Sliding on by.

This grape vine tendril has grown right across my front door step. This is vegetable testimony to how few people have stepped across the threshold and how rarely I have been out this way.

When the vine started budding it was early spring and we sat drinking tea in the sunshine, enjoying the lockdown and the luxury of working from home and watching the garden come to life for once. The bat came back to roost in the eves as summer started and the grapes began to set.

Now it is autumn : Being home is still a pleasure and the garden is still amazing but venturing beyond the garden still seems foolish . Covid has not gone away and so the grapes have fattened unadmired by guests and visitors.

I wish there was a reason to trim the wayward frond , I wish the vine shoot was in anybody’s way: but it isnt, so it curls indolently over the door mat.

I wonder if the door will be completely overgrown by the time a vaccine liberates us all back into normal life, or if I will have simply learnt to make my own wine and there will be no reason to ever go out again!

On Monday they open the borders.

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

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

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

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

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

Then the borders were closed.

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

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

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

I hope I never see them closed again.

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Stand and stare.

Leisure                       by William Henry Davies

 

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

 

Well, it seems we finally have time to stand and stare, as the world has stopped in an unimaginable way . This favourite poem has come into its own, but I am painfully aware that what we have to stare at during lockdown is not the same for everyone.

I have a little garden and orchards to walk in, but writing glowing descriptions of the birds and butterflies that I can see seems unconscionably smug when most people are stuck in flats with only concrete and asphalt to admire .

Beaches and woodland paths are closed. Parks are padlocked and in Japan they have had to cut the heads off the roses, to stop people going out to admire them and spreading the virus .  People are worried sick about not being able to earn money to feed their families and the leisure of not working does not feel like a holiday for long.

I understand why it has to be this way and if staring is all that I can do to help get the virus under control then it is no hardship, but I still feel profoundly guilty that not everyone can get out to enjoy this wonderful spring and “ turn at Beauty’s glance”.

I hope that everyone, wherever  they are, can find something beautiful to look at and can and stand and stare for a few minutes and forget their worries this afternoon.

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In the lion’s teeth.

It’s snowing here, but soon the sun will be out again and the dandelions will be in flower again – such is the fickle nature of spring. Faffing about flowers when the virus has us all enthralled seems absurd, but we must stay sane and nature turns unperturbed by our concerns.

Those of us fortunate enough to have lawns are watching them grow and as the world beyond the garden seems increasingly unsafe, we attempt to impose order on our own small patch. I think the first blog I ever wrote four years ago was a plea not to mow the lawn in the spring time and here I am again with the same plea for peaceful inaction!

Dandelions are beautiful.

Their huge golden flowers are the first food for so many bumblebees, honey bees and butterflies. If you are home instead of the office, then lie on the grass and watch a bee burying itself in the profusion of pollen that dandelions offer up. Watch the bee revel in the yellow gold, its whole body dusted in it and the pollen sacs on each back leg bulging with the riches it will take back to the hive.

Then put away the mower for a few weeks and let the dandelions be.

The English name for them is a corruption of the French “dent de lion” – lion’s teeth and they are “ lowen Zahn” – lion’s teeth in German too. Both names come from the shape of the seed, not the flower. The common French name is “pissenlit “ which literally means piss the bed, which is the diuretic result of eating too many of the delicious leaves!

I am eating a lot of dandelion leaves at the moment. I am eating them Greek style which is  boiled or steamed for a few minutes and then dressed in olive oil and salt. You will be relieved to know they have not lived up to their French name so far!

So enjoy the spring flowers on your lawn: feed the bees: eat free greens and stay healthy!

 

 

Dopamine fasting or teaching your grandmother to suck eggs!

Apparently needing the constant dopamine hit of fast food, all the films, series, games, music, social media contact and shopping in the known universe doesn’t actually make you happy.

Well, who would have guessed that one!!

It turns out that our screen fried lives actually need LESS stimulation not more and that the Silicon Valley gurus are actually reducing their over stimulated fried time and ( take a deep breath now! ) trying to remember what day dreaming and just looking up actually feels like.

They call it dopamine fasting.( I call it watching the grass grow.)

Astoundingly it has now been proven that  you need quiet time on your own to have Errr……. thoughts……..!

I am so glad to have lived long enough to see common sense become cutting edge fashion again.

It is sunny today and the dust is dancing in thermal columns of household indolence. I think I’ll contemplate it for a  while as dusting would be to be break my fast with too much exciting activity .

How wonderful it is to see the wheel turn. Pass me another egg!

Away.

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.

And take me away.

 

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Looks what happens when you don’t mow!

 

Short grass is an obsession with so many people. Close mown grass of uniform dullness is the holy grail for some; every “weed” poisoned and not an insect in sight makes some people happy. I, on the other hand, try my best to show how wonderful a long lawn can be and how much wildlife it can support. The dull lawners are rarely impressed until you mention the magic word : Orchid!

At work, a beautiful pyramid orchid managed to appear in the brief window between ritual grass cuttings. I happened to spot it and the mower had to spare a tiny patch of grass so the children could come out and photograph it on their phones. You can see them reflected in the glass window capturing something to share on line for a moment. It wasn’t like the tropical orchids on sale in the supermarket, it was small and vulnerable and they were almost impressed .

The butterfly orchid was in the meadow and the parasitic broomrape was on the edge of the maize field, so I thought I would share them with you like the kids do on social media, in the hope that a love for the wild things that grow when you dont mow, will stir in us all!

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Rambling bramblings.

Squeals of delight come easily to children and rarely to the truely grown up. Adult life consists of such profoundly dull things that an unforced squealing is considered an audible anomaly. That is why bramblings are so wonderful.

The odd jaunty red brambling amongst the chaffinches or sparrows in the garden is a smile inducing pleasure, but a wintering flock streaming overhead as the darkness falls evokes a real squeal.

Some years they don’t come. Apparently the prevelence of beech mast has to be just right to tempt them south from their Scandinavian homes in such numbers: they dont take wing in their millions for nothing. But when the conditions are right they arrive in huge numbers and feed voraciously in the woods of Southern Germany, Eastern France and northern Switzerland. We were once in the forest when they descended to forage and every leaf was alive with flicking, delicately rustling birds, as thousands and thousands fed quietly around us.

This year we have seen few on the ground, but suddenly the air has been fabulously full of them. Somewhere relatively close, the bramblings have been roosting on mass and the skies right above our muddy garden have been filled with their sturdy determined silhouettes returning at dusk to their temporary roost.

The first flock flying over make you stop what you are doing and shout for others to look. The second flock makes you shout louder, the third, the forth and the fifth flock leave you rooted to the earth in immobile delight. When the flocks streaming overhead are indistinguishable and there is no sky between them, then you realise you are seeing millions of birds and squealing is the only possible response!

We tried in vain to find the roost, but by the time we had time to give up doing the dull things that grown ups do, the bramblings in their extraordinary, unbelievable millions, had gone somewhere else.

I hope they will be back next year.

Breathe in.

Stripping lavender flowers from their stalks is the most peaceful task I know.

As you sit beside a basket of trimmed flowers and rub your fingers along each stem, the seeds are crushed: gently releasing a perfume that soothes the soul and relaxes the mind as it rises. The bowl  slowly fills with soft light flowers. Plunging your hand in and stiring releases more perfume, until you can taste lavender on your tongue and feel it on your eyelashes. The world is slowed down. You breathe deeply and everything seems safe and clean, fresh and very very  young.

I always leave the lavender until it is seeded, as the flowers attract clouds of butterflies and bees that I would not deprive of their perfumed food. The seeds smell just as intensely as the flowers and this way I have the pleasure of their perfume and the sight of the butterflies too.

A few bunches are hung up for decoration and the rest will fill cotton bags to scent pillows and sheets in the linen cupboard. The smallest lavender bag will go in my work bag. When I need reminding of my garden I rub it between my fingers and I am back in the green shade inhaling the complex glory of lavender in a safe, perfumed summer garden.

Elizabeth (and her German Garden)

Some writers you love, even though you know you shouldn’t.

Elizabeth von Arnim was rich and incredibly privileged. She was born in to money and married into European aristocracy. She wafted through a beautiful garden admiring the flowers and thwarted in her desire to get her hands dirty only by her attentive gardeners.

And yet I love her passionately.

She wrote about virtually nothing, if you need exciting plots and varied stettings she will infuriate you. If you require complex characters and cliff hanging action, she will bore you.  However, if your heart yearns for green spaces, for gardens and perfumes and flowers, if you basically long for solitude and self determination then Elizabeth von Arnim is like walking into a quiet room after the deafening roar of a city street.

She is most famous for Elizabeth and her German Garden, but my personal favourite is the Solitary Summer .

This is opening to “A Solitary Summer”, which is free on project Guttenberg, as it is out of print.

“May 2nd.—Last night after dinner, when we were in the garden, I said, “I want to be alone for a whole summer, and get to the very dregs of life. I want to be as idle as I can, so that my soul may have time to grow. Nobody shall be invited to stay with me, and if any one calls they will be told that I am out, or away, or sick. I shall spend the months in the garden, and on the plain, and in the forests. I shall watch the things that happen in my garden, and see where I have made mistakes. On wet days I will  into the thickest parts of the forests, where the pine needles are everlastingly dry, and when the sun shines I’ll lie on the heath and see how the broom flares against the clouds. I shall be perpetually happy, because there will be no one to worry me. Out there on the plain there is silence, and where there is silence I have discovered there is peace.”

“Mind you do not get your feet damp,” said the Man of Wrath, removing his cigar.”

 

Elizabeth (1866-1941) was her pen name. She was born Mary Annette Beaucham in Australia, but only lived there for the first few years of her life and her cousin was the famous New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield. She married a German noble man and they lived in Berlin until she discovered that her husband owned a country estate in Northern Germany.  The family was moved there and she revelled in the beauty of her garden and the surrounding countryside. She may have been wealthy, but she was still “only “ a woman at a time when women were expected to hold their tongues and uphold social niceties , when she would much rather be alone and free under open skies. Her descriptions of beauty are unsurpassed and I find her observations of humanity refreshingly witty and biting, which to me is an irresistible combination.

Her novel about leaving the rain of London with a group of other disappointed women, to find escape and peace for a short time in an Italian castle was made into a lovely  film “The Enchanted  April” which I can strongly recommend.

Elizabeth wrote to find her own voice in a restraining world; to revel in the beauty of a garden and to make money. She was hugely popular in her day and after her husband lost his fortune, she kept the family afloat. Eventually she divorced her German count and become an independent literary woman in her own right and grew her own  perfect garden in Switzerland .

I would dearly  have loved to swap cuttings with her!!

 

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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!

Thursday 2.35 pm

The Girl

One day life stands

gently smiling like a girl

suddenly on the far side of the stream

and asks

(in her annoying way ),

But how did you end up there?

 

By Lars Gustafsson              translated from the Swedish by John Irons

printed Essential Poems Bloodaxe books 2012

Weekend.

There is so much to write about at this time of year I don’t know where to  begin. Winston brought me a slow worm and dropped it delicately at my feet to admire. Pixie brought me a vole and chased around the kitchen and killed it. The garden is filling with flowers. There are orange tipped butterflies on the wild ladies smock blooming in the lawn. There are violets in the tussocks and wasps shaving the wooden garden bench to make their nests. The cat drug valerian is managing to grow faster than they can rub it back down in their ecstasy . We have seen our first swallows and our first house martins as they swooped on by . The ants have woken up . There are bee flies on the honesty flowers and humming bird hawk moths on the cowslips. The blackthorn is still beautiful . The peas and the potatoes are planted. The only absurd part of this wonderful race of fantastical spring glory is that some joker still expects me to leave it all on Monday and go to work!!

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All my Gardens part 7 : Zambia .

A77E0D1E-4FB5-4EC7-B121-BAC78324D5BCIn my memory Zambia was soft dust, jacaranda trees, chameleons and a black and white cat.

We took a job in Africa to escape the soul crushing megalopolis of Sao Paulo  in Brazil. It was like moving from Mars to the moon. We still had work and a home and books, but nothing else was the same.

Our little African house came with a tiny garden of overhanging bougainvilleas around enough lawn to sling a hammock across and a patio with a rusting metal table and chairs, behind a lattice work of alternate bricks held up by a tenacious and magnificent jasmine plant.

We lived in the capital , but even  in the city there were stars such I had never seen since camping in Costa Rica and the heavens seemed very close indeed. Every Saturday we could hear beautiful music and pick up trucks passed by crammed with traditionally dressed Zambians singing. Eventually I understood that these were funerals.

There was a small vegetable garden and the bright orange soil splashed the whitewashed wall after the rains. We tried hard to grow things, but despite the sun and the rains nothing flourished and we began to understand how infertile tropical soils can be.

Amongst the pepper plants we found a chameleon. Watching it was like regarding the inhabitants of another planet as it’s golf ball eyes rotated to watch us slowly and its pincher hands  clasped and climbed in an hallucinary dream.

Bonkers the cat was obsessed with the chameleons. He owed his life to my worry about snakes and spiders. I had insisted that a Cat would be essential to protect us and so he appeared to keep us safe. I asked if anyone had a cat with kittens and if so could I have a short haired, female, black cat, if possible. A month later a black and white, long haired male kitten was given to me in an ornate bird cage. He was small enough to sit in my hand and we fell in love.

Bonkers ran up curtains, fell off and broke his leg. He burnt his whiskers on the embaula. He crawled into the engine of a car and got badly run over. Our extraordinary Zambian vet brought him back from the brink over and over again and Bonkers the Magnificent survived .

There were excellent market gardens around Lusaka and trays of bedding lobilia, zinnias , begonias and candy tuft could be bought to bring a bygone  suburban England to this lovely, lush country.

We walked to work each day and the enormous road side trees carefully planted for beauty rained down purple, gold and cherry coloured petals onto the quiet side walks.

In our garden the jasmine was loaded with so many flowers for a few months that it pulled down the wall and we could reach the avocados and mangos shining in the foliage beyond, while Bonkers stalked the chameleons and the singing trucks drove by.

 

If any one is bored on a cold Sunday these are parts 1-6 of All my Gardens:

All my Gardens- part 6 : Brazil – humming birds and highrise. 

All my Gardens-Part5 England and almonds.

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

All my Gardens – part 3: Wild Wales.

All my Gardens: part 2 Garsington Manor and beyond.

In Cold Time (All my gardens :part 1)

 

 

 

2018 – Work to be done!

A New Year and new hopes.

The garden is muddy, the leaves are unswept and the birds are always hungry. In the forsythia the flock of sparrows squabble. A shrew has dug up a tulip bulb and red kite swoops low to check on the edibility of the cat.

In the undug vegetable  patch parsley uncurls a few leaves after the snow, a red cabbages resigns itself to never being  picked and the mullein rosette settles the ashes from the wood stove amongst the soft, warm down of its winter leaves. It is all still here! There is work to be done!


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Rien à Déclaré

E3401D3B-4830-481B-BD0F-8C75AB96C701.jpegI have just finished rewatching a very funny Dany Boon French movie set on the French/Belgium border in 1993, the year European  borders were opened and no one needed customs officials anymore.

The film came out in 2010 and shows what happens in a little border town that basically is no longer a border and how the French and the Belgian customs men have to learn to accept each other as fellow human beings. It is a film about the stupidity of racism,  full of slap stick, silly stereotypes and a soppy romantic ending.

It opens on New Year’s Day, when the laws change and the people can move freely and the irony of watching it while waiting for Britain’s borders to slam shut was not lost on me.

I try hard to avoid all controversial subjects in this blog, for all the blindingly obvious reasons . Maybe it will be just as funny when the border guards and customs people separate Britain from our neighbours in Europe. Maybe standing in queues and being suspicious of foreigners will provide us all with a rich vein of reverse humour.

I cross European borders everyday to shop, to visit friends, to go to the doctor, to work: it is as easy as crossing the street. I want everyone to feel as free as I do right now, walls do not always make good neighbours and the fun comes when you don’t need them at all. Then maybe we will all have Rien a déclaré.

Crow

img_1339Anything wild catches my eye.  Surrounded by day in Swiss concrete, there is little moving to distract me: except the crows.

In the bare branches of the stunted municipal trees they hunch and wait for a dropped sandwich; a popped pringle; an unloved apple.

They throw back their necks and caw jubilation to waiting mates .  Unfurl shake of black shawl wings and sky borne : quartering and dividing the dark tarmac, deciding  how to achieve the ground and to eat their quarry.

Swoop. Decent. Great wings folded and tidy they step delicately martial across their parade ground of discarded dinner and impale a morsel in anthracite black beaks .  Food inspected, assessed, consumed, they return replete to the bare winter tree  and watch us, intelligent sentinels, as the darkness falls.

November

In the autumn there seemed ages to tidy up the garden, no rush in the mild sunshine to get all those jobs done; but I had somehow forgotten about the dark and the rain and the wind. Between all of that and a full time job, there have been only a few half hours of dry daylight to spare and my lovely garden is soggy, muddy and dank.

It reminded me of the old Thomas Hood poem about this low month.

Only a few more days to go of November and then I can put up the Christmas decorations , make the house silly and sparkly, celebrate the end of another good year and start planning for the next year in the garden!!

November

No sun–no moon!
No morn–no noon!
No dawn–no dusk–no proper time of day–
No sky–no earthly view–
No distance looking blue–
No road–no street–no “t’other side this way”–
No end to any Row–
No indications where the Crescents go–
No top to any steeple–
No recognitions of familiar people–
No courtesies for showing ’em–
No knowing ’em!
No traveling at all–no locomotion–
No inkling of the way–no notion–
“No go” by land or ocean–
No mail–no post–
No news from any foreign coast–
No Park, no Ring, no afternoon gentility–
No company–no nobility–
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member–
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds–
November!

Thomas Hood

For the next spring.

The virtue of being an untidy gardener is that most of my flowers get to set seed. The down side is a shabby September garden!

So this year I decided to share seeds with friends at work. I filled seven bowls with seeds collected from the garden and the drive. All of them are seeds I know will germinate and make good plants and it was a great pleasure to feel their various textures between my fingers and have friends turn them over and ask questions about the colours and perfumes of the plants they will make.

 

Harriet Monroe, ed. (1860–1936). Poetry: A Magazine of Verse. 1912–22.

The Seed-shop
By Muriel Stuart

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 collected masses of wild marjoram, a heaped bowl of tiny yarrow, a pinch of pale wall flower seeds, a spiked ball of wild agrimony, a sliver of shining columbine seeds, a roll of tough everlasting pea seeds and a sliding flurry of flat honesty seeds.

I hope they have all gone to good homes and will flourish in new gardens.