Race against time.

There was no summer this year.

If I had been Mary Shelley, sheltering from a similarly sodden season in Switzerland, I should have written “Frankenstein”, but I am not suitably talented or tormented and so I spent my time identifying moths and cutting back hedges.

Now that it is officially autumn the sun has finally come out and we can stop lighting fires and sit in the garden instead.

Migration has started. The wires are beaded with massing swallows and just occasionally the tropical burble of bee eaters can be caught as they head south . The village roads are full of motorbikes touring through the Jura before the cold penetrates their very expensive leather kits. Local farmers thunder by bringing in hay that has lain too long in the rainy fields and the wood from the forest is being brought in by every ancient tractor still working.

Everybody is sawing and stacking wood. The village may not grow grapes or make cheese, but it has plenty of trees and there is always wood for the winter.

My dahlias have only just started to flower and they are in a race with the frost . One or two flame coloured flowers are betting on the autumn being warm still. I am a pessimist by nature and prefer to place my bet on our wood stack!

Lightening Strike

This oak tree was struck by a bolt of lightning and the scar rips right down to the roots.

The line seems absurd, too precise and yet it came from the electrical discharge of the sky to the earth in devastating perfection.

The tree did not burn, but it is dead, shocked from its slow life into improbable death in a blinding instant.

So Much.

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 sounds of robins and catastrophe.

Today sounds of robins, their rich round burble of music rolls from the hedge and is answered in kind by their mate hidden in the tall tree . Robin song always sounds like Britain and is a relaxing link with home. Here in France they are much rarer in gardens and I can go a whole year without seeing one in the garden. They remind me of my garden in Wales, which was a damp suburban slice in the shade of a magnificent oak tree.

We loved the tree as soon as we saw it and owning the tree was as exciting as owning the little bungalow that sheltered under its bows .

The oak was pollarded periodically and then we left it to go and see the world and the bungalow and guardian oak was rented out to a long succession of tenants.

At the very end of this summer, when the tree was thick with green leaves there was a huge storm and the wonderful tree was uprooted. It walked like an ent from Tolkein across the lawn and it threw itself onto the little bungalow and crushed it utterly .

The house in boarded up now and there is a temporary roof on. It will be rebuilt, we had insurance, the tenant is OK and rehoused, but the oak is gone forever. It was all very shocking.

When the tree was still lying across the house it appeared as if the foliage had simply finally engulfed the upstart house, but when it was sawn up and hauled away by a crane, the full extent of the devastation was apparent.

This was the house we (and the bank) bought when we were first married and we always considered that it was the home we could return to when our wandering was over.

Brexit, Covid and a huge storm has made even knowing where home is anymore , more more difficult .

So when I hear the robins sing I think of our lost oak tree and hope it set plenty of acorns in the hedge for when and if, we ever go home.

Fly away home …

This afternoon

when the sun came out , the air was improbable with ladybirds. Everywhere I looked there were ladybirds landing fatly on the walls of the house, on the chairs, on my trousers. Before I can get close they disappeared slipping and into cracks , easing their fat ways in between the door frame and the door – all looking for somewhere to spend the winter where they will be warm and safe.

I will find them all winter long and in the spring they will emerge from the safe cracks and if they’re lucky will be liberated to start the spring. If they’re unlucky they die of exhaustion and get swept up in the winter.

Out in the countryside the farmers are harvesting the maize and the noise is tremendous. Fuming about man-made disruption, I walked into the forest and acorns rained down all around me from the oak trees. It sounded like hail and I was glad of my hat as they pinged around me and clattered down heavily from the branches overhead.

In the countryside the farmers were harvesting maize with a roar of machinery that sent me into the forest in search of peace. Acorns were raining down as loud as hail: ricocheting off branches and trunks and I was grateful for my bike hat as the acorns whizzed passed my ears.

When I was out of the woods there was a new noise as a great flock of migrating pigeons made a cloud of sound over my head. Their wings pushed stockily against the breaking clouds and I could hear the very rattle of their feathers .

They are off to find a place to feed and fatten away from the coming winter , just like the ladybirds.

I took my cue and turned home to light the fire in the stove which always makes me feel as safe and as snug as a bug in a rug!

Ladybird ladybird fly away home ….

Memory

The rain washed the soil from the field and it made the most delicate image of the tree that should be growing there, just to remind us of what we loose when we let the soil leach away and we treat the earth like a factory floor.

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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Greedy for Beauty.

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.

We are greedy for loveliness, greedy for beauty.

Happy Easter.

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The Hidden Life of Trees

I have just finished reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and I have to share it with people who love wildlife all over the world.  This book is the most extraordinary insight into the complex life of a forest and of trees everywhere.

Peter Wohlleben was a forester in Germany and his writings are based on 20 years of the daily observation of trees and wide reading in all of the latest scientific research. The result is an outstandingly  readable, humane, erudite and even witty book and like the blurb says on the cover  “a walk in the woods will never be the same again.”

I am going to resist the urge to simplify or summarise this wonderful book, as the digital world has a tendency to reduce the multifarious and complex into banal sound bites and snippets and this deserves real reading. It doesn’t have to be read cover to cover in one sitting, it can be dipped into and out of whenever the clouds roll over and you want to be indoors, but you will want to finish it and I have even decided where I want to buried based on this lovely, life affirming book!

Published 2016 by Greystone books