A Cowardly New World

2016 - the hottest year ever recorded

2016 – the hottest year ever recorded


No, not Brave. The Inauguration tomorrow of Donald Trump is not only a political event but a sign of a shift in power towards the forces which exploit our environment, damage our climate, and wreak havoc on the natural world which I try to celebrate in this blog. Cowardly, yes, because almost everywhere politicians are coming forward who kowtow to the rich lobbyists, to the profit-hungry multinationals and to the tiny percentage of people who hold most of the world’s wealth. See the extract from George Monbiot’s article below.

It’s not easy being green these days. To defend a few flowers you have to take on leaders of major powers (even if elected by a minority), colossal companies, and media which are best uncritical, at worst blinded by misinformation.

An orchid and some asphodels brave the climate

An orchid and some asphodels brave the climate


We have to take heart where we can. So here’s a picture of a corner of the area called Sauveplaine near where I live. It was desiccated by months of drought this year. Then blasted by a pitiless wild fire which killed all the animals and cost the life of a firefighter. Today the night-time temperature was around -6°C, and near zero when I took the photo. But despite these conditions here come the orchid Himantoglossum robertianum and the asphodel Asphodelus aestivus, arriving for their rendezvous with the Spring as they do every year.

Plants are good at surviving natural catastophes – they carried on almost unchanged during the great evolutionary extinction events such as that which wiped out the dinosaurs. Maybe now is a period when we should try to learn from them.

Forgive me the indulgence with which I reproduce something I wrote a little while ago, inspired by a tree I saw – or perhaps met might be a better word. Bon courage to all of you in this new landscape.

Resist

The weather is bad almost everywhere
threatening us all, along with everything we love.
I head out into it, steeling myself
and encounter this young ash tree
growing in a rock-filled roadside gully.
Its straight trunk slipping between stones
has resisted winter torrents, letting them flow around it,
its grey skin has known frost and scorching sun;
this tree is staking its place, occupying its ground,
its roots push a few more inches of foothold each year,
it’s staying there, growing tall,
just doing its ash-y thing.

And if some idiot
representing a minority
high on power and hardware
went so far as to cut it down
– or burn it, he doesn’t care –
what then?

The ash has thought of that.
After all, its family has been around
for over a hundred million years.
It has made thousands of seeds
spread them around, seen them germinate.
The ash family will have the last laugh.

To endure this bad weather :
grow a thick skin
let events flow around you
be rooted
take your space
pass on your wisdom
and above all,
stay true to yourself.

Quote from a George Monbiot article, the Guardian, 19/01/2017 – full text here.

By appointing Rex Tillerson, chief executive of the oil company ExxonMobil, as secretary of state, Trump not only assures the fossil economy that it sits next to his heart, he also provides comfort to another supporter: Vladimir Putin. It was Tillerson who brokered the $500bn (£407bn) deal between Exxon and the state-owned Russian company Rosneft to exploit oil reserves in the Arctic. As a result he was presented with the Russian Order of Friendship by Putin.
The deal was stopped under the sanctions the US imposed after Russia invaded Ukraine. The probability of these sanctions in their current form surviving a Trump government is, to the nearest decimal place, a snowball’s chance in hell. If Russia did interfere in the US election, it will be handsomely rewarded when the deal goes ahead.
Trump’s nominations for energy secretary and interior secretary are both climate change deniers, who – quite coincidentally – have a long history of sponsorship by the fossil fuel industry. His proposed attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, allegedly failed to disclose in his declaration of interests that he leases land to an oil company.
The man nominated to run the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, has spent much of his working life campaigning against … the Environmental Protection Agency. As the attorney general in Oklahoma, he launched 14 lawsuits against the EPA, seeking, among other aims, to strike down its Clean Power Plan, its limits on the mercury and other heavy metals released by coal plants and its protection of drinking water supplies and wildlife. Thirteen of these suits were said to include as co-parties companies that had contributed to his campaign funds or to political campaign committees affiliated to him.
Trump’s appointments reflect what I call the Pollution Paradox. The more polluting a company is, the more money it must spend on politics to ensure it is not regulated out of existence. Campaign finance therefore comes to be dominated by dirty companies, ensuring that they wield the greatest influence, crowding out their cleaner rivals. Trump’s cabinet is stuffed with people who owe their political careers to filth.

Here’s a song about a butterfly, cherry blossom, and hope.

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Friends and neighbours

imgp1481

I’m rather late in writing this since my starting point is this plant, Dittrichia viscosa, otherwise known in this part of France as la Vendangeuse since it flowers in September and October during the vendanges,, and often appears in great numbers in the vines.

But the vendanges are long over, those of us who pick grapes for a friend have eaten the celebration meal given to us, and we’ve been to an evening fête to welcome the vin primeur with roast chestnuts and sausages. The vines are all turning from their almost uniform green to the palette running from bright yellow through dull brown to deep crimson, revealing the individuality of their cepage, their grape variety.

Though its flowering glory is past, I wanted to write about this plant because I realised that in its humble way it has accompanied me during my years in France. I say a sort of ‘Bonjour’ to it when it appears, as I do to my friends and neighbours. As a friend does, it will make me think of other times we’ve met, stimulating memories of places, conversations, and activities. I imagine that this is true for naturalists in other domains – birdwatchers, geologists, butterfly enthusiasts – and that this encounter with the familiar and well-loved is one of the things which keep us at it.

So when I took the photo above, I was on a botanical walk recently with a group and leader all new to me, and seeing the golden stars made me say to myself ‘Oh, hello! Fancy seeing you here! I’m glad you turned up for this new adventure. Do you remember that afternoon when you were with a big clump of friends by that old deserted chapel? And didn’t we have fun in the vines this year! I saw you along the motorway too, but I couldn’t stop to say hello’.

Stacey Kent with, of course, You’ve got a Friend’.

 

 

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A catastrophe – and some signs of hope

It’s been a while since my last post, but a major event has made me turn again to my keyboard.

On Wednesday, 10th August a forest fire swept over a vast area to the north-west of my village, burning all living things in its path to charcoal and ashes. About 150 hectares (around 370 acres) of oak scrub and garrigue were reduced, as the newspaper Midi Libre reported, to a lunar landscape. Why is that serious, when at the same time a larger fire was threatening the outskirts of Marseille, and there were many fires raging in Portugal? Because in my neck of the (damaged) woods, four firefighters were seriously injured, and because the area blasted to a botanical ground zero included my beloved Sauveplaine. The human cost is of course by far the most grave, but forgive me if on this blog I concentrate on the effects on an area of outstanding wild beauty.

I first wrote about this area in May 2013 here, and this is one of the photos I took then.

The Sauveplaine in May 2013

The Sauveplaine in May 2013

Like a meadow, rich in pyramidal and other orchids, lilies, grape hyacinths, wild thyme and many other plants – I had started a list for a small patch which had reached 105 species. This is the same area now.

The 'meadow' after the fire

The ‘meadow’ after the fire

I still feel the transformation of this landscape as a physical blow. It was eerie beyond belief to visit after the fire – desolated, empty, motionless and dark, as if haunted by something more supernatural than a fire. No insects. A very few disorientated birds far overhead. Silence.

Near where the group of figures stood in my post of May 25, 2013

Near where the group of figures stood in my post of May 25, 2013

A few more views of the aftermath.

Where there had been a blue sea of  Viper's bugloss (Echium vulgare)

Where there had been a blue sea of Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare)

If you want to see more images of how it was, try my previous posts to this one, in 2015.

Well, I said to myself, there are two things to do: one is to see what can be done in the village to remember the Sauveplaine and to support the families of the fire fighters, and the other is to document how nature responds to a catastrophe like that.

I have to report the tragic news that one firefighter subsequently died of his injurues, while two remain in hospital in a serious but stable condition. One has been released from hospital. A Support Commitee has been established to register expressions of solidarity, and to collect funds for these four and their families : see here for their Facebook page. I’ll report later on other local initiatives.

Fires are most often nowadays due to human acts such as discarded cigarettes, but they have always occurred from time to time in the garrigue, as a result of lightning strikes, for example. Plants have evolved to survive fires as species, even if individuals are lost, and those able to colonise burnt ground are the plants we see here every day.

For example, the Kermes oak (Quercus coccifera) which forms a small bush up to 2 metres high and has small, holly-like leaves, has extensive underground stems and can regenerate when all above ground has been burnt or grazed by animals. Similar adaptations help all plants with underground bulbs, corms or rhizomes, such as asparagus – the best place to hunt for the shoots in Spring is in areas which have had a fire. These species are common in the garrigue which experiences a very hot and dry summer because the same adaptations help the plants survive drought.

So I was optimistic that there would be regrowth, and scoffed at friends who suggested the area would have to be ‘replanted’. Even so, I reckoned, sadly, that in my lifetime I wouldn’t see the Sauveplaine regain the glory I had known up until the 9th of August.

I was however surprised when I went up to the Sauveplaine again on 27th September to see how much regrowth had already started, aided by a couple of days of rain. The most positive image I carry away is that of drifts of Autumn squill (Scilla autumnalis) – a plant I had not noticed there before, because it had been hidden by other vegetation I suppose. A survivor thanks to its underground bulb.

Autumn squill - Scilla autumnalis

Autumn squill – Scilla autumnalis

A group of Scilla autumnalis

A group of Scilla autumnalis

And other plants leading the resurgence, among around twenty species I noticed:

Shoots of wild rocket - Diplotaxis tenuifolia

Shoots of wild rocket – Diplotaxis tenuifolia

Fennel - Foeniculum vulgare

Fennel – Foeniculum vulgare

Bramble - Rubus sanctus

Bramble – Rubus sanctus

Every gardener who’s tried to get rid of brambles knows how deep and tenacious are the roots!

Pitch trefoil - Psoralea bitumenosa

Pitch trefoil – Psoralea bitumenosa

This shows how deep the roots of this trefoil must go, if it has avoided being destroyed by heat.

Wild asparagus - Asparagus officinalis

Wild asparagus – Asparagus officinalis

Bizarre – asparagus should do this in Spring! There were so many shoots, I gathered enough to make an omelette.

Lentisc - Pistachier lentiscus

Lentisc – Pistachier lentiscus

Turpentine tree - Pistacia terebinthus

Turpentine tree – Pistacia terebinthus

You can be sure that I’ll be going back regularly, and posting more reports on the regeneration of this site.

For the glory that was the Sauveplaine, but especially in memory of the brave firefighter who died, here’s Charles Lloyd’s group playing his tune ‘Requiem’, from the Athens Concert.

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Say Man

Two words you might have used, once upon a time, to catch someone’s attention, to show surprise, to have fun. All of which seem appropriate for a new discovery for me on the sauveplaine, the plateau near my village which is so rich in plant life. Yes, it’s another orchid: the Man Orchid (Orchis anthropophora – it also used to be named Aceras anthropophorum), which was growing in a little colony up there.

Man orchid

Man orchid – Orchis anthropophora

Only about 25 cm tall, with sepals and petals seeming to form a hood or helmet, and the lip resembling a tiny man.

Man orchid - close-up

Man orchid – close-up

I’ve been keeping a list of the species I’ve found on the sauveplaine, and now I’m up to 92 – when I have a mo, I’ll put the list on the ‘Patch Lists’ page of the blog. I find that keeping a list is a great way to remember names, to appreciate the differences in habitat, and to develop the habit of looking closely at all species, not just the showy ones.

And musos may already have guessed: here’s Bo Diddley from 1959 with the eponymous song.

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Prostrate

It’s the position I have to adopt to take pictures of what’s going on up on the sauveplaine at the moment. I wrote about my discovery of this area here on the blog two years ago, and I go there about as often as believers go to church/chapel/mosque etc, and for some of the same reasons: awe at something which is much greater than myself. There are lots of flowers coming into bloom, but many of them are little, low down or downright ground-hugging. I was on hands and knees anyway because the thyme is in flower and this is the moment to pick the delicate tips, which have the most flavour, and take it home to dry for seasoning dishes during the rest of the year.

Thyme flower harvest

Thyme flower harvest

I wasn’t the only one appreciating these miniature bouquets – I had to be careful not to pick bees at the same time.

bee on thyme flower

bee on thyme flower

I know there are many species of bee, and maybe some kind person, say Morgan from the wonderful blog The Reremouse will tell me which this is. She has a different standpoint: she once wrote that she sees a flower as something for insects to perch on, while I see an insect as something which flowers use to have sex.  If you’re interested by nature – and why else would you be reading this – and you don’t know The Reremouse, you’re missing something. So what else did I see while I was down there on the ground? I’ll start with the highlights: two orchids. The first is the common Yellow ophrys (Ophrys lutea), of which there was quite a colony.

Ophrys lutea

Ophrys lutea

The other was the white orchid , Narrow-leaved helleborine (Cephalanthera longifolia).

Cephalanthera longifolia

Cephalanthera longifolia

Now two ground-hugging prostrate plants which I photographed for the first time the other day on the sauveplaine. Both from the same family, the Fabaceae – you know, beans and peas and all that.  The first is a sort of broom, Cytisus supinus, which I identified with the help of another excellent site, Florealpes.  The site says this plant can be confused with a Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus spp.), one difference being that the latter has leaves with stipules, little mini-leaves at the base of the leaf-stalk, while the former doesn’t.

Cytius supinus

Cytius supinus

This sort of plant is often most easily identified by its fruit, since the flowers and leaves are very minor variations on a common pattern. I was lucky to have caught the charactersitic fruits of the second plant, Hippocrepis biflora, which are flattened and a bit like a strange saw-blade.

Hippocrepis biflora

Hippocrepis biflora

Hippocrepis biflora - the fruit like a saw, or something

Hippocrepis biflora – the fruit like a saw, or something

And the rest? A quick round-up, starting with a couple of spurges – a favourite of mine – I did three posts on the genus a little while ago. The common Euphorbia serrata:

Euphorbia serrata - one of the most common spurges on the roadside

Euphorbia serrata – one of the most common spurges on the roadside

and a rarer sight, the remarkable Euphorbia exigua:

The dramatic Euphorbia exigua

The dramatic Euphorbia exigua

A Star of Bethlehem, Ornithogallum montanum:

Ornithogallum montanum

Ornithogallum montanum

Wild Clary, Salvia verbenaca:

Salvia verbenaca

Salvia verbenaca

Rosy garlic (Allium roseum):

Allium roseum

Allium roseum

Grey-leaved cistus (Cistus albidus):

Cistus albidus

Cistus albidus

The title for the jazz came easily from a phrase I found I’d written: it’s the guitarist Grant Green with the tune Down here on the ground.

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Size isn’t everything – Iris lutescens

Dwarf iris - Iris lutescens -  the colour variety which gives it its name

Dwarf iris – Iris lutescens – the colour variety which gives it its name

A moment this week which I’ve been anticipating keenly – my first sight of the dwarf iris, Iris lutescens, in the garrigue near where I live. Why is it special? Because it’s beautiful, its form enhanced, in my view, by its modest size – usually only about 20cm high. Its name comes form the Latin for yellow, luteus, but there are common blue and white versions of the same species.

A group of dwarf irises in the sort of terrain they prefer

A group of dwarf irises in the sort of terrain they prefer


Irises – it has to be said, probably the taller species – have impressed us humans for a long time. The upstanding slim pointed leaf-blades have reminded all cultures of spears and swords: the yellow flag iris is called Jacob’s sword in English, and other names such as segg and gladdon or gladwyn betray repectively Anglo-Saxon and Celtic words for swords too. The blue or white irises seen often here on banks and in ditches are Iris germanica, called la cotèla (knife) or la cotelassa (dagger) in Occitan. I think that’s one reason why I prefer the smaller, less warlike dwarf iris – ‘nail-scissor iris’ wouldn’t have the same belligerent ring to it.

The large species have showy flowers, of six tepals (the name used for the similar petals and sepals in this family of plants) carried on long stems, and perhaps for these reasons they were sacred to the ancient Egyptians who used a symbolic representation of the plant on the first sceptres, and they also appear in pictures and artefacts from Babylon.

The Greek goddess Iris portrayed on a drinking vessel

The Greek goddess Iris portrayed on a drinking vessel

The name iris means rainbow in Greek, and it is supposed that the plant was so christened because of the range of vivid colours in each flower, as well as between varieties and species. Greek mythology includes the goddess Iris, who acts as a messenger for the gods, particularly Zeus and Hera, when they need to communicate between each other or with mortals. This may be because the rainbow seems to connect heaven and earth. There are two statues of Iris among the Elgin marbles.

Exactly when the plant acquired its present name is not clear – the term iris is used by Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his Natural History, in which he describes in detail the cultivation of irises in northern Europe for their magical and medical properties. Three months before harvesting, the ground around the plant was soaked in honeyed water, and three circles were drawn around it with the point of a sword.

But then this name seems to have been forgotten, and until the 16th century they were commonly given either the sword-names listed above, or fleur de lis or flower de luce. One explanation for the latter is because the yellow flag iris, Iris pseudacorus, grew plentifully by the river Luts (or Lits) in what is now southern Belgium, and a symbolic representation of three of its tepals was adopted by Gaulish and Germanic kings as the well-known heraldic symbol of the fleur-de-lys. It became the emblem of the French royalty since Louis VII, so identified with the royal cause that anyone wearing the flower after the French Revolution was likely to be sent to the guillotine. Napoleon substituted the bee as a national emblem.

The flower pushing its way between stones

The flower pushing its way between stones


The dwarf iris is a tough customer, native to the Mediterranean region of France since it positively thrives in heat, drought, and on poor limestone soils. It’s often dug up for transplanting to gardens, but conditions there may well be too rich for it. In the garrigue you often find it among patches of rock and stone chips where no other plant can get a foothold.
Blue flames

Blue flames


I have other, more personal reasons for my attachment to this flower. It was in a patch of garrigue near M’s house that I first saw a carpet of these flowers, lighting up the hillside like flames, so they remind me of walks we’ve taken together. So to accompany this post, why not Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, because if M asked me if everything is OK, I’d say ‘Yeh, Yeh’.


Size isn’t everything

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Who put the Oc in Rock?*

A few weeks ago Alain, the teacher at my Occitan language class, brought in fifteen sprigs of greenery he’d gathered on a Sunday stroll, and passed them round for us to identify. The aim of the exercise was of course to talk about the Occitan names for these plants. While it’s often said – especially by people who don’t speak Occitan – that it’s a hybrid language of French and Spanish, the exercise served to remind me that many plant names in Occitan (or Oc for short) differ greatly from the French.

Ruscus aculeatus, or petit houx, or grifol

Ruscus aculeatus, or petit houx, or grifol

For example, Ruscus aculeatus or Butcher’s broom is Le Petit houx in French, but in Occitan it’s lo grifol. That’s also the word in Oc for a fountain, and the derivation seems to come from the verb grifolhar: to spurt like a spring or fountain of water. I suppose because the shoots erupt like a green fountain.

I’m trying to compile a list of the plants I identify in four languages: the scientific (Latin) name, and also English, French and Occitan. Each name has its own history and set of associations, the discovery of which is, for me, one of the most valuable results of my botanising.

Asparagus acutifolius, or asperge, or esparga

Asparagus acutifolius, or asperge, or esparga

Another topical example we passed around is Asparagus acutifolius, wild asparagus, asperge in French and esparga in Oc. Clearly both French and Oc here come from the same Latin root. But I include it here because now it’s the season to hunt for the slender new shoots in the garrigue, of which more below. Luckily for me M has the knack of spotting the little spears among grass at ten paces, and we’ve had several tasty omelettes and once collected so much we cooked it as a vegetable to accompany lamb steaks.

A fistful of asparagus shoots - delicious!

A fistful of asparagus shoots – delicious!

We examined a tough and spiny slim bramble-like stem of Common Smilax/Sarsparilla (Smilax aspera),: even the leaves of this little horror are covered in spines and end in hooks. It’s closely related to asparagus, and in fact the young shoots can be mistaken for the latter – no worry, as both can be eaten. The Oc names are very evocative: estaca paure and aganta paure (tie up or attach a poor unfortunate) conjure up the picture of someone returning to the village in the dark, and falling into a thicket of this thorny stuff as if into a pile of barbed wire. It’s also named estrangla cat – no explanation needed. I’ve written about the plant before, here.

Smilax aspera

Smilax aspera

Alain also brought in a branch of the evergreen Holm Oak (Quercus ilex), le chène vert in French and l’euse in Oc. The tree is so common and the Oc name is so widely used that French has taken to calling it le yeuse as well. Now this tree links to the garrigue: the name for an area covered in Holm oak is a garrolhas, and the name for oaks in general (and the Kermes oak, Quercus coccifera, in particular) is lo garric.

A footpath in the garrigue - evergreen holm oak in the background

A footpath in the garrigue – evergreen holm oak in the background

Now I thought till recently that the vegetation – garrigue – took its name from the Oc for oak, but not so – the origins are much older. According to Histoire de la Garrigue, by Jean-Paul Gervois, the linguist Alain Nouvel concluded in 1980 that the word comes from a proto-indoeuropean word something like kal denoting stone and, by extension, mountain, and which dates to perhaps 35,000 years ago. It resembles words in Arabic (garro – rock), Hebrew (ker – stone wall), and Basque gara (high place). I lived in Wales for over 20 years and learned some Welsh, and I’d like to add that there’s also a striking similarity with the Welsh craig (plural garreg, rock) and caer (wall or fort). Starting with the words for a tree and where it grows, we get a view of how groups of humans have moved and diverged over thousands of years, but retained a common stock of language.

You see? The words chène and oak just don’t take you on this journey.

I should point out , at the risk of confusing you further, that the proper scientific term for this sort of vegetation is ‘matorral’.

*Music obsessives like me will be reminded of the Barry Mann song Who put the Bomp (‘Who put the Bomp in the Bomp pah bomp pah bomp/Who put the Ram in the Rama lama ding dong?’ Questions we’ve all asked ourselves sometime or another).  Relive that golden moment here

But for the song to go with this post about my evening class, I keep hearing in my head the Dinah Washington version of Teach me tonight.

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