Hart’s Tongue

These beautiful ferns stay green all through the darkest months of winter and when they make new leaves in the spring, the slowly uncurling fronds look like the soft tongue of a female deer – a hart.

I decided that the world had gone to hell in a hand basket when I saw a venerable old pub in the Cotswolds had changed its sign from that of a deer, to that of a cheesy looking gold heart and of course the spelling of the name was changed from the Golden Hart to the Golden Heart.

I have since realised that there are other things more worthy of getting angry about in the world and so I enjoy watching the ferns unfurl in the late spring and imagining that a real deer might even lick the rain from their glossy surface.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bright in the sun.

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

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

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

Basho , the great Japanese poet famously wrote:

It is with awe

That I behold

Fresh leaves, green leaves

Bright in the sun

Changing the Guard.

The hedgerows are still bare: a few colts foot and celandines have nosed out above the soil and in the woods there are tiny oxslips and lungwort flowers, easily overlooked amongst the dead leaves.

BUT:

The spring migrants are here!

The chiffchaff is throwing his voice like confetti up into the leafless trees. The secretive dunnock has slipped in on the warm air and the electric crackle of the black redstart is fizzing from the barn tops. Every storks’ nest has two gigantic birds stood aloft and they throw back their heads and rattle and clack to one another with insane glee.

In the ploughed fields there are still a few bramblings and in my garden the feeders are covered with siskins, who don’t seem to know that winter is over yet. The cold weather seed eaters are still cautious, but the warm weather insect eaters are already here. They are ready to risk the changing of the guard and for a few days yet they meet in the neutral territory of the early spring.

In dark times

In dark times, we turn to the sun and the spring to give us hope. After two years of Covid, things looked a little better and then Europe plunged into war again and the winter has returned.

I look at the photos of the terrified mothers and exhausted children. The faces of the men who are defending their country are not so easy to photograph, but I can imagine their fear and their courage as they face an onslaught from their neighbours. There is no reason and no justification for this invasion of the Ukraine by Russia.

We are all brothers and sisters with everything in common . I hope I never have to decide to fight for peace as the men and women of the Ukraine are doing right now.

The spring is coming , may the Ukrainiens eventually enjoy it too.

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“I planned to plant tulips and daffodils on my backyard today. Instead, I learn to fire arms and get ready for the next night of attacks on Kyiv,” said MP Kira Rudik on Twitter. “We are not going anywhere. This is our city, our land, our soil. We will fight for it. So next week I can plant my flowers. Here.”

Stone Cold.

There really does seem little to look at in late January.

The ground is as hard as a stone, the water is all frozen and my greatest wildlife achievement is to put boiling water out for the birds. I pick out the flower shaped ice from the bird bath and fill it with water that stays liquid for half an hour. The great tits are the first to flutter down for a drink, a robin drinks and so too do the blue tits.

The “pond” we made from a sunken sink is glassy with solid ice and a big black cat sits in the middle of the ice and scrabbles with his claws at the ice to melt a corner to drink from. I decide it is interesting to see wild behaviour from semi domestic cats: it is something to see .

There are two greater spotted woodpeckers and a Siskin has turned up to eat the sunflower kernels. There are now 11 bramblings about in the garden. Last year we had none and the year before the sky was black with these bright birds. It all depends on how the winter is in the far north of Europe. The bramblings seem to say it is coldish, but not perishing yet this year.

A stork has returned to his/her nest site in the next village. He is early and as yet alone, but I take it as an omen of the spring to come and hope he will soon be a pair and the nest will be made even larger for the chicks and the thaw to come.

Fossil coral frozen in time from the cold local stones.

wanted and not wanted.

Without the rain nothing grows, when it is dry we fret, when it is wet we moan.

It has been endlessly wet and very cool. The trees are loving it. There have been too many dry years and the stress has left them vulnerable to disease, but not this spring.

This spring has been full of rain and now it seems full of baby birds. In the cold, wet months they have managed to hatch and to rear their sodden young and now the foliage is full of hungry, demanding fledgelings and frantic feathered parents .

There were lines of fluffy sparrow chicks in the feeder house this morning waiting for mother to transfer the sunflower kernels into their beaks. In the wet cherry tree marsh tit chicks scolded and whined as they demanded food. Hidden in the spindle bush are baby blue tits also waiting for their share and on the grass a harassed male blackbird yanks half drowned worms out of the yielding earth for his enormous off spring. The young blackbird is as lumpen and unhelpful as a teenage boy, but his father dutifully crams him with food nonetheless.

My presence is disturbing them, rearing young in the rain is not easy.

They want the food I provide, but they don’t want me round.

We want the life that the rain gives but we don’t want the clouds.

Browned off.

So, this is the second Covid spring.

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

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

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

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

It is all unprecedented.

It is no one’s fault.

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

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

I never thought there could be two Covid springs.

Sunshine : gold and black!

This bright daffodil was growing on the edge of the wood and maybe wild or may be not.

The wild daffodils I have seen in Gloucestershire and Wales have paler outer petals, so the uniform yellowness of this flower made it seem more like a hybrid of some description. Wild or not, the most remarkable thing about the flower was the myriad of tiny shiny black beetles all over it. I have never noticed them in my life, but Meligethes aeneus or pollen beetle is a common beetle in gardens and farmland apparently. They love yellow flowers and clothes and yellow tennis balls. They eat pollen and can be a problem on rape seed crops, but are no cause for alarm in a garden. They were as beautiful and remarkable as the flower that they were feeding on.

This morning I braved the garden centre and was cheered by the plants and depressed by the row upon row of chemicals on sale to kill “weeds” moss, insects, moles in our gardens.

The link between Parkinson’s Disease and farmers and gardeners who have been in close contact with glyphosate /paraquat such as Roundup herbicide is becoming stronger and stronger and legal cases are being amassed against the manufacturers of such chemicals. We have to find beauty in all aspects of nature and crucially to find a balance between our need for bountiful crops and our need for good human health and a healthy ecosystem . Not drenching our own backyards and gardens with perniciously noxious chemicals would seem the obvious place to start!

We have to find space for the daffodil and the bug!

Spring on the Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring will come!

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

Sliding on by.

This grape vine tendril has grown right across my front door step. This is vegetable testimony to how few people have stepped across the threshold and how rarely I have been out this way.

When the vine started budding it was early spring and we sat drinking tea in the sunshine, enjoying the lockdown and the luxury of working from home and watching the garden come to life for once. The bat came back to roost in the eves as summer started and the grapes began to set.

Now it is autumn : Being home is still a pleasure and the garden is still amazing but venturing beyond the garden still seems foolish . Covid has not gone away and so the grapes have fattened unadmired by guests and visitors.

I wish there was a reason to trim the wayward frond , I wish the vine shoot was in anybody’s way: but it isnt, so it curls indolently over the door mat.

I wonder if the door will be completely overgrown by the time a vaccine liberates us all back into normal life, or if I will have simply learnt to make my own wine and there will be no reason to ever go out again!

Natural.

Just as we can go out without paper work, the cold rain and fog has kept me indoors again.

On the kitchen table my Goethe salt cellar seemed in illuminated conversation with the dandelion paper weight.

Goethe said “ The unnatural, that too is natural.”

I need to get out more.

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Complicated beauty.

3656AFC1-5DD2-4761-8AD5-6E417FE3B910Capturing complex beauty is so difficult and I have the greatest  respect for those who take  wonderful photos with such apparent ease.

My garden is crammed with columbines at this time of year all of which have come from seeds collected in the woods locally. They cross and cross with one another and the variety they produce is mesmeric. Every May I try to capture them, but I am never satisfied by the result, as they hide in their five petaled whorls and I cannot begin to show the diversity of their colour and petals.

Some are pale, almost white and they stand out in the dawn light. Others are baby pink and innocent; next are the deep, sophisticated , rose-red flowers. Seemingly unconnected in gradation are the purple columbines: a rare few seem actually blue and are the smallest and most shyly flowered; then there are the work -a -day mid purples with the longest spurs;  followed by purples rich enough for an emperor’s robe and finally, the most exotic of all: the midnight purples, so dark that they seem to absorb the very sun light around them .

Some flowers have just a single whorl of five petals: each petal contains a nectary to encourage the bees to visit and to pollenate .  The nectaries are curled over and this has given the flowers their name, as they look like five doves or columbs facing one another in a delicate ring. They have also given columbines the folk names of “ladies in bonnets”and “old ladies” from when women kept warm and modest in complicated lace caps.

Bumbles bees cannot be bothered extending their long tongues into the spurs and they simply bite into the neck of the ”dove” and steal the nectar provided by the flower. Some plants are not satisfied  with just one ring of petal doves and produce natural “sports” of flowers which are crammed with petals, so they look like pom-poms or little floribunda roses.

This variety is absolutely glorious.

I understand Gregor Mendel started our understanding of genetics by studying the way peas crossed with one another . I am glad he studied  such a visually dull flower, as I think he would never have gained such important insight, if he had studied columbines – their beauty is just too distracting!

 

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May Day in lockdown.

The leaves have come dark and green, green, green filling in the gap where the wind blew.

The longed for rain fills the flowers and bends the petals down to the grass.

A chaffinch sings the single note of its rain song  green, green, green, time, time, time rolls in the cool, wet garden.

Beyond is the daily Sunday quiet and the leaves fill in each gap while the air lies still and heavy.

 

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Stand and stare.

Leisure                       by William Henry Davies

 

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

 

Well, it seems we finally have time to stand and stare, as the world has stopped in an unimaginable way . This favourite poem has come into its own, but I am painfully aware that what we have to stare at during lockdown is not the same for everyone.

I have a little garden and orchards to walk in, but writing glowing descriptions of the birds and butterflies that I can see seems unconscionably smug when most people are stuck in flats with only concrete and asphalt to admire .

Beaches and woodland paths are closed. Parks are padlocked and in Japan they have had to cut the heads off the roses, to stop people going out to admire them and spreading the virus .  People are worried sick about not being able to earn money to feed their families and the leisure of not working does not feel like a holiday for long.

I understand why it has to be this way and if staring is all that I can do to help get the virus under control then it is no hardship, but I still feel profoundly guilty that not everyone can get out to enjoy this wonderful spring and “ turn at Beauty’s glance”.

I hope that everyone, wherever  they are, can find something beautiful to look at and can and stand and stare for a few minutes and forget their worries this afternoon.

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On hearing the first cuckoo of spring.

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.

 

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The moths are back!

I’ve missed the moths. They don’t like very cold nights and they dont like full moons, but finally the conditions are right and the wonderful and wooly creatures of the night are back .

I’ve been putting my moth trap on for a fair few weeks previously,  but the visitors have been few: lots of faithful hebrew characters, a few powdered quakers, the odd dotted chestnut and not much more. Now the moon is waning and the nights have turned warm and opening the trap this morning was full of seasonal delights.

First the lobster moth with its pearly pink coat and odd paper dart extra flaps which is named for the strange caterpillar rather than the adult.

Then the pale tussock with its wonderfully furry claspers lying out in tactile supplication .

Then the brindled beauty, garden carpet, an engrailed and finally the lovely Swallow Prominent that crept into my battered panama hat and spent the day there sheltering out of the sun. Her name comes  from the ridge on her back, but her French name is Porcelain, which must be inspired by the lovely patterning on her wings.

I need something beautiful and absorbing at the moment. In my boredom I had started a jigsaw of an owl, which was so disturbing we had to break it up and put it back in the box.

Thank goodness for the moths!

 

 

Greedy for Beauty.

This strange and terrible spring has been so beautiful.

The blossom has been unshaken by wind and untroubled by late snow or shrivelling frost.

In the soft, warm air each fruit tree has unfurled the most extraordinary foam and frill of blossom in its turn, against an eggshell blue sky.

First the blackthorn in the hedge, then the cherry, then the pears and now, the most lovely of all: the pink and white of apple blossom.

Each in its turn stirs the heart.

I understand the biology: I know the flowers are beautiful by chance and their purpose is to bring the bees, to fertilise the fruit, to set the seed, to grow the next tree; but that does not explain how my heart turns over; how they make my face turn up to smile and how my arms want to to embrace them, to enfold them, to be part of them.

This visceral response to beauty is part of our soul. We feel it when we want to pick up a child, to hug a lover, to scoop up a cat and when a whole tree is so lovely that our arms do not feel wide enough to embrace the whole extraordinary, heartbreaking beauty of its glory.

We are greedy for loveliness, greedy for beauty.

Happy Easter.

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Blossoming.

This pear tree was full of starlings in the autumn gorging on the ripe fruit and the sound was a riot of clicks, whirrs and chirrups.

Brouhaha in a pear tree.

The world is so much quieter now. The hiss of tyres has gone and the roar of easy jet overhead has faded. I can hear the tawny owls at night and the  colony of jackdaws on the church tower is audible from my garden for the very first time ever.

It is impossible not to enjoy this peacefulness, but impossible too to ignore that the quiet has come at the price of loneliness, fear, economic crisis and terrible illness.

I listened to The Queen addressing Britain and the world beyond today and her calm, compassionate dignity suddenly made me cry.

The brouhaha tree is in full flower today. It is absolutely covered in bees and their buzzing is loud, sociable and full of life, as will all our lives be very, very soon.

 

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Black bird singing….

I love the sound of blackbirds.

For me they call the day into being and they settle it to rest at night. Their song  is the first thing I hear and blackbird’s rich burbling waterfall of notes is strong enough to be heard through sleepy double glazed bedroom windows and irresistible enough to draw me out into every falling garden dusk.

Each bird has its own sound kingdom ruled from a roof top or tall tree and it proclaims its ownership not in battle or borders, but by pouring the rich cream of its delicious notes over everything that can hear it.

In my garden the blackbird announces the start of the day from the tallest birch tree. Each phrase of its wonderfully complex and satisfying song so round and light they seem to hang on the thin birch twigs like jewels .

At dusk the notes are more defined and the bird chuckles them out like comfortable gossip about the day gone by.

It is always the very last bird to stop singing and the very last to roost: afraid to miss out on anything .

In high summer its final notes are often  the prelude to the appearance of the bats and their silhouettes against the gathering dark are sometimes merged as silence finally falls.

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In the lion’s teeth.

It’s snowing here, but soon the sun will be out again and the dandelions will be in flower again – such is the fickle nature of spring. Faffing about flowers when the virus has us all enthralled seems absurd, but we must stay sane and nature turns unperturbed by our concerns.

Those of us fortunate enough to have lawns are watching them grow and as the world beyond the garden seems increasingly unsafe, we attempt to impose order on our own small patch. I think the first blog I ever wrote four years ago was a plea not to mow the lawn in the spring time and here I am again with the same plea for peaceful inaction!

Dandelions are beautiful.

Their huge golden flowers are the first food for so many bumblebees, honey bees and butterflies. If you are home instead of the office, then lie on the grass and watch a bee burying itself in the profusion of pollen that dandelions offer up. Watch the bee revel in the yellow gold, its whole body dusted in it and the pollen sacs on each back leg bulging with the riches it will take back to the hive.

Then put away the mower for a few weeks and let the dandelions be.

The English name for them is a corruption of the French “dent de lion” – lion’s teeth and they are “ lowen Zahn” – lion’s teeth in German too. Both names come from the shape of the seed, not the flower. The common French name is “pissenlit “ which literally means piss the bed, which is the diuretic result of eating too many of the delicious leaves!

I am eating a lot of dandelion leaves at the moment. I am eating them Greek style which is  boiled or steamed for a few minutes and then dressed in olive oil and salt. You will be relieved to know they have not lived up to their French name so far!

So enjoy the spring flowers on your lawn: feed the bees: eat free greens and stay healthy!

 

 

You cannot confine the spring!

Spring knows nothing of fear.

The lane behind our house is awash with foaming white blackthorn blossom. The bushes are like waves breaking static white tops against the bluest sky – a Japanese woodcut of mountainous water frozen into the spray of spring blossom .

The cherry trees are just starting to flower, balancing sunshine and the forecast of snow in their unfurling buds.

On the kitchen window sill the first seedings are germinating for the vegetable garden. I normally get my seeds in the supermarket over the border in Switzerland, as their varieties do well here; but in the scramble to stock up on food, they were forgotten and I am keeping well out of the shops now.

Luckily I have managed to order seeds online and the second lot arrived yesterday, to my great delight! Some postal staff will not deliver in the Haut Rhin, as the infection rate here is so high and the prospect of an empty vegetable plot for the whole year was very dispiriting. However,  wonderful Spring Seeds have sent a good fist full of seeds to start things going. I have flat leafed parsley and chilli beginning to grow and their first leaves give great good cheer!

The commercial growers of  fruit and veg are asking the French hairdressers and waiters and all the others who have been sent home,  to help pick the spring produce which is growing right now in the greenhouses and fields. Most of the workers who normally pick the vegetables are not ill, they are migrants and they cannot enter the country as the borders are all closed and without their work the food will rot.

The world is very interconnected now. The butterfly wing flap of a closed border is felt in unpicked field. An open postal service allows some leaves to unfurl on a window sill hundreds of miles away and spring progresses one leaf at a time.

 

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Sunlight on the shanty shed.

It has been cold here after a week of such sunny spring weather that made the fear of the virus seem very silly and melodramatic. Everything has been growing and blooming and the birds have been tumultuous, everything must be OK, mustn’t it?

But the news from Italy has been so bad, so many people dead and the hospitals here overflowing with people who need respirators that are already being used by the critically ill.

Replacing the ancient shanty shed has been put on hold, as has so much of life and the tattered roof is now flapping in a cold wind.

But the roof is just keeping out most of the rain and when the sun flashed out for a minute, it lit up the white frothed blossom of the blackthorn bush safely sheltering behind the shed.

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