Tag Archives: #Geneva

Running Evensong

Standard

The bad news today was that I spent most of it trying – with the assistance of an electrician and a building contractor – to figure out why the electricity in our house kept going off for no apparent reason. One of those unnerving household events that I’d almost rather attribute to a poltergeist than to an impossible-to-locate shorted cable buried somewhere in one of the stone walls of this old pile we call home.

My morning run got delayed past noon, and then past evening, and then it was nearing sundown.

The good news today was that when I finally got out for a run, the air was still warm and fragrant with the scents of cut grass, the sweetness of wild flowers that line the roads, and this, the evening chorus of birds.


The run was also punctuated by cowbells, low sunset calls between free-range cattle, a carpet of amorous crickets, and the occasional whoosh of large mourning doves flying past.

The lights in the house are back on, but that’s not what recharged my batteries.

Sly Fog And Moon

Standard

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.

img_3368

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

Standard

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.

Inadvertent Sabotage

Standard

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.

 

Pleasant Perspectives (Mostly)

Standard

I picked my first garden bouquet for the office vase. It’s the only flower vase in the house due to a flower-unfriendly feline, although at this point she’s getting too old to get at the highest shelves, so maybe we can allow a few more vases this year.

All photos: PKR

All photos: PKR

Forget-me-nots and rosemary in bloom, two of my favorites. The little forget-me-nots are brand new, the rosemary bush is ancient, a bush at the base of a house wall built in 1478. No, the rosemary isn’t quite that old. It dates several decades, though, its twisting, low branches thick as a tree.

Both flowers are often used to represent remembrance, love and fidelity, overcoming challenges to remain loyal.

The other good perspective on the weekend was the movie we went to see last night. Actually, not so much the movie, which we enjoyed. Even if the average age in the movie theater was under 18. That’s what we get for going to a Friday night showing of Captain America: Civil War.

Mumm. Not my very favorite, but tasty nonetheless.

Mumm. Not my very favorite, but tasty nonetheless.

But what made the movie all the more enjoyable was the delightful availability of champagne splits at the concession stand. Yes, with glasses. Plastic, sure, but no worse than at a picnic. Sure, it’s more expensive than popcorn and a Coke. But this is Geneva, Switzerland – the difference isn’t quite as much as you might think.

A little champagne during a movie can make bad movies less awful and good movies better by improving the overall experience. Kind of like having the right music at a restaurant meal.

Especially when the movie is about the good guys taking sides against one another. Differences over loyalty and history, big fights with cataclysmic outcomes. Grim stuff.

Glad we had a bit of bubbly for comfort. Good thing I’m practiced in pouring it in the dark, even with 3D glasses.

Soft Palette Distraction

Standard

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.

Gumdrop Moon

Standard

Different cultures have different names for the full moons of the year, and January’s is called anything from Wolf Moon to Snow Moon to Winter Moon to Moon of the Terrible.

But the moon that rose over Lake Geneva last night, caught here as we drove across Mont Blanc Bridge, was nothing so fearsome as to warrant its usual names.

This was a soft Gumdrop Moon, one day before it waxes full, shining above in pastel skies and reflected in the lake below.

Moonrise over Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Photo: PKR

Moonrise over Lake Geneva, Switzerland.
Photo: PKR

Speaking the Language

Standard

I went to bed late last night, it was easily midnight or beyond, and as I lay there on the edge of sleep, I heard an unaccustomed sound. It sounded like…birdsong. I listened closely. It was, indeed, birdsong. And not just little chirps or the otherworldly radar sounds of an owl.

There were two birds, calling to one another, long, complicated tunes that sounded like they were being played on a glass harmonica.

My first thought was: Nightingale.

The Kitchenmaid Listens to the Nightingale. From: Henry Justice Ford in Lang, Andrew, Ed. The Yellow Fairy Book.

The Kitchenmaid Listens to the Nightingale.
From: Henry Justice Ford in Lang, Andrew, Ed. The Yellow Fairy Book

I thought of those lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

JULIET
Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

ROMEO
It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale: look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east…

Imagine knowing, eyes closed and in a darkened room, what time of day it is just by the type of birdsong on the air.

I thought to myself that I had no real idea what a lark sounded like, nor for that matter, a nightingale.

Rather, it was night time, the birdsong didn’t sound owl-like. It wasn’t the sharp chirps of the ever-present flock of sparrows that live in the vines on our house, and I know nightingales sing at night. Deductive reasoning, not actual familiarity.

The above video shows 3-D digital sound sculptures of nightingale and canary song, created by Australian artist Andy Thomas, who begins his work “by listening to the sound carefully, going for a walk, and concentrating on the sound.”

But do they sing in autumn?

Yes, apparently, because they are on a migratory route to the south for the winter.

Research has shown that songbirds share similar ‘gene products’ for vocalizations that humans use for speech. So what we hear as song might be, for the birds, a rich conversation, good as a book, engaging as a movie. Better, probably, because it’s theirs.

Early sketches of nightingale song for animation. Artist: Andy Thomas

Early sketches of nightingale song for animation.
Artist: Andy Thomas

After all, other research has shown that dolphins call each other by name, using a ‘signature whistle’ to identify themselves, and using others’ signatures to call individuals. And let’s not forget the mice who ‘sing’ to each other in ultrasonic melodies, and have vocalization brain patterns that resemble humans – and songbirds.

Think of all the conversations we are missing because we either can’t hear them, or don’t speak the language, or have forgotten how to listen.

Field Clocks

Standard
Excerpt from the Crescenzi calendar (c. 1306) via Wikimedia by Pietro de' Crescenzi

Excerpt from the Crescenzi calendar (c. 1306)
by Pietro de’ Crescenzi via Wikimedia

There’s something reassuring in the routine of sowing and harvest. It’s not just the crucial aspect of food security.

It’s one way we, as humans, keep time. A vast clock that we make every year anew.

A nearby field, ready for final clearing. All photos: PKR

A nearby field, ready for final clearing.
All photos: PKR

It’s blazing hot here, and as I wrote yesterday, the local farmers are using the heatwave to cut, dry and bale the early wheat crop. The air is thick with the sweet scent of cut grain.

Prickly wheat heads try and hitch a ride on my socks as I run past. Even though they’ve been processed and sown and harvested, hitching a ride is just what seeds do.

The same field, less than 24 hours later.

The same field, less than 24 hours later.

In the pre-industrial era, how long would it have taken to work one complete grain cycle on this field? It would certainly have required a vast collective effort.

Even today, most of the large machinery is shared between local farmers. But a harvest like this only takes a day or so from start to finish, and the same machines can be seen rotating around the village this week, cutting and baling one field after another.

Ready for the next crop.

Ready for the next crop.

Locals tell me that sometime in the middle of the last century, fields were mandated to lay ‘outside’ the village so it could develop into a more ‘residential’ locale – but it’s only recently in the last 15 years that this tiny village of 700 inhabitants started really growing. Even when we moved here back in the 1990s, it was mostly families who had been here for generations, most of them with small farms that encircle the village like a moat.

Now, with new apartment developments springing up faster than summer corn, and the farmer families selling their land and moving away, the harvest is seeming more and more like a clock that is slowly winding down.

The Harvesters (1565) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder via Wikipedia

The Harvesters (1565)
by Pieter Brueghel the Elder via Wikipedia

Shady Ladies and Elderflower Cordial

Standard

A small herd of new cattle appeared along my running path a few weeks ago, several cows and a single bull. All of them have thick, dark red hair that tufts up in waves like a field of wheat in the wind. And within a short time, there were small calves.

They graze in a triangular field not far from where my running loop begins, and are separate from the black-and-white herds in the surrounding meadows.

Taking the shade - some new faces on the running loop. All photos: PK Read

Taking the shade – some new faces on the running loop.
All photos: PK Read

There are several red, massive breeds that look a bit like them on a site that describes dozens of cow breeds, but the breed that comes closest is in description is the Salers – a very old breed of southern France, with a history that stretches back 7000-10,000 years to prehistoric times.

They’re bred for climates at low mountain altitudes where the winters can get cold, and they are known for being excellent milk producers – which makes them good for cheese production.photo 1

This group was escaping the sunshine in the one sliver of shade available on the entire meadow, and they didn’t take very kindly to my approach. There was a fence between us, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

The one taking up all the shady space in the middle is, of course, the bull.

The one taking up all the shady space in the middle is, of course, the bull.

After the run was accomplished, I decided to make some elderflower cordial. The word ‘cordial’ is one that is falling out of fashion these days, at least in its meaning of ‘strongly felt’ or ‘warm and friendly’.

When it comes to its meaning as a sweet-flavored fruit drink, the word always carries with it a scent of Victorian gentility for me.

Elderflower trees are considered little more than giant weeds here in our corner of France, growing rampant in the hedgerows between the fields. The wild one in our garden is no different.

It bursts up through a yew bush recklessly as if it has every right to be there. Up until a couple of years ago, I would cut it back to the ground during the spring and winter chops.

The stray elderflower tree.

The stray elderflower tree.

Here’s a recipe for non-alcoholic elderflower cordial, should you feel inclined and have the opportunity.

Like many things, making elderflower cordial is dead easy, it just takes a bit of patience.

With all the development of new houses in our area and the rapid disappearance of meadows and hedgerows, I’ve come to look on our little elderflower with some sympathy. I’ve started to treat it with a bit more…cordiality.

The bees like it, it smells nice, the flowers are pretty – and I can make a cordial that will bring fragrance and flavor to hot summer days in the months to come.