28 May 2010

Born to be Wild (Part 2)

Besides, to those who are partial to a bit of wilderness in their garden, wild flowers are only invited guests of sorts, with conditions attached. Yet they tend to happen at the wrong time, wrong place, and be the wrong kind in looks or effect produced. In his quest for control and God-like omnipotence, man doesn't mind wild as long as it can be shaped into his ideal of wild.

Every Spring I used to have the privilege to welcome a couple of wild cardamine plants that gave my back lawn a touch of the prairie look in suburbia, but at the cost of causing a bit of a 'hindrance' too. Although I was happy to let the flowers blossom, at the same time I wanted the lawn to be mowed, especially after its 6 months of rest. I'd have to get out of my way to conciliate the flowers in the middle of the cut lawn.

Funnily enough I encountered the same dilemma with my daffodil bulbs (that I had previously planted, randomly, all over the lawn for that meadow effect). I could never quite wait until the total withering of the daffodils. I would lose patience over the constraints of a) the wild (cardamine) and b) the cottage garden look (daffodils). Wild meadows and the wild gardens recreated by man (using mainly cultivated crops) challenge the gardener in terms of geographical patterns, growth cycles, compatibility between neighbouring plants, soil composition and particular demands in terms of humidity or sun exposure levels. Furthermore, weeds, wild flowers and mad floral untidiness seem to be more at home (more expected) in the countryside than in suburbia, where tight rows of houses with handkerchief-size gardens command a fairly ermm urban approach to garden presentation.

Here at my parents' house in Corsica, you are surrounded with different stages of wild: the semi-wild fig trees and olive tree groves planted centuries ago, with some of them abandonned since, while others have produced rejects called oléastres that have gone to populate terrains and mingle with the indigenuous wild maquis of heather, juniper, strawberry trees, viburnum, green oaks, pistachiers lentisques, etc. The same applies to plants: introduced/ cultivated ornamental plants of the past (ex: irises, agaves) have now integrated to the environment with a life of their own. However others like the aptly-named griffes de sorcières (literally: witch claws) have spread in a parasitic fashion, impacting negatively on the local wildlife.

Now that I currently live in Corsica, my best daily walk with Tickle (my little dog) is not going to be down a man-made public garden, man-shaped park, managed forest or semi-wild canal embankment. Nature's magic unfoils unrestrictedly a few hundred yards away from my parents' house, down a path cutting through the maquis wilderness, a pleasant journey taking me through an ever-changing landscape of cistes, genista and strawberry trees, with floral enchantment aplenty from the eve of Spring to well into the Autumn: asphodel, euphorb, arum, wild orchis, convolvulus, lonicera implexa, scabious, rosa canina...

Tickle enjoying the Corsican maquis...

The best garden, the one that could ever bring me so much pleasure doesn't belong to me, it belongs to Mother Nature! Every plant has its place, its role, its shining moment, and in this harmonic symbiosis the weeds of our top paragraph have no or little existence... Only when there is an imbalance does a plant take over like a tyrant. The same applies to our human society, think about it.

Born to be Wild (Part 1)

Let us remind ourselves that weeds are wild flowers/ plants. But to gardeners and garden lovers, they are seen as pests rather than elements of the wild order: they are the unwanted wild invaders. They are invasive, intrusive, parasitic, resistant to disease and repeated pulling. Also note that they tend not to be pretty in looks; actually it seems that the uglier/ the pricklier, the least tolerated they are. Think of brambles, nettles and thistles.

Daucus carota

Left to their own devices weeds will thrive, take over your garden, ruin your lawn, suffocate your borders, create havoc in your carrot beds, infiltrate your paving, climb over your fence and harbour a quantity of unsavoury characters, from roadents to roaches...

If I ask you to name a few weeds, I expect you'll list dandelions, bindweed, shamrock, brambles, nettles, thistles, ivy, lychens, certain creepers and grasses and a few others. Some will include the likes of renuncula, daisies, forget-me-nots and fern (understand: 'unwanted, unplanted plants that just happened to appear in my garden, against my will'). Some of you may even add those introduced/ cultivated species of late that have now spread onto canal banks and railway tracks: Japanese knotweed, budleia, etc.

Wild asphodelus

On the other hand, what is perceived as wild flora belongs to the botanist's realm, not that of the weed killer/ pesticide/ fungicide conglomerates. Wild flowers are studied, drawn, photographed and talked about in books, not mercilessly tracked down and eradicated; their rarest elements are protected as part of ambitious programmes of public awareness and habitat preservation. Wild flowers depict a romantic tableau of charm, beauty (even cuteness), authenticity, tolerance and acceptance. In terms of visuals, Heïdi's Swiss Alpine plateaux, or the setting of 'Little House on the Prairie' come to mind. Wild flowers are associated (but not limited to) edelweïss, digitalis, orchis, gentiane, campanula, saxifragia, fritillaria, etc.

Wild cistus

The boundary limit between weeds and wild flowers is often blurred. And both are a bone of contention for the gardener: the former are cursed and tracked down like sworn enemies (using traditional tools or the final solution of chemical warfare) while the latter are a mixed blessing (depending on the gardener, they can be cursed, tolerated, or a welcome addition). (to be continued)

21 May 2010

Treats of Nature (Part 2)

In August, exert caution with wild fig trees; probable rejects from a nearby cultivated fig tree, their fruit can cause stomach upset and it is therefore wisest to resist temptation. Semi-wild fruit trees, allegedly abandoned gardens and neglected fields may be an invitation for a quick snoop but bear in mind that in most cases there will be a land-owner somewhere down the line. In the adjacent piece of land to my parents' house is a lemon tree whose fruit is literally left to rot... It also happens to have an owner who shows no interest in it, although being involved on the land to some degree. We wouldn't dream of tiptoeing across the field to steal (hmm yes that is the right verb!) the unwanted fruit. Unwanted fruit also happens to be trespassers' forbidden fruit!

Meanwhile nature has enabled a wide array of cultures that defy imagination, some of which verging on the obscure to the non-initiated. Mémé's family used to have a mulberry tree, originally from the Far East, whose fruit provided for jams. Nearby was a carob tree (carob pods are used in baking as a substitute for cocoa and as a thickener; and in medicine for their constipative virtues). My family also relied on the fruit from the medlar trees (another exotic import onto the island) and the jujubiers (ziziphus, what a funny name!).

On the heights of the hamlet I just about remember a graceful almond tree (which by the way we didn't own) - that graced the scenery like some Japanese estampe. My ancestors also cultivated (organically, which was the norm back in the day for the local peasantry) pears, tangerines, cédrats (variety of lemony citrus that goes by the name of Citrus medica and that is either crystallised or distilled into a liqueur), figs, vineyard, olives, capers, broad beans, tomatoes, early Jersey-like potatoes and much more. Some of our ancestors who emigrated to Puerto Rico took the cultivation gene with them and set up a coffee plantation.

Elsewhere on the island, cultures include pretty much everything under the sun (except for the more exotic produce): leeks, artichokes, courgettes, aubergines, cucumbers, onions, basil, lettuce, Swiss chard, melon, watermelon, apricots, plums, cherries, nectarines, kiwis, apples, grapes, oranges, Sharon fruit, walnuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, etc.

As for humble me, my green possessions on the island are so far limited to a peach tree - that I have grown from a stone and whose fruit - deep orange flesh with ruby red splatters - is so incredibly fragrant and tasty, no other peach tree compares - of course I happen to be biased! I do plan to increase my cultivated stock, at this stage still contemplating as whether to embrace the wild flower and ancient fruit and veg variety conservation route, or take the more travelled - mainstream - road. Time will tell and I will tell you.

Treats of Nature (Part 1)

Corsica may be bathed by the Mediterranean wonders of blue yonder, its configuration as an island exposes it to extremes of climatic elements. These include the winds (no less than five breezy gang members and familiar visitors to the Cape, called Mistral, Tramuntane, Libeccio, Grégale and Sirocco) who are known to make a racket down the shores and break different degrees of havoc (dislodging loose rocks off the cliff face, uprooting trees, propagating forest fires).

Beware the so-called mild winters, for temperatures are known to sink below 0°C, with a crafty frost to drive you round the bend. With its elevated Alpine altitudes, the centre of the island boasts a couple of ski resorts that emphasise further the diversity of activity offerings. As for Summers, they take heat to high levels and carelessness could land you into hot trouble, health-wise!

All of the above criteria are bravely embraced by the indigenous vegetation of Corsica. Plants here are not allowed to be shrinking violets! They need to be harsh, resilient, resistant, adaptable to meteorological variations, preferably well-rooted, with no drink problem and a liking of rocky terrains... You will find enchanting alpines, carpets of succulents, rampant grasses, thorny ivy, spiky bushes, prickly shrubs, stocky trees, a vast majority of evergreens, thick leaves, robust trunks and dense wood aplenty.

Beyond its apparent roughness and rusticity, the nature of Corsica is also generous and reveals edible treasures all year round, some of which even boast medical properties. The lychee-resembling fruit from the arbousiers (strawberry trees) matures just in time for Christmas for the eponymous jellies and jams. In February/ March, thin yet incredibly aromatic stalks of wild asparagus found in the undergrowth will ravish palates. Wild leeks are another delicacy (the cultivation of leeks in the Cape is fairly recent). If your idea of a green salad revolves around iceberg lettuce or lollo rosso, it is time to go wild with native varieties of plantago, radiccio and dandelion.

Amateurs of aromatic herbs will be particularly rewarded by the rosemary clumps found on exposed rocks. Wild thyme, mint and marjoram are harder to locate, but the effort is worthwhile as their intense flavour and  taste will make you disregard the shop-bought dried varieties. Just make sure not to pull roots or take away more than a couple of twigs. Nature may be generous but its generosity is within limits!

Do not be fooled by ferula's resemblance to fennel!

Fennel stalks that mature in the Summer are commonly found on banks and grass verges and fill the air with a sweet aniseed aroma, reminiscent of the Pastis apéritif. Angelica is another treasure: my ancestors used to infuse its stalks into a liqueur; whereas candied angelica will add a little 'je ne sais quoi' to the most trivial fruit cake (a welcome alternative to raisins, currants and candied cherries). Meanwhile myrtle, a fragrant maquis* by-product, is distilled into a liqueur that symbolises the spirit of Corsica, quite literally!

* The untranslated word maquis will regularly occur in my blog. It specifically refers to the Corsican scrub: thick dense evergreen shrub vegetation that doesn't exceed 2 metres in height. This wildlife haven is mostly found in the island's coastal and sub-alpine regions. It is colourful in Spring and aromatic in Summer, diffusing that distinctive fragrance that epitomises Corsica beautifully. (to be continued)

17 May 2010

My Californian Psycho-Babble

In no particular order, stressful life upheavals include mariage, parenthood, divorce, redundancy, moving house and death of a loved one. When relocation implies moving abroad and starting a completely new life away from the familiar boundaries of the comfort zone, stress levels are guaranteed to shoot up through the roof (on a par with the adrenaline kick) to attain new heights and test your endurance. In other words, no matter how appealing the prospect of a new life abroad seems, the process is no plain sailing, although - should you be able to afford it - assistance from professional relocators (as seen on TV documentaries) will provide countless benefits!

Source: Museyon, 21/07/10

The end result though is supposed to be worthwhile: you will embrace the potentialities of life, while being stretched onto a journey of self-discovery, through the tortuous paths of self-doubt, with self-imposed patience, discipline and focus dominated by an iron will to succeed, without forgetting your saving grace: a good dose of self-deprecation in the face of adversity.

I first moved abroad, to Britain, slightly over 16 years ago. An idealist, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I was young and keen, straight out of university, and willing to have a go at things, take a risk, find out more about my capabilities and make a name for myself, away from family pressures and expectations. Looking back - and from a comfortable emotional and geographical distance - the journey of self-discovery was probably worth it, but the road to survival was paved with a number of material and logistical difficulties that hypothetically - in my mind - might have been softened if I had chosen to stay put, in my country of origin, whose quirky ways and turns I would have been familiar with from the word 'go' (or so I thought), and whose crippling Kafkaian bureaucracy I would have breezed through in a song (or so I thought).

Source: Garance Doré, Une Vie à New York

Soon I developed a black and white appreciation of sorts. If things in my life were good, I loved Britain; if problems cropped up, I blamed Britain. The relationship went beyond the 'like-dislike' rapport, it was more of a Liz Taylor-Richard Burton relationship: love-hate and consuming. And France was never going to be the solution to this, because by then I had sussed out that if geography merely influences the general state of mind, it does not provide answers, respite and happiness, as personal issues and the grander ones such as 'the meaning of life' run deeper. If you are not happy in your life, within yourself, no matter the place on earth, the solution will have to be found within you, not on the outside.

To those of you contemplating a move overseas in order to start a new life, my humble advice is that it shouldn't mean running away from any existing problems, emotional luggage or dissatisfation in life. You should start your journey with that simple question: what is my reason for leaving? You should also be realistic: how much of a new life will you be able to afford? The dream place comes with a gilded price tag! The good news is that Britain's high cost of living should have already prepared you, and the sale of a property bought in Britain will stretch you further when translated onto the foreign property market (unless you are vying for expensive countries like Japan or Iceland, or keen to move a few notches up the property ladder). However if you start a new life abroad with no collateral (like I did when I moved to Britain), be prepared for the hard graft!

Rewind 16 years and in December 2009, I embarked on a (not-so-familiar-anymore) journey, a one-way trip back to the motherland, this time with my English partner and our doggie companion. Moving back home should have been easy-peasy-lemon-squeasy, but what if, after 16 years, home didn't feel quite like home anymore?