Dog Days

We’re in the middle of a significant heat wave here in eastern France – the French call it la canicule, a word which has at its root a reference to a celestial body other than the sun.

Between July 3 and August 11, the star Sirius rises almost in conjunction with the sun – and Sirius is the brightest star in the Canis Major, the Greater Dog constellation. Actually, the term goes all the way back to the Egyptians, who began their New Year with the return of Sirius.

For centuries it was thought that the star brought with it the heat of summer.

Hence, the ‘dog days’ of summer.

Sirius in Canis Major Source:

Sirius in Canis Major

I was out early this morning – as I am every morning these days – trying to save some of the garden plants from withering under the blazing sun.

We lost some beautiful trees in the deadly canicule of 2003. While I can’t save all the leafy friends, I have been trying to keep a couple of the more fragile ones from drying out, including a gnarled apple tree and a small Japanese maple.

Our garden is an old one – it’s been worked in one form or another for hundreds of years. When we arrived here twenty years ago, the small enclosed space was home to twelve flower beds and nine fruit trees scattered across a mosaic lawn. photo 1(4)

We re-planted the garden a few years ago to be much less water dependent and pollinator-friendly. We reduced the size of the lawn by around half, laid pebble paths through the shady areas, built raised beds,  put in lavender rows and planted grasses that fend well for themselves.

One of the trees that doesn’t seem to need much help is our mirabelle tree – sure, the harvest will be a fraction of what it was last year, but the tree is flourishing and 1(5)

We have large trays of water out for birds and insects.

The lawn – which I just reseeded this spring – is a loss. It crunches underfoot, but I don’t see the point in watering it. I’ll take the long view and replant in autumn for next year.

photo 3(3)

As I was watering a small fig tree I planted against a stone wall, a small bird emerged from beneath the hosta leaves that line one of the paths. It was looking at me, and looking at the spray of water, then back at me – so I inched the water a bit closer to the bird, and before I knew it, another bird had joined the first and they were chirping like mad as they enjoyed the short shower.

You can just see the two bathing birds on the pebble path. I had to be stealthy with my camera in order not to frighten them.

You can just see the two bathing birds on the pebble path. I had to be stealthy with my camera in order not to frighten them.

If this is the shape of summers to come, I guess I’ll be reducing the lawn even further, and gardening for heat resistance.

In the meantime, with no end to the heat in sight, I’ll just do what humans have been doing in this situation for the entire length of history – try to take it easy, and pray for rain. If I can rely on the tradition of dog days and Sirius setting in early August, I shouldn’t have much longer to wait.

Suffering through a 19th century canicule in France. Source: France Pittoresque

Suffering through a 19th century canicule in France.
Source: France Pittoresque

Shady Ladies and Elderflower Cordial

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 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.

Telling the Bees

Many cultures have customs relating to bees, animals that have long been highly valued, if little understood. After all, bees work hard all year, they pollinate many of our favorite foods and enable agriculture, they provide honey, and they don’t ask for much except to be left to toil in peace.

I found out today that bees are considered bearers of good fortune and should treated as members of the family. ‘Telling the bees’ means to inform them of any major family news.

Some say one should speak to bees gently, and not harshly, so as not to incur their anger, or worse, their departure.

Until this morning I didn’t have much notion of bee lore. Coming to bees late in life, as I have, what I know of the creatures and their habits is mostly either biological, or from the perspective of a honey enthusiast.

It could be said that while I don’t know bees all that well, I am a fan of their work.

A Hum of Bees, from a wonderful illustrated book of collective nouns.  Source: Woop Studios

A Hum of Bees, from a wonderful illustrated book of collective nouns.
Source: Woop Studios

I’ve written before that we have a long-standing bee colony in a high roof corner of this old house. The colony was there when we bought the house, I assume it’s been there for a very long time. There are two reasons we’ve never had it removed: The corner is high and inaccessible, and the colony doesn’t bother us.

A third reason is that by not disturbing the bees, we provide a home to an established wild colony – and bees are as threatened here in France as they are around the world. I like the hum of bees around the house and in the garden.

Our living room is located in what was once space for an attic and grain storage, and the bee colony is a few feet outside one large window of this room. We were sitting down yesterday evening, the warm glow of the sunset still flooding across the floor, when I noticed a large scattering of small bodies.

Upon closer examination, I found that they were bees. Many were alive, some weren’t. A few were wobbling around, several staggered along the windowsill. The hive outside was still buzzing with activity while the group inside the house stumbled, disoriented, too weak to flee.

I gathered them up and gently put them all – the quick and the still – outside on the window ledge, hoping they’d revive and rejoin the hive. By the time I’d put them all out, however, the sun had set and the air was cool. But I hoped some of them would make it through the night.

And see, this morning, the sun poured down on them, and a few dozen on the window ledge twitched, flexed, and took flight. The rest were too far gone.

There were also a couple dozen freshly arrived bees dozily walking around on the floor again. I put them out, they flew off.

The strange thing is, from what I could tell, none of the bees flew up to the colony. They buzzed off in wildly different directions, looping like drunk pilots. Are they succumbing to local pesticide use? Just tired from trying to find their way back home? Trying to strike out on their own and failing?

I even found a few of them clustered a floor below, under the chair at my office desk. They, too, took flight once I put them out.

Perhaps I should be telling the bees some news, but nothing comes to mind.

So what I’m wondering is what the bees might be telling me. And whether I’ll understand whatever it is they’re trying to say.

Anyone who knows bees – I’d welcome any thoughts on my disoriented visitors.




Let It Grow

The garden lawn got its first seasonal trim yesterday, weeks after neighboring lawns around our place were abuzz with lawn mowers. Why do I wait so long and leave the lawn so untidy?

Over the past couple of years we redesigned the garden to use less water, so the green lawn area takes up much less space than it used to. The garden no longer a lawn dotted with flower beds, and is now a series of walkways with flower and vegetable beds, accented by a lawn.

Photo: PK Read

The grass cutttings.
Photo: PK Read

A large, lush lawn just uses too much water and is too product-intensive to make it a viable element for a lazy gardener and water miser like me. But laziness is only a small contributing factor to why the unruly lawn of winter and spring doesn’t get the flat-top treatment at the first possible opportunity.

In any case, our lawn is never golf-course perfect. Even mown, it’s a mess of green stuff and low flowers, all cut to the same length, with proper lawn grass in between. Fine by me.

I like seeing bees and other pollinators at work across the entire garden. At a time when many blossoms haven’t yet come out in full force, the various pollinators here are dependent on blossoming trees and small spring flowers. Our flowering lawn is alive with movement just above its surface.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Photo: Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

What a bee sees:
A dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) photographed with the light spectrum
visible to humans (left) and bees (right).
Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

Finally, I enjoy the way it looks. I like the bright carpet of small daisies, violets, sundry ‘weed’ blossoms and yes, even the giant dandelions (at least before they go to seed).

When it comes down to it, the lawn is left long because I like working in the garden and walking through ankle-deep flowers. I like being surrounded by the mad life of springtime.

I look out over the lawn, just mown yesterday, and see a scattering of flowers that escaped the blade and are raising their heads. Bees are harvesting pollen. The sun is shining. See you later – I’ll be out working in the garden.

Happy Earth Day 2015.

Honey-coated Rubble

Mandala Insect Art Series - Honey bee 2852 Artist: Susan Cleaver

Mandala Insect Art Series – Honey bee 2852
Artist: Susan Cleaver

It’s a strange partnership, the one between mining companies and beekeepers in West Virginia. Under mine reclamation programs, the mining companies that dug coal from mountains collaborate with initiatives to re-establish the honeybee populations decimated by pollution, disease, habitat loss and, yes, coal mining operations.

Mention coal mining and the mental image used to be one of dark tunnels, mining carts, countless miners carrying fragile lanterns into deep mountain recesses.

Much of coal mining today, though, happens above ground. Since the 1970s, in particular, massive equipment and small teams start at the top of a mountain and work their way down.

There are a few terms for the top-to-bottom removal process of coal from mountains, but I find most of them to be a bit euphemistic.

‘Surface mining’ makes it sound like the mining just lifts coal from the surface of the earth. ‘Strip mining’ almost sounds like the mining just takes place on narrow tracts of land, or perhaps that the mountains are de-robing and exposing their coal for the taking. I would suggest ‘topographical tampering’, but that sounds both perjorative and playful at the same time.

Before and after at a mountaintop removal site in Mud River, West Virginia. Source: Treehugger/Google Images

Before and after at a mountaintop removal site in Mud River, West Virginia.
Source: Treehugger/Google Images

Perhaps the most apt term is ‘mountaintop removal’, which at least describes part of the process: the actual removal of entire mountains. In the Appalachian region of the United States, over 500 mountains have already been removed. Around the world, thousands.

And ‘removed’ is also a term that can be toyed with, because ‘removal’ implies that the mountains have been taken away, when all that’s really been taken away is the coal.

The remaining mountain material hasn’t been removed so much as ‘reconfigured’. Usually into adjacent valleys or rivers, in a process that is very clearly described in the term ‘valley fill’.

This shuffling around of all non-coal ‘debris’ usually includes the forest itself – trees are rarely even harvested for timber in the rush to mine coal – as well as all the topsoil.

Still from Leveling Appalachia: The Legacy of Mountaintop Removal Mining, a video report produced by Yale Environment 360.

Still from Leveling Appalachia: The Legacy of Mountaintop Removal Mining, a 2009 video report produced by Yale Environment 360.

Even in the ever-declining areas where the coal seams are close to the surface, the trees and topsoil (not to mention any other resident ecosystems, obviously) have to be…removed.

Another process that resonates with optimism is ‘mine reclamation’, a sunny-sounding term that implies the mountains will reclaim their former shapes and life once the small amount of coal that was within them has been hauled away.

In the United States and many other countries, there are laws that mandate the reclamation of mined land. Mining companies are compelled to set aside a fund for the re-greening of de-topped mountains, but often, government waivers are granted when the time comes to replace the mountain.

In West Virginia, this is where the bees come in.

Maintaining a pollinator corridor on reclaimed mining land is the goal – honey harvesting for out-of-work miners and retired military veterans, honey sales and production for local industry, and support for both struggling pollinators and the plant ecosystems to which they contribute.

Mining advocates hail mine reclamation as mountain building, confident that Humpty Dumpty really can be made whole again.

It seems petty on my part to compare the tiny investments made in reclamation of this kind with the amount of money made by the companies on coal; equally petty to compare the level of reclamation with the damage done, or to imply that projects like this allow mining companies to improve their environmental credentials at little financial cost and no threat to business as usual.

So instead, I’ll say that this sounds like a silver (or golden) lining, a tiny step made forward on tiny wings and pollen-laden feet.

Bumblebee Stumble

A bumblebee climbs out of a roadside nest. Photo: PK Read

A bumblebee climbs out of a roadside nest.
Photo: PK Read

I was running a couple of days ago when I heard the thunderous buzzing of a bumblebee. A big fellow bobbed past my head and took a sudden dive, disappearing into the roadside greenery. I waited for a moment, and the bumblebee (or one of its relations) came clambering back out of a hole.

Bumbleebees build nests rather than bee hives; they are unlike honeybees in other ways, as well. The nests usually contain fewer than 200 individuals rather than the thousands of bees that populate a hive, and among bumblebees, only the queen survives the winter in her next, living off the contents of tiny honey pots.

What bumblebees share with honeybees, however, is that they are under threat from habitat loss, climate change, intensification of agriculture, pesticides, and illness.

It looks like some of the viruses that have been affecting honeybees may be making the jump to bumblebees, as well.

Illustration of Queen/worker Short-haired bumblebee Image: Geoff Allen / Short-haired Bumblebee Project

Illustration of Queen/worker Short-haired bumblebee
Image: Geoff Allen / Short-haired Bumblebee Project

There are over 250 known species of the Bombus genus, family Apidae, mostly native to the northern hemisphere.

An estimated quarter of Europe’s bumblebees are now at risk of extinction – the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed 16 of Europe’s 68 bumblebee species as at risk. Three of Europe’s five most important insect pollinators are bumblebees species.

Bumblebees can nest in a variety of places, from porches to house wall cavities, but bumblebees rarely sting unless threatened, and won’t damage structures.

For the moment, our area still seems to have a thriving number of bumblebees. At any rate, enough of them that they bumble into me on walks and runs.

Bumblebee lifecycle Source:

Bumblebee lifecycle

Future Investment

Seeds 2 (pure fractal flame) Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Seeds 2 (pure fractal flame)
Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

This year marks the first time that all Monsanto Roundup Ready genetically-modified seeds will be off-patent. This means that any company can start making ‘generic’ versions of the GM soybeans, corn and so on – unless, of course, their use and the use of the companion Roundup-based herbicide has been banned*.

The path ahead is complex. Up until now, the source of these particular GM seeds was Monsanto, together with companies to which Monsanto had licensed the use of the these products. As of 2010, this accounted for a staggering 98% of soybean seed and 79% corn seed sales  in the world.

A double-edged sword: On the one hand, Monsanto vigorously guarded the use of its product, taking even farmers who had never planted Roundup Ready seeds to court because open pollination had left them with traces of GM crops in their fields. But it also meant that farmers who might like to ‘go GM’ didn’t due to contractual or pricing concerns. Well, those concerns may fade now, and GM use may spread.

It’s always interesting to take a look at this issue from a different perspective, and sometimes I do that by reading the investment news on seed and chemical companies.

Last year, an article on MSN Money took a look at the Big Three seed companies: Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont. In choosing which seed company was the best investment, author Jim J. Jubak factored in the loss of patent control, as well as how much of each company’s revenue was actually seed-based (high margin), how much was based on chemical crop protection (‘volatile’), and how much was in other sectors.

Seeds (pure fractal flame) Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Seeds (pure fractal flame)
Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

In brief, Jubak recommended DuPont. Why? Because the company had none of Monsanto’s patent problems, was shedding its non-seed businesses and buying up seed companies, and was the most focused of the three on the core: Creating and selling seeds.

Why should investors want seed companies in their portfolio? As Jubak said, “By 2050 the world will have a population of 9 billion (very scary) and the world’s farmers will need to double grain production in the face of losses of farmland to urbanization, desertification, drought and pollution.

“That means getting more calories from the world’s food plants by improving yields, by increasing resistance to disease and pests, and by expanding farm production to land that is now marginal because of climate or rainfall (while at the same time resisting attacks on global food production from changes in climate and an increasing incidence of drought.”

For what it’s worth, Jubak was mostly right: Since the article was written in July 2013, Dupont‘s stock has gone up by 16.6 %, Monsant0‘s by 12.59%, and Syngenta‘s has gone down by 6.08%. If Monsanto was going to suffer from the loss of its patents, it hasn’t come through in its stock price.

Now, what’s the point of looking at seeds from an investor’s perspective?

Genetic Code Revisited  Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Genetic Code Revisited
Artist: Cory Ench via Fractal World Gallery

Because that’s what seeds are. You can see them as an investment in the baldest sense of financial gain, without the baggage of other concerns except as a motivating investment factor.

You can also see them as an investment in the future in terms of feeding the planet, maintaining and promoting biodiversity (both plant and animal), enriching lives and soil, and as a continuation of what we as humans have been doing for millennia.

The two views don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but for the moment, it seems that they are.


*Current bans on use of glyphosate products are in force in Denmark, El Salvador and Sri Lanka.

The First Bee


The season’s first bee – well, the first bee I saw, I’m sure there were others – landed outside on our house wall a last week and dithered there for a few minutes before departing again. Then there were more, bumping clumsily into the window of my office and startling me, or just hovering and making a lot of noise.

So today I went to the back of the house and checked the spot in the roof where a colony of bees takes up annual residence. And sure enough, there they were, a small swam of them already busy with work in the upper eave of our house wall.

There’s a reassuring regularity to their annual return. It means life is taking its habitual course. The early seeds of springtime, each promising new life: Bees gonna fly, flowers gonna bloom and trees gonna grow. And it’s time to be planting the seeds of the season out in the garden.


A crazy corn variety, glass-gem corn, a non-GM corn variety. Created using tradition cross-breeding of US native corn varieties.
Photo: Greg Schoen

Sometime soon, the Brazilian parliament is going to be voting on whether seeds will continue to follow the age-old cycle of containing the life of a new spring. A bill to allow the use of sterile seeds has been in the pipeline since 2007, and is due for an imminent vote after being postponed late last year due to protests.

So-called Terminator seeds, or ‘gene-use restriction technology’, has banned around the world for its inherent danger and, dare I say, its inherent immorality. The genetically-modified seeds are programmed to die off after a single crop, which is to say, each crop is its own complete and finished cycle. Each new crop requires a new purchase from the seed company.

It’s not that most farmers don’t already buy their seeds from companies already, and it’s not that farmers and gardeners like myself haven’t been buying seeds from companies for the past century or more. And there are well-publicized conflicts when farmers replant patented seeds without paying the licensing fee – i.e. keeping back a seed stock from the previous year’s harvest for replanting. Still, the GM crops have an infuriating habit of spreading beyond their planting parameters and mixing with non-GM crops.

The proponents of the gene-use restriction technology in Brazil say the sterile plants would be for non-food crops only, and would be used only for medicinal plants and the fast-growing eucalyptus trees that feed the paper-making industry.

Glass-gem cornPhoto: Greg Schoen

Glass gem corn
Photo: Greg Schoen

But once a ban has been broken, it’s been broken. Even if the uses are meant to be limited, non-food, and ‘beneficial to humanity’, as Eduardo Sciarra, Social Democratic party leader in the Brazilian Congress, has said.

A handful of seed companies control 60% of all seed patents around the world. Many farmers, large and small, are already dependent on seed companies and the narrow range of seed crops they supply.

A loss of biodiversity and monoculture as well as economic dependency often result.

Seed companies like Monsanto and Syngenta hold patents on gene-use restriction technology, but have pledged not to implement these patents. If the door were to be opened, however, how long could each company resist the tug of economic activity? Adding the option of sterile seeds to this could initiate a disastrous cascade, the antithesis of the annual cycle of life heralded by the bee outside my window.

I encourage you to take a moment and join me in signing a petition to remind the Brazilian parliament of its responsibility, not just to its own people and environment, but to ours as well.

Last year’s bees.


Pinecone Percussion


We were out on an afternoon walk yesterday when we were stopped by a strange sound, the kind of popping from power lines or electric fences you sometimes hear when the air is humid. But there were neither power lines nor fences nearby. What there were, however, were pine trees, and the crackling, popping sound was coming from their male pine cones opening in the warm spring air.

Spring is most definitely here.WP_20140309_009

I found this pine cone tower, an ode to the forest, by Mexican artist Iván Juárez, an installation he created in Norway.

Seeing the sky through pine cones, not a bad vantage point.

The pine cones are moisture sensitive, closing up to protect their seeds from dispersing when the weather is damp and the seeds might rot before establishing themselves. So it’s some indication of how dry it’s gotten over the past ten days that the pine trees consider it safe to open up their cones.

We tried to record the sound – if you listen carefully (or with headphones) you can hear the constant patter of the pine cones snapping over the birdsong.

Roundabout Flowers

Bannockburn High School- 3rd year flowering Photo: On the Verge

Bannockburn High School- 3rd year flowering
Photo: On the Verge

It’s been a trend in recent years to replace the mown grass of urban traffic verges and roundabouts with wild flowers. The flowers require less maintenance, they’re easy on the eyes, and they are thought to provide habitat support for pollinators such as bees, bumblebees, butterflies and hover flies, all of which are under pressure for a variety of reasons, including pesticides, habitat loss and disease.

A University of Sussex study published in Insect Conservation and Diversity has quantified just what kind of impact this kind of wild flower intervention can have in a short time.

An initiative in Central Scotland oversaw the conversion of city areas usually covered in mown grass – roundabouts, road verges, parks, school grounds, the edges of sports fields. The study examined 30 of these sites over a period of two years after the flowers had been sown.

Bumblebee on cornflower.  Photo: Dave Goulson / Univ. of Sussex

Bumblebee on cornflower.
Photo: Dave Goulson / Univ. of Sussex

In just two years, they found 50 times more bumblebees and 13 times more hoverflies in areas that had previously been flower wastelands.

The seed mix used incorporated a variety of meadow flowers from the region. The project and its results show just how simple it can be to provide pollinator-friendly areas within cities.

This has been a trend in my corner of the world, as well. And looking at the lush, lively fields of flowers that fill most of the roundabouts in our area, I’m not really sure why we ever thought putting in mown grass was a better solution in the first place.

Roundabout in Wick, Scotland Photo: Caithness

Roundabout in Wick, Scotland
Photo: Caithness