This time of the year, when a temperate Northern hemisphere garden inevitably has the least to offer visually with light and flower power at its seasonal nadir mid-November, it’s struck me just how many other of our seasonal markers have occurred in the last two, often dreary, weeks.
Last winter I’d written how, for the first time I could recall, there was a nearly complete absence of large starling flocks either at dawn or as dusk approached, whizzing their way in dribs, drabs, or enormous flocks to or from a somewhere distant night-time roost. Ever since I caught our then neighbour Martin, a keen birder standing in our access track wrapped up, with binoculars trained on the dusk time winter sky, I too have been fascinated by this seasonal event. Boosted by late autumnal immigrants joining the UK’s now dwindling starling flocks, Martin explained how you could train yourself to roughly estimate, and then record the individual flock sizes as they whooshed past during a roughly 15-minute period. I’ve never counted their numbers, but have always been thrilled by the event, and often if they’re close enough, the sudden audible rush of wind from all those wings beating overhead. I’ve commented before how historically they have two routes – in some years they fly due West, and by chance, in 2016 we’d found their roost in a band of conifers on top of Llanllwni mountain, close to the animal incinerator we’d had to visit
Tailing Westward hurtling-black backed starling flocks,
Between the cropped fawn olive fields and
Spruce bare shelter belts which screen
The oven. Set remote, in hidden cwm.
Past the row of five long foxes,
Stiff rusted, all stretched out, attention grabbed.
However, last year’s dearth was worrying. So what a thrill to find them appearing in numbers over the first days of November, as the waxing moon built to its full moon splendour. But this year, they’re using their historically more normal route, flying up the valley, almost tracking our local designated Bug-Life B-line ,(below), and heading who knows where.
Discovering that this first November full moon was known as the woodcock moon, since in times past it heralded the appearance of those other seasonal migrants I’d first become excited by last year, I thought I should check for the woodcocks’ arrival too. You have to wait a little later in the day though for a chance to spot them – 5.15 p.m. rather than the starlings 4.15 p.m. rush hour, and try to be a bit more inconspicuous. Standing stock still in dark clothing, hugging one of the sleeper gate posts on a clearing November 3rd evening, I was thrilled to see my first distinctive dark silhouette of the year silently sweep low over the upper hay meadow.
2 days later, I was delighted to see 4 more in less than 10 minutes and reflected on the tragic irony that these birds which have likely had to overfly missile and shell-torn Ukraine to reach West Wales, arrived in the normally quiet rural landscape, just as the valley’s peace was ripped apart with a surprisingly long and noisy private firework party, somewhere in the village below us.
The annual crop of Earth tongue, Glutinoglossum glutinosum, mushrooms has now pierced the croquet lawn’s turf, and my impression is that this year, they’re more widely distributed than before. It means we’ve entered a period when the final bout of leaf removal with the lawnmower, will have to wait, until this crop which will linger for many weeks, finally fades from view.
Early November also sees an annual gathering of birds in the upper track, between the banked hedgerows just before it enters the yard, which I deduce are all coming in to feed on the squashed acorns, fallen from the big oak. Magpies, crows, blackbirds, sparrows, dunnocks and robins all seem to congregate, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen a jay – maybe they’ve already buried enough acorns for their winter stashes, or maybe they prefer the unblemished ones, straight from the tree?
A very light air frost finally arrived on November 19th, causing surface ice formation in one outside water-filled bowl, but not in the more exposed blue glass bowls. I’m guessing because of the greater water volume in these deeper structures.
Two nights earlier, having left our outside light on whilst we were out at a garden club meeting, we returned to find a December moth, Poecilocampa populi, settled on the wall below it. Sticking out on the whitewashed wall like a proverbial sore thumb, it nevertheless escaped predation throughout the following day, and was gone by early evening.
With a typically wet autumn nearly behind us – only 6 rain-free days so far in the 7 weeks of October and November, and mean reversion now taking us way past our driest ever year – regular bouts of remedial pothole filling track work have been necessary for some time. The pile of scalpings always left in the mid-point passing place on our access track has been replenished after shrinking at an alarming rate, and after the toll of the dry summer followed by this more recent rain on the final steep section of our track, we decided a secondary drop of 2 scoops (a scoop being Tegwyn’s vague but descriptive measure of stone quantity) was required, but on this occasion dumped just off our yard.
Seizing a couple of dry interludes Fiona and I shift it in the Goldoni’s earth scoop, but it then has to be manually shovelled out and tamped down with both tractor and car tyres in advance of another heavy rain event today. Over 2 tons of stone, just to top dress perhaps 40 metres of track, but at least the Goldoni’s narrow profile, and wide tyres, means that our vital central rain runoff channel can be kept functional by running up and down a few times with one tyre in the channel. So no recourse to manual mattock effort, which is how we had to manage things early on. All part of the necessary regular maintenance that comes with living here off the map.
The first few days of November also saw the arrival of our Tor ddu tup, once more a ram lamb. Having been raddled with mustard yellow ochre and margarine, he’s another calm lamb who mixed in with our ewes easily, although within a few days he’d managed to find a few hedgerow bramble stems to get tangled up in. We’re very grateful to Geraint for once again supplying him, and helping us with lamb sales earlier this year. Geraint told us he’s just become the breed society chairman, and for any interested in the 2 mirror opposite forms of coloured Welsh mountain, badger-faced sheep – Tor ddu, and Tor wen (black belly and white belly), click here for the breed society, and images of proud owners and show standard champions. Geraint, who runs hundreds of sheep of different breeds reckons they’re his favourite breed, and we can concur with their hardiness and benign nature.
It’s but a short leap of imagination from traditional breed sheep and their mating season to thoughts of romance. (Really?) However, as is often the case for me, considering the familiar word’s origin was enlightening –
It begins in the fifth century as the Roman Empire is beginning to fail. The Gauls, of Asterix and Obelisk fame, who inhabited a large region encompassing present-day France, Belgium, parts of Western Germany and Northern Italy spoke a Latin derived language which is currently referred to as Gallo-Romance, but which they called Romanus (ex Rome). Although Gaul disintegrated with the fall of the Roman Empire, Latin remained as a widely used language in the middle ages period, and a Latin adverb, Romanice, came to be used to describe the common language then spoken as Old French/Old Occitan which had developed in these regions from Gallo-Romance. Old French adopted this new Latin word, Romanice, but changed it into a noun, referring not only to the language, but also to stories written or spoken in it. Many of these tales referenced mediaeval chivalrous knights and their exploits, and thus the link with tales of love developed, which we now associate with our sense of what romance is really all about.
‘Romance’ is also the name of a really lovely early form of Crocus chrysanthus, above, which arrived unexpectedly in the garden a few years back when an order of C. chrysanthus ‘Blue Pearl’ was planted, below. The following spring a number of pale yellow early Crocus flowers emerged where blue had been planned. I’m not a huge fan of yellows in the garden, but spring time is an exception, and these were such a lovely soft yellow, I was enchanted. But what were they? It took me a while to work it out, and each subsequent year, I forgot to add them to the bulb list. Or more likely by the time I looked at how many bulbs I was already going to have to plant, baulked at yet more bulbs. However, this year with an inflation influenced drop in the size of the bulb order, a late email offer caught my eye. I’ve just finished whacking in 500 or so of these corms a bit late in the season, dotted about the garden. So ‘Romance’ may for now be in the ground, and courtesy of chopped leaves, wood ash, pee and our neighbour’s rodent hunting ginger cat may even stay there in significant numbers, but hopefully come February, they’ll be in the air, and I can include a few more photos, other than than those I managed to dig out from my back up hard drive taken in 2020.
I’ve really enjoyed reading Patterson Webster’s recent book titled “Autobiography of a Garden.” As the unusual title suggests, it’s the story of Webster, a visual artist, writer and garden designer’s journey to craft a landscape style garden with numerous visual art “installations” in a very large estate, Glen Villa Art Garden, which she and her late husband acquired around 25 years ago, just South of Quebec. She clearly has had the financial where with all to achieve these grand designs, and although possibly it’s a little light on swathes of conventional planting, the background history of the location, and the inspiration which this gave to her vivid imagination makes for an intriguing read.
She was also fortunate to have 2 very able and willing estate workers to help her bring many of her projects to fruition, including the maple leaf installation (featured in her timelines video). In one of her many lovely photos which illustrate the book she shows a tractor with a raised front loader bucket high off the ground, in which the base of a double ladder rose many feet off the ground resting against a branch, with one of these workers balanced precariously, whilst carefully attaching the wire which suspends one of her giant cut-out metal sheet maple leaves! Health and safety considerations would preclude any such drama over here, I think.
I’m sure Glen Villa would make for a fascinating visit, but since this is unlikely for most, the book, and indeed her website give an insight into who she is, what she has achieved and the thinking behind many of her ideas, complete with a very real awareness that garden making is only ever a transient perishable endeavour, reflective of our own life journeys. Some of the “installations” did nothing for me, but some were intriguing, beautiful, and full of meaning. A few, together with drone views of the landscape can be watched in some recent short videos she’s made:
The recent IFPI “Engaging with Music 2022” report reckons that average music listening times have increased by around 10% over the last year to over 20 hours a week. I notice that in this recording industry body’s list of key messages from the survey, comes the point that “Music is integral to people’s mental and physical wellbeing “. I’d agree and add that whilst it doesn’t necessarily have the direct physical benefits of fresh air and exercise that gardening related activities also have in this regard, I increasingly find myself listening to more music.
Perhaps it’s the times we live in and a necessary counter to the media driven news agenda. Although probably atypically, my preferred method is sitting in a chair in the evening with the lights turned off, having selected a CD to slot into the player, rather than streaming which seems to be how most people apparently “consume” their music, much of it, on the move.
One of my most recent discoveries is the Georgian/French classical pianist Khatia Buniatishvili. For those unfamiliar with her style of playing, the opening track from her latest compilation CD, Labyrinth, is her arrangement of an Ennio Morricone piece, Deborah’s theme from “Once upon a Time in America”, which gives a flavour of the emotional charge and sensitivity of her playing.
Although more typically she tackles the romantic repertoire of classical works, as in this recording of the gorgeous Schubert Impromptu No. 3
Fluent in 5 languages and now based in Paris, the interview below was recorded after her involvement in an “Artists for Ukraine” concert in Paris earlier in the year and gives a little insight into her own childhood memories from civil war torn Georgia in the early nineties, and her own professional stand against developing Russian aggression at the start of this century. There’s clearly a lot more to her than meets the ear, and eye.
As a stocking filler to switch off to, Labyrinth is well worth consideration, you can sample all the diverse music on this link, and reflect on her theme and choices of music for this lockdown produced compilation.