Quatermass and the Pit.

An enormous grasshopper flew into the house and took a great bite out of my spider plant.

It was so heavy it toppled the plant pot and the huge and the unearthly head reminded me of the terrifying creatures found by Professor Quatermass in the London Underground . The 1950s classic TV series has haunted me as the ancient swarm leapt  through the impossible memory of susceptible humans .

Here was the same head, jade green, monumental, implacably other regarding me over the washing up bowl.

It seems we are all just one jump away from Quatermass’ pit!

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Better than plastic!

On the dry woodland path, a plastic children’s toy.  Matt green with a single band of yellow to say snake and then it moved.

As if pulled by an invisible thread it was moving over the soil and stones.

It was tiny, but every minute vertebrae articulated like mercury flowing across the earth. I wondered if I should pick it up to save it from the metal hooves of the passing horses, but it didn’t need me.

This acrobat’s ribbon of improbable life zig zagged, wiggled and shivered into the grass .

It was safe and I wasn’t even sure if I had seen something so light and so alive on the dry path in the woods.

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Sweet Tico magic.

I was lucky enough to teach and to live in Costa Rica for four years, many years ago.

There was so much I loved and admired about this country: the complete lack of military spending; the emphasis on education and the great respect Costa Ricans had for teachers; their unashamed search for peace and most of all, their protection and love of wildlife. When we lived in Costa Rica it had the highest percentage of its land mass given over to nature reserves of any country on the planet and the diversity of habitats in this tiny beautiful country is breathtaking.

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

San Jose, the capital, is not the most scenic city in the world, it has pollution and ugly malls, but my attention was caught by this article on one of its satellite towns : Curridabat.

Take a read to lift your spirits.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/29/sweet-city-the-costa-rica-suburb-that-gave-citizenship-to-bees-plants-and-trees-aoe?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

 

 

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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Today sounded like spring!

Some days have felt like spring: warm sun and gentle air; some days have looked like spring; early bees and daffodils, but today was the first day that sounded like spring.

The air is still cold, there is snow on the mountains and bad news on the radio, but migrants have come on the wind and their song was lovely!

The edge of the woods were loud with bird song, thrushes and blackbirds, a skirl of starlings that could sing like kites and golden orioles and their own whirling popping selves. A raven chuckled over us, green woodpeckers yaffled, black woodpeckers deep drummed and a long eared owl wheezed unseen . There were blue tits, great tits, wagtails and coal tits and then best of all; most unmistakable and gorgeous a chiffchaff sang with its throat full of spring time and the promise of summer.

Two brimstone butterflies appeared, a fantastically edged comma butterfly found some sunshine and ludicrously, a pair of large ruddy shell ducks landed on the top of our neighbours chimney pot, called companionable to one another and flew away!

I dont have pictures of any of these things. Close you eyes and listen for them,   though you may have to listen very hard to hear the butterflies!

The photos are from the woodland.

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Making a home where you can ….

February can seem a low point for life. The signs of early spring are cribbed with fears of snow and frost to come, so the sun on our back seems fearfully precipitous.

Luckily, other things are not so fearful and flourish in the most unlikely places.

The photo was taken of recent wire fence, ugly in its utility, fencing in a slab of shorn and tidied land. However the lichen and the moss were not disdainful of the plastic coated wire . They sensed opportunity, a habitat in which to grow and each intersection was frilled with light green life, finding a safe and unlikely foothold.

February is full of modest, opportunistic life!

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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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Africa leads the way – again!

Producing less polluting rubbish in the world is one of the few things we can personally do to make things better. I have always used synthetic sponges from the supermarket to clean tea cups and sinks, but feel increasingly bad about throwing them away when they are used up, as they are not recyclable.

Turns out you can use cut up loofahs to do the same job and then put the used up sections in the compost bin. Better still, you can even grow the loofah in your own garden from  seed! No transport, manufacture or disposal pollution at all!

I crossed the Luwangwa river into Mozambique  from Zambia some years ago. It was just a river bank above the big muddy river, but we all got out of the little boat, just to say we had landed in Mozambique .  A vine was scrambling over the low bushes and the vine was loaded in long fruit. I was intrigued, pulled a few off and realised that this was a real loofah plant. The centre of the fruit is the light, slightly abrasive skeleton that we know from bathrooms and the once the peel is removed I had two perfect loofahs that I used in my own bathroom for years.

This is how I know what a loofah plant looks like, but I only just found out that you don’t have to be in Africa to grow them. They are easy to grow from seed even in Britain and the National Trust now only uses its home grown loofahs to wash up all those tea cups.  My next task is to buy some loofah seeds and to plant them this spring.

I promise to tell you how they grow!!

https://www.seaspringseeds.co.uk/shop/exotic-seed/luffa-detail

 

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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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Living with the aliens.

There is always conflict for the naturalist when confronted with an alien species. On the one hand we are delighted to see a wild animal or to admire a beautiful plant, on the other hand a creature in the wrong place can push a whole ecosystem out of balance and destroy native life. Every country has its own tales of trouble from European starlings in America to Costa Rican toads in Australia and Japanese knot weed in Britain.

When crossing a road bridge in a local village I was astonished to see a large muskrat peacefully munching on a long frond of water weed, as the traffic rumbled on overhead. It was the best view I have ever had and I spent a long time admiring his white whiskers; delicate dexterous paws and ears sunk deep in his thick, silky fur. That thick fur is the whole reason why he was here, so far from his native North America. Muskrats were brought to this area to be bred for fur. When the fur market collapsed in the 1930s, the fur farmers of the Vosge mountains simply opened the cages and just let the muskrats go free. They didn’t take to find their way to the waterways and now they breed naturally .

I enjoyed watching it going about its business. I find all animals fascinating and was reminded of the pleasure of watching grey squirrels feeding and playing In British parks and in my own back garden (we named a particularly bold one Sharlene). They were aliens, they outcompeted the indigenous red squirrel and they are an official pest. However the movement of flora and fauna has been going on since life evolved, on the wind, on the tides ,on the feet of birds and the life around has always had to adapt. The ethical question of which creature has a right to exist is as complex as the evolutionary question of whether  creatures that evolved in one place are more worthy than those who have moved , or been moved, to another place.

And then there are the human creatures, to whom all the same questions apply as to the muskrats under the bridge.

More tea anyone?

 

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The curse of tidy.

A warm week has sent me out into the garden . The place is wet and the mud weighs down my boots,  but the air smells almost like spring and tidying over takes me.

There is plenty of dead vegetation to trim and forgotten leaves to rake and my enthusiasm is intoxicating. However it is only January and there is along way to go until spring. Tidying, trimming and raking wont make the days longer or the earth turn faster,  so not only is my decimation of the garden pointless, it is also positively  harmful.

Last years growth is full of over wintering wildlife: butterfly caterpillars, lady birds and hedgehogs and tidying up is not the same as emptying a kitchen sink of washingup; this is habitat destruction in my own tiny bit of the planet.

So, I move away from the shears and the pruners, put down that rake and leave the garden in peace! There will be time in the spring to make way for the new growth and rushing the season will just make less space for the wildlife that badly  needs somewhere  quiet and safe to spend the winter.

Much better for the planet to have a cup of tea and do nothing!

Shall I be mother?

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Plants before Pandas

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

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

https://www.theguardian.com/society/video/2020/jan/06/plants-before-pandas-young-botanist-tackling-extinction-own-backyard-video?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

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Holiday reading

I love having time to reading, but only when the world is cold and wet, do I really get properly down to it.

At the moment I am reading “The Garden Jungle or Gardening to Save the Planet“ which was a Christmas present that was spot on. Dave Goulson is passionate about his garden and evangelical about how much wildlife we can all cram into our on private gardens, if only we eschew pesticides, herbicides  and all the other things we are encouraged to buy to make our potential slice of paradise, tidy and dead. I was horrified to read how many suburbs of the USA are regularly drenched in pesticides from the air to “control pests”  and that gardeners have no choice at all in this annual destruction of all the micro fauna on their own land.

I am also reading “Crime au Pressoir “ by Jean-Marie Stoerkel, where bodies are found lying  on the grapes about to be crushed in a wine press in nearby Ingersheim. Somehow it is all linked to the German annexation of the Alsace some 80 years and hopefully reading it will improve my French!

I have just finished “A Portrait of Elmbury “ by John Moore which is a memoir of Tewkesbury in England before the second World War. This is a part of the world I know well, but set in a time I didn’t know. Some of his observations seem crass in our more enlightened times, but some are timeless such as his admiration for the men who only work as much as they had to …”they were not conditioned to believe in the popular fallacy, that work itself is a virtue. They worked when they wanted to and their work was fun. They were in fact a sort of privileged class and their privilege was one which nowadays only a few great artists have.”  I also learnt that farm workers were given great slabs of apple pie to eat first, before the roast beef, to ensure that they didnt just fill up on meat and avoid the abundant produce of the local orchards.

The book  that I just unwrapped this morning, is however the  one I think I am about to enjoy most. “Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers” by Peter Marren is the book I have been waiting for to explain the wonderfully poetical names of moths, both English and Latin. My first dipping proved Marren knows his European languages too and he gives German and French derivations of the marvellous names that always seem so redolent of 18th century country vicarages.

The moth book definitely wins the best cover award. I normally take off dust jackets as they are fiddly and irksome, but this is staying on to remind me of the colourful wonder of the delights still to be found in my moth trap in 2020..

Oh, and I had to include a “Just William ” collection by the incomparable Richmal Compton as I read a story nearly every night to send me to sleep with chuckle!

Happy New Year to all!

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Winter solstice.

In winter the whole world seems older.

The houses are lit up, but the gardens are empty, only rain and wet birds buffet over the sodden ground. Youthful  pretention is swept away; no awnings and patio furniture; no bbqs; no tofu: just wind and dead leaves.

A kite quarters in the dark clouds; a bull finch calls with its monotonous single note; the wind chimes clash in a sudden squall and the wood smoke blows the years away between today and Bruegel and every long, waiting winter day, still raging at the dying of the light.

 

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Friday 13th election.

Chaff scuds before the wind

low and twisting, it lifts and turns like laughter.

The harvest has long since been gathered

and only the paper that curled around the husks remains behind.

Chaffinches, dun brown and rose chested chatter from rose hipped hedge to empty field,

And when they turn in the late winter light,

no one can tell them apart.

 

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The bare truth.

I love the shape of winter trees.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Brouhaha in a pear tree.

The fieldfare are here and the starlings too. They have a lot of catching up to do since last autumn and they never stop talking.

I thought brouhaha was a children’s word for a lot of noise until I watched a film with French subtitles for the hard of hearing and saw the noise of many voices in a crowd rendered simply as brouhaha. It is the right word to also describe the racket coming from a pear tree laden with ripe fruit this afternoon. No one had bothered to pick it, the fruit was too small, but the birds were loud in their appreciation of the owner’s forgetfulness.

There seems no limit to the variety of sounds that starlings can make. They pop, wheeze, exclaim, whistle and shriek and they shout over one another with a wonderful lack of inhibition. Add a flock of fieldfare, half drunk on the fermenting fruit and the result is as cacophonous as a bar when the football is on. I love this raucous  sound of autumn; everyone has something to say and are determined to say it.

The first snow has fallen on the Black Forest in Germany and on the Grand Ballon in the Voges; tonight there will snow here in the Jura, but today the sun in shining and the birds are making merry in the pear tree!

 

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Just don’t ask me to eat it!

I am almost over my horror of fungi.

This autumn has been extraordinary in the rich variety of mushrooms coaxed up by the rain, but I will never be tempted to eat any of them again.

This particular mushroom cap was thin and as smooth as porcelain. The edge was lined, as if it had shrunk back with delicate avoidance of the falling leaves pattering down all around it.

The aspen leaves were yellow and then black – no warming russets or browns to lull you – they know winter is coming and lay down to die with minimal fuss.

They only leave behind an unexpected perfume without the slightest a hint of decay . Something soft left lingering in the air.

Sky lace.

The swallows and martins are almost gone.

Over the garden they have poured in their hundreds, companionably calling as they weave their way to far away Africa.

Ted Hughes  wrote that they were stitching the sky and so I have always thought of them, but there were such thick clouds of them last week that I thought maybe they were lace making against the clouds, pulling delicate nets of fine worked lace  behind them.

Our house in on a migration route from Europe to Africa and every year the birds pour over us. Swallows and martins, chasing hobbies, red kites, honey busards, even the odd osprey and flock of blue, blue bee eaters stream over, sometimes high and sometimes low enough to feed from the insects rising from our garden.

The image of the fine lace woven by  the flight  patterns of wings for an instant and then rewoven, reassembled and pulled delicately across the whole world amuses me, something so much lighter and freer than a net : starting in the barns and eves of Europe and then being pulled by the interlacing wings all the way to Africa, a world unified  and beautified by birds!

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