Bright in the sun.

The blossom trees held their breath in the snow and the storm and today they exhaled.

The white cherry blossom studs the forest tops and in the orchards, the perfect pink of apple blossom opens out on to the clean pale centre of this most lovely of flowers on this the most perfect of April days.

Things are not always perfect, but in the brief moment when they are, we can rejoice.

Basho , the great Japanese poet famously wrote:

It is with awe

That I behold

Fresh leaves, green leaves

Bright in the sun

Swerve.

From sun and shining glitter of spring light

To snow sound absorbing grey

From the gurgling water of blackbird fountain

To the thick unexpected silence of smothering snow

So the world swerves,

From plenty to penury.

Last brambling of the winter knows he was right to stay

Finding a seed in the snow

The precipitous apple blossom turns from pink to brown,

unopened, above his heedless head.

Finding love.

If you are a masonry bee, finding love needs some patience. These amorous bees have taken up residence in my bee houses and are very obvious at this time of year, but I really understood very little about their life and love cycle ( and probably still don’t!)

In March, apparently, the male grubs hatch and bite their way out of the mud blocked bamboo canes . They are distinguishable from the females by their white hairy faces. They then have to wait for the females to emerge and often back right back into the hollow canes to wait for their date. A line of these whiskered bees reminds me of impatient bearded blokes waiting for their girl friends outside of the ladies’ changing rooms in a clothes store .

When the long awaited ( and larger) female bee finally emerges, they buzz around each other and finally mate, sometimes wrestling her to the ground and fighting off other males. She then gathers as much pollen as she can and makes a bright yellow bed of pollen food onto which she lays her fertilized egg. This bed is then laid in the empty bee “ room” of the bee “hotel” and grub slowly eats its own bed as it grows in the quiet safely of the plugged up tube.

Some times there is no room in the hotel and the female needs to find somewhere else to lay her egg. I have been most perplexed to find myself unable to put on a gardening glove sometimes and found that the fingers of the glove were blocked by something. When teased out, the blockage was bright yellow and I now realise that I had inadvertently evicted a masonry bee lava and his tasty bed of yellow pollen.

I have put up more “hotels” this season and I hope that all the bees emerging this year will find a comfortable space to start the next generation again!

Waiting for a mate!

Changing the Guard.

The hedgerows are still bare: a few colts foot and celandines have nosed out above the soil and in the woods there are tiny oxslips and lungwort flowers, easily overlooked amongst the dead leaves.

BUT:

The spring migrants are here!

The chiffchaff is throwing his voice like confetti up into the leafless trees. The secretive dunnock has slipped in on the warm air and the electric crackle of the black redstart is fizzing from the barn tops. Every storks’ nest has two gigantic birds stood aloft and they throw back their heads and rattle and clack to one another with insane glee.

In the ploughed fields there are still a few bramblings and in my garden the feeders are covered with siskins, who don’t seem to know that winter is over yet. The cold weather seed eaters are still cautious, but the warm weather insect eaters are already here. They are ready to risk the changing of the guard and for a few days yet they meet in the neutral territory of the early spring.

“Head of English” by Carol Ann Duffy. Notes.


Head of English

Today we have a poet in the class.
A real live poet with a published book.
Notice the inkstained fingers, girls. Perhaps
we’re going to witness verse hot from the press.
Who knows. Please show your appreciation by clapping. Not too loud. Now

sit up straight and listen. Remember
the lesson on assonance, for not all poems,
sadly, rhyme these days. Still. Never mind.
Whispering’s, as always, out of bounds – 10 but do feel free to raise some questions.
After all, we’re paying forty pounds.

Those of you with English Second Language,
see me after break. We’re fortunate
to have this person in our midst. Season of mists and so on and so forth.
I’ve written quite a bit of poetry myself,
am doing Kipling with the Lower Fourth.

Right. That’s enough from me. On with the Muse.
Open a window at the back. We don’t want winds of change about the place.
Take notes, but don’t write reams. Just an essay
on the poet’s themes. Fine. Off we go.
Convince us that there’s something we don’t know.

Well. Really. Run along now, girls. I’m sure that gave an insight to an outside view.
Applause will do. Thank you
very much for coming here today. Lunch
in the hall? Do hang about. Unfortunately,
I have to dash. Tracey will show you out.

Carol Ann Duffy

I love this poem, as an ex-Head of English myself I can hear my own voice and others in her pomposity and her exasperation and rushed insensitivity. It makes me laugh out loud every time I read it.

This blog is a pretty quiet place, as I do absolutely nothing to increase traffic (as I believe it is called). I don’t link it to anything and I don’t do any other social media at all, so I have been fascinated to see how many views I get from India, from Pakistan and from some other WordPress readers on the same poetry posts.

I have two short posts that continuously attract “traffic” and they are about “ The Road Through the Woods” by Kipling and “McCavity the Mystery Cat” by Elliot. I have deduced that they are both on an exam syllabus and many struggling students have stumbled across my posts and used them to help with homework or revision.

I see “The Head of English” is on the IGCSE syllabus at the moment, so this post is by way of an experiment to see if my simple notes attract interest.

Notes on the poem ( feel free to use!)

Carol Ann Duffy is a famous poet and she must often have visited schools and given talks to pupils just like “the real life poet” in this poem. She would have been met by many women like the Head of English ( the head of the English department in the school) and given an introductory talk by her to the students. After the poet had spoken; in this case to “the girls”; she would then have been given a few words of thanks by the Head of English and then usually taken for lunch with the other teachers in the staff room. The poet would have been given a small payment for this talk: in this case “ forty pounds”.

What is original about this poem is that we never hear a word from the actual poet. She is not a character in the poem at all. Duffy speaks entirely through the Head of English and creates a wonderfully small minded, judgmental character who speaks in cliches; likes old fashioned poetry and is obviously very unimpressed by what the real poet has to say “Well. Really”

First Stanza:

The Head of English is addressing her pupils before the poet speaks to them. The Head of English speaks in awful clichés “ note the inkstained fingers” and “verse hot off the press”. She tells the pupils to clap but “not too loud”, she is the controlling and illogical school teacher .

The second stanza runs straight from the first with no punctuation ( an example of enjambement!) which mimics the rush and pomposity of the teacher. The mention of “assonance” is there to impress the poet with her superior knowledge of poetical terminology, but this is spoilt by her lament that “ not all poems rhyme” and her determination to get her money’s worth from the poet “After all, we’re paying forty pounds”

In the third stanza she mentions the students for whom English is not their not their first language. Her curt, throw away line “see me after break” makes these students seem a problem. “Season of mists and so on and so forth” is a mashed part of a line from Keats’ famous poem “Ode to Autumn” which again might be considered old fashioned, as might her studying of Kipling with her older students. She again wants to appear superior due to her knowledge . All English teachers will recognize the “I’ve written quite a bit of poetry myself “ boast and may cringe with embarrassment as they read Duffy’s very clever lines.

The fourth stanza is the funniest. Her “ winds of change” comment is an allusion to a famous political speech, but she is using it to refer to the girls potentially farting during the speech and the need to open the window. She orders the girls to take notes and not write too much ( “reams” ) but somehow manage to write an essay about the poet’s themes at the same time. This is obviously impossible and her glib rhyming of “reams and themes” makes her seem even more foolish and irritating.

As she sits back to enjoy a break from teaching by listening to the poet, her line “Convince us that there’s something we don’t know” is adversarial and the reader of the poem may positively dislike her at his point.

In the final stanza, the talk from the poet is over and the Head of English is not impressed. “Well. Really” these two short words convey her displeasure and shock in a typically repressed polite fashion. School teachers are geniuses at conveying disappointment in the very few words allowed. She is now in a hurry now to get rid of the poet. The implication is that the poet had said something controversial which has shocked the teacher and she does not want her pupils contaminated “ Run along now Girls” The teacher does not want to spend any more time with poet, she does not invite her to eat with her and leaves it to a girl called Tracey ( an unpoetic name) to see her out.

The Head of English has not had her intellect or sympathy expanded by the talk from the poet.

Carol Ann Duffy leaves the reader to imagine for them selves what sort of poems the imaginary poet read aloud to the girls. Duffy leaves the reader to construct what good poetry might be, by setting the views of the Head of English in complete opposition.

This is a funny poem because we recognize our teachers and their prejudices in the character Duffy creates. We laugh at her, but not too cruelly, as no one has been harmed in the snubbing of the imaginary poet . Duffy is undoubtedly using her own personal experiences as a visiting poet to create a memorably foolish character in The Head of English.

Cabbages and Kings.

These are the last cabbages of the season. They have hung on all winter and have now been picked so the vegetable plot can be rotivated for the new growing season.

I love their tenacity, how they stay green in snow and frost and the complexity of their texture and colours .

The Alsace was once famous for growing huge cabbages, which were shredded for making choucroute or sauerkraut on the other side of the Rhine. The fields were also home to the wonderful Giant Hamster of the Alsace which is just surviving by the skin of it’s rodent teeth in the face of industrialized agriculture: protected from complete extinction in a few tiny reserves.

My best friend, when I lived in Kazakhstan, was a Russian lady with a wonderful garden behind her small house. She grew cabbages and pumpkins and walls of flowers and roses and I often think of that productive and beautiful patch of earth on the edge of the city, where we ate shaslik from the bbq with Uighur friends in the shade of a plum tree.

The Emperor Diocletian was the only Roman emperor to voluntarily abdicate power and to step down before he was killed in war or was assassinated . He decided to give up the power of his vast empire and to retire and simply grow cabbages in his garden.

When asked to return to lead his people again he is said to have replied that if you could see my cabbages you would understand the impossibility of the suggestion.

I think some current emperors could learn from this. Growing cabbages is far more noble than going to war, as history has proven. And if no one else will thank you; then maybe the Giant Hamster will.

It’s still Fasnacht here!

A long week.

Fasnact face to scare away evil spirits.

At the start of the week the madness of the invasion of the Ukraine became apparent and by the end of the week it has intensified in a way that is almost unbearable. And yet I am not Ukrainian and no one is shelling me, so the very, very least I can do, is to get on.

It has been glitteringly sunny here. Cold and cuttingly bright and at night it is unusually star filled and cloudless. The nighttime temperatures are very low and each morning I awake to a hard white frost.

March is the start of the mothing season for me and on the first night above freezing, I put out my moth trap. There were two Hebrew characters and an Early Grey in the trap . The Early Grey was a new species for the garden and I start 2022 with 315 recorded moth species in my garden since I started to keep records. This moth eats honey suckle and like the Hebrew character ( named for the distinctive marking on the wing that looks like a letter) has furry tummy to keep in warm in these cold early days of spring.

Hebrew character

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Lenin.

In dark times

In dark times, we turn to the sun and the spring to give us hope. After two years of Covid, things looked a little better and then Europe plunged into war again and the winter has returned.

I look at the photos of the terrified mothers and exhausted children. The faces of the men who are defending their country are not so easy to photograph, but I can imagine their fear and their courage as they face an onslaught from their neighbours. There is no reason and no justification for this invasion of the Ukraine by Russia.

We are all brothers and sisters with everything in common . I hope I never have to decide to fight for peace as the men and women of the Ukraine are doing right now.

The spring is coming , may the Ukrainiens eventually enjoy it too.

🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦

“I planned to plant tulips and daffodils on my backyard today. Instead, I learn to fire arms and get ready for the next night of attacks on Kyiv,” said MP Kira Rudik on Twitter. “We are not going anywhere. This is our city, our land, our soil. We will fight for it. So next week I can plant my flowers. Here.”

Brilliant.

Word press can achieve some remarkable things. It has introduced me to a poet that writes about places I have never seen but in the language that I can understand, in the scruffy messed up edge of the wild in which we we all inhabit .

When you go to this post you can read his collection in the link. You don’t need to be his nationality or gender or age to feel these poems, just kick through the discarded rubbish and feel the sublime.

http://peterfrankiswrites.blog/2022/02/22/here-it-is/

Seen from a car.

We went driving today along the Rhine river. The Rhine is the artery of industrial Europe: on one side Germany and on the other France and all along this stretch there are vats of hydrochloric acid, vast cement works, gigantic silos of grain, parks of containers full of goods from China and Bangladesh and factories making glass and airplanes and shopping trolleys and everything that we take for granted in our 21st century lives, but don’t want to actually see.

In the water were some swans, pochard and mallard. A canny heron and a few tufted ducks and above was a very early spring sky blowing though a beautiful cloud scape before the storm struck.

Three vignettes stood out.

Before the motorway a small group of people were lifting a wreath of flowers over a memorial to some one killed in the traffic. An elderly lady with two younger men were momentarily frozen in a very private moment of remembrance as we drove on by.

Much further on a tall, dark young man with a large backpack walked very quickly along the motorway verge. He looked tired but purposeful and I wondered how very far he had walked , from where and which side of the river he actually wanted to be on.

On the edge of a village a pétanque court was actually in use. There were dozens of men playing in the normally abandoned sand. Their faces were unmasked and they were animated with competition, excitement and humour .

The great old river is still very much alive.

Up close

This stellar photo is not Jupiter, but the view down my microscope of a humble tradescantia leaf. The green and purple bands are the variegations and the pigmentation glitters like rubies in mesmeric glory. I am still learning to use this amazing , inexpensive microscope and during a wet afternoon I just looked at the leaves from house plants and the few plants in leaf in the garden. I was struck particularly by leaf hairs.

The thick hairs on a woolly Stachys leaf looked like spun glass and the hairs on a herb Robert leaf look like icicles about to melt in sunshine.

The leaf of scented geranium is downy and irregularly studded with brown globules, which I took to be the oils that give the plant its distinctive perfume. This was confirmed when I looked at the leaf of a thyme plant. This leaf was scurffy with tiny hairs and plastered with brown oil globes where the secret of its much prized flavour lie.

The most surprising of all was the leaf of a wall flower, that has survived all winter in the partial shelter of a lean to. I have never considered them hairy at all, but the leaf was covered in long parallel hairs lying flat to the surface. They did not seem useful to keep it warm , or to hold in oils , or defensive spikes, maybe they were to speed water down from the leaf that might otherwise freeze in winter or to focus water onto the roots in dry times.

I have so much to learn!

Royalty

Pure white, pure black, a defiant stare and gone.

An ermine ran across our path, dived into a jumble of rocks and then sat straight up to watch us stop and stare back.

The morning smelt of spring, but this twist of life was dressed for deep snow or a coronation. It was so totally white with a tail dipped in black ink that it was impossible not to grin.

Then it was gone and I spent the rest of the day reading about stoats ( or short tailed weasels ) and marvelling at the ludicrous link between this vicious shape shifting “rat” and the royalty of Europe.

Ermine are the winter colours of stoats. As the days shorten their coats whiten and the unremarkable brown rabbit killer metamorphoses into this royal creature. Our ancestors were so impressed by the cleanliness of their fur in a winter world of brown mud and sludge, that they decided that ermine would rather die by hunters than foul or besmirch their clean coats. To hunt an ermine all you had to do was lay mud across the entrance to their den and they would rather die than be dishonoured by dirt. This gave raise to the death before dishonour mottos and their purity became linked to the idea of royalty. Having a cloak of ermine pelts with the little black tails dotted against the fur become the badge of kings, queens and emperors throughout history. The most recent European coronation of King Willem-Alexander of Holland saw both King and his Queen wrapped in swathes of ermine to signify their royalty to all the world.

It is of course bad luck for the stoat, but the fall from grace of fur in fashion is bound to be reflected in coronation regalia very soon. Most ermine fur came from Russia though the very name ermine is supposed to be corruption of Armenia where the Greeks considered the ermine to be from.

I wish I had a great photo for you, but I have nothing but the memory of it to share with you. An “ Armenian rat” that cloaked the shoulders of kings and trimmed the crown of queens.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous portrait depicts a very large stoat restrained by a very large hand.

Just January.

Watching my neighbour clean his windows is a note worthy event. The wind rattling the shutters is remarkable. The cat woke up in a bad mood and won’t be stroked because there is snow static in the air. I think a hen harrier flew by, but it might just be a seagull disoriented by being so very far from the sea. The news is always bad, or maybe it’s just funny like the electric spark from the end of the cat’s nose or the last leaf whirled skittishly from the bare tree or just January, just January leaving.

Stone Cold.

There really does seem little to look at in late January.

The ground is as hard as a stone, the water is all frozen and my greatest wildlife achievement is to put boiling water out for the birds. I pick out the flower shaped ice from the bird bath and fill it with water that stays liquid for half an hour. The great tits are the first to flutter down for a drink, a robin drinks and so too do the blue tits.

The “pond” we made from a sunken sink is glassy with solid ice and a big black cat sits in the middle of the ice and scrabbles with his claws at the ice to melt a corner to drink from. I decide it is interesting to see wild behaviour from semi domestic cats: it is something to see .

There are two greater spotted woodpeckers and a Siskin has turned up to eat the sunflower kernels. There are now 11 bramblings about in the garden. Last year we had none and the year before the sky was black with these bright birds. It all depends on how the winter is in the far north of Europe. The bramblings seem to say it is coldish, but not perishing yet this year.

A stork has returned to his/her nest site in the next village. He is early and as yet alone, but I take it as an omen of the spring to come and hope he will soon be a pair and the nest will be made even larger for the chicks and the thaw to come.

Fossil coral frozen in time from the cold local stones.

Thaw.

I know winter is far from over, that February is the coldest, hardest month and is yet to come, but today there was a change of the light . There was a breath of spring somewhere, even if it was only in the blue sky behind the snow clouds and I thought of Edward Thomas’ lovely short poem.

Thaw Edward Thomas 1917?

Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flowers of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.

Water World

This picture is the underside of a Victoria amazonica leaf that had just been hauled out of the water at the botanic gardens in Basel. It was so huge and so extraordinarily spiny it had to be photographed .

Last night I watched the incomparable Green Planet from the BBC with the similarly unequalled David Attenborough. He showed the aquatic battles for light that go on in clean rivers and wetlands between the plants that float and fight so slowly in this apparently peaceful world . The most memorable Timelapse shots were of the gigantic shoots of the Amazon waterlilly sweeping the water clear of other plants to make space for the titanic unfolding of a new leaf. The leaf was armored with the fiercest dagger spines which I well remember gingerly touching in the sunshine outside of the hot house, as the Basel trams rumbled on by . The spines could crush and pierce anything that got in its way as the leaf covered the water in its metre wide plate of photosynthesising aggression.

Ironic that the flower is seen as symbolizing peaceful serenity.

Shows how little we really know!

Not much to see.

It is the brown time.

Ploughed fields and bare trees in the sleety rain. The clouds are full of snow that doesn’t fall and sun that blinds momentarily and is then gone swallowed by a slab of racing grey .

We are counting red kites for the LPO ( French bird charity) Red kite survey. They are rare in the Alsace outside of the Vosges Mountains and just where we live on the edge of the Jura Mountains. I see one most days from the garden and more when they move through on migration in spring and autumn.

I am glad to be in the car, as all the various hunts are out this cold Sunday and the chance of being shot seems abnormally high.

Over two days of watching we have seen 13 red kites ( Milan royal) all together, but a few may have been the same bird counted twice.

There have been a few blackbirds, crows a raven and a kestrel and then thousands of little birds flowed over the brow of the hill. Chaffinches and bramblings poured over unexpectedly and covered the bare trees like so many leaves against the sky.

Nothing to see really.

New plants, new glasses

This article from the Guardian news paper describes the astounding new species of plants that have been found across the world this year.

It also shows how many are endangered and how often it is deforestation to make space for palm oil plantations that is to blame.

I just checked the ingredients on my goat’s cheese pastry parcels that we had just eaten for lunch and sure enough , there was palm oil in the pastry. It is a cheap, almost ubiquitous ingredient and I am determined not to buy a single thing that contains it ever again.

My New year resolution is always wear my glasses in the supermarket and check more carefully in future!

Hundreds of new species include pink voodoo lily and an ylang-ylang tree named after Leonardo DiCaprio
— Read on www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jan/06/ghost-orchid-that-grows-in-the-dark-among-new-plant-finds

A World Turned Upside Down.

New year: old year.

Covid hasn’t gone, but maybe we have changed instead.

Everybody has had their own adaptations to the new reality that nobody wanted, everybody has had their own privations, some small, some fatal. Work, family, school, friends the list goes on and on of the things changed by the pandemic that seems to never end. The things we miss seem endless too, but in a world turned upside down, we have maybe learned to see things differently and not to miss the things we took for granted before.

My cat is perfectly happy upside down on the sofa. He is warm, there will be food, maybe someone will dangle that left over Christmas ribbon close enough for him to play with. He has lost one of his lovely long front teeth, but he doesn’t seem unduly worried by it.

He quite likes the world upside down, he can get used to anything.

10 New Year’s Resolutions for Laidback Gardeners

In 2022, why not spend more time enjoying your garden and less on working in it! Ill.: Claire Tourigny ByContinue Reading

10 New Year’s Resolutions for Laidback Gardeners

I so agree with this post . Less work on mowing and leaf collection and spraying noxious chemical means more time to smell the roses and enjoy the garden and all the life it can support!

Here is to a wildlife and time rich 2022 in the garden for all!

“ … created for the sublime..”

Desmond Tutu said so many wise things about reconciliation and how to argue against injustice, but this one speaks so eloquently about how the natural world and the need for conservation coexist that I quote it again in hommage to the great man.

“We were made to enjoy music, to enjoy beautiful sunsets, to enjoy looking at the billows of the sea and to be thrilled with a rose that is bedecked with dew… Human beings are actually created for the transcendent, for the sublime, for the beautiful, for the truthful… and all of us are given the task of trying to make this world a little more hospitable to these beautiful things.”