If we are lucky enough to have a garden, then we are custodians of a tiny slice of the earth and we have control over it ( “up to a point Lord Copper”, as Evelyn Waugh’s character would say.)
The garden has a flat surface, that is the figure on the deeds of the house but how we cover up that space is up to us.
The most negative thing we can do for wildlife is cover it in tarmac or concrete. Black tarmac absorbs heat and actually contributes to global warming.
We can cover it in stones quarried from hundreds of miles away and then drench it in herbicide to stop any passing seed germinating.
We could lay plastic turf over it, or lay wooden boards over it made from dead trees and put plastic furniture on it and heaters and barbecues to burn meat, or reconstituted vegan burgers, surrounded by solar lights from China that stop bats and moths from ever taking wing, all in the name of being in the great outdoors.
All of these options involve buying stuff and making the planet a worse place for wildlife and for us all.
Or we could think in three dimensions. We could think not just of the flat ground we own, but of the whole cubic space above it and how we could maximise that for as many different species as possible.
The simplest thing to start with, is to grow tall plants . Tall plants make use of the sky space to provide food for bees and butterflies, moths and birds. The tallest plants are trees and if you have space to grow real trees then you can make the biggest difference possible to wildlife. Low growing plants are much better than concrete, plastic or stones, but they only make a few inches of life. Tall flowers are beautiful hollyhocks, delphiniums, dahlias foxgloves; what ever flourishes in your climate and soil. Flowering shrubs are wonderful: lavender, lilac, rosemary again what ever the bees like and will tolerate your climate. If bees don’t come to it and you need pesticides to keep it happy, then ditch it. You are doing more harm than good by growing it in the wrong climate. There are always better things you could grow!
Think of the borders of your garden. Could they be alive? Could you have real hedge? Could it have a real mixture of local shrubs that provide berries and nuts in the autumn for birds or evergreen shelter in the winter? If you have a chain link fence, could you grow flowers up that fence? Is there a gap in the fence for hedgehogs or other wildlife to pass between gardens?
Rather than a plastic awning or sunshade, why not sit in the shade of a tree? It is far cooler and more lovely! Plant one now for your future or even that of your children!
A garden can go up as well as down. I decided a pond dug down into my little garden will make a space for frogs and dragonflies and maybe newts and damselflies too and this is my project for the spring.
The earth isn’t flat . Our gardens don’t need to be flat either and by thinking of filling every millimetre of the land we own and the space above it with life will make such a difference to the fragile planet.
This wonderful fungi specimen was growing on an old willow tree. Unmistakable, the Latin name Laetiporus sulphureus refers to its sulphurous colour and the country name chicken of the woods, refers to the taste of the flesh. Anyone who reads these blogs regularly will know my feelings about actually eating fungi . This seductive fungi can cause gastric upset in some people, but not often. If it grows on yew it can contain the poisonous chemicals of the tree.
This beauty was growing on a huge willow and willows give us the Salic acid from which aspirin are made. So, if you ate this chicken of the woods, could it cure your headache at the same time?
2021 has started and rarely can a year have been so happily discarded as 2020.
A year of loss and fear and exhaustion for those fighting the virus first hand and of limbo and anxiety for those of us watching with our carefully washed hands folded in our laps.
The wonderful scientists across the world who have worked flat out to develop vaccines will liberate us all eventually and we just have to be patient and wait our turn to be inoculated against Covid 19, but something will be missing in 2021 that won’t come back.
There is a hole in the heart of Europe where my country used to be. Britain is no longer part of Europe and the vision that was formed after the destruction of the Second World War no longer includes my country.
I know I am haunted by metaphors, but when I saw this fruit tree in the green field inexplicably burnt out, the significance was not wasted on me .
Today sounds of robins, their rich round burble of music rolls from the hedge and is answered in kind by their mate hidden in the tall tree . Robin song always sounds like Britain and is a relaxing link with home. Here in France they are much rarer in gardens and I can go a whole year without seeing one in the garden. They remind me of my garden in Wales, which was a damp suburban slice in the shade of a magnificent oak tree.
We loved the tree as soon as we saw it and owning the tree was as exciting as owning the little bungalow that sheltered under its bows .
The oak was pollarded periodically and then we left it to go and see the world and the bungalow and guardian oak was rented out to a long succession of tenants.
At the very end of this summer, when the tree was thick with green leaves there was a huge storm and the wonderful tree was uprooted. It walked like an ent from Tolkein across the lawn and it threw itself onto the little bungalow and crushed it utterly .
The house in boarded up now and there is a temporary roof on. It will be rebuilt, we had insurance, the tenant is OK and rehoused, but the oak is gone forever. It was all very shocking.
When the tree was still lying across the house it appeared as if the foliage had simply finally engulfed the upstart house, but when it was sawn up and hauled away by a crane, the full extent of the devastation was apparent.
This was the house we (and the bank) bought when we were first married and we always considered that it was the home we could return to when our wandering was over.
Brexit, Covid and a huge storm has made even knowing where home is anymore , more more difficult .
So when I hear the robins sing I think of our lost oak tree and hope it set plenty of acorns in the hedge for when and if, we ever go home.
They shut the road through the woods Seventy years ago. Weather and rain have undone it again, And now you would never know There was once a road through the woods Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath, And the thin anemones. Only the keeper sees That, where the ring dove broods, And the badgers roll at ease, There was once a road through the woods.
Yet, if you enter the woods Of a summer evening late, When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools Where the otter whistles his mate, (They fear not men in the woods, Because they see so few.) You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet, And the swish of a skirt in the dew, Steadily cantering through The misty solitudes, As though they perfectly knew The old lost road through the woods… But there is no road through the woods.
As Europe goes back into lock down for everybody except for front line workers ( which now includes school teachers as well as health workers!), maybe Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem should be adapted to –
We may feel cribbed and confined by a world on hold, but the clouds still race by and the seasons turn and turn again even though we can’t believe the calendar has moved on.
It turns out that the beautiful is much closer than we realised and that clouds fly by with even greater freedom unentangled by the nets of jet vapour trails.
There are flocks of chaffinches arriving already from the north to feast on the mast from the beech trees. The bend of the road, by the cow pasture, is greasy with the walnuts crushed by cars tyres. The apple press next door is working ten hours a day to crush a bumper crop of apples into juice and sweet cider from the heavy laden trees of the three countries that touch branches just here .
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!
Due 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.
Apparently there is now a whole new, doing nothing, movement.
Having been told to make the most of every second to maximise our potentiality, having been told to reach for the stars, push the envelope, count every step , declutter our souls, curate our on line lives to reshape the paradigm and monetise our influencer profiles, it seems we should now do nothing at all and actually relax.
What a novel idea! What a surprise to find out that spending your time bombarded by social media, bad news stories and trivia doesn’t make you as happy as staring at the sky or watching the fruit ripen!
I admit to fretting about being unable to reach all the plums on the tree. Fretted about them going to waste, fretted about the falling fruit annoying my neighbours. Then it rained, the wind blew and the plums fell onto the grass of their own volition. They were perfectly ripe and deliciously mealy . I picked them up, put them in a cup and on Sunday I will turn them into a crumble .
All I needed to do was relax and wait, as all good things come to she who waits, even if they have to drop directly onto my head!
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.
Today was the sound of kestrels learning to fly, keening, crying , mewing, mewling, over and over as they flopped and fell and soared and swooped for the very first time out of crowed malodorous nests in dark church towers out, out into the wide blue sky flying with clouds and martins and jackdaws and the clacking of stork bills and the unrepeatable perfume of lime trees in flower for the first time, the first time, the very, very, first time in to the new world.
Baudelaire coined the word flaneur to describe the detached strollers in Paris streets who simply observe the world as it passes them by. I am uncomfortable in cities, but find just as much to ponder on in the countryside as in any crowded city street.
This seat is in a wood. The forest behind is a broad leafed mixture of beech and hornbeam, but right in front of the seat is a closely planted stand of young conifers. The seat is sturdy, concrete ended and relatively modern. It must have given a fine view once of the abutting meadow, but now it is quite blockaded and cut off.
Was the close planting an act of neighbourly spite? Was it to obliterate the painful memory of a loved family member, who once admired the view? Did the tree planters simply never notice the bench at all? Has the bench miraculously placed itself in this inaccessible place?
I walk on into a meadow flooded with light and the bench watches me and holds its lichen covered tongue.
Slip slushing snow whomping and whispering from the green leaves.
The stems are plump with life, turgid with sap. This white weight of winter is a foolish incumbrance to be shrugged away.
Hours of heavy snow bowed down the saplings and the tall nettles, it filled in the open tulips and blurred the gooseberries ripening on the prickle fringed bushes.
But enough is enough.
Spring slept under the heavy cold wet blanket for a night , a long night, of fatuous fretting about peonies and potatoes.
In the morning, spring time slowly stretched her arms, straightened the birch sapling bowed down to the wet ground and flung the unseasonable nonesense of snow off out into a surprised May morning!
Spring is a liberation for the heart and the soul: the return of life is everywhere at this time of year.
On the path, a blackbird’s delicate egg shell speaks of something set free and in the air above, black caps cascade music against white clouds. At my feet, beneath the still bare trees, there are tiny white oxalis flowers, bruise blue lungworts, splatters of seven leaved cardamines and whole slopes of improbable violets, such as I have never seen in an April wood before.
There is herb Paris and wild strawberries, sweet woodruff and dogs’ mercury, oxslips and celandine, lords and ladies and bachelors’ buttons and more and more and more pushing up from the moist earth under a confetti of wild cherry petals; all for this apparently inauspicious, inelegantly sounding, miraculous year of 2019!
Acorns have waited all winter to be in the right place at the right time and today the brown shells split, the simple leaves began to swell and the powerful root began to push down into the soil. A drift of acorns half trodden into the mud decided today was the day and erupted into life.
I couldn’t resist picking up a handful of nuts that were not yet attached to the soil and I took them home in my pocket. I have laid them in a pot of soil from the oldest part of the garden, where hopefully the good things that trees need will bind with the emerging roots and seedlings will grow.
Like most people, I have never grown an oak tree, but I have a feeling that it really is about time to try!
Christmas trees have history . Pagans used ever greens to bring life to the darkest day of the year and they have been brought into homes down the centuries around the shortest day of the year to comfort us with the knowledge that the world is not dead and that birth will happen.
The very earliest recorded public Christmas trees are from Latvia and Lithuania and the idea seemed to have traveled south to Germany where a tree was set up in 1570 decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels and paper flowers. Martin Luther is credited with putting up the first tree in a home and the fashion spread.
This year was such a good apple harvest here, but the pressoir is finally closed as nearly all the apples have been brought in and juiced or turned to cider. However some trees still hold on to their apples. Perfect red or yellow apples hang from leafless branches like an opening for Sleeping Beauty .The idea of collecting and even gilding such winter apples is obvious and hung on fir trees they were the prototype for the glass baubles and decorations of our artifical trees today.
Queen Victoria’s German husband brought the Christmas tree tradition with him to England and an engraving of the family admiring their decorated tree started a fashion that swept the country. I love the detail that the same engraving was reproduced in the USA , but the woman was without her crown and the man without his mustache in order to make the figures look like an American family – and so the Christmas tree became fashionable across the Atlantic and eventually the whole world!
Strasbourg Christmas market is the oldest in the world. The capital of the Alsace also calls itself the capital of Christmas. German and French alternately, Strasboroug has kept alive the traditions of the Christmas tree for over 400 years. The shootings in the colourful market earlier this week by a deranged criminal with a gun were frightening, but the stalls will be open again this weekend, the police have done their job and the last uncollected apples on the trees are still telling the story of light in the darkest time of the year.
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!
It was cold. The winter sun was rising reluctantly and shafts of sunlight momentarily threw the fog into tangible white blocks. Sounds in the woods were muffled. Invisible ravens called overhead and the planes took off one after another; their roaring lingering in layers above the mist.
Into this soft cotton wool world someone threw a grenade and the tree tops exploded in noise. I craned my neck back to see what bird or animal was responsible. A flock of small birds was whirling in the highest branches. The fog was too thick to make out colour and marking, only their size was discernible : blue tits? Chaffinches? Bramblings returning from the north? However numerous they were, such small birds could not be making this ear splitting cacophony. And then I realised, I knew this noise. This was mistle thrush turned up to 11! The crackle of mistlethrush is a sound of winter in the forest as they work through the mistletoe that grows on the high pine trees, but I had never heard them so loud.
They are highly territorial birds and will defend an apple tree covered in mistletoe from all commers, but I never knew they could repel a huge flock of finches deep in the forest by the sheer force of their voices. There were hundreds of finches foraging for seeds and insects in the tree tops, but they didn’t stand a chance against a couple of loud mouthed thrushes, who had this patch of woodland staked out for their own winter larder.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
HERE in a quiet and dusty room they lie,
Faded as crumbled stone and shifting sand,
Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry –
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.
Dead that shall quicken at the voice of spring,
Sleepers to wake beneath June’s tempest kiss;
Though birds pass over, unremembering,
And no bee find here roses that were his.
In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams;
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust
That shall drink deeply at a century’s streams;
These lilies shall make summer on my dust.
Here in their safe and simple house of death,
Sealed in their shells, a million roses leap;
Here I can stir a garden with my breath,
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.
I love this poem, especially the last stanza, though I never see seeds as ashes or shrivelled, just glossy and plump with potential for the next year.
After such a glorious autumn the sleet and cold wind of this weekend are reminders that the first days of November arrive this week. I went out in the sleet to pick the last flowers and filled my pockets with the seeds I have been meaning to collect all month. In my trouser pocket I found a black acorn I had picked up under a local oak tree earlier. The path is meely with crushed fallen acorns, every single one regulation brown except this perfect black seed. A genetic variation that will maybe heat up faster in the spring ready to germinate, or maybe it is less palitable to squirrels or mabe just unusual enough to be prized by a passing human and planted somewhere new…. “ and in my hand a forest lies asleep.”
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