Tag Archives: #France

Spring Unfolding

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Today marks the vernal equinox, and looking out at my garden, I’m eager to get outside and be a part of the day by getting my hands dirty.

The air over the past few days has been soft with warmth, spiced with the scents of new grass and turned earth, sweet with birdsong.

Nomadic harvest dress.
Artist: Nicole Dextras

My garden and I will be engaging in our usual dialogue, the one that starts when the snow melts and goes on until the snow starts falling again, usually some time in December.

It’s not a one-sided conversation; the garden talks more than I do, tells me what it wants or doesn’t want, and I try to come up with a witty or timely response. We don’t always speak the same language, and I know that’s my fault.

Cutting down a line of long grasses yesterday, I found the winter nest of some small mammal hidden beneath a particularly imposing clump. There was a thick ball of moss, leaves and grass that had been a home. I had just been telling myself that I should cut back these grasses in autumn for a tidier look; now I’ll be sure to leave them long as an invitation.

Weedrobes
Artist: Nicole Dextras

I’d like to think I have some say in shaping the garden. Often enough, the garden laughs me off and does as it pleases. Mostly, the garden shapes me.

I wouldn’t call us friends, because I impose myself on the hospitality of this small space. I try to listen. I try to be companionable. I don’t always succeed.

I suppose that’s true for my life outside the garden, too. We are a work in progress.

Weedrobes
Artist: Nicole Dextras

Frost Love Note

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View across the fields. Photo: PKR

View across the fields. Photo: PKR

The past few weeks have been a feast of fog and frost. Thick fog lingers, the moisture freezes to every surface outside, the world is held in suspension…and then a couple of rays of sunshine break through and within minutes, the hard days of frost quite literally evaporate.

I’ve a fondness for this season, a time in our area that finds many of our neighbors in a grey funk due to the lack of sunshine. Lucky me, I like the comforting uniformness of fog. The white ice sculptures that are still trees, blades of grass, fallen leaves make for excellent viewing, appearing as they do like still actors revealed by a slow-moving curtain.

Hoarfrost covers a plant as the sun comes out. Photo: PKR

Hoarfrost covers a plant as the sun comes out. Photo: PKR

But what I really like is how transient it is. Back and forth, we drift in and out of cracking white-in-grey days to brilliant sunshine without the deep commitment to winter that will come with the first deep snowfall. There’s nothing transient about two feet of snow, especially once it’s been shoveled from the paths and driveways into large piles. That frozen stuff will stay put for weeks, if not months.

Not this frost, though. It’s quick as a hot breath on a cold window. There just long enough write a quick love note…and gone.

A few minutes pass, and the plant is frost-free. Photo: PKR

A few minutes pass, and the plant is frost-free. Photo: PKR

Sly Fog And Moon

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The Lake Geneva basin is known for its foggy autumns, when weeks can pass beneath a layer of thick brume with little sunshine. And when it breaks, it does so with suddenness. It simply parts like a fragile veil and you realize the sun has been blazing away up there all along.

Our little corner of the region, though, has countless hollows and dips and the fog wanders around as if seeking a new foothold. Even as it retreats, there are unexpected pockets of mist. The first meadow on my running loop is one of fog’s favorite places to play hide-and-seek.

All photos: PKR

Photo: PKR

I know a lot of people here who dread the weeks of gloom. It can be like being lost in an endless down blanket. Sure, you can always drive up a mountain, and literally get your head out of the fog. But who has the time on a daily basis to make the hour long round-trip? Luckily for me, fog is an old friend. Growing up in a foggy region of the California coast, the days and weeks of fog here just make for pleasant nostalgia.

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Moonrise. Photo: PKR

And then there are moments like this one, when the moon rises between cleft in the fog that is still covering Lake Geneva, which lays a bit lower in altitude than our place. It was just a minute or two, a keyhole between sunset and nightfall, but the moon shown brighter than the sun had for many days. It rose into obscurity, but stayed with me for the duration of the run.

Hoarfrost Quietude

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Throughout winter, our little village can often be found directly on the fog line of the milky blanket that covers the Geneva basin for weeks at a time. We are just high enough in altitude (490 m/1600 ft) to catch a glimpse of blue above, not quiet high enough to see out over the fog itself.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

The freezing temperatures and lack of sunlight coat most surfaces with an ever-thickening layer of ice – hoarfrost – as the fog lingers and becomes solid. The garden, the roads, are obscured by a moving veil, with visibility down to a dozen yards or so, and then suddenly, like the revelation of a hidden truth, the fields and mountains and tree-tops reappear.

When the sun bursts through, there’s a brief, wonderful space of time when the hoarfrost falls from the trees and bushes in chiming shards. And the birds, mostly silent in the fog as it’s an eternal evening, suddenly begin to sing again.

I went for a run today at just the right moment. The fog broke, and though I could see the borders of the fog bank just below our own property, above was all soft light. I could hear raucous birdsong, and the gentle tinkling of frost rain.

A Different Hourglass

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I’ve been looking at images of Aboriginal Australian artists from Tulane University’s Newcomb Art Museum exhibition called Marking the Infinite, portraits of a sense of time and space outside our second and minute-marked world – and then I found this post in my drafts from a few weeks ago, the small echo of a sunny day.
“I went out to work in the garden for half an hour, planning to put in a row of spinach. Almost three hours later, I came back inside, unaware of how much time had passed as the warm autumn wind blew, birds called each to each, and clouds chased above.
How can time fly so unremarked?

Bush Plum (2013) Artist: Angelina Pwerle via hyperallergenic

Bush Plum (2013)
Artist: Angelina Pwerle via hyperallergenic

I cleared a small bed of rose bushes that I’ve neglected for too long, freeing them from weeds growing fat on my inattention, eager brambles that disguise their thorns among those of the roses, sly grass encroaching from the lawn.

That done, I cut back the tall perennials, neglected for weeks with a distracted gardener. It’s an exercise in immediate gratification – I can liberate the plants and myself of past laziness, with visible results. Maybe that’s why the afternoon disappeared like the space between fingers tightening together around a narrow green stalk.

How often does life offer us such easy rewards?”
Syaw (Fishnet) (2015) Artist: Regina Pilawuk Wilson via hyperallergenic

Syaw (Fishnet) (2015)
Artist: Regina Pilawuk Wilson via hyperallergenic

Well, that spinach I planted got eaten by a roaming animal who refused to be put off by various barriers until I finally gave up, but whatever is was that liked the spinach didn’t care for lettuce, so I have a small crop of late salad greens.
This week, the garden will be put to bed for the winter. The fragile trees are already under wraps, the last herbs will be harvested for drying.
As the snow blankets the small patch of green, I’ll need to remind myself regularly of the weightless time of working in the garden.

Detail: Bush Plum (2013) Artist: Angelina Pwerle via hyperallergenic

Detail: Bush Plum (2013)
Artist: Angelina Pwerle via hyperallergenic

Waiting For Rain

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I was running my loop the other day when I came across this delicate specimen in the middle of the road – a damselfly that was flitting around two weeks later than the very end of the usual damselfly season, probably because it still feels like high summer.

I shooed it off the asphalt as a car approached, and it alighted on a leaf just long enough for me to take its picture. Not for nothing is it known as ‘beautiful demoiselle’ (Calopteryx virgo), but it was a little far from its natural stream habitat. Maybe it was looking for water.

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo). Photo: PKR

Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo).
Photo: PKR

In a normal year, we’d get a week of rainfall the first few days of September. Same routine year after year. School starts, and it rains. Not this year. This year saw unbroken rain from spring to early summer, and not much since. The garden lawn is brown and crunchy as shredded wheat underfoot, the plants and trees are hanging on (or not – we’ve lost at least two trees to the heat this year).

The air has been still and heavy, the corn fields look green from a distance but the corn is dried and ruined on the stalks, and while no one is using the word drought because of all the rain earlier in the year, it feels…strange.

I was actually out on two separate runs the day I took these photos – the morning run, when I saw the damselfly, turned out to be too oppressively hot to complete my full 10k. I waited until dusk to do the rest.

Fallow field against a dry cornfield, with dry clouds at sunset. Photo: PKR

Fallow field against a dry cornfield, with dry clouds at sunset.
Photo: PKR

NASA released numbers showing that 2016 is the hottest year on record, meaning of course not the hottest year ever, but just since we’ve had the technology to record temperatures. Meaning the ‘modern age’ which defines current society.

As much impact as our industrialized society has on the planet’s temperature, it’s hard to even estimate what impact these rising temperatures and extreme weather will have on societies around the world.

A recent study published by the Harvard University Economics Department correlated temperature with school test results and found that above a certain temperature, performance went down. Consistently. We talk about the adaptability of animals and plants to changing conditions, but what about our own adaptability?

Temperature reconstructions by Nasa, using work from its sister agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that the global temperature typically rose by between 4-7C over a period of 5,000 years as the world moved out of ice ages. The temperature rise clocked up over the past century is around 10 times faster than this previous rate of warming. Caption/Image: The Guardian/NASA

Temperature reconstructions by NASA, using work from its sister agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that the global temperature typically rose by between 4-7C over a period of 5,000 years as the world moved out of ice ages. The temperature rise clocked up over the past century is around 10 times faster than this previous rate of warming.
Caption/Image: The Guardian/NASA

Humans actually function within a relatively small comfort zone of temperature. We can survive at extremes, but it’s not always easy or pretty, and historically it’s been in smaller populations than currently sharing space on Earth.

The sky has turned grey in the past twelve hours, we’ve had a smattering of raindrops, but it’s still summer-hot and sticky. Much of France is on an extreme weather alert this week, not for heat, but for severe storms and hail.

Guess I’ll have to see what the day brings.

Here’s a good waiting for rain tune – one that I like, and not just because of the spoonerism of the band’s name.

Inadvertent Sabotage

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Not long ago, a news story went around the world about a weasel that shut down CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, forcing the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to go offline for a few days.

As it turns out, it was actually a beech marten (Martes foina), a cousin of the weasel. The animal gnawed through a cable of an open-air electrical transformer, causing a short circuit.

From time to time we hear stories of animals – usually small mammals – that wreak havoc on large-scale, technologically developed installations.

Beech marten, also known as a stone marten.  Source: Chest of Books/Ray

Beech marten, also known as a stone marten.
Source: Chest of Books/Ray

Almost always, these stories are told with a kind of breathless David versus Goliath glee at a victory of the tiny over the towering, the power of the small over the great.

At the same time, there’s also a tone of uncertainty and bafflement – shouldn’t we be better at protecting Very Important Human Things against wild creatures by now?

A raccoon short circuited an electrical bus between two main feeder lines at a Seattle substation, causing an outtage for 38,000 households. The raccoon didn't survive. Source: Huffington Post

A raccoon short circuited an electrical bus between two main feeder lines at a Seattle substation, causing an outtage for 38,000 households. The raccoon didn’t survive.
Source: Huffington Post

As if the animals were intentionally trying to take us down a notch or two by showing how fragile our machines really are.

But I think the uncertainty speaks more to how we see ourselves and our achievements – it seems like complex structures that supply so much energy, or which are so advanced, demonstrate just how far removed we are from other animals on the planet.

Until we realize how easily these structures can be inadvertently rendered useless, at least for a while.

A wild vervet monkey tripped a transformer after falling off a roof at Gitaru Hydroelectric Power Station in Kenya's Eastern Province, knocking out power across the entire country. The monkey survived. Source: Kengen/Independent

A wild vervet monkey tripped a transformer after falling off a roof at Gitaru Hydroelectric Power Station in Kenya’s Eastern Province, knocking out power across the entire country. The monkey survived.
Source: KenGen/Independent

It also shows how close we still live to other life and animals for whom our fences are obstacles that don’t pose much of a challenge.

If we need protection from their intrusions, there’s probably no way to reliably protect them from wandering into the wrong tangle of wires.

For better or worse, we are all in this together.

 

An iguana caused a short circuit at a hydroelectric installation in Guyana, causing a blackout for 80% of the country. The iguana did not survive. Source: FranceTV

An iguana caused a short circuit at a hydroelectric installation in Guyana, causing a blackout for 80% of the country. The iguana did not survive.
Source: FranceTV

*I suppose in the interest of full disclosure I should mention that beech martens are also regular criminals at our place, chewing through cables in car engines and generally making mischief. They’re protected, so no trapping allowed.

We live close to CERN in rural France on the border to Switzerland, so the only aspect of the news story that surprised us was that the animal was first reported to be a weasel – everyone around here knew right away what kind of culprit it must have been.

 

The Marks We Leave Behind

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Today’s first real post-winter foray into the garden reminds me that I’m a messy gardener. Late, as usual. But I’ve got a special packet of seeds to plant this week, and they’ve inspired me to be more attentive this year.

This is the effect of the person who sent me the seed packet, my guru of gardening, my aspirational green thumb.

Entrance to my friends' garden in Alaska. None of the photos here are of our garden in France, just to be very clear about that. All photos: PKR

Entrance to my friends’ garden in Alaska. None of the photos here are of our garden in France, just to be very clear about that. All garden photos were taken in Alaska.
All photos: PKR

I tackle gardening tasks in fits and starts, I spend hours one day until I’m sore, and then I won’t be back for a few days while I recover, even if the weather is ideal or the season quickly pressing on.

My drip irrigation system has been a work in progress for years, I plant up and tend and then I leave for a week and everything dies. I plant new things. It’s a fraught relationship. I’m still a beginner after twenty years.

Our garden was taken over from a French family that was abjectly devoted to the little square of territory (and I do mean little).

Before them, there was an English lady with a similar  passion. Before that, parts of the property were still taken up by the village stone oven (demolished to universal disapproval by the English owner to improve her view of the mountains beyond), the rest populated by number of fruit trees.IMG_1604

Our tiny corner of village has been worked and built and redone since the 15th century, when our house was first constructed.

Whenever I work the garden, I find evidence of what went before. No matter how many times I turn the soil, there’s always something new. Old coins, the outlines of the old oven, a long-buried heap of small animal bones. An old cooking pot, completely rusted through.

There’s been a recent story in the news about satellite images of a patch of land in Newfoundland, Canada. On a small peninsula that looks nothing more than windswept and wild, careful examination by “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak revealed small and unusual variations  in vegetation patterns on the land.

 A satellite image of Point Rosee used by archaeologist Sarah Parcak in her search for Viking settlements. Dark straight lines indicate the remains of possible structures. Caption/Image: National Geographic/ Digitalglobe


A satellite image of Point Rosee used by archaeologist Sarah Parcak in her search for Viking settlements. Dark straight lines indicate the remains of possible structures.
Caption/Image: National Geographic/ Digitalglobe

Specifically, Parcak identified straight lines of certain kinds of vegetation that could be the result of buried ruins, ancient walls that alter the amount of moisture retained by surrounding soil and thus, the grasses that grow there.

An initial archeological dig has turned up promising evidence that this site at Point Rosee might just represent the second known Norse settlement in the New World.

All based on the way the grass grows, a thousand years after the settlement was abandoned.

Could the people of Point Rosee, assuming they really were Norse settlers, have ever dreamed in their wildest sagas that tufts of grass could indicate their presence after a millennium?

Back to those seeds I need to plant.IMG_1614

They were sent to me by one of the most gifted gardeners I know, a long-time friend who moved away over ten years ago. We became close friends here in France, then she returned to Alaska over a decade ago.

We don’t get to see much of each other these days. The ten-hour time difference makes phone call scheduling a challenge.

It would be easy to let this friendship wilt, easier than maintaining it over the distance and years. Far simpler to let it go its way and replant with a new one. But, for all the fits and starts, some relationships are worth it.

These are the relationships that leave deep marks, that alter the soil around hidden walls and make the vegetation grow differently.IMG_1633

The seeds – some of her favorites, she writes – will go into the garden. If I do my job right, I’ll get to spend time next to them as they grow over the season, and watch them blossom and bear fruit, and enjoy the close proximity.

And maybe, like many of the plants in our garden, they’ll keep coming back, year after year, a mark of our time here.

Secret signs of long distances in time and place that people have gone to live, to thrive, to make friends, to leave again.IMG_1619

Soft Palette Distraction

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I was hustling to get a run in before nightfall – my usual loop has a couple of kilometers that are uneven farm track, stony and rutted, perfect for the occasional sprained ankle due to inattentiveness.

So I run, eyes on the rutted road just a few strides ahead, avoiding the rocks and grooves misplaced by tractors, rain and horses.

Why pick this loop? Because when I lift my eyes, I get these views.

Mont Blanc and Lake Geneva. Photo: PKR

Mont Blanc
Photo: PKR

And if I run just a little later than is safe for my ankles, I’m rewarded every so often with splendid sunsets.

And then my ankles aren’t in danger. Because I stop, pause my stopwatch, and take pictures.

Not great for my running time, but there are other benefits to running besides the physical.

Mont Blanc, second time around the loop, fifteen minutes later and from a different angle. Photo: PKR

Mont Blanc, second time around the loop, fifteen minutes later and from a different angle.
Photo: PKR

For a growing collection of skies, mine and others, I invite you to visit my new collaborative blog – FavoriteSkies.com, and to share your own favorite skies.

End of Year Buzz

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Everyone’s talking about the unseasonable weather. Too hot, too cold, no snow, too much rain.

Here in eastern France, after a glorious autumn and then a first snowfall that was properly timed and then quickly melted, it’s been warm.

So warm, in fact, that a few of the bees under the eaves left their protective winter huddle and ventured out to explore the winter landscape, which sees our hydrangeas budding and otherwise dormant flowers starting to blossom.

Bee on a window shutter Photos: PKR

Bee on a window shutter
Photos: PKR

The bees wander around the outside of the house.

They attempt winter pollination of the holiday floral decorations.

They must be so confused.

As are we.

Bee on a winter rose (Helleborus orientalis)

Bee on a winter rose (Helleborus orientalis)