Monday, April 30, 2007

"She never stumbles...

... she's got no place to fall."

Humility is like balance, as soon as you become conscious of it you're well on the way to losing it, and as soon as you start thinking how good yours is, you've lost it altogether.

Humility obviates humiliation, loss of humility leads to humiliation. If one is blessed, humiliation may lead to a restoration of humility, albeit temporary. ("Nobody has to guess...)

Here endeth the fortune cookie wisdom.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Friday, April 27, 2007

Rennes: Jardins du Thabor

When we go to Rennes, one of the best places is the jardins du Thabor, not least because dogs are allowed there. They have to mind their ps and qs, of course, but so does everyone. The gardens are a very regimented place, as thes tulips and pansies will bear witness.

There is a place where dogs can run free, but otherwise they must be on a lead, and if one trangresses, in this or any other matter, an immaculately courteous parkkeeper/gardener will materialise and put you straight. We were walking across a grassy area, and one approached us and asked if we would please not go on unauthorised grass. I'm sorry, I said, we didn't know. We saw no sign...? There are only signs, he told me, when one is authorised to go on the grass, otherwise one is not. But the grass is very special; even the daisies in it are above your ordinary run of daisies.

But I don't object at all that the place is so protected, ordered, prized. In a world were people lament that park-keepers have gone the way of railway porters and bus conductors, and neglect and vandalism seems to be the order of the day for our once treasured public spaces - or that is the impression I retain of the UK, it is less the case here, it is somehow reassuring to find a lovely place guarded so fiercely, and not only the Rennais but also people further afield in Brittany speak with pride and ownership of the Thabor.

You enter the park down an avenue of horse chestnuts,

which at that time (a couple of weeks ago now) were much further advanced in leaf than they were around here, indeed, the journey of less than a hundred kilometres south and east seemed to be somewhat of a journey into spring.
You walk up a small hill to the dog friendly area, where you can also stop for a game of table football, or le babyfoot as it is quaintly known,

past long parallel borders of azaleas, rhododendrons and other shrubs

and down toward an aviary of finches, doves and parakeets. The wire of the enclosure made photographing difficult, but the birdlife outside was interesting too, such as this greater spotted woodpecker.

Continue through the showy parterre where the tulips stand to attention, but where island beds also offer luscious peonies

and delicate magnolias,

and on towards the garden of medicinal plants. Some of my students who once studied in Rennes, medicine, biology, pharmacology remember this place affectionately as part of their studies.

" Look at that wonderful leaf mould!" Tom exclaims.

At the centre of the circular labyrinth of the physic garden is a stone pond,

where the pansies match the goldfish

and Molly wonders about things which live in water.

Then meander out through an arboretum of strange and charming trees,

and back into the streets of the town.

Hedgerow love story

In a sunken lane, away from prying eyes, ( except for mine, and a cow or two's)
A wilding lilac chose to live
In a sweet mesalliance with a daggle-taggle hedgerow broom.
"Mauve to yellow, lilac to gold, mon beau genet, we complement each other so;
No cruel-spined berberis or poison-pod laburnum
Could be a match for me as you are!"
" Ah my dear!"

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


"Going to see the little foals then?" asked Marcel, when he saw me going out with the camera, a cherubic and fairly unusual smile changing his face.

Un homme serieux, Marcel, meaning a hard-working man, one who takes commitments and responsibilities seriously. This is reflected in demeanour; to smile too much,to be over-jolly or familiar is to risk being construed as lightweight, frivolous, unreliable. And sober too, in all senses, unlike his brother Francois, a good man but ruined by cider and Calva, died a few years ago, and his sons tend the same way; though Marcel once told me exactly the recipe for making the aperitif from the walnut leaves and green walnuts, at home it's only Orangina and coffee. In his mid-eighties now, he worked the farm of his wife's family a mile or two from here, a former manoir, L-shaped around a courtyard, grey granite with a beautiful tower, now crumbling, used as a barn. Ann, his wife, was born the same year as my mother, 1914, so is some years older than him. She is gracious and discreet, kind and friendly but rather sad, still preparing meals, still to be seen with him on sunny days sitting under a parasol by the woodpile, but mostly blind, weary with age, hanging on for him. Their small, foursquare modern house, its flowers and potager are new-pin neat; they worked hard all their lives and prospered, but had no children.

" Yes, perhaps." I replied. There were two mares in the paddock in November, then they disappeared. In March, however, I was walking and saw two horses there again, and with them an elderly man, a typical Gallo-Breton farmer, small, workmanlike clothes, flat cap, strong accent and by the loudness of his speech, rather deaf - which made understanding each other less than easy, but with a nifty, new model, red roadster which looked like it should have been driven by someone in marketing.

"They're back!" I exclaimed. However, I learned that only one was from the original pair, the other, her mother, had died suddenly. A horse should not be alone, he said, they pine (s'ennuyer ), so he had bought another mare in foal to keep her company. Clearly not short of a few euros. The foals, he said, would be born in the coming months. The girls clearly got on very well, grooming each other with their teeth, rubbing off shedding hair,

or at other times standing back to back, shifting their increasing and cumbersome weight from foot to foot, acquiring that torpid, inward-looking, elsewhere look I have sometimes seen in pregnant women shortly before giving birth. But they were always gentle and friendly, plodding over to the fence to say hello and rub noses.

Then, a few days ago, I walked there and two foals were lying in the grass. Another elderly man came up on a bicycle, and the occupant of the nearby house, who happens to be my former next-door neighbour's daughter-in-law's father, so is known to me (familiale, this area), also joined us. " You want photos, that'll be 10 euros!" Evidently, the birth of these foals is a cause of some celebration; one had arrived the previous day, she lifted her head to look at us,

then her mother settled down beside her.

The other was a few days old, and quite lively and mischievous.

As I returned past Marcel's, I called out " I've just seen the new foals!" and stopped to chat. He had farmed with horses, he said, until about 1955 or 56, when the first, small, tractors arrived. Always two or three horses, he said, and sometimes we had foals. He would take the mares down to Moncontour where there would be seven or eight stallions; they were ridden out from the haras, the national stud farm at Lamballe, and would stay at the stations from spring until summer. There are two strains of Breton horses, the trait, the draught version, mighty and solid, and the quicker and lighter postier, developed to transport mail and passengers around the region. The two largely became hybridised, but the breeding programme at the haras now seeks to refine and redistinguish the characteristics of each. (The National Studs are an important institution in France, the first ones set up by Napoleon.) The keeping of them is a hobby for farming people; there is some work done by them in forestry, where they are less damaging than tractors, but in general they are not working animals. Box vans containing state-of-the-art veterinary equipment travel the countryside to assist with their care and mares are artificially inseminated, which is safer in every way. But many who keep them now remember when they were employed on the farms, so the link has not been broken. At the displays and open days at the haras along with the tourists are often local people, knowledgeable and passionate, who seem to know the horses and their grooms by name.
The horses lack the picturesque elegance of the tall, feathery-footed English shire, or even that of the pearly grey Percherons of Normandy; they are square, massive, large-headed and short-legged, but they are beautiful in their own way, and endear themselves by their kindliness.

" There was one foal didn't make it," Marcel continued "the mare had something wrong, he was born after just thirty-six weeks."
" What's the normal gestation?"
"Eleven months. I found him in the field, he was no bigger than your dog, but still alive. I put him in a box by the stove to be warm, and drew some milk from the mare, put it in a baby's bottle, but the instant I gave it to him, he died."
I wondered that this story came back to him, standing out in his memory after seventy years of life on and around farming, with all its successes and failures, its harsh practicalities and unsentimental pragmatism. I saw him, still a youngish man in his thirties, but with the couple's hopes of children fading, and the survival of a tiny, hopelessly premature foal taking on exceptional importance.

A day or two later, in the late afternoon, I called out to Tom that I was going to see the horses. They and their mothers were up and about,

and I scrambled under the fence to get an unobstructed view of them. One of the mare's came over and greeted me affectionately, and happily introduced her foal. Molly snuffled about in the ditch and watched with interest.

So absorbed were we in this inter-species entente that it took me by (pleasant) surprise when I turned around and Tom was standing on the path in work clothes, looking and smiling.
"I'm not really here," he said " I'm still back at the house. Astral projection."
For half an instant, half of me half-believed him. One of those funny moments.

We walked home, side by side down the parallel trackways in the growing wheatfield.

Happy Birthday Catalyst!

Bring out the yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!
Friend Catalyst, when last responding to being tagged in a meme, let on that he is, in fact, the 15th cousin of Winston Churchill. This should not astonish us, for indeed, the family resemblance is quite striking.
(PS: having just gone over to his place, I observe that in his new incarnation C. is no longer a pirate, but has revealed a more pensive, sensitive side to himself in his new portrait... ho-hum, all is change...)

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sunday, April 22, 2007

leaves uncurled

This morning, the sycamore leaves were just opening, pale, miniature, translucent...

By this evening, they are ordinary green leaves.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

"Loveliest of trees..."

I don't really recall these wild flowering cherry in any profusion in England, although I do remember two wildings I was very fond of on a roadside near where we lived in Dorset; one had dark juicy small fruit, rather like morellos, the other larger and redder, both sour but good for cooking.
Housman's wild cherry must have been there for him to have written about it; perhaps I was just not in the right place at the right time, they are very fleeting.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Early one morning...

This morning, to be precise. I slept in, which is to say got up at 7 instead of 6, and caught the early morning sun, which I must usually miss because I go back to bed at about his time. So while the tea was brewing we - Molly and I - skipped merrily down to what is hopefully called the kitchen garden, to catch the ceanothus, amanagawa cherry, and cornus in the rosy light, with the sun an inch or two over the horizon ( or call it a few thousand miles...).

Back indoors, dewy wet paws rubbed with a towel are cause of great excitement; barks all the way upstairs and a big wet leap on the bed. ( Molly, not me.)