbage white, who had jumped the gun.

I know how it feels. After warm late winter weather the spring seems very much on hold as cold air and lashing rain reminds us spring has not really begun. Couple that with fears of Coronavirus and the world seems greatly contracted suddenly.

The big out break in Italy has brought it very close to home. The trains from Milan draw up in Basel every hour and it is not surprise that the virus has crossed the Alps to Switzerland very quickly. It is in Germany and over the Rhine in the Alsace where we are too. It is a worry for everyone and people in Asia have been living with the great shut down for much longer than we have.

It is hard to know how seriously to take it. Carnival in Basel has been cancelled, as have so many events that attract crowds and spread the virus.

I am no doctor and take the WHO advise seriously and so am staying home. I also have an immune system that is profoundly compromised by my medication, so it looks like I am in the cardboard box with the butterfly until things calm down.

I hear the sales of jigsaws and board games are up!

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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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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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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!

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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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!

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!

Alsace in August.

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

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

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

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

 

Elizabeth (and her German Garden)

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!!

 

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Slow Business.

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!).

 

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New season resolutions for Earth Day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s NOT

use pesticides

use hebicides

cut down trees and bushes

be afraid of letting the grass grow

cover the soil we own in concrete.

 

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

 

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Rien à Déclaré

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Piece of Turf

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.81927DFF-8E14-4E40-A94E-C699DEF4AF41

 

The Hidden Life of Trees

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