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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A Billion brains.

This weekend we were walking in the Jura, high up enough to be above the line of flowering grasses and therefore cool and comfortable. The flowers were wonderful: purple columbines and strange parasitic yellow broomrapes; odd winged broom pushing up amongst the grass and in the shade of the trees, long  spurred butterfly orchids and sturdy white helebores with egg yolk yellow centres, and everywhere there were ants!

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The ground was alive with them and every track was a motorway of dark bodies. We found a huge wood ant nest and the surface was crackling with ants. I wondered if this was part of one of the famous super colonies of wood ants that have been studied a little further south in the Swiss Jura. It has been observed that each huge wood ant nest is actually linked to the next nest by tunnels and by lines of kinship. Theses ant cities work together and do not fight each other, creating peaceful and enormously sucessful empires of billions of animal living in harmony.

Not all wood ants live like this, but the colonies in the Jura have been proven to be different. They do not waste energy on fighting their own species, but instead tolerate each other and work together to hunt and forage.

They are hunters of other insects, but one of the bettles they never kill is the rose chafer beetle that was in my last post. If they encounter one of these they push it into the ant hill where it lays its eggs in saftey. These grow into larvea that spend a couple of years with the ants eating the pests that appear in the nest and thus keeping things clean for their hosts, before pupating and flying away.

When humans seem impossible, it would seem that the wise thing to do is to contemplate the even wiser ants!

 

 

 

click here for the useful rose rose beetle.

 

 

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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Look!

BCE90CB6-0731-4540-99A3-A6BBAD0A4DC5Its real spring now and swallows are scissoring across the sky catching insects. Old meadows underneath the cherry trees are loaded with flowers before the mowers slice them down to make hay for the pampered ponies of the rich girls from Basel.

Amongst the grass there are ox eye daisies, buttercups and tall goats beards, meadow clary, eggs and bacon, hoary plantains, hay rattle and clustered bell flowers.

The moth trap has caught a few equally beautifully named specimens to admire in the early morning quiet; great oak beauties, muslin moths, pine sphinxes and this pale tussock who came to rest on my cap over night. Evocative names, unfathomable eyes and in the case of the pale tussock moth: disturbingly hairy claspers!

 

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Slip sliding!

Cowslips were familiar to me from Welsh hedgerows. Taller than primroses with long carolla  they push their way up into the sun in a race with the lengthening grass. Oxlips were much less familiar. I had seen them occasionally in Oxfordshire many years ago. Here in the borders of France and Switzerland they are much more common and prefer shady spring woodlands. They are often the very first flash of colour under the bare trees. They are delicate  primroses on long stems as their latin name of primula elatior testifies.

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Since we started our French garden we have been trying to encourage as many wildflowers to grow here as garden varieties. When we arrived we noticed a single primrose in the lawn. By letting it seed and not mowing too hard we now have 45 primrose plants flowering in the grass. At the moment our lawn is yellow with dandelion flowers and flecked with cuckoo flowers. We have not heard a cuckoo yet, but we have had orange tip butterflies feeding on the flowers, just like it says in the book.  When admiring the “weeds” the other evening after work,  I was surprized and delighted to see a lone oxlip flowering on the lawn. It obviously doesn’t know it should be in a wood, but maybe it somehow it does know that it has set seed somewhere it will be perfectly safe.

P.s. assume the name “slip” is something to do with growing in cow or ox dung, but I could be wong!

 

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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Down to earth in Switzerland : All my gardens part 9.

Our  flat in Switzerland was like posh student accommodation. Two very small bed rooms and an open plan room with a lot of glass, but no window sill to rest my plants upon.

I never realised how much I needed walls until I moved to Switzerland. Before that I had taken them for granted, but the Swiss are very modern, love glass and see little need for walls. If you couple this with a very high population density then you have dinning rooms that loom strangely in space, over each other. You can admire each other’s cooking, cutlery and even flatulence at disturbingly close quaters with total strangers. I couldn’t get used to such intimacy and did the same as we did in Brazil, blocked it out with plants.

We bought weeping  fig trees that loved the reflected heat of our “ wintergarten” and raced away. In the wonderful Swiss second hand store or “brokie” I found a set of shop shelves, with wheels which I loaded with devils ivy cuttings, filched spider plant babies and some geraniums abandoned at the end of the summer that I fed and costeted. They responded by flourishing and giving us some semblance of verdant privacy.

The flat had no balcony, but it did have a set of concrete steps up to the front door that were ours alone. As soon as our first winter was over, I started to buy plants and to move them outside. I started with yellow primroses from the coop and graduated, as the sun strengthened, to ivy leaved geraniums, that trailed red flowers over each open step. In the wonderful botanical garden I snipped a few modest cuttings of lemon, peppermint and rose scented geraniums, potted them up and nursed them and soon it was almost impossible to get up the step and into the flat for perfumed and coloured plants.

Watering became an obsession, as each plant was in a planter small enough to fit each individual step and one day of sunshine could dessicate  the whole pot.

We had been given very precise instructions when we rented the flat about what was allowed and what was “verboten”. Using the washing machine or showering after 10 at night was not allowed; hanging out washing was not allowed and shaking a table cloth out of the window was punishable by death. I was therefore very careful not to irritate my neighbours below by over watering and dripping on their doorstep. However after two years of squeezing more and more plants into our improbably small space, My Swiss neighbour actually volunteered to water my babies when we went away and started to talk to me!

At the top of the steps we put the tiniest BBQ known to man and if we each sat on a different step there was just space for us both to eat a chicken leg and for our cat, Bonkers the Magnificent ( who had survived Zambia, Kazakhstan and  six months quarantine in England) to survey his new, peaceful and eminently edible kingdom.

 

Kaskhstan. All My Gardens Part 8

All my Gardens part 7 : Zambia .

All my Gardens- part 6 : Brazil – humming birds and high rise.

All my Gardens -Part 4: Costa Rica and the big world.

 

 

 

 

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Carnival with forsythia.

It’s Shrove Tuesday and I forgot to make pancakes.

After an interminable month of grey skies and rain, the sun appeared for a whole, wonderful ice cold day. Greenfinches appeared in the birch tree, a few field fare burbled over and two loud ravens called across the blue sky, their heavy dark wings beating the air. In a thermal of heat, red kites and buzzards spiralled up, mewing and fighting in a confusion of lust and aggression.

Shrove Tuesday is the day to use up all rich foods before the abstinence of lent and the only memory we have of it in Britain is flipping pancakes in a village race.

In other countries it is part of carnival ; that hedonistic party before the forty days and forty nights of lent that prepared the faithful for Easter.

In my current neck of the woods (Basel ) carnival  is an oddly irreligious scaring away of the spirits of winter with three beautiful days of grotesque, frightening masks, discordant music, drums and solemn drunkenness .

My small contribution to frightening away the winter is to bring my first branches of forsythia into the house and watch them slowly bloom in the warmth of sunshine and firelight.

“I Could Have Danced All Night!”

The French hunting season is coming to a close and soon it will be safe to walk in the woods again.

When a hunt is on, the hunters are supposed to give notice to the local town hall, so walkers can check where to avoid and to place warning signs at the entrance to the area being hunted over.  Every year an astonishing number of walkers and hunters are shot dead and injured by stray bullets and so extreme caution is advised.

A few weeks ago I was walking home through a wood on the Swiss French border . There had been no notifications on the local website of hunts and no warning signs at the entrance to the wood, so like little Red Riding  Hood into the dark forest I went.

All was well, the path was slippy with rain and snow, but I was making good time when I heard dogs close by barking loudly. There were no dog walkers on the path in front or behind and so the dogs must be along side me in the slope of the forest. Then I heard hunting horns and I started to stride out as fast as I could.  I could hear voices and calling to the dogs, but I could see no one at all. I realised I was in the middle of a wild boar hunt and unraveled the bright pink scarf from my dark coat, in the hope that the hunters would realise I was human and not pig.

There was still nothing to see, but the sound of dogs and horns and yelling voices was getting louder. Then I remember what you did in Africa if you thought big dangerous  wildlife was close : you make as much noise as possible. I wasn’t scared of the boar, but I was scared of short sighted huntsmen with very large shot guns. I was alone with no one to shout to, so I decided to sing at the top of my voice. For some reason “  I Could Have Danced All Night” from “ My Fair Lady” came into my head and so I bellowed the English words as loud as I could as I scurried ignominiously through the undergrowth.

“I never know, what made it so enchanting, when all at once my heart took flight. I only know when he decided to dance with me, I could have danced, danced, danced, all night!”

And so breathless and triumphant I broke out of the forest onto a road where an astonished local was preparing a large fire to roast the musical pig he imagined was being slaughtered by his fellow hunters.

I smiled with as much insouciance as I could muster at his border mixture of bon jour and gruezi  and scuttled on through the woods, back to the safety of my own garden, still humming protective show tunes just to be sure!

Embrace.

Before my first Christmas in Switzerland I went looking for mistletoe to add to the holy and the ivy of a traditional English winter decoration.

I was living in the suburbs and found ivy easily enough and holly in a nearby copse of trees , but no mistletoe. For me mistletoe is a mystical Druidic thing that loves apples trees, needs a golden scycle to cut it and will inspire strangers to kiss beneath it and is absolutely essential for Christmas.

In the copse  of conifers and hornbeam behind our apartment I found tantalising snippets of mistletoe lying on the ground; solitary twigs of two simple leaves and the odd pale white berry.  I looked up into the trees, searching for the familiar ball shape of a mistletoe plant suspended from a branch, but there was nothing. Maybe someone had been here collecting before me and these leaves were their debris.

Eventually I was reduced to buying an over priced  sprig in a local  florists, but I wondered where they had found it, so far from apple trees.

And then came the New Year storms: howling gales ripping off branches and uprooting whole trees. In the felled conifers were hundreds of little mistletoe plants, living their parasitic lives amongst the thick evergreen branches quite hidden to my ignorant eyes. It had never said in my English botany books that mistletoe lived in pine trees and yet here was the abundant proof, littered on the forest floor.

This week in France, the storms came again and the woods are crashed with fallen limbs and boughs, but I was still amazed to see the mistletoe in the unexpected embrace of the felled pine tree. Such odd, but comfortable bed fellows!

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.

Crow

img_1339Anything wild catches my eye.  Surrounded by day in Swiss concrete, there is little moving to distract me: except the crows.

In the bare branches of the stunted municipal trees they hunch and wait for a dropped sandwich; a popped pringle; an unloved apple.

They throw back their necks and caw jubilation to waiting mates .  Unfurl shake of black shawl wings and sky borne : quartering and dividing the dark tarmac, deciding  how to achieve the ground and to eat their quarry.

Swoop. Decent. Great wings folded and tidy they step delicately martial across their parade ground of discarded dinner and impale a morsel in anthracite black beaks .  Food inspected, assessed, consumed, they return replete to the bare winter tree  and watch us, intelligent sentinels, as the darkness falls.

The fungi replies (to Cathy’s real country garden)

PETER FRANKIS WRITES

The fungi replies (to Cathy’s real country garden)

 

I don’t know if they are artists’ pallets,
or horses’ hooves
it used to matter, but it doesn’t now.
They grew slowly, in dark arcs
and could support a book.
Their lips are white and moist
But speak another language.

 

Of course my clammy palms & veiny
glow are creepy mon cherie.
But, for a moment stay,
a little closer s’il vous plaît
To anyone who’ll listen
I whisper my refrain.

Hallelujah I sing of rot

and in the cell-by-cell undoing, life lives again
the forest blooms, the garden beds renew.
Here’s my truth, my mystery:
nothing is that hasn’t been
nothing is new
or ever lost.

 

 


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Worthy of Andrew Marvel! ⏳

Autumn Crocus

In my first spring in Switzerland I explored a scrap of meadow, waiting to be built on behind our tidy apartment and found a plant with broad green leaves and long swollen seed head. I had watched every flower appear in the spring on this patch of green and absolutely none of them had preceded this strange seed. The mystery was not solved until a few years later when I moved just over the border into France.

Around my village are lots of parcels of land that obviously belong to different farmers. They mostly support a few fruit trees and lots of grass that is cut at different times for the animals. In this patch work of cut and uncut grass, at the end  of August large beautiful pale purple crocus appear. The flowers push up without any protective green sepals and no leaves of any description. They seem to appear over night and some are mowed down the next day, but many survive long enough to be pollinated.  Autumnal crocus would be better called August Crocus as this is the month of their  glory.

So what is the connection between the mysterious flowerless seed and the leafless flower? Well, the pollinated ovary goes down into the corm underground, where it waits all winter long to make a seed. In the spring the swollen seed head appears with two sturdy green leaves to feed it. Once the seed heads bursts, it disappears until the flowers surprise us again at the end of summer!

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The fate of Ash trees.

A disease called Ash die back has been sweeping Europe and slowly killing these lovely trees. Here on the Swiss French border foresters have decided to cut out all the diseased trees and the result is devastating .  It is not the first time a disease has spread into the wrong geographical location and destroyed a whole species. Elm trees were destroyed in Europe and America and this poem by Robert Francis captures the sadness of this loss and the need to look to the future with hope.

many thanks to cimple.life for introducing me to the poetry of Robert Francis.

 

The Fate of Elms

If they are doomed and all that can be done
Should fail, if they must die and disappear
And we must see them dying one by one,
Summer and fall and winter, year by year
Until there comes a summer so bereft
That over river, meadow, pasture height
No last and solitary elm is left
Lifting its leafy wings as if for flight—

Let us not make our grief for them too great
And say we wished that we had gone before,
Making the fate of elms too much our fate,
Seeing the always less and not the more.
Though elms may die, not everything must die:
Not their green memory against our sky.

Robert Francis

The Big Birds are Back.

Storks are the regional emblem of the Alsace and tourist stalls are loaded with stork hats, stork plates, stork stuffed toys and stork snow domes, but these magnificently huge birds were almost completely wiped out in the twentieth century and numbers went as low as 9 pairs in the 1970s.
Birds were shot at, electrocuted on overhead wires and poisoned. Many starved in their African wintering grounds due to droughts.
They were completely extinct in Switzerland by 1950, but a determined school teacher from Solothurn went to Africa to find chicks, which he reintroduced to his country and here in the Alsace and Southern Germany programmes of captive breeding slowly pulled the White Stork back from the brink.
By feeding birds here to encourage them to avoid the hazardous migration south, numbers have increased to the point where breeding and feeding stations in local villages like Rodersdorf have recently been closed, as the population is thought finally to be stable enough not to need intervention.
The sight of storks returning to their nests on the rooves of local churches, on random telegraph posts and the even mobile phone towers is a sight to gladden the heart at this time of year.
The birds can live for thirty years and nests can weigh from 60-250Kg. Nests can be used year after year and many other birds can nest in the lower reaches of the bigger nests including sparrows and starlings.
Courtship and pair bonding is accompanied by wonderful clacking as they throw back their heads and point their huge beaks upwards. An average of four eggs are laid and chicks that hatch later in the season often do better than those who hatch earlier, as they avoid the perils of a cold wet spring. Successfully reared juveniles may opt to stay in Europe during the winter, especially where food many be plentiful as for instance around the zoos in Mulhouse, Basel and Zurich, but others will attempt the long migration into Africa to feed for insects, small mammals and amphibians in warmer surroundings .
So whether they have crossed continents, just hoped the border in our tri region area, or spent the whole year in the same spot; their nesting brings another generation of these magnificent birds back to my part of France, where they were so nearly lost forever.

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Wild dog chase .

Today it is British snow : white out and wet. The snow came exploding down on that momentary hinge between exuberantly fat flakes and dispiriting sleet. All day it flumped down on the right side of sublime and all was white – for a while.

In the woods I continued to try to identify the animals that had walked before me in the snow. We noticed double light tyre tracks that we decided were from a pram or buggy. We admired the intrepid parents who had pushed their offspring out in such weather. We followed the increasingly erratic path, as it veered strangely from side to side. Were the parents trying to tip the child into the snow? Was their child particularly annoying?

The tracks  went on and on, up passed the chapel at the site of the abandoned plague village  and up to the Swiss border stones almost unnoticeable in the trees. We were turning back to get warm and dry and then I remembered. In the village there is a dog with crippled back legs. His doting owner has fitted him with a trolley to keep him mobile. We were not following an homicidal parent, or a wild creature unknown to man, but a lucky old dog hopping wild on a wet snowy day!