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Living in France - Flora & Fauna in a French Country Garden; Holiday Time, Friends & Neighbours
'Here, you're in the Centre of France'!
Our busy but peaceful village is in central France, in the area known as 'Le Cher', synonymous with the river running through it. Indeed the village is on the banks of the Cher.
Our little 'quartier' (quarter or area) is called 'Les Robinets' which literally means 'taps' and it includes the old 'lavoir', being the small covered building holding water where the women used to go to wash clothes. Close to this is a pretty open green where grow walnut trees, horse chestnuts and flowering shrubs, surrounded by houses old and new.
I say 'our' village, 'our' quartier, even though we're obviously not natives, because our neighbours have made us welcome and several have become our friends.
Our house (this time it definitely is ours ) has been part of this village for at least 200 years longer than we have and it is here where we enjoy relaxing, working and living in our French country garden.
This French country garden is large, almost totally grassed but with a plethora of trees, shrubs, flowers and wildlife. We use it for dining, entertaining, parking, playing boules, playing with the grandchildren, camping, reading, writing stories, drawing and painting, talking (in English, French and Franglais), laughing, BBQing, bird-watching, exploring, climbing trees, making dens, concrete-mixing, sipping aperitifs, relaxing and occasionally gardening!
Oh yes, nearly forgot, it's my job to mow the grass. It's usually up to waist height when we arrive but it's my job, my therapy; I feel I can truly relax and the holiday's begun when the grass is mown and cleared, the vista is wide and a vast sky stretches above.
The garden has an orchard, a log-store, a vegetable patch, a chicken run, old stone walls and a washing line.
It is the most charming place I know.
A Great Space for Camping too!
Trees & Shrubs
The holidays we spend here revolve wholly around The Tree; the Lime tree which stands in the middle of the grass outside the main part of the building. From April to October its wonderful canopy of branches and vibrant greenery provides shade and shelter not only for us but for the birds, insects and animals which call it home. All our friends, including the ones who haven't visited here, refer to it as 'The Tree' because we bang on about it so much!
It does not bear lime fruit but instead offers flowers used to make an aromatic tea and the fruit is formed in pairs which spin to the ground to re-seed.
We have hazel trees, loved by Cyril the squirrel. In the orchard two apple trees prop each other up and an overgrown pear tree (because it's never been pruned it's now nearly as tall as the lime) is king. Various plum (mirabelle) trees provide us with an abundant crop in summer; their sweetness is so divine they rarely get to the collecting bowl let alone the kitchen. At the top of the field there is a willow tree. It's pretty but someone allowed the ivy to invade the main trunk so we are trying to un-strangle it, to encourage it to breathe again.
Our own addition to this sylvan treasure is the vine; it bears red grapes, sweet and juicy. They rarely travel far from their source either, though too many can give you a stomach ache. Their abundance means visitors can feed on them to their hearts' delight. The vine must be quite hardy as it was originally planted in a Somerset garden, then transplanted to French soil; it obviously thinks it's come home because the grapes never matured in England!
Trees & Fruit
Although I love just about any flower, I delight in the wild ones the most. Apart from the tulips and daffodils planted round the base of the lime, our garden thrusts up cowslips, primroses and an assortment of pink, red, yellow, blue, violet and white buds. Most of them are no doubt weeds but I don't care, they're all beautiful. In Spring I mow round the cowslips which stick up in large clumps and make me smile.
An orchid fancier came to visit once but alas we have none here. Maybe it's just as well or we'd have other fanciers tramping over our field if word got out that a rare orchid existed 'chez les anglais'. We're told that there are indeed some in the surrounding countryside.
The apple and plum trees have beautiful flowers in spring. I've learnt how to prune shoots to provide the best crop of fruit and it seems to be working so far, though some years have better yields than others. Apple crumble is a frequent visitor to our table; the French love it; I feel quite honoured that an English recipe has found favour in the country of 'la belle cuisine' (they love our Cheddar cheese too!).
Flowers all Year Round
Well, where do I start? There are so many creatures to delight us.
One day, we saw a flash of bright green. By remaining motionless for a few minutes we were rewarded by the re-emergence, from under the tiles atop a low wall, of a green lizard. Since then we've seen many but they are much shyer than the little brown ones despite being bigger. The adults are on average 30 cms from nose to tip of tail, they blend totally with the fresh grass and some are grey on top of the head, sometimes with the look of a frill around it. This may be the male or just adult colouring, I'm not sure; information on them is scant. Again, maybe you can tell me.
Snakes are plentiful and fall into one of only two categories; vipers or grass-snakes. There is much information on the difference between the two and we thought we'd sussed it so that we'd be safe. Eyes with slit-shaped pupils means viper, rounded eyes and rounded pupils means grass-snake BUT apparently, and only in France, there is a viper which has rounded pupils. Needless to say, we treat them all with respect. One rule keeps you totally safe - go about stamping or making a noise and they will slide away in peace. Corner them or attack them and, venemous or not, they will retaliate. If you want to see any, walk about quietly but be sure to cover feet, ankles and legs just in case. They, as the lizards, like to bask in the sun, lying on warm slabs of stone. We have seen some with beautiful markings and they will remain motionless unless you get too close when they will glide gracefully into hiding.
Snakes also eat frogs. One lunch time was interrupted by a small green frog leaping out of the hedge, closely followed by a snake. The frog's leap was higher than the distance gained and the snake would've won had it not been for me jumping a mile (which the frog should've done), causing the snake to retreat.
There are some beautiful little bright green frogs, with big dark eyes. They look like the proverbial fairy tale frog but I've never tried kissing one!
Toads rustle about in the leaves beneath the hedge from time to time. They are of a size which fits into a large hand, are dry and warty, blink slowly and appear to be totally laid back when picked up. Going about their daily routine, they sit for a while then a long tongue will flick out with eye-defying speed and an insect which had been minding its own business disappears.
There are big shiny stag beetles, little insects, praying mantis and cicadas. Cicadas make a noise in the evening; it's as though one starts a fraction before the rest, then a whole chorus works together for a set amount of time - a brief rest then it all starts again. The cicadas live underground and emerge, as a group, after 17 years! They shed their larvae shells, sprout wings and make their song to attract a mate. We've seen them emerging from holes in our garden, not very pretty but amazing nonetheless.
Snails are part of the French cuisine. They used to be reared on this property and their descendants are still roaming about, huge brown and cream spiral shells, distinctive from the common garden variety. We don't eat them though. Apart from having an aversion to throwing living creatures into boiling water, I don't find them tasty. It's the sauce they're served with which gives the taste, so why not just have the sauce?!
I've mentioned a few of the creatures who let us share their domain but there are some which are a basic part of our daily life and who took up residence long before we did.
Every day we see the common lizards, little patterned brown ones which dart up the walls, over the paths, even into the kitchen. They laze on the warm stone walls, they fight in the chicken run (dangerous, as they could become a snack), they chase each other and they're entertaining - one foot is lifted briefly in salute, maybe because they're hot or is it exercise or is it telling other lizards to stay away? Maybe you can tell me. If a bird or snake or chicken gets hold of its tail, the lizard will shed it; we have quite a few around called 'stumpy'!
One of our favourites is Cyril the squirrel (ok, so it's not original but I don't care). He (or is it she?) is a beautiful red squirrel with an incredibly bushy tail bigger than himself. We've caught sight of him running along the wall behind the lime tree, suddenly sitting up to look about with those large brown eyes, that tail curved like a backwards 's'. If we unsettle him, with one enormous bound of energy he'll leap up into the tree and defy us to keep track of him. If we're sitting at lunch or reading, he'll go about his business in full view; how does he know when and when not to be wary? One day I saw him stashing away a nut (probably a hazelnut as he's always in that tree). Having buried it, he jumped up and down pushing vigorously with his forepaws, tamping it down - I felt privileged to have seen him stock his larder. We don't see him often enough and sometimes I'm not sure if I've caught a glimpse of him; is he really there or is he a streaky russett blur across my imagination?
We could spend hours watching the 'gendarmes'. Thought they were the French police, didn't you? Actually these particular gendarmes are bright red beetles with black spots. Don't know why they have that name but they do look as though they wear a uniform, though more like soldiers really. They congregate in great numbers, sometimes up the tree, seem to spend most of their lives in pairs, locked together with one going backwards, and then disappear somewhere for the winter.
Spiders are bound to exist in an old building, especially one unoccupied for several months of the year. We have some beauties! Large, long-legged furry things and big, spindly-legged weavers of webs, no sooner removed than they return. There are little ones which scuttle along the outdoor table and jump across their equivalent of a wide ravine. I swear they watch me and decide to jump onto me just to watch me flinch, for a laugh. Not that I mind spiders as long as they're not harmful, it's just that deliberately jumping on me feels a bit spooky.
The most amazing spectacle is the bats at twilight. They will emerge, one or two or more, from the barn or the workshop loft and flit around catching their insects. They are large and small; I like to think of them as toddlers, teens and parents. Whatever their size, they are all fantastic acrobats (no pun intended!). How do they change direction so rapidly? How do they avoid obstacles? I know they have a highly developed radar but it's still incredible. I've felt them brush by me and wondered at their skill. It heightens the magic of this place to be a part of their theatre.
I haven't yet mentioned the wonderful variety of birds -
hang on! They deserve a hub all to themselves so off I go to write it!
Living in France
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© 2012 Ann Carr