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 shed.photo 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 door.photo 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 petal.photo 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 difference.photo 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

Forest Reverence

“A grove of giant redwoods or sequoias should be kept just as we keep a great or beautiful cathedral.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Tree Cathedral, a living installation in Bergamo, Italy. The foundation was laid in 2001, and following Mauri's death in 2009, the Cattedrale Vegetale has been completed as a monument to his work and life. Image:  Virtual Sacred Space

Tree Cathedral, a living installation by Giuliano Mauri in Bergamo, Italy. The foundation was laid in 2001, and following Mauri’s death in 2009, the Cattedrale Vegetale has been completed as a monument to his work and life.
Image: Virtual Sacred Space

Through history, private family ownership of vast land tracts has had both merits and drawbacks.

When it comes to forests in the United States, almost 60% is under private ownership, 766 million acres of land. For more than half of that land, the average age of the owner is 62.5.

What this means, according to a 2014 Associated Press article, is that as owners pass their land on to younger generations, the land tends to get divided, sold, parcelled into smaller lots and developed in ways that don’t necessarily reflect best forest management or maintain a working forest.

Image: Santino/Flckr

The Tree Cathedral is made of 42 different columns that form five aisles. The columns incorporate 1,800 spruce trunks and 600 chestnut tree branches woven together with 6,000+ meters of hazelnut twigs. Nails, string, and local traditional methods for intertwining and weaving were utilized in order to secure the columns around the trees. Text/Image: EarthPorm/ Santino/Flckr

One of the issues faced by private owners who have worked to protect woodlands is to convey their conservationist commitment to younger, more urbanized generations.

It’s one thing to be deeply affected by forests and enjoy woodland hikes; it’s another altogether to be a private landowner responsible for a long-term forest management plan that encompasses unborn future generations.

As the hornbeam trees within the columns grow and mature, the original support structures will age and fall away, leaving a small forest in the shape of a cathedral. Image: Arte Sella

As the hornbeam trees within the columns grow and mature, the original support structures will age and fall away, leaving a small forest in the shape of a cathedral.
Image: Arte Sella

There are now organizations that offer support to families in woodland legacy planning – first and foremost, projects like Oregon State University’s Ties to the Land help families talk to one another about their land priorities.

I assume that Giuliano Mauri’s Tree Cathedral, shown in the images here, was planned (at least in part) to remind visitors that a forest is a place of reverence. It is installed in the Italian Arte Selle sculpture park of earth art and natural architecture.

With commitment and communication, some families have done a phenomenal job of protecting forests over decades and even centuries.

It’s a little unnerving to think of the majority of any nation’s woodlands being at the mercy of uninterested successors, because once a natural forest cathedral, or even a forest chapel, has been parcelled and developed, it is changed forever.

Experiencing the forest as a sacred space shouldn’t be something that only happens in an art installation.

Image: Aldo Fedele (left) / Arte Sella (right)

Image: Aldo Fedele (left) / Arte Sella (right)

 

Come On Over

“Peaches, ripe for the picking,” my neighbour tells me from atop his tractor as he passes by. “We can’t eat them all.”

No need to ask me twice. This morning I headed over with an empty picking sack.

The peachy corner of the neighbour's garden, which was established in the late 19th century.

The peachy corner of the neighbour’s garden, which was established in the late 19th century.

I’ll be honest, in all the years I’ve lived next door to this farm, I thought they only had one kind of peach. Pêche de vigne, vineyard peaches, of which there are several types.

The one grown next door isn’t a pretty variety on the outside, it looks a bit rough, a cowboy peach that’s been out in the weather too long and smoked a few hundred too many cheroots.

Pêche de vigne.

Pêche de vigne.

But there are two heavily laden peach trees, and the second is bending with the weight of green peaches that look vaguely unripe, but are soft to the touch and ready for harvest.

The green-yellow peaches, soft and ripe.

The green-yellow peaches, soft and ripe.

I’m happy to say I took a few of them, too. Because while I have no idea what this kind of peach is called (there are over 2000 kinds of peach), it’s a revelation of taste.

Tangy peach scent with a hint of vanilla, and the flavour is crisp with an aftertaste of honeydew melon.

The first small plate of harvested peaches, the first of many.

The first small plate of harvested peaches, the first of many.

The scent of the pêche de vigne is completely different, a heady mix of sweet and rich red earth. The flesh looks like it’s been steeped in port wine, and that’s pretty much what it tastes like, too.

In the past I’ve made sorbet using these red peaches with a dash of port, and if I do say so myself, it’s not bad.

I was under the close supervision of this guy, who was sitting in the sheep meadow on the other side of the fence.

I was under the close supervision of this guy, who was sitting in the sheep meadow on the other side of the fence.

I foresee a large amount of peach jam, preserved peaches, peach pie and peach sorbet in my near future.

Thanks, neighbour!

Golden Bounty

I went for a run in a solid summer rain this afternoon, and returned home to the refreshment of some ripe mirabelle plums, straight off the tree. But the next couple of days will be devoted, at least in part, to picking and processing the plum bounty before the rain ruins them all.DSC02370

The mirabelle plum tree in our garden is small miracle. When we moved here almost 20 years ago, it was a stubby, dead stump. The previous owners told us the ‘peach’ tree that had been on that spot had long since succumbed to old age, they had just never gotten around to pulling up the roots. It was in a quiet corner of the garden, they had planted flowers all around, so the stump was left untended and unnoticed.

The pear tree, the green gage plum tree, the apple trees, the cherry trees, all the redcurrant bushes and raspberry canes: These got all the attention for many years. Then pear tree died one hot summer; the green gage plum tree started dropping large branches like leaves, and the raspberries were too shaded by a large cherry tree to produce. All are gone now.

But the dry stump? It sprouted after a couple of years, and we were curious to see what would happen. What happened was a mirabelle plum tree, the discreet bearer of a few tart, golden plums every year. Until this year, when the tree suddenly thrust out 10 kgs of delicious plums.DSC02378

The mirabelle plum (Prunus domestica subsp. syriaca) is thought to have been introduced to Europe from Asia Minor and was established in France by the 16th century.

The Lorraine region of the country produces 15,000 tonnes of the fruit annually, 90% of which is made into jam or eau-de-vie. A non-native crop that has, like many other favorite European fruits, thrived in its adopted home.images-PICASA9

My first batch of mirabelle jam, a simple concoction of plum halves macerated overnight in sugar, cooked up into a fine treat.

Today’s jam version will include a few sprigs of fresh thyme from the garden. Tomorrow’s mirabelles will go into making a few batches of different liquors: vodka, brandy, eau-de-vie. All to be aged and served up in winter.

A reminder of the rewards of patience when it comes to small miracles, and of time spent under a golden tree during a warm summer rain.DSC02369

The Right Tree

According to this article, the word ‘tree hugger’ was coined in 1730 to describe a hundreds of Bishnoi villagers in India who clung to the trees of their home to prevent them from being cut down for the construction of a palace. The non-violent form of protest was adopted in the 1970s by the Chipko women of northeast India, who clung to trees to stop them from being clear cut.

There are those who hug trees to protect them, those who hug trees because they feel it helps ease the mind, and those who are called tree huggers not so much because they actually hug trees, but because they embrace the idea that the environment is worth protecting.

I would count myself among the third group.

Acacia tree Source: GalleryHip

Acacia tree
Source: GalleryHip

Koalas hug trees for their own marsupial reasons. Picture a koala in your mind – is it sitting in a tree with its little arms wrapped around a tree trunk? My imaginary dozy koala is. I never gave it much thought, but a couple of researchers in Australia did. And in a new study published in Biology Letters, ‘Tree-hugging koalas demonstrate a novel thermoregulatory mechanism for arboreal mammals, they show that the trees koalas most like to hug are not the eucalyptus trees (which provide their main food source), but acacia trees. Why?

When the researchers studied the trees, they found that the acacia trees had trunk temperatures that were up to 5° C (9° F) lower than the surrounding air, and cooler than the other tree trunks. Koalas are using tree trunks to cool themselves in a hot climate where panting – the usual method of koala body temperature regulation – would cause the animals to lose precious water. Tree-clinging koalas lost half as much water through evaporation compared to other koalas.

The research team is working on models to predict how animals like the koala adapt to climate change. In the case of the marsupials, it might be that they will survive by changing their habitat range and find other cooling trees to cling to as the air grows hotter around them.

As a tree hugger in a changing world, it’s important to find the right tree.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point readers in the direction of another koala-related cooling device, the Hot Koala cocktail.

 

 

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

Frosted Fig

Last week, I went for a short walk in the late afternoon. It was sunny, and although it wasn’t warm, it was tolerably above zero.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Then the temperature plunged, and the first real winter fog of the season settled in.

I’m fortunate in that I don’t mind fog. Probably because I grew up along the notoriously foggy coastline of northern California.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

It’s not pleasant to drive in, but otherwise, I find it a more comforting and comfortable weather condition than, say, sheets of rain or hip-deep snow.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Many in the Lake Geneva area succumb to gloomy moods during our long foggy sessions, which can last for weeks. I took most of these photos early this morning. The fog had thinned a bit, allowing a much longer view than I’ve seen in days. I can even see the roofs of neighboring houses.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

The garden has gone into sugar-frosted glory. The fog itself floats in tiny crystals, and after three days of this, the layers of fine ice have become thick and heavy.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

In a pinch, though, there’s always a simple solution to escape the fog: A half-hour drive up into the Jura, above the fog line. Our village is at an altitude of around 1500 ft (470 m), and I can often see a tinge of blue above, where the blanket of fog stops and sunshine begins.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

Every so often, the lower part of our road will be in the fog, while we look out across a sunny sea of white. Not today, though. And probably not this week.

This is the week an ambitious patio dandelion thought it had one last chance at seeding out before winter. It didn’t.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

 

 

Global Forest Map

A gorgeous new tool for assessing gain and loss in global forests was released this week by University of Maryland researchers, the result of a five year, broad-based collaborative project. The interactive map of Global Forest Change is powered by Google’s computing cloud will offer a means to establish forestry baselines around the world, with a great amount of detail.

Animation showing forest loss in Riau, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Much of this deforestation was to establish plantations for pulp and paper, timber, and palm oil production. Click image to enlarge.
Source: Mongabay.com

This excellent Mongabay.com article quotes the project’s lead author Matthew Hansen on the map and accompanying study (published in Science): “This is the first map of forest change that is globally consistent and locally relevant. Losses or gains in forest cover shape many important aspects of an ecosystem including, climate regulation, carbon storage, biodiversity and water supplies, but until now there has not been a way to get detailed, accurate, satellite-based and readily available data on forest cover change from local to global scales.”

It didn’t surprise me that Brazil and Indonesia are among the top five countries with the highest level of deforestation since 2000. The policies of those countries favor development of heavily forested, biodiverse areas.

Global Forest Map The red areas indicate net forest loss. Click on the image for the interactive map. Source: Earth Engine Partners

Global Forest Map
The red areas indicate net forest loss.
Click on the image for the interactive map.
Source: Earth Engine Partners

As an Indonesian palm oil representative once told me, we shouldn’t worry about the loss of rainforest because it was mostly all cut down already, anyway. In its place, palm oil plantations. “Trees are trees, so we have offset deforestation with sustainable new forests.”

The new Global Forest Change tool accounts for this as well, with layered levels of data allowing users to see whether the forests in question are old growth, diverse habitats, or newer second-growth utility forests.

It did come as a surprise that Russia has lost more forest than any other nation, and that the top five are rounded out by the United States and Canada.

From Mongabay.com, “Improved understanding of the state of forests through tools like these should boost the ability of decision makers — from lawmakers to business leaders — to establish policies that better protect forests.”

Long Forest View

A study out this week has reconstructed an image of what one area of pre-European forest looked like in the North American area of what is now Pennsylvania. From this artist’s interpretation, at least from a distance, it looks like, well, like a forest.

But prior to European settlers’ intensified land clearing, the mill-building, the agriculture and industry, the trees were different trees, by and large, and entire waterways and ecosystems were very different.

Artist's reconstruction of the pre-settlement landscape as here interpreted using plant macro fossils Credit/Artwork: S. Elliot et al/Rebecca Wilf via PLOS ONE

Artist’s reconstruction of the pre-settlement landscape as here interpreted using plant macro fossils
Credit/Artwork: S. Elliot et al/Rebecca Wilf via PLOS ONE

There are several mill dam reconstruction projects underway, and it is hoped that gaining a more profound understanding of   the pre-settlement forest and waterways will support those efforts. Many of the trees that were present still exist, but in different ratios and different places. Some of the species, like the American chestnut, have since died out due to disease.

 

In a poignant irony of paleohistory, one of the very mill dams that led to the changes in the forest system was the reason researchers were able to study its characteristics.

The fossilized leaves that would offer an in-depth picture of bygone forest trees are typically not easy to find. But researchers examining the effects of mill dams on water levels and waterways made a find of leaf fossils from hardwood trees that was preserved in a layer of pre-dam river mud.

It might otherwise have been long since washed away – but it was buried under a layer of sediment from the construction of a mill dam 300 years ago.

 

 

 

Phoenix Rising

Seeds, stored for 2000 years in a clay jar at the site of Herod the Great’s palace and fort at Masada, languished in a drawer for forty years after their discovery before researchers decided to try planting a few of them.

And to the surprise of everyone, one seed actually burst up through the soil with life. Not just any life, but with a Judea date palm, which had been a staple of existence and wealth for thousands of years.

Researchers Elaine Solowey (left) and Sarah Sallon hold the young seedling.  Photo: David Blumenfeld

Researchers Elaine Solowey (left) and Sarah Sallon hold the young seedling.
Photo: David Blumenfeld

The Hebrew Tree of Life, treasured for its protein-rich fruit and shade, was known by Romans as the Phoenix dactylifera, “the date-bearing phoenix”, because it seemed to flourish in areas where other plant life died, and it seemed to live virtually forever.

The tree is now eight years old, has flowered, and there a plans to crossbreed it with its nearest living relative, the Hiyani date palm of Egypt.

Tradition has it that the Judea date palm was rich in medicinal qualities, but its benefits today may be in a different area of health: Its genetic code may provide characteristics such as increased resistance to disease and environmental stresses to modern date palms.

The Judean Date Palm at Kibbutz Ketura Photo: via Wikipedia

The Judean Date Palm at Kibbutz Ketura
Photo: via Wikipedia

The ‘Methuselah’ Judea date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.) is particularly unique because this palm cultivar that once grew in lush groves has been considered extinct for 1800 years, a victim of the Roman war against Judea and the Roman army’s scorched earth tactics.

I include the Methuselah date-bearing phoenix today as a hopeful footnote to yesterday’s post on the impact of war and armed conflict on the environment.

A short video clip on the tree can be viewed here.

Modern date grove. Pre-Roman palm groves grew 7 miles wide. Date palms in modern Israel were imported mainly from California. Photo: Brett Smith

Modern date grove. Pre-Roman palm groves grew 7 miles wide.
Date palms in modern Israel were imported mainly from California.
Photo: Brett Smith