The web of life

Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together.

Chief Seattle

The mornings this week have been truly stunning. Granted, they have been truly cold, too, but it has been well worth the effort of wrapping up warm and venturing out early to enjoy their beauty. As a gardener, I would much prefer to see the back of this arctic chill, the heavy frosts gone, the soil warmed, the wind in the south . . . but as ever, nature has its own ideas and I just have to accept that. Better to go with the flow instead of chafe and moan; warmer days and nights will come, I simply have to be patient.

It’s fascinating how different these frosty starts feel compared to the ones we had when we moved here, soon after the winter solstice when everything was enfolded in the deepest darkness; with the sun rising ever closer to the north and sketching a wider arc across the sky now, it is most definitely spring, despite the ice. The light is soft and eager, rosy almost, as it sweeps long shadows across the grass and backlights the fuzzy new growth in hedge and tree. It’s all about contrasts: the cold of the shade and warmth of the sun; the crystalline frost-encrusted blades of grass and pearls of shining water droplets caught in a spider’s web; the constant noise and bustle of the birds and statuesque silent stillness of the deer.

There’s a contrast in scale, too, which I am drawn to. I love the sense of space and freedom in the wide skies here, so open and arching and full of larks who seem to exult in the infinite room to breathe as much as I do. The landscape is far from flat, though; it rolls and dips into the distance, folded gently into hills and valleys that are cloaked in woodland now alight with the haze of fresh growth, sweeps of greens, yellows, reds, browns and wide brushstrokes of white blossom. It’s the small things around me that catch my eye, too: the glossy shine of new hawthorn leaves, the slow stretching of a sleepy, cold-kissed bumble bee, the first delicate buds on a young pear tree we planted several weeks ago.

I’ve recently come across the idea of ‘heartfulness’ as opposed to ‘mindfulness’ (thank you, James!) and it’s a concept that appeals to me, the thought that those quiet moments of complete focus and concentration, awareness, absorption and attention should be imbued with a sense of compassion. (As an aside, I’d like to point out that in my case, this doesn’t mean meditation: I have tried, really tried, over the years to cultivate the ability to sit in perfect focused stillness and I have failed completely. When we lived in this area before, I went to yoga classes for two years which was hugely beneficial socially and linguistically, as well as for the yoga itself, of course. I loved it except for the last 30 minutes which were spent in yoga nidra, or guided meditation; as the rest of the group lay in perfect silence and stillness, sinking into a relaxation so deep that some of them fell asleep, I would be making plans for what needed doing in the garden the next day. Hopeless. I am simply too restless.) Heartfulness for me seems like an opportunity to let the thinking brain be quiet and simply to enjoy the moment literally from the heart, the way that small children often do. To feel, rather than think about or analyse, my connection with everything around me, my own personal thread within the vast web of life. I like that very much.

This idea was still fresh in my mind when Roger suggested a walk this week, starting at the Mont des Avaloirs, the highest point in western France which I mentioned in an earlier post. He has been running to that area from home several times lately and wanted to share a few discoveries. The first was a stretch of roadside verge completely carpeted with wildflowers: primroses, cowslips, violets, stitchwort, bluebells, Solomon’s seal, selfheal, orchids . . . it was a riot of colour and scent, indescribably beautiful and impossible to capture properly with the camera.

At the summit of the Mont des Avaloirs (417m) is a viewing point which doesn’t fill me with much joy for two reasons. First, I think it’s something of an ugly concrete blot on an otherwise picturesque landscape; second, the viewing platform is eighteen metres above ground, which to my mind is at least seventeen too many. While Roger, who has no fear of heights, climbed up to enjoy the view, I was happy to wander around at ground level and read the new information boards that have appeared since my last visit several years ago.

The boards are part of an impressive makeover but also a five-year ecological project, something else Roger had wanted me to see. The idea is to remove forestry (the wood all being used locally) and swathes of bracken to restore 120 hectares of les landes (moorland) and 8 hectares of les tourbières (dark, peaty bogs) by 2023. The hope is that this will help support several threatened species whose numbers have fallen rapidly over the last few decades as their natural habitat has dwindled. These include l’engoulevent d’Europe (European nightjar), le lérot (garden dormouse) and le busard Saint-Martin (hen harrier). We have been lucky enough to see the latter a number of times – well, the male of the species at least; decked out in pale grey and white with striking black wingtips, they are easily recognised. They are an unusual bird of prey, roosting communally with other species, hunting low and nesting on the ground, so open moorland with its shrubby growth of heather and bilberries suits them perfectly.

I applaud projects like this. Where environmental issues are concerned, it is so easy for the arguments to become completely polarised, not to mention politicised. Mankind versus nature. People versus the planet. Progress versus extinction. Like the hen harrier, though, it’s not all clear-cut black and white; there are many shades of grey that call for a sense of balance from both sides. Human beings are a huge part of the problem but we can be a huge part of the solution, too, fixing and strengthening those fragile threads in the web. The regeneration of this area of land is being done sensitively and with great transparency, the information boards reassuring the public that the forest is not being ruthlessly destroyed and encouraging people to tell others about the project, to get involved with working parties and connected activities, to walk and observe, to be a part of something positive. The huge photos of local wildlife are stunning and I salute the balance of choices, so that amongst the showy headturners like hoopoe, great-crested grebe and wild boar are more modest moths and moorhens. Everything is connected, everything counts. Yes, I like that, too.

We continued our walk on the Corniche de Pail, a long ridge of Amorican sandstone which creates a rich environment said to be unique in Europe and of particular importance to migratory birds. Roger has been mixing his road running with plenty of trails and forest tracks and thought I might enjoy following one of the woodland paths; well, he’s known me long enough to get that one right! As always, there was a free (and very empty) car park and information board with several clearly marked routes, many of them interlinked so that it is possible to swap and change paths depending on how you feel. No long list of Dos and Don’ts, just a gentle reminder to respect the countryside. There was a definite need to respect the weather, too; the sunshine was lovely and had us stripping off layers later on but, blimey, that wind was bitter to start with. Definitely time for a hat and coat.

Here is a walk that will be lovely to do throughout the seasons, such a beautiful mix of trees and undergrowth and a wealth of noisy birdlife. Shadier than the verges, the bluebells were lagging a little behind, some in full bloom but many just on the cusp; what a picture they will be beneath the fresh new green of beech trees. It was fascinating to see the different stages of spring in each variety of tree, some in full leaf, others with buds still tightly furled and many in between, their new growth lit up in the sunlight like candles.

I love hawthorn at this time of year, the vibrant leaves opening so quickly to fatten out the hedges; no wonder they were traditionally the countryman’s ‘bread and cheese’, such fresh, nutrient-rich greenstuff after the thin times of winter. Hawthorn has long been associated symbolically and medicinally with the heart, very apt company for a bit of heartfulness in the spring sunshine, I think.

When the path wound its way to the edge of the woodland, glimpses of the fields beyond reminded us of the mixed nature of this landscape. Mayenne, with its rich, fertile soil, is farming country and like so many other areas of France there is – quite rightly – an immense pride in the food that is produced locally. The countryside is a patchwork of colours that changes through the seasons: pasture, plough, cereals, sunflowers, maize and now bright daubs of an almost fluorescent yellow as the oilseed rape comes into flower. Love it or loathe it, it never fails to make an impression.

Others were making an impression, too. No doubting who was king of this paddock . . .

Back into the woodlands again and we found ourselves wandering along what felt like an ancient trackway, the moss-bound trees suggesting a long history of hedging and coppicing. The myth that there are no hedges in France is simply not true; we live in a typical bocage landscape (from the Old French bosc meaning ‘wood’), classically described as mixed woodland and pasture bounded by hedgerows, a manmade landscape to be sure but one that some believe dates back to the Iron Age. In this area, hedges of mixed native trees are planted on top of an earth bank above a water-filled ditch (see the middle photo of wild flowers earlier in this post); to my mind, it creates three separate habitats inextricably woven into mile upon mile of species-rich habitat, where for example yellowhammers, yellow brimstones and yellow iris all flourish companionably in the same space. It’s a precious thing indeed.

During our walk, we followed lines of newly-planted hedging in several places, hundreds of metres and thousands of saplings each within a protective netting guard and deeply mulched with straw. Having recently planted a bundle of around 100 mixed natives to plug gaps in our hedges at home – hawthorn, hornbeam, beech, birch, ash, holly and honeysuckle – we could only imagine what a marathon job those new hedges must have been. How wonderful, though, to be creating such new habitats in an age old tradition: landes, tourbières and bocage all in safe hands, so that the generations of the future – human and otherwise – can enjoy their unique qualities, seasonal beauty and abundant gifts. It’s enough to make a heart sing.

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! 🥰

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! 😉