25 November 2012

Woodcuts and wonders

Do you love the smell of libraries? Not the ordinary municipal ones, which are great and valuable in their own right, but the ones in universities, in research institutes, their shelves lined with journals, folios, magazines as well as books. All of them holding dust and history and secrets in equal measure. It's a slightly musty smell and is redolent of learning and curiosity and the odd snore when it's all just too much for a tired student. Wiki and Google are great (and I'll be using them here this week): as someone in the New Yorker remarked, we all live in a library now, our smartphones pulling journals and tomes off a virtual shelf for us at the touch of a finger; but online doesn't have the same feel as walking down a narrow aisle of floor-to-ceiling shelves all bearing words and pictures on something you want to know more about, nor can it reproduce the thrill when you see right in front of you an almost 500-year old book.
File:Otto Brunfels01.jpg
Nymphaea alba, woodcut by Hans Weiditz
(from Wikimedia Commons)

Half a dozen of us were lucky enough to get a tour of the library in the Botanic Gardens last Friday, and we were treated to a view of a couple of its rare book treasures as well as some of its many botanical paintings and illustrations. Winter sunlight streaming in from the gardens outside, a warm well-lit library, a handful of budding (sorree) botanical artists and a charming and informative librarian (Ms Alexandra Caccamo) all made for a really delightful time.

The most astonishing item we saw was the first: the Herbarium vivae eicones ad nature printed in Strasbourg in 1532. Yes, 480 years ago. Still in its vellum cover. And we were allowed to ooh and aah over its amazing woodcuts by Hans Weiditz, a contemporary of Albrecht Durer. The astonishing thing about the woodcuts is that Weiditz represented the plants in a realistic fashion, blemishes and all, which was not at all the done thing at the time. Rumour has it that the author of the book, one Otto Brunfels, was more than a little irritated by this.

File:Thapsia garganica (Bauer).jpg
Thapsia garganica, by Ferdinand Bauer
(from Wikimedia Commons)
From one astonishing European artist to another: Ferdinand Bauer did the illustrations in the Flora Graeca, of which the Bots Library has a full set of 10 volumes. Published in the early to mid-1800s, the flora's author is named as John Sibthorpe, although it was James Edward Smith and John Lindley who did most of the work after the former's death. But Sibthorpe had the connections, the money and left a generous endowment to Oxford (nothing much changes does it?).  Bauer's work in the Flora Graeca is astonishing, all the more so when you hear how he worked: apparently he made sketches in the field, adding notes and numbers to the sketches to indicate colours (he couldn't carry all his colours with him). He then worked on the illustrations after his return and created hundreds of plates of exquisite and accurate detail. To see these in person in one of the volumes was such a treat.

The library also has a wonderful collection of botanical art, from the lady painters of the 18th and 19th
Nigella damascens by Wendy Walsh
(from here)
centuries--many of whom you can imagine extolling the blessings of a good thick skirt--right through to contemporary artists such as Wendy Walsh, Susan Sex and Deborah Lambkin  They weren't all ladies though - some gentlemen got a look-in too, Redouté of course, who managed to hang on to his head despite being painter to the queen at the time of the French Revolution, and closer to home, George du Noyer, whom I'd known better from his work on the Irish Ordnance Survey and his paintings of rocks and landscapes.

Tomato. Honest. By me. 
I went home and looked at the tomato I'd tried to paint and sighed. But then some of the artists didn't really start their work until their forties and fifties and Ms Walsh is still painting in her nineties. Maybe I'll be a late bloomer. And you have to hope I'll give up the dreadful puns too.

Not much happening in the garden at the moment. November dreariness hit its nadir today, lights on in the house at three in the afternoon, cold rain all day, relentless grey. Just as well the pool in the back garden did its thing this morning: catching the early sunlight over trees in another garden, borrowing light and graciously lending it to a gardener with the winter blues.

Borrowed sunlight
Have a good week all.
(And when you've a few spare moments, look at this take on libraries: more wonders).

18 November 2012

Rimes and reasons

A windy wet night as I write this; rain has swept in from the Atlantic, reaching Dublin just before darkness fell. We were oblivious to its arrival as we were listening with wonder to the Cantando choir weave magic into the chilly air of St Bartholemew's Church in Dublin: light and dark, a chiaroscuro of sound as they sang the Sanctus and Benedictus of James Whitbourn's Son of God Mass.  

Before the rains came, we got out to the Wicklow hills while a watery wintry sun was still shining. It was early enough that the frost still rimed the beech leaves with tiny ice crystals crowding onto the undulating edges. 

Beech leaves rimed with frost
In the sheltered parts of the woods we came across solitary and dying oaks, crowded out by encroaching conifers. But we were delighted and surprised by coming into a clearing where the light poured in not on a carpet of grass, as often happens, but on a sward of mosses: Sphagnum and Polytrichum

Sphagnum (the shorter shaggy one) and  Polytrichum (the taller spiky one); isn't Botany easy?
Sphagnum and schnauzer
The Sphagnum here grows in the damp open space of a woodland created by humans in a place (a Wicklow mountainside) that we generally see covered in blanket bog. Sphagnum mosses are one of the main builders of our bogs in Ireland; in Donegal on my walks in the heaths and bogs, I have a spring in my step as I tread on hummocks of Sphagnum rubellum and S. plumulosum, amongst others. I notice on the IPCC website that a Sphagnum hummock of just one square metre can contain up to 50,000 individual plants... Sphagnum was one of the first mosses I learnt to identify (it's an easy one to start with!) and for me it's one of the plants I associate strongly with this sometimes rainy island we live on. 

Whether it's the blanket bogs of the Atlantic seaboard and the mountains, or the raised bogs and fens of the midlands, these landscapes (complete with  visual whispers of bog cotton in the summer, the climbing songs of skylarks, the jewel-like tiny Sundews, the drifts of purple heathers) are one of the reasons I came home to this island nearly 20 years ago. In a week when the conduct of our legislators, our medics and, on a more personal note, some of our government officials left me and so many others terribly sad, angry and upset, it was good to remind myself of this.

But righteous anger can be a good fuel and I got into a bit of a cleaning frenzy in the greenhouse. I removed the last of the tomato plants, cleaned the panes of glass of webs (inside) and algae (out) and did some general tidying up.  At the end of that, nothing had changed in the world of government and politics, but I felt a bit better, and I had a greenhouse ready for winter.  
Ready for winter
On Saturday morning, I looked out to see tiny coal tits swooping and flitting in and around the birch trees in the front garden, alighting  to help themselves to seeds dangling from bare branches. 

A coal tit  feasting on the seeds of one of our birch trees, Betula utilis, "Jacquemontii"
I noticed this week that other bloggers have been checking what's in bloom still in their gardens; for me the asters are still going well (and not too nasty at all with mildew), there's an odd welsh poppy, there's even some Cosmos still! And one of my tenants, the gorgeous Salvia uliginosa is still incongruously blue. Of course the Sedum is still doing its deep pinkish burgundy thing too. 

Autumn colours: Asters through a haze of Molinia caerula "Transparent);
Miscanthus zebrinus is on the right
Autumn colours: Sedum spectabile contrasts with the yellowing dying stems of Agapanthus
I'll end this week with Agapanthus. Here's how it has looked in the garden from bright mid-summer through to darkening mid-winter; each stage has brought its own delight, from candles of green, through blooms of blue, to finish as intricate seed-heads, each case unfurling to release its cache of anthracite-black seeds. Such intricacies can be hard to capture with pencil but I'm hoping to learn bit by bit this year how to do that better.

Agapanthus flower buds in June

The flowers glow blue in July

And seeds break free in October and November

The starburst of an Agapanthus seed head

An attempt to draw ... 

... and another
A coda: I mentioned the nubbly black buds of ash last week and noticed some lovely examples on a walk in the local field this week; a pic taken with my phone was dull but my resident photographer went back on a bright morning and did the job right:

Buds of Ash, Fraxinus excelsior (thanks BvG).
Have a good week all. 

11 November 2012

Ashes to ashes

Chalara fraxinea: doesn't sound too ominous, does it? It's a fungus. And the clue to the problem is in the second part of the name: do you remember the Fraxinus excelsior here last June? The beautiful ash, the reticent, the reluctant. The tree that comes into leaf last, allowing all sorts of spring and early summer bulbs and flowers to bask in the sunshine below, spreading its canopy later than any of its companions in our native forests. The ash plays a huge part in our culture too - many of the holy trees around the island are/were ash. It was one of the Seven 'Nobles' of  the Wood in early (Brehon) laws. Hurleys are made from ash. Ash trees with their pale silver bark (often with a thick coat of ivy) and nubbly branches form an intrinsic part of winter hedgerows. The airy heads feathered with fresh green compound leaves light up those same hedgerows in the early summer. 

And now this tree is threatened by a fungus that has finally reached this and our neighbouring island from the mainland of Europe. 90% of ash trees in Denmark have succumbed. It was first identified in Poland in 1992 and has spread across the continent and onto its western edge within just twenty years. The places where it  has been identified here are small new woodlands that were planted with imported young trees--Trojan horses carrying destruction within. Those plantations have been destroyed, but really it seems only a matter of time before the disease turns up elsewhere. I don't remember healthy elm trees which were so much a part of our landscape, but I do remember their bare skeletal remains standing out starkly in green hedgerows: a ghostly reminder of the reality of the Dutch Elm Disease I learned about in the classroom. How sad to think that the same might happen with the ash.

June Ash, Fraxinus excelsior
November Ash, Fraxinus excelsior
Compound ash leaf from a healthy tree falls to the ground 
But onto other things.

Winter has arrived and the birds are a more noticeable part of the surroundings now. Izzy came almost nose to beak with a heron in our local stream one morning recently, I'm not sure which of them was more surprised. The same stream provides a stopping point too for a Little Egret, gleaming white against the duns and ochres of the fading plants on the banks. Robins are pouring their songs onto frosty air again; wrens are trilling and ratcheting in the brambles and bushes; darks drifts of starlings whirl against a pale yellow sky. Izzy chases hooded crows and gulls off the field in the morning, some of them almost as big as herself. A swan brings grace to the Grand Canal. Although the season is officially winter, the local sycamores and beeches glow bright yellow and copper in the low morning sun.

November Beech (Fagus sylvatica), glowing still
November Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), brightens the park
Grand Canal swan
A friend sends me a pic of November strawberries in Dublin 4. And my aunt in Westmeath, in her ninetieth year, lets me harvest grapes from her polytunnel  and shows me her winter onions planted out in raised beds she made herself. Not bad!
November strawberries, happy in Dublin 4 (thanks for the pic LB)

November grapes, all the way from Co. Westmeath (thanks CM!)
Have a good week all.

02 November 2012


This is the 52nd post of this blog -- a year's musings and mutterings. Always, I hope, with an eye on quotidian beauty - something that's there for each of us no matter where we are. Yes there have been forays abroad, marvelling at the wide open landscapes of the Netherlands, at mosaics of amber, tangerine and garnet in the Laurentians, at palms and backyard citrus trees in Portugal... And they have been wonderful. But this week it has been good to return to the day-to-day: what's happening in the greenhouse, in the garden, what needs doing, what has changed in the nearby parks and woods as winter approaches. While we've had nothing like the weather that swept up through the Caribbean and eastern US this last week, the November skies have leadenly reminded me that while I've been gallivanting abroad, the darkness of winter has arrived.

Still though, winter skies mean the just-off-full waning moon is still visible at 9:30 in the morning. With the colours fading--only the odd cyclamen in the park or some shining fungi in the woods--textures start to come into their own: spore-laden Hart's Tongue with a tangle of Dryopteris behind.

Cyclamen in the park

Fungi and mosses in the woods

Phyllitis (Hart's Tongue) and Dryopteris in the woods
And the low light of winter etches the bark of the oak, willow and pine into mesas and valleys of light and dark.



 and a Wellingtonia (just so I could squeeze in the schnauzer; it had been a while)
Cool temperatures mean that pottering in the greenhouse with the radio on is not only permitted, it's almost de rigeur: what else is a gardener to do? Well, she can tidy up, for one thing - and so I've swept up and stored the leaves of the maples to turn into lovely leaf mould to use next year or the year after; I've dug out some of the turtleheads that were doing too well and competing too hard with the Enkianthus and Witch Hazel; I've finally planted out a hellebore that I bought early in the summer; I've planted up some cyclamen for my father's grave and kept some to brighten a pot at the front of the house and to complement the chalk cobbles at the edge of the pool at the back.  I've cut off the too tatty dried-up leaves of the Rodgersia and the equally bedraggled and also slimy leaves of the Smilicina.

Greenhouse delights

Cyclamen bring some colour to the front of the house...

... and to the back
I start to suffer from a slight failure of imagination at this time of the year and cannot believe that the bare earth and brown and russet remains of the perennials will somehow transform next April and May to summer delight and leafiness. But they will. One thing I've enjoyed about this blog is that I can go back to look at what was going on in May, June etc. and remind myself that the seasons pass and at this latitude a time of restoration and quietness in the garden and elsewhere allows the coronets of spring and the trumpets of summer to sound ever better when their time comes.

But summer was by no means all sunshine and delight - it was a tough season for all growing things, which has meant not just a hard time for gardeners, but for those with whom we share our gardens. The poor season  this year will mean a tough winter ahead for the birds and other beasties that share our space. We'll be making sure to keep the bird feeder topped up as the berry and other harvests this year have been so very poor. Any spare apples that have gone over the top for humans we will cut up and spread out on the ground for the blackbirds and thrushes. The seeds that drop to the ground under the bird table will no doubt feed some mice; the odd rotting log and the compost heap will provide shelter for all sorts, yes including next year's slugs and snails, alas, but beetles and frogs too.

I'll finish the year by saying thanks to my patient readers.
Have a good week (and year) all.