A Small Gathering

Sometimes, you just need a holiday.  It’s not necessary that it be a great distance, an exotic location, or even an extended period.  A few nights away, visiting friends is enough to help relax and restore.  And that is just what we did.

With our chickens secured for the weekend, Roger and I packed our overnight bags, Sam and Millie’s belongings, and a few gifts of flowers, wine and snacks into the car and headed out for a two-night stay with friends.   Road Trip!

Ian and Carol have a wonderful set up, living and working on twelve acres in a lovely house.  We arrived in time for drinks, dinner and an evening of catching up and sharing laughs.  The following morning was cool and sunny so we set out with the dogs and walked along the old Roman wall of Silchester, which is near their home.  Often on walks in England, I will think of who travelled along that route before.  Was it Jane Austen in Bath imagining bumping into Mr. Darcy?  Or perhaps, was it an Edwardian farmer gathering gorse on the moors to feed to her horses?  In this instance, I found myself considering the Roman Centurion who protected the homes along these walls.

According to English Heritage, Silchester is considered one of the best preserved Roman towns in Britain.  Growing up in Ohio, we didn’t have such things, suffice it to say, I’m excited.  These ancient ruins were the centre of an Iron Age kingdom from the late 1st century BC where once there would have been a significant town with houses, public buildings and public baths.  There is an old Roman amphitheatre, too.  The wall we are walking along would have been part of the ancient town’s defences.  But now, along parts of the path are hedges bursting with blackberries, sloes, and rosehips.


Last year on our visit, we gathered bags of wind fallen apples and plums, returning home to make jam.  This year, we filled our bags with perfectly ripe blackberries and barely ripe sloes.  There is something appealing about foraging.  The idea of gathering food from the hedges, while the dogs run up and down the path, helps to accelerate the relaxing effects of a get-away weekend.   It slows us down, it connects us with the abundance of food on offer for free.  And, being out and about, soaking up vitamin D and eating several juicy blackberries lifts our spirits.  Glancing up at Roger, who is tall and can pick the higher berries, I laugh to myself with the image of him in a Roman outfit and helmet.  “Now, conjugate the verb ‘to go’.”


As the day unfolds, Roger and Ian head over to a local farm to see the recently hatched turkey chicks, soon to grow to size for Christmas tables across the region.  Meanwhile, Carol and I take to pruning some of the garden.  It is a massive garden, and our few hours of cutting back the shrubs and deadheading the roses worked wonders, but maintaining this garden will require several days a week.  Sensibly, we call it quits and head to the pub.

English pubs remain one of my favourite places.  They are filled with people sharing a drink, perhaps a bite of food, and conversation.  No loud music or multiple TV screens showing sports.  Dogs are welcome.  And if the weather suits, sitting outside in a garden nursing a drink.  Honestly, it doesn’t get better than this.

Before leaving, Carol and I pick beans (we cannot successfully grow them where we are as it is too windy) and then head to the chicken coop to select a cockerel.  Roger and I have never had a cockerel as they can sometimes be mean.  Besides, hens can organize themselves just fine.  But Carol and Ian have three cockerels, and that is too many.  We select a Bantam who appears confident and friendly.  He’s beautifully coloured with head feathers about the ears making him look like he’s wearing headphones.  I’ve named him Tommy.

It’s a three-hour drive home, if we don’t hit traffic.  Our bags and bounty are packed in the car:  beans, berries, sloes and Tommy are all in the car with Sam, Millie and the two of us.  We make our way back to Crockern and strategize just exactly how we are going to introduce this small cockerel to our rather large hens.  He was fine at Carol and Ian’s, where they have a crazy collection of large hens, Bantams, geese and something that looked to me like a cross between a chicken and a pheasant.  We are hoping Tommy respectfully asserts himself in his new setting in Dartmoor.  Meanwhile, we can get on with making a crumble, some sloe gin, and putting some beans on the table to go with the rest of our dinner.

Now well rested, tomorrow we’ll get back to work.


Just How Green Was my Valley?

What a summer we’ve had so far. Sunny, warm days filled with unobstructed light stretching late into the evening. Soft breezes rustling the trees, leaving enough insects in the air for birds and bats to swiftly buzz past as they take their in-flight meals. It has been fantastic. It has also been green.

In 1961, Johnny Cash wrote the song, Forty Shades of Green about his memories of Ireland. I wonder had he visited Crockern at that time whether he would have written a different song, because I know I am seeing across the meadows and moors, at least fifty shades of green.

The walk is just beginning, and already so many shades of green.

The walk is just beginning, and already so many shades of green.

On a recent afternoon walk with Sam, I pause to look up the vast hillside along the river heading north. I can’t help but notice how the luminous and green earth tones seem to recede into the background helping make the smaller patches of brown and black cows or white sheep appear so clearly. They pop out of the green, as do the yellow gorse flowers and pinkish-purple fox glove flowers. Even so, the dominant colour is green, a variegated patchwork of it!

With so much of one colour, the landscape could almost appear flat and yet it is deeply textured with the acid-neon greens of the grasses closely grazed by sheep laying snuggly next to the jade green of the gorse bushes. At their very base, the clumps of reeds and tall grasses resemble British Racing Green before they transition to the harlequin of the seed heads. Upon closer inspection, the lawn green colour of the grasses under my feet is laced with reds and browns.

A short distance ahead is Witstman’s Woods. Despite its legendary haunted tales, it sits like a fuzzy mirage in the distance. The sun is shining brightly revealing the Hunter, Shamrock, Apple, Spring and Leaf greens of the individual trees as might be captured in a botanical painting by William Hooker. But as the sun slips briefly behind a cloud, this montage of colours morphs into one cool aquamarine and the canopy of trees melts away into the hillside.

We're into the woods.

We’re into the woods.

Sam and I make our way over the stile and toward this jungle-like wood of ancient dwarf oak trees. There is something otherworldly about this grove of trees as if stepping into a stage set for Lord of The Rings. The trees grow from between huge granite boulders that are covered with such a variety of mosses and lichens and the whole place is vibrant with bird and insect life. Each of the trees has an arthritic look with gnarled, stunted branches reaching in all directions; they too are dripping with mosses and lichen. Deeper within the wood, all manner of bramble, wild honeysuckle, bilberry, grasses, ivies, and ferns grow untouched by walkers or grazing animals, making the huge boulders invisible.

We leave the woods and continue north towards the weir. As we scramble over sturdy stones and walk along ancient dry stone walls, my eyes are drawn to the grey-green, green, silver green, and yellow-green on every possible granite and wood surface. These slow growing lichens and mosses, punctuated with the emerald fronds of ferns and the viridian of stinging nettles, remind me of the camouflage uniforms of some military fatigues.

Mosses and Lichens display the continuum of green.

Mosses and Lichens display the continuum of green.

Sam and I looking down the river valley.

Sam and I looking down the river valley.

The return leg of our journey takes us along the leat with glorious views of the river valley. Ahead is a forest of pine trees. The air grows considerably cooler and you can almost smell the green – an equal mix of calming and uplifting — as we enter this stand of tall, straight fir trees planted by the Forestry Commission. Their boughs give shelter to fuzzy mosses and bright green and bottle-green ferns. It is from these woods at night we hear a Tawny Owl and, during the day, a raucous party of squawks from a colony of Herons. The other day, one flew from its nest, circling around our house looking rather prehistoric as it attempted to land in the ash tree, with its Kelly green leaves and bouncy branches. Too heavy to gain purchase in this tree the Heron returned to the forest.

Down by the river, I came across three people dressed in olive-drab waders. They were with the Environmental Agency and conducting a survey. Happily, the fish life in the river is doing well. After just a few hours of counting, these scientists had identified, along with a few eels, over two dozen salmon and over two dozen trout, including one which was 10-inches long!   While standing and chatting, I spot some wild mint growing and marvel at the elegant jerky flight of a dozen dragonflies, their iridescent green and blue wings sparkling in the sun.

Moss, bramble, lichen, and green grass.

Moss, bramble, lichen, and green grass.

Back at the house, I can see the celadon seedpods hanging in the Sycamore and Laburnum trees. The farmer on the other side of the valley has been cutting his hay meadow. Today there are rows of dark green grass waiting to be bailed, exposing the lighter rows of cut grass: a striped tee-shirt look to the field.

Before calling it a day, I make my tour of the garden and to see how green is my thumb. We have seven types of lettuces growing some tinged with reds, others looking like a granny-smith apple. Cabbages, onions, potatoes, spinach and chard all provide their various shades and tones, and the outer leaves of the artichokes have a lovely patina. The stems of the rainbow chard vary from a cool iceberg lettuce towards a purplish-green. The beet leaves are tinted with magenta. Our greenhouse is filled with herbs, strawberries, green tomatoes waiting to ripen, and cucumbers, which make me feel cooler on a hot day by just looking at them.

My green (and blurry) thumb by some of the herbs.

My green (and blurry) thumb by some of the herbs.

Part of our vegetable garden.

Part of our vegetable garden.

The greenhouse.

The greenhouse.

Even our blueberries are green!

Even our blueberries are green!

As the day winds to a close, I’m giving the green light to cocktails. Roger squeezes limes into our G&Ts; I set out a bowl of Gordal Olives and put an Al Greene disc into the player. My mind is filled with the colour green and its equal associations with renewal and growth or the lack of experience and need for growth. The Green Party, Going Green, Green thumb or Green fingers, waiting in the Green room, the Greenback, Green-Eyed Monsters, Greener pastures, Green with envy, Greenhorn, Green around the gills, and more mundanely, should I paint a room green?

Then, as quickly as it started, I stop this internal list making. Roger and I sit back and relax to watch all manner of birds at the feeders, including of course the Greenfinches.

This Old House is Home

This Laburnum greats us each time we walk out the front door.

This Laburnum greets us each time we walk out the front door.


I open the door in the morning to take Sam for his first walk of the day and am greeted by a dawn chorus and a powerful sweet floral aroma. The Laburnum tree outside our house is in full flower with its yellow dripping blooms, hanging like bunches of grapes, the colour of sunshine. The stimulation of the senses is a heady start to the day and reminds me why Victorian gardeners were so fond of this tree. Despite being highly toxic, it is wonderfully intoxicating!

The tree is also abuzz with bees. There are hundreds of Bumblebees pollinating its blooms and, thankfully, also our garden. With our seven raised beds and one greenhouse fully planted, we need these bees to keep busy. Last spring, we saw an occasional bee and assumed it had traveled a distance. This year, the quantity of bees indicates we may have a hive somewhere and these bees could be making their home outside our front door.

How is it that these bumblebees have selected Crockern as their home? And what is a home anyway? Is it just the place where you live? Is a home a place that holds favourite things and people? Is it a place to retreat for peace? A place where we can spend an entire weekend in our pyjamas if we choose?   Or, as The Temptations suggest, a place wherever that Rollin’-Stone-Papa laid his hat?

If a house is a place that provides basic needs and safety, does a home provide mental and emotional well-being, a place to look forward to being in to escape the trials and tribulations of the outside world? According to psychologists, a home has less to do with décor and design and more to do with enabling its inhabitants to let go, even with its demands and quirky aspects. It is a peaceful and happy place, a place to spend time and share with others, to make memories through shared laughter with friends and family. It’s less about the building and more about an emotional connection, a sense of comfort and wellbeing. A home is a sanctuary.

But, do Bumblebees even consider such distinctions? For them, any dry, dark cavity can become a home. Abandoned rodent holes are ideal. Compost heaps will serve a purpose. Some bumblebees make nests in thick grass, bird boxes or trees. The ideal criterion is a place that is relatively undisturbed. They don’t like nesting in areas with extended exposure to the sun as it can overheat their home. I share a few home-criteria with the bumblebee, for instance, I don’t want our sofa to fade in the sun.

In my lifetime, I’ve had at least fifteen different addresses. Roger has had more than a few, too. Some I would consider a home, others, simply a place to live. And yet, when we return to Crockern, we both have a strong sense of coming home. This old house, complete with its three-page excel spreadsheet of projects to do, hugs us when we cross the threshold, welcoming us back like a favourite Granny with some warm chocolate cake. On a windy, wet evening, we feel snug and dry. On a sunny summer’s day, we bask in the beauty of the landscape. Compared to previous places we’ve lived, Crockern requires a good deal of attention. It kicks up demands greater than any narcissist. Most recently, we’ve had to dig up a soak-away and establish drainage when it became overgrown and blocked. Water from our spring was overflowing and had to be redirected until we could solve the problem. A five-hour project we had not planned to undertake.

This happens, but certainly less so as we’ve become nuanced partners with the eccentricities of this old house. No longer mere residents, caretakers or renovators busy playing catchup, we are now engaged in a subtle rhythm with Crockern. And just like the couple celebrating their golden wedding anniversary – long after guests have left the party and the music has stopped — we quietly turn familiar dance steps. While our renovation efforts downstairs are chugging along slowly, we have new tasks presenting themselves weekly if not daily and we adjust.

But despite this predictable pattern of facing unpredictable projects alongside our planned ones, Crockern remains magical. It captivates and enchants. It provides a deep sense of place and belonging. There is a peace and quiet that befalls us each time we return up the track creating a quality of life unsurpassed by previous places we’ve called home. The old saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.” seems challenged by living here. Or is it now truer? Both of us find ourselves feeling the freedom of “living in the moment” more than ever before. Nourished and revived, we happily work hard or take long naps as the day dictates. It isn’t always easy dealing with what gets thrown up at us: Death. Predation. Smashed fingers. Determined sheep. Leaks. Floods. Rats. Rabbits. Foxes. Badgers. To name but a few. But each day, we are profoundly content.

I understand why the bumblebees have selected Crockern. (I should also add the recent influx of too many rabbits!) It’s a beautiful location, free from insecticides and lots of blooms to pollinate. There is plenty of fresh air and, occasionally, some harsh weather, but still lots of protection. And that Laburnum? Fantastic! I don’t know where this nest is exactly, and if I find it, I shall consider myself very lucky as bumblebee nests aren’t easy to locate. Mostly, I’m happy to let these bees get on with life and do their own thing. A perspective Crockern teaches all who live here. These bees are doing a fabulous job of pollinating plants, wildflowers and our vegetables. Let me root, root, root for the home team, encourage them to make themselves at home, and I’ll look up into the tree and say to those bees, “Keep at it!

We have two of these trees.  This one is in the back of the house.

We have two of these trees. This one is in the back of the house.


One Finger and Three Chicken Butts

There are times when we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, facing a difficult choice amid two unsatisfactory options.   Then, there are those times when we find our finger, specifically my left index finger, between a rock and another rock.  Ouch!

The injured finger.

The injured finger.

Nearly two weeks ago, Roger and I were once again, hefting, lifting and returning heavy granite stones to one of the stonewalls.  This section failed earlier in the spring with large rocks giving way and making a nice trespass for the sheep in and out of the field.  On the day of the injury, the sun was shining brightly and we were filled with pride after hours of successful rock placement and wall repair.  Nearing the end of our efforts, we heave-hoed one last, and rather large, rock onto the wall.  It went into place all right, but did so before I could get my hand out of the way.

“Ouch!  Fuck!” began my colourful expletives, rapidly growing technicolourful.   I will not deny it, the pain was incredible and to match it came an outpouring of expletives that put me in a league with the burliest of truck drivers.

A quick trip to the local hospital and a few X-rays later, I was relieved and happy to learn nothing was broken.  For three days, I wore a splint and changed bandaging before the follow-up appointment that confirmed I also had not experienced tendon damage.  While my finger remains swollen, tender and unable to bend fully, I am keeping my fingers crossed (well, as many as possible) that all will be back to normal soon.

There is never a good time for an injury, but August has been especially tough as we’ve been busy.   Many friends and family have come by for visits, which keep us on our hosting toes.  We’ve readied the downstairs for our big renovation push and the garden is kicking out a good deal of produce, some of which we share with the birds, butterflies and slugs who get there first.   In August, we also made a quick trip East to pick our cherry tree.

Fortunately, our cherry picking adventure happened before my Oh-Roger-can-you-do-this?-My-finger-won’t-bend injury.  We rent a cherry tree on an orchard.  How this works is we pay a small annual fee and the knowledgeable farmers net, prune, manage and write a monthly newsletter filled with updates about our tree.  When the cherries are ready, we arrive with our boxes and commence harvesting.  We have just the one tree, and this year came home with nearly 18 kilograms of cherries.  Having pitted our cherries, we set about creating the following:

Twenty jars of jam,

Six jars of pickled cherries,

Three kilo’s pitted and frozen for future use,

Nightly bowls of cherries as a snack,

Various cherry desserts,

Gift bags of cherries to friends;

And last, but by no means least, cherry liquor, which will be ready in the New Year.

Cherry Tree

Our Cherries are ripe for the picking!

Hours of pitting should have put us off cherries, but oddly we find ourselves wishing we had two trees!  It must be divine intervention that there is a waiting list to rent trees.

It is just this sort of thinking, “If some is good, more is better.” that has landed us with more rescued chickens.  This month, our flock has grown from four chickens to ten.  The original plan was to go to the rescue centre and collect four more hens, but when we arrived, I with my bandaged finger, they with their bald, featherless little bodies, I couldn’t stop myself.  “If you need us to take more, say six, we can do that.”  No discussion with Roger.   No consideration as to whether we really needed six more chickens.  Just pure impulse, and a desire to save more chickens, had me gather more.  Into the crate in the back of the car the six went and onto my lap leapt Sam, he having no interest in riding in the back of the car with six scrawny new chickens.  Thankfully, Roger was in complete agreement that a couple more chickens would only add to the fun.

This new cluster of hens is feistier from the last group we rescued.  They are ex-free range, yet despite their right to roam during their working months, they are surprisingly short on feathers.

Rescued Chickens

One of the six newly rescued Hens. In another month, she’ll have all her feathers.

There is a trick to introducing new chickens into an established flock.  Most literature on the subject recommends a minimum two-week separation between the old and new flocks.   Due to our set up, we squeaked by with a week.  We would have preferred a shorter period still, but the establishment of pecking order was so dramatic, we were prepared to give it more time.  The top hen from our original flock was not having any of this rescue nonsense.  Clearly, she had forgotten her own humble roots as a working girl.  Her squawking, strutting and yes, chest thumping with the self appointed leader of the new flock was something else.  “Bwaaaak!  Bwak! Bwak! Bwak!!!!”  Chest thump.  Head peck.  Jump on top of one another.  Wings flapping.  More squawking.  The risk of serious injury was increasing as the two were engaged in their girl fight until Roger and I intervened.  These sorts of squabbles reveal how mean hens can be to one another if they don’t have space.

Within a week, the chickens reached détente and became one flock.  The thing that may have sealed the pecking order battle was recognizing the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  Early in their integration process, we had the new flock out in the grass in a portable run.   These six were safely caged.  Meanwhile, the original four were freely roaming, pecking, scratching, sunning and doing chicken-y things in the yard.   Suddenly, a huge ruckus of upset chicken sounds filled the air as a dog ran rampant through the yard attacking our hens!  This dog was out of control from its owner when it jumped our gate, chased our chickens and attacked three of the four.

Feathers littered our garden giving us the certain thought we would find four dead chickens.  Roger and I spent about twenty minutes searching.   We located one, unharmed sitting on a nest.  The other terrorized three were hiding between rocks and hard places, with nothing but their now featherless butts visible.  They were all alive, but now looking a lot more like the newly adopted chickens that all witnessed the dog attack.

For the next several days, we tended to the wounds.  With my own injured finger bandaged, we placed the chickens into warm water, washed their bottoms and applied antiseptic cream.  After the dog’s violent attempt to catch and kill our hens, all the chickens seemed to conclude that they were in it together and the pecking order was established with ease: Roger and I are here to keep them safe; they just have to get along.

A Flight of Swallows

Mission bells ring as crowds gather, with all eyes turned toward the skies.  Mariachis play, a parade marches past and a huge fiesta kicks off to celebrate the annual return of the legendary Cliff Swallows at Mission Capistrano in California.  While Roger and I may not greet the ancestral migration of the equally loyal and remarkable Swallows of Crockern with a fete, we find their annual return and summer visit remarkable nonetheless.  (See also, https://crockernfarm.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/bird-song-dartmoor-cuckoos/).

Consider the distance they’ve traveled from Africa, managing to negotiate their way back to their birthplace, here at Crockern, just to raise their young at our house.  Admittedly, I could use some of their navigational skills as more than a few times I’ve found myself lost down a Dartmoor country lane.  Once here, the Swallows roost under the eaves of the house; inside the barn, chicken coop, and all the sheds; on top of some fencing we left propped up in a corner; and, among debris I was planning to take to the tip, but now must delay.

Swallow at Crockern Farm

Up on the roof

There is an old saying, “When the Swallows fly high, the weather will be dry.”  I remain skeptical as to whether or not one can accurately predict the weather by observing the flight pattern of a Swallow, but their busy nature does confirm a fine day in the making.  The warmer and dryer the weather, the more bugs and with them, more Swallows on the hunt.  We have had an extended run of clear days this summer and so have been outside addressing a number of projects.  In the past two weeks we have completed our track repairs, built a concrete base for a new oil tank, mended more of the stonewalls, and kept abreast with the growth in the vegetable garden.  Being outside for most of the day I am drawn to watching the zigzagging flight patterns of our Swallows.  I know we don’t own these Swallows, but I think of them as part of the gang of critters and creatures who consider Crockern their home and as such, they are part of our family.

Like any family member, they give great joy along with the occasional annoyance.  Take for instance their wonderful chirping calls as they dive bomb through the air feeding along the way.  Swallows have a number of songs to communicate excitement, attract a mate, or issue an alarm.  Typically, their delightful musical twitterings are comprised of a simple melody followed by clicking sounds.  But the call denoting “Feed Me!” by the young, that early morning demand and begging solicitation, is most uncivilized and wakes me up.  This is neither cute nor clever.

Despite this rude awakening, I find Swallows to be among the loveliest of birds with their graceful movements and bodies shining blue and black when the sun hits their glossy wings.  I like seeing their pale bellies, splashes of red at their throat, and those long tail feathers as they soar through the air.  Sometimes when the Swallows return up the valley, I watch their flying dance imaging if each were trailing long bits of fibre, how they could easily braid a rope.  Mostly, I find their flight agility as nothing short of miraculous.  It’s a noisy, busy, aerial display available daily confirming the most basic truth:  the smallest things make life wonderful.

There are few predators agile enough to catch a Swallow, but sometimes Sparrowhawks or Hobbies are able to do so in flight.  I love Sparrowhawks and cheer on their survival, but I do not want to be witness to the snatching of a Swallow.  Which side to choose?  While shoveling the umpteenth bucket of rocks (by the end of a single day, nearly two tones shoveled and moved) to make the concrete mixture, I looked up and saw a scene reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds, with about thirty Swallows mobbing a Sparrowhawk near the trees by the river.  From the distance, I don’t know if the Sparrowhawk held a Swallow in its clutches, but I do know that the Flight of Swallows saw off this spectacular bird of prey.

I enjoy the aerial acrobatics of these elegant birds and happily benefit from their insect hawking expertise.  Mosquitoes, Midges and Aphids are among the Swallows’ food, captured and devoured almost constantly while in flight.  The Swallows may be helping our broad beans survival since our beans have a few aphids, despite the companion planting of nastursum (admittedly, planted too late) and leaving a patch of nettles nearby.  I recently learned that a Swallow consumes 60 insects per hour, based on a 14-hour day, that’s a whopping 840 per day!  At last count, we have twenty-three nests, with at least 2-6 Swallows per nest, so by my calculations, that is over 77,000 fewer insects, on average, when we are enjoying our bar-b-que.  How can you not love Swallows?

And so what if they are a bit piggish, aren’t they entitled?  These birds give new meaning to Puritan Work Ethic:  constantly catching food, repairing nests, singing songs, and coursing back and forth over 600 miles a day, at an average speed of 45 miles per hour, as they forage for bugs.  They spend most of their waking hours on the wing, more than any other songbirds in the world, and do this just to catch enough flying insects for their survival and that of their young.  When they aren’t swooping about, they rest briefly on tree branches or on our roof, the very one we had repaired in December.

Swallows at Crockern Farm

Swallows taking a short rest on the roof

When the Swallows returned in April, following our roof repair, they had some construction work of their own as some of their nests were damaged where we replaced guttering.   It took the parents about a week to build and restore their nests; working dawn to dusk with only brief rests.  Just outside our bedroom window is a cup nest tucked up under the rafters.  If I sit quietly, I can watch the Swallows zoom towards it, hover briefly and then shoot off in a new direction.  I can only view this nest from an odd angle as I hang out the window, so I am left to guessing the number of young living in it.  What I can see are thousands of small mud pellets used in its construction.  As Roger and I move onto the next round of projects, we may wish to observe how Swallows accomplish so much in the course of a day.  Whatever their secret, I draw the line at living off of bugs.

Swallows at Crockern Farm

A Swallow in the nest, one zooming in and I’m hanging out the window taking a not so great photo.

There is something comforting in the knowledge that each summer we can expect the Swallows’ return to Crockern.  And while they are here and I enjoy their beauty, their intrigue, and their bug-eating enthusiasm, I must also make a note — before they flock and begin their epic migratory journey away, crossing Europe, the Mediterranean, deserts and the equator — to locate some bells to ring in their return next year.

“When the Swallows come back to Capistrano

That’s the day you promised to come back to me.

When you whispered ‘Farewell’ in Capistrano

‘twas the day the Swallows flew out to sea.”


Summertime and the Livin’ is Easy


Summertime view from Crockern

Not that long ago in May and June, we began to release our reluctant and extended grip on the memory of winter, all the while continuing to keep a watchful eye for last minute frosts on the garden.   By late spring and the subsequent arrival of a few weeks of sun and warm weather, everything seemed to erupt in a bout of growth and fertility:  eggs hatched, flowers bloomed, and the leaves on trees finally gave shade.

Now, in the height of summer, and in the heat wave in which we currently find ourselves, all of that activity has slowed and it appears July is a time when there are to be no dramatic changes.  The garden is growing steadily without sudden surges.   The dawn chorus is quieter and while the birds regularly visit the feeders, they do so with less noise than in the spring when they were busy attracting mates, building nests, and raising families.  Even the way Roger walks down the track has a quiet to it.  Unlike last year, we are experiencing days of full sunshine, warm breezes and a pace that is reminiscent of the summers of childhood:  Long, lazy days, seemingly without end.

The sunshine, heat and soft breezes have life around Crockern hiding in the shade.  The chickens like it best under the car or the rose bush.  The horse has a shady spot by the wall.  Even the sheep seem to be in hiding, with only the occasional bleating noise from some faraway stand of trees.   However, what we have in abundance are butterflies, moths, bumblebees, dragonflies and loads of other insects.  They buzz, hum, flit and flutter, pollinate, bite, get eaten by birds and know no difference between the inside and outside of our house.

Chickens in the shade of the Car

Two of the chickens keeping their cool in the shade under the car

Chickens in long grass

Our chickens enjoying the long grass of our Slow Gardening efforts

Once we finally managed to keep the sheep out of the yard, we had to address mowing the grass around the house.  We elected to adopt a Slow Gardening approach and keep the grass long in some areas.   No close-cropped, emerald green lawn for us.  Instead, we have longer grasses, ferns and reeds, and with them, wildflowers such as buttercups, clover, speedwell, cow parsley, violets, daisies, stinging nettles, poppies and dandelions, among others.   The Foxgloves and Thistles, with their purple heads, stand tall and spiky and accent, along with yellow gorse flowers, the green landscape.  One might say we are being lazy, but we would argue that we are embracing the essential premise of a Slow Gardening approach where less intervention helps create an environment of wildflowers and grasses for all those beneficial insects that are helping with pollination around the garden.


Dragonfly in the Reeds

Slow Gardening

Slow Gardening and its benefits

Despite our slower pace, we have recently received a 20-tonne delivery of road plannings to repair the potholes, which developed with the torrential rains of winter, along the track to our house.  We set aside two hours a day on this project in order to preserve our sanity and our muscles.  From one of three large piles, we shovel the rocks into a wheelbarrow, which is then carted down the track to the next pothole in need of filling.  We dump the contents into the pothole, rake it smoothly, and then return to the large pile and repeat the process on the next pothole.  This is a labour of love and cheapness.   My achy muscles have me wondering if we shouldn’t just learn to embrace the potholes?  But admittedly, my vanity lights up when people notice the improved track.  Either way, when I stop to take a drink of water, the beauty around me momentarily transfixes me and I’m happy to be enjoying the summer, forgetting my suffering shoulders and arms.

We still have an unending list of things to do, and the next big project is the downstairs and all that it entails:  central heating; new floors, walls, and ceiling; replacing windows; installing stairs and a new bathroom.  Oh my!  But in this seasonal low activity of hot summer days, we appear to be settling into a nice slow pace.  However, we do have another item on the “To Do” list and that is participating in The Big Butterfly Count in Britain next week.  On the national count map from last year, there were no reports representing the middle of Dartmoor.   How can this be?  We have spotted Meadow Browns, Small and Large Whites, Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admiral, and a few that I can not identify as they flitted past too quickly during my practice observation.  I am positive the day we do our count; we will add some numbers to the national tally.

I admire butterflies, with their highly coloured wings, and since they are unable to bite or sting like some of their insect relatives, namely the midge, I think they are marvelous!  Sadly, butterflies and moths are sensitive to environmental change and in the past few decades, have suffered dramatic declines in numbers in the UK as their habitats have been destroyed.  Sir David Attenborough said, “The Big Butterfly Count should be great fun.  Butterflies are extraordinary, heart-lifting creatures – visions of beauty and visions of summer.  Butterflies in profusion tell us all is well with nature.  When they decline, it’s a warning that other wildlife will soon be heading the same way.  So with the big butterfly count we will be doing more than just counting butterflies, we’ll be taking the pulse of nature.”


It couldn’t be easier to participate and does not disrupt our summer pace:  Fifteen minutes of watching for butterflies, counting what is spotted and all this from my garden chair!   So serve up a beverage and snack, hand me my notebook, and let me take a seat and register numbers while I delight in seeing the butterflies flit about from flower to flower, doing all the hard work in our garden.

Life can be so expansive and yet we still return easily to the elements of childhood.  On a recent trip to Montana with a group of childhood friends, the smells from a backyard grill in the air, we sat on a deck reminiscing about our days growing up in Ohio, and I was instantly transported to a time when life slowed, laughter erupted, and we watched butterflies and clouds with carefree abandon.   After a day of work outside, I admit to a weakness for the ordinary pleasures of the end of a day:  a shower, a gin and tonic and a book.   In the evening, while sitting in the hot tub, we are grateful for the diving patterns of all our resident Swallows as they feed on the midges that are in pursuit of our pliable, edible skin.   As the evening draws in and the last of the Swallows head to their nests, the remaining million or so midges set about their full attack on us.  We retreat, hiding deep in the water until the bats begin to sail past and pick up the Swallow’s abandoned feast.  As the stars finally emerge in the night’s sky, we know to experience a long summer’s day is well worth a few itchy bites.