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.
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.
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.
It’s not that we’re having more storms, it’s that the storms are having more of an impact. The average temperature in France for the month of May this year was a full degree Celsius higher than last year. Thunder and lightning storms feed on that kind of heat.
A nearby field is flooded after the storms. I doubt the crop will recover from this kind of standing water. Photo: PKR
As for the blue skies: At least where I live, every morning over the past week has dawned bright and shiny as a newly minted coin, as if all that noise over the past night belonged to some other country. Birds are singing, the critters are out, as if we’ve all agreed not to speak of the violent winds and rain. A large dragonfly followed me for much of my morning run, always just out of photo range.
I can only imagine how quickly the water must have been flowing to erode my usual running path overnight. Photo: PKR
Flying ahead, settling, watching me approach, and then flitting off again, further and further away from any pond or river where it might normally live. Of course, the garden flowers are hanging and the glorious peonies of May are lost in aprons of pink petals on the ground.
More storms are predicted for the rest of the week…
The Jura range behind our village, sunny after the thunderstorm. Photo: PKR
There’s a lot of talk these days about supporting biodiversity, but what does that really mean?
Once, my personal understanding of biodiversity involved a focus on the big, noticeable species – the endangered animals like whales and polar bears and elephants, as if biodiversity was the same as protecting threatened species.
We are really just beginning to untangle just how important an entire web of interactions can be for a habitat, a region, a set of species, for the climate, for ocean health, and so on. We’ve tended to think in terms of linear lines, like food chains, which suits our human need for order. Often, we can only hold so many different elements in our minds as relevant to the same issue before we start losing focus like a bad juggler with too many objects in the air.
Sometimes we choose to think that if a species goes missing in a habitat, for whatever reason, the multiplicity of species will close around the hole left by the animal or plant that is now gone. Adjustments will be made and life will go on.
We are now beginning to comprehend just how much we don’t know about the interactions that sustain healthy environments – and our comprehension is being outpaced by the disappearance of species. This is as true of urban environments as it is of the ever-dwindling places we might think of as ‘wild.’ The good news is, we can actually work on an individual and community level to help support biodiversity.
Dandelions are one of those plants that people love to hate. They’re tenacious, perennial, copious; their tap roots run deep and even cut blossoms will still turn to seed heads if they aren’t culled early enough. Their leaves spread flat and wide, smothering anything beneath.
That’s why any weedkiller worth the name is made to wipe out dandelions. Oh, they just come back again – that’s just what dandelions do. As I ran by a freshly tilled field, I noticed bright globes of white scattered like rice at a wedding. Dandelion puffs, all in full seed, probably cut when the tractor was skimming the margins of the field.
Severed dandelion puffs seeding a freshly tilled field. Photo: PKR
Regardless of which crop is going to be grown on the field this season, it will include a healthy portion of dandelions. Unless, of course, the farmer sprays the ubiquitous glyphosate weedkiller – under trade pressure from the US and swayed by the vote of the Germany in support of Monsanto’s RoundUp in late 2017, the import and use of glyphosate has been extended for another five years in the European Union. This in spite of numerous studies showing the danger of the herbicide to the environment and to human health.
Dandelions on the edge of a freshly plowed field. Photo: PKR
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.
A cold winter and a short spring have left a short window for many species of trees and plants to release wind-borne pollen – so they are doing it all at once. It’s an adaptation for them, and we have to adapt. Part of that adaptation, I suppose, is that all of our vehicles are now purveyors of pollen.
I washed the first batch of pollen off my car less than 48 hours before the image here was taken, and my grey car is already completely yellow again. Pollen. Some types of pollen have a remarkable ability to fold in upon themselves for their flight, allowing them to retain moisture, and then unfold upon arrival in a hospitable destination, ready to reproduce. My guess is that the folding pollen types remain folded on the hot roof of my car, waiting for a better home.
A variety of pollen grains in different stages of folding Image via ScienceFriday / Slow Muse
This isn’t the first year I’ve seen all the cars turned the same golden color, but it might be one of the most intense. And of course, it’s not just the vehicles. It’s on every possible surface. But then, I don’t generally suffer from hayfever – otherwise, my concerns would be elsewhere.
Pollen horizon: A golden blanket of pollen atop my car. Photo: PKR
If their pollination season is usually spread over several weeks, and they’ve all released at the same time, what impact does that have on the various animals or plants that interact with them according to a seasonal schedule that has been drastically accelerated?