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'.