Praying Mantis

I was peering at the bus stop display when something flew by and landed on the glass.

It was a large green praying mantis. I know them from Greece and Southern Europe but had never seen one in urban Switzerland.

Global warming perhaps?

I looked up mantis in Basel to send in the record in case anyone was interested, but instead of a wildlife recording site, I found papers from Basel University on how praying mantises have been observed eating humming birds and sucking their brains out!

To say I was surprised was an understatement . Apparently bird eating mantis are not the mantis religiosa of my bus stop encounter, but another species of mantis that has been introduced as pest control and are now actually eating North American hummingbirds.

You couldn’t make this stuff up!

On Monday they open the borders.

The virus has done so many things, most of them bad.

Closing international borders has been one of the oddest results of a virus that can be sneezed across a transatlantic airplane or between lovers walking in a forest.

I cross between France and Switzerland six times a day to get to work and back. At the weekend I often cross into Germany and back a few times to buy cat food and to get a kebab at my favourite Turkish kebab shop.  This has all stopped.

Even the crossings in the forests used by cyclists and hikers and runners every day have been boarded/ bordered up!

232F932D-67C8-42B7-933F-D57D19E1CB78Due to the unfathomable decision of the UK to leave the EU, I reclaimed my Irish heritage, so I could continue to be European. The open borders within  Europe seemed to me a slice of sanity, sophistication and friendliness in an increasingly fractured world.

Then the borders were closed.

It felt like a real war, not against the virus, but against each other. If ever there was a time for the EU to work together, this surely was it. All of the countries working together on health policies, quarantine advise, common lockdown could have been so powerful, but instead each country went their own way.

I dont know which country got it right and which got it wrong, but I do know that closed borders have increased unease and even fear for so many people who were  used to living in this open area that used to seem like it was my extended home.

On Monday they open the borders between France and Switzerland and Germany for everyone. I took some photos of the little closed borders between neighbouring villages and even between neighbouring trees.

I hope I never see them closed again.

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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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Apricot Blossom.

My neighbour’s apricot tree is in full bloom and if you squint your eyes hard you can  just make out a red kite in the top left corner against the blue, blue sky.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A future buzz!

Bees show the health of our environment on so many levels. When Notre Dame in Paris burned , we looked on aghast , and the bee keepers on the roof of the ancient cathedral thought the carefully guarded hives on the roof were doomed.  But it turns out that the bees were more resilient than we thought and they have survived against all the odds and are peacefully sleeping, waiting, like us all, for the spring.

I wish all our European bees a busy, borderless 2020!

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/31/they-survived-fire-and-lead-poisoning-so-what-happened-next-to-notre-dames-bees-aoe?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

 

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Reasons to be Cheerful.

It is easy to think that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. The terrible fires in Australia, the destruction of the Amazon and the extinction of species in every corner of the globe, makes pessimism natural; but I am not alone in believing that things can be improved.  There are millions of people who care about the environment and millions more who care primarily about themselves, but are realising that their life also depends upon the quality of the air that they breath, the food that they eat and butterflies that amuse them.

So I share this article with you about the city of Ghent that has gone car free. As I read the testimonies from the people who live there about what a profound improvement this has been in their lives I found myself grinning from ear to ear. Change for the better can really happen, things dont have to always get worse, politicians and voters can make intelligent and brave choices and we can make our cities (and our suburbs!) green and pleasant places.

Take a minute to read it and consider what the future could be .

Reasons to be cheerful part 1!

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/20/the-streets-are-more-alive-ghent-readers-on-a-car-free-city-centre?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

 

ps I dont have any photos of Ghent, so this  is Basel on wet day at Christmas!

 

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Reasons to buy a House.

We live on a strange line.

We didn’t know it when we bought our house. We bought the place because it just felt right, as soon as we arrived and we weren’t really looking, but we bought it anyway. Ten years later we are still here and all you have to do is look up on a day like today to know why we really choose it.

Tens of thousands of birds have passed over our garden today. Their wings are rustling above our heads. Flock after flock, flinking and beating. The first time you see them you just grin with astonishment; the second time you try to really listen and the third time you decide that the dry sound is like a rain shower through summer trees, almost gone before it reaches the ground.

They are pigeons coming out of Central Europe and flying west across France and into Spain and Portugal. Thousands  and thousands of birds crossing right over this odd intersection of Germany, France and Switzerland and over my back garden on a still sunny Sunday afternoon.

It appears we unwittingly bought a house on a major migration route for birds.

Spring and autumn birds flow over us. Down the lane serious birders set up telescopes and send in records of raptors and rarities to international migration sites.  My husband scans the skies from the comfort of the porch and convenient cups of tea. I look up when I hear the birds: air pushing, confident beats of stocky powerful wings and he indicates that the whole sky from edge to edge is black with the improbable smoke of the migrating pigeons.

So that’s why it has always felt like the right place!

Grand Hamster of the Alsace.

4B10C8D7-6E65-453E-9817-7210FFB85615The Giant Hamster of the Alsace is a remarkable creature. It is one of the most endangered animals in France and one of the least loved. It is almost 10 inches long, covered in golden fur with a bizarre black and white spotted tummy, big eyes and delicate paws. The French care so little about this wonderful teddy bear, that the European Council had to fine them millions of euros before the government did anything at all to help the last 180 animals in the country.

A small band of concerned naturalists brought the giant hamsters’ plight to the authorities and may just have saved it in the nick of time, but it is still critically endangered in France .  I guess there is something inherently funny about the concept of a giant hamster and I wonder if that is part of the problem.

The real problem for Giant Hamsters is maize. The low land parts of the Alsace are absolutely covered in it. This monoculture has been a disaster for so much flora and fauna in Europe. The plant takes for ever to germinate and the bare soil is washed away every year in spring rains.  The farmers plant right to the field boundary leaving no millimetre for wild flowers and animals. Anything that might get a toe hold in an uneven corner is sprayed dead with weedkiller and/or mowed flat.

Hamsters need grain and alfalfa, cabbages: in short a mixture of agriculture and wild food. Food is pulled down into underground burrows and used to feed themselves during their six months of hibernation safe below. They can’t eat maize and they can’t travel distances between suitable areas of food, especially when housing , motorways and hyper markets have covered covered the lowlands too.

These sturdy, intelligent burly creatures reproduce only once a year, have small broods and do not respond well to captivity; so getting their numbers up has been as difficult as breeding giant pandas! The population is still critically low at only 200 and they need to creep up to a massive 1500 to have  sustainable numbers.

I saw my first Hamsters at the NaturOparC (sic) in Hunawihr where they are doing their absolute best to pull this unloved cutey back from the brink of extinction in France.

It seems curious that first world country like France can allow such an iconic and adorable creature to be lost . They are already extinct in neighbouring Switzerland, and so I wish the last few all the luck they can cram in to their round furry cheeks.

 

 

 

This cracked tile shows one standing up on its hind legs displaying the distinctive spottey tummy.

photo by M. Watson via Animals Animals.

 

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Star Burst!

I saw this wonderful graffiti this week near a hydroelectric dam on the Rhine river.

I was thinking of it as I watched the sky light up over Basel in celebration of Swiss national day this evening.

There are places to watch stars and places to watch fireworks  – both are beautiful and both are transitory.

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Goodbye to the Ice Saints.

Yesterday was cold Sofia, the last of the ice saints day. May 15th is the fest day of Saint Sofia and traditionally the last really cold night of spring.
In this part of the world mid May is often surprizingly cold and no one who understands anything would put out a tender plant before that date for fear that frost would kill it. We have had hot February and March, warm April, but the first half of May has been true to the folk calendar: cold and wet!
The grass and the potatoes are loving this weather and the spring flowers have lasted spectacularly well, but I am watching the moon which seems full tonight. Full moon always heralds a change in the weather. The ice saints have had their season, Pixie the cat watched them go and now the warm weather can begin!

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Rambling bramblings.

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.

I hope they will be back next year.

Birds don’t recognise borders.

I found out about a orchard planting initiative in my village almost by accident. An old fashioned piece of paper dropped in my letter box said a field was being planted with trees the next day and volunteers were welcome. 

A long field on the edge of the village was staked out with pegs and bare rooted pear and apple trees lay waiting to be pruned and planted. A knowledgeable man snipped off almost every branch with great care and precision and holes were dug to place the trees in. A pleasant community endeavour you might think, but what was was more remarkable than that people were giving up Saturday for the good of birds, was the fact the the land was in France, the trees were Swiss and the people were French, Swiss, German and British.

This slice of hope in  a crazy world was funded by an anonymous donation in Switzerland that was to help little owls increase their tiny claw hold in Europe. The land was donated by a French family who love birds and the work was undertaken by locals, Swiss volunteers from over the border and school children. Little owls were extinct in the area, but very careful management and cooperation between bird lovers in three different nations is slowly recreating the tree and hedge rich habitat they need to survive and move effortlessly between countries. The generosity of someone I will never know, across a border that means nothing to wildlife, may hopefully help the spread of this beautiful bird.

While borders seem clanging shut across the world, this seems something to celebrate!

Reading in November.

7D932C49-7DBC-403E-B8BD-D6D1E75A0919.jpegNovember is a month to read in. The garden has died back and after work there is no light left to admire what has survived.

And so I read.  Serendipity  has provided an eclectic selection recently thanks to a school book sale.

Firstly I am reading Peter Camenzind by Herman Hesse; then A Fool’s Alphabet by Sebastian Faulks; a biography of Jame Joyce by Herbert Corman and The Ascent Of Money by Niall Fergusun.  This may sound impressive, but I admit now that I am reading them with varying success.

The Ascent of Money is on its way back to the library.  I am 60 pages in and waning.  I started well. The introduction was arresting. The average salary of an American in 2007 was $34,000.  The chief executive of Goldman Sachs, a man called Lloyd Blankfein, received  $ 46 million dollars – per year. I cannot even conceive of such a sum, so I had to read on. Fergusun explains metal money the gold and silver of South America that fueled Spain and Europe in fascinating detail, but once he goes into the methods of banking  and accountancy that grew out of Renaissance Italy, I struggle and start to skip pages. As life is short, I move on!

The James Joyce biography was written the year after Joyce  died. The stamp in the front of the book shows it was  bought in India and then the inscription shows it was given as a  present. It was sold from a library, no doubt its outspoken opinions on everything from Irishness to politics, coupled with its lyrical description deemed it unfashionable, but I am greatly enjoying it . I savour it in tart, cool, evocative slices.

Peter Carmenzind was writen in 1904 by Herman Hesse, before either of the terrible wars ripped through Europe . The hero was born in a remote Alpine village, which was not considered romantic. He climbs his mountains, but no one skis down them and the concrete and the chair lifts of 21century are an inconceivable future scar. The descriptions of the Föhn wind roaring up from the soft south to rock the roots of the icy peaks are memorable.

The book that I read each night at the moment is however A Fool’s Alphabet. This shows the life of a child of a British soldier and an Italian woman; told over places which begin which each letter of the alphabet in order. To achieve this, the story is not chronological, but swings between settings to cover each letter in turn. Rather than being contrived or disorientating, this structure is unexpectedly pleasing, as it seems to mirror the random nature of memory. I know I am enjoying it because I don’t want it to end too soon!

It is odd to write about what I am reading, as I don’t aim to recommend these books to anyone. It is rather like introducing acquaintances to one another at a rather badly lit party.

Reading in November is like that.

 

 

 

Easy pickings: prickly pickings!

 

I was pleased as punch with the first few cherry tomatoes that the garden produced this season and as the dry, hot weather has gone on; with just a little effort,  I have filled bowl after bowl with the sweet red jewels. Previous attemps to grow tomatoes have resulted in little to eat and a lot of black blight, but this year has been a fruitful union of the right seeds and the perfect weather.

 

 

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Much sparcer, and far more difficult to pick have been the first sloes from our garden. Sloe berries come from blackthorn and the bush is well named, as the thorns are hard and very spiney. This blackthorn bush self seeded into a corner of the garden that we didn’t mow, along with birch, willow, larch, budlia, plum, laurel, fir and even an oak sapling.

We let the wild patch alone and the blackthorn has grown big enough in 8 years to be covered in white flowers in the spring time and now thick with black fruit in the autumn. In England you don’t pick sloes until they are crisped by the first frost, but I have learnt from experience that in my corner of France/ Germany/Switzerland, if you wait until the first frost, the berries will have ripened and fallen off by then .

So in the wild corner of the garden I did mighty  battle with the thorns and picked enough fruit to turn a couple of bottles of gin into sloe gin for a treat this Christmas. They will do their frosting in the freezer and I will add them to gin and sugar next week.

So you see gardening for wildlife is not entirely altruistic after all!

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!