After the heat of summer and the seemingly endless shout of sunshine, the turning of the season into autumn is a huge relief. Mornings are foggy, fires have been lit and smoke rises up to the stars, that glitter on into the dark of morning.
The cat is reluctant to venture out . He hates wet dew on his paws, but eventually the sun creeps up, the world wakes and slowly he slinks out to start the autumn day.
The great clouds of martins and swallows have thinned to just a few birds catching up on the reverse migration back to Africa. The starlings have remembered the uncollected apples in the orchard behind the house and are wheezing their anticipation of a feast. Jays have appeared and are raucous in the tall trees.
Days of rain are forecast, but today the sun has climbed into a peerlessly clear sky and the michaelmas daisies are star burst bright with bees. A hornet patrols ceaselessly looking for a bee to catch and the late gate keeper butterfly keeps far away from it. Hummingbird hawk moths feed on September nectar and the morning glory winds up and up to the end of every stick.
The news of Russian mobilization of reluctant and unreluctant men is chilling I think of the unharvested vegetables ripening in the gardens of destroyed Ukrainian homes.
On a warm September day it seems the very best of times, but Dickens could always balance his opening sentences to linger in the mind.
This dragon fly laid her eggs on a mossy stone . I always assumed they deposited their eggs into water and if anything should know the difference between stone and water, then a dragonfly should. She choose the stone. Maybe their life cycle is more complex than I imagine. I could look it up. I could read about it in books and on line, or I could just watch and wonder. Sometimes that is all I want to do: just watch and wonder.
It rained and hailed this week. The pot of basil was shredded, but the broken leaves were preserved in a bed of hail under the stalks. They were cooked in spaghetti bolognese for dinner.
The first migrating warblers are turning up in the garden, feeding for a while on their way home to Africa.
After the rain, the heavy phone cables strung across the road,glittered with rain drops sliding along the cable like iridescent jewels on a dowager duchess’s necklace.
I swear I could hear the soil absorbing the sweet rain and the cracks healing.
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 .
Sat in bed with a John LeCarre and a sleepy tom cat: the dish washer made an unfamiliar squeezing noise on its energy saving cycle in the kitchen downstairs . The cat pricked up his ears, the noise was outside, was outside the window in the dark.
I have heard herons call harsh overhead at night and once a saucer faced barn owl nearly brushed my cheek as I leaned out to admire the stars.
I opened the window and the sound was loud, high and ethereal. The sound was in waves, something was passing over head and then again and again. Finally the wonderful calls were fading towards the church in the distance.
I have been known to rail against technology and it’s intrusive, reductive nature, but tonight I loved it as a bird call app allowed me to confirm that the calls were cranes before the sound had faded from my memory.
Cranes migrating in the moonlight over my cold muddy garden. Cranes calling constantly to one another as they beat amongst the winter clouds in unknown number. Cranes leaving the cold north for the warm south.
I returned to the cat with their wild freedom ringing in my ears.
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 .
If I had been Mary Shelley, sheltering from a similarly sodden season in Switzerland, I should have written “Frankenstein”, but I am not suitably talented or tormented and so I spent my time identifying moths and cutting back hedges.
Now that it is officially autumn the sun has finally come out and we can stop lighting fires and sit in the garden instead.
Migration has started. The wires are beaded with massing swallows and just occasionally the tropical burble of bee eaters can be caught as they head south . The village roads are full of motorbikes touring through the Jura before the cold penetrates their very expensive leather kits. Local farmers thunder by bringing in hay that has lain too long in the rainy fields and the wood from the forest is being brought in by every ancient tractor still working.
Everybody is sawing and stacking wood. The village may not grow grapes or make cheese, but it has plenty of trees and there is always wood for the winter.
My dahlias have only just started to flower and they are in a race with the frost . One or two flame coloured flowers are betting on the autumn being warm still. I am a pessimist by nature and prefer to place my bet on our wood stack!
The storks are a great success story in my part of the world. When I arrived here 14 years ago, to see one or two was a great event. Then we found reintroduction sites where nests were protected and numbers grew. We saw storks more regularly and sometimes in great numbers when they migrated south in the winter.
Now we often see great groups of up to 20 huge stately birds picking through the fields with fierce concentration. They nest in all the villages around , but we are just a little too high up and so far no pair has chosen us.
This summer has been cool and very wet and stabbing their great beaks into the earth in search of food has been easy. Many more stork chicks have been reared and last years birds need roof tops spaces to build their nests for next year.
A few weeks ago, for the first time, a young stork perched on the roof of an old house opposite and threw back his head and clacked his beak loudly . He was calling for a mate, advertising the real estate he had located and trying to tempt a female to establish the first nest in our village.
So far he had no takers, but he is the first to try and I really hope he will find a mate who will love this place as much as I do and that the storks will return to my village.
The pear blossom is over, the cherry blossom is still splashing down and the pink edged perfect apple blossom is just showing between the twin green leaves that seem to offer up the simple flowers to an April morning.
In the thicket a real Nightingale sang. Her song is so rich, so varied, so burbling, so beautiful it needs Keats to do it justice. This poem seems so apt and poignant today, just as it did for Keats struggling with TB and still transported by the astounding beauty of the bird’s song. It is a long poem, but well worth reading again, or for the first time.
“Immortal bird” indeed.
Ode to a Nightingale .
John Keats- 1795-1821
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: ‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, But being too happy in thine happiness,— That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees, In some melodious plot Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth, Tasting of Flora and the country green, Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth! O for a beaker full of the warm South, Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth; That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget What thou among the leaves hast never known, The weariness, the fever, and the fret Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; Where but to think is to be full of sorrow And leaden-eyed despairs, Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee, Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, But on the viewless wings of Poesy, Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: Already with thee! tender is the night, And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays; But here there is no light, Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet Wherewith the seasonable month endows The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine; Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves; And mid-May’s eldest child, The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath; Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain, While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad In such an ecstasy! Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— To thy high requiem become a sod.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generations tread thee down; The voice I hear this passing night was heard In ancient days by emperor and clown: Perhaps the self-same song that found a path Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, She stood in tears amid the alien corn; The same that oft-times hath Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell To toil me back from thee to my sole self! Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf. Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades Past the near meadows, over the still stream, Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep In the next valley-glades: Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
The heartbeat, ethereal sound of the first cuckoo, heard and almost not heard in the echoing quiet of our lockdown world. No easy jet roars tearing up the air and stitching us in with trails of pollution. It is now so quiet that I can hear the call of the first cuckoo right over in the valley along the alder stream where I remember them last spring time.
What a long time ago last spring seems!
Walking where we wanted, seeing whom we pleased, being unafraid.
And yet this spring I have heard more birds than I ever had before. I have spoken to more neighbours over the garden fence and wall than ever before. And most remarkable of all; a neighbour tells me he has seen a lynx in the forest for the very first time! My neighbour has cut timber in the forest for 30 years and he knows how rare and remarkable this sighting was.
This spring is so different.
Delius was inspired by the sound of the first cuckoo and so please take a moment to catch a little calm and listen to this gentle music in celebration of some normality.
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.
There is always conflict for the naturalist when confronted with an alien species. On the one hand we are delighted to see a wild animal or to admire a beautiful plant, on the other hand a creature in the wrong place can push a whole ecosystem out of balance and destroy native life. Every country has its own tales of trouble from European starlings in America to Costa Rican toads in Australia and Japanese knot weed in Britain.
When crossing a road bridge in a local village I was astonished to see a large muskrat peacefully munching on a long frond of water weed, as the traffic rumbled on overhead. It was the best view I have ever had and I spent a long time admiring his white whiskers; delicate dexterous paws and ears sunk deep in his thick, silky fur. That thick fur is the whole reason why he was here, so far from his native North America. Muskrats were brought to this area to be bred for fur. When the fur market collapsed in the 1930s, the fur farmers of the Vosge mountains simply opened the cages and just let the muskrats go free. They didn’t take to find their way to the waterways and now they breed naturally .
I enjoyed watching it going about its business. I find all animals fascinating and was reminded of the pleasure of watching grey squirrels feeding and playing In British parks and in my own back garden (we named a particularly bold one Sharlene). They were aliens, they outcompeted the indigenous red squirrel and they are an official pest. However the movement of flora and fauna has been going on since life evolved, on the wind, on the tides ,on the feet of birds and the life around has always had to adapt. The ethical question of which creature has a right to exist is as complex as the evolutionary question of whether creatures that evolved in one place are more worthy than those who have moved , or been moved, to another place.
And then there are the human creatures, to whom all the same questions apply as to the muskrats under the bridge.
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.
The 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!
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!
Over the garden they have poured in their hundreds, companionably calling as they weave their way to far away Africa.
Ted Hughes wrote that they were stitching the sky and so I have always thought of them, but there were such thick clouds of them last week that I thought maybe they were lace making against the clouds, pulling delicate nets of fine worked lace behind them.
Our house in on a migration route from Europe to Africa and every year the birds pour over us. Swallows and martins, chasing hobbies, red kites, honey busards, even the odd osprey and flock of blue, blue bee eaters stream over, sometimes high and sometimes low enough to feed from the insects rising from our garden.
The image of the fine lace woven by the flight patterns of wings for an instant and then rewoven, reassembled and pulled delicately across the whole world amuses me, something so much lighter and freer than a net : starting in the barns and eves of Europe and then being pulled by the interlacing wings all the way to Africa, a world unified and beautified by birds!
Squeals of delight come easily to children and rarely to the truely grown up. Adult life consists of such profoundly dull things that an unforced squealing is considered an audible anomaly. That is why bramblings are so wonderful.
The odd jaunty red brambling amongst the chaffinches or sparrows in the garden is a smile inducing pleasure, but a wintering flock streaming overhead as the darkness falls evokes a real squeal.
Some years they don’t come. Apparently the prevelence of beech mast has to be just right to tempt them south from their Scandinavian homes in such numbers: they dont take wing in their millions for nothing. But when the conditions are right they arrive in huge numbers and feed voraciously in the woods of Southern Germany, Eastern France and northern Switzerland. We were once in the forest when they descended to forage and every leaf was alive with flicking, delicately rustling birds, as thousands and thousands fed quietly around us.
This year we have seen few on the ground, but suddenly the air has been fabulously full of them. Somewhere relatively close, the bramblings have been roosting on mass and the skies right above our muddy garden have been filled with their sturdy determined silhouettes returning at dusk to their temporary roost.
The first flock flying over make you stop what you are doing and shout for others to look. The second flock makes you shout louder, the third, the forth and the fifth flock leave you rooted to the earth in immobile delight. When the flocks streaming overhead are indistinguishable and there is no sky between them, then you realise you are seeing millions of birds and squealing is the only possible response!
We tried in vain to find the roost, but by the time we had time to give up doing the dull things that grown ups do, the bramblings in their extraordinary, unbelievable millions, had gone somewhere else.
Today was hallucinogenic lace. Threads of nothing from branch to no where and then gone. Lines across the eyes that lift and leave and we feel that it meant something, but it couldn’t, it wasnt there.
The spiders were balloning. Fine autumn weather and wolf,house and crab spiders take to the air throwing out gossamer lines to launch the next generation on the wind. Such wonderful faith in the future, they throw themselves on the hallucinary beauty of the breeze. We blink our slow eyes and almost miss the marvellously minute migration in the air all around us.
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!
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!!
There is so much to write about at this time of year I don’t know where to begin. Winston brought me a slow worm and dropped it delicately at my feet to admire. Pixie brought me a vole and chased around the kitchen and killed it. The garden is filling with flowers. There are orange tipped butterflies on the wild ladies smock blooming in the lawn. There are violets in the tussocks and wasps shaving the wooden garden bench to make their nests. The cat drug valerian is managing to grow faster than they can rub it back down in their ecstasy . We have seen our first swallows and our first house martins as they swooped on by . The ants have woken up . There are bee flies on the honesty flowers and humming bird hawk moths on the cowslips. The blackthorn is still beautiful . The peas and the potatoes are planted. The only absurd part of this wonderful race of fantastical spring glory is that some joker still expects me to leave it all on Monday and go to work!!
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.
They are harvesting the maize here. The plants have ripened for months and are dry sentinels guarding the hard yellow cobs that will go for bio fuel or animal feed. Enormous harvesters are shredding the stalks and a glistening stream of grain pours into the following truck. And watching from the orchards are the chaffinches.
A few have been here all summer, but now there are hundreds and they are following the harvest. What do these huge roaring machines look like to these little birds? How did they learn that the rumble and diesel smell means grain to eat as they pick their way through the chaff with the newly arrived winter migrants?
The storks and the buzzards recognise the ploughs that turn over insects and voles to eat in the summer and my sparrows recognise the bread board being shaken each morning over the bird table to scatter crumbs for them.
We think we are the observant ones, but really we are just one set of eyes amongst many watching all around us!
Lying on my back watching the sky, I saw long white filaments appear from high up and drift on by in the clear blue air. All the swifts, swallows and even martins have long gone, but some thing was taking advantage of the autumn sunshine : spiders.
Spiders, like this garden beauty, stick their fat abdomens up to the sky from trees and twigs and spin out long threads of gossamer, which contain hundreds of tiny spiders, and cast them adrift to the wind. The gossamer can carry the young spiders for hundreds of miles away across land or water . They can skim on salt or fresh water and Darwin himself found them on his ship miles from any land.
Many will perish, but many will survive and colonise huge distances.
Today the sky was full of birds. Hundreds and hundreds of swallows passed over the garden on their long journey south.
Our village is on a major migration route in the autumn and the spring. Serious birders set up telescopes on the field below the church and scan the skies as all types of birds leaving the north are funnelled by the river valley and the first folds of the Jura Mountains into columns high over head. The garden is under this line and my husband spots honey buzzards, bee eaters, ospreys, cranes, storks and even a vulture from the comfort of the front porch.
Today no binoculars were needed to see the birds . At times they streamed by, at other times they wove and stitched the air as they caught insects above the apple trees and the willow and all the untidy greenery of an autumn garden . Then the sky was clear and they seemed to pause, come back and feed again, criss crossing the blue sky a thousand times and counting them became an utter impossibility. The air was all slicing wings, tail ribbons and unceasing movement and strangely all of it was completely silent. No twittering, just determined hunting and then moving on: the season has changed.
Today is so beautiful. I don’t have to go to work, the sun is shining and the garden is bursting with life.
Days like this make me count my blessings and I am acutely aware of how privileged I am .
It is not like this for most people in the world and the natural world is increasingly a luxury that few can afford. I am also very aware of the great movement of people across Africa who want a better life in Europe where the rains come more regularly, the grass grows lush and green and there are butterflies.
For this they risk appalling journeys across land, risk drowning in the sparkling Mediterranean Sea and are then corralled and often deported to face the same life in the dry countries where the rain doesn’t fall.
Response to this is difficult and mostly we try to ignore the images and hope somehow the migration will stop and everyone will stay home.
I don’t believe it will, and the real answer has to be in nature, in greening the dry countries; in making countries were people are happy to stay home, to grow food and to raise healthy children.
The Great Green Wall http://www.greatgreenwall.org/great-green-wall/
seems to be an answer to this huge issue. It is an African lead initiative to plant trees and to keep back the desert all the way across Northern Africa.
It is hugely ambitious and utterly wonderful. The greenery will change the climate, rain will come back, food can be grown again and many more people can hopefully enjoy a beautiful day just like today.