Archive for the ‘Garden’ Category

For an audio version of ‘The Sum of Quiet Abundance’ click the play button.

Insects are contagious, both in their profusion and appeal. In the cool hours of early spring they are few and far between, like solitary wanderers striking out across a desert. A roving ground beetle might rise into view, clambering with slow deliberateness over the dunes of bare earth. A bee occasionally drones across the March garden, its sound a solo when it will soon be orchestral. With the first flowers unfurled by the warming air insects multiply beyond all calculation, waking from a winter torpor or hatching out from safely-stowed eggs and pupas. The world fills with the most fruitful of things.

The lilac in the garden sways with more species of bees than I can count on my hands. The perfumed bundles, purple and drooping with the weight of their splendour, are an irresistible magnet in the brief span of most insect lives, like the bright lights of cities are to youth. They taste urgently, diving into the depths of what must be the insect equivalent of ecstasy: bees weighted with pollen grains, dusted and furred about their legs like they wore anklets of gold; the emerald sheen of chafers glinting in the sun, drunk on nectar and nuzzled into pillows of soft petals or moving woozily about the leaves. Time slows like a ceremony when I see this sweet ardour.

Around the lilac butterflies lose some of their timidity, having weighed up the gains of such riches and shed their natural caution to make the most of it. The delicately furred swallowtails, their cream-white wings ribbed with black veins and flecked with eyes like blue summer seas, almost touch my nose as I edge nearer. The proboscis works like a mechanical drill, plunging into the purple tubes in search of a sweet nectar seam. Carpenter bees swarm around the aquilegia; despite their size and heavy flight, they hover without being awkward, drawing shy and lazy circles about the hanging lamps of rose, mauve and maroon flowers. On a walk a sea of baby grasshoppers part with my steps like waves before a boat, jumping as though one. And amidst this brash and brazen plenty hunting spiders lie in wait, sharing in the prosperity. Still and unseen behind a petal, the spiders await the inevitable moment when an insect strays to the chosen flower in its random and roaming way, poisoning their prey into paralysis.

Each afternoon a hush descends on the village with siesta, when farmers draw curtains against the sharp mountain light and birds relinquish their songs until evening. Even the dogs curl quietly into the shadows cast by trees. But it’s a surface hush that I’m aware of, swimming in the foreground of my consciousness – a silence that is neat and obvious. At the edge of the world is a murmur, the thrumming cadence of untold other lives, small and often inconspicuous affairs. The insect song drones throughout the hours, like the heat haze that wraps itself about the day. I listen in – perhaps tuning in would be more accurate, like it were a radio signal, fainter and more distant than birdsong and machinery, nearly out of range in the ebbing afternoon. But as I still myself it clears, focusing into the notes of a complex, creaturely music, as varied as their kinds.

There are few things as numerous as insects. About a million species have been discovered, named and described, and each year more of them are found throughout the world. Their number is greater than all other known fauna put together, comprising perhaps as much as 80% of the animal species present on the planet, an abundant sum whose total weight would easily dwarf the biomass of man. Whether it’s mosquitoes rising from warming ponds, a trail of ants sending intricate signals with a touch of their antennae or the entrancing work of butterflies opening for the first time to fill their fragile wings with blood, building them up into weightless scaffolds of flight, insects are about us at any moment in numbers beyond our knowing, in water, in earth, in air. But despite their achievement, their pervasive presence across the planet, insects are as vulnerable to threats as the less numerous mammals and birds. In recent years the mass die-off of bees has shown us how fragile abundance and diversity can be. Colony collapse disorder has decimated bees throughout Europe and North America, putting at risk an insect crucial to crop pollination and the health of plant communities. Amongst a litany of probable causes, the intensive use of pesticides and diminishing numbers of wildflowers due to habitat loss are high on the list. There is no safety, necessarily, to be found in numbers.

When everything seems still I listen for the buzz and the hum, the murmur of a million things. Across the sunlit hills and meadows, the rain-soaked garden and plain, this chorus of trilling and clicking leads to some of the most commonplace and charismatic creatures about us, the countless minor lives burnished with a brief beauty, blazing through the afternoons with no time to live any other way. And while spring pulls us into summer, the quiet is more song than silence, abundant, rich and full.


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To listen to an audio version of ‘First Things’ click the play button

You hear the long, quavering call of a blackbird and open the window, stiff after the swelling snow. The song slips inside, spins and swirls for a few moments, and then steals you from the room. Standing outside, warmth lilts about your fingers and face for the first time in months. You sense the sap rising to the apple buds, the stars of white blossom on the cusp of erupting.

A lizard skitters madly along the wall, darting over the stones as if they were coals. Crocuses purple the dark earth and water runs as if in a race, unlocked from snow and ice to stream down the mountains and pour as a river into the lake. Tree sparrows fumble in the branches of the quince, shuttling old leaves and grasses, sometimes shiny candy wrappers dropped by kids, to furnish a nest in a stone cranny of the house. Pale green shoots are spearing through the ground. You look down to see you’re standing on a new season.

Brimstone, tortoiseshell, Queen of Spain fritillary: the names of butterflies on the tip of your tongue, forgotten there all winter like the handsaw you set down and didn’t find until the shrinking snow returned it, wet and rusted on the grass. But seeing those first flights – the early and uncertain flutters of amber, lemon and orange wings glinting in the sharp sun – and a whole language falls into place, a homecoming book left dusty on a shelf. You turn the pages of returning things, feel the shape of their names in your mouth. Swallowtail, wheatear, nightingale. You let them linger on your lips, trembling and ready to fly.

The first things of spring are ancient and repeated, and yet somehow uniquely new. No matter how many springs have preceded it, the season always feels like it’s arriving for the first time. There’s a quality of the ecstatic to it all, like the spell of first love wild and requited. But a first love that’s recurring. All that appears shares the mystery of being simultaneously intimate and unfamiliar, the paradox of a circle that turns, bringing the same season back to us after a lengthy absence. The same season seen differently. You feel the sun that’s unfurling the world and know it could be the first you’ve ever felt. You hear the long, quavering call of the blackbird and let its song slip inside.

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The sun passes lower in the sky, bringing the quickening rush that starts the long winter months. Tresses of drying peppers spread like flames across sheds, turning the stone walls into scenes of tropical design. The elegant stems of onions that have spoked all summer above the swelling bulbs are plaited, woven together like hands in a dance, and hung out of the way of snow. Felled trees are hauled by donkey from the forests, wearing a glaze of lichens and ice. They’re split by axe throughout the day, the thud of blade against wood marking the hours, and stacked to face what is left of the sun. 

The air warms slowly. The heat of an autumn day can still stun, but it never stays. It slips out long before sundown, leaving a sudden bright chill in its place that sparks the lighting of fires. Long before dark wood-smoke corkscrews above roofs, hangs over the valley in a luminous haze, like a thin and shimmering curtain thrown over the sky.

Walnuts leave the trees, brought down by winds and rains, or slashed from the canopy by men and women waving sticks. Their hands are tattooed black from the dye in the husks and they show them with pride. Heaving sacks onto their shoulders they move from tree to tree, walk the winding paths home before dark. Windfall apples cloud the meadows with their scent and wind ruffles the grasses, sets them swaying in a pale prairie sweep. The paths of animals are briefly remembered in frost.

Leaves yellow and fall, sift down into deep reefs. Canes from the gardens are bundled like thatch. Late butterflies chase the light, their colours fading to a dull forgery of summer. Small gaps of sun appear through rents in their wings, a reminder of how brief is their empire of flight. Thistle seed drifts towards the following spring and coils of smoke climb the sky. The crack of the axes thins into quiet. And a last swell of light sends up a cold shower of stars.

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Ever since I was a boy summer has seemed synonymous with flight. Whether a figurative lift coinciding with the end of school when my brother and I would take to our bikes or the fields with equal delight and spend endless, consuming hours exploring whatever was there to be discovered, or an actual journey through air, travelling from our Ontario home on holiday to the northeast of England where we’d lived before my parents emigrated across an ocean. In every sense summer was an airy embrace.

Years later and the hot, burnished months still summon a desire for flight, but never my own. Instead it’s a time for staying still, to let the season spill over and layer the long days with its sheen. To let light cast its spell. In the breathless hours that enfold the Mediterranean siesta I’m drawn to the movements of the few creatures willing to risk the kindling sun.

The flights of butterflies peak with the drowsy heat. They waver over the dry garden grasses, finding flowers or just passing through. Tiny blues like chips of lake ice, the myriad rusty hues of fritillaries, the metallic glaze of the green hairstreak. It’s like sitting in the garden for a matinée, watching a reel of old tinted celluloid unroll.

Seeing a meadow brown riding back and forth about the potatoes, bouncing sideways and at cross-purposes before curling back the way it came, it’s hard to imagine that butterflies were ever intended for flight. Yet some, like the monarch of North America and the painted lady of Europe and Africa are compelled to journey vast distances, migrating like birds during their fragile and short-lived existence. 

To see one in the garden is to sense an urgency, a powerful compulsion that sends brittle creatures across the seas, spanning lands as varied as the many species adorned with wings. Unknowingly, butterflies now act as crucial environmental indicators as well. Due to their short life cycles, food-plant specialisation and intimate reliance of weather and climate, butterflies are sensitive to minor environmental changes. They can be read like a catalogue of possible loss; a place without their presence is rarely a positive thing.

So many of us seek the light: flocking to seasides in summer; lifting as seedlings from the forest floor; basking like seals on stones. But it is equally flight that distills a seasonal essence, a desire to move on, leave things behind, take to the skies. As the naturalist Miriam Rothschild once said: “Butterflies add another dimension to the garden for they are like dream flowers – childhood dreams – which have broken loose from their stalks and escaped into the sunshine.” In the wake of each butterfly’s wings trails a memory, a weightless passage from one moment to the next, a kindred dance in the sun.

Notes from Near and Far will be back sometime around the middle of August. Until then, many thanks for reading and I wish you all an enriching season – whether it’s summer in the north or winter in the south. Happy wanderings…

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While the days edge tentatively into new territory, the nights hold fast to winter’s side. The resplendent black sky splashed with stars is clear, and startlingly cold. A seam of smoke from our chimney floats over the dark like a ship at sea. For a week or so I’ve heard the wheel of time shifting forward: ice cracks like glass beneath my feet during the evenings, but the same, reshaped element trickles musically from the roof throughout the day. And then it cracks again with the fall of night. It is a time of turning.

There is the concept of a fifth season in Chinese thought, a period of still and reflective days suspended between true summer and autumn. When fire wanes into ash; a time of embers. But there is an equivalent span at this end of the year as well. The cycle of freeze and thaw resembles the ebb and flow of tides, a coming and going of the seasons, neither one in a position to assert itself clearly. It is a contested time.

 A spectral land is revealed with the morning light: frost-laced grasses and icicle trees;  hard, glassy soil. But by midday the sun is warm on my skin, and lizards emerge from their hollows to briefly bask. A few, tentative flights are tried by bees, ultimately frustrated without flowers. The days have an ache to them, caught up in indecision, a promise of paths undefined. A time of see-saw and sway. Invisible sap will soon run with warmth; until then the trees clasp ice to their sides.

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Despite its colour having faded to a pale relic of its name, the lavender in the garden remains an illuminated host. For much of the summer its spires of scented stems attract the bright and the beautiful: the glazed and glossy greens of chafers drowsily clambering about the flowers; red admiral and swallowtail butterflies clinging with filament limbs to the bursting blooms; the tail of a green lizard swishing beneath a branch; the thrum and dance and swagger of bees.

But autumn brings change and a subsequent shift in the creaturely calendar. Although a few late lavender flowers rise expectantly through the rain they soon slump from the weight of it. The leaves darken with the wet weather and the whole plant carries an aspect of seclusion, a cold-season refuge harbouring the garden solitaries, the reclusive creatures that withdraw into its autumnal wreath of fading shades.

October shimmers with the spinning of silk, brilliant orb-webs slung between stems by the Argiope bruennichi spider. What is unusual about the web of this beautifully banded black-and-yellow arachnid is the ‘stabilimentum,’ a vertical zig-zag of reinforced web used to strengthen the silken snare. They’re spun near the eggcases that suddenly appear in autumn as well, mottled sacs tucked down amongst the lavender stems and suspended within a gossamer cage. They’ll hang there through frost and snow, through the winds and rains of winter until the first warmth of spring brings thousands of spiders the size of sand grains hatching their way through. The baby spiders are so small that the lightest breeze will carry them away with ease, swinging them on strands of silk through the vast and uncharted garden world to renew their kind again.

A praying mantis haunts this lavender world. Perhaps even two or three. Despite scouring the plants I easily lose track of them as they blend into the tangle of bent stems, only to resurface hours or days later. ‘Mantis’ comes from the Greek, meaning prophet, and the common name which has come to be regularly used for many of the world’s 2000 mantis species is derived from the prayer-like stance of the insect’s arms held clasped together before its face.

While watching the mantis, however, it occurs to me that the name might originate from an aspect of the creature’s character rather than its posture: the nature of its stalking. The praying mantis barely moves while it hunts small insects such as grasshoppers, shield bugs and wasps, waiting until they come within reach before unfolding its hands from prayer to snare its slowly closing prey. And when it does move, its appendages shift meticulously and its head swivels with such precision that I’m immediately reminded of the realm of the contemplatives. There is something monkish and devoted about its deliberateness, expending no energy other than necessary. There’s no frivolous fussing about; each turn of its compound eyes is graceful and without waste, as though its true purpose were of another, higher and invisible, order.

Standing beside the lavender I hear a deep hum circling what’s left of the blooms. It’s a hummingbird hawkmoth traplining the flowers, returning at the same time each day to a particularly rich store of nectar. There’s no certainty on how this memory-route is encoded, or even achieved, which seems apt for a moth blessed with such a mysterious form of hummingbird flight.

I try photographing the day-flying moth but eventually put my camera away without success. It seems that some things I’m not meant to slow. The hawkmoth blurs through the images, a ghostly apparition, a streak of flared and fading light that arcs over the wet gardens and pale meadows of the village at the dying of the day. So I crouch beside the lavender plants instead, waiting until the hummingbird hawkmoth eventually nears, as it always does, without any concern for my presence or proximity. It’s balanced on the very air itself, a stillness in unending motion fluttering beside my eyes. I watch its proboscis unroll into a flower like a river finding its way. I think of cupping my hand tenderly around its body to feel the pulse of 80 wingbeats a second vibrating through my veins. When its nectar gathering is finished it arrows off into dusk where it will settle with its wings at rest on a stone for the night. But tomorrow evening, by whatever complex internal map of flowers and scents it stores, it will make its way back to this same nectar patch, this straggle of fading flowers, this undimmed lavender world. 

I’m pleased to have a new piece of writing published this month in The Redwood Coast Review. Set up to support an independent and volunteer-run community library in Gualala, California, it’s a terrific publication whose efforts support a dynamic local initiative. My piece, ‘The Distance Between Us’, can be read in an online version here, beginning on page five.

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