Sunday, January 29, 2012

the strangeness of spiders in winter

As I opened the curtains to let in the early morning light, peripheral vision registered the re-occurrence of Great-Grandfather Edward's spider web. Attached to the right hand side of his portrait frame, it stretches towards the window. Every few days I remove this visually offending yet innocuous construction, sometimes with the feather duster, sometimes with the vacuum cleaner or a brush. This time was different for the probable creator was there.

It was quite a large spider, with thickish, hairy legs and I sympathised for it an indignant expression where its face might be – not that I went close enough to check.
After a brief stand-off, it conceded and scuttled back behind Great-Grandfather Edward, where it knew, I assume, I could not reach. The ancestors' images are framed in heavy wood with plaster mouldings, gilded and fragile. All always have a light tracery of spider web which shows up the dust and which can be removed by the gentle plumeau. All weigh a metaphorical ton and the frames can be damaged by the metaphorical sneeze. It is only G-G Edward who attracts a noticeable spread, his portrait is the lightest but still too heavy to lift.

There is no understanding spiders. Why would this one – if there is only one - persist in re-creating its short lived web and at a time of year when there are very few insects inside the house? Except for the one remaining fly of winter, of course. Is it doing this just to annoy? And what does it do for drink, given there is no dew inside the house? Presumably it is that ubiquitous spider in the bath. Scaredy cats leave a trail of loo-paper for it to climb out, the impatient swipe it out with a face cloth or, if truly hardy, with their hand.

Another example: there was the tunnel spider this summer: it made an impressive tunnel web in the box bush with a net spreading wide into the neighbouring acanthus plants, neatly hung from its spikes. Apparently tunnel spiders are very fast at catching their prey, the lightest touch on the net and it darts out, overcomes the unfortunate and drags it back down the tunnel. Only this construction was very low down near the ground, the acanthus was not in flower, nor were the roses near it, there was very little to entice insects to wander across the web. A few leaves and petals were caught in the web.

Perhaps it was forced to become vegetarian. Apparently there is a vegetarian spider, named 'Bagheera kiplingi' but, although we had a thorn tree, still have some (French definition) acacia trees, possibly a laburnam,and unless it came in with a bunch of bananas, this Bagheera is most likely still confined to Latin America.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

winning is not an option

So I met Jean-Paul in the hardware store, looking his usual cheerful, chubby self so, like a fool, I ventured to ask if he was pleased with the gentle rain that has fallen since the frost. Never, ever ask a country man if he is happy with the present weather. The answer will be long.

Jean-Paul's grumble was difficult to interpret as he mostly speaks patois, in this case 'occitan' and mumbles. I gathered that the weather was now too soft, the vegetation was too advanced; I was instructed to look at the hazel bushes. Well, I have duly looked at the hazels and, yes, the catkins are hanging bedraggled from the twigs when they should not really have appeared until February...which is the week after next. More importantly, at the end of each twig there is a minute leaf bud, glossy brown and sharp as a spear point. The willow catkins are still waiting. What happens, he asked, if another frost comes?

This is a rhetorical country question that runs and runs all spring through, sometimes even during early summer, though hard rain is then substituted for frost, until the fruits are there. Even then rot and mildew threatens or, in the case of hard fruits such as hazel nuts, squirrels and other nut-cracking animals. Last year we did not get any hazel nuts from the various bushes scattered around. Our own fault because we always leave it too late to harvest them, a squirrel's definition of ripeness seems to be in advance that of a human.

Another sign of early spring is that the worms and the moles are already taking advantage of the softness of the soil to do their work. Worm casts are less visible than mole hills and fortunately it is not grass mowing time so gardeners have no reason to curse about the blade blunting effects of either. I am quite happy to see mole hills as the soil supplied is just right for potting bulbs which I have bought for my indoor bowls, much less effort to collect than soil and cheaper than commercial compost. I might even change my window boxes, the pansies are looking a little sad, though I have not consciously seen any commercial primulas yet.

My own personal sign of an earlier than usual spring is the clump of very small wild daffodils near the ruined bread oven. The leaves are about 20 cms high and there two small, rather battered yellow buds. The daffodils have come up in the same place as always. Normally I do not see them until March. Obviously daffodils are one of the few flowers not attractive to sheep - animals usually quite undiscriminating about flowers. They will not eat daisies or dandelions but they are very partial to all forms of wild orchid. So am I. Every year it is the same race between us: will I get there before they have eaten the orchids?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

of reindeer and frosts

As promised, the full moon of January 9th introduced a change in the weather. Out went the wet, damp and stormy, in came the bright, clear cold which, despite the random early morning or late evening patch of fog, is still with us. We are all deeply grateful, not least the animals, for a few degrees of frost will kill ticks and other bloodsuckers though it will not deal with the over-wintering eggs of other pests. For that we need frost in double figures.

A curious feature of the early winter frosts – they only come with daylight. (Doubtless there is a good scientific explanation of which I am not aware). Anyone (i.e. me) who gets up at about 6 a.m when it is still dark, because wakeful, and decides to get logs for the stove, will notice that the ground is damp and green. Filling the log basket a second time a couple of hours later, the sun just above the horizon, the grass is crisp with hoar frost and slippers get damp. Today there was no hoar frost but the branches and twigs of trees were highlit by frost. If well wrapped up, this winter beauty compensates for its cold.

And talking of cold, I wonder if Santa has not left some of his reindeer behind at La Chaise. A few days ago I walked down to the lower irrigation pond in bright sunshine and then turned to look at the slope above. This stretch of hillside faces roughly south-west, is garnished with juniper, scrub pines, scrub oak, dying elms and grass being strangled by lichen. We refer to it as 'Greece'.

A great expanse of lichen – probably 'cladonia portentosa' * had been broken off, was even drier than usual, it crumbled between my fingers. Now, somewhere at the back of my mind is the information that reindeer eat lichen when their habitat is covered by snow. Only we have not yet had snow, this was not eaten, just pulled up and left in place, no marks of tusks, hooves or teeth – but insofar as one can tell with a plant that is both and algae and fungus, it seemed most definitely dead. Also, as far as we know, there are no reindeer in the Dordogne.

The branches, twigs, stones and fence posts at La Chaise are covered with a most wonderful range of lichens. My mother collected some to take home and turn into vegetable dyes (wonder what the UK customs thought) with which she was very pleased. Should I get a sudden attack of flower arranging, lichen adds that wonderful 'ikebana' touch – and it lasts longer than cut flowers. Everyone around agrees that the presence of lichens means we have exceptionally pure air – how they reconcile this with the lichens on London grave stones is another matter. But lichens are a very complicated subject and probably beyond all except the most enthusiastic scientist.

Years ago I picked up some beautifully produced booklets on lichens, probably from the Natural History Museum, including the one by Jack R. Laundon* which shows a picture of the lichen that appears to be 'uprooted' on our heathland. Everytime I look into one, I feel stupid – but the photos are wonderful. Lichen is a totally otherworldly form, right here on earth.

The new moon is due on the 23rd of January, the weather is supposed to warm up. I am distrustful. Memo to self: buy gas mantles for the camping gas lights, more wicks and petrol for the petrol lamps; a few more candles would not come amiss. Perhaps I should polish the brass petrol lamps, check their glass chimneys. It's called 'country insurance'.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The effects of absence

The romantic convention will have it that absence makes the heart grow fonder of the missing person – or, for the sour minded, of someone else someone present. It has been suggested that the first writer to coin this phrase was one T H Bayly, a nineteenth century poet and musician but – of course – Wm. Shakespeare got there first, and more elegantly, in both of his dramatic, romantic plays, Othello and Romeo and Juliet – 'absence doth sharpen love....'. Twentieth century writer Elizabeth Bowen was in the sour camp: ' the heart may think it knows better: the senses know that absence blots people out.'

We have just come back to La Chaise after a three week absence. We left it dry, with cracked and broken fields, scant grass cover for the sheep, the duck pond a mere mud puddle and the two irrigation ponds little better. Hardened sheep shit covered all the fields like so many clay marbles, not promising fertiliser material. Only the two horses, with more than two hectares between them, looked superior and content in their winter coats. This was not a promising scenario for the winter and coming spring. Our hearts were in our boots.
But the rains came while we were away and mostly in the fields, only a little through the roofs into the houses. My first walk round the land, down to the pump and the lower irrigation pond then back up through the woods to the upper pond (a.k.a 'the Black Pond in the Woods), was springy. The ground oozed damp and the plant cover – I won't call it grass, that would be too much to hope for – was pleasantly green. The sheep shit marbles were still there but could be trodden into the soil where they would eventually do some good. All three ponds were full of water, shiny and black, like treacle.

The stream leading from the ravine to the lower pond had water trickling through. There was an occasional barrage of leaves which it was most satisfying to destroy by clearing with one's boots. (I always wanted to be a small boy when I grew up.) The ravine itself did not retain any water yet though in really wet times it can hold impressive amounts of water. The temptation to turn it into another pond is quickly killed by the thought of the cost and the complications.

The duck pond still had some green lentils of pond weed at its sides but perhaps, if I connect the solar powered fountain, and if we have sunny days, aerating the water might get rid of it. The irrigation ponds appeared to have no weed but weed lurks and we shall only really know in the spring whether it has died back or not.

But at least the prognosis for spring is good and I fell in love with the place all over again. Let's see if this love affair survives the possible weather change with Monday's full moon.