These unearthly things are greater horse tail spore bodies. They erupt out of the earth and look oddly like lawyers’ wig ink cap mushrooms.
They are in fact the last hurrah of a plant kingdom that once dominated the earth and towered over dinosaurs: tumbling down in their multitudes to form the Carboniferous geological layer that gave us coal and oil.
Now they are just one plant amongst many. A relative is an annoyingly tenacious weed in my garden and the silica in horse tail leaves made them handy pot scourers and wood polishers in other times. The greater horse tail likes damper places in woods and can indicate a spring line underground.
The spore bodies have no chlorophyll and die as soon as their ancient spores are shed. The leaves of odd whorls that inspired the concept of fractals come later and they can form great stands of plants.
They are oddities that momentarily surprise us before sinking back into the herbage
Maybe our reliance on the fossil fuels they left behind so long ago will seem equally surprising and unimportant one day. We can hope!
The pear blossom is over, the cherry blossom is still splashing down and the pink edged perfect apple blossom is just showing between the twin green leaves that seem to offer up the simple flowers to an April morning.
In the thicket a real Nightingale sang. Her song is so rich, so varied, so burbling, so beautiful it needs Keats to do it justice. This poem seems so apt and poignant today, just as it did for Keats struggling with TB and still transported by the astounding beauty of the bird’s song. It is a long poem, but well worth reading again, or for the first time.
“Immortal bird” indeed.
Ode to a Nightingale .
John Keats- 1795-1821
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: ‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, But being too happy in thine happiness,— That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees, In some melodious plot Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth, Tasting of Flora and the country green, Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth! O for a beaker full of the warm South, Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth; That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget What thou among the leaves hast never known, The weariness, the fever, and the fret Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; Where but to think is to be full of sorrow And leaden-eyed despairs, Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee, Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, But on the viewless wings of Poesy, Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: Already with thee! tender is the night, And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays; But here there is no light, Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet Wherewith the seasonable month endows The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine; Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves; And mid-May’s eldest child, The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death, Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath; Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain, While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad In such an ecstasy! Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— To thy high requiem become a sod.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generations tread thee down; The voice I hear this passing night was heard In ancient days by emperor and clown: Perhaps the self-same song that found a path Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, She stood in tears amid the alien corn; The same that oft-times hath Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell To toil me back from thee to my sole self! Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf. Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades Past the near meadows, over the still stream, Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep In the next valley-glades: Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
I promised to tell you how my attempt to grow my own loofas went.
I bought the seed last winter when cutting down on plastic seemed the most important thing in the world. Well, the seeds germinated well and
the seedlings grew. I identified a good place against a wire fence to plant them out and watered them in. Then it turned wet and the cats were both sick and the slugs came out and ate the plants down to the ground when I wasn’t looking!
End of story.
What is astonishing about this little tale is that a whole year has gone by since I bought the seeds and the whole world has grown so strange since then.
I feel as if I haven’t been out of the garden or house since then. Time has folded in on itself so much since then that I am not sure I ever planted the loofa seedlings at all, or what I was hoping to achieve by growing them.
I have spent an inordinate amount of time this covid year staring at my two cats Winston and Pixie and marveling at their markings. They are brother and sister who were living in a neighbor’s greenhouse as kittens. We took them in and have always been fascinated by how many wild cat genes they might carry.
There are wild cats here in the edge of the Jura and I have seen cats on the edge of the forest with the tell tale fat banded tail and the black Pom Pom on the end.
Pixie has the classic wildcat tail, when she is being really agressive or scared, it quadruples in size and my little affectionate Pixie becomes a fluffy monster. Her larger brother Winston has some of the wildcat markings, but no where near as many as his sister, he has sleek velvety fur and classic tabby cat stripes. They both have wildcat cat ear tufts.
This useful illustration of the markings on a cats back is the best I have found for telling a tabby from a real wild cat.
It could be Pixie A (wild cat) and Winston B, ( tabby cat ) but as they are sister and brother I think all that it proves is that cats, just like humans are a bit of everything and wonderfully mixed up like us all!
Covid is raging across the world and life can seem to have shrunk to a penny piece, but there is still wonderful good news to hold onto.
Here on one of the busiest and most polluted rivers in the world , ospreys are returning to breed. A huge international rewilding project is returning a little bit of the river Rhine to its natural state and wildlife is moving straight back in to rebalance the world.
At the other end of our astonishing planet blue whales, which were nearly hunted to extinction, are reappearing again after hunting was outlawed.
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.
The rain washed the soil from the field and it made the most delicate image of the tree that should be growing there, just to remind us of what we loose when we let the soil leach away and we treat the earth like a factory floor.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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 .
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
There is so much bad news , so much that scrapes the skin from your flesh and leaves just flinching, flayed nerves alive to every sadness. And so we turn our eyes away, watch a moth bulging at our self indulgence with blissful alien incomprehension, listen to the hoot of an owl, calling between the roar of the jets, read haikus, allow a late flower to suprise us and to delight us and we hold on as the world turns and turns and we hold on, hold on.
It is still summer and glittering. Jewels hunt amongst the rose petals and the perfume of heat is strong.
But the night is cooler and the dawn later. The bats are coming into roost over the apple trees when I have to leave for work, their tantalising trails of clicks and whirls are caught by the bat box and then forgotten in the blur of noise and traffic and faces and faces and faces that fill the working day.
This swallow was nesting above the cutlery shelf in a busy English beer garden. Drinkers clattered by collecting knives and forks, ketchup and vinegar and bar staff plonked down ploughmans’ lunches, Sunday roasts and Branston pickle sandwiches on their way to tables ringed by hungry drinkers. The swallow ignored them all and safe between the electrical wires and heating ducts brought butterflies and bugs back to its brood of hatchlings .
I have put up artificial, purpose made nests for swallows and house martins all round my house, just above my garden which is heaving with insect banquets and the birds have spurned them all. I have laughed at the improbability of my neighbour ever populating his huge new house martin monster hotel as he insists on constantly shaving the grass beneath with noisiest lawn mower known to creation. However, it seems I have been totally wrong about what these birds want, as this picture proves. To attract swallows to nest in harmony give them chatter, clatter, the smell of cooking and the fumes of plenty of good bitter beer!
Walking by the edge of an old duck pond , the shadowed earth between the grass shivered. A tiny vibration of stalks and a sense that the ground was spotted with raindrops falling upwards: the frogs had emerged.
Great lumbering things that we are, we minced and high footed our way, conscious at once of our potential to massacre with each clumsy foot fall.
This single froglet rested momentarily in an outstretched hand. Its pin prick heart beating blood around around this minuscule body; nerves registering our heat, eyes wide to the boundless ocean of our enormous flesh.
Two animals together for a single heartbeat next to an old duck pond in the July shade.
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.
I was telling my neighbour about the hedgehogs is the garden and she told me how amazed she was to see them in her garden too. There is no surprize in this as a hedgehog roams about two kilometres a day. The problem is that so many gardens are so securely fenced off from each other that hedgehog cannot move from one to another. Small gaps between fences panels or holes under lines of wire fences are all that is needed for a prickly hog to squeeze safely through and to find enough to eat each night.
Humans are obsessed with tidiness. We like straight lines and we fill the gaps in with unyielding concrete in the name of tidiness. We strim down the rough patches and we mow the grass within an inch of its life. Tidy gardens have very little wildlife and are such a waste of wonderful spaces!
Putting hedgehog path ways through new and old fences is a wonderful way of cooperating with your community, getting to know the neighbours and helping one of the most irresistible mammals I know.
This link to the wildlife trusts of the UK shows you how to do it.