“Flashing like tinsel” – for Mary Oliver.

“There’s Oliver, still standing around in the weeds. There she is, still scribbling in her notebook… but at the center: I am shaking; I am flashing like tinsel.”

Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard

by Mary Oliver

His beak could open a bottle,
and his eyes – when he lifts their soft lids –
go on reading something
just beyond your shoulder –
Blake, maybe,
or the Book of Revelation.

Never mind that he eats only
the black-smocked crickets,
and the dragonflies if they happen
to be out late over the ponds, and of course
the occasional festal mouse.
Never mind that he is only a memo
from the offices of fear –

it’s not size but surge that tells us
when we’re in touch with something real,
and when I hear him in the orchard
fluttering
down the little aliminum
ladder of his scream –
when I see his wings open, like two black ferns,

a flurry of palpitations
as cold as sleet
rackets across the marshlands
of my heart
like a wild spring day.

Somewhere in the universe,
in the gallery of important things,
the babyish owl, ruffled and rakish,
sits on its pedestal.
Dear, dark dapple of plush!
A message, reads the label,
from that mysterious conglomerate:
Oblivion and Co.
The hooked head stares
from its house of dark, feathery lace.
It could be a valentine.

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Thaw.

Loss is the sound of a skirt shaken; long hair tossed; snow shrugging from a dark winter pine and whispering down to the ground.

I walked in the thawing wood.

Everything was movement and sound and I felt as if I was walking in the company of multitudes shivering and sliding softly around me. At first the thaw was disorientating, too much movement and unexpected sound and then I became accustomed to the slippery urgency of snow falling into water, everywhere, all around, sliding.

Across the forest path: pigs, little ones, middle ones, aunties, mothers, utterly silent on tiny delicate feet. Fifteen wild boar passed noiselessly right in front of us and followed their line out across the damp snowy field: a line of  black piggy perfection against the waning white slush.

The power of noise.

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.

 

Slicing out the sky.

When the leaves are gone, there is less to distract us from the enormity of winter skies. Little, colurful birds cluster around the seed feeders and the fat balls, but the blank, cold skies are left for black birds: for the crows and for the best of all birds : the pitiless raven.

As the flowers shrivel in the first frosts, she bristles out her throat, throws back her head and laughs long and loud into the empty air. The dreariest time of year is the ravens’ flirtation . While we fret and fart with wretched leaf blowers in our tidy corners of the world, the ravens shout into the wind, roll  extravagantly, over and over with the sheer joy of aerial mastery, wings heavy bell beat in the frozen air. Their’s is delight in cold; delight in dark. This is their time to pair, to impress with improbable devilry; to call to their mate and to slice out a piece of sky for their own winter territory . In their magnificent racous laughter, they wait for the carrion that will feed their young in the months before spring returns.

On not being tidy.

There is a great desire to tidy up the garden at this time of year; to sweep away, to cut down and the housewife in me itches to do away with all the dying vegetation in a great autumn cleanup.

It has taken me a few years of enjoying my own garden to realise that this urge really stems from the mistaken belief that tidying away the old season, will hasten in the new. Old flower stems, mushy leaves and lank shrubs seem to cry out for a short back and sides, but having subjected my garden to such tidy mindedness in my first few years of real gardening, all I was left with was brown soil, bristling shrubs and flat grass. As there are months and months to go before the first bulbs appear and leaves soften the stark branches, I slowly realised that there is no rush to clean up and precious little point to loosing the interest bequeathed by the dying year.

Not being tidy means the seeds have time to ripen in the seed heads and the dry stems give architectural beauty lost in the tidy garden . Spiders sling their webs between the stalks and the first frosts jewel them with diamonds. The leaves shelter the worms, the beetles and the bugs that will feed the hedgehogs and the bushes are roost sites for sparrows and larders for bluetits. The unpicked grapes are pecked off by the blackbirds and the apples forgotten in the grass will feed the starlings.

The weeds that have escaped the tidy hoe in the vegetable patch find space to miraculously flower and prickly blue borage is noisy with the last honey bees.  Nothing is to be gained by pulling them up. There will be time much later in the long, long winter to make space for next year’s explosion of life.

Until them I will resist the urge to tidy and let my garden move at its own  pace: quietly, messily giving life to the winter world.

Heart of a Witch.

The autumn leaves were falling in a dry rustle around us as the trees slowly, reluctantly gave into the darkening days and sighed down to the woodland floor. My eye was caught by something bright red:  careless trash, I assumed, but stopped a moment to check.

Among the leaves was something far odder, older and much fouler than a discarded sweet wrapper. Spongy, fleshy, organic and disturbing, on an October afternoon I had stumbled upon a witch’s heart lying decomposing on the forest floor.

Clatharus ruber has many names: witch’s heart; stinking basket; Stinking cage and it is found in Europe and also in the Americans. The cage of rubbery bright red life erupts from a white egg and the first naturalist to describe it in the 16th century thought it was a marine animal . This fungus appears and decays into a stinking mass in 24 hours. This film clip shows the whole gruesome process:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pdN4pJXEDuE.

It took the contents of my water bottle to wash the stinking fungal spores off my fingers. The smell is utterly repellent. You would have to be a carrion fly to appreciate it, but I am glad I got to hold the heart of a witch for just a few jellified, soul shuddering moments!

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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!

Mutability

Thank you to all those made wonderful guesses at the identity of the mysterious dripping wombat/ hedgehog .

The extraordinary solid wheeping dome was the start of a bracket fungi called a Red Belted Bracket ( I think!).  It takes years to mature and the original photo showed the first pulse of the fruiting body on a felled pine tree.

At first I thought a cyclist had left a water bottle on the pile of cut wood as it gleamed with droplets. I stretched out my hand tentatively, maybe the drops were solidifying resin, but no, they were ordinary water and lots of it. The log on which it was growing had been cut for months and there has been no rain for weeks and yet the fungi had found water to pump out all around itself in a sheath of jewels. As we clambered over the log pile we found the fungi in all states of development. The final unmistakable bracket was creamy white underneath, sweet smelling and still fringed in perfect droplets like tears.

A beautiful piece of creation and a salutary lesson in the mutability of fungi and how difficult they can be to safely identity as they change almost out of recognition as they grow.

 

Gardening Organically

I found this great post and I just pressed the reblog button in my enthusiasm. I didnt have time to ask for permission and I really hope The Wildlife Gardener doesnt mind my hasty action, but it is a really good piece and it expresses the need to ditch the chemicals much better than I can!

The Wildlife Gardener

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It’s tempting to reach for the chemical sprays or powders when your walk into your garden and find your favorite rose overrun with aphids or Japanese beetles, or find your cauliflower beset by cabbage worms.  After all, what harm can a localized spray possibly do?

The answer is quite a lot.  The fact is 90% or more of all insects are beneficial and harmless, and no matter how “localized” the spray, the chemical will kill all insects, not just the “pests.”  A diverse collection of insects in your garden/yard translates into good pollination and fruit development, and a natural, non-toxic check on the growth of “pests.”  We need insects in the ecosystem.  The alternative would be hand-pollinating our fruit and vegetables to continue our food supply; clearly not a viable or reasonable alternative.

Beneficial insects, if allowed to flourish, will curb the spread of pests.  The two most effective ways to encourage…

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Blink.

Today was hallucinogenic lace. Threads of nothing from branch to no where and then gone. Lines across the eyes that lift and leave and we feel that it meant something, but it couldn’t, it wasnt there.

The spiders were balloning. Fine autumn weather and wolf,house and crab spiders take to the air throwing out gossamer lines to launch the next generation on the wind. Such wonderful faith in the future, they throw themselves on the hallucinary beauty of the breeze. We blink our slow eyes and almost miss the marvellously minute migration in the air all around us.

Chocolate dusting

These bracket fungi remind me of Christmas spice biscuits: white sugar and a dark chocolate top, all dusted with cocoa powder. The honey fungus to the left look like marzipan decorations, but I am not eating any of it. Foraging maybe fashionable these days, but a spectacular number of people die every year from picking and eating the wrong mushrooms. I am fascinated by fungi, but know enough to recognise how different the same species can be, at each stage of its growth. Even the most experienced can make mistakes and while this can just lead to a badly upset stomach, it can also lead to fast, fatal poisoning. So I just admire from a distance and eat real chocolate instead!

On the same walk in the woods, where I spotted these deceptively edible treats, I saw a commotion in a fir tree which took a moment to understand. There was ungainly flapping and an odd hissing/cooing noise. The flapping was a buzzard and the hissing was a very small red squirrel racing along the trunk of the tree to escape. The buzzard chased it up the tree and then down again, flapping its wings against the trunk to dislodge the mammal. The squirrel ran for its life making the strangest soft cooing noises. Eventually it reached the safety of the floor and buried its self in the undergrowth. The buzzard flew heavily away with a disgusted croak.

I have seen a buzzard with a dead red squirrel in its claws, but never watched them hunting like this before. We don’t get Grey squirrels here at all and the red squirrels are much less obvious. I have always thought of buzzards hunting voles and rabbits, but when you see how crafty they are in the depth of the forest, it is no wonder the red squirrels with their soft voices, are so cautious and hard to see.

Alsace in August.

There have been three weeks of punishingly hot weather here, but today it was finally cool and we could emerge from our firmly shuttered house and enjoy the countryside.

The skies are full of huge storks . All the youngsters have successfully fledged from their roof top nests and have followed every plough and harvester to gather up the crickets, slugs and voles and turn them into gigantic terydactyl sized birds. I love seeing the white storks raise their noisy broods in such public places. They are a wonderful European sucesss story . In the Alsace they were nearly shot to extinction only a few decades ago, but now with bettter education and legal protection these truely iconic birds are flourishing once again. When I arrived in our village 8 years ago, to see a stork in the sky was a real event, but now they feed regularly in the meadows and the local school is putting up a stork basket to encourage the first pair to nest here for many years. Some things do get better!

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When stopping for a rest, I looked closely at this Douglas fir branch . There is a new cone sticky with resin, but there are also the remains of old cones, with just the sharp, strong centre remaining. Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas are said to originate in the Alsace starting with pine tree brought into the house and decorated. The old upright cone stalk looked exactly like the metal spike used to secure candles in times gone by and I wondered if this natural shape had given people the idea of attaching the little candles that illuminate Christmas trees still,  while we stand by with the fire extinguisher on Christmas Eve.

Thirty storks flew high over the garden today. The migration has started – Christmas is coming!!

 

In the eye of the beholder.

I know the photo will make some shudder, but to me this is beautiful.

Oak Egger moths are big and bold and so covered in fur they seem designed for the arctic . It has been too hot here for doing anything during the day, so I get up at dawn to enjoy what little cool there is . Gently opening the moth trap still makes me feel like a child on Christmas morning discovering the presents left by Santa. A flurry of tiny white moths always escape at once, but then I slow lift out the egg boxes one by one and see what the night has brought with enough time to photograph and to check names in the book.

Identifying is satisfying; sending  in records to the local wildlife trust is worthy, but often I don’t want to do either.

Who cares what they are called, when they are there on your own hand, regarding you with their unfathomable eyes?

Sometimes science can wait. I just want to stare back.

Eye, eye!

 

The odd creature in the large reading glasses is me, but the monster on the left is a large elephant hawk moth caterpillar. He was lying flat to the stem of the evening primrose plant, but when confronted by my alarming visage he retracted his elephant snout ( hence the name) swelled up his head prodigiously and waved his huge eye markings at me in an impressively menacing way.  He was quite harmless, but his display of monster mimicing should repel all but the most agressive predator!

We have had some welcome rain, which has brought out a banquet of slugs for the hedgehogs. Last night I found a youngster drinking deep from the water in the saucer of a just watered plant and later this afternoon , in broad daylight, a larger hedge hog was drinking unconcernedly from the saucer of water I always leave on the lawn.

This large, old plant saucer has provided water for generations of hedgehogs, for wasps and sparrows and black birds. It isn’t pretty, but it has been a life saver, so keep an eye on the wild visitors to your garden by keeping the water topped up. You never know what you might see!

 

 

Unmistakable!

This beauty is a privet hawk moth and is the most spectacular catch of the moth trap this summer. She was peacefully happy to be photographed in the morning, showing off her spectacular underwings before folding them tidily away and resting for a while in the shade of the table leg.

She seemed oddly familiar even though I know I have never seen this wonderful creature before. It wasn’t until I was sending my records in to our local wildlife site

( faune-alsace) that I realised the privet hawk moth is the cover illustration on my Chris Manley Guide to British Moths.

She was even bigger and better in real life!

 

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Sun rise, sun set …..

I love being on holiday and having the time to spend whole days in the garden, not just snatched moments between work and sleep!

Evening primroses are wonderful flowers that uncoil themselves in the twilight and become luminous saucers of pale yellow in the darkness. Watching their opening from a garden seat,  as the blackbirds fuss themselves down to sleep, is one of the great pleasures of high summer. The flowers are open all night and as soon as the bees and butterflies wake up in the morning, they throw themselves into the generous feast of pollen and nectar .

In the early morning, there  is time to explore the fields that we usually blurred by in the morning commute.

Green finches wheeze companiably from the hedgerows; sparrows explode in raucous flocks from the ripe wheat and poured over everything, like thick cream, is the complex beauty of the blackcap’s song.

On the edge of the yellow wheat, poppies are starting to open. The green calyx of the bud is being shrugged off like an uncomfortable hat. The flower stem is vibrating visibly with the effort of releasing the petals. A moment’s waiting as the sun rises and the poppy is open; crimson petals still frilled with the shape of the bud. A moment more  and a bumble bee has found it and vibrates in ecstasy in the brand new black pollened centre of this poppy, that will have dropped every scarlet petal by the mid day sun.

The opening of the flowers mark each wonderful, transient day of our holidays and of our lives. Enjoy!

I am watching you!

Summer is so full of life. It is difficult to know where to look.

Huge oaks thrash in a thunder storm; the ears of a hiding fawn flick above tall flowers; a wet butterfly waits for the sun under a rain soaked flower.

Cameras give us the chance to see somethings we missed the first time. This angle shades moth is a tribal mask watching us more intently than we think!

(Thanks to Bruce Piercy for this photo).

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