Our Cinema

There is a patch in our garden which we’ve recently claimed as a place to take in the view, drink a coffee and daydream.

When we moved to Crockern, our soakaway had not been maintained and the neglect of untold years left a horrid mound of reeds, nettles, bramble and soggy, fetid mud.   We set to work almost immediately to clear it appropriately so that clear water once again could freely flow towards a filtering reed bed below.   We did nothing more, moving onto other projects.

A few summers ago, Roger returned to this spot and set about clearing it of all the overgrowth of plant life.   He lined  with rocks the channel which carried the overflow from our spring.   To pretty things up further, we planted the edges with iris.   This small water feature now serves as a drinking spot for birds, our chickens and Millie and Brock.

Making these improvements allowed our previous swamp-land to dry, a job completed.   But months later, Roger was back in this spot clearing stones.   I thought we were done, “Surely there are a million other projects we should be doing first.”  As anyone who is being honest with herself must admit, I was wrong.

Roger next planted a hedge of alder along the fence.  Grasses, Nettle, Foxglove and Bramble continued to grow, but at least you could walk through without getting a boot stuck in the muck.  Once a year, Roger would strim this area.

Nearly two years after he turned his hand to this patch of land which we weren’t utilizing in any manner, I had a mad moment with the lawn mower.  Working around wildflower patches, I made a clearing.   Something about this location, with its hidden view from a corner of our yard, spoke to me.  Previously impassable and neglected, it was inviting me to spend time here.  I moved a bench from a less than ideal location, levelled it with a stone under one leg, and sat down, satisfied with this development.

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The bench is situated beneath a canopy of a Hawthorn tree, shading it with dappled light throughout the day.   After my morning chores are complete, I head to this bench with my cup of coffee.  The view to the west, backlit by the morning sun, opens with cows and sheep lazily grazing across the hillside.  Off to my right, I see the ripple of waves on the pond as a morning breeze arrives from the north.  It will be cooler today.  Four ducks just flew past up the river from the south, circled wide and landed in the pond for a swim.  Their morning splash a dazzling display as sunlight diamonds dance off the water.

The pond is doing well.  Roger has found a way to redirect the overflow from our spring into the pond at night, helping to maintain its water level during dryer weather.  While the ducks come to visit, they don’t seem to be nesting on the island.  However, the Grey and Pied Wagtails love its edges.  All sorts of bugs skate atop the water.  Just below the surface, it is teaming with tadpoles.  Three swallows just dive bombed some food on the wing before returning to get mud for building their nests.   Recently, we found two pregnant newts in the pond.

All around me is the happy birdsong of Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Robins and Grasshopper warblers.  The Great Spotted Woodpecker is attacking a fence post in search of a morsel or two.  Across the river, Herons are having a raucous party high in the pines. A Cuckoo calls in the distance.  We spotted two recently in a nearby Rowan tree. But this morning, like a James Brown call and respond band, I hear a second Cuckoo answering the first.  Is this back and forth an announcement of territory?  David Attenborough described the female call as “bathwater gurgling down a plug hole” as she announces to her mate she is looking for a place to lay her eggs – as many as twenty – into the nests of Dunnocks or Reed Warblers. I am hearing two males.  Territory claiming.  Announcing their presence to females.  Enjoying the sound of their own calls.

Morning is shifting into lunchtime and the warmth from the sun hits the hedges, they become alive with bugs, bees and butterflies.   As Roger and I enjoy some cheese and fruit, we are treated to a display of  butterflies.  Red Admiral.  Orange Tip.  Green Veined White.  Large White.  Small White.  Small Tortoiseshells. Peacocks.  We will need to participate in The Big Butterfly Count in July.

This new spot in the garden needs a name.  I’m not certain why we like to name locations.  Is it our human nature to let one another where we are?  But this spot is like a movie theatre with landscape and wildlife as the feature film.  I won’t be seeing the new James Bond from this perch, but the action is equally exciting.

Later in the day, we watched the farmer on the hill with his two working dogs shift a flock of sheep by gently walking around them, the dogs using their strong stare and obedience to “lie down”, staying in place.  Millie observes the action from our feet.  Brock, focused on other matters, eats another bucket load of grass.  Both content being non-working dogs.  Cute little slackers.

Suddenly a buzzard flies onto the scene.  A fast flap, gaining speed, and an abrupt 180 degree turn, banking to pick up a thermal.  Lazily it floats above looking for prey.

This is a great place to read, write, and reflect.  Sheltered from the footpath, we can enjoy the moors, unobserved.  Morning coffee, mid-day lunch, evening glass of wine.  No matter the time of day, I can watch without aid, spotting the badger set, across the valley, under a giant Beech tree.  With my binoculars, I believe this is an active set, each entrance showing fresh signs of daily cleaning.   I also spot a sloppy birds nest in another of the Beech trees.  Who lives there?

As the evening sun begins to set, I see the flash of gold feathers, a Goldfinch wearing its jaunty red cap, balance on the branch of a Maple.

Here I sit.  My Landscape Cinema with its quiet view of the valley, rich with sounds of breeze, birds, bugs, river, and the ever changing light.  Drinking in all these small joys as a viral outbreak continues to cast a shadow across the globe.

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Our Kitchen Window

Our kitchen window looks to the south over land dropping down to the valley’s river.  Underneath the waving of tan reed bushes, where I imagine once were green pastures, the land lies crinkled and rocky.

There is an endless magic show outside this window.  The sun poking from behind clouds and the riotous birdsong in the trees and hedges surrounding the house.  This past week, we heard the return of two more of our migratory birds:  The Cuckoo and the Grasshopper Warbler.  Almost overnight, the leaves on the trees are beginning to unfurl.

And, the swallows are back.  We saw four flying about earlier this month.

Most of us are perpetually short of time, but now we are bathed in it.   By the close of the day, I wonder how the hours flew past so effortlessly?  No doubt I lost track of time observing ripples crossing the water of the pond or birds splashing in the bird bath.  Have we always had so many bees on the Willow catkins?

Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I have busied myself intently observing the happenings beyond these panes of glass.  Unlike Jimmy Stewart’s character, I do not have a broken leg.  I’ve recorded in my journal a week of kitchen window observations and remind myself that each of these details happens just once, like an introduction or a death.

 

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Fog Rolling in on Dartmoor

Monday

Today I spotted a small Tortoise Shell butterfly landing on the catkins of the Willow tree.  This very tree self-seeded itself about five years ago.  Things grow slowly here, so it is currently the size of a tree half its age, but it is coming along nicely.  This gives us both hope as Roger recently completed planting 120 trees in our fields.  I did not help.  Instead, I finished filling the certainly-more-than-a-mere-120 potholes along the track.

Next, we have the veg beds to complete before planting out in a few weeks.  And there sits 16 tonnes of rocks to shift as we build up our gabion wall to protect against erosion.  We’re busy.

 

Tuesday

While chatting with one of my brothers, I watched a solitary ant roam about the window ledge, then up and over the screen of my phone.  It paused, perhaps taking in the image of my brother as he laughed at a joke.  I wonder, when will we get our annual ant invasion?  Every spring, for one-day only, the ants come marching into the kitchen from the window or under the cabinets.  For a few hours, they are everywhere.  A proper horror show invasion!   We throw open the windows and the door and within about an hour, they are all gone.  It’s as if they have a nest deep in the stone walls of the house, emerge when conditions are just so, and then head off on their summer adventures.  Was this first ant on a scouting mission, distracted by the conversation between me and Peter?

 

Wednesday

Tonight there will be a Pink Moon, the full moon of April.  Last night we saw the preview of this Supermoon casting the most splendid shadows across the land.   But, as this day has rolled on, the clouds have increased, giving a hazy effect to what had been otherwise a clear blue sky with sunshine.  There will be no lunar observation this evening for us.

“It’s happening Reg, something’s actually happening Reg!”  In the distance, a thick cloud of smoke is filling the air, adding to the haze in the distance.  I hope it is my neighbours having a bonfire, the result of a lot of gardening work, but I will call to confirm.  It’s been so dry lately, a fire could easily travel.

In the upper right-hand corner of the window I watched a spider cast her web.  I am captured by her design and abilities to hang, drop, hang, attach, leap, hang, drop, attach, hang, knot…..

 

 

Thursday

Oh my!  The spider’s web trapped a plump fly.  She’s feasting on it but I can only see this from a distance.  Too close and she retreats, her meal safely wrapped in her web.

There’s a light frost covering the ground and most of the daffodils are blooming.  I had planted an extra 150 bulbs last autumn.  The small white flowers on the Blackthorn have emerged.  We put the hedges in almost four years ago and this is the first flowering we’ve had.  They are finally establishing themselves.  Small daisies are appearing in the grass, a cheery presence.   Seemingly overnight, the nettles are growing in and amongst the hedge plants.  I will go out and cut them to make soup and pesto.

 

 

Friday

What madness!  The chaffinches just chased the Great Tits off of the bird feeders.  Our hens just chased the rabbits (yes, more than one.  Little buggers!) and Jackdaws from the bird seed laying on the ground.  A big rat poked its head out from under one of the shrubs.  Of course, all I need to do is say “damn rats” and off Millie and Brock go to issue their barking orders to who is permitted to gather socially at the feeders.  Rats are not on their accepted list.  Of course, all the other birds fly away too, but are now returning.

Ah, two Siskins!  We haven’t seen them in ages.  Green Finches and Gold Finches are joining the crowd too.

 

Saturday

Those nettles have grown.  I must get busy and do something about them before they become too big, too tough and bullish to confront.

Atop one of the dead trees on the other side of the river a buzzard is perched.  Earlier I watched her circle above and then drop like a rock to the ground.  I wonder what she’s caught?  She’s busy now preening and sitting comfortably with a full belly.  I do love birds of prey and their “top dog” pecking order.

 

 

Sunday

In all of this quiet, it is shocking to see three separate helicopters fly over.  Where are they headed?  What are they transporting?  I don’t think I’ve ever given this much thought before.

Bold as brass, a Stoat ran past before diving in between gaps in the stone wall.  Is this what was attacking the baby rabbit the other day when I heard those horrible cries from the wall?

 

 

Any day

All this activity outside the kitchen window.  The living room window offers a view of the pond and different observations.  Meanwhile, the radio plays the news in the background of my hide.  The daily release of stats with the humanity behind it incomprehensible.  I get up to turn it off and resume my perch.

As the evening begins to creep in, there is a silence like sinking into sleep.  A calm and settled place.

Ooh, there went a bat!

It Feels Like Butterflies In My Stomach

“Millie sit.”  “Good sit.”  Poised on her back haunches, her head drops and ears flatten as she focuses on my every move.  If I twitch a finger, she begins to stand. “No, sit!”  “That’s a good girl.”  I stay still as an old oak, slowly moving my palm out in a stop position towards Millie and give the command,  “Wait.”  Her head tilts.  I say it again before throwing her beloved toy about twenty feet away.  As I begin to turn and take a step in the direction of the lifeless tug toy, she lifts her rear and I quickly must utter  “Eh, Eh, Millie SIT.”  “WAIT!”  I take a deep breath.  “Good wait.”  Millie tightens the coil of her body’s spring.  Moments later, I release her from her wait with an enthusiastic “Okay!”  And off she runs, full pelt towards her toy.

Every day our training regime includes work on sits and waits.  As often as not, Millie does not want to abide by these commands, viewing them as optional.   Naturally, I disagree.  “What’s the point?” our little teenage puppy must be musing.  She is a party girl who is simply on the move and wants to have fun.  She loves to bound across the ground, run through tunnels, jump over obstacles, and return as quickly as possible with her toy for a good game of chase or tug-of-war.

When her toy is not to mouth, she’s happy to follow after and catch leaves, snowballs, or Sam’s tail.  Anything that moves is fair play.  It isn’t possible to sweep the floor or rake leaves without Millie pouncing on the broom or rake. Fortunately, her chase impulse does not apply to birds, rabbits, sheep, horses or cattle.  We don’t know about cats.

As a gentleman dog, Sam is happy in his senior years to have a nice slow walk, preferably without hills, followed by a meal and a snooze by the fire.  Even as a younger dog, he was never one to pursue anything, except cats.  So imagine the surprise to all of us when Millie started spinning and twirling around the kitchen channeling her inner Stevie Nicks singing “Just like a white winged dove” as she followed the latest discovery, a butterfly.  “Ooh Baby, Ooh, said ooh.”

It’s January and cold outside, so what’s this butterfly doing inside?  During this time of year, we daily light the wood burner in the morning and cover the veg beds at night to keep the frost off the plants.  This is not the time of year for a butterfly.  While Small Tortoiseshells can turn up almost anywhere, from city centres to remote wildernesses, they do like it where nettles grow.  We have nettles in abundance, but not in the kitchen.  So hibernating in the barn, the wood pile, or one of the outbuildings makes sense.  But our kitchen?

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It’s too cold to implement our usual catch and release approach which we utilise regularly with moths, bees, butterflies, bats and birds which find their way inside during warmer months.  Sadly, we don’t have any flowering plants inside for this butterfly to find nectar.   It’s lifespan is significantly reduced by choosing our kitchen as its launchpad. To calm and distract Millie, the dogs and I head to sit by the fire while Roger places a small ramekin filled with sugared water and a ball of tissue paper near the window where the butterfly has settled.  The least we can do is feed it while it makes its home inside our house.

Armed with glasses of wine, Roger joins me and the dogs by the fire.  Sam has found a comfortable spot and drifts into a deep sleep, perhaps dreaming of his younger days when his back legs had him jumping over stiles.  But Thoroughly Modern Millie has sneaked out of the room unnoticed until we hear a gentle clinking of ceramic on stone.  Getting up to investigate we find Madam in the window, drinking the homemade nectar.

The Small Tortoiseshell may be one of the most common butterflies in the UK, but it is also the national butterfly of Denmark.  Sure, it is mischievous and disobedient of Millie to be in the window, but more shocking, and perhaps treasonous, is that she ate the butterfly!

Summertime and the Livin’ is Easy

Summertime

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.

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

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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.

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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.”

http://www.bigbutterflycount.org/

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.