Saturday, April 12, 2014

Birds, Beasts and Beautiful Landscapes

Spring Idyll

All around us nature is stretching and wiping the sleep out of its eyes after a long winter nap. Renewal and reproduction are the predominant activities of the moment. That nest we noticed behind our clematis trellis is now inhabited by a female blackbird, called a merle here in France. She is a most patient and responsible parent. We peak out at her from upper windows using our binoculars and have taken a few photos with our telephoto lens. Day after day she rests in her beautifully constructed nest.

Female blackbirds are actually brown with tan speckles

Occasionally she flies away, presumably to get a snack, only to hurry back to her three blue eggs. The incubation period for her eggs is 10-19 days. She's been sitting there 12 days, so her time is drawing near.

Her male counterpart comes to sing to her every morning at six-thirty. I know this as the nest is right below our bedroom window. I guess he's giving her (and me) the wake-up call.

The singing that wakes me up each morning

Three beautiful large eggs rest at the bottom of the nest.

Father Blackbird swoops around the walls of the château waiting anxiously, I suppose, for news from the nest.

The castle walls provide little nooks and crannies where birds nest and hide. It's a riot of activity and noisy conversation there, especially at dusk.

Male blackbird clinging to the side of the château

Morning doves or tourterelles, as they're known here, are cousins of the pigeon and frankly not my favorite of birds. Their nests, as opposed to the merle's, are slap-dashed together and so shoddy, that sometimes they fall apart as the hen sits on them. More than once eggs have crashed down onto our terrace and created both heart ache and a very big mess. There is always one of these birds who insists upon building a nest every year in our wisteria on the front of the house, even if we remove the nests at the end of the season, they are never dissuaded. They always seem to win the argument which we are continually having with them. They are far too big for our modest wisteria vine, but they are nothing if not persistent. You have to admire them for that.

Morning dove overlooking the view of our valley

Sparrows, finches and other little birds seem to prefer nesting in very dense bushes which the castle provides in abundance. There must be many nests hidden in the dense shrubbery of the castle grounds as so many of them come and go from that location. I can hear their enthusiastic twittering just outside the back windows and watch as the bushes rustle and the purposeful little creatures flit from here to there, but it's impossible to see their nests. For little beings, they have very big voices.

Sparrow perched on the castle wall just below our back windows


Recently we took a day to enjoy spring landscapes in the Perche. Our new American friends who bought a bungalow just north of us were on their way back home to New York. While they were in town, taking possession of their new residence, Rick helped them with some remodeling. We wanted to see them one last time before they left. We gave ourselves some extra time to meander among the pretty fields and villages that make up the Parc Naturel du Perche.

We met a number of very friendly creatures along the way.

These ladies came over to greet us when we stopped by the farms where they were grazing

It is lambing season and if you have never seem baby lambs cavorting through the fields, you've really missed something!

Grazing sheep and lambs

The lambs jump straight up in the air like cartoon characters. They are among the most playful youth of the animal kingdom. You can't help but laugh out loud while watching them chase one another around.

Baby lambs with their mothers

Fruit trees this time of year are gracing the fields and road sides of the Perche. Although I am quite fond of the less common and showier pink or rose colored spring blossoms, I think the whites are still my favorite. They are in such abundance.

Trees in bloom

The typical Perche landscape is rolling hills with fields bordered by trees. In the spring the colza, or safflower paints the hills in bright yellow.

Green and yellow hills

The Perche has a number of charming villages. Nocé is right in the heart of the Parc Regional.

Entering Nocé where we stopped for a coffee

Perche architecture is rather grand in some villages. The stone buildings are covered with plaster, usually in various shades of yellow, orange or tan. Shutters are very often painted in a grey-green color.

At an intersection in St. Cyr la Rosière

The main "industry" in the Perche is farming, and there are some very grand old manoirs and ancient farm buildings.

A grand old farm in the Perche

I love these ancient stone estates. This area, which was once much more lively, is being resettled by organic gardeners and Paris-born idealists who are bringing back many of the old ways of producing food and making a very successful go of it. The Perche is having a kind of rebirth.

Another beautiful estate which was once a collection of farm buildings

The Perche is a well-kept secret that attracts initiated Parisians because of its proximity to the capital. It is very countrified, but in a most refined and elegant way!

Beautiful manoir in the middle of nowhere

Our friends Dawne and Dean found their cottage in one of the loveliest villages in the Perche, Maison Maugis. I've always loved stopping here to look at the château, which is right on the road through town. A wonderful botanical artist lives here and offers drawing courses.

Maison Maugis

The place is definitely atmospheric and the little houses that surround the castle are all typically Percheron and very charming indeed.

Maison Maugis cottage

Dawne is an amazingly energetic and creative woman with a lot of taste and ability for decorating. Dean is a talented craftsman. Together they make a very effective team. I do not have a before photo of their new house, but they certainly transformed it in the few weeks they were here from something rather ordinary to a cozy and very attractive space. I really am looking forward to their next visit to see what evolves. Meanwhile they were filmed by House Hunter's International TV and will be featured in an upcoming episode. As if that weren't enough, Dawne's photos were published in the latest issue of Pays du Perche Magazine, including the cover and a two-page spread. This our local high quality publication. Pretty impressive considering she's only owned a home here for a bit over a month! Both Dawne and Dean are professional photographers. You can understand my enthusiasm at having these new clever neighbors!

Dean and Dawne

Back on the home front, we continue to work on our garden project which is starting to take shape. Last time I posted a photo of pregnant cherry tree buds. Here is a shot from the same location a few weeks on.

Cherry blossoms

Our little corner garden has developed a lot in a couple of weeks. It was a matter of instant gratification as everything was transplanted from somewhere else in the garden, including the grass. Still, we have a couple of months before things reach their potential. Meanwhile we are creating a much bigger vegetable garden this year and building a garden shack/playhouse. I will keep you posted on our progress.

Rick enjoys his labors

Friday, March 28, 2014

The View from here...and there

View of the landscape beyond Montmirail, with prunings being burned before spring planting

Our beautiful late winter climate has given way to a chillier and stormier early spring weather pattern. As usual for this time of year, I spend a lot of time gazing out my windows and snapping pictures of the ever-changing moods of the big sky before me. Previously I had never lived in a house where I could have a view of surrounding countryside. It is truly mesmerizing at all times of the day and night. I never seem to tire of surveying this quiet little corner of the world around me.

Dramatic storm clouds over the village

Coming as I do from California, where the weather can be easily predicted and events planned without much fear of miscalculation, days here seem full of surprises. In the space of a few minutes, you can have rain, sun, cold, warmth. Clouds simply race across the sky.

Two of our most typical bird species overlooking our terrace where they make their homes

The early birds are back in town, sparrows, black birds and morning doves are busy building nests. We found a new little home tucked behind our trellis where two varieties of clematis grow. The little ones can be raised up amidst a profusion of flowers that these plants offer in late spring and early summer. Seems a splendid way to begin life. The morning doves always like to build their nests in our wisteria branches, although we vigorously discourage them. The wisteria has not leafed out so is not yet a target for their construction ambitions. In the meantime, we have found them at our back sill with sticks in their beaks, trying to negotiate our dormer window eaves. This is not a good idea, as this window remains open all day and night in summer months, and I can see a serious conflict of interest developing.

Crows in large groups swoop through the sky each evening before settling down for the night

The noble crow is a year long resident of Montmirail. Some consider them pests, and they certainly don't have the most beautiful song, but I'm not ashamed to admit that I admire this big old graceless bird. Crows are a highly intelligent, social and fun-loving species. I find their constant presence, roosting high above the valley on roofs, chimney tops, spires and turrets both reassuring and entertaining. This time of year they begin to leave their normally massive group and form smaller family units, but as soon as the young ones are old enough to fly, they rejoin the larger community. They seem to enjoy communal life immensely; one hears few squabbles between individuals. They are such social creatures.

Full moon shines over our valley

This weekend our clocks are set forward an hour and those long summer days begin to be anticipated, but in the meantime the moon and stars come out long before we retire. A recent full moon made a dramatically beautiful appearance from behind dark clouds.

Rick enjoying a moment before dinner

Rick has been working hard, helping some friends remodel their house in Le Perche. He takes a well-deserved break before dinner preparation begins to enjoy a beer and read the headlines while sitting in the window seat.

Emily across the table at a Parisian cafe

Recently we went to visit the family in Paris on a Wednesday, which is still a day off for Quinn. Traditionally all young children have the day off in France. The rules change about this next year, when Wednesday morning becomes a school day for elementary students all over the country. This is a slightly controversial new law, as Quinn, who is only five and still in kindergarten, like most young children, is in school four days a week from 9AM until 4:30PM, a relatively long day of learning for a kid. Four days of that a week has seemed enough to many people.

On the Wednesday in question, Quinn had a morning workshop at Le Centre Kapla. After dropping him off, Emily, Rick and I took a little walk through the neighborhood and then had coffee in an atmospheric retro cafe down the street from Le Centre.

Structure built by the older children in the workshop

Kaplas are beautiful and simple pine blocks, all of the same size and shape, an elongated rectangle. They come in a few colors as well as the classic unpainted variety. They were created by a Dutch designer living in France in the late 80s. They stack beautifully and with nothing but gravity to hold them together, allow for some remarkable constructions. At Le Centre kids of all ages learn a little engineering and physics and work at making some marvelous structures.

Some of the creations made by the younger kids

Quinn is an enthusiastic builder, spending hours with his blocks, brio trains and legos, so the Kapla class was right up his alley.

Quinn proudly shows off the boat he helped to make

We had a very pleasant morning as did Quinn, followed by a lovely lunch at a Lebanese restaurant not far from Quinn's workshop. I have to admit that one of my favorite activities in Paris is going out to lunch or dinner. There are so many choices. Here at the maison we scarcely ever venture out for a meal.

Quinn and Zinnie share well together. Both love books.

Zinnie did not join us on this particular adventure, as Wednesday is not a holiday for her from her pre-school course. She is growing up fast and is at that stage where if you know her well enough you can understand what she is saying. If not, probably her phraseology will remain a mystery.

Finished portrait of Emily Dickinson in my authors series

In the studio I have been working on several things, including a couple of new prints, a big quilt for Emily and Jos and some old photographic techniques, including photo-etching and cyanotype. I have just received a chemical which when mixed with watercolor will allow me to add color to cyanotypes. I have yet to give it a try.

Bernard and Françoise at the breakfast table

Our good friends Bernard and Françoise came to visit us last weekend. Our relationship with them goes way back to 1998, when they hosted my son James for an AFS cultural exchange year in France, when he was 16. They have since become some of our dearest friends, helping us out in so many ways since we moved to France.

Rick and Françoise in conversation

We have had many happy encounters with these lovely people. Lately our lives have made it harder to meet nearly as often as we would like, so to have the opportunity to be together for a couple of days was a treat.

The cherry tree pregnant and waiting to burst into bloom

Without doubt, my very favorite springtime activity is gardening. Truth be told, it's the only time of year I have much interest in it at all. Summer days are too hot and the plants are tired and over extended, putting the garden to bed in fall is tedious. And of course we don't even bother to come up to the garden during the winter months, except to gather kindling from our shed. But spring weather calls like a siren to me and I become completely obsessed, to the point where currently I am so tired and achy from all the bending and shoveling, that I really would be grateful if it rained this afternoon to save me from myself by preventing me from over-doing it again.

The grass is full of violets this time of year

At the end of the summer last year we built a deck in the garden. We haven't had a season yet for enjoying it. This spring we are putting in a back flower garden, to harmonize with our new entertaining space. We're starting from scratch and are also completely redesigning our existing yard, meaning that almost everything is being transplanted to somewhere else. Hopefully there will be many more photos to share next time, although, of course, the garden isn't in its glory until June.

Rick begins our new garden project

Friday, March 7, 2014

On Days Like These

Some trees are already in bloom

While waiting for winter to arrive, spring sneaked in through the back door. This is the first year since moving to France that there has been no snow at all and barely even a frost. The past week has been so mild that we almost have to believe winter really won't arrive this year. The forecast proclaims another ten days of sunny, warm weather. Certainly the world around us has moved on, and is preparing itself for the next season. If a big blast of cold does arrive, it will be more devastating now, as the natural world is going along on the assumption that it's time for spring activities.

On days like these...

View from our front windows at about 7AM

the sun rises over the green valley and bathes the sky in bright color. The road leading through the forest and then on towards Paris runs like a shinny ribbon toward the horizon.

Front door to the terrace and interior door leading to the atelier

Sun streams through open doors creating a play of light on the wall. The front doors stay open all morning.

Front hall, client kitchen and stairway beyond

Bright accents of golden light dance slowly across the floor, illuminating some corners, concealing others.

Stairwell leading to the second floor

The sun through windows makes bold strokes on walls, against which shadows are dark and well-defined.

View from our bedroom skylight

Bedding is left out to freshen in the warm air.

A bright bunch of tulips on the table in the entry

 Tulips, daffodils and other spring flowers bloom and grace tables with their enthusiasm for life.

Front terrace where our chaise longue has come out of winter storage

Morning sunbaths on the terrace are back in style.

A sparrow and morning dove surveying the village from our roof

 Birds return to town, filling the air with their happy, purposeful banter.

Typical Perche landscape with the green green grass and contented cows in a symbiotic relationship

Outings are made. We have gone into the the Perche several times, most notably to see the newly purchased bungalow of our American friends Dawne and Dean. We met them last fall when they stayed at Maison Conti. They are slowly pulling up roots in New York and starting a new life in the Perche countryside.

Photo by Dawne Polis

Along with Jonathan and Renata, we lunch in Mortagne-au-Perche near the charming cottage that now belongs to Dawne and Dean.

One of my work stations in the studio

The atelier is bright and inviting.

Hand colored photo etching of one of my drawings in progress

I spend leisurely hours, working on many projects while Rick is away from home on a construction job for Dawne and Dean.

Latest etching project

And I begin a rather large etching plate of bare trees, the last image inspired by winter I think!

View from our back windows at about 7PM


Days end as they began, with apricot-colored skies.