Fling The Stars

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.

light pollution, streetlights, urban lighting, darkness, stargazing

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.

Light pollution and the energy it takes to power night lighting has been a topic of discussion for years, and numerous cities now require non-residential businesses to turn off non-essential lights after the last worker leaves the building.

Dark Sky Communities, Udsigten, Møns, light pollution, darkness, night time

The Milky Way arches over Udsigten at the Møns Klint Resort on the island of Møn, Denmark, designated IDA Dark Sky locations.
Photo: Thomas Ix/www.foto-ix.de via IDA

But the streetlights? Even as places around the world retro-fit with LED lighting, which is more flexible and energy efficient, I hadn’t seen much discussion about actually leaving residential areas in complete darkness at night. Then I found this, the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), which aims to drastically cut light pollution at night. It has a searchable map for locating reserves and communities committed to turning of the lights.

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.

 

Vehicular Pollination

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.

folding pollen, springtime, hayfever

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.

How many different species of vegetation are represented on the top of my car?

pollen bomb, pollination, trees, adaptation

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?

These are the questions I ask myself as I look out over the dusty hood of my car. Meanwhile, if you are in an area where pollen is carpeting everything, here’s a good article on how to keep those fertile little motes from damaging the paint on your vehicle.

 

 

Silly Bees

Every year, solitary carpenter bees make themselves at home in our wood window casings. I can see their little bee butts working away in there. The question is, what to do about it?

bees, urban gardening, conservation

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.

A solitary bee nest.
Image: All You Need Is Biology

Quite impressive, as long as they’re situated in a good spot.

bees, urban gardening, conservation

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.

Silly bees.

Next year, I’ll have to try harder to entice them to other nesting spots.

bees, conservation, orchard bees, burrowing

Solitary orchard bees burrow into someone else’s window casing.
Image: Lamiot via Wikipedia

 

Spring Pops

The past 48 hours or so have brought about several changes. Most of them I expected. One of them I didn’t.

First, the mirabelle plum tree in the garden.

In just the space of less than two days, it went from this:

Buds on a plum tree

The mirabelle tree on the cusp of blossoming.
All photos: PKR

To this:

Mirabelle tree in spring

The sky was a little cloudier, but the tree itself is a cloud of white blossoms.

And someone must have told the bees, because the entire tree is thrumming with pollinator excitement. This particular tree makes me especially happy, because when we moved here it was just a dry stump. We tended to it, and as a reward, we started getting plump, sweet yellow mirabelle plums. Not to mention this luscious display of blossoms in spring.

The other expected change was along my running route. I’m so grateful that our region of France stopped using pesticides and herbicides to keep country roadsides clear.

Roadside blossoms in spring

Violets that might not be native, nestled among other flowers that probably are. A tiny corner of roadside biodiversity.

Every few weeks from spring through late fall, large trimming tractors cut back any green growth like massive herbaceous shavers, cutting back everything from grass to weeds to tree branches in the fauchage. I’ve rarely seen any roadsides in the world as tidy as those in France.

orchids bloom in spring

Tiny native orchids that enjoy the altitude and cold winters of our mountainous region.

In the inbetween times, this approach allows the growth of wildflowers along the roadsides, which is good for plants and pollinators alike.

The one unexpected change brought by the warm weather and the past day was the fencing in of my running route. There had always been a grazing pasture one one side. Now, the path is flanked by a second pasture for the first time in the twenty years we’ve lived here.

Fenced farmland in France

The fence to the left forms a new boundary to my regular running path.

At least, I’m assuming it’s a grazing pasture because of the electrified fence. Every year, this field has rotated wheat, corn, clover and other crops – I guess this year, grazing dairy cattle is more profitable than any of those crops.

 

Tenacious Vines

The vine in early spring against a warm blue sky. Photo: PKR

There was so much about our trip to South Africa last year that was unexpected, and which I will explore a bit in upcoming posts. But one of the most unlikely encounters was with the grapevine in the central court of our hotel in Cape Town.

We stayed at the stellar Cape Heritage Hotel, which is part of the renovated 18th-century Heritage Square complex. Up against the wall of the hotel’s inner courtyard, a slender vine emerges from the ground and winds its way up to a pergola above a walkway.

The unprepossessing vine emerges from the ground. Photo: PKR

Planted in the late 18th century, this just happens to be the oldest known producing grape vine in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a white wine variety, a Crouchen Blanc that originated in the French Pyrenees. The varietal is all but extinct in France due to its susceptibility to disease, but this old vine takes care of its own needs in the courtyard in the middle of Cape Town. And it still produces enough grapes for the hotel owners to produce wine.

Let me say that we have a wonderful grapevine in our own garden in France. It was planted long before we arrived – it’s at least forty years old, and until recently, it produced more delicious red muscat grapes than we could possibly eat in a year. Unlike the vines of our village neighbors, the garden vine never suffered disease and always seemed supremely content to sit alone against our garden wall.

The vine climbs the same wall it’s been climbing for two centuries. Photo: PKR

That was right up until a worker dug too close to the roots of the vine and poured concrete before I could stop him. Quelle catastrophe!

I waited for a season, and when the vine didn’t leaf out or prosper, I planted a new vine a short distance away. I didn’t pull the old one, however. You know. Just in case.

Still, much to our astonishment, a year later the old vine regrouped and produced leaves. No grapes yet, but it’s working hard. I’m hoping it can make friends with the new vine down the wall.

All this is to say: Left to their own devices, grapevines are robust, determined, and a joy to behold, not just because of what they produce in the end.

As for the heroic vine of the Cape Heritage Hotel, I toast its tenacity, and the respect given to it by those who helped it survive for 240 years and counting.

The grapevine in the Cape Heritage Hotel courtyard in Cape Town. Photo: Cape Heritage Hotel

 

 

 

Dawn or Dusk

Sometimes it’s hard to tell which it is, dawn or dusk. Getting brighter for a sunny day, or darker for a long night?

How to tell the difference? Obviously, it all depends on the direction you’re facing.

In this case, I was facing east. It was a dawn that was coming up all soft pinks and blues, stenciling the Alps beyond like a cut-out horizon.

Slightly smudgy photo of a crystalline morning of colors and clouds.
Photo: PKR

Long Shadows, Long Light

We’ve had a break from all the clouds, torrential rain, intermittent hail and nights of snow – so I went for a run.

At this time of the year, the sun is low at 4:30 in the afternoon and sets only 20 minutes later. It casts long, reaching shadows from its last point of illumination above the ridge of the Jura range.

Barely nine hours of sunlight, the fingers of time drawing ever closer until they meet at the Northern Hemisphere winter solstice at 5:28 p.m. on Dec. 21.

The path behind.
Photo: PKR

It’s been a long year of upheaval, much of it political and environmental.

Some of it has been personal, though – breaking both wrists on a hike certainly put into perspective how much conscious effort the small things require when they are thrown into relief by not being able to do them on one’s own. Slicing bread, washing hair, turning a key in a lock, all the little things I take for granted on a daily basis. I am still relearning some basic movements, watching my limbs strain to regain their previous strength and flexibility after weeks of casts and months of recovery.

That sense of seeing the importance of the little things has taken place on a larger scale, as well. With forces around the world seeming to focus on many aspects of life we have taken for granted, sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.

Photo: PKR

This final week before the solstice is always one of my favorite times of the year. The summer and autumnal marathon to ever-lengthening nights comes in to its final stretch, and I know the finish line is just up ahead. Soon, no matter how cold the winter, the days are going to get longer again. There will be more light to work by, and there is so much work to be done.

Meanwhile, this early evening path, just at the moment before the sun went down, reminds me that there is so much light in the space between the shadows.

The path ahead.
Photo: PKR

 

 

 

Last of the Season

The weather has turned so cold over the past week or so, mostly grey with the mountains getting their first coat of white. But today came up sunny, a nice change. I watched the blue sky while I worked, and finally managed to bundle up and go for a walk at sunset.

I found these hardy blossoms braving the low temperatures.

All photos: PKR

Some of the gardens still have flowers – especially late-blooming roses – but I was only interested in the roadside variety, the ones with no assistance, coming up along the edges, defying asphalt, gravel, cars, and dogs.

They’ve felt the bite of frost every morning for over a week, they’re starting to frizzle, but they’ve still got color and beauty to give before it all goes brown and white for the season.

 

Humble, bowed but not faded, a passing late pollinator might still find joy. And if the pollinators don’t find joy, well, at least this walker did.

Built To Last

When the house I live in was built, Leonardo da Vinci was a young man with the Mona Lisa still in his future, and Michelangelo was a toddler. The first part of our house, a small fortified tower in rural France, was built in 1478. When the stones were laid for the tower, Christopher Columbus hadn’t yet set sail for the Americas. What would become the dominant Western culture of colonialism, and later, capitalism, hadn’t yet gotten underway.

The tower.
Photo: PKR

When the second part of the house was built, a hundred years later, the world was already a different place.

This pile of stones has been, as far as I know, continuously inhabited through several historical eras, from Louis XIV’s Sun King moment, to the French Revolution, through Industrialization and the two great wars on European soil during the 20th century.

It’s hard to imagine all the history around the world that has taken place in the amount of time this human construction has been a home for generation after generation of people, not to mention the various animals that take up residence in various hidden corners.

This place was built to last, and as long as it’s maintained, there’s no reason it shouldn’t last another couple of centuries, at least.

I wonder sometimes about the people who built the tower back in 1478, and whether they could have even conceived of the world in which their construction now stands. Even if this place were to fall down at some point, which it no doubt will, the stones and the wood will simply become a part of another house, or the landscape.

Over the past 50 years, we’ve been building another kind of construction that lasts. Depending on its exposure to the elements, it can last anywhere from 40 to an estimated 450 years to deteriorate. Maybe even 1000 years.

But it doesn’t provide a home, or shelter, and it’s not meant to be provide utility for more than one or two uses.

The tower stairs.
Photo: PKR

It’s part of a dominant culture that has been well underway since the 1950s, the culture of disposability.

Picture where we are now, and try to imagine the world and our society 450 years from now. Picture that plastic sack, or that plastic bottle, or that plastic wrapping you just threw away. Once it’s not being used, it becomes a part of a cycle of garbage that does little good and a lot of damage.

There’s every likelihood that, like our stone house, those items will last 450 years.

One thing I can predict is that, if we haven’t figured out how to solve our plastic problem, people will still be wondering what possessed us to generate so much plastic for such short-term use.

Left To Its Own Design

Five weeks is an eternity in summer gardening, and five weeks is how long I neglected the garden because of an injury. At some point, I stopped going out there because I couldn’t stop myself from trying to weed and clip, even when every movement was painful. Easier just to watch it from a distance and figure that if there’s one thing a garden doesn’t absolutely need to keep growing, it’s a gardener. I am there to impose my own order, but when it comes to growing, the garden does just fine on its own.

I could probably have hired someone, but that would have felt like an imposition – not on the person hired, but on the garden. On me. It’s my little patch to tend, and my little patch to let run amok.

So when I took a stroll around last week, splints finally off both arms, I was pleased to see that the garden does fine on its own. It might not be going in exactly the direction I would have chosen, but it picks its own path.

There were still a few gems here and there, just blossoming away, bees buzzing and birds singing, the weeds having a wild climb in forbidden places.

There won’t be the harvest I would have wished; the lettuce is shot and and the tomatoes a mess, but it’s still a fine little patch.

Nature finds a way, in gardens and elsewhere.