The Blackbird Diaries

One of my favourite ways to spend a day off when we’re in Cumbria is wandering along Cockermouth Main St (in fact I often give myself a couple of hours off at lunch time, just to wander, enjoy a decent coffee and peruse the books in the New Bookshop). This is how I found myself sitting in the bookshop cafe on New Years Eve reading page after page of Karen Lloyd’s new book The Blackbird Diaries. I had read Karen’s first book, The Gathering Tide, but I was little out of touch last year, finishing my own book and I had missed the publication of this beautifully written nature diary, chronicling a year in the Cumbrian countryside and a project she became involved in to raise awareness of the plight of British curlews.

I only planned to read the first few pages while I drank my coffee, but an hour later I found myself ordering a second flat white and reading through January, February and half way through March before I finally put the book in my bag and headed home (Full disclosure – I excused myself from the traditional family New Year jigsaw that night and retired to bed, reading page after page). It’s not unusual for me to read a book at one sitting, and if Mr T hadn’t come to bed shortly after midnight and insisted on “Lights out”, I may well have sat until the early hours with this book!

New Years day was filled with family visits, celebrations and a brisk walk and so it wasn’t until a few days later, and back in Cheshire that I was able to sit down and finish The Blackbird Diaries. I’ve since picked it up occasionally, just to read random entries. Comparing my typical day to Karen’s and sharing her delight in the simplicity and beguiling activities of garden birds and wildlife. This entry for 6th March is typical of a scene played out in my on garden:

A feeding frenzy, late afternoon on the feeder outside my study window: chaffinches, blue tits and the by now ubiquitous goldfinches. The window was open and the timbre of irritable bickering and avian arguments filtered inside. I looked up, and there, complete with her black mask and buff-coloured chest: a female bullfinch, She took the sunflower seeds and peered all bright – eyed through the window. Then the frap of small wings and her mate arrived, black headed and grey frock – coated, his chest and round and ruddy as a late September rosehip.

 

March 6th, The Blackbird Diaries by Karen Lloyd

It’s easy to think of this as just another nature diary, but there is so much more to this book than the simplicity of stepping outside and seeing nature. There is a love of the fells, an understanding of the landscape and a real appreciation of the challenges faced by some of our native species. The book closes with the aftermath of the floods of 2015 and the devastation caused by extreme weather events across Cumbria. Reading the descriptions of closed roads, watery drives and sudden flashes of delight (the brief observation of red kites) I was transported back to those weeks of rain and loss; of damage reports from friends cut off by blocked roads and sudden glimpses of winter visitors blown off course.

This is a book I would probably never have found online. But, because the New Bookshop offers a variety of titles, a healthy mix of the eclectic and the mainstream I can always find something that would otherwise have escaped me. “Real”, independent bookshops, like yarn stores are becoming rarer every year and I treasure the ones that are local to me. I rarely come out empty handed and often not with the book I intended to buy. The fact that the New Bookshop is a ten minute walk from home, serves great coffee (and cake) is a bonus and Mr T and I take full advantage of it, no visit home is complete until we’ve visited, stocked up on books and treated ourselves to a cuppa.

So, although this meant to be a review of a book I really enjoyed and thoroughly recommend; it’s also a small way of saying thank you to the staff at the New Bookshop who sustain my need for great reads and always greet us with a smile …

…You don’t get that on Amazon!

A Skirmish of Siskins and other Garden Visitors

January 16th

We have a new garden visitor. I spied a lone pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) under one of the bird feeders as I was eating my breakfast. We’ve heard him calling for a few days, assuming he was a runaway from a local shoot, taking refuge in a neighbour’s garden. Today he is visiting us. Easy pickings here. He’s taking full advantage of seeds dropped by the goldfinches and sparrows, which don’t seem to mind his presence. We watch him strut about, before he finally squeezes through a gap in the fence and out into the fields.

The bird feeders are busy today, it’s cold and damp. A light drizzle that hasn’t put off the birds. I’m reluctant to step outside. I am bored of wrapping up in coat, hat, gloves and pulling on wellies for every garden chore. I long for spring and warm mornings spent drinking coffee on the garden bench. A few days ago, I made a new feeding station for the robins and blackbirds. I had noticed the blackbirds had been grubbing about in one of the hanging baskets left out over winter. I found an old plate in the greenhouse and put it on top of the soil, adding a few seeds and some raisins. On a whim I hung a seed feeder from the bracket (it had been languishing near the house, most of the birds too shy to feed there regularly). Today I count three great tits feeding greedily and a male robin pecking underneath. It seems that my haphazard arrangement is a success.

We now have three distinct feeding areas, and I’ve noticed a hierarchy among our regular visitors. The goldfinches prefer the feeder that hangs from the apple tree; they flap around noisily waiting their turn, balancing on thin stalks of the Verbena Bonariensis, hoping to find the last few seeds in the dried heads. THis is where the woodpecker feeds every morning. Beside this, a fat ball tower that is the domain of the starlings and beyond that a nut feeder that is beloved by great tits. On the other side of the garden, another fat ball feeder is where the sparrows gather. Mostly house sparrows, the dunnocks prefer to dance around the base of the conifers, hoovering scraps.  Further along the fence is my new addition, close to where the wren can often be spotted, darting out of the conifer hedge to forage amongst the kale and leeks.

The robins and blackbirds will dot around the garden, pulling worms from the damp grass, gobbling up scraps dropped by the other birds and watching me as I step outside to fill the feeders. The robins will often sit in the elder tree watching me. Last winter I started dropping a few seeds on the lid of the feed bin to encourage them down, but apart from one brave fella the others remain timid.

I look up from my laptop (I’m writing this at the dining table), a skirmish has caught my attention. The siskins have arrived and clearly think the goldfinches have been too greedy, their call is high pitched and they jab at the goldfinches with their beaks. The bird feeder is empty, so even if they could get their turn, nothing is left. I take pity on them and prepare to go outside.

I’m dressed like an arctic explorer. As soon as I step beyond the green house all the birds take flight. Two wood pigeons sit in the taller branches of the silver birch waiting. The skirmish has left scraps under the apple tree and they’re biding their time, they’ll fly down soon and have another feast. The squirrel is so hungry, he carries on hoovering up the sunflower hearts from the feeder next to the woodshed. He won’t stop until I pick up the rubber trug beside him to gather logs for the fire.

I walk around the garden, taking in any changes. There are a few snowdrops about to open and daffodils. I pick up silver birch twigs from the grass and wind them into bundles to use as fire lighters. The blue tits and blackbirds begin to call to each other, I am serenaded by a bird I cannot see in the tall branches of my neighbour’s damson. I could stand here watching and listening all morning. The chaffinches have ventured down to scavenge under the feeders, a group of about ten males and females. They swoop about, oblivious to the other birds and their garden politics. A blackbird is having a drink of water from the bowl under the hazel tree, the birds tolerate me, but they will be happier once I step inside.

Back indoors, I pull off the layers, stack wood by the fire, and take another look out of the window – yes – squirrel still there. She’s on top of the wood shed now, nibbling some treasure. I am off to town for a birthday lunch with a friend today, so I kick off my wellies, checking for mud on my jeans. Too lazy to change, I think I’ll do and go in search of a birthday card to write and her present to wrap.

Birds from the Train

Yesterday I took the train to Manchester. I chose to take the slow train from Mouldsworth, our local station. It’s a long, meandering journey through the Cheshire countryside, calling at Delamere Forest, Plumley and Knutsford before finally reaching the suburbs of Manchester. I like this route, you can always get a seat and there are plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching.

Soon after we passed Delamere, I spotted a heron flying over the mere. They have such a wide wingspan and long, long legs. I often wonder how they stay balanced in the water. During the rest of the journey I ticked off: jackdaws, a lone pheasant, the sudden blue flash of a jay as we passed through Mobberley and the usual assortment of crows, blackbirds and watched a pair of rabbits running through the allotments at Northwich.

But, it was the journey home where I really struck gold. It was just after four o’clock and we were approaching Northwich. I like this bit of the route, which passes the river Weaver and the Trent and Mersey canal. I spotted a large, inky black gathering of birds, forming and reforming in the grey black sky. Starlings. A few hundred – not a huge gathering – but the biggest I’ve seen for a while. A few other passengers had noticed too, and as the train slowed and then stopped to let a fast train pass by, we sat mesmerised as the starlings played out their formation dancing for us. A little girl asked her Mum what they were “I don’t know sweetie, blackbirds maybe”.

I couldn’t help myself, “They’re starlings”, I told her. “It’s called a Murmuration, we’re lucky to see it”. The mother replied that she’d never seen one before and reached for her phone to take a picture. The little girl sat, playing with her thumbs, repeating over and over to herself “Murmination, murmination”, enjoying the sound of the word and spellbound by the birds. I didn’t have the heart to correct her.

It may only have been a couple of minutes, maybe less before the train moved off again, but I tucked away the memory. It’s almost a year since I last saw a murmuration, I always think of them as precious gifts. Any grumbles about the wet weather, the crowds of Manchester were forgotten. Despite the fact that it rained all day, my jeans were wet and I needed of a strong mug of tea to revive me and take the edge off a busy day, the sight of the starlings, dancing and cavorting with such precision and grace was quite magical.

When I was home, I saw a couple of people had photographed the siting from near the canal and posted them on Twitter, apparently sightings are common there. I found this video on Youtube taken by a man called Ian Coventry in 2016 at Neumann’s Flash, which is close to where I spotted my starlings. Our sighting was much, much smaller.

These small glimpses of the natural world, of birds and animals oblivious to humans fill me with joy, whether it’s the chattering delight of the chaffinches in my garden or a lamb calling for its mother. They remind me there is beauty in the ordinary.

The Blackbird

blackbirdThe blackbird (Turdus Merula), is my favourite garden regular (I’m fickle, so that will change, I can easily fall for the charms of a cheeky squirrel, a bold robin or the delightful wren). In the grey half light I can see six today, five males and one bold female who has tired of fighting off their advances and has taken to sitting in my neighbour’s damson tree.

Two males sit like sentinels on the garden fence, facing each other. it’s just after 4pm and soon it will be dark. The garden is quiet, most of the birds have disappeared for the day, the other blackbirds sit in the tangled branches of the silver birch. They don’t call to each other or sing at this time of day, they seem content to sit and keep watch. Unlike other birds that seem to gather in flocks, the blackbirds sit together, but separate. They are aware of each other, but fly and feed independently. There have been skirmishes all day as they seem to be working out their territory. I wonder if any of these are the offspring of last year’s pair. The ones who  raised two clutches of eggs. I remember we watched helpless as the second clutch was attacked by magpies. The male and female doing their best to defend their nest, but the bigger birds won out, taking the bodies of the young up to the highest branches and gloating as the blackbird pair cried out and flew angrily at them, jabbing the magpies with their beaks. Nature is a cruel thing sometimes.

I have stepped out to fill the wood basket, which disturbs them a little. They soon settle though, not startled into the air like the smaller birds. The goldfinches and sparrows are skittish, these blackbirds seem calmer, happier to share the garden with us. These are the birds that will follow me as I weed and dig, happily grubbing for worms at my feet. Our neighbour has a “tame” blackbird who will feed from his hand. Ours seem content to follow us around the garden, occasionally coming close, but not too close.

The male blackbird is easily spotted, his dark plumage and yellow beak are easy to spot. The female is smaller, brown feathered and doesn’t have the yellow beak or ring around her eye. The females in our garden are more cautious. We often see more blackbirds in winter, I wonder if they are transient visitors or migrants. Or maybe our garden is just “neutral territory” because there is so much food here that they visit from other gardens and then return to roost or shelter in other gardens.

In autumn, these birds stripped the berries from the elder, then gorged themselves on the bright red jewels of the cotoneaster (the photo above was taken in autumn). Now they scavenge for worms and grubs. In spring, they are the first birds we hear in the dawn chorus, one likes to sit in our neighbours crab apple and serenade us at 5am. On those mornings, the blackbird is no longer my favourite and I wish he would stay silent until a more reasonable hour!

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A larger birds swoops low and fast over the garden, a sparrowhawk perhaps or an owl maybe. Whatever it was, it has spooked the blackbirds. They fly away, each in a different direction. I lift a few more logs into the basket and find the dead body of a goldfinch. His body is intact, his plumage perfect, maybe he sheltered here and died of cold (last night was bitter). I pick him up and carry him to the end of the garden, tossing his light body into the fields. As I turn, I see the silhouette of a large bird in the silver birch, maybe the one that spooked the blackbirds. I think that maybe it is an owl. I carry the log basket inside, making a mental note to look up owls in the bird books and see if I can identify it. I pull off my coat, hat, gloves and scarf, kick off my wellies. I clasp my hands around the tea pot, wondering if the contents are warm enough for one last mug before I light the fire. Taking my tea into the living room, I’m drawn to the window. Yes, that’s definitely an owl in the apple tree. I reach for my camera, knowing that it’s too dark, that any photo won’t be worth keeping and as if knowing my plans, a graceful and not identified owl glides away over the fields. It’s properly dark now and another cold winter night begins.

Kitchen Chemistry

kitchen chemistry.jpgHave you ever wondered about all the science that happens in a busy kitchen? Raising agents added to cakes, the fermentation of wine or bread, the amazement on a child’s face when you add baking powder to hot syrup to make honeycomb. I’ve always loved making potions, I was that child who would stuff rose petals into jam jars in the hope of making perfume my mother would want to wear and I never tired of pouring vinegar onto bicarbonate of soda to make volcanoes.

I studied chemistry (failed the A level – like I failed most of my A levels – thank goodness for night school and second chances!) and I’m still fascinated by the alchemy that happens in my kitchen. We don’t often think of it as chemistry, but so much science can be learnt at the kitchen table. More recently, I’ve begun to feel like I need a degree in chemistry just to decipher those ingredients lists – even the ones on the back of my “eco friendly” cleaning products. I have a growing unease about just how “friendly” those products are – and the difficulty in disposing of the packaging irritates me. So, I’ve begun to rediscover some of the old cleaning methods I used when we were to poor to buy the supermarket goodies and Mr T complained the bathroom cleaner made his asthma worse.  I’ve pulled a few old favourites out of my kitchen cupboard, white vinegar, bicarbonate of soda, citric acid, essential oils are all store cupboard essentials here, so why am I not putting them to better use?. My Nanna used to say that you could clean anything if you had enough elbow grease, and she’s right. All these modern cleaning aids, the air fresheners, the silicone polishes, the no rinse shower sprays etc. are meant to make the task of cleaning and maintaining a home easier and speedier. Do they?

A quick survey of the top shelf in my kitchen revealed a scary collection of sprays, creams, cleaners and scourers that I’ve accumulated over the years (does any home really need four  different kinds of leather cleaner / conditioner?)  we even have a bottle of carpet cleaner – even though we have no carpets – just wooden floors! Some of them haven’t been used for years and some of them don’t even contain their original products (the very expensive eco friendly widow spray I bought because it promised to smell of lavender, but didn’t) was soon refilled with my old favourite white vinegar and lavender essential oil, which does a better job). I’m ashamed to say I have a bookshelf full of books on natural home making, recipes for window cleaners, beeswax polish and advice on creating a natural home. They need to start making themselves useful and I’m determined to start mixing up a few chemistry experiments once we’re back from our summer holiday. I already make my own hand salves and lotions, and I will pour a spoonful of bicarbonate of soda onto a burnt pan to make it easier to clean (especially since we banned the plastic sponge scourers). So it shouldn’t be that hard to start whipping up a few cleaning and washing potions?

I want to rediscover the joy of stirring potions and making liquids turn to solids. Yesterday, I dusted off those books and began to make a list of all the things I need to buy (turns out not much) to make my own furniture polish, shower spray, floor cleaner and air fresheners. I’ll share the recipes and results here so you can join in too if you like.

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If you’re interested, some of the books on my shelf are: 1001 Country Househld Hints, Sloe Gin and Beeswax (definitely worth seeking out for the jam, cordial and cheese recipes and Pia Tryde’s lovely photography)  and Rachelle Blondell’s  collection of traditional recipes and remedies Forgotten Ways for Modern Days. You might also want to start hoarding your jam jars, glass bottles and empty spray bottles…

Photo credit: Brooke Lark

5 Plastic Free Shop Swaps

plastic free ocado shopBack in January I wrote a post complaining that shopping online was thwarting my attempts to reduce the amount of plastic coming into my home. Several people challenged me to “try harder” and so I’m pretty proud to say that our general household waste bin has only been emptied once since January and the plastics recycling bin has only been emptied twice. In fact, the straight to landfill  “black bin”, the one that just seems to be full of crisp packets, plastic bags from supermarket veg and non recyclable plastic trays was emptied by mistake – only half full, our local refuse collectors thought they were “doing me a favour” by coming down the drive and collecting it on Tuesday. They though we’d forgotten about it and acted out of kindness. So, now the black bin sits empty and I’m darn sure I’m going to do my best to keep it that way.

So, what are these simple steps I’ve discovered to maintain my addiction to a weekly online supermarket shop, but still cut my plastic? Here are my top five, in  no particular order.

  1. Choose cardboard over plastic food containers. Barilla pasta comes in cardboard packets, with no plastic liner. There’s a small cello window which can’t be recycled. But it’s easily removed before recycling or composting. I’ve also found several companies sell boxes of risotto rice, our favourite is Riso Gallo carnarolli, which is stocked by Ocado. Just by making these two simple swaps we’ve cut our plastic significantly.  (Gluten free foodies might be interested to know that the Barilla GF pasta is a pretty good substitute, especially for pasta bakes).
  2. Choose jars and tins over packets and pouches. Just about every pulse and vegetable is available in a can or a glass jar. We use lots of “ready to eat” chick peas, kidney beans and veg. Metal, like glass,  is easy to recycle. Look for olive oil in glass bottles instead of plastic and ditch that squeezy ketchup for a good old fashioned bottle ( a long handled spoon or a knife is great for scooping out the last dregs if you forget to store them upside down).
  3. Cardboard cotton buds. I know “that photo” of the seahorse wrapped around a cotton bud is hard to unsee, but it might surprise you that most of the big brands switched to cardboard cores for their cotton buds some time ago and they’re easy to find in most supermarkets. Remember to bin them (or chuck in the compost) – don’t flush them!
  4. Fruit and veg in plastic trays and poly bags are pretty hard to avoid if you shop online. But at least these organic tomatoes came in a cardboard tray that can be thrown in my compost bin or recycled – I know, the wrapper  is non recyclable in my area, but it’s one less black plastic food tray – so I’m calling that a win. In addition, the bunch of garlic came with a biodegradable label and tie.
  5. Not pictured here, but one of the easiest switches is possibly to ditch those plastic washing pods that laundry detergent manufacturers are so desperate for us all to buy. Like most of us, I was suckered into buying a box of “pods” when they were on special offer. They are very convenient, but I’ve switched back to a bulk box of non bio powder. The cardboard box is easy to compost or recycle. I don’t use fabric conditioner, so there’s been no need to look for an alternative to those plastic bottle or pouches.

These simple swaps have made a huge difference to our plastic waste and to be honest, we’ve not noticed a difference in our spending. We’ve also stopped buying liquid soap for guests. We use bars of “hard soap” and for visitors who don’t like the thought of sharing soap I’ve been refilling the old hand wash dispenser with a home  made version (I’ll share the recipe soon).

I’ve started making a note of the things we were already doing, and which have become second nature. I’m going to start sharing these more regularly.  It’s almost 10 years since the Guardian featured our “Green Lifestyle” . The simple steps we were taking then to reduce our energy consumption, use environmentally friendly cleaning products and cut our waste should have become the norm for all households. It’s a sad  fact that they haven’t. I want to write more posts about the changes we’ve made over the past 20 years, partly to celebrate our achievements, but also to show how easy it can be to shop and live more thoughtfully, yet with little effort. I’m pretty sure we’ve also saved money, but that’s hard to evaluate because I’ve always been parsimonious (posh speak for mean with my money!)

Manufacturers continue to bombard us with adverts for stuff we don’t need to solve problems we never really had in the first place. They play on our feelings of guilt and self esteem (smelly laundry? buy deodorising capsules. Embarassed by bad smells in the bathroom? Squirt your toilet bowl with special potions before you poop and emerge without a red face. And worried about nasty germs? Coat every surface in your house with antibacterial sprays). Just by refusing to buy into their marketing, you’ll save money and reduce your environmental impact.

It’s not easy, I know. But every step  is a step a step in the right direction.  My simple swaps are just the start. We’ve a long road ahead, but at least we’ve begun.

 

Rhubarb and Ginger Gin (a recipe)

peak rhubarb.jpgWe’ve reached “peak rhubarb”, that point in the season when we no longer look forward to a rhubarb crumble, even my favourite rhubarb fool (made with stewed rhubarb whipped into freshly made custard) no longer appeals. But my rhubarb patch is at the top of its game, huge pink stalks appear almost daily. There’s jam of course (rhubarb and ginger is a rather fine jam), but we’ve grown tired of the huge number of jars that lurk in the fridge as we don’t eat enough of the stuff to justify making more than a couple of jars. Cordials are a good option, and for the last few years I have made lots of this for quaffing on summer evenings. A couple of years ago, someone gave me a bottle of Edinburgh Gin’s Rhubarb and Ginger Liqueur and that sparked an idea to make my own flavoured gin.

Let’s hope we’re heading into a long, warm summer. The kind where we’ll sit out on the patio or in the park until late in the evening. Sip a cheeky glass of something in good company and spend lazy weekends watching the world go by. That’s my kind of slow summer. But just in case we find ourselves in the middle of a wet August huddled around the BBQ and in need of something to lift our spirits, this gin recipe might be just the thing!

Many of you will be familiar with sloe, damson or strawberry gin. Rhubarb however might be new to you. It’s a great make for summer, quick and incredibly easy. If you make it now, it will be ready to take along to summer BBQs in July and August – much tastier (and a little more original) than a green salad or a bottle of Rose! The sharp notes of ginger don’t play nicely with tonic (at least not in my opinion), so experiment with different mixers or serve over ice – in moderation of course!

You’ll need a large jar with a wide neck, caster sugar, rhubarb (the pinker the better), a small piece of fresh ginger and a bottle of gin (cheap and cheerful, no fancy botanicals necessary). Whenever I make flavoured gin, brandy or vodka, I tend to judge the quantities by eye, but if you stick to proportions of 1 part sugar to 2 parts fruit and 4 parts alcohol that should give a sweet enough concoction. (so for this batch I’m using roughly 250g sugar, 500g rhubarb and 1 litre of gin). Pink rhubarb will impart a pretty colour, while green stalks will produce a more amber colour, either way it tastes delicious.

rhubarb and ginger cordial shot

Roughly chop the rhubarb and slice the ginger thinly (no need to peel),  pop them in your jar and pour on the sugar, stir with a wooden spoon to combine. Add your gin and screw the lid on. Leave in a dark, cool place for a week, turning the jar every day so the sugar dissolves. Then leave it alone for two more weeks. Strain through a jelly bag or coffee filter paper. Leave it overnight so that you extract as much gin as possible. Bottle, label and drink neat over ice, diluted with soda or lemonade. Of course, you can leave out the ginger if that thought does nothing for your tastebuds. You could add a vanilla pod instead or just go for straight rhubarb. Just as an aside, in the photo above, the bottle contains rhubarb cordial made with the late summer green rhubarb stalks, while the glass contains an early batch of gin flavoured with the young pink stalks.

For a non alcoholic option, a rhubarb and ginger cordial is a delicious choice. I’ll share some of my favourite fruit cordial recipes here over the summer, but if you can’t wait then you’ll find a great Rhubarb syrup recipe in Wild Cocktails by Lottie Muir, or try Sarah Raven’s Rhubarb Cordial, which you’ll find here. 

Also, it’s not too late to go foraging for elderflowers to make a batch of Elderflower Champagne, you’ll find my recipe by clicking here!

 

The Garden in Early May

I am pruning the Dogwood, well some if them at least. I like to leave some until after they flower, although I know  that if I cut them back now I can plunge the cuttings in the soil to make new plants and the remaining stems with be deep red next autumn. I juggle what I know to be “gardening lore”, with my gut instinct to enjoy what I have in the moment. The air is filled with the buzz and hum of insects. There are dozens of orange tip butterflies, I think they must have recently hatched as I’ve never seen so many in one day. They won’t sit still long enough to photograph, which is frustrating and doesn’t stop me trying (and failing). There are dozens of St Mark’s Flies (named because they allegedly hatch on St Marks Day, which is 25th April), they’re not the most glamorous pollinator in the garden, but they certainly are the most numerous!

Last week the farmer ploughed the field and sowed seeds, this week there are dozens of wood pigeons feasting on the fresh young tips of seedlings. They swoop and soar overhead, occasionally landing, picking the green tips from the soil. As I write this, I can see twenty or thirty of them, field walking like overly keen metal detectorists, their eyes scanning the ground as they avoid each other’s patch of earth.

apple blossom

The apple tree, planted as a pip over 20 years ago is heavy with pink blossom, I hope this means a good crop of apples. It only began to bear fruit a couple of years ago and to our delight the apples are sweet and edible! The tree has grown wild, never pruned it has begun to twist and turn, a few branches are starting to rub against each other and I have resolved to read up how best to care for it (probably too late, but in the spirit of “always learning” I shall borrow a book on fruit trees from the library or fall down a rabbit hole of internet research).

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All our  trees have burst into life, even the hornbeam hedge is greening up. Every year it slowly progresses from left to right, the shady end always waiting until mid May before bursting into life.  The hazel trees should have been coppiced, but we forgot / didn’t get round to it / didn’t want to risk losing a nut crop and so they have been left to grow tall and spindly. Some of the  ones we have coppiced are now a mass of thick young stems, a green hedge, the branches we cut are supporting sweet peas and criss crossed over the veg patch to deter birds from early veg.

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The whole garden seems ripe with promise, the clematis montana has flowered, the aquilegia that self seeded every spare patch of earth are  bringing some much needed colour, this year we have deep crimson, a pale pink and the deepest purple. There is also a patch  with creamy petals with the palest pink tips which are yet to open. They will either be gorgeous or a sad disappointment. You never know what you’ll get with these self seeders (which of course is part of their appeal).

The past two weekends have been warm enough to sit out doors, which has annoyed the robin. He wants us to turn over the earth, revealing grubs and young slugs. Instead we sit drinking mugs of tea, or sipping wine. The grass needs to be mowed, slugs picked off young green plants, the last of the leeks have been left to seed. They look like the palest cream alliums and are so beautiful I always leave a few to go to seed. There air is filled with birdsong, and I can’t help being filled with joy and optimism every time I step outside – except of course the day after the slugs demolished my freshly planted lettuce – on those days even I struggle to love the pesky creatures!

The Undersong

35711401054_178e4796a5_cLost, forgotten words fascinate me. At university I took a course in dialect maps, tracing the origin and spread of local words around the counties of England. I had mentally collected lists of local words for  wild flowers for years as we moved around the country  and later  I collected words about the landscape and nature. My childhood fascination with collective nouns grew into a love of words that describe the landscape and it was at university that I first heard the word “murmuration”,  it remains one of my favourite words. After my last post about the things we don’t see, a follower reminded me of the books by Robert Macfarlane, he writes beautifully about words and landscapes and he’s definitely worth seeking out. “Landmarks” sits on my bedside table, it’s the book I open when I just need a few minutes to lose myself or need to decompress after a busy day, it’s filled with lists of lost words and descriptions of our landscape. Hard to categorise or describe – just find it and read it!

At the moment I am besotted with the word “undersong”, the subtle, underlying sounds of the landscape. As I sit at my desk I can hear the birds, often so loud they drown out the everyday sounds of home.  Mr T, who normally works from home has made a trip to his company office today, I miss the hum of his computers, the occasional ring that signals the start of a skype call, the huffing and ho hums as he scrolls through emails. His chair creaks as he pushes the wheels back and forth over the carpet and occasionally a tune will drift down the hallway as he plays music to calm and relax the stressful parts of his working day. This is my undersong, not the poetic things you imagined?

You were expecting me to write about the distant call of rooks, the grinding of a tractor as it ploughs the field, the lowing of cows, maybe the song of a blackbird? No, I hear all of these things of course. But underneath, in the background there are the sounds of life and community. The house sounds eerie and empty, so I step outside. Our new neighbours are renovating the house before they move in, for days (weeks), there have been builders calling to each other, scraping, sanding, fixing, painting. The “Hello there” of neighbours passing by – none of us can wait much longer for the big reveal – so we’re all being ultra friendly in the home of an invitation to peek indoors (I’ve already had mine!). A few doors down a dog yaps, excitedly greeting everyone who walks past; our regular postman waves  as he pushes envelopes through the door  and calls out – “parcel on the step Trace” – which means the arrival of more yarn or maybe bike parts. If I close my eyes, I know exactly where I am. I am home and feel grounded in my soundscape.

I’ve written a lot recently about the things I see, not so much about the sounds or smells that are familiar. Maybe it’s because Mr T isn’t here today that I’m more aware of the sounds that are missing, the sounds I didn’t even realise I heard.

The Wonder of Things You Never See

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The sky, this morning. Perfect blue and fluffy clouds!

How often do you stop and look up at the sky? While I was hanging out the washing today, I looked up and saw a perfect blue sky. Such a beautiful sight, but so often overlooked as we walk about, head down or looking at the road ahead. It seemed to be such a perfect moment, the farmer was busy ploughing the field that backs onto our garden, being followed by a flock of black headed gulls, swooping and calling as he turned over the earth. I ran inside to grab my camera, such a beautiful sky deserves to be remembered.

This morning I heard my first cuckoo of the year.  At first I thought I had misheard, but no, definitely a cuckoo. I’ve never seen one, I only recognise it’s song (actually, that’s not strictly true, we once watched a female blackbird trying to feed a cuckoo fledgling). Now that the cuckoo is back, it is definitely spring. We are woken every morning by the dawn chorus, I lie in bed listening to the blackbird, I know it’s him sitting high among the cherry blossom. I don’t need to see him, I know he’s there, competing with robins and sparrows to be heard.

I was walking on the edge of  Delamere Forest, one of the nicer parts, filled with native trees, not the tall, sparse Scots Pine. A robin was serenading me, a woodpecker was drilling, high in the trees. So many birds and yet I couldn’t see any of them. I felt sorry for the posse of young mums pushing their strollers, wrangling toddlers, too busy discussing haircuts and last night’s TV in shrill voices to notice the lone cherry tree covered in the deepest pink blossom (they walked straight past it, not even pausing or glancing in its direction), the runner plugged into head phones couldn’t hear the birdsong that made me stop in my tracks. He had no idea the smile on my face was because of that first cuckoo.

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Tiny thing on leaves – how often do we walk past without even seeing them?

I began to think about all the things we know are there, but hardly ever see. The tiny insects we miss, the first buds on the trees (one minute they are all bare branches, the next they’re bursting into leaf). I realised how many birds I recognise by their song or from the briefest of glimpses (a jay, swooping n front of me as I drove along a country lane, a kingfisher, spied from a bridge as we fed the ducks, listening to the song of a nightingale when were on holiday last summer).

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A small patch of bluebells by the edge of the car park.

I took my camera out, to try and capture the overlooked, the missed and the ignored. A few pretty snaps that capture just another spring day. Nothing special, no rare bird sightings or beautifully captured shots, just nature at her mundane best. These are the moments in my day that are special, only appreciated when you slow down, take time to listen and look for  the small things.

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Comma butterfly, sunning herself.