Sunday, April 29, 2012

water, water everywhere

So, hooray! April's sweet showers arrived in a great, intermittent downpour – 17 cms of water in the last 13 days according to my neighbour in the valley. The tarmac road that meanders along the hill crest from the Dronne river valley to that of the Isle is shedding water into ditches that drain into sodden fields. Even the soil of the woods cannot absorb anymore.

The Black Pond in the Woods, the one nearest the hill-top road, is now over-flowing, blacker than ever. The surface nearly touches the fallen cherry-tree trunk that spans it.  The inrush of water seems to have killed the clogging pond weed that appeared towards the end of last summer. Or the many kilos of expensive pond-weed eating bacteria we poured in have multiplied at a vast rate. The raft of the intake hose is straining at its ties which I devoutly hope will hold.

The Black Pond, we were told, was dug when La Chaise was built, about 200 years ago – way before JCB's, or their first creator, were born. It is about as long as our house and as deep as our house is high, say 25 x 6 metres. Apparently there is a piped connection between it and the well in front of our house which would explain why the soil in the well, (filled in some 60 years ago) was always damp. We were told there was a valve that could shut off water inflow to the well, but we never found the handle, only its support system.

The Duck Pond by the Farmhouse is full also, much to my great relief. It had been covered in scummy, moss like weed and green lentils, like a wet scene in a Dickens novel. The solar powered fountain – an exaggerated term for an upward tinkle of water – does not sufficiently aerate the pond. Two weeks ago, on the advice of a French gardening magazine, I bought four herbivorous carp (carp amor) that would hopefully deal with the problem. They were expensive, 20€ each, a lovely silvery grey.

Nervously I brought them back, two by two, in plastic bags half filled with water, lying horizontally in the car boot. At the pond, I snipped the corners off the bags and let slip the fish into the water. I have never seen them since. But nor have I seen fish floating belly-up, so I presume they are gorging themselves. The 9 x 5 metre oval Duck Pond must be a great improvement on the 50 x 20 cm tank they shared with other varieties of carp. With luck, one of them is a female.

But the greatest joy of all is The Lake in the hollow of our valley, next to which stands the Hated Pump in its little, hooded shed. The Lake, too, is overflowing. The incoming water is drowning the grass and other weeds that were growing on its banks. A male wild duck flew up off the surface as I came by, continued to circle in the sky until I passed. Perhaps a female is nesting under the new junipers.

The Lake is fed by water draining down through the woods from the road's ditches, also the winter stream that runs from the ravine (our private wild-life reserve). The stream has cleared itself of the clogging dead leaves, revealing a clay soil with the occasional quartz pebble (and golf ball). That which is just a dreary ditch in summer is now what is pronounced as a 'burrrne' in Scots. Wee, but effective.

There is only one snag in all this joy. I have seriously, but seriously, to repress my Dutch instincts. I must not, repeat not, try to channel, direct, hold back, turn into a power source, any of this water. I must just let it flow, flow, flow. And hope it is still there in the summer when it is needed.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Why I kiss the Mayor

It may have escaped your attention, especially if you do not live in France, but this coming Sunday is the first round in the French Presidential elections. It is the first time in all our 30 plus years here that we are dismayed by both candidates. The incumbent President is an uneducated, unpleasant little man with an oversized ego, no apparent hard core of beliefs except to hold on to power which is gradually pulling him towards the seriously unpleasant right. His over-educated, smooth challenger describes himself as 'Mr Normal' and seems boringly so. His lack of experience of practical economics or anything political outside of France, his lack of government experience may be normal but are worrying. On the positive side, he did manage to hold together a fissiparous Socialist party for many years, a feat in itself.

But why, you may expostulate, should this bother me? I am not a French citizen, not responsible for these politicians or their politics. The trouble is that I am on the receiving end of their political ideas – I pay my taxes in France and cannot vote for those who spend my money. 'No taxation without representation' is a famous slogan born in that other country currently undergoing Presidential elections – the United States. And this is why I started to kiss my local Mayor all those years ago.

As a citizen of a European community state, I am allowed by the French government, to vote in local elections which are held roughly every five years. There is some local electioneering, party meetings and greetings and then the great voting day when I post my bulletin in the transparent vote box. Both incumbent and would be local politicians are present. Every time I go up and kiss the Mayor (no hardship, he is very attractive, was the sports instructor of local secondary school) and whisper in his ear. I want him to create a bill to bring before the French parliament – possibly even the European parliament - that will suggest that EEC citizens can vote where they pay their taxes. So they just might have a little influence on how their money is spent.

And to add insult to injury today I received the hefty book of instructions, plus form, for filling in my UK tax return.   I have dutifully paid my UK taxes ever since I became a UK citizen, which is about the same time I left the country.  When I lived there, I was not British, so could not vote but paid my taxes anyway.  You may argue that in both cases I benefit from state spending funded by taxes - but I still argue that I have no choice in who decides how it is spent.

Given that the Eurobureaucracy was able to produce legislation on the size and length of cucumbers (this may be a bureaucratic legend, but it is a good one) it should not be beyond their collective wit to create a transferable voting system.   Just think of all the jobs it would create.

On a less grumpy note, I have seen the first wild orchids – and before the sheep got to them! The Lazy Purples are always the first to show their untidy heads, scattered under the ash trees in a corner of the nearest field.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

exit, pursued by a robin

It is with great pride that I announce the reception of 7mm of rain since we last corresponded! New flowers opened overnight – suddenly the woodshed is garnished with a heavy fringe of wisteria. Eliot's lilacs are blooming, both the white and the dark mauve, the heavy scented mock orange bushes are covered in flowers. Amongst the most attractive blossoms are those of the cherry and the blackthorn. But the welcome rain scattered their fragile petals which now lie like confetti on the ground.

The grass looks almost lush, though still short, and there are men around starting to mutter about mowing. Once let out the sheep don't know where to go first, dashing from one intensely green clump of grass to another, calling for their lambs with mouths full. The lambs ignore their mothers, being far too busy doing a group rush in one direction, a wheeled turn and a rush back. Eating grass is not one of their priorities.

The rain seems also to have encouraged the birds. The dawn chorus is livelier than ever, warbled squabbles continue sporadically throughout the day. The coucou occasionally makes its voice heard, as does the pigeon. The golden orioles might be back. One of the many varieties of wood-pecker drills in short, sharp bursts. Of course, we all know that this delightful bird song has a purpose. It is being used like so many theodolites to determine one bird's territory, establish this same in the mind of other, rival birds. Oh, and to attract the girls.

I seem to have inadvertently got involved in a territorial war myself. There is a shed in which various DIY and YDI tools are kept, also tins of paint, odds and sods of wood, things that might come in useful. It has boxes of screws, nails, bolts and piles of hammers and files, yards of wire, a wooden box labelled 'mamma's: keep out'. Fat chance. In short it is a country workshed. It used to be mine. Then the house-martins briefly colonised the beams with their nests but were chased away by the late lamented cats. It is now nearly two years since Buster, the last cat, left us and no cat has ventured from the woods to join us – dissuaded by the dogs Bianca and Elvis-Non!

So I should not have been surprised when I was attacked by a small, feathered fury as I went into the shed to rummage for something I thought was there. Instinctively, I ducked, as I would for a flying bat, my arm coming up to protect my hair and eyes.
Yes, I felt stupid, but instinct sometimes makes one do silly things. Bravely, dominating instinct, I continued to rummage, but an aggressive chittering was coming from the far corner. I was dive- bombed again. I left the shed, pursued by a robin. Two wings win over two legs any time.

But I can close with a second proud announcement: tonight is the first night that sheep and lambs will stay out all night!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

walking with sheep

As I zig-zag behind the scattered sheep, to group them into a flock, steer them my desired way, I wonder - is this really a sensible activity for an untrained human? One person and his dog would take minutes to get the sheep from where they are to where they are wanted. It takes me an hour.

Multi-tasking, the body working, the brain concerned with something else, is not an option. Sunday morning I brooded on why T.S. Eliot decided that it should be 'lilacs' that were forced out of the dead land by the cruel month of April as opposed to any other of the spring flowering bushes. Perhaps lilac referred back to 'dead land' because it was a colour in the stages of formal Victorian mourning. Possibly, he used it because 'lilac' has a hard, plosive sound. Somehow, breeding 'viburnum', or 'forsythia' out of the dead land is not impressive. He chose 'lilac'.

By the time I stopped ruminating on this non-problem, two ewes and their respective twins, had managed to get behind me. They were busy on a patch of particularly delicious grass with daisies. So, after a wide circle round them, waving outstretched arms, I urged them to join the others. Once, before the Wonderful Arnold was with us full-time, the sheep knew my voice. I only had to yell - 'come on les filles' - and they would duly come.

Nowadays the whole operation works on a balance of power basis. I want them out, into a particular field to 'mow' that fairway. They just want out. But with arms and a lot of patience, I get them near yesterday's field. Suddenly they remember that there is where they want to be, rush through the open gate. The lambs mostly follow. Chaos follows if one of the lambs gets left behind. Lamb panics, cannot see the open gate, hurls itself at the fence. Fingers crossed that mother ewe comes to fetch it before its head gets stuck in the fencing. Lambs have sharp little hooves that make great bruises. Ewes have been known to head-butt anyone helping with their off-spring.

On the return, the balance of power is much more in my favour. Towards the end of the day, the ewes realise that they would like assorted grains and lucerne served in a nice manger. They stand grouped at the gate, bawling. With luck they don't panic when they see me rather than Arnold. They walk more or less steadily towards the barn, calling their offspring. The racket is appalling. They still get distracted; a good back scratch under the twisted pear tree, a drink from a different water tub, a patch of grass that was missed on the way down has to be eaten now.

Then, o bliss, they are in the run to the barn. I close that barrier and hurry to close the barn doors before one does an about turn and tries to go out again. The first comers are munching their grain, yelling with their mouths full for lambs to come, now! I close and tie up the inner gates. Why don't I get a sheep dog? Well, I don't like hairy dogs, no longer have the patience to learn another language, am in enough trouble with Spanish and Catalan as it is.