Monday, March 26, 2012

beware the icy saints

My winter love affair has come to an abrupt end. The reason is the unseasonable heat. Here we are, in the last week of March and afternoon temperatures are in the mid twenties centigrade. Not even the most besotted cook is going to keep her beloved wood-fired range alight in those temperatures.

Electricity is an inadequate substitute. Every year I have to switch cooking styles to suit the heat source, which puts a considerable strain on my temper. There is a gap in my hospitality whilst I relearn summer habits, summer recipes. But the summer vegetables are not here, at least not ones that can be locally sourced. We are still in the leeks, carrots, cabbage, onion, phase. (I shall skip all mention of the root vegetables more usually fed to cattle.)

There is no sign of a break in the warm weather though Meteo France is indicating rain showers starting Sunday – April 1st, should one take that seriously? If one goes by Chaucer, the answer would be yes:

'Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote,
the droght of March hath perced to the rote..'

Some piercing to the root would be beneficial to all the plants that were brutalised by the February snow and frost. A few herb plants are beginning to revive but I shall have to replace the sage and the rosemary bushes. The blossom has come rather early on the fruit trees, possibly the first to show was the peche de vigne, dark pink blossom that will be followed by a lovely red-skinned peach with white flesh. The apple, pear and wild plum trees are just coming into flower.

But, of course, there are problems ahead. The first is the lune rousse which is the first lunar month after Easter. It is said that it brings clear skies and so cold days with the possibility of light frosts. This could arrive any time in the last three weeks of April. The frosts might just nip the tips of new plants, turning them red...hence rousse.

Even when April is finished, our difficulties are not over. Beware the saints de glace. They are Saint Mamet on 11th May, once archbishop of Vienna, died 777; Saint Pancrace on 12th May, martyred aged 14 in Rome, date unspecified; and Saint Servais on 13th May, a bishop who died a martyr in 384. (I know, it does seem odd to have years with only three numbers..) These saints are popularly supposed to create a cold snap. Locally there is much muttering in the month of May, shall we or shall we not take notice of the Ice Saints? An attempt has been made to reduce the influence of two by pairing them with female saints, so Saint Mamert is joined by Saint Estelle, Saint Servais's friend is Saint Rolande.

Beware if you do not observe the first three saints, for you could just be caught out by Saint Urbain, a pope (the first of his name) who died in 230. His name day is May 25th. Well, it was – now his day has been allocated to Saint Sophie. May her influence be warm.

Ah well, perhaps my love affair is not over, perhaps we are just taking time off or out, whatever the current fashionable phrase is, perhaps we shall get together again for April and May, my wood fired range and me.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

spring is nearly sprung

The signs of spring continue to multiply. The latest are the cowslips, very pale yellow and curiously short stemmed. Of course the grass, against which they would normally have to compete, is short also. Alas, and alack, lack of rain is mostly responsible. It makes me sentimental about the days Before Sheep, Before Golf Course, when there was spring rain, the grass was just allowed to grow and a neighbour turned it into hay. The fields looked like an advertisement for 'natural' shampoo: cowslips, three different colours of wild sage, ox-eye daisies, thistles, clover and trefoil, large dandelions, the woodland trimmed with violets and the scrubland with creeping thyme and majoram. In April the wild orchids began to appear, often nestling near the junipers.

But I have to remind myself that hay and I do not get on. I react strongly to the various grass and tree pollens. Drifting through a flower strewn field, long hair flowing, whilst pink nosed and sneezing is no advertisement for anything – except allergy remedies. So it really is better to have the sheep and just try to get to the wild flowers before they do, especially the orchids.

The aspens and the hazels are shedding their catkins now but I seem to be able to cope. Fortunately the pines are not yet releasing their pollen. The visual impact of the pines is a curious aspect of every spring. Huge, black Rorschach blots, they dominate the forest, loom over the naked deciduous trees, make one wonder whether the latter will ever produce leaves again. In our woods, they will.

But across the road, where the wood cutters have made a coupe rase, (they cut everything), the deciduous trees will not come back. A few spindly ones, rejects, have been left standing as have a few pines. Neither are likely to withstand a severe wind. The woodland ground is covered with the heads of the cut trees, branches too small to be of any use today. This is 'natural regeneration' at work. Men are too expensive to clear the forest floor and, in theory, saplings should be able to force their way through the rough cover. Eventually the cut branches will decay, turn into humus for the new trees. In the meantime, the land is impassable to anything but wild life that can spring, or charge or wriggle its way through. It is a bleak and depressing sight. A waste.

It was not always so. When we first selectively cut down some of the larger oaks surrounding our house - with particular attention to those that were practically leaning on the roof – our neighbours watched with interest. Once the trunks and larger branches were down, cut, split and stacked, we received a visit from a couple who lived at Chantepoule. Could they have they have the left over heads of the oaks, tidy up for us? The grandmother could use the wood. It would be most kind.
We were kind.

Then Madame Veuve V..., somewhere in her seventies, came herself, armed with a billhook that probably weighed as much as she did. It was certainly as long as her fore-arm. She set to and I bolted back to the house to make sure I knew the phone number of the emergency services; to check I had enough bandages, plasters and brandy. Then I kept away until, a few days later, she came to announce she had finished. There was a considerable pile of wood. It would keep her cuisinière going all winter she said. She could not imagine a winter without her cuisinière . As the expert told me, when I was looking for a wood fired cooker plus water heater, you need a grandmother sitting next to it, feeding it small wood all day.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

all things bright...

Here follows a determined attempt at optimism, cheerfulness, a positive view of the present and the immediate future. I won't commit further than the immediate future because that would be asking too much, of me and of the future.

Firstly, it appears that I have started a fashion in horse head gear! Horses wear fancy, all in one, eye and ear protectors in stiff black mesh, to ward off flies. Pharao, daughter Clea's horse, managed to destroy the ear pieces on his. Presumably by rubbing his ears against tree trunks to get rid of flies – whatever. Clea asked if I could mend the headgear as it was urgently needed. So I cobbled something together out of black and white cotton fabric, not canonical but effective. Now, all the horses at Pharao's livery stables have multi-coloured ear coverings. The things mothers can do.

Following on the horse theme, today I managed to be present at a horsey meeting where horses were doing dressage, obstacles and cross-country. There were horses everywhere, some tethered, some in charge of persons seemingly much too small to control them. Although I almost always managed to make sure there was someone or something between me and the horse, I survived the day without going weak at the knees, or needing more wine than usual at lunch. I had forgotten what a friendly occasion such a meeting could be. Next time I might get to pat Pharao. The time after that I could hold out my palm with a chunk of carrot on it , eyes closed, and wait for him to eat it. And that is as far as I will go with that.

Today I also managed to go for an early evening walk to the far, Pump pond, partly to see whether the duck seen on the duck pond this morning, had moved there. A couple of them have been inspecting the Black Pond in the Woods but have not stayed. So far they have all been drakes, the ducks seem to be playing coy. The other objective was to look at the water and the grassland. Despite the lack of rain – we have had no water since the snow melted – there is water flowing in our streams.

Admittedly the flow starts fairly far downstream. The spring at the twin oaks bridge has moved a few feet further towards the Pump pond but the water flowing from it has managed to clear the leaves. One can even see some water-cress beginning to
grow. All we need now is a good, steady, down-pour to clear the rest of the leaves and the Pump pond will start to fill.

Again, despite the lack of rain, the grass is growing in the fields, patchily and not always the sheep's favourite grass, but it is growing. A neighbour has promised to scarify those parts of the fields being stifled by weeds and moss. Then grass should grow again. Warm days and new grass, being allowed out of the barn – who could spoil sheep any more? Letting them back in to fresh hay and best grains, that's how we do it. Selfish, of course, because it does mean they are more likely (no guarantees) to lamb inside.

And this morning, between breakfast and being allowed out, one ewe successfully gave birth to twins, all by herself. There really is nothing more to say about that.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

the country woman's wish

Today is yet another day when I woke up
way before the birds.
I wondered whether to wish
for continuing Scotch mist, rain that gently
clean washes leaves, grass, people's faces,
– rain-spit incapable of settling dust
but adding just that little body and curl
to my hair.

But no, as I lay waiting, quietly listening
for the birds to begin,
conscience said: wish for the rain we need.
Rain that may hide people's faces, but
brings earth back ready for seed,
– this insistent rain mixes dust into clay,
stiffens the joints of my body and flattens
my hair.

the male: essential but expendable

Well, this past week has gone on much like its predecessor – except that the weather has been abnormally warm for the time of year. Last Thursday it was over 20 C in Perigueux which is absurd. And I was absolutely wrong about the cranes, many more flights came across at all times of the day. Quite a few of them hovered over La Chaise but whether they were looking for thermals to help them rise higher or whether they were just having a parliament to chose a new leader for the next stage of the flight, I don't know. No way of asking them.

Only one disaster in the lambing : an ewe tried to deliver triplets by herself. The first lamb died before it was fully born, the second was probably stifled in the womb. The vet – who came promptly when called, unlike spirits from the vasty deep – managed to save the third, small but vigorous. I sometimes wonder if ewes know numbers more than two...especially since a third lamb is usually pretty quickly put on the bottle. Ducks, I have been told, cannot count – one, two, three, a lot - I would like to know who established that, and how. The only proof I have is that ducks that take their brood into the long grass of the fields, do not always bring back all of them and do not seem perturbed. But how does one know if a duck is perturbed? Crossness is easy to detect: it flies at you, hissing. A perturbed sheep tends to become listless, off her feed, even if best lucerne.

So the Wonderful Arnold and I had a rather depressed conversation, ranging round all the possible reasons for this difficult lambing season, the first in the 15 years that there have been sheep at La Chaise. After going round in circles for a while we settled on the possibility that it might be due to the new ram, DSK, whose first season this is. Given that there is only one of him to 38 ewes, he is the easiest factor to change. The same applies when there are problems with ducklings, but drakes are less expensive than rams. One does try to keep the same ram for at least three years. DSK's predecessor, Sarko, lasted four years. (This fact does not indicate the outcome of the French presidential election.) The question has been left open until all the ewes have given birth. Ten more to go.

Not that all is doom and gloom down the farm. In the fields the daffodils are
tentatively trying to flower again. On the edges of the woodland, small sping flowers are beginning to show. There are violets and daisies, sweet nettle and a very few piercing blue speedwell flowers. If you look hard, the occasional rosette of wild orchid leaves is pushing through the earth.

And now it has started to rain, the kind of rain that we need. Not so hard that it washes the soil into the ponds and makes mud slicks on the paths, not so light that all it does is to dampen the worm-casts. Professional forecasters predict a cool rainy week to come. If true, the grass should start to grow and the sheep can go out for real food and exercise. The problem will then be to get them inside again.