My late grandmother had a shed out behind her house that was always lined with jars of summer preserves, but she was dismissive of her jewelled shelves. She claimed she did all the work out of pure habit. When she was a girl, they did real winter preparations. It was serious business, drying the grains, shaving corn, getting flour milled. It was the stuff of survival, not the modern day practice that was just in case they got snowed in for a few days.
She was born in 1910 and grew up on a farm in Washington State. During the summers I spent with her in the 1960s and 70s, she was still performing remnants of her girlhood training during WWI and then the Depression: Putting up preserves for the long winters. When she was young, preserving the harvest from the previous season also included the seeds of the next’s years crops. Properly dried, put up in sacks and hung from the rafters (at least, that’s how she described it).
By the time I was visiting her, she was using store-bought seeds for her gardening, and didn’t truly worry about not getting through the winter. After all, there were always freezers and supermarkets. By my time, people had started putting up preserves as a hobby, not as a means of survival.
These days, preserving last years crops has taken on a whole new meaning. Around the world, seed archives have been created to safeguard plant species in the face of the climate crisis. As habitats change and disappear, as the climate heats up and becomes less predictable, we are stocking our shelves for tomorrow.
My grandmother Helen passed at age 101, but she would have been fascinated by the new preserves, the stuff we’re putting away for the long summer to come. We are placing hope in our future selves that we will be able to protect biodiversity then, even if we are failing at protecting it now.
All the images here are from the portfolio of Dornith Doherty, who is documenting these archives around the world in her Archiving Eden project.
Unique examples of the world’s plant life, not just for our consumption. They may have to last a lot longer than my grandmother’s winter preserves.
Happy Summer Solstice to the Northern Hemisphere. Today on Twitter, someone wrote that they were depressed about the state of the world, the way things are going, and not even chocolate cake could help.
It’s the longest day of the year (and shortest night), a good time to reflect on how life flows in a rhythm that has constant change and also a wealth of constants. Summer solstice is my favorite solstice when it comes to weather and general merriment, but my second favorite in terms of symbolism.
For as of today, no matter how green and blossoming and warm it might be (and today in my corner of eastern France, it is all those things, with birdsong and light breezes and a tree heavy with ripening cherries thrown in), from now on the days will shorten inexorably until late December and the next solstice. Summer is just beginning, and those lush trees and meadows are already holding the dried leaves of winter to come.
And then, when the Winter Solstice (my favorite one) comes along and we are facing the prospect of dark mornings, early sunsets, and long chilly nights, there is the nascent seed of summer already there with the first day that is longer than the previous one. The promise of warmth at the other end of cold.
To my Twitter friend, I said we were in need of another kind of cake, another kind of comfort. So there’s this: The swing of the pendulum and the circling of the planet. The promise of constants and constant change.
The best part of this is, we can be that change, even as the days get shorter and the nights get longer. We can be getting ready for the next solstice when that process reverses.
World Environment Day has been observed every year since 1974. Which means we’ve known for at least 45 years that the environment needed to be taken seriously rather than taken for granted. This year, China is acting as host country with the theme of #BeatAirPollution, an appropriate choice for a country that faces some of the most extreme air pollution in the world.
World Environment Day focuses on what we, as individuals, can do. Every little bit helps. But with 9 out of 10 people in the world breathing polluted air, maybe the best thing we, as individuals, can do is grow hearts of green and demand the same of our policymakers.
Real change has to be as diverse as the environment itself. It has to break through the hard concrete of old habits, at all levels of society and across borders. And it’s something we can do, but we can’t wait for another 45 years.
Growing a Green Heart on my village road in France. Photo: PKR
If you hit up any social media platform in the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire, you’d have seen that the global outpouring of grief has been accompanied by an outpouring of outrage that this event, this destruction, has garnered so much more attention than (insert pet cause, from apocalyptic climate change to biodiversity loss) . Even as I grieve over the loss of one of humankind’s great constructions, this jealous husbanding of grief baffles me, especially when it comes to environmental issues.
Because climate fear and eco-grief are the big banana complaints of the moment, people demand to know what makes Notre Dame’s desolation more grief-worthy than, say, the clear-cutting of the Amazon rainforest. Or the imminent extinction of the squishily adorable vaquita porpoise. How can the Notre Dame reconstruction fund have amassed a billion dollars from wealthy and poor alike in under a day, while we allow the natural cathedrals of the world to be felled, while we fail to protect glaciers from melting, or the oceans from filling with plastic? Oh, and by the way, the big bananas we all know and love, Cavendish bananas, are also in danger of extinction due to the rampaging and as yet incurable Panama fungus. As the Extinction Rebellion is demanding to know, where is the financial and political will to rebuild those epochal ruins or halt their destruction?
It’s as if grief is a zero-sum emotion. As if when we are horrified and saddened by the loss of a great historical building, we might not have enough grief left over for a lost rainforest or the decline of the monarch butterfly. There’s resentment that a 20-million-year-old cetacean species is less worthy of attention than a human-built pile of stones erected in the last thousand years.
Well, obviously. Limited focus is in our nature. We aren’t very good at seeing beyond the horizon of our own immediate interests. Committed environmentalists and activists have their areas of expertise and action, be it on specific birds or bananas; it is only from outside those laser-focused studies and undertakings that it looks like everyone is worried about everything all the time. At the same time, from outside those bubbles, there’s no denying that while the fall of one beloved building is a tragedy, the demise of untold glaciers is a statistic.
Allowing yourself to grieve at everything threatens to become overwhelming, a rising tide of despair upon which you either need to learn to body surf, or it will consume you more quickly than Florida’s coastline. How much safer to splash in grief at one particular event, the magnificent fire-gutting of a church, than to take in the systemic collapse of current political and economic systems that might be required for the planet to survive the inferno of humanity’s touch.
The cause of the Notre Dame cathedral fire looks like an electrical short, because of course it would be something simple. Like the carpenter’s faulty spotlight, as was the case with the burning of Windsor Castle. Or the spontaneous combustion of linseed oil rags, the current theory behind what destroyed Glasgow’s iconic School of Art. What each fire had in common was an old building in need of, or undergoing, renovation. And then an avoidable but not unlikely spark. A bit of slow motion entropy that erupted into disaster.
For someone like me who has adapted to expand my grief at environmental destruction so it can also absorb the loss of a human habitat like Notre Dame (not to mention the entire medieval forest that burned within it), the process of watching ecological damage is similar to what happened when these buildings went up in smoke. Small beginnings, unwarranted nonchalance, and calamitous results.
Fossil fuel use. Resource extraction. Plastic pollution. Overfarming, overfishing, overpopulation. The slow greedy embers that cause climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution have been burning in their hidden pockets for decades, but the conflagration is only getting truly under way now. For anyone waiting for the fire department to arrive, each lost species, each lost forest, each ruined waterway, is like watching the cathedral spire tip to one side and then collapse, over and over again. How much can the environment take before its structural integrity is so compromised that we collapse along with it?
Oops. There we go again, heads underwater in the grief tsunami. Hope you took a good deep breath beforehand.
In any case, the heroic efforts of the Paris fire department saved the main structure of Notre Dame. It will be rebuilt. Considering the level of worldwide passion and financial donations, the reconstruction could even be dazzling in its speed and ability to draw people together. Not to mention the creation of hundreds of jobs. Paris, and France, have reinvented themselves more than once. The country welcomed me as a citizen. I am forever grateful for its ability to absorb ruination and re-emerge anew.
So, up on top and body-surfing the grief wave again, we can look to the rebuilding of an ancient cathedral as an inspiration to what we can do when we decide to rebuild on a vast scale. Picture the passion swirling around Notre Dame, and imagine that applied to reforestation, or ocean clean-up. Imagine the sense of achievement. Imagine the jobs. Most of all, imagine this cathedral of a planet surviving and us along with it. There are thousands of children out on the street every Friday, doing just this.
Inclusive grief, active grief, all-embracing grief is the first step towards not waiting for someone else to do the work. When it comes to the cathedral of the world in which flames bursting forth and fire is visible through the windows, we are the people raising the alarm. Grieve, and then be the heroic fire fighters. Grieve, and then be the intrepid investigators, the innovative architects. Grieve, and then take action as the determined carpenters and workers.
Let us be all that, instead of being helpless mourners, choking on grief and angry that others aren’t grieving enough.
After two weeks of warm spring weather, blossoms everywhere, bees buzzing…it snowed. A lot. The balmy temperatures plummeted, and I wondered what would happen to the plants and creatures that had emerged from winter.
It took a day or so for the snow to melt, and then I went out for a walk. It was cold, there was a brisk wind, hawks and woodpeckers hovered and swooped. No butterflies yet, but there were a few intrepid troopers, warming themselves on the path.
Readers, feel free to correct me, but I think this angry animal is a kind of rove beetle. Specifically, because of its elegant scorpion pose, I think it might be Ocypus olens, a Devil’s coach horse beetle. In any case, that’s a metal rock star name for a fearsome beetle, so I’ll take it.
This one didn’t get as huffy when I approached, but shone in emerald iridescence beneath the late afternoon sun. I think it’s a kind of tiger beetle, but which kind?
The bird feeders in the garden were all but empty, considering the abundance of food available. But once everything was covered in white again, I refilled and watched the dozens of winter visitors return.
It’s not that we’ve never had late snowfalls before in our region of eastern France. They’re rare, but we have them. What’s been strange this year is how very early the weather turned warm, and how far along spring had progressed before the snow fell. I don’t know what this cold snap will mean for flowers and insects that were developing weeks ahead of the usual season.
Then a day after heavy snowfall, spring was back with a vengeance. Branches that had been bowed by the wet snow were straightening, and buds burst forth again. Still waiting for the bees to return, though.
I was out on my first run of 2019. It was the second day of the year, not the first. The first was foggy, grey, dim and dark. No views to be had, no motivation to get out and find some. Day 2 was a different story.
The same mountains that were there behind the fog and drizzle of New Years Day suddenly revealed themselves. Of course they’d been there all along. I always know they are there, right there in front of me, but there are times I just can’t use that knowledge to envision them on the far side of Lake Geneva.
It takes discipline and determination to see the positives when it comes to climate and the environment. But they are there. It may sound strange, but the mountains ahead need us to see them as much as we need to see them. When it comes to taking action, having a picture of the mountain on the other side of the clouds might be the only way to see it. At least for now.
I didn’t make any resolutions for 2019, but I am going to make a serious effort, both here on ChampagneWhisky and elsewhere, to always see the best views – regardless of the low-hanging clouds that might be blocking my line of sight.
The sun rose on the shortest day of the year, drawing a bright line of light across the across the Alps. It’s easy today to focus on the longest night, the coming winter, the darkness of the months ahead.
But I am choosing to focus on that ribbon of sunshine.
This is one of my favorite days of the year, a turning point when the days get longer even as temperatures drop.
Wishing one and all a solstice flooded with light, even if it’s only above the clouds.
In keeping with this year’s trend of hot weather and no rain, October in our neck of the woods is, well, hot and dry. The lawn has the consistency of shredded wheat, and a pair of Eurasian magpies has been busily digging it up for insects. I’m still watering plants to help them stay alive long enough to go into their winter sleep. At some point, the heat will break, and my guess is that we will segue right into frost and freezing nights. Again, not great for the plants, trees, birds, animals, or humans. We all need our regular cycles.
Jura mountains in autumn. Photo: PKR
I was out on a run – one of the most confusing aspects of this prolonged summer is how delicious the air is, how ideal for being outdoors – anyway, I was out on a run and trying to put aside my concerns and worries about the changing climate, when I came upon this little historical reminder on the running path.
Ammonite fossil on the running track. Photo: PKR
We live at the foot of the Jura mountains, an area of once shallow seas that changed, epoch to epoch, into layers of sediment, of animal and plant remains, of rock, into the mountains we now have behind our house. The dirt path I run on is an agricultural road, and in the dry dust, there were countless footprints from the runners, walkers, dogs, and horses.
And among them, this little ammonite fossil. At least, I think it was from an ammonite. It’s an imprint fossil, which means at some point, this rock was soft material that held an ammonite (or other ancient marine creature), formed around its impression, and then hardened into stone.
A variety of ammonite forms, from Ernst Haeckel’s 1904 Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms of Nature). Source: Wikipedia
If, by some extremely unlikely chance, this path were to stay dry and then be buried under silt in exactly its current configuration, all the current footprints (including mine) would perhaps turn to stone, still surrounding the even older marine fossil. We are all just passing through. If we’re lucky, we leave a lasting mark.
Just when I thought autumn had finally arrived with a two-day rainstorm, the winds changed and summer is back. It’s as dry as ever, and no end in sight. In keeping with this year’s extreme weather, I noticed something different on my running loop.
Earlier this year, after a wet spring, a local meadow was in fine form. This is a stretch of grassland that is used to graze local dairy cattle. It sits between a copse of trees and a local forest, and is divided by a stream that usually goes dry in mid-August.
A local pasture in springtime. Photo: PKR
This year, the stream was already dry in July, despite the spring rains. It fills up briefly if we have a heavy rain, but then dries out again. This is the same meadow in early September.
The same pasture, four months later. Photo: PKR
What’s surprising to me isn’t that the grass is golden and dry. The new thing this year is that the grass has been harvested. In two decades of living here, I’ve never seen the grass harvested for feed. Usually, this meadow is openly grazed until snowfall, and then again as soon as the last frost has passed.
And then I noticed that two other meadows usually left untouched for open grazing had been harvested for grass. In fact, all the meadows surrounding my running loop had been cut down to the ground.
A nearby horse pasture. Photo: PKR
Some of these meadows are on private estate lands, and I’m wondering whether there’s some new local law to harvest grasses? More likely, I think, is that the feed harvest has been so bad this year that the local dairy farmers and horse stables are trying to access any kind of local feed to augment the bad crop yields – after all, the local crops were already fields of dry stalks by early August this year.
The only crop that seems to have done well around here is a field of soy that was flooded in early rains, and has since gone golden. Surprisingly, the soy proved resilient.
A soybean pod from the field. Photo: PKR
So now I’m wondering what kind of impact all this meadow cutting will have on local wildlife that usually depends on having a rich supply of winter grass to use for burrowing, eating, and general merriment. The times, they are a’changing.
Of all the things dropping to the ground this summer, rain was particularly scarce.
The area of eastern France where we live is always hot in August. This year, though, after a rainy spring, June started heating up. And then July was hotter. As hot as August, but weeks early.
Wild carrot blooms along the verge of a wheat field just before harvest. Photo: PKR
The minimal amounts of rain we got weren’t enough to keep the fields irrigated, so like other farmers around Europe in this hot season, our local farmers brought in the crop early to salvage what they could.
The dry running path beneath gathering clouds. Photo: PKR
The last two mirabelle plums picked from the tree, and a bottle of some plums from earlier in the season. They’ll steep in vodka with a sprig of garden thyme and some sugar for a few months. Photo: PKR
Acorns, too, carpet my running path – they should be hitting the ground in late summer. Hopefully the squirrels and other animals have noticed the weird clockwork of this year, and are taking a cue from the farmers by harvesting early.
Out on runs, I sometimes hear the boom of thunder somewhere in the mountains, and I watch for signs of relief. Often, the skies cloud over, and I’ll see rain falling somewhere nearby – but only for a few moments, and only over a limited area.
Of course, it’s not that there haven’t been heatwaves in the past. But even in the twenty-odd years since we moved here, the heatwaves have gotten more frequent, hotter, and longer.
This week, the heatwave finally broke and we’ve gotten a few evenings of rain and wind. It’s a welcome change to listen to rainfall rather than the constant thrum of fans, because of course an old place like ours doesn’t have central air conditioning.
The stone walls were usually enough to take a few weeks of August heat and still stay cool inside. We used to be able to lean against them, bare skin on stone as a quick refreshment. Not anymore – the stones of our house are heated through and radiate inward.
A rain cloud brings a bit of relief. Photo: PKR
Of course, we aren’t alone with our heatwave – it’s a phenomenon shared around the world this year. With any kind of luck, the slow climb of temperatures will come in fits and starts. With any kind of luck, we’ll have some time to take action, to adapt, to correct. With any kind of luck, a bit of luck will be on our side.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep using the luscious mirabelles for making plum vodka cordial, something to keep the winter nights warm once the heat has left the stones again.