Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Week of the Baby Birds

Last week's starlings have found their wings, and now they are all over the garden like joy-riders, scaring the wits out of the magpies, who are behaving more like grumpy old men than the ruthless predators they are reputed to be. Their own babies, however, hatched last week and they'll go after anything. I saw one trying to crawl into a roofspace after a sparrow's nest.

Bluetits, blackbirds, sparrows and dunnocks seem to have hatched too. There are fluffy exuberant birds everywhere, trying to eat anything that will sit still long enough, knocking each other over, squawking and jeering at each other from the telephone line or the hedge. It's like being on playground duty again.

Here is my Vincent border. For about a fortnight it looks fabulous.

This is sweet rocket. When I first planted it, it was this lovely violet colour. The next year, it came up white, which looks and smells fantastic in the evenings. And for the last two years, we have had one recurrence of the violet.

Grey June
Grey June twilight now.
Rocket scents the still garden -
cinnamon and dew.

Now it is raining, and cooler again. The garden came on a lot in the sunny weather, but the courgettes and pumpkins I planted and the french beans I sowed will be glad of the wet weather - if it doesn't go on too long.

Summer Rain
When the long drought ends,
rain kisses dusty windows,
whispers on the roof.

All the aquilegias came out - they are a weird and wonderful mix. Every year I think I will save seed of the prettiest, but they just do what they like anyway.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Testament of Christian de Cherge.
He and six fellow monks were kidnapped on 21st May 1996 and later killed in Algeria. In this document Fr Christian not only forgave his killers, but wanted to stress his love for the people of Algeria, and his refusal to blame them or the followers of Islam.
It is a complicated and profound document, the fruit of many years of living in a place of political as well as religious conflict. I am posting this not only to honour Fr Christian and his comrades, but in the hope of learning from them.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Week the Wind Changed

May Evening Air quivers with rain.
The Ochils hide behind
walls of new leaves.

Since that evening, the rain has stopped, the sun has come out, and the forecast for the week says gardening.

There is much more green about. A nest full of starlings fledged while I was hanging out the washing. I could hear a lot of noise from the telegraph wire and noticed two adults apparently shouting "Jump!" into the tall cedar tree where they (and almost every other bird in Stirling, including some magpies) nest. And then the baby birds jumped, with a desperate flap and flutter that sudenly gained smoothness and accuracy as they realised what wings were for, landing beside their parents and immediately demanding a reward.
I don't know how so many birds survive the proximity of the magpies. Maybe they are maligned. The next time there was a racket from the nesting tree it was mostly the magpies who were making it, although every bird in the garden joined in, chasing off a very large crow.

All the fruit bushes are in blossom, and there are berries setting on the gooseberries and strawberries.

The greenhouse is mostly doing well, but these tomato plants look extremely odd. Does anyone know what's going on here?
May Evening

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Lilies for Your Soul

Well, obviously not lilies, but aquilegias, which are just coming through in the garden now. They don't look like this, now. Aquilegias hybridise like anything, so you're never sure what you're going to get. So far, the flowers this year are smaller and a paler pink and white - I've never had white ones before - but there are loads to come yet, so we'll see. These flowers are symbolic really, as it's too early for lilies, even lily of the valley, reminders of that Chinese - or Arabic, I've heard both - proverb which says, 'If you have two loaves, sell one, and buy lilies for your soul.'

It's been on my mind since I visited the Moirlanich Long house last week. Two impressions remain. One is of serious poverty - no electricity, no running water, four box beds in two rooms (and you knew the beds were probably shared as often as not, so no privacy of any kind), clothes worn until they were ragged and faded - and not too many of them either, walls papered with old newspapers. You couldn't get too romantic about the joys of the simple life.

But the other impression is of real beauty, peace and simplicity. Those newspaper walls were edged with printed borders of blue hydrangeas. There wasn't much equipment in the kitchen, but there were ornaments on the mantelpiece. You might have had only one Sunday dress, and you'd have paid extravagantly for it, but it was made of good cloth, and superbly finished and fitted, with tucks and frills. You'd have loved wearing it for all its long life.

These days the moral we preach is usually about our greedy consumption of non-renewable resources, and our reckless wasteful throwaway attitude, fashion, bah! frivolity, bah! vanity, humbug! young people nowadays don't know the value of anything, blah, blah, blah. Well, yes. Fashion is wasteful, we need to be more careful, we need to get our priorities right, yes, indeed.

But while we're getting our priorities right, while we're decluttering and simplifying and longing for the peace and harmony of the minimal look, while we're cutting back on this and that because of the recession, I'd really like to point out a slightly different moral. In this small cold and damp cottage, where people were happily living without the basics of what we'd consider a normal life, they were spending time and money and skills on making things beautiful. And I've heard this backed up by a commentator on the radio who said that, in more primitive societies, after the immediate needs for survival are satisfied, people will even cut down on the food calories they need so as to participate in some cultural activity. That Maslow's hierarchy of needs is basically flawed. It isn't survival, safety, belonging, status, belonging, and self expression at the top. Lilies for your soul may come after survival, but only just.

Which explains why prisoners of war set up dramatic societies in their camps, why people buy pictures for their houses before new washing machines,why music is more important to young men than good suits for interviews. And perhaps it explains why, when I moved into this new work-room, the first thing I did was to make these cushions. You need something beautiful, personal, inspiring, before you can settle to the business of living.

If we really want to change the way we live, and live more lightly on the earth, we really are going to have to reduce our consumption and cut back on our extravagant lifestyle, but austerity? don't think so. That's a recipe for resntment, boredom and disaffection. What we need is a proper respect for lilies for our souls.

Friday, 11 May 2012

The Week of the Goldfinches

Last week was mostly cold, mostly wet. The two bright spots were the greenhouse, where everything is maturing nicely, even the courgettes and pumpkins coming through when I expect them, and the goldfinches. A few months ago I moved my desk into the window so I could work in the light, and it has been the best thing I could have done.

I have watched as the hills changed from stone-grey to green to gorse yellow, and finally disappeared into a blue haze behind the leaves of the windbreak trees. I've watched the blossom in the orchardwax and wane like moonlight. I've seen my neighbour give his lovely birch trees a brutal short-back-and-sides, and I've watched the goldfinches hanging out, too high up to be obvious at street level, but perfectly visible to me as I sit in the dormer pretending to work. There are so many of them, which surprised me, as I thought they were only occasional visitors. They are doing very well in suburbs, apparently, because so many people put out niger seeds specifically for them.

I meant to post this picture earlier this week. It was taken on Sunday from Ossian's Hall, at The Hermitage, near Dunkeld. We'd been up that way to visit the Loch of the Lowes, where we got a glimpse - just the top of her head showing above the nest - of the famous Lady, who is incubating three eggs at the age of twenty-five - a phenomenal age for an osprey. It's a lovely visitor centre, and the staff are really helpful, chatty and informative. They have a blog too, which you can see here, which is well-written, and updated often.

Ossian's Hall is a big imposing kind of folly, redeemed only by this fabulous view. But just up the track is Ossian's cave, which is much more the thing. I'm not sure quite how my mind was working on Sunday, because I was too bowled over by this little gem to take a photograph. But it's like a cross between a hobbit hole, curved roof, merged into the hillside so you can hardley see it, and with tiny windows out to give glorious views, and the very best kind of child's gang hut.

I loved it, but not as much as I loved the longhouse we saw just outside Killin. This was inhabited by a family until 1968, and is being conserved (not restored) by the National Trust. It has living accommodation at one end and a byre for the cattle at the other.

This is the roof of the byre. It's a simple, quasi-primitive structure (but I am beginning to think that what we call primitive is actually very highly-adapted and refined to the needs of the place, and we don't recognise it because we like things complex and versatile, and reflecting our fantasies).It reminded me of the farmhouse at Stong in Iceland which they've dug out of the tephra from a volcanic eruption in 1763, and of old farmhouses in Ireland, so often replaced by sprawling ranch-type villas in the Celtic Tiger years. I got a sense of the continuity of earth-wisdom which so many people have evolved over years of living and loving the place they live in. I can feel a poem coming on.

It was as we parked here that we heard a cuckoo. It's been years since I heard one of them.

And since Sunday, this week has been full of rain, but there was a swift flying over the garden as I filled the kettle for breakfast. I hope it has brought some higher temperatures with it.

Monday, 7 May 2012

What Is It I'm Not Seeing?

There are two answers to this, one of which is long, rambling and phiosophical. It will tae some work before I inflict that one on the blog-reading public! But there is also an answer which is more practical and concrete, and ready to my mind.

Short answer, of course, is 'a hell of a lot!' This year I have tried to record the species of birds, trees, flowers and animals that I see in my small territory, (all the big easy species, that is. Grasses, mosses and insects will have to wait until I get the big things clear in my head) and this really brings into focus not just how scrappy my observations are, but how little real attention I pay them.
I haven't had too many surprises, nor seen much that I haven't seen before - though I realise that there is a treecreeper I've been classifying under the heading of rather energetic sparrow. But I'm more aware of the context of what I've seen.
For instance, the gulls. There aren't any species that I was missing, but now I notice that the black-backed gulls congregate on the flat mossy roof of a warehouse beside the river - and they are nesting there just now, while the blacked- headed ones live up by the Auld Brig in winter, but don't hang about much now the good weather has come.
I'm noticing the dominant birdsongs - starlings in January curlews and oyster-catchers in March, blackbirds and chaffinches this month - and nesting behaviours, and realising that the sparrow chat, which is fairly constant, has changed just this week, as the first nestlings are beginning to make their demands known.
I'm realising that I've been absorbing this knowledge for a long time, but it's only now that I want to record it, that I'm getting the significances - that the line of poplars beyond the orchard was planted as a wind-break, that birds won't come to a feeder placed too close to the fence because that's where the sparrow-hawk sits, that the lavendar bushes aren't doing so well in their new hedge because where the horsetail is growing, the sub-soil will be too wet for them.
So there are no big thrills, just a growing sense of being at home here, of knowing who my neighbours are, and where I fit in.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

As I Roved Out on a Bright May Morning

For the first time since I got ill, I went for a territory walk on May Day. The wind was cold, but the sun was bright, and, although I had (and still do have) a lot to catch up on, I couldn't sit in the house.
Although the first part of the walk is a fairly boring straight line between two arable fields, there were skylarks singing, and then on a grassy field margin, a soft brown blur which caught my eye, and turned out to be a grazing hare. There used to be a decent population of hares in these fields, but I hadn't seen one for years and feared the worst. However, I read The Leaping Hare (by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson) earlier this year, and it taught me that I just hadn't been looking carefully enough, or in the right places. Hares are really shy, are quite likely to sit very still if disturbed, and don't live near rabbits - so that bank where the rabbit colony is was never going to be a good place to look!

Further on, the river winds closer to the road, and there are trees, hawthorn, sallow, willow and ash. Elder, wild roses and honeysuckle grow along there too, and a lot of hedgerow flowers. I spent a fair while trying to catch this lovely golden bumble bee on the white deadnettle.I had intended to take pictures of most of what I found, but the batteries in my camera died on me as I was trying to get a shot of a patch of ladysmocks.

Of course not all of what I saw was pretty. This monster is now endemic along the river bank - and even turns up in gardens every now and then. This is the notorious giant hogweed, which stings worse than nettles and is as prolific as dandelions. The council sprays it every year, and much as I only use organic methods in my own garden, I just feel that with this stuff, sprays are the only way to go.
By the trees there are a lot of small birds nesting and marking their territories with so much song. And then three swans flew overhead, which made my day.
And finally, the swallows have arrived. I was here at my desk in the evening when they came out of the west, with their unmistakeable flight patterns and their air of going exactly where they want to go- and in their own time. Now, although the day is grey and cloudy, summer is here.