Nature will push on through if we just give it a little space.
The Rhine is one of the most industrialised rivers in the world. It’s banks have unloaded the coal and the wood and the chemicals and the shipping containers from China for a very very long time. It is the scar line of Europe and it has been fought over and died for and its waters have been canalised and concreted, polluted and poisoned beyond recognition. But is still flows strongly and given a bit of space, it is returning to its wild abundance.
A small section of the Rhine has been allowed to flow freely. The meanders and shallows that should be there have been put back. Willows have been allowed to root and the swans have come back. It is one of the biggest rewilding projects in Europe, but it is still tiny in comparison to what has been lost.
There are kingfishers and dragonflies where there was just concrete and today there are fish in the shallows and 150 white storks feeding as they moved across the planet going south.
There are bird hides and wardens and ladies on bicycles astonished by the richness that they never knew was there. They didn’t know, not because they were unobservant, but because it didn’t exist before in living memory. It has been hugely expensive , better we never let it get so bad, but as we did, the restoration of this little elbow of the Rhine has been worth every euro.
When nature is given a little space, it floods back in all its exuberant fabulous beauty whether it is between the slats of a fence or the banks of great river!
When lock down seemed doomed to go on forever and vaccines seemed like an mythical rumour, I planted some carrot seeds in an old pair of wellington boots. My husband made holes in the soles for drainage and away I went!
The seeds germinated and grew a bit . I watered them a lot and even fed them. Eventually I pulled the much anticipated roots up and the profoundly underwhelming results are there for all to see.
Thank goodness the vaccines have been much more impressive!
Thanks to the plummeting death rates: lockdown down is now over for the vaccinated in France; cafes, theatres and restaurants are fully open again. It feels strange to be with others again, but at least you know the people around you indoors are also vaccinated , as they have had to show their pass to get in. I know the vaccine does not guarantee complete safety from infection, but the more people have the jab ( and luckily France has enough vaccines that everybody who wants one, can have one) the chances of getting very sick are diminishing all the time.
Hopefully next spring won’t be so confined and bizarre that planting carrots in old footwear will seem like a good idea!
I forgot my binoculars again, so I had to listen instead.
First there was the conversational croak and squark of frogs. Heavy flops into water and ripples covering the commotion with quiet again. Then there was hissing of ducks, flapping and bell beat of swans wings pushing away invaders. Then a scream like a stuck pig from the reeds. Water rails are rarely seen but unmistakable in their piercing indignation.
Then I was convinced we were being followed as there were rustles behind us but no footsteps. Leaves flinked against the sunlight, branches just moved. Finally we saw the twisting dark line of a red squirrel, so little and so lithe, jumping from hazel branch to hazel branch, stripping the green nuts as she went.
Down on the ground, she looked for the dislodged nuts, but was pulled back up into the leaves by any disturbance, as fast as a children’s toy whipped along by a thread.
Planes growled out of the airport (the covid silence is long gone) . A strimmer ripped up the quiet and then a golden oriole called and its rich exotic tropical note soothed the natural sounds back to the foreground again.
The storks are a great success story in my part of the world. When I arrived here 14 years ago, to see one or two was a great event. Then we found reintroduction sites where nests were protected and numbers grew. We saw storks more regularly and sometimes in great numbers when they migrated south in the winter.
Now we often see great groups of up to 20 huge stately birds picking through the fields with fierce concentration. They nest in all the villages around , but we are just a little too high up and so far no pair has chosen us.
This summer has been cool and very wet and stabbing their great beaks into the earth in search of food has been easy. Many more stork chicks have been reared and last years birds need roof tops spaces to build their nests for next year.
A few weeks ago, for the first time, a young stork perched on the roof of an old house opposite and threw back his head and clacked his beak loudly . He was calling for a mate, advertising the real estate he had located and trying to tempt a female to establish the first nest in our village.
So far he had no takers, but he is the first to try and I really hope he will find a mate who will love this place as much as I do and that the storks will return to my village.
More than 5,000 bouquets are being handed to athletes at the Olympic and Paralympic Games – and have a special significance, with flowers from areas devastated by a 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
— Read on www.bbc.com/sport/olympics/58038026
Plastic is blighting the world. I try to avoid it, but my bin is still shamefully full of it.
I have managed to avoid some by not using plastic bottled soaps, shampoos and toothpastes, but it is literally a drop in the ocean.
I have tried writing to cat food manufacturers to ask then to make pouches of cat food in biodegradable packaging , but got no where, so I was heartened by this article that particularly mentions Nestle who make the cat food that my planet destroying fur balls demand.
The circle of purple flowers opens both up and down the flower heads and they remind me of the wonderful lines about the candle burning at both ends.
“My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
When the brief firework of flowers are over, the seed heads will ripen and the dried heads will stand all winter long to feed the meticulous goldfinches when there seems nothing left to eat in the world.
The prickly, unpromising Teasels really are a “lovely light” at both ends of the year.
Without the rain nothing grows, when it is dry we fret, when it is wet we moan.
It has been endlessly wet and very cool. The trees are loving it. There have been too many dry years and the stress has left them vulnerable to disease, but not this spring.
This spring has been full of rain and now it seems full of baby birds. In the cold, wet months they have managed to hatch and to rear their sodden young and now the foliage is full of hungry, demanding fledgelings and frantic feathered parents .
There were lines of fluffy sparrow chicks in the feeder house this morning waiting for mother to transfer the sunflower kernels into their beaks. In the wet cherry tree marsh tit chicks scolded and whined as they demanded food. Hidden in the spindle bush are baby blue tits also waiting for their share and on the grass a harassed male blackbird yanks half drowned worms out of the yielding earth for his enormous off spring. The young blackbird is as lumpen and unhelpful as a teenage boy, but his father dutifully crams him with food nonetheless.
My presence is disturbing them, rearing young in the rain is not easy.
They want the food I provide, but they don’t want me round.
We want the life that the rain gives but we don’t want the clouds.
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?
In spring there is so much to notice, so much to hear, smell and to see that writing about it all seems an unprofitable use of this wonderful time of year; but somehow I still like to try to capture a little of it in words, so here I go.
The woods are full of fighting wrens. Tiny balls of feathers explode out of the undergrowth and cascade down in furious brawls over mates and territories. These secretive birds are suddenly everywhere and they don’t care if you notice them in their brief spring bruiserish personas . They will soon melt back into the leaves to raise their tiny brood of chicks in quiet and anonymous safety.
It has been a good year for cowslips and for the shiny yellow stars of lesser celandine. The celandine are slowly colonising the corners of my garden and the late spring has allowed their flowers to shine for weeks . It’s country name is pilewort as it is good for curing piles apparently!
The tree leaves are appearing like a green smoke and wild cherry blossom in the woods is thin and unexpected like a lace curtain hastily pulled over an indiscreet window. Before the leaves join into the screen of summer some couples are still visible. I noticed these two trees growing into each other a few days ago. The smooth bark I think belongs to a hornbeam and the fissured bark is a robinia . The bark is melding and there is something ludicrously romantic about their unlikely and supportive intimacy.
The blackcaps have returned to the garden and so have the redstarts with their electric crackle of song. One of our nest boxes that has been spurned for years due to our ( and many, many others) cats may finally be home to some blue tits and the kestrels are back to nest in the barn opposite. My husband heard a cuckoo yesterday morning and in the evening I saw the first swallows racing over the garden and all the bright, bright unfurling leaves.
Today was warm and the cones on the pine trees started to crack open, slow releasing their tough seeds onto the ground.
Green woodpeckers yaffled, spotted woodpeckers drummed and the greenfinches sneered their wonderfully adolescent long single whine from the branches.
Butterflies woke up . There were brimstones, comma, red admirals and small tortoiseshells, bright against the brown mud in my garden as they shook colour back into the world.
In doors I sat at the kitchen table and watched the images from Mars on a laptop.
The rover descending and filming the surface as it came closer and closer, I saw the ridges and the red craters, the tantalising aquamarine shapes and then the sand of the very surface blown by the rover landing, engulfed it all.
I listened to the sound of Mars.
A wind blew between the clicks and bleeps of the machine that had travelled so far to hear it. In my kitchen, as the pine cones split open, I heard the wind on planet Mars and existence was astounding again and again.
February is the longest month for me as we wait for Spring, so I cheat and go out and buy it!
This selection of bulbs and plants is from a wonderful nursery over the border, where rows and rows of perfumed primulas, cheeky pansies and thousands of other plants thrive in perfect conditions under atifical lights and modulated heat.
They will cheer up my kitchen table for a few weeks and the bulbs will go out into the garden to maybe flower again next spring, if they survive.
The borders of France are officially closed to stop the spread of Covid, but this time they are open to neighbouring Switzerland for those who live within 30 kilometres of the frontier. This means that I can shop over the border and the awful sense of severance and dislocation that happened during the great lock down of the spring 2020 has not been repeated. It seems incredible that Covid should still be dominating our lives, but it is. The virus is not political and it is not nationalistic: it is a horrible fact that we have to deal with with patience and fortitude, though I often lack both.
One thing that has changed for me since the great lockdown of 2020 however, is the purchase of a wonderful electric bubble car which has given me mobility again. My tiny Citroen Ami, goes a maximum of 45 kilometres per hour, is so cute people wave at it and can be recharged at an ordinary plug in garage!
I adore it and I feel confident and free after years of hating driving and feeling intimidated and inept.
Spring will come!
The photo also shows Winston investigating the Ami after its delivery. He also approves mightily,
In January there really is little to see except cold, hungry birds and so I return to my records of the moths that I have seen during the better part of the year.
One of my strangest photographs was of a very distinctive black and white moth which I could not identify from my moth books.
I had sent the record in to the LPO as an an unidentified specimen knowing that the moth recorder checks such a unnamed moths in the depths of the winter and may well provide an identification for me.
When the days were suitably dark and moths were suitably absent, a positive ID came back: it was a wonderful rare Lycia zonaria the Belted Beauty !
These moth are extinct in mainland Britain. The last records were from the sand dunes of costal Cheshire, but golf courses and the heavy tramp of healthy walkers have done for them and they are now only found in Orkney. The females are flightless home bodies, who cannot stray far from the right sandy grassland and they are not plentiful anywhere .
We live about as far from the sea as you can get in Europe and our ground is not at all sandy, but somewhere a female belted beauty must have found the right spot to hatch and to send out her perfume on the night air to this lucky male. His feathery antenna are designed to detect her subtle sent and I very much hope that they guided him safely to his mate the next night. I like to think that some new Belted Beauties were made last Marchand that that they just might return this spring to tantalise and gladden the heart with their very rare beauty.
I slept late this morning. I hate waking up when it’s still dark and today I took the luxury of sleeping the darkness away.
There’s been heavy snow here, pretty but crushing , it has bowed down the bushes, cracked open the rosemary and flattened the wallflowers that were waiting gamely through the winter for the spring.
However, while I
slept a wonderful warm wind rattled the house, bangle the shutters, whistled through the door jambs and gave me vivid spring dreams full of light. The thick snow slid from the roofs and crashing roars of noise that would normally have me jumping with fear, were intertwined with my dreams to produce formless exhilarating sensations .
I went to sleep in the winter and woke in spring time.
In the garden the sky was huge and racing blue and white. Everything smelt of growth and possibility. The cats were afraid of the scurrying leaves and the howling trees, but I just filled my lungs with the warm air and rejoiced.
The limbo time between Christmas and New Year feels very like the whole year has felt. Waiting to start again, but still enjoying the quiet and expanded sense of time between the tinsel and the fireworks of hope: safe and separate and too much time to listen to the unexpected silence.
In the quiet there are always the barrel rolling ravens and a flurry of bright goldfinches hanging on to the long birch in the wind.
In an unploughed field a single chaffinch does what gave her her name and pecks amongst the stalks for spilt grain.
A mole has pushed up a soft hill on the edge of the field and there is a definite line across its peak as if a playful walker has drawn a walking stick across it . I bend down to examine the mud and realise that the track has in fact been made by the passage of tiny vole feet. There is a vole hole between the mole hill and the field edge . The vole, like the chaffinch has been gleaning the spilt grains of corn and pulling them into his burrow to feed on them in muddy safety.
The year is coming to an end and we stay warm and fed underground with the moles and the voles . Spring will come, but winter has its own quiet virtues too.
I have been keeping a close eye on the research about the usefulness of face masks to protect us from Covid infection. Unfortunately the cloth masks we have made, are not very effective at filtering out the virus . Disposable masks with pinch-able nose bridges are much better, but it seems terrible to use something once and then throw it away and it goes against all my green principles!
By mistake I have often machine washed a disposable mask that has been left in the pocket of clothes. I have been surprised by how the process has not harmed it all and how fresh and intact it was after a long wash. I was delighted therefore to read that studies have shown that a disposable mask can be machine washed, tumble dried and even ironed 10 times before its filtration of covid virus is impaired.
This is really good news to keep more of us safer and doing less harm to the environment while we wait for the vaccine to restore normal ( what ever that is! ) life!!
This little garden spider came in on a colis plant that will be livening up my window sill this winter. I think that spider webs are lucky and if she avoids my cats, she might just make it to the spring with the rest of us.
The following link will take you to a really good news story about the rediscovery of the wolf spider that was thought extinct in the UK for years. It is also inspiring to see what dedicated amateur naturalists can discover by perseverance.
Covid is still keeping guests away and me inside, but I can still step over it and go into the garden.
The delivery man is amused by it, the cats are bemused by it and it just keeps on growing.
If it is a metaphor for the insidious growth of the virus, then when winter eventually kills it, we will all be set free . If it is a metaphor for theresilience of nature, then I shall leave it to grow. If it is a metaphor for my sloth then I should hack it back.
As planning for the future seems impossible these days, I shall live the metaphor and do absolutely nothing at all and just wait and see what the tendril does next.
The virus has swept like a terrible wave over so much of the world, destroying lives, businesses and mental health. Some places like the UK and the USA are still watching the waters rise and trying to keep their heads’ above water, some places are still denying that the ground is even wet and a few places are seeing a little dry land reappear and wondering if it safe to put a foot on it at last.
The region of France where I live (Alsace) has been very badly hit by the wave. The government responded well (eventually) and everyone has stayed home for two months so far.
Fasnact carnivals, evangelical prayer meetings and football matches did take place when all the signs were there that the infection levels were rising ; but no one was brave enough to call a stop and so thousands of people were infected by being in unnecessary crowds.
Once the infection had been taken back to homes and hospitals and the death toll mounted, suddenly everyone was being brave by staying isolated and slowly, slowly, painfully slowly the infection rate has slowed right down. Yesterday the local paper said our region was very close to being « green » which might mean some normality can return .
It will never be quite the same again, nothing will bring back those who died and the corrosive fear of infection has eaten into so many aspects of life.
However, staying home, closing schools and businesses and bars and restaurants and garden centres and cinemas does seem to have worked here. It hurts like hell and I don’t underestimate the damage done to everyone, but the wave of infection can wash away eventually.
I write this to anyone frustrated or angry that their life has been disrupted or fearful that it will never end: the tide does turn and the sand does start to dry out.
This strange and terrible spring has been so beautiful.
The blossom has been unshaken by wind and untroubled by late snow or shrivelling frost.
In the soft, warm air each fruit tree has unfurled the most extraordinary foam and frill of blossom in its turn, against an eggshell blue sky.
First the blackthorn in the hedge, then the cherry, then the pears and now, the most lovely of all: the pink and white of apple blossom.
Each in its turn stirs the heart.
I understand the biology: I know the flowers are beautiful by chance and their purpose is to bring the bees, to fertilise the fruit, to set the seed, to grow the next tree; but that does not explain how my heart turns over; how they make my face turn up to smile and how my arms want to to embrace them, to enfold them, to be part of them.
This visceral response to beauty is part of our soul. We feel it when we want to pick up a child, to hug a lover, to scoop up a cat and when a whole tree is so lovely that our arms do not feel wide enough to embrace the whole extraordinary, heartbreaking beauty of its glory.
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 .