Fierce Revival

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.

Blossoms emerge from a late spring snow storm Photo: PKR

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.

A beetle gets defensive Photo: PKR

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?

A tiger beetle minding its own business Photo: PKR

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.

Oh, wait. This solitary bumblebee showed up!

solitary bumblebee
A bumblebee forages on forest floor Photo: PKR

New Arrivals

The first snow of winter, marching towards us across the Jura.

Different perspectives on the approaching snowstorm on the French Jura. All photos: PKR

Different perspectives on the approaching snowstorm on the French Jura.
All mountain photos: PKR

The sun was shining in a final burst before a major storm that was due to hit overnight, and I had to go for a final autumn run in the last bits of warmth, even as I could see winter’s 1-6

No images here of the white carpet that greeted us the following morning, it all started melting soon after sun-up.

But in celebration of winter’s greeting card, we tried the Suntory produced Hibiki Japanese Harmony Master’s Select blended whisky I mentioned in a recent post, a foray into mostly unexplored territory for single malt fans such as ourselves.

According to Master of Malt, “Hibiki Japanese Harmony is made with malt whiskies from the Yamazaki and Hakushu distilleries, as well as grain whisky from the Chita distillery. The whiskies are drawn from 5 different types of cask, including American white oak casks, Sherry casks and Mizunara oak casks.” The blend includes ten different malt and grain whiskies.

photo 4-3

For me, this is limited edition blend is a curious mixture of tart, oaky acidity with round apple sweetness and not much in between, a double-edged sword that I’m not sure I love, but which I definitely enjoy. It’s like one of those candies which you might not like at first taste, but which you can’t seem to stop yourself from eating.

The Hibiki bottle and stopper.

The Hibiki bottle and stopper.

I do, however, think the bottle, with its 24 facets and matching stopper, is very lovely. The 24 facets are meant to represent the two dozen Japanese seasons, and I’ll be the first to admit that although I lived in Japan, I didn’t realize just how many seasons I was experiencing over the course of a year.

Alps across Lake Geneva, before their winter coat.

Alps across Lake Geneva, before their winter coat.

What I do know is that a new season is upon us. It’s cold outside.

Yes, winter is not only coming – it is already here.

That doesn’t have to be all bad.

Cold Case

Melting ice cores. Source: Jacquelyn Hams/PolarTrec

Melting ice cores.
Source: Jacquelyn Hams/PolarTrec

It might seem like the project to take ice to Antarctica is the very definition of redundancy. Like taking coal to Newcastle or turning on the lawn sprinkler while it’s raining.

But this ice endeavor is more like trying to archive some of the world’s most ancient books even as the ink rapidly vanishes from all the pages.

Ice from the world’s glaciers contains a wealth of information about the planet’s history.

Samples taken from glaciers around the world can be used to create computer models of past climates and how the climate has changed over time. Many samples have been taken at sites in Antarctica and Greenland – but far fewer have been analyzed at the various glaciers around the world.

A picture of a thin section of glacier ice placed between two crossed polarizers. The different orientation of the individual crystals shows up as colour differences. The ice itself is clear. Caption/Image: Centre of Ice & Climate, Univ. of Copenhagen

A picture of a thin section of glacier ice placed between two crossed polarizers. The different orientation of the individual crystals shows up as colour differences. The ice itself is clear.
Caption/Image: Centre of Ice & Climate, Univ. of Copenhagen

Comparing polar ice, which can be hundreds of the thousands of years old, to glacial ice from mountains can reveal the impact of human activity.

CO2, human-generated pollutants, pollen: Whether it’s on the Andes, the Alps, the Rocky Mountains, or the Himalayas, whatever was in the air and water when a glacial layer formed is trapped and frozen in place – at least, until the ice melts.

And as everyone knows by now, the ice is melting.

“In some of the warmer areas of the world the surface water is starting to melt. It then trickles all the way through the ice, taking with it the information from the surface so it’s smearing out any record that we might be able to take from the past,” Robert Mulvaney, a glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey, explained to the BBC.

A drilling tent set-up at the Dôme mountain pass, at an altitude of 4,250m, on the summit of Mont Blanc. In 2016, ice cores will be collected from there and transported to Antarctica for storage.  Photo: Bruno Jourdain, LGGE/OSUG/UJF

A drilling tent set-up at the Dôme mountain pass, at an altitude of 4,250m, on the summit of Mont Blanc. In 2016, ice cores will be collected from there and transported to Antarctica for storage.
Photo: Bruno Jourdain, LGGE/OSUG/UJF

The first ice cores will come from the Col du Dome, a glacier research site that sits at 4350 m (14,200 ft), just below the summit of Mont Blanc in France. The French National Centre for Scientific Research, part of the new ice storage project, measured temperatures inside the Col du Dome glacier in 1994 and again in 2005, and found a rise of 1.5°C.

Commercial freezer storage would be an interim option, but in the long-term, could be prohibitive in terms of cost as well as the potential for disastrous power failures.

The new Antarctic archive for glacial cores is set to be established at the Concordia Research Station, a French-Italian base that is manned year-round.

The archive itself will consist of ice cores sealed in bags, and stored in a giant frozen trench 10 m below the surface at a steady temperature of -50°C.

The hope is that this will keep the archive safe for future research over the course of the next decades and perhaps even centuries.

Air bubbles (left) and ice crystals (right) in an ice core sample. Source: USGS

Air bubbles (left) and ice crystals (right) in an ice core sample.
Source: USGS

Of course, the main challenge to the project – besides warming glaciers – is funding. The glacier archiving project, by definition, will not be yielding the kind of short-term results so popular among funding agencies and governments.

In a way, it’s fitting that the focus on short-term results and benefits is the main hurdle to keeping the glacier ice cores cold – after all, a focus on short-term benefits and profits is part of why the glaciers are rapidly melting in the first place.



Arctic Oil Hubris

Black treasure (2014) blown glass Artist: Antoine Brodin

Black treasure (2014) blown glass
Artist: Antoine Brodin

The U.S. government has approved plans by Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for oil off the Alaskan coast this summer. This comes after years of industry lobbying to explore what some estimate to be major oil deposits in the Chukchi Sea. Some estimates run up to 15 billion barrels.

On the one hand, the U.S. administration has followed a course of promoting environmental responsibility.

On the other, this administration has pursued a policy of domestic production and self-reliance. Unfortunately, that self-reliance has been pegged to oil and gas production, including fracking. Despite the inevitable oil spills (and no matter what the companies say, they are inevitable) and the damage done by drilling and fracking, fossil fuel exploitation continues unabated.

Meduse.X (2014), ink on paper Artist: Antoine Brodin

Meduse.X (2014), ink on paper
Artist: Antoine Brodin

Despite common knowledge that carbon-based fuels are leading to rapid and irreversible changes in the Earth’s atmosphere (and no matter what a few voices say, the knowledge is common and the scientific consensus is resounding), the U.S. government and others continue to subsidize, promote, and approve fossil fuel development.

The word that comes to mind is ‘hubris’. In modern usage, hubris means exaggerated confidence or pride.

Shell is one of the most powerful companies in the world, as well as one of the richest. It also has a long track record of overestimating oil reserves, of regular oil spills on a large scale, of inconsistent safety for workers, inhabitants and environment alike. Shell oversaw oil spills in Nigeria that were the size of the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill – not just once, but annually over the course of years.

Hubris implies arrogance so great that suffering or humiliation will follow.

Usually, though, the humiliation or suffering is experienced by the party demonstrating hubris.

Birdy (2014), blown glass, sandblasted Photo: Antoine Brodin

Birdy (2014), blown glass, sandblasted
Photo: Antoine Brodin

In the case of Shell, the humiliation is never experienced by the company. Not by the individual decision-makers, not by the company as a whole.

The humiliation and suffering is experienced by anything affected by the inevitable oil spills and the damage done by exploitation and drilling. People can argue in favor of jobs or for energy independence, but in the end, it is the company that makes the money by using the resources, land and environment that should belong to everyone.

While these lands and waters are being exploited, they belong to the company exploiting them – at least until the inevitable spill.

When it comes to the damage and clean-up, suddenly the soiled lands and seas belong to all of us again.

Corolla (2014) blown glass Photo: Antoine Brodin

Corolla (2014) blown glass
Photo: Antoine Brodin

It’s like a gambler who only gambles with someone else’s money, keeps any winnings, and assigns any losses to the foolish lender.

In ancient Greek, the word ‘hubris’ implied an shameful act perpetrated for personal gratification that brought shame upon both the victim and the perpetrator. Its contemporary equivalents might be closer to what we think of as ‘contempt’ or ‘insolence’.

And considering this decision to drill in the Arctic, a region under severe environmental pressure already due to carbon emissions, perhaps the ancient Greek version of hubris is more suitable. This plan shows genuine contempt for the Arctic, for the environment, and for anything that doesn’t turn a profit.

If only a company could feel shame.

Hubris (2014) Hot glass sculpted Artist: Antoine Brodin

Hubris (2014) Hot glass sculpted
Artist: Antoine Brodin



One Everything With Snow

I have a friend in New York City who sometimes calls me while she’s on her way to work. And every so often, I’ll be a long-distance eavesdropper to an order of her favorite breakfast bagel: A toasted Everything with cream cheese.

I know it’s just a bagel order, but having an Everything for breakfast has always tickled me with its notion of cosmopolitan inclusiveness. Even if the Everything is just bagel with a mixed topping of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, caraway, dried onion and garlic, and salt. No dill, rosemary, countless other herbs and additions, no waffles, eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, blinis, and so on…so technically, not everything.

But still, a lot of things.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I was thinking of that when I took this picture on my way home yesterday afternoon on blustery day of grey clouds, rain, snow, sunshine, patches of warmth and gusts of cold. The snow line looked like it had been drawn with a ruler, clouds covered the crest of the Jura in a thick topping of white, while a light drizzle fell over our house even as the sun shone.

So here’s my version of an Everything – the French Jura mountain range on a gloriously unpredictable Saturday afternoon in January. Delicious.

Warm Caprice

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I was out running yesterday evening, and as I entered the last kilometer, I was brought up short by the sunset clouds reflected in a puddle. The air was crisp, but not winterly. It snowed on the mountain tops last week, but only briefly, leaving a sharp white line between the elevation where winter still lives above 800 m (2600 feet) and where we live in unseasonable warmth at 470 m (1540 feet).

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

There was the scent of early green on the dusk air, the sound of water running everywhere, and the official beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere is still a month away. On a hike last week I came across this bush bursting into full bloom, lambs frolicking, the air filled with birdsong, even as France and Switzerland are still in the midst annual ‘winter’ school holidays.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I’m debating whether to do some garden work. Sure, the fruit trees need pruning and this is the time to do that work. But it’s the other stuff – the perennial flowers that are already budding, the spring bulbs that are already handspan high.

Do I uncover the beds, untie the bundled bushes, get them ready for an early spring, only risk its capricious retreat?

Winter Buds

We had a bitterly cold December, but according to local lore, the polar vortex over North America has given us a balmy January. Temperatures that barely count as winter, low levels of rain and snow only on much higher ground, disappointed skiers and confused garden plants.

I put in bulbs in a tiny patch of land behind our kitchen. The house is over 500 years old, the property divisions are inexplicable and bizarre. There is an old rose which thrives against the shady wall – in summer, of course, not now. We never know when some of these plants were first put in – one vine was planted in 1947.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

In springtime, the little sliver of shaded kitchen garden territory looks like this, more or less. This is an old picture from when I first put in the garden patch – the plants are all much larger now and we’ve installed a woven fence.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I planted a few bulbs in a pot back in September. They seem to think it’s already time to come out.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

As does the misguided peony.

Photo: PK Read

The tiny red slivers are the new peony buds. I use the old stalks to create a protective nest above them for overwintering.
Photo: PK Read

And the hydrangea, which I bind into a tipi form that is usually snow-topped around now, is sending out fresh buds against the flowerheads from last year.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read


The crazy rosemary on the other side of the house, a huge and unruly bush that I started cutting back in autumn, is budding up. It was planted right after WWII and really needs to be completely renovated.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I know snow will come and cover all of this. Sooner or later. I guess I’ll just have to see which plants have the strength for a second attempt come spring.

Sea of Sun

Sea of fog, Geneva basin Image via Monts Jura live web cam (Crozet)

Sea of fog, Geneva basin
Image via Monts Jura live web cam (Crozet)

Yesterday I posted images of atmospheric life at our altitude, all fog and frost.

Today, this is the view from several hundred meters above our heads, taken from a ski station web cam that’s twenty minutes from our place. The view is out over Lake Geneva, with the Alps in the distance. All of the Pays-de-Gex and Geneva, including our village, is beneath that white sea.

It’s comforting to know the sun is right there, if we feel the need to go visit.

Whisky Thanksgiving

We’ve had our Whisky Advent Calendar sitting on a shelf for weeks now, and it was a consolation to us yesterday. Yes, we have already entered the final month of a year that has flown by, but on the bright side, we got to open the first day of our whisky calendar.

The first red-waxed dram was a nice surprise, 17-year-old Balvenie Doublewood. As the 12-year-old Doublewood is one of our standards, we were happy to try its more aged sibling. Both are aged in oak casks before being switched to sherry casks. DSC01955

This is a lovely whisky, from the meady, sweet apple aroma to the smooth oak, fruit and spice taste. It’s got a lot of body and depth combined with that light Balvenie touch.

The bad news is, it’s quite expensive and not always easy to come by.

The good news is, although it’s excellent, we found that it drifted a wee bit much into sweet liqueur territory for our taste.

Maybe it’s because we just spent an expat Thanksgiving weekend gorging on pecan pie and pumpkin pie and our taste buds have been strangely affected, but we’ll be sticking with the more pedestrian 12-year-old version.

Between the Advent Calendar, and the fact that we got through our Thanksgiving in London without alerting the local fire department, it was a pretty good beginning to winter’s dawn.balvenie-doublewood-17-year-old-whisky

First Slap

Early morning garden, first snow. Photo: PK Read

Early morning garden, first snow.
The little plum tree had several birds nestled in among the branches,
I could see them waiting and watching as the leaves above them became heavy with snow.
Photo: PK Read


Old Man Winter gave us a sharp flick of his icy finger this past week.

We had the first real snow of the season at our elevation of 480 m (1570 ft) in the foothills of the Jura mountains.

I decided that leaving the house is an overrated activity, put on another sweater and an extra pair of socks, and sat inside, feeling guilty about all the garden work I haven’t yet completed.

Snowy garden gate, seen from the warmth of the house. Photo: PK Read

Snowy garden gate, seen from the warmth of the house.
Photo: PK Read

The cats took up all the space on the bed, the first load of wood was hauled in for the fireplace, and the first batch of winter squash soup was cooked out of necessity because anything else would have required leaving the house and as stated above, that had already been ruled out as a voluntary option.

First wood at the bottom of the stairs. Photo: PK Read

First firewood at the base of the stairs.
Photo: PK Read

Today, though, the snow is all but gone, and I have no excuse not to go out and do the garden tasks that await. The cats, of course, will continue to do what they do best.

The cats Supermanning it across the bed. Photo: PK Read

The cats Supermanning it across the bed.
Photo: PK Read