Sometimes it’s worth revisiting thoughts.
I included a You Tube reading by Richard Burton of one of my favourite poems by Dylan Thomas, in a post I wrote on 31/12/2017.
Here’s another reading of the “Poem In October” by the Carmarthenshire based Thomas, from a compilation still available.
Thomas captures the vagaries and delights of the local landscape and weather beautifully, but the title might seem a little strange to merit inclusion in a post written in the last week of May. The reason is that as I hinted in my quick bee themed post last week, the weather has once more flipped. From April’s sunniest, driest and coolest. Ever. (Total monthly rainfall of just 19.2mm).
To a beginning of May that looks on track to place the month as the wettest and coolest Mays. Ever. The current total on May 24th is 286mm, and counting. And to put that total into context, the last 7 Mays here, from 2014, have produced this declining series of totals: 140,142,114,112,58,51 and in last year’s glorious lockdown spring, just 23 mm, giving a 7 year average of 91 mm.
To put another slant on how exceptional this amount of May rainfall is, here’s a line from the Met Office interim summary, published on May 14th:
The totals so far remain well below what would be record levels of rainfall for the month, with the record for Wales in May sitting at 184.2mm in May 1967. The UK’s record rainfall for May was also in 1967, with an average of 131.7mm falling.
The other data which I’ve never recorded here, is temperature. Here the Met Office can also help. The average daily temperature for Wales in May 2021 up to the 14th, was just 7.7 degrees C, a whopping 2.9 degrees C below the 30 year average from 1981 to 2010.
Who am I to say, but since this is what the Met Office summaries are reporting, I’m guessing that taken together, this year’s spring might rank officially as one of the coldest on record. Is this a warm up to the potentially dramatic impact of the cold blob, I wrote about just two month ago?
The leaves on a few of the local oaks were just emerging feebly on May 8th, but many still aren’t open, and we’ve still been feeding hay to our sheep until a few days ago. The grass in the fields has never been so short at this time of the year, and the carefully planned succession of flowers in the garden has been thrown out of kilter.
Clearly water shortage issues have completely been resolved, and this has freshened up the garden, but in spite of wonderful light, the cool and breezy conditions have been challenging for growth, with many more frosts in the first 10 days of this early summer month, and severe gales recently ripped off most of the 6 inch flower bearing shoots from several of the Rosa rugosa, and even snapped off some Allium flower heads before they’d opened. So challenging times.
Continuing work and thought on two big projects – another film based on last year’s glorious lockdown spring with my nephew offering to do the editing; and trawling through 28 years of images to put together the talk for Gardening Masterclass (GM), which has just been brought forward to Thursday June 17th; has reminded me just how much one spring, or indeed year in this place, is very different to another.
Want to find some great autumn colour and Saxifrage fortunei images? You might have to look back to 2017. What about Crocus in the copse? 2019 was a better bet. And flowers in the hay meadow? Then last July, 2020 was the peak moment so far, though not for orchids, since many flower buds were taken out by late frosts, after one of the earliest starts to spring. This year is going to be brilliant though, with them just beginning to open.
So it’s not just the way that the garden and meadows are morphing and developing over time, but the layered impacts of different and increasingly volatile weather that makes capturing perfect moments really tricky in this part of the world. All of this reinforces the thoughts that we’ve had in putting together our talk, that garden making, at least the way we do it, and in this place, is really an incredibly slow form of performance art. Much more so than creating a slowly worked oil painting, where you allow the paint to dry, and rework the image with multiple layers over time. Sometimes years.
And we, the gardeners are a big part of this performance.
Weeding, cutting, standing, looking, walking, tweaking, thinking, directing, and being directed by, nature. The stewards or conductors in this performance, but not really the performers.
And then as I mentally followed these thoughts a bit further, an image came to mind, very vividly from childhood, of being taken to the cinema, mid-sixties I guess, to watch Disney’s epic “Fantasia”. Two scenes in particular made a big impression, and in part this film may well have cemented my enjoyment of classical music. Beethoven’s 6th “Pastoral” symphony, with the thunderstorm drama in the middle of it, and even more clearly Dukas’ “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. For a visual glimpse at Disney’s genius in portraying this, watch the brief clip from the beginning of this scene below, before the mayhem really gets going.
It occurred to me that whilst we like to think we’re in control, and for now we are, though May’s exuberance and weed explosion is always a big test, the garden and nature in all its glory, is just playing along, waiting for its chance, for when we nod off, or lose the ability to manage the scene, and it’ll then seize the moment and explode, violently and spectacularly and out of the current sense of order will come complete mayhem.
For a wonderful performance of the music, without the graphics, watch and listen to the Moscow City Symphony/Russian Philharmonic, under the fragile wand, or is that baton, of conductor – Michail Jurowski
I discovered that Disney’s film was itself a little like our garden, in the making:
Over 1,000 artists and technicians (read plant varieties) were used, which features more than 500 animated characters (read visiting species). Segments were colour-keyed scene by scene, so the colours in a single image would harmonize between the preceding and following ones. (Indeed I am a little obsessive about colour themes). Before a segment’s narrative pattern was complete, an overall colour scheme was designed to the general mood of the music, and patterned to correspond with the development of the subject matter.
He’d begun work on a short film centred around Mickey Mouse, set to Dukas’ music, in 1936 to give his character a boost in popularity. But the cost of making this short film had ballooned beyond the point where it could recover its costs, so he expanded the film’s concept by adding more pieces of music, and lengthy scenes, to create the lengthy, symphonic experimental film that it eventually became when it was released to the world in 1940. Click here for more detail on the film’s development.
This week I also listened to a wide ranging, articulate discussion of some of the ideas behind garden making, between author Tim Richardson, and Noel and Annie from Gardening Masterclass, centred around the famous garden at Sissinghurst, and the background to its creation and development by Vita Sackville West, and her husband Harold Nicholson.
Tim wrote “Sissinghurst, The Dream Garden”, (here’s the best review I could find with several images, by Paddy Tobin) and I now feel inspired to buy the book. We’ve never visited the garden and given the hordes who now do, and its long distance from here, this book would probably be the best way to find out a little more. It’s one of the GM talks that’s now migrated from being freely available, to being in the members only section of GM, so although I can include a link, you sadly won’t be able to view it unless you first sign up as a member. The modest fee I think compares very favourably with, say, a magazine subscription.
The garden clearly played a dominant role and delight, in both Vita and Harold’s lives (“the third person in the marriage” as Tim so aptly describes it, for many ‘couple’ garden makers, and a concept I’d never really considered before), which played out over many years. The same is true for us here, as plants are added, deleted, and grow, and as the weather and light work their significant magic too. These thoughts also tied in with listening to a discussion of David Hockney’s latest exhibition at The Royal Academy – “The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020”.
This show, which runs for nearly 4 months is now sold out, just days after opening for ticket sales, and the 116 pictures on show have an interesting story – they were all created by the 83 year old painter, daily, using a stylus on his i-pad, whilst based at his current home in Normandy, locked down last spring.
The computer generated images have then been printed up large, onto paper, to form the exhibition. There’s a very good review of the exhibition here, in the Guardian, and I also heard a discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row.
This was interesting, since the criticism was made that whilst a hugely impressive concept and visually beguiling on-screen, the blown up and printed works seemed strangely flat and the fairly limited range of ‘brush strokes’ that Hockney’s stylus permitted, were magnified and looked inevitably very ‘samey’, as one moves through the exhibition. Of interest to me was Hockney’s reference to Monet being able to enjoy over 40 springs in the same garden that he created at Giverny. I reflected that we’re now up to nearly 28 years of ownership of Gelli Uchaf. Not that many people are fortunate to stay and enjoy so many springs in one physical place, with a garden they’ve made from nothing, and we feel blessed and privileged to have been able to do so.
Only 11 have been observed and recorded by me in any real detail, so I’m only just beginning to appreciate by back reference, how different and special they are, and how challenging it is to capture the daily changes, through mere text and images, and how nothing beats actually being here, and absorbing it all. (One of the points made by Tim about Sissinghurst, is how difficult it was for him to track down many images of how the garden actually looked in the early days after its creation, which has in part stymied the National Trust’s attempts – since they now manage the property – to ‘restore’ it to the original planting schemes).
Sometimes standing still, usually in nightshirt and long johns, early in the morning, beside the tripod, camera and microphone, and just listening is the best way to appreciate and record the magic of the place, an opportunity denied to all those early garden makers before technology to do this at reasonable cost became available.
Spring in Normandy, on an i-pad, David? I share a few minutes from a couple of Carmarthenshire early May mornings, in this, our coldest and wettest ever, May. To hint that even though things can always get a lot worse, the natural world is a soothing balm for troubled times, if we can only pause and appreciate its effects.
Not much happens visually, but I hope readers might appreciate the chance to sit and listen. And discover whether you’ve nodded off, or even relaxed, by the end. I do hope so.
The boring antithesis to the fast paced, noisy movies, and constantly changing visual electronic imagery which many now find addictive.
Last week a brief, dry day interlude between the incessant rain provided a rare chance to mow some grass, only to be halted at several stages by glimpses that stopped me in my tracks. The Andrena mining bee I featured last time was one such observation. A second, different, thin waisted solitary bee spent ages in a single Meadow buttercup flower. Then, pushing the lawnmower down the winding high meadow path, my vision was shocked by a bright red object a couple of metres to the right. In warm sunshine, it was a pristine Small copper, Lycaena phlaeas, butterfly, presumably recently emerged, since it was still there, after I’d trekked down to the house and back up with my camera 5 minutes later.
A couple of days later towards dusk, as I wandered up to try to catch light on the blossom of the crab apples in the new Malus and Sorbus copse we’ve been working on this spring, another shocking, alerting sight, off to the right of the mown path.
A pristine Elephant Hawk-moth, Deilephila elpenor, again recently emerged and resting on a Sweet vernal grass stem. Surely one of our most beautiful native moths, and I don’t think I’ve found one at rest before, or indeed in the meadow – usually seeing them after dusk feeding from sea campion or honeysuckle flowers.
The scientific name giving the clue to the female bee’s unique paired facial horns, which it uses to mould the mud for its larval cells, which it builds in holes beneath this table.
Looking for any signs of scout honeybees exploring the two vacant hives convinced me that a pair of Blue tits, Cyanistes caeruleus, were indeed using the roof space of one hive as a nest. But what I also discovered was that one of my nearby shaped mushrooms, barely 5 yards away, had also been occupied by Great tits, Parus major.
So it was a sad moment, 2 days later, finding that the woollen mat, which I’d placed as insulation above the hives, had been pulled out by claws, or beaks, unknown. The mossy remnants of the nest clear to see, but the chicks were gone, presumed consumed.
Life is indeed sometimes short. And hard.
And then you’re dead. Reminiscent of my photography from 7 years ago of the demise of a canada goose, sitting on her nest in the lower meadow, just a day after I’d taken her photo.
Less fleeting, but just as distracting at this time of the year, is spotting the spotted leaves of orchids appearing. In the meadow, but also around the garden, all developing about 7 years after my first scattering of the fine dust, that is typical of most orchid seed.
How many developing orchids on this small, unpromising section of shale bank, behind the house? The most obvious is centre image, right at the base of the picture. 14 in total, it now seems 2 weeks days after this photo was taken.
After the disappointment of last year’s flowering, when many flower spikes were wrecked by a late frost, we’ll have record numbers this year – probably over 100 in the terrace garden and on the bank, and at least twice, if not 3 times more than that, in the meadow. A great return for minimal effort in collecting the seed, and carefully taking a pinch and flicking it out between thumb and forefinger. But then we clearly did have the magic broom of hidden fungal pelotons to aid germination and nourish the early protocorms. Click here for more on this from my post in July 2015, when I excitedly waited for a year when we might see companions for the very first orchid on the property, which had bloomed, after spontaneous arrival, in 2014.
Such simple patient returns are all part of the delights of managing a garden in our now more relaxed, control diminished, way. This year’s native bluebells which have appeared in numbers in many areas of the garden, have all taken years from seed scattering to bloom, but it’s worth the wait and so much easier than planting bulbs.
I’ve already passed the stage at the beginning of May when I spent an hour or two carefully collecting seed from the many Wood Anemone, A. nemorosa, variants we now have in the garden, and sprinkling this in areas of the garden where they’re likely to thrive, and we don’t have any already. Snowdrop and snowflake capsules have been harvested as well, though these get slit planted with a trowel, still in the capsules for speed, and to reduce the risk of slug predation. This year has been a bumper year for their production, given the greater numbers of honeybees on site in mid-winter.
Right now is the time to do the same slightly tedious task with Crocus seed capsules, which are also having a prolific year. The capsules appear in waves, so every few days I wander round, and collect a punnet full. After letting the capsules dry out and split, the orange/pink seeds, can again just be scattered where I want, though in the case of pasture, I tend to slit sow, to maximise survival rates, after finding that simple seed scattering, which seems to work well in the garden, produces poorer survival rates.
The final job will be collecting the daffodil seeds, particularly from the early N. pseudonarcissus types, to bulk up numbers of these spring gems, which seem to take years to recover from the traumas of lifting and planting.
Finally, the flagging up of a full, super blood-moon, last Wednesday and the necessary clearing skies to view it, saw me climbing the hill with the camera and settling down in the hut, to wait to see when and where it appeared on the horizon. As luck would have it, it nudged over the ridge of the distant Carmarthenshire fans, around 10 pm. The evening was still and quiet save the odd distant barking dog, sheep, and dusk-time bird song.
There’s a good explanation of why this ‘blood’ supermoon (when a full moon occurs at the same time as the moon is closest to the earth – its perigee phase) is special, and may appear red, on the NASA site. Some parts of the world would have seen a partial lunar eclipse as well. Here, it was a real delight that the clouds had left us in the nick of time!
Two swarms from the beehive I featured in the last post, sallied noisily forth, in the space of just 3 days. The image below is of one, which initially split and settled in three different awkward places. Though it had its advantages from a photographic point of view.
And a clearly fading and blemished brook lamprey, Lampetra planeri, was spotted in the stream, nearly 6 weeks later than in the previous 2 years, but once again suggesting that their spawning event does seem to be directly linked to the full moon.But there was an intellectual challenge for this low intervention beekeeper.
Or should I just allow them to take off and disperse to pastures new? They were very unlikely to choose any of the 3 vacant ‘hives’ around the property, since these were all within about 50 metres of the mother hive. And if I did decide to capture them, how would I manage it, given the first swarm eventually ended up enmeshed in a tree guard around a young Malus sapling I’d grown from seed, and the second was tangled into the honeysuckle, willow and odd bramble shoots of the hedge at the top of the steep bank, just 10 yards from the back door. And since 2 colonies of bees from the same local origin ( just 3 miles away), have now in 2 different years, produced 5 (so far) swarms, all in May, and all have settled low down on vegetation, rather than in the crown of a tall tree, have I just been lucky, or is this propensity for forming swarms early, and forming the cluster low down, an inherited trait?
But at least and at last, the weather has, once more, turned around. Yesterday, (May 30th) temperatures actually briefly hit 20 degrees C, probably for the first time this year!
Certainly the time and weather to smarten up, after months of lockdown languishing!
No time for losing your head!