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

Windy Dusk

Towards the end of an evening walk through the fields near our house. A storm is blowing in but the air is fine, warm and filled with sweet scents and birdsong. ​

Spring Unfolding

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.

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.

Artist: Nicole Dextras

Pleasant Perspectives (Mostly)

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.

Leafing Out

There are few places in the world, if any, that aren’t touched by human activity, including places with no humans. And one of our chief human activities over the past couple of centuries has been the transfer of carbon from reservoirs deep within the planet out into the atmosphere.

We’ve been re-creating the environment during this industrial dream. Like a dream, we aren’t always conscious of our decisions and the impact they will have as we weave the story forward.

Several recent studies show that the phenology of leaves around the world, i.e. the annual cycle of vegetation changes, has dramatically altered since the mid-20th century.

Smoke & Mirrors (2010) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors (2010)
Photo: Ellie Davies


It might not seem particularly important if the first vegetation leafs out a week earlier every year, or drops a week later in autumn.

But a study published in Nature Climate Change measured severe phenological changes on 54% of the planet’s land surface between 1981 and 2012, with resulting shifts for entire ecosystems.

Warmer temperatures, new rainfall patterns and increased atmospheric carbon are altering the rate of energy exchange between land and atmosphere in complex ways that we don’t yet entirely understand.

Increased carbon uptake due to earlier springs and later autumns mitigate climate change, at least in theory (and leaving out the issue of deforestation, of course).

But as it turns out, phenological change alters different forests in different ways. Temperate forests react differently from boreal forests, and the overall impact on a global level is as yet unclear.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 1 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 1 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies


Truly long-term studies of leaf-out times aren’t widely available, but the Marsham family of Norfolk, England, kept records of leafing and flowering times of estate woodland plants from 1736 to 1947.

By matching historical temperature records (back to 1772) to the family log, researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland found that while a warmer autumn causes early leafing species such as birch to take longer to come into leaf the following spring, while late-leafing species, such as oak trees, seem unaffected by autumnal temperatures.

These citizen scientist observations allow researchers to test predictions regarding the effects of temperature on leaf cycles and woodland environments.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 2 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 2 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies

What is clear on a global scale is that the countless organisms with life cycles synchronized to vegetation cycles are being dramatically affected.

Meanwhile, we continue to emit carbon sighs during our long industrial dream of plenty, not yet knowing where it will lead, or how the earth will look we will wake up.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 3 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 3 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies

A Few Beginnings and a Couple of Ends

The weather turned cold this week, grey skies and a chill wind after two weeks of balmy temperatures. Two steps forward, one step back. No excuse not to get some garden work done, though.

Last week was all bumblebees and sunshine, this week I found this fellow, a little black cricket, taking shelter from the cold in our garden 1-4


And I found this hideaway when I uncovered all the herb garden pots. When we moved here almost eighteen years ago, the garden – more wild back then, but also far less organic – was rampant with large land snails, the brown kind. I used to find specimens larger than my palm. Rather than destroy them, the greedy mouths that ate my fledgling plants, I’d take them to the farm next 2-4

If I showed up with a yellow snail like the one above, it was quickly destroyed by my elderly neighbor Maurice. The big brown ones, though – those he used to eye hungrily (if the season was right) and pop them into his snail house for feeding on garden scraps – until feast time came and the snails themselves were on the menu. We’re in rural France, after all.

Both neighbor and snails are now long gone, and if I miss one more than the other, the lack of snails is still a sign of how developed the village has become since we arrived. Dozens of new apartments and houses, the fields, hedgerows and orchards gobbled up by streets and fresh suburbs.

The mirabelle tree has hundreds of buds, but just a couple of them are showing any coy 4-4

I planted a magnolia tree a couple of years ago, but it hasn’t had much in the way of blossoms until this year – this season, the tree is heavy with velvety green pods ready to bloom.

Just down the road a mile or so, the magnolia trees are in full bloom already, but we are a little bit higher in altitude, and it makes all the 3-3

I was weeding around the roses, a large yew hedge at my back, when a large chorus built up around me, a rowdiness of different birdsong. Loud and distracting. Breeding season, I thought, not wanting to get up and look.

It continued, louder, riotous. I stood up, looked around. The bird feeders were empty. It’s gotten cold enough that the insects for which they’d abandoned the feeders are gone. Fine, I told the birds. Pipe down.

I filled the feeders and the song changed.

Finally, this witch hazel has it all – the dry winter remains of blooms ready to drop, a single blossom still holding its shape, and a green leaf budding out.

Everything about spring on a single twig.Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 10.23.49 PM

Spring Song

It’s raining out today, so I don’t feel overly guilty about not being out in the garden after a week of imposed bed rest.

I found these nifty images of lacewing eggs – something I’m hoping to find in our garden when I get back outside.

Green Lacewing eggs Source: GCMG

Green Lacewing eggs
Source: FSG

Lacewing larvae aren’t as pretty as their eggs, nor as their adult form, but they have the healthy appetite of most growing creatures and their favorite food is aphids. Lots of aphids. If lacewing larvae were teens, aphids would be their bowls of pasta and bags of chips.

Lacewing larvae hatching. Photo: Rupert Soskin

Lacewing larvae hatching.
Photo: Rupert Soskin

Lacewings belong to an order of net-winged insects known as Neuroptera, which contains around 6,000 species.

In the course of writing this blog, I came across the delightfully named Lacewing News. This might sound like the weekly journal of the characters in Wind in the Willows, but it is actually the newsletter of the International Association Neuropterology. Lacewings, of course.

Lacewing lifecycle Source: Lydekker, R. (1879) via Wikipedia

Lacewing lifecycle
Source: Lydekker (1879) via Wikipedia

When we first moved here many years ago, I found that our garden had a real problem with aphids. They were on everything. The garden is quite an old one, and a succession of owners had been planting randomly over at least thirty years. We found an assortment of pesticides in the garage when we moved in, and most of our neighbors are happy to spray several times a year.

We didn’t use pesticides, and for a long time, I felt like our little corner was a happy haven for bugs fleeing the spray all around, whether the bugs were good ones or not.

I’ve been re-doing the small garden over the past few years, no pesticides, simplifying the ramshackle flower beds, and over the past couple of years I’ve noticed that we had very few pests. Almost without me noticing.

Strange how we notice the presence of a nuisance but rarely its absence.

Adult green lacewing Source: LIR

Adult green lacewing
Source: LIR

Fingers crossed that this year continues the positive trend.

One last thing: Lacewings species have their own mating songs. Subtle and simple, but still, mating songs. I can’t let this rainy Monday pass without including them. You can listen to a wide variety of songs here, or click the image below.

Images of lacewing songs. Source: PBS

Images of lacewing songs patterns.
Source: PBS

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.

The Official Chestnut

The Official Chestnut

The Official Chestnut

Apparently, it’s the first day of spring, even though the Spring Equinox is still a couple of weeks away.

But here near Lake Geneva, the oracle has spoken – and that oracle is the Official Chestnut of the city, located in the Old Town’s lovely Promenade de la Treille. The apparition of the first leaf on this tree signifies the start of spring in this region, as determined by a Geneva city functionary known as a sautier, a grounds watchman (an official post in Geneva since 1483) . This is the third tree to be dubbed the official season starter, in service since 1929. The previous two trees are gone, but the tradition dates back to 1818. The tree has its own official plaque.

And I must say, it is feeling very springlike out – the sun is shining, there’s a brisk but unwinterly breeze about, and I am definitely hearing the siren song of the garden calling.

The Official Chestnut if full leaf. Source: City of Geneva

The Official Chestnut if full leaf.
Source: City of Geneva

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?