A letter came a week or so ago from ASPAS, an association we belong to because we (mostly) hate hunters, saying they were setting up a new wildlife refuge in our department, and would we like to go along on at the weekend and help put up signs and such like.
We have, I'm afraid to say, become somewhat wary of most initiatives involving la vie associative in this land where we are very happy to live, since frequently they are disorganised, unpunctual and involve lengthy bouts of tangential discussion before anything can begin. This doesn't bother me quite so much as it does Tom who dislikes disorganisation and likes to get on with things once embarked; I don't mind that impatience is so markedly absent from provincial life here, and we've developed strategies, taking books, cushions, refreshments etc, but it can be a little trying. However, I fancied getting involved, but it was a long way on big roads - most of the way to Lannion - so I wasn't very keen to go on my own, and asking anyone else if they wanted to join me meant being dependent on and/or responsible for them, their transport, boredom levels and general comfort, which is another difficult area. So Tom girded up his loins, sat a while with his anticipated impatience and agreed to come along.
There was a list of equipment which we would or might need; I concentrated on small items we would be likely to need ourselves - gloves, boots, hammers - rather than anything that might either end up being an encumbrance or be lent to anyone else so we'd have to get it back before we could leave - saws, chainsaws (we don't have one anyway), ladders etc. I was teaching in the morning so we were a little late, twenty minutes or so, many people were already gathered at the rendez-vous point but no one seemed to be forming a nexus. After a little a woman took a text message and said that the organisers would be later still, they'd lost their way. Tom grumbled mildly, but we perceived during this time that there was another English couple, who had brought their chainsaw and were looking a little more fractious.
Finally the organisers turned up, laughing, blamed GPS failure, although they'd sent us maps by e-mail which were perfectly easy to follow. They were bright and pleasant, distributed no hunting and no fishing signs and nails, and there were discussions and digressions about how best to put nails into trees, why galvanised nails were best, and, a couple of times, to establish the exact local pronunciation of the name of the river that ran through the reserve. We wandered off through the woods a way, gathered in front of an ASPAS chap who nailed up the first sign symbolically and posed for photos. We then expected to be divided up into relays so as to cover the whole of the area effectively and avoid duplication, but this didn't happen, no one seemed to have much idea of the extent of the reserve (part of the estate of a local château whose owner had requested ASPAS take it under their jurisdiction) so we all just set off at once with no particular plan except that we should put up the signs roughly every forty metres. Since we were all covering the same stretch of ground we ended up duplicating anyway, often putting up a sign then noticing someone had already put one up a few yards away, and since we didn't know how far we were going, and there seemed to be fewer nails than signs, we all ran out long before the end of the reserve which we never came to, then everybody simply dispersed and disappeared, so we made our own way back to the car park, had the orange juice and Mars bar I'd brought, and went home.
The funny thing was though, I think we must be becoming quasi-assimilated, perish the thought, because neither of us gave a monkey's, we had a lovely afternoon. It was a beautiful spot, a wide river edged with sand and scattered with big romantic rocks, banked by sloping mixed woodland, and plantations of broody dark fir trees and coppery, sweet smelling poplars. Tom bounded ahead, hammer in hand, scrambling over undergrowth, halfway up tree trunks and hanging over the water to find the most prominent and inaccessible places to nail signs, finished up at one point over his ankles in river mud and grinning like a truanting schoolboy, all most out of character. I handed him signs and nails and stood dreaming into the twinkling river light snuffing up great lungfuls of fresh air redolent with wild garlic, poplar balsam, pine bark and general oozy earthy damp springiness, exchanging odd words with whoever passed by or we passed: a cheerful ASPAS official who was chasing off a trio of refractory fishermen with philosophical arguments, a bossy woman who didn't have any more idea what was going on than anyone but was pretending she did, a pretty young couple who looked like a faun and a dryad who quickly used up their signs and spent the rest of the walk skipping and jumping and lounging around on fallen trees, and a much pierced hippy couple (not of the party) and their dogs who were foraging the wild garlic to make pesto. I haven't felt so light-hearted for quite a while.
As we were preparing to leave, the other English couple also returned, still lugging their unused chainsaw and looking fairly tired and grumpy. Quite a long walk, I remarked.
''Tis when you're carrying a bloody chainsaw,' he grumbled 'bloody ridiculous!'
'Not very well organised,' she said.
They were right, of course, only we'd forgotten. We quickly pulled our faces straight and agreed with them. Don't know what came over us.
I omitted to take the camera, but in fact we rather had our hands full and it might have been a distraction from the pleasure of the outing. I brought back a big bunch of wild garlic leaves and flowers, though, which I put on the kitchen window sill and have had the time and leisure to get more intimate with. This was the first time I've seen, and of course smelled, this most delightful of edible wild plants since we've lived here, though I've a small patch of it, from a bought specimen, coming on in the garden. An elegant and vivid plant, its wide, lustrous leaves and little star flowers carpet and spangle moist woodlands before the bluebells come, and its allium pungency fills the air. As far as I'm concerned, you can keep your lily-of-the-valley, give me a bouquet of wild garlic any time.
As a child I always wanted to know how one could prepare and eat it, but no one seemed to have any idea about doing so, neither wild food nor the taste of garlic were very widely accepted in England at that time. Since then it has become a highly fashionable and sought after ingredient, posh chefs and restaurants use it all the time, bunches of it sell well at farmers' markets. This recognition is deserved, there really aren't many savoury dishes you can't add it too; so far we've had it with sauté courgettes and chicken fricassee, but it can go into salads, pasta (as pesto or straight), risotto, soups, sauces... It has a milder garlic flavour than the bulb.
It's also known as ramsons, and other things besides, including, it seems, bear's garlic, which corresponds to the French ail des ours, its Latin name allium ursinam, and I think its name in most European languages. I rather like the idea of bears eating it, but we didn't see any while we were out, though the hippy couple's elderly dogs, who were lying around in it very contentedly, looked a little like small black bears.
We said we'd try to get back to the reserve sometimes to walk and observe, so I'll try to take the camera another time.