Living with the aliens.

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.

More tea anyone?

 

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Plants before Pandas

This video clip about a young man who is passionate about plants and reintroducing lost species to his own area. It gives me great hope for the future when I see knowledgeable and active men starting with the rewilding of their own area.

I am not chauvinist or nationalistic about any fauna or flora, if we all take care of the wildlife of our own areas then the whole planet may just have a joined up, healthy future!

https://www.theguardian.com/society/video/2020/jan/06/plants-before-pandas-young-botanist-tackling-extinction-own-backyard-video?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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House of Plants.

I need green.

The garden is mud and rain, so I appreciate my house plants hugely at this time of year.

The sitting room is dominated by three large fig trees that live on the veranda in summer, but come indoors in the cold. They block off the book cases, drop yellowing leaves on the tiles and splash dark water everywhere from their saucers when pushed out of the way. Every available surface is covered in lemon and peppermint scented geraniums, devils claw vines, spider plants and exhausted amyrilis plants that are here at home while school is closed.

In the office an old shop shelf unit is groaning under Christmas cactus and the window is almost obliterated by lumpy, leggy geraniums waiting for the summer to explode again. Most of the geraniums are cutting from a single enormous deep red flowering plant, which is far too valuable ( to me! ) to be discarded in the autumn.

The  bedroom is dominated by a gigantic spider plant that is hauled into a hanging basket each summer and has been the mother to hundreds of spider babies .  The spider babies have grown roots in innumerable jam jars and been given away to children, who have grown them into their first house plant in many homes.   When we rented out our home in Brecon I could not find homes for all of plants and I had to leave a spider plant behind, in the hope that the tenant would adopt it. Two years later, when we visited the house I was delighted to see the only changes that the tenant had made, was to add a large tiered book case to the sitting room to display the dozens and dozens of new spider plants he had potted up from the dangling spider babies!

The kitchen widow sill has jade plants and pink leaved collis jostling for light with a hibiscus and the last pink bedding begonia from the garden.  There is just enough room for a seed sprouter currently growing green lentils and a very important space for Pixie the cat to escape from her bully brother Winston when a fight is on between them.

Occasionally  I think I am mad to give up so much of my house to plants and then there is another grey day of rain and fog that keep us all indoors and I know exactly why  I need  them. Green is the colour of life and sharing my space with them is essential to all our survival until the spring!

Living roofs.

If it is the fate of the world to keep making people and to shove them into smaller and taller living spaces, then we have to make use of every millimetre of roof and wall to grow green things and make an aerial world, to make up for the terrestrial one that we have so comprehensively scabbed over.

I have written before about green walls and they are becoming more popular, but they are difficult to water and maintain. In Ikea; that shop front of the tiny urban world; so many have to inhabit, the cafe has a huge striking green wall and all the plants are made of plastic.

Most people find even a pocket garden too much work and choose to cover the soil in concrete or decking or even an old bike. When life is a race for time and enough money to keep the wolf from the door, then gardening is a luxury few have the space or energy to indulge in.  That is why I love green roofs.

If the builder has put the right surface on the roof and it collects some moisture, then a carpet of drought tolerant, shallow rooted plants can flourish with no need of   “gardening” at all. Such low input surfaces are never going to support trees or bushes, but they are green, do make oxygen, do clean the air and make a home for tiny creatures and the occasional foraging bird. We are surrounds by surfaces that  could be green. Such roofs on office blocks, schools, bike sheds and shops are just crying out for a little cool green life.

The photo is of a bike shed roof, where even in winter a little line of seed heads adds life and beauty to the concrete apartments beyond. We need to make the best of what we’ve got!

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The bare truth.

I love the shape of winter trees.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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I am not a vegetarian…

I am not a vegetarian, but sometimes I think I should be.

I love the taste of meat, but am disturbed by eating fellow sentient mammals.  Then I consider the fowl and the fish; decide I shouldn’t eat them either and then I am left with the plants. Plants are alive too and are killed so we can eat them. If we eat neither flesh nor fruit, we are left with nothing at all, except our own extinction .

I grew a magnificent  pumpkin from seed. I fed and watered it and then I picked it, sliced it into mighty  chunks and made it into soup. The slices wept moisture and were so beautiful I could hardly bring myself to hack it up. But I did: I cooked it with red lentils, cinnamon and spices , pureed it to creamy perfection and ate it with relish while the rain fell outside. Oh to be human!

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/nov/02/trees-have-rights-too-robert-macfarlane-on-the-new-laws-of-nature?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

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Harvest Home

We have finally lifted all the potatoes; rolled five fat pumpkins onto the back step to finish ripening and picked the apples from our single apple tree: it feels like the harvest is in.

This, however, is very small fry in comparison to the massive harvest of the real countryside and the deeply bizarre manifestation of its bounty in the agricultural extravaganza in local Mulhouse.

In the huge exposition centre thousands upon thousands of people crowd in to look at stands of  arranged vegetables. This is not the type of flower show that I knew well from places like Brecon in Wales, where lovingly grown marrows were judged for weight and gloss and three perfect sweetpea blossoms were awarded hotly contested rosettes for perfume and hue. This was the deliberate piling of fruit and vegetables into improbable and inedible unicorns, dragons and cathedrals and it made me long for the simplicity of the single sweetpea.

The picture above is of the more recognisable offerings of landmarks from the Alsace town of Colmar in mosaics of potatoes and pumpkins.

 

CA9AAA90-8F7F-4621-86F8-976E8812CB35.jpegThe Statue of Liberty in sprouts was a particular favourite. Bartholdi was a son of Colmar and created the monumental statue in France for the American people. I bet  immigrants to The USA never envisaged their welcoming symbol of a new life picked out in green sprouts as they sailed into New York!

 

Picking Raspberries in the rain.

The autumn raspberries are always small.

My fingers fumble for them amongst the yellowing leaves.

There has been just enough sun to ripen a few hard green knots into fragrantly

soft fruit, bowed down now in easy reach of the gleaming slugs.

And now the rain.

A benediction of mist in a quiet grey sky

Makes slippery the sticky handle of the little basket.

My fingers close lightly and tug to loosen the wet fruit from the white stipe

But the raspberry crumbles, the droops bleed juice and rain onto my hand.

I should have picked them long ago.

 

 

Pavlov’s plants.

I like listening to the radio in French because I cant really understand it. I like reading in Spanish for the same reason. I like living surrounded by marvellous unfathomable bugs and silent fungi because I can just look and admire and cannot communicate with them.

Scientists have recently found that a plant which turns each day to a regularly timed source of bright light, which is also accompanied by the gentle blowing of a fan, will also turn to the blowing of the fan when there is no reward of light. Pavlov first proved that a dog rewarded with food when a bell rang would, salivate for food as soon as the bell rang, whether there was food or not, thus proving dogs could learn. This new research shows that plants can do the same thing.

Pavlov’s name has gone down in history for his work with dogs. The researcher who found this extraordinary evidence is Monica Gagliano . I think we will have to work on a catchy link for her second name, any idea?   https://www.monicagagliano.com.

The intelligence of plants is just beginning to be appreciated and is an amazing field.

It is just possible that in fact  I speak plant and the reason that all the other languages dont make sense is that I am tuned into a very different wave length. What do you think?

 

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Touch

Being alive is a complicated thing.

Our understanding of existence comes from the senses, and our communication of it comes through language. Language can be read, all safely and quietly separate: writer and reader apart; or it can be spoken, speaker and listener together, so dangerously prone to misunderstanding, mishearing and misspeaking.

We understand by seeing. We can capture wonderful images with technology and can share the experience. Just as with the printed word, the image and the viewer are safely separated . When there is no technology between us, we try to understand each other by looking at one another, by reading faces and posture and just like with language we often misread one another.

Touch is a sense so fraught with potential misunderstanding that we restrict it to pets, petals and the smooth, smooth coolness of a stripped stump: smoke grey and strong, a tactile brush that cannot possibly be misunderstood.

Slow Gardening.

After a week away from the shed, the bind weed came in through the window and started using the shafts of the hoes and spades to climb up.

Today is the last day of August, the last of the summer months. There should still be plenty of good weather to enjoy here, but part of me is pleased to slow down as the frantic pace of a hot, wet summer of growing eases off.

There is still plenty to do in the vegetable plot. The cucumbers and courgettes are rioting. The pumpkins have been slow to set fruit, but four whoppers are now growing in an absolute jungle of leaves and runners. Unlifted potatoes are starting to sprout and must be dug up and curly kale seedlings need thinning for winter growth. The patient parsnips have been growing all summer and a few sweet potato plants have crawled between everything, their tubers waiting for discovery.

But they can wait.

Autumn will be here soon enough.

I think I’ll let the bind weed wind round the spades a little longer.

 

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Smelling of Roses.

How inadequate language is!

Scent, smell, perfume ignites memory like nothing else, they are far more powerful than sounds or even vision; we might think in pictures, but we feel and remember in smells.  And when we try to evoke this experience in language , how we fail!

How to describe the sickly smell of sweet chestnut in flower; the wedding yearning of mock orange blossom; the catch in the throat of lilac after rain and the elusive, unexpected sherbet of iris flowers without the use of simile and history?

Privet flowers are the smell of long summer afternoon in quiet suburbs, elderflowers are the back seat of Dad’s car as we drove down long hedge rows to collect saucers of white flowers that would be turned into explosive summer wine. This petunia has a bubblegum smell that reminds me of the Brazilian friend who gave me a pot plant to thank me for cooking dinner. The little plant perfumed the garden table for the whole summer many years ago.

I can share a picture of a scented petunia with you, but not the perfume. Your mind will have to imagine  what my words stumble to evoke, or maybe you can just step outside to smell the real roses and they will create their own story and memory of time and place for you.

Looks what happens when you don’t mow!

 

Short grass is an obsession with so many people. Close mown grass of uniform dullness is the holy grail for some; every “weed” poisoned and not an insect in sight makes some people happy. I, on the other hand, try my best to show how wonderful a long lawn can be and how much wildlife it can support. The dull lawners are rarely impressed until you mention the magic word : Orchid!

At work, a beautiful pyramid orchid managed to appear in the brief window between ritual grass cuttings. I happened to spot it and the mower had to spare a tiny patch of grass so the children could come out and photograph it on their phones. You can see them reflected in the glass window capturing something to share on line for a moment. It wasn’t like the tropical orchids on sale in the supermarket, it was small and vulnerable and they were almost impressed .

The butterfly orchid was in the meadow and the parasitic broomrape was on the edge of the maize field, so I thought I would share them with you like the kids do on social media, in the hope that a love for the wild things that grow when you dont mow, will stir in us all!

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Gifts of the rain.

Heavy rain brings quiet mornings.

Snakes of pine needles on the path show where water flowed in the night.

Poppies are slow to open in the cool hours and there is time to watch them shrugging     off their sepals to  expose their dark hearts to the hungry bees.

Droplets cling to the folds of lady’s mantle leaves – the name from the shape of the folds in the Virgin Mary’s cloak.

And the birds: such a rich waterfall of music from the birds, as they take the cloudy day for dawn and sing each fresh washed note over and over again.

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Marvel of the Day.

I love the names of moths: heart and dart;   setaceous hebrew character; cloth of gold; delicate; uncertain; scalloped beauty; ruby tiger and so many more.

This year has been cooler and wetter than previous years, and though I infinitely prefer it, the moths have been late appearing and many nights have been too rainy to capture anything. However, last night was a wonderful night of mothing and I found twenty different species waiting amongst the egg boxes under the UV light.

My favourite name is a French one, used by English speakers the merveille du jour – the marvel of the day, coined by a French observer for the marvellous and unexpected new moth found that night. My merveille  du jour today was a beautiful lace border, which was luminously white and delicate and perfectly named.

I was particularly surprised to see it, as it is moth of limestone meadow and although we live on limestone, most of the moths I see are woodland species. Then I remembered that I have allowed my front drive to grow over and it is now covered in wild marjoram and scree flowers, and maybe after enough years of careful neglect, I have made just the right home for this beautiful and elusive moth in my own garden – a real  merveille  du jour!

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Rose Bower

I have always wanted a rose bower.

The very word bower sounds secret and enclosing.

I have trained  roses up wrought iron arches with varying degrees of success, but our wild dog rose has produced the longest, most exuberant arms of flowers to wrap around the old wheel barrow and make marvellous the compost corner.

Its simple pink blossoms are transient, perfumed and perfect. No dog ever wagged so      wonderfully!

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Telling Time.

I have half an hour before the chicken needs carving, in which to contemplate time.

I understand that there is clock time and internal time. The clocks stuck on church towers and round our wrists were made imperative by the invention of trains and the necessity of time being the same everywhere and tracks being cleared and so we slice up our life into internationally recognisable fragments, so that now the planes can fly and the computers can whir. The time in our heads works on a more complex level, where the present is composed of memory and potential future and moves to the rhythm of the thinker.

And then there is seasonal time: never the same, always the same, always the future.
The year progresses at its own pace, different in each village, different in each shadow that cools the flower or delays the germinating seed. You need to know a place well to compare the seasons. This year the celandines were late, but the ravens bred early. This year swifts were late, but the cuckoos(who had been absent for two years ) returned and called over and over from the hedgerow.

This morning we watched the young ravens,already fledged and learning to fly, tumbling over the cool, tall pilling clouds. White throats are singing their territories, storks are walking on improbably long legs through the buttercups, spearing slugs to feed their nestlings. The house martins have just arrived.

Ahh ! I can smell that the chicken is cooked!

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Plant Blindness

This fascinating article from the BBC explores how important plants are and how most people don’t even see them.

In my experience children and young people are fascinated by plants if you take to the time and effort to talk to them and to show them what is all around them. From quirky names to folk stories, edibility, seed dispersal and smell, plants are endlessly fascinating as we all know; but we do have a duty to spend a little time with youngsters ( and the not so young!) to physically show them what amazing richness there is beyond the little world of our smart phones.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190425-plant-blindness-what-we-lose-with-nature-deficit-disorder

Sit back and enjoy your dandelions!

It is so peacefully easy to do something for the bees. Just leave the mower in the shed and let all the dandelions flower! The lawn is bright yellow with sunburst flowers and the air is loud with the humm of bees, that are so covered in pollen they are almost as golden as the flowers.

Inaction is a much underrated art. We don’t have to be improving ourselves, tidying the garden, living “our best lives” ( what ever that improbability should be! ) often the best thing is delicious sloth, quiet, environmentally friendly inaction: just letting the garden go. I have managed such masterful lack of movement  that a  dandelion is now poking through the slats of the garden seat. The only danger to it will come when I sit on the bench for a peaceful cup of tea!

 

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