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.
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.
We have a small flagstone terrace at the entrance to our old house in eastern France. It’s modest, and when we moved here, it was just flagstones surrounded by the gravel of the driveway. There was one additional element to it: An old millstone next to the front door.
The millstone is basically a big stone cylinder with a hole in the center, as if a giant pressed his thumb into the middle.
For years, I put potted flowers into the hole, but without drainage, any heavy rain left the soil waterlogged. Nothing lasted longer than a few weeks.
Because I am a slow learner and not decoratively inclined, it took me quite a while to come up with the idea of installing a recirculating water fountain. I took stones from a 19th century wall that had once bordered our garden, and put in a little solar-powered spout.
Even that took me a long time to figure out: If the water spouted up through the small head, it dispersed and the fountain dried out within a couple of hours. If I placed stones so that the water ran gently on the surface of the rocks rather than spritzed skywards, the little holes became clogged with the dirty water (there’s a lot of airborne dust that ends up in the fountain).
So this year, I had the bright idea of removing the fountain head and just letting the water burble up from the main spout and I think I may have finally hit the right combination. No clogging, the water spreads evenly over the rocks.
One of my great and unexpected pleasures in this whole process has been the number of small animals and insects that drink at the fountain. Lizards hop down from the neighboring wall to sunbathe and have an occasional sip, birds nip down for a drink, and the water fountain has become a gossip point for pollinators. Bees, wasps, butterflies – all take their turn.
I planted a couple of large lavender plants, accented by a few smaller flowers in pots, and the miniature garden is alive with butterflies, hummingbird hawk-moths, and bees for most of the summer. In the end, I didn’t expect this tiny terrace installation to become such a magnet for so many different creatures seeking pollen, shade, and water.
It took me a while, but I think I finally got it right.
There’s a lot of evidence that gardening with plant species native to one’s area can promote a healthier ecosystem for plants, insects, animals and birds. But how do we even go about planting a truly native garden, and what are the challenges involved?
A few years ago, I walked around the hedgerows and fields of our corner of rural France, picking a few wild plants that I thought were native for relocation into our small garden. I’m a mediocre gardener, so my attempts weren’t met with much success. Only one of the plants, I think it’s a Scabiosa triandra – a pincushion flower – really showed any signs of feeling at home.
Jura narcissus Photo: Les Fritilaires
At some point, I realized that many of the plants I saw on walks and hikes probably weren’t local in the first place. All those pansies and daisies had likely escaped from gardens, where the seeds or plants had been purchased at a garden store. As Jeff Ollerton recently wrote in a blog post about the shifting baselines of conservation, what’s considered local or ‘normal’ depends on how far you are willing to go back in time. Do we eliminate most roses and tulips because they aren’t native to Europe?
My neck of the woods has been farmed, cultivated and planted for hundreds of years, so where do I go to find truly native plants? How has animal life changed to adapt to the plants that we have on offer in our various gardens now?
The message was: Every garden that is planted with native species can make a difference.
Okay, so where do I start in my garden in the foothills of the Jura mountains? The local nursery, which stopped carrying all artificial pesticides several years ago and promotes organic gardening, still doesn’t sell a range of plants from this area. For all its good intentions, I imagine that the development of site-specific seed products isn’t commercially viable for a nationwide gardening chain. France has a wide range of landscapes and ecosystems – what works on the coast of Brittany is probably different from what works here on the elevated plains and mountainsides at eastern limits of the country.
There’s a seed company in the United Kingdom, Seedball, that caters to gardeners who want to plant native. The product range offers a variety of native plant species seed mixes to support butterflies, birds, bats, and so on. But what’s native in the UK might not be native here.
Jura willowherbs. Photo: Les Fritilaires
I found one French nursery that grows and sells native plant products, but it’s on the Atlantic coast, eight hours by car. So I guess I would have to go back to hiking and picking out a few specimens for cultivation and seed gathering – after verifying that the various species were, in fact local, and not endangered.
Apart from my own interests in ecology and conservation, gardening with native species faces another challenge: Do the native plants conform to our sensibilities and trends with it comes to garden aesthetics? We have, for example, some very delicate and pretty native orchid species in our area, but they are tiny things, barely the height of a forefinger. Not very showy. And the bigger flowering plants are what most people would identify as weeds. Planting native might mean adapting gardening trends to biodiversity, and not the other way around.
Looks like I’ve got some redesigning to do, and then some hiking in the company of a guidebook and a gardening trowel.
Several villages in the corner of eastern France where I live have started shutting off town streetlights from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Until now, I never realized just how much having streetlights had formed my idea of what a community looks like at night.
Last year, flyers were hand-delivered to homes, informing us that streetlights and all public lighting would be turned off at night to save money, to save energy, to reduce pollution (both of emissions and light), and finally, to support the recovery of nocturnal animals.
Being a nocturnal animal myself, I thought this seemed like a good idea. But also, of course, good for the bats and night creatures.
Then, a week or so ago, I was driving home after a night at the movies, and I entered our village of around 1200 inhabitants near the Swiss border. It was utterly dark. I couldn’t see the primary school my daughter had attended, nor the picturesque 19th century post office, nor the 12th century church that has just been restored to its modest glory.
A local village sign advising caution due to lack of public lighting between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Photo: PKR
More importantly, I didn’t see a large group of teenage boys that was out on the one main street. There were at least ten of them, loping along together through the shadows – usually they would have been easily spotted, smoking under the cover of the lone bus stop shelter. Now, I only saw them at the last moment, jumping onto the sidewalk and off the road in the beams of my headlights.
I get it, and it’s a new line of exploration for me. But for now, if I go out on a moonless or cloudy night, it is to an invisible village cloaked in deep shadow. Light shines from windows here and there, outlining human activity and making it seem smaller. The view of the stars has become breathtaking, but it will take me some time to adjust to the new vision of our night time home.
A window casing hole still plugged with growing bees. Photo: PKR
Now, I admit, the drainage holes in the windows look mighty inviting. But because the windows open and shut, any growing bees are at risk of getting crushed before they can mature.
I really don’t mind sharing parts of our home with other creatures, and at the end of the season, the remains of the nests and pollen are easy enough to clean away. I know people don’t like the fact that these bees can burrow into wood – but after all, the casing holes are already there, and the bees don’t do any real damage.(It’s indicative of how these bees are viewed that most of the images of carpenter bees that I found were from pest extermination services – it took me a while to find one that wasn’t.)
Still, even our window sill haven is not a particularly safe solution for the bees.
The nests are intricate constructions of single cells for each single egg, with partitioned walls and a lovely supply of pollen for each egg to get a good start.
Quite impressive, as long as they’re situated in a good spot.
A vacated nest. I saw one of the new bees emerging from this spot yesterday. Photo: PKR
Bees of various species are struggling in our corner of France, as elsewhere. If these bees are, as I suspect, Osmia cornuta – a solitary European orchard bee that pollinates fruit trees – then they are not yet considered endangered. But they are in decline in France, retreating to places with less pesticide use. In any case, this year in the spirit of conservation, I set up alternative bee houses with holes of a similar size in front of the favorite window sills.
What did the bees do? They chose the other casings that didn’t feature any manufactured wood homes. So until they’ve all left the nests, we’ll be opening and closing the windows very carefully.
Next year, I’ll have to try harder to entice them to other nesting spots.
Solitary orchard bees burrow into someone else’s window casing. Image: Lamiot via Wikipedia