I’ve had enough of January. There wasn’t much snow and it is hard to get excited about mud. The glittery things have all gone. Blah! Wake me up in March.
I’ve had enough of January. There wasn’t much snow and it is hard to get excited about mud. The glittery things have all gone. Blah! Wake me up in March.
There was ice on the path, the shape of a horse hoof in the half thawed mud and a broken twig of mistletoe. A tractor growled far away, a kite mewed over head.
In a very old church, a skeleton lay exposed to the infrequent congregation, oddly indecent amongst the pews. A prankster stole his skull a few years ago. They say.
On the altar spiders strung their careful webs between the wings of the praying angels and on the spotted altar cloth there was a delicately tied bundle of vine cuttings. Medieval faces of devoation, chipped off by irreligious revolutions, watched impassively as the year turned.
Outside, the churchyard is plump with the granite graves of gilded lettering and pyramids of winter flowers and unlit candles.
As I walked; (careful not to go withershins ) round the old church, brief sunlight illuminated an extraordinary scene on the exterior church wall. This opulent scene must have been covered over for hundreds of years. The old church has just been replastered as this scene of Constantinople, Rome, Jerusalem or heaven its self has just come to light again.
Everything is tantalisingly unclear. I can find nothing to explain it.
What do you see in it?
In an excess of festive madness Pixie kicked over the two plastic sheep. One has gone slightly yellow and the other is white, but lame and falls over its own volition. The nativity scene was brought from Italy by my grandfather and withstands its annual banishment to a cardboard box in the attic with little distress.
The three wise men are slowly edging closer, bearing their incomprehensible, but desirable gifts. The ikea table of destiny is lengthy and the chance of being booted awry by my fiesty cat is a very real and present danger. I therefore wish them well on their perilous journey to deliver their wisdom and gifts to the son of man.
Pixie is very capricious.
The sun is up for such a brief moment. A bar of sunshine slants across the hill and inside all the dust of December is illuminated on glass and table and books. Outside the sparrows cluster to the unfreezing bread crumbs, blackbirds eat the half thawed windfall apples and a solitary goldfinch fluffs herself into the seed house to gorge in safety.
In some corners the sunlight never reaches at all and the frost forms thicker and thicker, riming each leaf with new flowers of ice, blooming delicately, quietly in the cold, still air.
It has been raining here. Wind in the fir trees, wind rattling the shutters and soft, almost incessant rain.
The summer and autumn were long, hot and dry. The neighbours were noisy and open windows let in little cool air and plenty of racket; so when the temperature finally dropped it was a pleasure to close the windows and listen the gentle drum of rain on the roof.
My favourite stream in the woods has been dry for months, but after so much rain I felt sure it must be running again.
Today we squelched up passed the bare trees and luminous moss to find clear water running over scoured rocks.
The sound was deliciously simple and clean. The great sponge of the forest had soaked up enough rain to allow the stream to flow above ground again, sweeping away the dark autumn leaves of the bed to reveal the bright pale limestone beneath. The rain patered on the brim of my felt hat. The harts’ tongue ferns glowed green in the winter gloom; a whirl of chaffinches shook water from the smooth beeches and the ravens laughed high over head : “there will come soft rains…”
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground, And swallows circling with their shimmering sound; And frogs in the pools singing at night, And wild plum trees in tremulous white, Robins will wear their feathery fire Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire; And not one will know of the war, not one Will care at last when it is done. Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree If mankind perished utterly; And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn, Would scarcely know that we were gone.
Christmas trees have history . Pagans used ever greens to bring life to the darkest day of the year and they have been brought into homes down the centuries around the shortest day of the year to comfort us with the knowledge that the world is not dead and that birth will happen.
The very earliest recorded public Christmas trees are from Latvia and Lithuania and the idea seemed to have traveled south to Germany where a tree was set up in 1570 decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels and paper flowers. Martin Luther is credited with putting up the first tree in a home and the fashion spread.
This year was such a good apple harvest here, but the pressoir is finally closed as nearly all the apples have been brought in and juiced or turned to cider. However some trees still hold on to their apples. Perfect red or yellow apples hang from leafless branches like an opening for Sleeping Beauty .The idea of collecting and even gilding such winter apples is obvious and hung on fir trees they were the prototype for the glass baubles and decorations of our artifical trees today.
Queen Victoria’s German husband brought the Christmas tree tradition with him to England and an engraving of the family admiring their decorated tree started a fashion that swept the country. I love the detail that the same engraving was reproduced in the USA , but the woman was without her crown and the man without his mustache in order to make the figures look like an American family – and so the Christmas tree became fashionable across the Atlantic and eventually the whole world!
Strasbourg Christmas market is the oldest in the world. The capital of the Alsace also calls itself the capital of Christmas. German and French alternately, Strasboroug has kept alive the traditions of the Christmas tree for over 400 years. The shootings in the colourful market earlier this week by a deranged criminal with a gun were frightening, but the stalls will be open again this weekend, the police have done their job and the last uncollected apples on the trees are still telling the story of light in the darkest time of the year.
Winter makes me look at the sky. In other seasons there is the distraction of growth and even decay, but in winter buildings look uglier, the people darker and the trees barer: so I look up at the sky instead.
I grew up in Britain and the wind from the Atlantic was never far away. Clouds raced, skies stormed and then cleared and blue sky was measured in the cloth needed to make a pair of sailor’s trousers. The sky was ever changeable, unpredictable, infuriating.
Here in this corner of central Europe the weather has a more middle aged, less tempestuous nature. When it is cold it is cold for a long time, when it is hot the sun blazes from clear blue skies until you ache for a forgiving cloud. Such stability has a lot to recommend it, hats stay on heads, hair out eyes and the trees are rarely ripped out by their roots; but such uniform skies can be dull. So when winter brings rain and wind, I imagine that the tang of the sea has not been completely lost on the air and I look up to admire the rare roaring majesty of a cloud wracked sky.
The names for clouds are wonderful, cumulonimbus, altostratus, cirrus, anvil and best of all mammatus.
Boiling, lolling, floating, twisting in layers of faces, creatures, monsters and messages from the gods, the clouds are the perfect counterpoint to the small life on the ground ( and phone) as they lift up our eyes to the absorbing, liberating indifference of the sky.
I found out about a orchard planting initiative in my village almost by accident. An old fashioned piece of paper dropped in my letter box said a field was being planted with trees the next day and volunteers were welcome.
A long field on the edge of the village was staked out with pegs and bare rooted pear and apple trees lay waiting to be pruned and planted. A knowledgeable man snipped off almost every branch with great care and precision and holes were dug to place the trees in. A pleasant community endeavour you might think, but what was was more remarkable than that people were giving up Saturday for the good of birds, was the fact the the land was in France, the trees were Swiss and the people were French, Swiss, German and British.
This slice of hope in a crazy world was funded by an anonymous donation in Switzerland that was to help little owls increase their tiny claw hold in Europe. The land was donated by a French family who love birds and the work was undertaken by locals, Swiss volunteers from over the border and school children. Little owls were extinct in the area, but very careful management and cooperation between bird lovers in three different nations is slowly recreating the tree and hedge rich habitat they need to survive and move effortlessly between countries. The generosity of someone I will never know, across a border that means nothing to wildlife, may hopefully help the spread of this beautiful bird.
While borders seem clanging shut across the world, this seems something to celebrate!
I love flowers: their colour; their perfume; their shape and their transience.
I like birds, I sort of like lichens, grass is tolerable. Winter is therefore rather dull to say the least. I look at birds, but they keep flying off. Lichens stay put, grasses are cut down and seed heads disperse. Ice makes pretty patterns in the puddles and snow can be beautiful, but nothing compares to a flower.
The months of winter are very, very long- so to dry the last flowers of summer and enjoy them at leisure, is some small compensation.
This summer I grew straw flowers and, as long as you pick them before they open, they make wonderfully coloured flowers for a winter arrangement . I have a marvellously sturdy yellow tansy that is covered in flowers perfect for drying and I bought a fresh bunch of stacis from the market that dried infront of the stove and keeps its colour perfectly.
I have shoved them in an old wine jug and so far they still smell of summer and are lovely: fulfilling all of my requirements, except transience.
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.
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.
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.
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
November is a month to read in. The garden has died back and after work there is no light left to admire what has survived.
And so I read. Serendipity has provided an eclectic selection recently thanks to a school book sale.
Firstly I am reading Peter Camenzind by Herman Hesse; then A Fool’s Alphabet by Sebastian Faulks; a biography of Jame Joyce by Herbert Corman and The Ascent Of Money by Niall Fergusun. This may sound impressive, but I admit now that I am reading them with varying success.
The Ascent of Money is on its way back to the library. I am 60 pages in and waning. I started well. The introduction was arresting. The average salary of an American in 2007 was $34,000. The chief executive of Goldman Sachs, a man called Lloyd Blankfein, received $ 46 million dollars – per year. I cannot even conceive of such a sum, so I had to read on. Fergusun explains metal money the gold and silver of South America that fueled Spain and Europe in fascinating detail, but once he goes into the methods of banking and accountancy that grew out of Renaissance Italy, I struggle and start to skip pages. As life is short, I move on!
The James Joyce biography was written the year after Joyce died. The stamp in the front of the book shows it was bought in India and then the inscription shows it was given as a present. It was sold from a library, no doubt its outspoken opinions on everything from Irishness to politics, coupled with its lyrical description deemed it unfashionable, but I am greatly enjoying it . I savour it in tart, cool, evocative slices.
Peter Carmenzind was writen in 1904 by Herman Hesse, before either of the terrible wars ripped through Europe . The hero was born in a remote Alpine village, which was not considered romantic. He climbs his mountains, but no one skis down them and the concrete and the chair lifts of 21century are an inconceivable future scar. The descriptions of the Föhn wind roaring up from the soft south to rock the roots of the icy peaks are memorable.
The book that I read each night at the moment is however A Fool’s Alphabet. This shows the life of a child of a British soldier and an Italian woman; told over places which begin which each letter of the alphabet in order. To achieve this, the story is not chronological, but swings between settings to cover each letter in turn. Rather than being contrived or disorientating, this structure is unexpectedly pleasing, as it seems to mirror the random nature of memory. I know I am enjoying it because I don’t want it to end too soon!
It is odd to write about what I am reading, as I don’t aim to recommend these books to anyone. It is rather like introducing acquaintances to one another at a rather badly lit party.
Reading in November is like that.
HERE in a quiet and dusty room they lie,
Faded as crumbled stone and shifting sand,
Forlorn as ashes, shrivelled, scentless, dry –
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.
Dead that shall quicken at the voice of spring,
Sleepers to wake beneath June’s tempest kiss;
Though birds pass over, unremembering,
And no bee find here roses that were his.
In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams;
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust
That shall drink deeply at a century’s streams;
These lilies shall make summer on my dust.
Here in their safe and simple house of death,
Sealed in their shells, a million roses leap;
Here I can stir a garden with my breath,
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.
I love this poem, especially the last stanza, though I never see seeds as ashes or shrivelled, just glossy and plump with potential for the next year.
After such a glorious autumn the sleet and cold wind of this weekend are reminders that the first days of November arrive this week. I went out in the sleet to pick the last flowers and filled my pockets with the seeds I have been meaning to collect all month. In my trouser pocket I found a black acorn I had picked up under a local oak tree earlier. The path is meely with crushed fallen acorns, every single one regulation brown except this perfect black seed. A genetic variation that will maybe heat up faster in the spring ready to germinate, or maybe it is less palitable to squirrels or mabe just unusual enough to be prized by a passing human and planted somewhere new…. “ and in my hand a forest lies asleep.”
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:
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!
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.
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!
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.
Avoid the temptation to be reasonable – what do you see?
All suggestions gratefully received!
I open the bathroom window, the cat leaps onto the window sill, huge eyed she surveys the black garden. The houses are dark, the shutters are down. Above the hill a crescent moon reclines on thin clouds.
A tawny owl calls soft and is answered, soft, soft. Bat, or is it bird, black against grey, very close. One cluck, another and then an indignant coal scuttle of falling notes clattering hard against the leaves: the blackbirds are awake – there is orange in the sky.
The church spire appears and a black redstart ticks the waking minutes from the rose arch. The Rome flight takes off and the plane leaves a dirty streak of noise across the sky followed by another and another. The pale blue morning is now tartan with orange vapour trails.
Two crows weave through, chatting companionably together against the immense sky. The sparrows are awake, a car hisses by.
The donkey, that I have never heard in my entire life, brays to the crows.
The cat jumps down.