Virtual Japan

March 22, 2020

Marks out of ten?

We’ve had to scrap a long-planned visit to Japan to follow the spring, from the small southernmost islands (one Is Yakushima, home of the little felty-leaved rhododendron) north via Kyushu to Honshu across the Inland Sea, ending in Kobe. We were to take one of the little ships of the Noble Caledonia fleet, and were all ready to leave, when news of the new virus came from Wuhan, and gradually the Far East began to shut down.

We were to have started in Taiwan, which soon followed China in closing its doors. The voyage was then adjusted, to start in Okinawa in the southern islands, and visit South Korea. When South Korea shut down, the problem became the laws of cabotage. No ship foreign to a country can trade between two of its ports without calling in another country. So where was the nearest abroad? Russia. Instead of blossom-viewing we would have to spend four days steaming to Vladivostok and back over a thousand miles on the North Pacific, in March. I’m afraid we cried off – and within ten days the voyage was cancelled altogether.

Our consolation has been England’s most glorious spring. It has been hard to keep away from Kew; the magnolias are as fine as I’ve ever seen them. If only I’d planted M. kobus thirty years ago… We’ve seen the last of them, though, for this year; even the Royal Botanic Garden has been closed. In compensation for Japan’s no-show I have been testing myself on the cherry trees around us and realise how rusty I’ve become on their names. Once upon. Time I could tell a Jo-nioi from a Taki-nioi or a Shirotae from a Shirofugen at a glance. Now, shame-faced, I often have to resort to Picture This, an App that recognizes whatever plant you point your camera at – though Japanese names are not its strongest point.

It’s tempting to have a beauty contest and give marks out of ten. Far better, though, just to marvel at their wonderfully lovely variations on a theme.

Hard crafts

March 3, 2020

Pootling around on the internet the other evening, looking for information about splitting logs, I stumbled on a surprising source: a series of films (some new, some very old) made in different parts of France on their country crafts. Log-splitting is there all right; the ancient art of the merrandier, the forester who renders a solid oak log into perfect slabs for conversion into, for example, barrel staves. Coopers are there, too: the ancestral barrel-makers who fashion a whole barrel from scratch by hand. Their tools alone are a study in practical evolution: planes, chisels, draw-knives, drills, clamps, mallets and the massive beetle so brilliantly called a ‘persuader’.

A barrel, when you think of it, is hardly an obvious container. Who thought of flexing planks and constraining them with hoops to keep them tight together and watertight? The Romans didn’t. They used heavy two-handled clay amphoras for anything you could pour, from wine to corn. It was the Gauls who invented the barrel: weight is no problem when you can roll it.

There are films on thatching, tiling, charcoal-burning, puddling clay and carving sabots (usually from logs of alder). There is the forgotten drama of using rivers for transporting timber, when labourers worked all day up to their thighs in their threadbare trousers, in ordinary shoes (and some with waistcoats and watch-chains) in the water, fishing logs out, stacking them, lashing them into rafts and braving rapids on them.

It is the direct physicality of all these crafts that makes them so familiar, yet so alarmingly remote from modern life. Limbs were limbs; strength was strength: you lifted, you pulled, you carried, you shoved. A pulley or a lever was the only mechanical advantage or way of increasing the force you could apply with your muscles. Your hands were your basic tools, vulnerable as they are. There are no gloves in these films; I flinch as I watch a blade coming down repeatedly within an inch of bare fingers. But that is how we got to where we are.

New wine in old bottles

February 29, 2020

Down-time; the garden in winter

It’s not always easy to say when a plant has had its chips. We’ve all learned to lift and divide border stuff now and then, but when is the now? Your proper professional will have a routine and keep a diary. Besotted amateurs (I’m making a confession) will merely observe and enjoy – even the onset of senility. It gives a border an established look.

When to ditch a shrub can be a much harder question. ‘The slower it grows the longer it lasts’ is a fair rule of thumb: a broom or a mallow that gallops away is soon a diminishing asset; a well-managed rose can go on practically for ever. The real question is not how long it will live but how long will it remain an ornament?

The question came up because one of the terraces in our daughter’s garden on the Riviera clearly begs to be refreshed. There are shrubs with more wood than leaf and flower. An old plumbago has become a thicket, cistus stands stodgy and flowerless, hydrangeas are gracelessly stumpy or leggy, my favourite Solanum laciniatum waves thin flowering shoots above amputated limbs. Only perowskia flourishes in straggly masses of lavender blue.

Is the answer piecemeal chopping, and planting in the gaps? The mixture of old plants and new is rarely a good one. Encouraging the ground-covering herbaceous plants, in this case mainly agapanthus and ‘Society garlic’, as they used to call Tulbaghia violacea, keeps the borders looking filled, but the proportions of height and lower mass soon get out of kilter. You see the bones; it all looks senile. Much better to pull it all out and start again. Then the real foundations of the garden become apparent; in this case olive trees, stone walls blanketed with trailing rosemary, the shining green lemon trees, the pergola with its grapevines and the sentinel cypresses state their simple case. Do we need more furnishing?

Da capo

February 20, 2020

It happens every time I start on a job that needs only moderate concentration. Today it’s tidying a trellis above the wall, pruning a Clematis viticella right back, disentangling last year’s sprawling growth, finding, pruning and tying the rose (Bantry Bay) in the middle of it and tying in the Viburnum x burkwoodii that shares the wall. What happens? I find words and music recycling on a loop in my brain. Often from Hymns Ancient and Modern. Today ‘Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom…’ round and round and round. It’s often Bach (usually the B Minor Mass) or something of Stanford’s.

It can be words without music. King Lear, for some reason, keeps popping up – but then I do keep quoting the bit where Goneril (or is it Regan?) asks him why he needs twenty-five, or twelve, or five, or even one knight to serve him, when her whole household is at his disposal. His response is ‘Oh reason not the need’, with heavy emphasis on the last word. And mine when my wife questions me buying a new…… almost anything. I don’t need a new trowel, but I saw a jolly nice one in Rassell’s over the road.

The da capo in my head is apparently called an earworm, and can be so persistent, says Google, that it rivals tinnitus as a problem. To me (touch wood) it’s more of a pleasant distraction. To turn it off I just got out the ladder and tackled the high bits. That called my brain away to more serious business.

Megalith in the mud

February 16, 2020

Three tons of granite heading south

I have an urge, is it childish, or is it ancestral, to stand long stones on end. It’s certainly not original. In fact stones-on-end are about the only evidence we have of neolithic tastes. The more trouble it took, apparently, the better. Look at Stonehenge.

We moved a handsome stone from Wales down to our garden in Essex, and reluctantly left it there when we moved to London. We had fixed it too firmly. Now we are in the process of moving a larger one (the first was 11 feet long; this is 15) to dignify ‘our’ garden in the New Forest. Last week we reclaimed it from deep in the woods, where for years it has been serving as a bridge over the fast-flowing Afon Dwynant.

I’m afraid the collateral damage will take a year to two to mend. Our future menhir was spanning a gulf over a torrent , hemmed in by tall firs. How do you grab a hold of a heavy object at right angles to where you are? The answer is a huge tractor equipped with a ‘bucket.’ The tractor itself is 10 feet wide, and weighs, with its articulated arm, 17 tons. To say it leaves traces is an understatement. We had to debranch or totally demolish a score of Sitka spruce to give it passage – not a process for delicate feelings. The sheer noisy brutality of it grinding and crashing through the forest would melt a snowflake at half a mile. I admit I revelled in it, as a hundred horsepower and ingenious hydraulics achieved what would have taken workers with only rollers and levers half a year. The only way to get it to the road half a mile away was to drag it sliding through the (abundant) mud on the end of a chain (having snapped three stout straps). Now it’s loaded on a trailer for the journey south.

The Road to Wales

January 29, 2020

The end of the road, near Dolgellau

When it started to rain last week, a good month into a drought that had begun to hurt, it felt like autumn. By mid-summer’s day (according to one calendar) or the first day of summer (according to another) we’d already had more than a year’s average summer weather. Twenty lunches in the garden in succession breaks all records.

With the afternoon sun just perceptibly lower in the sky, the rainclouds and the cool damp air it felt like a different season or another place. Wales, for example. In the four months we have been stuck at home I have dreamed about our woods and the walks I know by heart after 25 years, not alas of residence, but of passionate engagement. Next month we will be able to go back to see hundreds of new trees planted and a new bridge, contrived out of old telegraph poles, spanning our little river. The great stone that it replaces was on its way to Hampshire when the virus struck.

The Snowdonia National Park (we are in it) has a project to get rid of the Rhododendron ponticum that springs up everywhere in the woods, smothering young trees and creating ideal conditions for the Phytophthora that is killing our larches. They undertook to poison all the ponticum. To my fury I have just heard that they have also poisoned the most prized plant on the property. I planted R. augustinii for its blue flowers, to match the bluebells in May, 25 years ago. Augustinii doesn’t look remotely like ponticum. It is a delicate, transparent plant with leaves a fraction of the size and entirely matt, with no shine. The plant was in a prominent place by a waterfall where a simpleton could see it was a deliberate feature. I was beginning to compare it with the beauty by the river at Bodnant. It is now a stump stained
blue with glyphosate. 25 years is not something you can refund.

As soon as we’re in the woods, though, under the beeches with the river rattling by and a whiff of woodsmoke from the chimney of our old stone building, cares will evaporate. I am at heart a woodland creature.

Hush

January 14, 2020

Cabin cruises on Grasmere, 4 x 4s in Tilberthwaite…. The Lakes are in an uproar about inclusiveness. Nobody goes there, apparently, who isn’t white, middle-class, and probably male as well. What the Lake District needs is visitors of all ages, races, genders, socio-economic classes, religious affiliations, blah, blah, blah. Not just people who have read about them, looked at maps, and have a taste for scenery and silence.

Silence. Is it elitist, racist, or anything more than just noisist to want to get away from intrusive sounds? Irrelevant sounds; that’s the point. Wind, birdsong, sheep, even a tractor across the valley are the natural sounds of the countryside. Transistors and revving engines are intrusions.

Forestry is admittedly noisy – occasionally. Chainsaws and bulldozers are no friends of quiet enjoyment. But they only break the silence in working hours during felling and thinning operations. Not at weekends, and for limited and predictable times.

On our hillsides in Snowdonia we have narrow gates with stones to frustrate off-roaders. We have signs that say Dim Modurs, and don’t often see or hear intruders. But we are far off the beaten track and our terrain would seem tame to serious petrolheads. In the lakes, where millions go to breathe deep of mountain air and cock their ears at country sounds, can anyone argue that the general good is enhanced by revving motors?

An iris with claws?

January 1, 2020

The first flower appeared on Christmas Eve, just before we left for the country: a mauve miracle, pale and light-reflecting, with the gold details of a brooch. A wide-open, laid-right- back IrIs. I tweeted (one has to do something to express joy) “A just-in-time Christmas present from God”.

When we got home three days later the little bed in the front garden was thronged with them, a dozen pale lavender brooches looking up at me, and another dozen tiny pouting buds. Flowers are expressionless. They weren’t smiling, just being. Being what the infinitely strange process of evolution has made them – just for now.

Nothing stops evolving. In millenia to come Iris unguicularis will need a new name. It had an old one, Iris stylosa, but taxonomic wisdom saw through that, back to the first time it was described and named, in 1789. Its godfather, Jean-Marie Poiret, was a French priest fascinated by what was then called Numibia, now Algeria, its barbaric culture and its plants unknown in France. His account was published in the year the French Revolution reached its savage climax.

Poiret, with a botanist’s eye for a plant’s distinguishing features, used a Greek word that means ‘sharp-clawed’ – an improbable name for such a soft and delicate flower. He was looking at the petals, which with a lot of imagination do end in a point – though hardly a sharp-clawed one. By the rules of botany, though, his momentary analogy of petal and claw is fixed for ever. He got there first. Where I wonder will evolution take it next? Will it evolve in its arid habitat some new distinctive trait? That will be a problem for a taxonomist a million years hence. And why does it flower unpredictably in bursts in mid-winter? EA Bowles, who looked deep into his favourite flowers, dissected a flower with a razor and discovered that the style, the vital female organ that carries the pollen to the ovary, runs all the way up the flower’s long stem. The ovary is right down at ground level, protected among the long leaves. Hence ‘stylosa’. Perhaps Poiret didn’t know this.

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