Spring in the air

The hike in temperature from minus seven to plus twenty degrees within the space of a week has been dizzying; one minute it was all thermal base layers and double welly socks, the next we were stripped down to t-shirts in the garden. The air is full of birdsong, hazel pollen and the hum of insects – industrious honey bees, fat velvety bumbles, shiny blue-black carpenter bees and huge buttery brimstone butterflies – as though everything has suddenly woken up and stretched after the long, dark days of winter, lifting grateful faces and hearts towards the kiss of the sun. Me, too. It’s a very joyful thing.

We have needed no persuading to spend all day, every day, outside and it has been a wonderful feeling to be able to make so much progress in the garden at this time of year, not to mention being able to eat our lunch and enjoy an afternoon mug of coffee or evening glass of wine outdoors. In fact, we are so busy that I really don’t have time to blog so please accept photos with captions this time, rather than my usual waffle!

We have uncovered the solar heating system, not the prettiest piece of kit but the tanks of free hot water are great. I’ve planted window boxes, pots and baskets with pansies for a cheerful splash of colour at the front of the house.
As our tractor and mower are stuck in Asturias for the forseeable future, we have bought a push lawnmower and cut a few patches and paths. Most of the grass will be meadow this summer which suits us and the wildlife just fine!
We enjoyed a 7-mile circular walk on local lanes, stopping for a picnic in a heritage apple arboretum. The sun was warm, the skies filled with trilling larks . . .
. . . and the verges spangled with the first spring flowers.
We removed an old conifer from the front hedge and recycled it into a hugelkultur bed in the vegetable garden. Underneath it, and previously completely swamped, is a beautiful flowering currant covered in buds.
The first green shoots of garlic have already appeared in this bed! I planted 60 ‘Agualdulce’ broad bean seeds next to the parsnips and extended the far side of the patch by a couple of spade widths. Onions or peas next . . .
We’re making slow but steady progress in the potager. Roger dug and turned the first bed and has covered it in a deep mulch of grass clippings and chopped leaves; we will let the potato crop do the rest of the work there this year. In the second bed, which needs slightly more refined preparation, he has been stripping the turf and I’ve been forking it over and removing perennial weed roots. The upturned turves have gone on top of the hugel bed (in the background) which should be ideal for growing squashes this year once finished.
We’ve also made a start on the flower garden behind the house, sketching out a plan for beds, seating, taller structures and planting, then getting stuck into digging the first border.
We’ve ordered a delivery of bare-rooted hedging plants: hawthorn, hornbeam and beech to fill the gaps in the boundary hedges and rosa rugosa for a hedge round part of the flower garden. We’ve been lifting young holly and honeysuckle plants from the coppice to make a start on the hedge renovation project. That woodland soil is completely lush!
I was pleased to discover a carpet of red-veined sorrel growing under the hedge in the Secret Garden. I’ve transplanted a dozen of them to make an edge along the veg patch there. They are a bitter leaf of the kind so highly rated in French kitchens and should be a useful ingredient in salads and hot dishes, as well as an attractive addition to the garden.
We’ve remembered to take the occasional tea break in the sunshine . . .
. . . and if a couple of rare treats just happened to find their way into my bike basket – well, after all that hard physical work, I don’t think we need to feel too guilty! 🥰

Serendipity

“He that plants trees loves others besides himself.”

—Thomas Fuller

We have planted trees everywhere we have lived together in a wide spectrum of circumstances from pots of avocado and citrus trees raised from pips on a Mediterranean balcony to a couple of acres of woodland and orchard on a Welsh hillside. I haven’t kept a record – I’m really not that organised – but I know they number many thousands. We have only ever lived in one home long enough (thirteen years) to watch them grow to some level of maturity, so in most cases what we have done is leave an arboreal legacy behind us as we moved on. I have no problem with this as I happen to believe that planting a tree is one of the best things any human being can do; it has saddened me so many times over the years to meet the ‘why should I bother, I’ll never see it mature?’ mentality. Life isn’t all about me, me, me; instant gratification is a plague of modern society and it’s a shame that so much of life revolves around what’s in it for us here and now rather than what we can leave for the future. We planted trees, other people and wildlife enjoy the benefits. That’s a very wonderful thing!

When we set about looking for our new home here, somewhere with a decent patch of woodland was high on the list. We wanted to be able to produce our own logs for fuel, to forage for useful materials and food and to help preserve and improve a precious environment; in the event of not finding what we were looking for, then a patch of ground big enough to plant a new wood was the next priority. Yes, we were prepared to start from scratch yet again! In the event, the property we both fell in love with had neither so we needed a Plan B which wasn’t too long in the hatching, since small tracts of woodland or rough ground are always for sale in this area. We found a couple within a few miles of the house and made an appointment to view them; neither was ideal, but the agent offered to show us an extra one that had only come on the market a couple of days previously and when she realised which house we were buying, thought maybe it could be the one. We couldn’t believe our luck to find the perfect coppice, deep within a much larger wood and a pleasant 8oo metre stroll from the house. The lovely surprise of an unexpected, happy event . . . true serendipity.

What a beautiful place this is, one that I know I will be drawn to over and over again. There is a dizzying mix of species and so much holly that even at this time of year, there is still a sense of ‘greenwood’ – although one individual certainly stands out from the crowd.

Unlike our garden, the woodland is set on a hillside and is quite steep in places. At its heart is an old quarry, the evidence of human activity long since gone, the space most definitely reclaimed by nature. For me, it is a place of wonder, of rocks and ferns and mosses; the trees are alive with birds and I can only imagine what magic there will be as their spring music reverberates around this leafy bowl. If I can’t be found at home, then Roger will know where to look for me.

There are no fences defining our coppice within this woodland which is a typical situation here but we know where the boundaries lie so we are in no danger of taking someone else’s logs. I like that there is mutual respect and honesty between neighbours and an awareness that open wildlife corridors are more important than demarcating people’s property. There are plenty of fallen trees for us to take as logs and the first to be hauled home was a large and very dense birch. By law, if we fell trees then we are duty bound to replant them and I like that, too; this is not about exploitation but careful management and preservation of a beautiful natural area. That we want it to be a haven for wildlife goes without saying and I am quite sure that there will be many happy hours of just simply sitting and observing to balance the hard work of logging.

Home again, and although much of my week has been spent painting ceiling panels, I have managed to grab some time in the garden. When we first came to view the property in early September, the flower border at the front was the only real splash of colour in the entire garden; apart from removing those horrible plastic solar lights (no offence if you’re a fan – I’m not!), everything has been left untouched. I’ve always refused to have a grand autumn tidy up of perennial plants since the stems provide shelter for a wealth of insects and other creatures over winter and also help to protect any precocious new shoots from harsh weather. In recent days, though, I had started to realise that under the old growth and deep carpet of oak leaves there were clumps of bulbs and the promise of spring flowers. Time for a bit of border action.

I have lost count of how many times I’ve started sorting out gardens like this, beginning with a framework of mature and often very lovely plants suffering from neglect and being quietly engulfed in a forest of pernicious weeds – not so obvious in the fullness of summer but their true extent now revealed to the world in winter. The brambles and ivy are horrendous, the nettles are on the rampage, the celandines are a rash. Over the years I have been advised many, many times to clear the lot and start again from scratch but that is not my way; this is partly because I’m a bit of an idle gardener who is happy to turn a blind eye to weeds wherever possible but mostly because I think it’s important to preserve a certain essence or spirit of the garden, to acknowledge that we are just a tiny part of its history and to carry some tradition forward. That said, those brambles and ivy have to be restrained and as I started to clear them, a fresh spring look started to emerge.

There are clumps of bulbs scattered all over but I was especially thrilled to find what looks to me like a patch of winter aconites that had been totally smothered. Now this is the sort of natural buried treasure I love.

A strange dichotomy of approaches has been puzzling me ever since we moved into the house. On the one hand, a vast array of cleaning products was left here, which in itself was a bit of a shock to someone whose cleaning list extends only to bicarbonate of soda, white vinegar and lemon juice. I had no idea you could buy or ever needed something called ‘daily shower clean.’ However, they are all top of the range greener than green super-eco things, many from Germany and Holland and all based on expensive essential oils; in fact, there is an orange essential oil wood treatment that is so luscious, I’m almost tempted to use it in the bath (for wallowing in, not cleaning the tub)! I can only begin to imagine how expensive they were; I shall be happy to use them up as it seems wasteful not to and there is enough to last a couple of years or more. Contrast that with the huge amounts of toxic garden chemicals that were also left here, every kind of herbicide, fungicide and pesticide imaginable including enough ant killer for the entire commune. There are sachets of rat poison scattered into every nook and cranny (given that not a single one has been nibbled, there doesn’t seem to be a rodent problem) and a dustbin full of what I had stupidly hoped might be organic fertiliser but is actually industrial strength insecticide. I was totally horrified; none of these things has any place in our garden and I am just hoping that the local déchetterie wil be happy to take them off our hands. There is a need for healing here, for getting back to working with nature rather than trying to obliterate it. Well, that sounds like my kind of challenge, doesn’t it? 🙂

On that theme, I had a lovely time doing the French garden birdwatch I mentioned in my last post. No surprise that blue tits were far and away the most numerous species, but there was a good variety to watch and count both at the feeding station and elsewhere. In order to submit my results, I had to register with the Oiseaux des Jardins organisation which means I can log observations of birds (and toads, red squirrels and hedgehogs) as many times as I want throughout the year. I’m planning to do it once a month as I think it will be fascinating to see the seasonal changes and also (I hope) an increase in numbers and varieties as we work to create and improve habitats. Although the bird count was national, the data is also collated and analysed locally and I have enjoyed a friendly exchange of emails with the Faune-Maine team who had questioned one of my observations as it seemed a bit unusual; thankfully, I managed to take a photo clear enough to confirm that it really was a cirl bunting – certainly not a bird we’ve ever had feeding in any previous garden. As our home is situated in the Normandie-Maine natural park which enjoys a protected status, these sorts of observations are important so I’m thrilled to be part of something so worthwhile. I just wish I could persuade one of those white herons to pay us a visit . . .

A blue tit waiting for me to fill that fat ball feeder . . .

No herons, but there have been plenty of other white beauties to enjoy. I’m not a fan of heathers in the garden, preferring them cloaking wild hilltops in purple, but there is a dainty white one here nestled between mauve cousins in a pretty montage; at the very least, they are excellent early sources of nectar. It’s been several years since we had a viburnum tinus in the garden and I’d forgotten how sweet the scent of those lacy white flowers can be. The snowdrops are at their very best and I am meandering around the patch several times a day simply to enjoy their drifts of fragile beauty. Primroses and periwinkle are scattered in a pastel confetti and the daffies are hard on the heels of everything but I’m willing them not to rush. I love to enjoy the seasonal wonders of nature – after all, isn’t that the whole point of seasons? Like instant gratification, I think it’s a sad indictment of modern society that everything has to be charging ahead of itself all the time and of course, much of that has to do with commerce. If people really want to be thinking about Christmas in September, summer holidays and Easter eggs at New Year and ‘back to school’ in May, well of course, that’s up to them but I prefer to let myself be carried along by the rhythms of nature in the garden and the wild. There is no competition, no race, no rush. Relax. Breathe. Enjoy the moment, the beauty and wonder of what is here and now. The rest will follow in its own time, so let it.

Another little puzzle I’ve been pondering here is a group of three random lavender plants growing in seemingly the middle of nowhere; I think that perhaps at some point, there was a suspicion of a tiny island bed there, but now it’s just an odd overgrown patch in the middle of a wide open expanse of grass. I’d made a mental note to lift the plants in spring and relocate them to somewhere more fitting, but while I was rummaging about in the grass, I found what appeared to be a few very moth-eaten and rather pathetic hellebore leaves. Now that really caught my attention as hellebores are one of my favourite plants so I have been quietly nurturing the sad little thing with the intention of moving it, too, when the time is right. Just look at what a little beauty it has turned out to be, a perfect waxy Christmas rose . . . a little late as the calendar goes but then, that’s nature for you!

I’ve been a bit tardy myself in honouring my promise to Roger of a cake to say thank you for packing my bike but finally this week, I managed to organise a trip to St P which coincided with the boulangerie being open. I was delighted to find it is still run by the same family, they are such lovely, friendly people and their patisserie is amazing. I opted for two Paris-Brest cakes, divine rings of choux pastry filled with a hazelnut cream and fashioned to represent the wheels in the famous cycle race of the same name. Very apt, I thought, since I was on my own two wheels and also they just happen to be our favourites and are the biggest and best we’ve ever had anywhere in France. The icing on the cake – if you will excuse a terrible pun – is that the pretty patisserie boxes that Madame so carefully wraps her sweet treats in are the absolute perfect size to snuggle comfortably into my shiny new bike basket. Serendipity, indeed. Oh, happy days!

Break time

We know from previous experience that once we get stuck into a renovation project, it can be all too easy to do nothing else. In part, this is because it is new and exciting and there is an enjoyable buzz to being physically busy, the perfect antedote to all the correspondence, paperwork and travelling that has gone before. Also, although we love a plan, we are not given to too much procrastination; once we’ve decided what we’re doing, we like to get on and do it, to make our new home more comfortable and organised, to start putting our own stamp on it. I realise, however, that there is another element involved: it’s that ingrained work ethic that can leave us feeling guilty if we’re not being busy, a sense that rest and relaxation are not only downright lazy but also some kind of failing. I know that simply isn’t true; there is a need for balance, for time spent away from the ‘work’ – even if we don’t see it as such – to recharge our batteries and seek wider horizons. After all, moving isn’t just about our new home but the locality and community, too. Also – let’s face it – we didn’t really expect to be putting in new ceilings and insulation this time; it’s making an incredible difference to the house but we’d both rather be outside making a start on the new garden. Sigh.

With this in mind, we decided to down tools one afternoon this week and go for a circular walk from home in what we’re hoping will become a pleasant habit. The lanes had been so icy that morning that Roger had abandoned his usual early run, but a few hours of sunshine had rendered things a little safer underfoot and it felt good to be moving in the crisp air. A few hundred metres along the lane from home, we passed through a small hamlet and reached a spot that gave a lovely open view to the north. The higher land on the horizon might seem very modest in comparison to the soaring peaks of Asturias, but the Mont des Avaloirs is not to be mocked: at 416 metres, it is the highest point in western France and often called the ‘Everest of the West.’ For those with a head for heights, it is possible to climb 108 steps up a 18.5 metre high tower (for free) and enjoy a spectacular panorama above the tree tops; on a clear day, it’s possible to see Mont Saint Michel and in fact, were it physically feasible, the Brecon Beacons too, since there is nothing higher in between. Even more extreme, there is no higher land westwards until you reach the Americas . . ! As I have a problem with high places, I prefer to leave the tower to braver souls and enjoy walking the many woodland trails which are particularly stunning in autumn and a popular spot for serious mushroom hunters. That is most definitely a treat to look forward to later in the year.

On the subject of woodland, our walk took us past the coppice which we will be signing for shortly. It’s about a hectare (or two and a half acres) of mostly native broadleaf woodland within a much bigger wood and I’m very, very excited about it. It seems a bit rude to spend too much time writing about something we don’t actually own yet so I will leave that for another day.

From this point, we left the lane and took a gravelled track through the woodland; it’s part of an official waymarked walking route so typical of this area, although we intended to veer off and do our own thing later. I was trying to remember when I had last seen Roger so bundled up for a walk, we really have got out of the winter habit. (Mind you, he has still been running in shorts in the sub-zero temperatures, which makes me feel cold just thinking about it.)

A break in the trees gave us a lovely view which really captures the essence of the area, a church, village and scattered farms nestled between woods in the rolling landscape. I have discovered that there is an organic dairy farm there with a shop selling milk, yogurt and an incredible range of cheeses from their Normandie and  Montbéliarde herd . . . now there’s one to visit on my bike as soon as I have the chance. 😊

I am a great lover of woodland and I think there is something very special about watching the changes through the seasons. Now, everything is as bare and pared back as it can be, the ground underfoot wet and muddy or frozen into puddles of ice, and yet there is a beauty to this wintry simplicity which I appreciate. The busyness of birds in the branches above us, the first tentative splashes of fresh green growth on honeysuckle vines and the pale warmth of the sun all hold the promise of spring. It’s not here yet, but it’s on its way.

This is a land of traditional mixed farming and I have a particular soft spot for the scattered herds of pedigree cattle; there are many breeds, so very different to the Asturian Valley cattle we have become used to and, of course, no hint of a cowbell which seems a little strange. I think this bunch were slightly put out to have their lunch disturbed by the new neighbours!

Leaving the woodland, we turned onto lanes once again and looped back towards home, enjoying the pleasant views and abundance of birdlife. An early clump of primroses was a reminder of how in a few weeks’ time, these verges will be carpeted with wildflowers; their beauty is one of my enduring memories from when we lived here before. There will most definitely be photos to come in a springtime blog post.

Something I haven’t managed to capture with the camera yet is one of the white herons which seem ubiquitous here; they are such stately birds, standing tall and still in a streak of pure white against the winter fields. We came across one as we started to climb the hill back to ‘our’ coppice but it lifted and flapped away on casual wings before I could get a good snap. Ah well, I’ll keep on trying . . . and in the meantime, I was pretty chuffed to find I can at least still find some of my favourite skies to enjoy.

Winter has certainly been baring its teeth this week and we seem to have run the whole gamut of weather possibilities: rain, hail, sleet, snow, ice, fog and wind. The snowdrops spent several days living up to their French name of perce-neige but in the current (blissful!) milder conditions, they are more like Tennyson’s February fair-maids, sitting in pretty drifts beneath the hedges which are full of nodding hazel catkins.

I’m hoping the mild weather persists during the weekend as I’m planning to take a break from Ceiling World to take part in the LPO’s Comptage national des oiseaux des jardins, the French equivalent of the British RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. The process is the same, simply spending an hour watching the birds in the garden and recording the maximum number of any species seen at once. Roger has pointed out that trying to count all the blue tits or great tits at the feeding station at any one time is going to be nigh on impossible and he has a point; they are there in droves, it hasn’t taken long for word of free and plentiful nosh to get around and keeping the feeders topped up is a full-time job. Still, I love to see them, there is such pleasure in watching their behaviour at close quarters and there’s plenty more of the garden to survey, too. I’m looking forward to participating in such a worthwhile project – there is another one here in May to allow seasonal comparisons as the breeding season gets into full swing – and it’s going to be useful for refreshing my knowledge of bird names in French and learning some new ones, too.

Our other important engagement this weekend is to pop along to the local charity shop and stock up on some reading material. Charity shops are not overly common in France so we are blessed to have one close by, especially when it has a tremendous choice of books in English and French. Regular readers will know that running out of books was one of the biggest frustrations for us last year – we are both avid readers and always fill the car boot from various charity shops on our trips to the UK – so this feels like a little bit of heaven! At 20 cents for paperbacks and 30 cents for hardbacks, they are fantastic value and as always, we look after them, read them and return them for resale. I’ve been invited to join the team of volunteers and do a few hours in the shop or behind the scenes and it’s something I’m really looking forward to doing; it will be great to give something back to the community, to support local animal welfare, to meet new people and to improve my French. The only condition is that I am allowed time to get the vegetable patch up and running before I start; yes, it’s good to take a break now and again but I really do have to earn (and grow) my crust first! 😉

Autumn bliss

I’ve just come to the end of my 30-day yoga programme and, at the risk of sounding a bit self-congratulatory, I have to say I’m feeling pretty chuffed. This is the first time I’ve ever managed to find the discipline and motivation to follow a programme to the letter and to finish it in the allotted time, so it feels like quite an achievement. It has been a challenge and I won’t pretend that there weren’t days when I’d have preferred to leave my yoga mat well and truly rolled, but I’ve really enjoyed it and I’m certainly feeling stronger and more flexible as a result. I’m planning to start another 30-day programme soon, but in the meantime, I’m dipping in and out of the Yoga With Adriene November calendar of daily practices several times a week. It’s so good to stretch!

Something I’ve noticed as I’ve worked my way through the thirty days is an increasing desire to get out and have a good walk straight after breakfast. I’m not sure whether it’s some kind of subconscious balancing response to the afternoon yoga practice, the effect of the beautiful weather or just a natural call to revel in the season, but it’s something I’m enjoying immensely. How can I ignore the pull of these gorgeous mornings? It would be rude not to make the most of them!

There is a magical air to the woods at present. Without so much as a breath of wind, the leaves are taking their time on their final journey, falling softly and unhurriedly in an autumnal spectrum of bright fire. Visually, it is very beautiful, but it’s the sound that has captured my imagination, the dry patter and whisper of a thousand leaves spiralling, floating or tumbling downwards through the dwindling canopy like gentle snowflakes. It is nature’s music, this crisp, tinkling timpani. I am mesmerised.

I love the way, too, that everything is opening up to let in light and space. The skeletons of trees are emerging; hidden for many months by the lush green canvas of summer, now trunk and branch take centre stage. The birch stand ramrod straight, a few hazy clouds of leaves clinging on in the topmost branches.

The chestnuts have no such discipline; they are true contortionists, metallic limbs bent and twisted at crazy angles. I am reminded of some of the more challenging yoga postures from recent practices!

Despite the lazy pace of leaf fall, I am struck at how quickly the evergreens have become prominent, the vining ivies and brooding hollies now moving to take possession of the season as is their right.

They are a long way from dominating, though; the leaves might be drifting downwards but the landscape still has a fullness to it, albeit it one that has been touched with the wide sweep of autumn’s paintbrush.

As the canopy thins, the abundant birdlife becomes more apparent, too; of course, they have been there all summer but now the trees are alive with the busyness of birds and it is a pleasure to reacquaint myself with them. Family flocks of long-tailed tits with their energetic acrobatics and incessant chatter; the vocal bullfinches with their flamboyant flash of deep pink; a myriad tiny characters – goldcrests, firecrests, assorted warblers – so busy in the highest branches; silent treecreepers scurrying up trunks like scuttling mice; shy crested tits, their perky feathered mohicans making me smile every time. What a precious thing it is to spend moments like this with nature. I lose all track of time, completely absorbed in my surroundings; for me, it is the very best kind of meditation.

I’ve written before about how I love a bit of peace and solitude and these morning walks are giving me those things; I carry the obligatory mask with me ‘just in case’ but it’s a privilege to be able to wander without any social distancing worries, to stride out or saunter, to breathe deeply, to relax, simply to be. It wouldn’t be right to claim I’ve never met met another soul, however; there is someone I see often, an early bird long-distance runner. Mad man. Wonder who he can be? 😉

Despite this prevailing sense of autumn, the spring flowers in the verges are having a second wind, as they always do at this time of year. There is no great abundance, but still plenty of forage for hungry insects in the colourful dabs and spots amongst the leaf litter. There is knapweed, Queen Anne’s lace, St John’s wort, red clover, Three Birds Flying, granny’s bonnets, honeysuckle, hawkbit and scabious and even a beautiful patch of violets just up the lane from our house.

As in the wild, so in the garden. I love the way the calendula now sweep through the patch in sunny clumps after their summer rest. They are irrepressible: I’m harvesting the petals to dry for herbal teas and for every bloom I pick, two more spring up the next day. They will continue like this all through winter now.

On the subject of marigolds, the single French marigold plant that has taken so long to do anything much is now in its full glory. I feel I ought to be collecting and drying the flowers as a dyestuff but they are making such a bold splash of colour and are so full of bumble bees that I don’t have the heart.

Another little beauty is the oca, a brand new vegetable adventure for us this year and one that has proved interesting to follow. The plants are showing no signs of dying back yet ~ they are flourishing, in fact ~ and the dainty blooms are receiving the constant attention of bees and butterflies alike.

The roses and geraniums are still going strong in bold splashes of colour, the gorgeously fragrant peacock lily has started to flower, the honeysuckle shows no signs of giving up, the verbena bonariensis is having yet another go and as for the nasturtiums? Well, they are trailing through every nook and cranny and cascading in bright waterfalls wherever they have the chance.

Athough citrus trees blossom and fruit all year round here, the main harvesting season is about to begin. The first tantalising fruits on our young orange tree are still green, but there is a gradual and subtle change to their hue which promises great things to follow.

The kiwis have started their marathon season and are bringing a juicy sweetness to our palate in place of the figs which have well and truly finished now. The tracery of the almost bare branches and the last few leaves of the fig tree caught against the bluest of skies sums up the season perfectly for me. Ah, autumn. Bliss. 😊

Wild things

I like the term wildcrafting; look for a definition and you’ll find a range of subtly different meanings and perspectives, all of which embrace the idea of collecting plant materials from the wild for eating, crafting (by which I mean things like dyeing and basket-making) or making herbal medicines. It differs slightly from foraging in as much as there is a stronger emphasis on the idea of stewardship, of knowing, observing, understanding and caring for the land, of treating it with honour and respect in the way indigenous peoples have for millennia. It’s about ethics, sustainabilty and above all, connection: yes, I like that very much.

It’s been something I’ve reflected on a good deal this week as we have been gathering and enjoying so much of nature’s bounty. Our fields are full of parasol mushrooms, dotting the green in great sweeps of creamy caps among the purple haze of autumn crocus. They seem particularly large and meaty this year and are a wild food to be treasured.

We pick them early in the day while they are curved and pristine, all sharply pleated gills and clean, lemony scent. Combined with chestnuts and Jerusalem artichokes they make the very best of creamy autumn soups, a dish that sings in celebration of the season and makes a perfect lunch for hungry gardeners!

Later in the day, the mushroom caps flatten and it’s clear that something else has been tucking in, too . . . and this brings me back to the concept of wildcrafting. It would be very easy to go out and pick every mushroom for ourselves, eating what we can manage now and preserving the rest for later (and perhaps if we were starving we could be forgiven for that). However ~ thankfully ~ we’re not starving and the mushrooms aren’t there just for our culinary delight; they are an important and integral part of the biodiversity that exists within the ecosystem of the meadows and as such, it’s crucial that we take only our fair share and leave the rest.

In countries where wild edible fungi proliferate, the ancient skills and knowledge of finding, preparing, preserving and using them are passed down from one generation to another. This learning and observation aspect of wildcrafting is essential since the wrong choice or information could result, quite literally, in a fatal mistake. I’ve always applauded the fact that in France, foraged fungi can be taken to a local pharmacy for identification, yet if they are not edible, it seems wasteful and destructive to have picked them in the first place. There are plenty of good reference books and internet sites but this is a case where I believe there is no substitute for learning first-hand from an expert: a fungi foraging workshop is definitely on my wishlist! In the meantime, they are at their absolute best here now so it’s the perfect chance to get out with the camera and simply enjoy the rich visual variety on offer.

Eucalyptus is something I have no difficulty finding or identifying, being such a ubiquitous part of the western Asturias landscape, but I have to admit I struggle with it. It is an exotic, invasive alien which really shouldn’t be here and there is widespread acknowledgement and concern across the Iberian Peninsula at how the vast monocultural plantations have depleted topsoil, disturbed the water tables and offered very little to native wildlife. It’s ironic and sad when the native forests of mixed broadleaf species grow so prolifically in the benign climate and burst with a rich biodiversity of life.

As with all things, though, I like to keep a balanced view, and it’s fair to say that eucalypts are not all bad. For a start, they are proving to be a mighty weapon in regenerating areas of several countries where deforestation and desertification have caused mass ecological devastation. That so much of the commercial crop ends up as toilet paper can mask the fact that they are a very dense hardwood, excellent as a building material and fuel; during the nineteenth century, they were planted in some countries alongside railway tracks as an instant and accessible fuel for steam trains and certainly they form the bulk of our winter fuel here. The flowers are a fantastic source of nectar and provide invaluable winter forage for Asturian bees, yielding a delicious honey into the bargain. I am endlessly fascinated at the way the trees slough off old bark in twisted ropes that hang from the high branches like tropical vines or litter the woodland floor like discarded snake skins. The bark has proved useful to us as a natural hanging basket liner and a ‘brown’ addition to the compost heap.

For me, though, in wildcrafting mode, it’s the leaves that are valuable, and the days following windy weather are ideal for collecting them; the mature leaves grow so high up it’s impossible to pick them without the aid of a tame koala but a few decent gusts are enough to shake the stems down.

The younger stems are more accessible and very different with their rounded leaves and pretty blue tones. I’ve been watching these fresh stems shoot up from an old stump over the past few months but in recent weeks, they’ve been flattened ~ I’m not exactly sure by what, but as there’s a wealth of evidence pointing to wild boar activity in that area, I have my suspicions!

These seemed like the perfect branches to harvest, but of course, I didn’t cut them all; there was a timely little reminder sitting on a leaf that the trees might be aliens, but they do still have something to offer to others.

Now at this point, let me digress a little and say that it has been a terrible year for snails. Actually, I’ll rephrase that: it’s been a truly wonderful year for snails but a terrible one for gardeners trying to grow leafy vegetables. Honestly, they are like a plague, and ~ in contrast to our first summer here when we had a similar slimeball deluge ~ it’s the tiny ones that are causing all the trouble. Bad enough that they sit about in small groups on the tops of leaves, the undersides are generally hiding twenty or thirty of the little beasties. In a way, the current boom is partly my own fault; three nights away followed by several days of wet weather where I chose to spend minimal time in the garden gave them free range to spiral out of control, doing what snails do naturally . . . scoffing our crops.

The problem, of course, is that we choose to garden in an organic, sustainable and regenerative way and this is what the frontline looks like; it’s all very well waxing lyrical about ‘working with nature’ and flooding social media with sundrenched pictures of beautiful flowers and perfect veg but this is no unicorn-infested fairytale or horticultural utopia. The reality is that such an approach to growing food is not a soft option: it can be frustrating, demoralising and downright hard work at times. I appreciate that the prospect of spending an afternoon scraping hundreds, if not thousands, of snails off leaves wouldn’t appeal to many people ~ I’m one of them ~ but if we are to remain true to our gardening values and principles, then it’s the only way. I did smile at the thought of Bill Mollison’s famous ‘duck deficit’ quotation, wondering how many legions of feathery foot soldiers we would need to win this particular battle! The alternative, though, is not an option, partly because the poisons in slug pellets could seriously harm toads, frogs and lizards who are all valuable allies in this. Also, it comes down to a very simple equation: what goes into the soil goes into our food, and what goes into our food goes into us. Metaldehyde or molluscs? No contest . . . so back to the manual extraction it is, and it’s worth the effort because we are currently enjoying an abundant harvest of delicious, leafy greens despite the snails’ best efforts.

Anyway, back to the business of harvesting eucalyptus. As the trees are evergreen, it’s possible to collect fresh leaves all year round as and when I need them but I decided it might be interesting to see how well they dried. Given how the dried leaf is widely available to buy for a herbal tea and the plethora of mouthwashes, chest rubs and other medicinal products on the market, it might be surprising to learn that eucalyptus is poisonous and can be extremely harmful to humans and animals if ingested in large quantities (koalas have evolved the ability to flush the toxins out quickly). In short, eucalyptus contains cyanide ~ but then so do apples, peaches, barley and flaxseed, among others. Once again, it’s down to learning, knowledge and ancient wisdom; in small quantities, eucalyptus leaf offers a safe and healing herb and after all, I’m not intending to sit and chew my way through a huge pile of them! I will use the mature leaves for the occasional cup of tea and steam inhalations to ease winter congestion; mashing and washing the leaves actually helps to eliminate the cyanide anyway, as it’s water-soluble. I’m also planning to macerate some in almond oil to make a rub for sore muscles, perfect for some gentle post-run therapy. The younger leaves I will simmer in water to make a household disinfectant and toilet cleaner. The bunch is currently hanging in the autumn sunshine with some indigo-dyed fleece I finally got round to plying and skeining thanks to a rainy day . . . and yes, I should have been on snail patrol instead of messing with yarn. 🙂

Regular readers will know that I need no persuading to go wandering about in the woods at the best of times, but just at the moment there is so much seasonal colour and beauty to enjoy, especially with a splash of soft sunlight on the leaves, that it is a complete delight.

Not that these walks are without their dangers; I’ve mentioned the risk of being bombed by falling chestnuts previously but things have taken on a new twist this week in the form of giant webs. Spiders are most definitely the animal of the moment (shame they don’t eat snails) and the webs are enormous affairs, stretching several metres right across the forest paths. The risk of entanglement for the unwary is supremely high but luckily, the rather plump spinners tend to sit right in the centre waiting for their next unsuspecting victim; this makes the invisible webs all the easier to spot and then they can be avoided with a little nifty limbo dancing. I’ve yet to see that noted as an important facet of wildcrafting anywhere . . .

The chestnuts really are worth the trouble, though, and this year’s crop seems to be especially good ~ fat, unblemished and maggot-free. Those spines are lethal so a thick pair of leather gloves is essential! Unlike walnuts which we store for a year, we tend to eat chestnuts as more of a seasonal food, perhaps just freezing a few peeled ones for adding to stuffings or winter stews later on. They are such a versatile and delicious ingredient; as well as the aforementioned soup, they are a great addition to sauces and casseroles, pasta and pizza toppings, crumble mixes and breakfast bowls and we particularly love them roasted in trays of mixed vegetables.

In complete contrast to the hearty, floury starch of chestnuts, one of my other favourite forage foods at the moment is applemint. It’s a boisterous native, romping energetically through the verges and meadows and for me, it is the quintessential scent of an Asturian summer, especially when the grazing cattle trample it. It has a pungent scent but I must confess that my nose tends to pick up more carbolic than apple; mind you, I’ve never been able to ‘get’ leather, chocolate or mushrooms from red wine either, despite much conscientious application, so that’s not really saying anything. The scent of applemint might be lost on me but I do like the flavour, particularly a few leaves brewed with green tea as a refreshing, relaxing drink and aid to digestion. The plant doesn’t die back completely once summer is over but I tend to have to wander a bit further afield to find a good clump once the season changes. I’m not the only one who appreciates its bounty!

Now at moments like these, I have a habit of losing all sense of what I set out to do because I become sidetracked by other things; the fragile beauty and perfect symmetry of the butterfly sipping sweetness from deep within the flowers had me totally absorbed. Well, that was until I noticed someone else perched on a neighbouring leaf . . .

Flitting from flower to leaf, the first little star at last opened its wings to give me a hoped-for glimpse of that gorgeous blue.

Well, why not be led astray by all this natural wonder for a while? Like the vivid saffron stamens cradled inside crocus cups . . .

. . . or the fleeting fire of a sunset, for me it’s the wild in wildcrafting that is so very special. 🙂

Autumn breezes in

I can smell autumn dancing in the breeze, the sweet chill of pumpkin and crisp sunburnt leaves.

Anon

What a surprise to wake to the sound of wind rattling around the eaves and a cool, fresh breeze blowing through the bedroom. Wind is a rarity here at the best of times but seems especially strange after the long, still, sleepy days of summer. Autumn usually creeps and sidles in so softly and slowly we barely notice but this year it has come knocking loudly on the door, all bluster and blow. Time to pull on my boots, get out there and revel in the change. 🙂

How different the morning light is already, the mountain tops in the distance sunlit as I start my walk but so much of the valley still cloaked in shadow. It’s cooler, too, with a new scent to the air: not the dank, dark mushroom smell of death and decay that will come later, but a deeper, earthier tone than of late, something that seems to reflect the subtle shift of colours in the landscape.

I’m not a fan of high winds, they can be disturbing and bring damage and destruction in their wake. A fresh breeze is another matter, though; there is something very energising about it, a sense of vitality and vibrant action that I love. There is mesmerising movement in the trees, a rippling dance shimmying through the undergrowth, a noisy, bustling, chaotic joie de vivre that makes me smile and quicken my pace. The equinox is behind us and yes, we have tipped beyond that point of balance but it is certainly not all gloom and doom and darkness: there is still plenty of joyful living to be done!

As a teacher, I was always aware that a windswept playtime would more often that not be followed by an unsettled session with fidgety, high-spirited, bright-eyed children; to be sure, it wasn’t ideal if there was serious work to be done, but in a way I used to feel there was something healthy and wholesome about the electric charge crackiling and fizzing through the classroom on windy days. It does us no harm to stir the pot occasionally, to shake everything up like a giant snowglobe and let it all settle into a different pattern. It’s what fuels creativity and innovation and stops us stagnating or becoming too predictable and set in our ways. Perhaps, childlike, we should all go out on a windy day and dance with the trees?

Autumn is generally associated with a carnival of colour but the days of bright fire are still some way off; the landscape here is still predominantly lush and green, yet walking through the woods, there are little hints and subtle touches that speak of what’s to come.

As the woodland path starts to drop towards the river, there is a more open space where I often saw roe deer grazing in late spring and early summer this year. When we first moved here, this steep slope had been recently harvested, and the landscape still bore fresh and ugly scars to show where towering eucalyptus had been felled and carted away to be pulped into toilet paper. It has been left to regenerate naturally and although the eucalyptus has come back (of course it has, try stopping it), there are plenty of young native trees in there, too, including birch, oak, cherry, holly and chestnut.

It has been a fascinating process to watch ~ proper rewilding in action, I suppose ~ and I love the eclectic colourful mix of the understorey. In spring it bristles with the white spires of asphodel, in early summer it is a sumptuous purple haze of bee-ridden foxgloves but at this time of year, the gorse is centre stage, all bright sunshine and coconut perfume.

In fact, there is still a wealth of wild flora available to those who feed on it; this season’s preferred colour combinaton is most definitely yellow and purple.

From colour to touch, and at this time of year I find I am drawn more than ever to textures with a deep, atavistic need to reach out and explore with my fingertips. From the bright, brittle symmetry of fern to the soft floaty fluff of seedheads, the jagged layers of a rock fall or perfect dome of a captured raindrop, the pompom flowers and glassy leaves of ivy and a dizzying choice of tree barks . . . I am in tactile heaven!

I’d hoped to find an interesting selection of fungi but they were very thin on the ground. Perhaps it’s still a little early but I did at least manage to spot a few, even if they weren’t the most inspiring.

One thing there is no shortage of is chestnuts. They are everywhere and it’s a dangerous business wandering about under the trees, especially in a wind, believe me; I can categorically state that being chestnut bombed is not a pleasant experience! They are a wonderful food, though, and a handful cooked with squash from the garden and a selection of warming spices makes a dish that is just perfect for the season.

So, like the circle of the seasons and the year, I came full circle back to our home, hair in a wind-teased tangle and cheeks feeling warmed and kissed by the busy breeze. The sun had climbed from behind the mountain, flooding the valley with light once again and the promise of a lovely day. There is still so much abundant growth, so much lush verdancy and it will be with us for some time to come. I’ve enjoyed my little taste of early autumn, the chance to blow the cobwebs out and waken my senses to the season, the change in the air . . . but I’m still enjoying the summery things, too, so let’s not rush! 🙂

A design for life

I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on why it should be, but this time of year always leaves me feeling slightly enervated. Perhaps it’s something to do with the weather, the sun still hot and high, the air slick with moisture and brewing storms. Maybe it’s all the busyness of harvesting and processing things from the garden; I’m not complaining ~ we are so lucky to have such an abundance of fresh produce and the means to preserve most of it ~ but it’s a pretty relentess activity at the moment. It could be some kind of circadian rhythmic response to the noticeably shortening days or just a throwback to that perennial sinking feeling that the holidays are nearly over and the new school term looms! I’m really not sure, but I’ve certainly lacked the energy that swirls in abundance through those stormy skies.

Sunny evening, stormy sky.

The irony is that I know full well as soon as we have passed the point of balance at the equinox, I shall be bursting with energy and buzzing like a fly in a bottle with ideas for new creative projects. In the meantime, I’m simply pottering about without much enthusiasm. I’ve been felting little bags to stuff with birthday goodies for Evan and Matthew, finished knitting a pair of socks which I’ve been fiddling at for weeks, made another batch of soap, done a bit of spinning here, a bit of crochet there and, at long last, finished the dress I have been sewing. All butterfly-minded, I’ve been flitting from one activity to the next, nibbling at the edges of things but with no real appetite to get stuck in.

Self-set phacelia and hungry visitor.

I’ve tried to find the discipline to go for a run a couple of times a week but I have to confess, yoga has been far better suited to my mood and, with the new horreo flooring finished, I find I have the perfect outdoor studio. I love the combination of the honey-coloured stone and wood, both old and new, in such a light, airy space; it’s totally shaded from sun and sheltered from rain but the breeze can still blow through in a soft, refreshing way; I have wonderful views over the tops of the peach trees and yet it’s completely private. It’s like being up high in my own little castle and I love it!

View from my castle ramparts . . .

One of my favourite parts of yoga practice is the inverted postures. Children turn themselves upside down at the drop of a hat but how often do we do the same as adults . . . and why not? It feels crazily liberating and, in addition to a healthy flow of blood to the brain, it encourages us to look at life ~ literally and metaphorically ~ from new angles. So it was that I was resting in Downward Dog, contemplating the mesmerising sight of the eucalyptus trees in our woodland catching a fair breeze in their silver boughs, when the random thought of ‘permaculture’ landed in my consciousness. (Apologies to serious yogis: I realise when I’m doing yoga, I should be concentrating on only that! 🙂 )

. . . and in Downward Dog!

Permaculture is something that has interested me for some time and I’ve been dabbling in it for a good while now. I’ve done a lot of reading, watched hundreds of video clips, followed permaculture blogs . . . but never really fully engaged in coming to understand it properly. I’m not in a position to sign up for studying for the Permaculture Design Certificate at the moment but I’ve been struggling to find a truly viable alternative, and I’m aware part of that is a personal thing. There’s a lot of material out there, some of it really excellent and inspirational, some of it utterly dire. I’ve found it hard to gel with certain personalities or to subscribe to elements of elitism from some quarters and I’ve also found the quality of some writing truly terrible. (I know it might sound fussy and pedantic and yes, I did hang up my teacher hat several years ago, but if I am constantly distracted from the bones of an argument by poor grammar and spelling then the course is definitely not for me!).

Beauty in bloom.

Anyway, my yoga moment had me thinking perhaps it was time to look again and I was very delighted to find the #freepermaculture site and sign up for the year long course on offer. It’s only early days but my goodness, I think I’m going to love every bit of this course! It’s very accessible and user-friendly, bright and fun without feeling dumbed down or lightweight in any way. I like the fact that it’s delivered by different voices and that disagreement and discussion are encouraged as part of the learning process; I think that is incredibly healthy and I’ve always enjoyed a good debate. I love that it’s hands-on so that all the theoretical study will be put into practice and that plenty of time has been built in to allow proper development of thought and action. The fact that it is free is amazing, although I shall certainly be making a donation in support of the good work ~ I think that might be the ethical principle of Fair Share in practice both ways?

So, why permaculture? Well, it became clear once I started reading about it that we have been applying some of the principles to our life for a long time without even realising it, so it makes a lot of sense to pursue those ideas further and see where they take us. Certainly, much of our gardening practice is already along the right lines; for example, I would argue that the time, observation, effort, thinking, building and working with nature that we have devoted over five summers to yielding a healthy tomato crop here is testament to that. I’m excited to really get to grips now with the design concepts and start playing with new ideas and strategies around the patch.

Certainly, for us the concepts of sustainability and regeneration are key to our personal philosophies. The more self-sufficient, self-reliant and resilient we can become and the more we can reduce our carbon footprint and care for everything living in our space now and in the future, the better.

Iberian grass snake: judging by the bulge halfway down its length, it had just found a living lunch in the compost heap!

It’s not just about gardening and food production, either ~ and that’s another element of this course I welcome, the fact that that is made very clear. Permaculture, based on three sets of ethics and twelve principles, is something that can be applied to all areas of life and the challenge is there for us to try and achieve that in a cohesive flow. It’s not perfect (what is?) and I’m not saying it’s the only possible design for life, but I think it’s a great peg for us to hang our future on and see what transpires.

Part of this week’s harvest from the orchard; the fig season has started, too.

In many ways, this is not so much about us as about the future. Roger and I are currently 57 and 53 respectively; we don’t consider ourselves to be ‘old’ but we are under no illusion that the larger part of our lives is behind us. What we do now is for our children and grandchildren and all the generations yet to come; I have no doubt that Planet Earth will endure, as it already has for several billion years, but I think we have a serious responsibility to hand it down in a fit, viable and valued state ~ and that certainly seems like a big ask at the moment.

However, I am nothing if not an optimist, and starting my new studies has given me a huge boost in the right direction. I suddenly feel hugely motivated again, full of energy and enthusiasm to look, listen and learn, to shake off this late August lethargy and get well and truly stuck in.

Not a bad classroom!

I even chose to do an extra optional activity in my first week, an observation and study of a significant tree in the locality. I chose one of our mighty walnuts and spent a very absorbing and happy time sitting in the shade of its wide green canopy, jotting down my ideas.

I definitely learnt many things just from this single activity, not least that my spelling brain and the word ‘mycorrhiza’ don’t get on! I also discovered to my surprise that on a mature walnut tree like this one, the leaves are larger at the ends of the stem than further in; if someone had asked me to sketch one from memory, I would have put smaller leaves at the end, as they are on the younger trees. Observation is a powerful tool, indeed!

So, I’m very eager to see what these 52 weeks of study and activity will bring ~ who knows how our lives might change in the next twelve months as a result? It feels like quite an undertaking, a bit scary in some ways, but I do love a challenge, particularly one that keeps the old grey matter busy. Life is exciting, so full of opportunity and possibility, and there is something very uplifting and exhilarating about stepping out on a new path, wherever it may lead . . . yes, even at my great age! 🙂

New dress, new path . . . the adventure begins.

Contrasts

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?

John Steinbeck

The rain came. After a day of humidity so high we could almost lick the moisture from the air, a storm broke and water fell on the parched garden. A brief respite the next morning meant I could take my breakfast outside as usual and feel the tantalising difference in the air; the sky was bruised and turbulent, swollen with the promise of more rain to come (several hours’ worth, as it turned out), but beneath it there was a bright freshness to the garden. It felt as though everything had let out a huge sigh, a deep, delicious exhalation of relief; plants had shaken off the dust, lifted their heads and stretched limbs upwards again. After many days of langourous lethargy, there was energy once more, a new optimism embracing the will to go on.

Clouds were forming in the valley, rising and looping from the woods like plumes of shape-shifting dragon’s breath; no matter how many times I watch this happening, it never fails to feel magical.

I love the change the rainy weather brings, the stark contrast and different feel to those cloudless, sunlit mornings. The water paints everything in deeper hues, so that beneath my feet the chestnut leaves, dropped in drought, shone like scales of burnished copper against the green. It’s a while since I’ve needed to wear wellies, too!

The leafy canopy so slick with rain, all shining and drippy, and the froth of wild carrot both had a palpably altered air seen against duller skies.

Lizards ~ those irrepressible hedonists ~ are two a penny here, scuttling about in busy flurries or simply sitting and soaking up the sunshine. The rain, however, brought out a more shadowy character, mooching across the yard with an exaggerated swagger. Fire salamanders are curious creatures, secretive, hidden amphibians that emerge under the cover of darkness to hunt . . . unless it’s raining, when they are happy to endure the daylight, too. They are poisonous and can be incredibly long-lived (almost as old as me, in fact): a small animal worthy of the greatest respect.

While so many things in the garden welcomed the rain, it wasn’t all good news. I love to grow sunflowers but have to admit it is nothing but a struggle here; the seedlings are usually decimated by slugs and snails, although this year most of the seeds were eaten by mice before they even had the chance to germinate. The survivors grow tall and top heavy and that is often ~ quite literally ~ their downfall; it’s impossible for them to put down deep roots on our slopes and any hint of strong winds or heavy rain can send them toppling over like fallen giants.

Of the three beauties flowering, two were lost and a plant in heavy bud lost its head; it’s an unwanted change but all part of gardening life and at least there is still one stunning plant for the bees to enjoy. I’m enjoying the salvaged flowers on the kitchen table, too, and the chance to study their intricate structures and fascinating beauty close up. It’s a vivid reminder of the pleasure there is to be found in small things.

The winds of change have blown through the vegetable patch this week, dancing to the steady rhythm of the seasons and bringing subtle contrasts of colour and flavour in their wake. We have moved from purple to green beans, cherry to plum tomatoes, from spearmint to apple mint, from sweet peas to sunflowers. The carrots and calabrese are finished, the aubergines and Asturian beans begun, the melons and squash whisper in the wings. Where onions have been lifted, cabbages are planted. The benign climate gives us permission to keep on sowing and nature shows us how: amongst the young spring onions and lettuce plants, self-set rocket, land cress and succulent purslane seedlings proliferate, with their promise of tasty salads for weeks to come.

Our meals begin with what is good in the garden; there is such choice and abundance now, we barely need anything else. What a blessing!

Further afield, and regular readers will know that one of the things we love to do is walk. It’s always exciting to explore new routes but I love to revisit old ones, too, especially to map the changes through the year. Not wanting to stray too far from home this week (the combination of holiday season and a public holiday making everything a bit busy out there), we opted to go back to the Ruta Vueltas del Gato. This is a circular walk of roughly 13 kilometres / 8 miles through a beautiful and changing landscape which I first wrote about in an earlier post; having only done it in winter, I was keen to visit again now and hear its summer song. Well, certainly we were going to be walking under a very different sky this time!

December
August

The trail leads across what feels like a wide expanse of moorland; it is in fact a large area of former eucalyptus forest that is being regenerated under a managed scheme that is pretty much letting nature take its course. It was much easier to appreciate how things are developing in the height of summer growth compared to the bare bones of winter.

December
August

For me, there was a tremendous sense of the land being healed here, of a brave new ecosystem and raft of life emerging from the ashes of monoculture. I can’t begin to describe the butterflies any more than I could capture them with the camera; there were literally clouds and clouds of them, like confetti in so many sizes and colours. Tiny blues rose from the path with every step we took while others shimmered above the undergrowth like a heat haze. The insect life in general was stunning, the heather and gorse alive with their activity and noise.

There are many, many reasons why I love birch trees, one of which is their pioneer spirit: give them a patch of land and they will be there in no time. Beneath the protective layer of shrubby undergrowth, shiny new tree seedlings were emerging, the birch most definitely leading the charge . . . and when they are given permission to reach for the skies, what beautiful trees they make.

There were other, more unexpected treasures to be discovered, too.

From this wide and open country, the path begins its long and sinuous descent to the bottom of a steep-sided gorge; it’s not called the ‘Cat Bends’ for nothing! It’s a difficult path, littered with boulders and deep gullies that make walking difficult. I must admit, I found it much easier under foot in the drier conditions of summer than the slipperiness of winter, so much so that I was even able to lift my eyes from the path and drink in the view.

That said, summer brings its own problems, it seems . . . so much growth in places, the path literally disappeared. Roger is in front of me somewhere, honest.

In winter, the mountainsides had seemed somehow metallic, the trees bare in silver and pewter or clinging to autumn colours in fiery flashes of copper and gold. Now, all was green upon green, lush and verdant in the higher light with not even the slightest hint of summer’s end in sight.

December
August

Down and down we went (170 metres in 500 metres of walking, to be precise), with the sound of the river growing ever louder until at last we caught the first glimpse of water through the trees.

Like our walk last week, we had arrived at a watersmeet, the place where the serene río Navelgas-Barcena meets the busy, chattering río Naraval before they continue their journey together as the beautiful río Esva. In December, the rivers had been full, stretching wide to their tree-flanked banks.

December

Now, everything was softer and slower. Sunlight strobed through the leaves and sparked off the water in scattered explosions, forming exquisite constellations of tiny diamonds on the surface. Pond skaters sought sunny patches, edging ever forwards against the current, whilst turquoise damsel flies flitted in twos and threes on indigo wings as dark as midnight.

This is a magical place: in contrast to all the movement and sound, the peace and serenity are so strong that they are almost tangible. You can breathe in pure, raw nature through every pore here. It is the sort of place I find hard to leave.

December
August

Leave, of course, we must ~ there were still many miles to go. There is no bridge across the río Naraval so wading is the only option. I love this sort of fun element to a walk but I have to say it’s a lot more enjoyable in summer temperatures!

December
August

The climb back to the top of the gorge is a long and steep one but the beauty of the woodland in its summer colours was a happy distraction from the hard work my legs were doing.

Emerging once more into open country, we could look back at where we had been walking earlier. That’s one of the things I love about a circular walk like this, the real sense of a journey, of distance travelled and landscape experienced and explored from different angles and perspectives. I loved the contrast of the dusty track punctuated with fresh puddles, too.

More contrasts in the colours and textures of the landscape again and reflecting on the pictures, I’m reminded of how every season holds its own unique forms of interest and beauty.

December
August

Just before our path turned into woodland once more, we had a sweeping view across the valley and the rocky path along which we’d walked. In the centre of the photo is a traditional feature of the Asturian landscape, a circular stone wall built to protect beehives from the attention of bears. It was a timely reminder of the fact that, although we were only a short drive from home and we could see farms and hamlets scattered across the landscape, it is very much still wilderness; humans might have been making their mark here for millennia but there remains an untamed, unfettered spirit of freedom to this land.

Home once more and we are likely to spend the rest of August pottering about at home while the holiday month runs its course. The weather remains changeable, playing a constantly fluctuating game of ‘Blue Sky, Grey Sky’ but I’m not complaining; it’s a little bit of variety and uncertainty, of changes and contrasts that surely makes life more interesting! 🙂

Woodlands and other wanderings

It has been hot here this week which is no surprise, really; it is August after all, and the sun is still high and strong. It’s the sort of weather that draws many people to spend their days on the beaches, but for me the loveliest thing is an early morning walk through the woods. First, I like to take my breakfast outside and enjoy it accompanied by the sounds and activity of the garden waking up: the flitting of small birds about their business, the low buzz of the early bumble bees, the whicker of blackbirds as a pole cat silently stalks the hedgerows, the garrulous natter of crows and jays in the woods, the joyful chatter of swallows tumbling around the sky. In keeping with the general culture here, our neighbours are late risers, so there is a peace to the village below, no sound or movement apart from the babble of the river and the occasional strident cockerel. Breakfast done and the woods call me.

Climbing the hill from home, I stop to turn and enjoy the view; in the west, the mountain tops are already illuminated, the waning moon a fading thumb print pressed into a lightening sky.

There is something very special about this quiet time of day under the trees. The smell of morning is unique, caught in the liminal time between the cooling balm of night and crisp heat of day. The eucalyptus, which exudes a sharp herbal scent after rain and a pungent spicy scent in warmth, now has a soft mintiness to it that allows other scents to come to the fore. Is it possible to smell in green? I’m quite sure that’s what I do, breathing in the essence of all that lush vegetation, the swollen growth of full summer.

If I could only ever have one flower in my life it would be honeysuckle. It is blooming now as much as it was in May, its delicate filigree flowers twining and climbing through branches and releasing the headiest of perfumes that wafts through the trees as I walk. Sublime.

Of the broadleaf trees, it is the chestnuts that make me smile the most at this time of year. In spring, they are tardy lie-a-beds, all bare branch and tight bud while everything around them flaunts bright plumes of fresh foliage. Then follows the race to catch up and overtake, elbowing their way into the woodland procession with branches thrown high and wide and a swanky, tiered canopy in the darkest of greens. In recent weeks, there has been an exuberant exhibition of flower and catkins, the woodland floor now carpeted in discarded soft tassles and branches boasting the burgeoning spiky explosions of future treasures. Come October, they will be showering the landscape with their glossy nuts and raining down leaves of bright fire in an autumn extravaganza. Show offs!

In contrast, the dark hollies stand silent and steadfast, so constant in their waxy deep hues . . . and yet, look closely and there is a hint of the flamboyant flourish to come.

In all this sensory beauty, it is the quality of light that draws me back time and time again. I love the startling contrast between light and shadow as the sun climbs from behind the mountain, its creeping rays fragmented and scattered through the leafy canopy.

August is a time of frenzy here; it’s the crazy holiday month that sees an influx of visitors (more this year than ever, it seems) and a soaring level of busyness and bustle about the place. We know from previous experience that the best thing for us is to hunker down and aestivate at home, brazening it out until September, when the veil of peace and serenity enfolds Asturias once again. That said, we do have to venture out occasionally for supplies and so this week, as we often do, we decided to sweeten the pill of a supermarket trip with a walk in a lovely spot first. We headed to Castropol at the very western edge of Asturias, then turned south and climbed the ear-popping, snow-poled road to La Garganta (900 metres) before spilling down the other side ~ out of the coastal mist and into a wall of warmth ~ to Santa Eulalia de Oscos and the Ruta de la Cascada de Seimeira. This is a pleasant walk to a pretty waterfall, and every time we have done it before, we have had the place to ourselves. Not this time! The car park had overflowed big time down the lane and there were crowds of visitors, rucksacks at the ready, heading off along the path. Now, please don’t get me wrong with this. I do not believe we deserve special treatment when it comes to this sort of thing and it is only natural that many people want to enjoy the beauty of such a place ~ it’s there to be shared, after all. However, we are not herd followers or crowd seekers and the idea of trooping along in a human crocodile, so close that masks were obligatory (in that heat?), just didn’t appeal. Time for a sharp exit; incidentally, if we ever end up doing Plan A, I may have to go and lie down in a darkened room for a while! 🙂

We drove a short way to a deserted woodland picnic site and, consulting the map over a flask of coffee, decided to walk from there along the Ruta del Forcón de los Ríos whose name suggested at some point we would come to a watersmeet.

The walk started along quiet lanes in open country; there is such character and charm to this western margin of Asturias, more rolling hills than soaring mountains, arable farming and stone houses standing square and solid under slate roofs.

Slate is very much a feature of the landscape and I am always fascinated by the great ranks of upright slabs, like rows of crooked teeth, which serve as fences in the region.

The route soon left the lane and picked up a trail down through mixed woodland and across the río Barcia; nowhere near as spectacular as the waterfall we had intended to visit but we would see this little river again later on.

We continued along the path to Vega del Carro where we passed the tiny chapel of Nuestra Señora del Carmen tucked away in a woodland glade. I have a soft spot for humble buildings like this, not from any shared religious conviction but because as someone who finds her ‘peace’ sitting under a tree, I greatly admire the hands, hearts and minds who built their chapel in the shade of a protective yew, using the stone beneath their feet and wood from the forest. For me, there is an exquisite beauty and sense of meaning and purpose in such simplicity, far greater than anything contained in the carvernous glories of great cathedrals.

It was turning into a hot day and I was glad of the shade as we walked through great stretches of woodland where mighty oaks stood sentinel over smaller trees.

There was a beautiful mix of tree varieties and I was particularly charmed by a pretty pairing of dainty birch and showy rowan, those bright berries so typical of high summer.

It never fails to amaze me how quickly we can walk into wilderness in Asturias; I don’t know why it comes as a surprise, because it’s exactly what we do from home but even so, it’s always a wonderful thing. Suddenly, we were in a gorge where craggy outcrops rose above the thick woodland and the air was clotted with the scent of sun-warmed heather.

We had been able to hear the river far below us for some time before the path started to descend steeply towards the valley floor. It was unbelievably slippery, the dead vegetation having made a silky carpet of straw which felt like ice beneath my feet. Still, it makes a change from mud and wet rocks, I suppose!

As the path led into the shade of trees once again, we crossed a wooden bridge and arrived at the confluence of the río Villanueva and río Barcia, their cool, clear waters meeting in a sparkling song across the stones.

What a beautiful, peaceful spot it was, not a sound to be heard apart from the bustle of the water and bursts of birdsong. We sat and watched the lazy flapping of butterflies and rapid darting of damselflies, the latter like splinters of metallic rainbows caught in the sunlight.

It was incredible to think that just a short distance away as the crow flies, crowds of people were filing up to the Seimeira waterfall. Over the entire length of our walk ~ eight kilometres (five miles) ~ we only saw one other human being, an elderly lady tending a very beautiful garden. Her friendly greeting reminded me how language becomes smudged and blurred on these Asturian fringes so that buenos días slides into bos días and then bom dia in a linguistic echo that ripples across Galicia and down into Portugal.

The path beckoned us on but, tempting as it was, we still had the supermarket to face, so decided to go no further. We will definitely return, perhaps when summer starts to spill into autumn and the colour and light shift across the landscape once again. In the meantime, I shall continue with my little morning meanderings in the woodlands closer to home! 🙂

Loving Lammas

The true harvest of my life is intangible – a little stardust caught, a portion of the rainbow I have clutched.

Henry David Thoreau

At the halfway point between the summer solstice and autumn equinox, the beginning of August marks the festival of Lammas, which takes its name from the Saxon hlaf – mas or ‘loaf mass.’ Although at one level it is a Christian festival celebrated in some northern hemisphere countries, it is based on much older origins and coincides with the ancient Gaelic festival of Lughnasadh. It is a celebration of the first fruits of harvest and, in particular, the first cut of grain. Traditionally, harvest thanksgiving tends to fall later in the year, I suppose because then all harvests have been gathered ~ fruits from the orchard, roots from the earth, nuts and berries from the hedgerows, honey from the hives ~ but I believe it is very important to acknowledge the beginning of this season, too, as people have since ancient times. It’s the celebration and overwhelming relief that after so much growth and effort, nature has provided: there will be food on the table.

In France, we lived in an area of mixed farming where our home was surrounded by apple orchards and fields of maize, sunflowers and wheat. Coming from a land where hay and wool were the biggest harvests, it was fascinating to watch the seasonal changes in the wheat fields, from the first tentative green blades emerging from the dark soil in late winter or early spring to the standing corn, ripened ears popping and crackling in the summer heat. The rumble of combines left us in no doubt that the grain harvest had begun.

To celebrate the season, I learned how to make simple corn dollies and plaited a bridal horseshoe to give to Sarah on her wedding day, a seasonal gift from mother to daughter to mark such a joyful milestone in her life. It seemed very fitting for a country bride who gathered most of her bouquet from a hedgerow!

Here in Asturias, we are back to grass and the farmers, for the most part, are ganaderos who raise cows, not grain. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge the importance of the grain harvest ~ in fact, we do it several times a week. Baking our own bread is a way of life for us and involves a little co-operative teamwork. I take responsibility for our sourdough starter which lives in a Kilner jar in the fridge and is fondly known as Yeasty Beastie. On baking days, I love my morning ritual of opening the lid and breathing in that sharp, beery scent of natural yeasts at work before gently stirring in a warm paste of water and rye flour to ‘feed’ it. Several hours later, after it has sat at room temperature and developed a lively covering of new bubbles, Roger uses some of it to make a dough.

There is something very special about the yeasty, floury smell in the kitchen and the silent miracle of the dough rising beneath a clean tea towel, the wonderful appetising scent of the bread as it bakes and the thrill of that first taste, straight from the oven and almost too hot to touch. It’s like a special little Lammas every time.

We are blessed to enjoy a good harvest of fruit and vegetables from our garden all the year round thanks to the mild climate, but this time of year signals the greatest productivity with a shift from enough to abundance. Now we can pick and eat almost a whole day’s meals from the garden ~ peaches, strawberries and walnuts for breakfast, soups or salads for lunch, hearty vegetable bakes or curries or stir fries for dinner. There is so much to choose from!

This week has also seen a flurry of preserving activity, as we have been processing gluts of fresh produce to enjoy in leaner times; we are so very lucky to have the technology and ingredients that allow us to do this. We would be lost without our freezer but space now is at a premium so there is an immense juggling game in progress as we try to use up foods such as roast squash and homemade stock to make room for new things. We are enjoying possibly the best harvest of French beans ever, but despite staggering the planting, the rows are all fruiting at once and we are literally picking kilos at a time.

I’ve been brewing up vats of chutney, with a sort of ‘half the garden’ recipe going on ~ beans, courgettes, onions, peaches, garlic, chillies, coriander seed, bay and anything else that comes to hand ~ all cooked down to a rich, spicy preserve; I’ve also pickled more cucumbers and nasturtium seeds.

A trugload of courgettes and cabbages suggested it was time at long last to have a go at lacto-fermenting some vegetables, something I know is a very beneficial thing to do but keep wriggling out of. Part of the problem, I think, is that I’ve never been a fan of sauerkraut but then I’ve never tried a homemade version; Roger, on the other hand, loves it so there really is no excuse. Well, in for a penny and all that . . . I decided at the same time to have a go at fermenting a jar of courgettes, too. Like the chutney, I used flavourings I could pick ~ garlic, chillies, coriander and bay ~ and the two jars sat bubbling away happily in the corner of the kitchen for several days. I can’t say they looked too appetising but appearances aren’t everything, although I did need to muster some courage to taste the results . . . Opinion? Well, I have to admit to being nicely surprised; it’s definitely the first time I’ve enjoyed sauerkraut (it’s really good!) and the courgettes are like a crunchy, tasty pickle. Think I might try some cucumbers next . . .

Something I have no problem eating is peaches and this week has seen many hours spent in picking and processing these most luxurious of fruits. They ripen so quickly that we can’t afford to ignore them, they demand instant (and what feels like constant) attention if they aren’t to fall off the trees and be wasted; Roger has spent much of his time up a ladder filling the trug and then processing each batch before returning to pick the next one. Jams and chutneys, bottling and freezing . . . there has been a busy peach-centred buzz about the kitchen in recent days.

Spending hours each day peeling, stoning and slicing kilos of peaches might not sound too appealing but for me, there is something very sensuous about the whole thing: the soft velvet nap and sunset blush of their skins, the pink starburst of the wrinkled stone hidden inside, the soft melting flesh, the juice running down my arms . . . it’s all a complete connection with the gift of food, a joyful celebration of this wonderful fruit. We have watched the story of this harvest unfold: nervous days in February where the delicate blossoms run the gauntlet with uncertain weather yet sunny days bring the busy and essential attention of pollinators; the velvety nubs of tiny developing fruit, swelling amongst the leaves; branches drooping under the weight of ripening fruits, tantalisingly close to being ready to eat. Arriving at that long-awaited moment of picking the first sun-warmed fruit, feeling its weight in our hand and breathing in its sweet fragrance, knowing there is a harvest to be had, is surely the perfect essence of Lammas.

Of course, it’s not all about gluts and an almost overwhelming abundance; after all, a couple of years ago, our entire peach harvest ran to a single fruit. I think it’s every bit as important to do honour to the tiniest crops, too. We’re enjoying tasty little pickings of cape gooseberries from a self-set plant that suddenly appeared from nowhere last year and I savoured every second of the three ~ yep, three ~ unexpected autumn raspberries. Earlier in the year, we planted strawberries in a trough Roger had made from scrap timber; we didn’t really expect much in this first season, but those little plants have surprised us with a slow and steady stream of delicious fruits. They tend to ripen a few at a time, usually no more than three or four in a week and often just one at a time, but they are truly wonderful. Is there a lovelier thing than sharing a strawberry? 🙂

Precious harvests like this call for special treatment; we seldom eat puddings of any kind but everyone needs a little indulgence now and then!

I’ve read two very contrasting reports in the British press this week which I felt were both very pertinent to my reflections on Lammas and harvest in general. The first reported that the amount of food waste in the UK, which dropped significantly during lockdown, is now rising rapidly once more towards its previous (and, in my opinion, appalling) level. I wish that someone could explain it to me: how did we arrive at this place in society, where food has become such an unvalued, disrespected, throw-away commodity? Why is it apparently ‘alright’ to throw away millions of tonnes of food every year, 70% of which is food that could have been eaten (according to latest WRAP research) ? It makes me very, very sad. 😦 On a more positive note, the second report, written by a doctor, suggested that an answer to tackling the problem of obesity could well lie in gardening, and in particular, in developing community gardens where people of all ages can come together to grow vegetables and fruit to eat. What a wonderfully positive and hopeful idea that is.

I think that much of it comes down to making changes in habits and that’s not always an easy thing to address: change might be the only constant in life, but it’s not always a comfortable thing. Take, for instance, my current tea situation. Cancellation of our UK trips has meant I am running dangerously low on the good quality, loose-leaf Assam tea I love; along with a pile of secondhand books, topping up my tea supply is top of the shopping list and I love to take my (well-travelled!) reusable brown bags back to the Broad Bean deli in Ludlow for refills. I am now having to limit myself to one mug a day to eke out my remaining tea for as long as possible, but really, I think this is a situation which is doing me a lot of good because I am having to look for viable alternatives. (I should say that of course, I could buy black tea here but it tends to come in boxes of individually wrapped teabags and I’m not happy buying into that kind of packaging nightmare.)

I still don’t love green tea ~ which I can buy here loose in paper bags ~ but I’m persevering with it and find that mixed with mint, it’s reasonably palatable; I’ve been drying bunches of mint to use through the winter months. I’m getting along much better with fresh herbal teas from the garden, especially a blend of lemon balm, lavender and thyme and I know that from a health and environmental perspective, it is far better to wander outside and pick my tea rather than buy something that has been processed, packaged and carted around the world. It’s another little ritual I’ve come to love.

I’ve also replaced one of my daily cuppas with a smoothie, something that presented itself as an answer to what you do when life deals you cucumbers. I’m not the world’s greatest smoothie fan as I tend to prefer eating my fruit and veg whole but one of the biggest issues I’ve always had is that so many recipes call for imported or expensive (or both) ingredients like bananas, avocados, blueberries, pineapples, lime, coconut water, almond butter and a whole load of other things I’ve never even heard of. Quite simply, if I can’t pick it from the garden, I’m not doing it.

So . . . chard, romaine lettuce, celery, cucumbers, mint and coriander from the patch, plus a piece of ginger and a squeeze of lemon juice (which are both bought foods but ones we always have to hand anyway). Given we have a basic food processor rather than a high speed blender, the results are always a ‘less-than-smoothie’ but I’m enjoying them and they exude a great air of healthy living. At this rate, I might never go back to tea . . .

Food is not the only harvest I am grateful for. In the recent hot, dry spell of weather we have needed to water the vegetable patches as well as the tunnel, and the constant and reliable supply of sweet, chemical-free water from a mountain spring is something we never take for granted. Our woodland provides us with all the fuel we need for warmth and cooking in the winter months and now is the time we start moving the seasoned logs into the woodstore, stacked and ready for the woodstove in autumn.

We have cut stout hazel props to support heavy branches on several peach and fig trees, used finer branches as supports for pepper, aubergine and cucumber plants in the tunnel and twiggier sticks in the pea rows; once they become too brittle to use again, we chop them and cook over them on the barbecue. Everything is valued, nothing is wasted.

I am thankful, too, for the wide variety of plantstuffs I can collect and use as herbal remedies, in toiletries and for natural dyeing.

I am very excited to see my new soapwort plant flowering, how have I never had such a pretty thing in the garden before? Grown from a slip of root given as a gift, this holds the future promise of household soap and I can’t wait to start using it.

The garden has been alive with clouds of butterflies this week, including some new additions like the huge and beautiful green-washed fritillary, which refuses to stay still long enough for a photo! In fact, there are insects everywhere, and I am reminded of our dependence on them for so much food, the importance of connection once again.

In many ways, our harvest has barely begun; in the tunnel, vegetable patches, orchard, nuttery, fields and woodland there are still so many treasures to come, so much of nature’s bounty to enjoy. In the meantime, it’s back to the kitchen . . ! 🙂