ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the category “Nature”

Saving summer in a bottle

midsommar 7409078390_6d0280973b_bToday, Sweden celebrates Midsummer’s Eve. (Being a pragmatic people, we decided quite some years ago to always celebrate Midsummer on a Friday, no matter when the solstice actually happens) All over Sweden, people will be gearing up for one of our favourite holidays, albeit that very often the hoped for sunny weather doesn’t make an appearance. After all, if you’re going to spend the whole day, the whole evening and the whole night (if you’re young, horny and lucky) outside, then it’s much better if it’s warm and dry rather than damp and cold. Fortunately, us Swedes are a hardy lot: we put on an extra layer and dance round the maypole no matter the weather.

Some years ago, it was colder on Midsummer’s Eve than it had been on New Year’s Eve. That was a bummer. As was the year when it snowed on Midsummer. Thing is, even if the sun is shining, many of the outside bits look better on photo and movies than they are in reality. Take that scene in from Here to Eternity where Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster frolic in the surf, well all I can say is Ha! You do that and you end up with sand everywhere. Everywhere.

However, to sit outside on this the year’s longest day is magical. Come evening, we’ll wrap ourselves in blankets – more for the mosquitoes than the cold – and settle down to watch as the day wanes. The sun touches the woods on the opposite shore well past nine, and around ten or so the pink of sunset begins to streak the sky. It never gets fully dark. Instead, the day sinks into a purple dusk, rests there for awhile before rising to the brilliance of a summer dawn.

20170623_094321Many years ago, when I graduated from Junior High, we sang a song called “If I could save time in a bottle”. In retrospect, the lyrics were wasted on a group of fourteen-year-olds, too young, too convinced of their own immortality to even consider saving time. Life was there for the taking, and we didn’t want to save time, we wanted time to hurry up and speed by so that we could become proper adults and get on with life. We’d not quite grasped that life is what happens right here, right now. Only this singular moment is a certainty – yesterday is no more, and tomorrow may never come. Although, for most of us, tomorrow will come, As will the next tomorrow and the next tomorrow, and the next, until one day…Well: you get the point, right?

As I sit on my porch with the glory of summer spread out before me, I do my very best to engrave the moment in my mind, save it as a memory which I can pull out at need on a freezing cold November day – or an equally cold February day – to reassure myself that after winter comes summer. After dark, comes light. After cold, comes warmth.

Resized_20170617_133041001Sometimes, more tangible mementos are required. Which is why in my family we take the making of elderflower cordial very, very seriously. Nothing evokes summer as much as a glass or two of this fragrant beverage. A pale gold, the finished product resembles bottled sunlight, the warmth of summer trapped in a bottle.

First, we have to find the perfect corymbs. Elders have a tendency to attract lice and we definitely don’t want black specks floating around in the cordial, ergo we must be selective – and pick them early. This time round, we picked 240 corymbs.

Resized_20170617_135929For every 80 corymbs, we need two lemons, sliced in two. Plus we need water and sugar. We boil the water, add the sugar and stir until it dissolves, and pour this over the corymbs. After that, we leave it to sit in the dark for several days, stirring every 48 hours.

Resized_20170617_142238We strain it, add a preservative and bottle it. And just like that we’ve captured a little piece of summer, something to tide us over during the months of darkness.

Today, however, winter is far, far off. Today, we’ll sit in the purple dusk and watch the swifts and swallows dart back and forth. From somewhere far away comes the sound of song, of people laughing as they dance around the maypole while singing about little frogs (What can I say? Us Swedes are a strange lot) On the table stands the customary bouquet of seven different flowers, flowers tradition tells us we should take to bed and tuck under our pillow so as to dream of the man in our life. I don’t need to dream. My man is sitting right beside me, his thigh pressed against mine, my hand enclosed in his. Not a bad way to spend Midsummer’s Eve, IMO. Not bad at all.

A priceless treasure – of crocuses and saffron

From where I am sitting on this cold winter day, I can see a stand of snowdrops. Puny little things, giving little reassurance spring is anywhere close. Unfortunately, no matter how I look, I cannot find the pointy narrow green shoots that presage my favourite among spring flowers, the crocus. But seeing as I am desperately longing for spring, I’ve decided a little excursion into the wild and exciting life of the crocus might be just the thing.

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Photo by KENPEI Licensed under CC BY_SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, so crocuses have little of excitement in their lives. Up they grow, and once the spring sun is warm enough, they open their faces to the sun, presenting us with a colourful display that ranges from the most pristine of white to the explosive compo of deep purple and bright, bright yellow. After some days, they’re so exhausted by all this show-casing that they wilt. In truth, a brief display of beauty – and not at all exciting.

Crocuses are among the oldest of our flowers. The name must have very ancient roots, and whether in Sanskrit or ancient Hebrew, English, German or Spanish, the flower’s name is very similar. And it was obviously a very appreciated little flower, what with it being mentioned in the Song of Solomon and depicted for posterity in ancient frescoes found in Santorini.

The reason for its popularity was not the modest flower. No, the crocus was precious because of saffron – yet another word that sounds more or less the same in most languages, indicating just how ancient our relationship is with this particular spice. Personally, I prefer azafrán, the Spanish word that still clings to its Arab roots.

Saffron is a very, very expensive spice. One gram costs approximately two pounds (three dollars), and as always when it comes to pricing, this reflects just how restricted the supply is versus the demand. Harvesting saffron must be one of the most labour intensive jobs in the world, and it takes approximately 250 000 flowers to generate 1 kilo of saffron. Why? Because saffron consists of the three stigma a crocus plant produces, bright red lightweight things that look like short treads.

saffron-cueilleuse_de_safran_fresque_akrotiri_greceNo one really knows where the saffron crocus originated, but as shown in Minoan pottery and frescoes, well over three thousand years ago people were picking the delicate threads. We know the Assyrians held saffron in high regard, as did the Egyptians. After all, saffron is a versatile product, as useful as a spice as in medicine and in colour production. It was also considered an aphrodisiac, and Cleopatra sprinkled her bathwater (or should that be bathmilk? Although as I hear it, it would take a veritable army of donkeys to fill a bath tub with their milk…) with saffron to increase the pleasures of lovemaking. (Which requires yet another parenthesis as we ponder whether this is lovemaking in the bath or after the bath. Well, we will never know, will we?)

In difference to most other crocuses, the saffron crocus flowers in autumn. Bright purple flowers open to capture the rays of the autumn sun for one day, and the pickers must be quick to harvest the stigma – even more so as almost all the crocuses flower within the same week or so. As a word of advice, don’t go around assuming all crocus look-a-likes that flower in autumn are saffron crocuses. Chances are you’re looking at what is called meadow saffron (or naked lady), an entirely different genus to crocuses – and very, very poisonous with no known antidote.

Right: so now you know more than you necessarily feel you need to know about saffron crocuses – except that there is one crucial part missing. You see, the saffron crocus is sterile, so the only way to propagate it is through the corms. This makes it more difficult to cultivate, which of course was great news for whoever already had a nice little saffron plantation going, not so great for those who wanted to enter into competition. A so called high-entry barrier market…

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A medieval market

In medieval Europe, saffron was the thing. Even more so as it was disgustingly expensive, a way to shout to the world just how rich you were. Throughout the ages, rich people have shared this little idiosyncrasy, that of having to ascertain everyone else knows just how loaded they are, whether it be by driving Aston Martin DB9’s (yes, please!) or by having a couple of houses more than they need, or buying Crystal champagne by the crate, or, in medieval times, by splurging on saffron. Somehow, saffron consumption seems quite low-key in comparison.

The saffron prices sky-rocketed in the 14th century in the aftermath of the Black Death, as saffron was a recurring ingredient in all the potions and salves produced to ward off the pestilence. A ship loaded with saffron was hi-jacked by a nobleman and triggered a two week war; Venice imported as much saffron as it could find and sold it at exorbitant prices. Being a saffron-pirate was, for a short time, a lucrative profession. In brief, people went a bit wild and crazy.

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Burn those dratted saffron-cutters!

Now, with such a profitable commodity, many were tempted to cheat – to cut the saffron, so to say, by mixing it with other stuff. This was not approved off. In 15th century Nürnberg, a man was burned at the stake for doing this. Some years later, two men and a woman were buried alive for the same crime. Clearly, tampering with saffron was considered a very bad thing to do.

Even more were tempted to steal some of the precious corms. After all, once you had some, you could relatively quickly (like over 3-5 years) develop bulbs. Obviously, those that had saffron bulbs and corms weren’t about to give them away. What was required was an intrepid and brave undercover agent to somehow infiltrate the crocus fields and dig up the prize. Even more importantly, the corms had to be smuggled out of whatever territory they might be in, as controls were rigorous.

As per legend, the English had one such agent. I have no idea what he might have looked like, but suspect we are looking for a person who blended in well, ergo was rather non-descript and who definitely didn’t make a nuisance of himself by ordering “stirred, not shaken” hippocras. The gentleman in question toddled off to the Holy Land, and I hope he took the opportunity to combine his botanical espionage with some serious pilgrimaging. Some years later, the man returned to England, safe and sound. The pilfered corms were hidden in his walking staff.

Edward III was probably very pleased – finally, England was on the road of self-sufficiency when it came to saffron. His secret agent was dispatched to Essex and an anonymous little place. Over time, this place was renamed as Saffron Walden – no need to explain why, methinks – and for the coming centuries or so, saffron was cultivated in various parts of England, contributing to the relative wealth of the saffron farmers.

saffron-crocus-1Things rarely remain the same. At the dawn of the Early Modern Age, England was inundated by new spices, new commodities. Tea and coffee, chocolate and spices from the New World – they all supplanted saffron as the next hot thing in cooking. English saffron farmers went out of business, and after several centuries of home-grown saffron, English saffron addicts now had to depend on deliveries from Spain.

These days, Iran is by far the largest producer of saffron. Spain comes in as a steady number two, delivering approximately one ton of saffron per year to the market. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not all that much – not when you’re the world’s second largest producer. I guess it reflects the fact that over time the saffron crocus hasn’t changed. Just as it did in the distant past, it produces only three stigma, precious red threads that have to be harvested by hand. And just as in those long gone times, saffron remains the most precious of spices – well worth it, if you ask me, seeing as I am about to dig into a delicious fish soup, in which saffron and cream combine into a golden, fragrant dish.

Of royal oaks and sinking ships

oaks-20161008_100237Behold a baby oak. Well, baby and baby – as per my reckoning, this thin little thing is at least 7 years old, but from the perspective of an oak, I suppose that means it is an infant.

Hubby has recently scythed the meadows, but whenever he comes across an oak sapling, he detours, saying we have a responsibility to ensure a new generation of quercus robur. It’s not as if there is a scarcity of oaks in our neck of the woods, but as hubby reminds me, they take a loooong time to grow.

oaks-20161008_100510This oak is reckoned to be 300 years old. No way can I reach round the trunk. All I can do is gawk at it in awe. And climb it. This oak stands sentinel over our yard, and one day I’m going to put a rope swing in it. Well, maybe, seeing as there is this huge stone wall behind it, and I don’t want people falling off to land with a splat on the stones.

It used to be that all Swedish oaks belonged to the king. No matter where they grew, on whose land, every single oak had an invisible “for royal use only” stamp on it. Those not of royal blood were forbidden to as much as break off a twig, and any oak sapling found growing on your land had to be left alone to grow into maturity. Only with royal dispensation could an oak be taken down, and many are the writs where the king graciously has allowed yeoman this or that to take down an oak to use as posts in a new build or for a new door. Armed with such a writ, the happy recipient could essentially take down any oak that took his fancy in the neighbourhood – e.g., the tree did not have to grow on his land.

Should someone be foolish enough to poach an oak (and I imagine this would be an endeavour which is very, very difficult. It’s not as if you stuff an oak into your rucksack and skip off, humming Waltzing Matilda) the consequences were severe: for the first offence, the penalty was 40 Swedish Daler, roughly the equivalent of 1-2 full year’s wages. The second offense cost you 80 Daler, and third time round, you lost your life.

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Sweden’s oldest oak, estimated to be 1000 years old

So why all this hullabaloo re an oak? Ah. The answer to that lies in Sweden’s ambitions to expand beyond its natural borders. Sweden wanted more. Sweden wanted recognition as a force to reckon with. Sweden needed a navy, and at the time, ships were built of oaks. On average, 2 000 oaks were required to build one ship. If you wanted a navy, that meant a lot of oaks. Very, very many oaks.

Obviously, things didn’t always go according to plan. Take the proud ship Vasa, for example, built in the early 17th century. The then king, Gustav II Adolf, was a bellicose sort – he was also a self-proclaimed defender of the Protestant faith in the Thirty Years’ War. Over time, Gustav II Adolf became the figurehead of the various Protestant armies fighting the might of the Holy Roman Empire. While I have no intention to dig myself into the complexities of the Thirty Years’ War, suffice it to say that what began as a religious conflict (The Holy Roman Emperor wanting to impose Catholicism on his unruly Bavarian subjects) quickly escalated into a political conflict in which various European countries saw an opportunity to once and for all curb the power of the Hapsburg Emperors.

Neither here nor there in this post. Let us instead get back to the proud ship Vasa. This, our most famous Swedish ship ever, was built by a Dutchman named Henrik Hybertsson, and if we’re going to be picky, it wasn’t even named Vasa, it was actually named Vasen, which is Swedish for sheaf. Why a sheaf? Because it figured prominently on the Vasa dynasty’s coat of arms. Now, of course, everyone knows it as Vasa, so insisting on using its correct name will probably be a useless exercise.

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Battle of Oliwa, in which the Swedish navy suffered severe losses

Work on the Vasa began in 1625. Gustav II Adolf commissioned four ships at the same time – he was desperate for more ships to transport his troops across to the continent and also do some harrying when so needed, like when keeping the Danish king Christian IV firmly on his mat. Besides, his ongoing war with Poland had cost him quite some ships in various naval battles, and he needed them replaced. Like ASAP.

Our Dutchman Henrik was delighted at receiving an order for four ships – two larger, two smaller – and soon enough the shipyard rang with the sound of axes and hammers. Not that Henrik did much chopping, sawing or hammering himself: he was the designer, responsible for constructing a ship that would handle the seas and whatever storms may come her way.

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Gustav II Adolf

Now Henrik was no novice – he’d been building ships since ages. But the king wanted more than your average ship with 12 cannon on one gun deck. Gustav II Adolf wanted TWO gun decks, and he wanted all of 72 cannons. Plus, he wanted the standard superstructures, which allowed for firing platforms from which to shoot down at your enemies. A (not so) lean, mean killing machine powered by sails. Gustav II Adolf likely salivated at the thought.

At the time, ships with two gun decks were still very rare. The technology was unproven, and the trade-off between more guns and less stability was as yet not fully understood. Not that it mattered: what the king wanted, the king would get, and so Henrik began working on the initial design sometime in 1625. These were presented to the king who reviewed and approved them. With the project having been given a royal go-ahead, oaks were ordered to be cut down en masse. Sails were ordered from France, rigging and hemp rope from Holland.

In 1627, Henrik died, and the responsibility for the half-finished ship passed to yet another Dutch Henrik, this time with the patronym Jacobson. Things progressed more or less as planned, and in 1628, it was time for the first stability test. Thirty soldiers in full kit were to run back and forth over the deck under the eagle eye of Klas Fleming, the Vice Admiral. The purpose of the test was to set the ship rolling, and see how she handled the motion. After only three test runs, Fleming aborted the tests, fearing she was about to capsize. I imagine him groping for a huge handkerchief and mopping his sweaty brow, all the while debating just how – or if – to tell the king this ship of his was dangerously unstable.

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Vasa, prior to sailing

There is nothing to indicate Fleming ever informed his king about the result of the stability tests. Instead,  Gustav II Adolf kept on sending letter after letter asking about his ship. He ordered it to be lavishly decorated, he asked about the cannon, of which 64 had now been delivered. Despite certain misgivings, the work went ahead, and in August of 1628, the ship was ready. Crowds assembled to watch this huge construction set off on its first journey. The crew was allowed to take their family with them on the first short leg of the journey, and in general it was all very festive. Flags snapped in the wind, there was beer, there was food, it was sunny if windy, and at long last the ship glided away from the pier.

For the first few hundred metres, the ship was towed, but once on open water, she unfurled her sails. The cannon ports were opened, and a massive salute was fired, causing people to cheer and clap their hands over their ears. Behold the might of Sweden, this huge impressive warship decorated in gold and red and blue, with three masts and all those cannon snouts poking from the open ports.

oaks-bok20A sudden gust of wind had the ship heeling to port. She righted herself ponderously. Yet another gust of wind, and she tilted heavily to the left – so heavily that water gushed in through the open cannon ports. In a matter of minutes, the ship sank, settling on the seabed 32 metres below. Thirty or so people died, most of them trapped inside. The top of the masts stuck up over the surface, with survivors holding on for dear life, and from all over, small craft came to the rescue, dragging half-drowned sailors out of the water. And so, dear readers, ended the glorious career of the Vasa – like ten minutes after it started.

ekskogen-visingsoWell, there you have it: She sailed, she sank, and thanks to that disaster, we have an almost perfectly preserved 17th century ship to gawk at in the Vasa museum – a ship made of oak (as is the museum itself). With Vasa, an equivalent of 2000 royal oaks or so sank into the deep. Fortunately, those Swedish kings of the past were wise enough to plant new oaks to replace those they’d used, ensuring a continuous supply of oaks well into our times. Not that we use oaks for warships anymore – we use steel. Instead, those oaks planted by our kings as late as in the early 19th century or so, have now grown into magnificent forests, like this one on Visingsö. A sea of oaks, where the wind rustles through leaves that are vivid light green in spring, shifting through dark green to a faded, yellowing hue in autumn.

“A beautiful tree,” hubby says, patting the bark of our biggest oak. Yes, because these days it is ours. The king no longer owns every single oak in Sweden – a sure sign of progress, right?  The oaks, of course, couldn’t care less who owns them. They live out their long, long lives, from acorn to rotting trunk, in one place, their branches spreading protectively over the ground beneath them.  But hubby is right: it’s a beautiful, beautiful tree.

Les feuilles mortes – a reflection over impending autumn

20160918_123437We took a walk through the woods some days ago. It was quiet. Most of the migrating birds have already left for warmer climes – albeit that it has been very warm up here the last few weeks. Anyway: other than the odd chirping sparrow and the high-pitched call of the kites that soared over the recently turned fields, it was mostly us and our footsteps through the drifts of ancient fallen leaves.

That’s the thing with forests: the ground is a carpet of russet colours most of the year, all those accumulated leaves slowly turning to mulch. In our forest, wild boars gouge trenches through the fallen leaves, revealing the rich dark soil beneath. In spring, anemones thrust their bright green stems and leaves through the rotting foliage, and here and there a stand of ferns adds a splash of dark green to the multiple hues of dun and russet and fading yellow.

20151031_112940Our woods consist mostly of beeches. The beech has ancient roots in Scandinavia. During the nice, warm period that followed on the last ice age, the beech and the oak marched north, reaching well into northern Sweden before the winters became too harsh and too cold for them to survive. The climate cooled, and the beech retreated, clinging stubbornly to this the southernmost part of Sweden. These days, the climate is yet again changing, and spruce and pine wilt while the beech thrives. As do aspens and rowans, oaks and birches. Mind you, the birch thrives more or less everywhere – like a huge weed, almost.

This year, the rowans are laden with berries. As per Swedish oral tradition, plenty of rowan berries promise a winter with plenty of snow. If so, we’re looking at man-high drifts come December and January. Interestingly enough, in Finland they say that plenty of rowan berries means there will be very little snow. I guess the conclusion is that we cannot trust the rowan berries…

20160918_123202Rowan berries are horribly tart, but they make a passable jelly to serve with your venison. Elderberries are nowhere near as sour, but they make a better cordial than jelly – an excellent infusion to cure persistent colds during late autumn and winter. I love the contrast of the elder: snow white flowers followed by black, black berries that stain your fingers.

20160918_123615We wandered by a blackberry bramble – the birds had eaten all the berries, but the leaves presented themselves in the brightest of colours. Autumn is a sequence of fiery reds, one last gasp of bright colour before winter strips the world of everything but the most muted of greys and browns.

High above, the leaves of a birch rustled, its slender branches dipping in the wind. In summer, I love lying on my back and staring up at the sky through the whispering leaves of a birch. They sing me to sleep, and as they dip and twirl in the wind, they dapple the ground beneath, patches of sun darting like minnows through the grass. Now, in autumn, the leaves are already acquiring a yellow hue, and they no longer sing and burble, they sigh and crumble, drifting to litter the ground beneath with golden colours. Birches are one of those trees that are fundamental to the northern gardener: those of us with a passion for roses have learnt the hard way never to prune our roses before the birch presents its first miniscule leaves, dashes of bright, bright green shouting to the world that there will be no more killing frosts – not this spring.

20150911_180717We reached the shores of the lake and stood for a while staring out over the expanse of water. Dark water, ruffled with frothing waves, and this time of the year we saw no loons, no geese, no ospreys. A gull wheeled by, a crow cawed from a nearby tree, and just by the water’s edge a tenacious dogrose had sunk roots into the stony shore, its dipping branches laden with bright red hips. Once upon a time, those hips were carefully collected and dried, an important source of c-vitamin (even if no one had ever heard of vitamins back then) during the winter. We picked a couple and nibbled carefully. The seeds within are hairy and can cause quite the itch should one swallow them – or rub them on someone’s skin.

We walked back through the silent beeches. Acorns in prickly shells dotted the ground – a precious commodity back when these woods were used to herd pigs in. Now they feed the wild boars, and consensus is the boars are a pest, not an asset, what with their propensity to invade gardens and chomp their way through flower beds and vegetable patches. We rarely see any boars – we just see their tracks and the patches of disturbed ground where they’ve dug for worms and whatever else boars find sufficiently delicious for them to thrust their sensitive snouts into the earth.

I find a conker and stuff it in my pocket. Autumn requires pockets to be full of conkers and ripe hazelnuts, and especially beautiful leaves. Putting them all in the same pocket results in disintegrated leaves, so generally I carry my leaves.
“More leaves?” hubby asks with a smile. “More conkers?”
“Can’t get enough of them,” I reply, but I throw the leaves I’m holding up into the air and watch them twirl down to the ground. Les feuilles mortes, I hum, kicking up another spray. Yesteryear’s leaves dance in the air around me, so brittle they’re almost translucent. In a month or so, they’ll be joined by this year’s harvest, sinking deeper and deeper into the ground. An endless circle of life, of buds that break into vivid green, adorning the trees for months before they finally fade and fall, slowly converting into soil in which new trees will take root, extending their branches to the sky. Les feuilles mortes? Can leaves die? Do they ever live? I have no idea – and nor, I bet, did Yves Montand, who sang of those fallen leaves that reminded him of memories and regrets.

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi
Et le vent du nord les emporte
Dans la nuit froide de l’oubli.

20160910_091630Soon enough, the north wind will sweep through our woods, and the trees will be stripped of their leaves to stand naked and shivering in the winter gale. But not yet, not today, or tomorrow. For some weeks more, the golden glow of autumn will remain.

The miracle plant – of medicines and alcohol

20150713_194316_resized_1This time of the year, I spend a lot of time outside. Other than weeding my few flower beds and calling down eternal curses on those foolish monks who decided to introduce ground elder in Scandinavia (it’s edible – but it’s also wildly invasive) I rather enjoy studying the plants that grow on our meadow.

I love our meadow. Our sons were all for converting it into a football field, but I have adamantly refused, citing such things as plant variety in my defence. These days, my boys have resigned themselves – plus I suspect they’re pretty much in love with the beauty of the meadow, even if they don’t admit it. That’s guys for you…

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Meadow sweet

Part of our land is borderline marshy, and at this time of the year this means a dipping sea of meadow sweet flowers, the plant itself standing well above my waist, the heavy cluster of miniature white flowers brushing my shoulders. Meadow sweet smells of almonds – or rather of newly baked almond cake. It is one of the more versatile medicinal plants around, can be used for everything from disinfecting open wounds to alleviating pain. In fact, meadow sweet is a natural source of aspirin, and in dire need one can dig up a piece of the root and eat it to bring that galloping headache back in control. My dear friend Nicholas Culpeper (well; that may be an exaggeration, seeing as Nicky boy has been dead these last three centuries past) has the following to say about meadow sweet:

“It is an excellent medicine in fevers attended with purgings, and may be given to the quantity of a moderate bason full, once in two or three hours. It is a good wound-herb, whether taken inwardly or externally applied. A water distilled from the flowers is good for inflammations of the eye.” Up here in Scandinavia, we also know this plant does wonders with acidic stomachs – and its roots are a natural source for black dye.

Second son, who is a fount of knowledge on everything from wormholes to Roman Emperors, would add that meadow sweet has also been used since time immemorial to clean out the vats prior to setting a new brew of beer or mead. Actually, the plant served dual purposes: first it was used to disinfect the vats, then it was added to the brew, an elegant little whiff of almonds accompanying the finished product. Seeing as second son has a major interest in brewing, this counts as a point in favour for our plant of the day.

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dog roses – before they become hips…

These last few years, second son has been experimenting with various concoctions, all of them with the purpose of achieving an alcoholic beverage that is
a) cheap
b) potent
c) drinkable.
In this, he takes after his father, who drove me crazy with his youthful attempts to make something resembling wine from rose hips. When second son started talking about making sherry from carrots, I was therefore somewhat skeptical, and after two years of watching this potent brew bubble and darken I can report that carrot sherry fulfills two of the above. It also looks very nice, a deep golden brown colour that brings to mind high end whiskies. That’s the only resemblance it has with whisky, high-end or otherwise. On the other hand, compared to his father’s efforts he is one up: hubby barely achieved a) above with his hip concoction.

Second son, however, is not easily discouraged. Being of a scientific bend, he analyses the results, compares outcome with expectations, and sits down to consider just what in his brewing process he needs to tweak so as to achieve his goals. His friends cheer him on, no doubt very keen on the a) and b) part above. Seeing as his friends have downed sizeable quantities of that carrot sherry, we know for a fact they are less concerned by such aspects as taste. Anyway, I cheer second son on too, because his experiments expand beyond the realm of alcoholic beverages, and so it is second son who will surprise us with jars of homemade strawberry jam – or who fills the entire house with the delicious smell of baking bread.

Last year, second son developed a fascination with meadowsweet. Personally, I think he’d overdosed on Amaretto, which was why he hovered like a drunk bumblebee round the flowering almond-scented plants.
“A cordial,” he said, “wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“Hmm,” I replied. A cordial? Yeah, right!
“A cordial,” he told his sister, “What do you think?”
“Hmm,” she said. “Stick with the elderflowers.”
He gave her a disappointed look. “People like you don’t drive evolution forward.”
Being the big sister, she just raised an eloquent brow.

Anyway, to make a long story short, second son made cordial. The kitchen smelled of almonds, the entire house smelled of almonds. The cordial smelled of almonds and was quite, quite undrinkable. As per second son, this was just a matter of not having set it to brew. With a hopeful look at me, he suggested mixing his cordial with more sugar and leaving it all to bubble along happily in a nice secluded corner of the country house. Did not happen.

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Bog-myrtle, an unassuming little thing…

This year, second son is back to hovering around the meadow sweet – in between crouching in front of one of our impressive stands of bog-myrtle and sighing happily. Bog-myrtle is an excellent flavouring in schnaps. Excellent. Once upon a time, it was mixed with yarrow and rosemary and used to flavour beer – before people caught on to hops. It is also a fantastic midge repellent, good for combating fevers, stomach aches, pulmonary infections and unwanted pregnancies. In fact, bog-myrtle is almost as useful as meadow sweet – but it is nowhere near as pretty.
Not that second son cares about such superficial things as beauty: no, second son inhales the scent of crushed bog-myrtle and turns to beam at me.
“Pretty much a miracle, huh?” he says, gesturing at the meadow sweet, at the bog-myrtle. “Two plants – weeds, almost – and they’re more or less a complete pharmacy.”
“Yup.” A miracle indeed. I hunker down beside him, and there we sit, two people with wide smiles on their faces as we inhale the scents of our magic meadow. It makes me think of Ferdinand the Bull – you know, the bull who preferred flowers to fighting.

Summer nights – a prose poem

IMG_0261The fragrance of the mock orange perfumes the air. To the west, a faint line of lighter green is still visible on the horizon, to the east, the sky is streaked with greyish pink. The Nordic summer night is brief, a shadow, no more, between light and light.

IMG_0258Such nights should not be spent indoors. They should be spent in a rocking chair on the porch, while all around the shadowed forest rustles with life. Here a bird, there a twig that breaks. A bat hurls itself upwards, is silhouetted for an instant against the full moon, before disappearing from sight.

Dawn streaks the eastern horizon. The lake still retains some of the light it trapped at sunset – or so it seems, the waters lighter than the sky. A gaggle of wild geese take off in a flurry of wings, a deer rises from its bed among the lupins and melts into the safety of the trees. The blackbirds sing, the blue tits chirp, and just like that the night is over.

The Nordic summer night is brief and short – as is the Nordic summer.

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Mother Nature gives – and takes

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San Francisco

The first song I learnt to play on the piano was America the Beautiful. So what, some of you may think, having no interest whatsoever in my musical development – but bear with me, okay?

I probably need to rephrase that first sentence: the first song I learnt to play two-handed was America the Beautiful – my first musical conquest was ”twinkle, twinkle little star”, played with one finger…

So why would a Swedish woman learn to play an American song? Probably has to do with Mrs Miller, my dragon of a piano teacher. She was also my French teacher, and there was a time when I could conjugate avoir and être in my sleep, so thoroughly did she bang these verbs into my head. Mrs Miller was a woman one did not mess with.

At the time, I thought her old like Methuselah, now I realise she was probably around fifty (gulp, gulp) and, however demanding, a great teacher. She loved French. She loved piano. She loved deportment. I loved French. I liked piano. I hated deportment. But hey, two out of three aint bad, so Mrs Miller and I rubbed along just fine – as long as I didn’t question what songs she taught me to play. (And as to deportment, I have had the dubious pleasure of entire afternoons spent walking about with books on my head, lessons in how to sit, how to cross my legs, how to exit a car, how to enter a car, how to walk up a staircase in high heels and long dresses, how to walk down that same staircase…)

Anyway, while I remember Mrs Miller with fondness, she is not the theme of today’s post. America the Beautiful is.
It started in San Francisco. I could move there tomorrow. Yes, the streets are a cardiovascular challenge, but so what? This is relatively young city (from a European perspective, it’s a toddler at most) but the tree lined streets, the gorgeous architecture and the ever present sea makes this beyond a doubt one of the most beautiful and welcoming cities I’ve visited. (My mother, however, could never live there on account of the wind – she hates it when her hair lifts out of place.)

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Not real mountains…

So, we were sort of sad when we left San Francisco behind and took the 580 east, making for Yosemite. I like road trips – even more so when hubby is driving and I can look about. Okay, so I was in charge of map reading, not all that onerous a task on this particular journey, and so I studied the passing landscape. (Well, to be honest, I spent quite some time studying cars. I like cars, preferably the growly type with dual exhaust pipes. Plenty of those in the bay area…)

Somewhat more inland, and we entered the realms of mono-culture. Apricots, apricots, apricots, cherries, cherries, cherries, apricots, apricots, almonds and look, a grove of walnut trees. I am doubtful about this form of agriculture – monocultures come at the expense of diversity. However, it all looked very neat and tidy – settled, if you will. Not so that it qualified as an “America the beautiful” moment, though – despite the gorgeous oleanders, huge drifts of white and pink that bordered roads and fences.

We passed Oakland. The Sierra Nevada began to be discernible as foggy shapes in the distance. I entertained hubby by singing “Desde la Sierra Nevada viene bajando, cielito lindo…” Hubby, being a smart man, merely smiled. We entered the foothills, and I fell silent. Around me, a carpet of tawny high grasses gilded the rolling hills, here and there dotted with the odd black oak, a couple of cows or a horse.

We travelled onwards. Foothills became respectable ski slopes, steep if rounded, and hubby’s hands tightened on the steering wheel as we spiralled our way upwards. We made it over the first set of hills and entered a landscape of valleys and ever-growing hills.
“Not much in the way of mountains,” hubby commented.
“What?” I gazed at the slopes towering above us.
“Well, you know: they lack in harshness, somehow.”
This, dear people, was said BEFORE he saw Yosemite valley, with Half-dome in the distance. After that, he shut up regarding “real mountains”…

IMG_6263I don’t have words to describe Yosemite – suffice it to say I spent the entire day singing “America the beautiful” under my breath, repeating over and over “for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain” (See how neatly I tie it all together?)

The valley of Yosemite is like a green jewel set in purple-grey stone. Yosemite is granite cliffs that rise to touch the skies, waterfalls that thunder downwards, boulders smoothed by tons of ice into soft shapes so at odds with the stone itself. And trees – everywhere trees! It’s not as if we don’t have pine trees in Sweden – we have plenty – but in comparison with the specimens that tower above us in Yosemite, Swedish pines resemble chopsticks – fragile and puny. As a side comment, EVERYTHING is much bigger in America: the trees, the moose, the wolves, the lynx – even the warning cones used to designate road works. (And let’s not get started on the portions…)

IMG_6240What struck me most about Yosemite was that it was a place imbued with benevolence. That sounds silly, I know, but there was something about the silence among the giant sequoias, the way the sunlight filtered through tree crowns so high overhead I had to crane my head back just to see them, that filled me with a sensation of peace – and, in a way, of insignificance. These towering cliffs have stood like sentinels for thousands of years, they’ve seen generations of humans come and go, will see many more generations come and go, and ultimately it is possible they will still be here when we are gone. Is that a frightening thought? Maybe.

After Yosemite, we set out for Death Valley. And yes, this evoked images of bleached bones at dry waterholes, of vultures circling like vigilant specks high up above, waiting for whatever fool had been stupid enough to enter this wasteland to die, thereby giving the carrion eaters an unexpected feast.

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Death Valley

If Yosemite is an expression of the Creator’s/Mother Nature’s bountiful and fertile generosity, Death Valley brings home the message that Mother Nature can paint the most vibrant of pictures without stopping to consider such inconsequential aspects as our need for water to survive. In this harsh environment life is eerily absent – at least to the eye of the casual observer. But beauty is present everywhere, the rock and earth of the hillsides exploding in purple, in red and orange, in yellow and grey. The valley floor shimmers with heat, creating the impression that there might be water at the bottom, when in fact it is all sand and dirt, an arid wasteland where the heat is such it sucks your wits out. Once again, I felt inconsequential. Once again, I was humbled by the beauty that surrounded me. But this time, there was no benevolence. This was Nature showing its teeth.

IMG_6282After the heat of Death Valley it came as something as a relief to end up in an air-conditioned room, with cold water in the shower and a magnificent waterworks display outside our window. Las Vegas with all its lights, all its pulse is at the opposite end of the scale of places such as Death Valley (even if the heat was similar). And yes, the Bellagio fountain is indeed a marvel in itself, proving that man can create impressive beauty – but does it rival the wonders of places like Yosemite and Death Valley? Nope. Not even close.

America, a land that stretches from ocean to ocean (or shining sea, as the lyrics say). America, a land in which Nature shows itself in all its glory, from the tenacious cacti that survive the punishing heat in the desert, to the bright green lichen that decorate the ancient sequoias. America, truly a beautiful, beautiful land which I hope to revisit many more times. After all, there is so much more to explore!

Of old roads and dead men

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An old medieval road, no less

Whenever dear hubby wants to go off on some sort of excursion, he always dangles the carrot of history before my nose. Being a predictable sort, I always bite. (This, of course, leads me to consider just how much he has manipulated me throughout the years. Quite a lot, I suspect…)

Anyway, this time round he suggested we set off on a hike that would take us along an ancient medieval road. It would also, he said, lead us to something called Kastagropen (a deep crevice which, tradition has it, was used to dispose of old people in. One simply shoved them over the edge). Now, I know for a fact that my forebears did not throw the old and infirm off a cliff (phew!) but I was curious as to Kastagropen for an entirely other reason: this was where Swedish authorities purportedly hanged Danish rebels in the 17th century, leaving their rotting bodies to dangle like huge over-ripe fruit until they fell to the ground in pieces. This, unfortunately, does seem to be a true story.

So, off we went, with hubby throwing in yet another teaser. Once we’d done the medieval road and the Crevice of Death, we were going to hike to the Dead Village. Yet another cheerful little destination…

A short drive, a kilometer or so walking through the forest, and it was becoming quite apparent the road we were walking on was old – really old. I sort of shivered at the thought of all those ancient feet, shod in heavy wooden clogs for the most part, that had walked here before me, steadying the creaking wheel of their overloaded cart, pulling recalcitrant oxen along, or just dancing at the side of their loved one.

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The Preacher’s Pulpit

The road followed the bottom of the crevice, with ancient stone-bordered channels on both sides to lead off the water. The further we walked, the steeper the sides of the gorge became, until we were standing beneath something called The Preacher’s Pulpit. Anyone standing up there to address the people would be heard for miles. A perfect place for a rebellious Dane to call his people together and urge them to fight the Swedish invaders unto death. Just as perfect a place to display that same Dane, now hanging at the end of a noose…

Those 17th century Danish rebels went by the name of Snapphanar – this due to their preference for snaphance lock muskets (for more, see here). They were fighting for their right to the land, for their customs and language. The Swedish aggressors were less than impressed, and the captured rebels were tortured and killed in the most horrible ways to instill fear and obedience in the rest of the people. Seeing your man nailed to a church door and there left to die must be a terrifying experience. Watching your relatives have their limbs torn apart before they were hanged was quite the deterrent. And yet, people still hid the rebels, still held on to their Danish roots, which was why the Swedish authorities decided to do some deportation, bringing in good Swedish people to replace the Danish families sent off to Swedish Livland (present day Baltic States).

I slipped my hand into hubby’s as we stood craning or necks back under The Preacher’s Pulpit. For an instant, I could see the surrounding trees adorned by hanged corpses, I could hear the raucous sound of crows and rooks as they pecked at unseeing eyes, unfeeling faces. Ugh.

After this unsettling experience, we continued along the old road. The water in the ancient ditches leapt and burbled cheerfully, wrens and robins darted back and forth, and the spectres of those unfortunate 17th century rebels faded from my mind. Instead, we set off in search of the Dead Village.

This part of Sweden is a harsh land. The ground is littered with stone, the terrain is a collection of hills and crevices, of sudden jutting cliffs and boulders. To clear a field would have been back-breaking work, and the people who lived here were probably always staving of starvation, never being able to grow quite enough to see them comfortably through the winter. Twenty kilometres to the south, things change. The earth is rich and fertile, the ground undulates towards the sea. Whoever owned those lands, could count on plentiful harvests, in difference to the poor folk who inhabited the forests and complemented their sad little fields with lumber and pigs.

In the mid 19th century, many of these poor Swedish people took the decision to leave. America beckoned, promising virgin land ready for the plough, endless acres just waiting for a new owner. It also promised religious freedom, an unknown concept in Sweden where the Swedish Lutheran Church ruled absolute and did its best to squash any alternative religion, such as the Methodist Church or the Evangelists. (Religious freedom is a relatively new concept in Sweden, where Conventicle Laws existed until 1858)

In the poorer parts of Sweden, these new expressions of faith resonated with the people. In response, the Swedish Church fined and punished, making the poorer even poorer. A vicious circle that ultimately drove entire communities to sell off everything they had and set off for the land of hopes and dreams come true.

The Dead Village is one such community. The inhabitants took a collective decision to leave in the 1860s or so, and off they went, leaving their houses behind. In a terrain littered by stone, the village was crisscrossed by dry stone walls, testament to just how much stone and rocks had been moved off the narrow fields.

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Woods that once rang with the sound of axes, where boys chased after piglets and girls tended the precious cow, now lie silent. The wind soughing through the trees, the distant sound of water and birds – that’s all I could hear. A branch broke under my foot, a deer leaped off down a hillside, and the only thing that showed this was once inhabited land was the road beneath my feet – an old, old road – and the stone walls, now covered with moss. Nothing remained of the houses beyond the odd shallow indentation. Nothing remained of gardens and fields, nature having reclaimed its own. That’s how ephemeral our presence in this world is – give nature time, and it swallows back whatever we have wrested from it.

“Not these days,” my daughter said when we discussed this. “These days, we build in concrete.”
I merely smiled. A block of concrete left in the open will soon be perforated by grasses and dandelions, crumbling back into its basic components with the rain and the sun.

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All that remains…

To me, it is somehow comforting. Life is so much more than us, the Earth is so much more than us. We may think we are the pinnacle of creation, that whatever we build will stand forever and more, but this is just us succumbing to that most ancient of sins, hubris. I stood in the middle of the bright green beech forest and rested my hand on an ancient granite gatepost. This is what remained, a piece of standing rock. Everything else had returned to being what it was – before man, before ploughs and axes.

All in all, it was a good hike. A walk through centuries of history, through woods as constant now as they were then. A lesson in humility, bringing home just how short and precious our time on Earth is. Because once we die, we leave very little behind – beyond the dreams we’ve passed on to the coming generations and the hope that somewhere someone will remember us, maybe even speak our name. The people who once lived in the Dead Village are nameless today. The valiant Danish rebels are just as anonymous, casual facts in a history book, no more. But they lived – just like us – and they died – like all men do. And somewhere, someone wept and called their name.

That Lusty month of May – welcoming the sun

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Bonfire against an April twilight

The older I get, the more sensitive I become to the turn of the year. These days, the dark winters cost me much more than they used to do, and from January onwards I adopt an almost religious approach to the lengthening days.

Come April, the light is well and truly back in this part of the world, daylight seeping in around four a.m and lingering until nine p.m. This is the season of twilight, of evenings that shift from sunset through deepening purple to night. To sit and watch the world sink into darkness is soothing, a moment of meditation in a life otherwise too hectic, too defined by other things than the steady rhythm of night and day.

In general, it seems to me modern man has become as fragmented as the information that bombards us. In a world where everyone seems to think time is always of the essence – at the expense of reflection – decisions have become knee-jerk rather than considered. In such an environment, it is more important to hear “all” news than to hear the “full” news – until, of course, someone makes a bad call without having studied the full picture…

I’m not so sure this is beneficial to us as a species. It is definitely playing havoc with our stress hormones, which in turn can cause heart attacks. And besides, aren’t we losing sight of the true beauty of life?

My mother is a former language teacher. (At times, this was a pain in the butt: she was quite merciless when it came to reviewing our work. On the other hand, I can to this day recite the rules for when subjunctive applies in Spanish. One never knows when that may come in handy…) She used to set her students essays by offering them an assortment of subjects to write about. One of her recurring themes was Simple Pleasures in a Humdrum Life. I can tell you this subject led to a number of pretty impressive essays, because when we stop to think about it, all of us have a list of the little things that make our everyday life bearable, whether it be the toothless grin of a six-year-old or the uncomplicated love offered by a dog.

For me, more and more, it is the returning light that is my main source of quiet joy. Don’t get me wrong, I love my adult children to bits, am more than impressed by the fact that somehow these robust, bright beings have been brought forth by me, but a source of peaceful pleasure they are not, being loud and demanding, as big in gestures as they are in heart. To be quite honest, I love when they swoop in to visit, but am just as happy when they leave, allowing hubby, youngest son and me to return to our more ordered life.

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Beeches in spring

Back to light, to spring, to the eternal cycle of rebirth. Many years ago, I was a Weight Watcher (bear with me, okay?). Well, if we’re going to be correct, I’ve been watching my weight my entire adult life, and seriously, whatever for? In keeping with a good Lutheran’s approach to sin, I have guilted myself over each morsel of cake, each delicious piece of chocolate, and all this guilt and watching has been seriously non-productive. But, as I said, once I was a bona fide Weight Watcher, back in the good old days when everything was converted to points, and the good little trooper could save up points to binge over the weekend (which raises the question as to permanent eating habits and all that). Once a week, I dragged myself off to my rendezvous with the dreaded scale – and the weekly class.

I must say many of those classes were sadly uninspiring. In many cases, the question people asked were mostly about how to continue eating their favourite foods (ergo the “save up points” strategy). Now and then, the person holding the class really tried to be inspiring. Mostly this fell flat on its face. We, the class, did not want to be inspired. We wanted a short-cut to bodies that would look gorgeous in bikinis five weeks from now. (Whoever said we were realistic?)

Anyway, one week the person holding the class was a dapper man with a slicked-back hairdo and an oxford shirt he wore with his sleeves rolled up. This gentleman started by showing us his Before and After pics – very impressive – and then he went on to talk about the need for Other Sources of Pleasure. Rather seriously, he explained that life wasn’t about food. Well, at that point it itched in me to up and leave – I don’t like being patronized, and from the look on various faces around me, this was a common sentiment. But when the man went on to describe the sheer joy he felt whenever he stepped into a beech wood in spring, I couldn’t help but smile in recognition.

IMG_0122To walk through a beech forest in spring is to enter a natural cathedral, the greying stems the pillars, the newly sprung foliage the ceiling. Sun filters through to dance along the ground, the wind soughs through the boughs, whispering a gentle psalm, a promise of verdant tomorrows, of days of plenty. Beneath my feet, a carpet of dead leaves rustle, here and there dotted by islands of green in which anemones shine like earthbound stars.

Where I live, I can walk for hours under spreading boughs, caress the smooth bark of trees that have been around for much, much longer than me. Now and then, a choir of birds break into song, here and there, a tarn of pitch-black water reminds me that the woods has it fair share of darkness too – as does life in general. Important to remember, I believe, as without the contrast of the dark, the light would not seem quite as wonderful.

IMG_0126Up here in Sweden, spring has just begun. It’s as if nature has inhaled, a huge bellyful of air, as it prepares for the explosion of colour and sound that will come over the coming weeks. A month from now, my beech forests will be more about shade than sun, the canopies hindering the sun from reaching all the way to the ground. When the spring anemones wither, not much else takes their place, because flowers, like all of us, need light as much as warmth to grow and thrive.

But for now, my beeches sprout timid leaves, the anemones lie like swathes of white across the forest floor, and I am so grateful to be alive, to be here, to be me.

P.S. So, I hear some of you wondering, what happened with the Weight Watcher thing? Did the inspiring dude lead to any revolutionary changes in my life? Pah! Seriously, when the man suggested we replace the craving for chocolate with beech leaves, telling us that they actually tasted quite nice, I did get up and leave. I may have shared his love for beeches, but a woman is allowed some vices – and mine is chocolate!

Waiting for the annual miracle

IMG_0095The wagtail has arrived. Five days late, but still. (And yes, the wagtail tends to be very exact, showing up on April 6th. Not so this year) Over the newly ploughed fields the lapwings dip and wheel, the wrens and sparrows are squabbling in the shrubs and the willow is in full, if muted, flower, the silver catkins converted into miniature greenish yellow powderpuffs.  As yet, the trees stand stark and denuded against the pale blue April skies, but the buds are swelling and the birch bleeds sap.

There is scilla under the brambles, colt’s-foot in the ditches, and where the sun filters through, the forest ground is carpeted with anemones, shy little things that retract their white flowers if the day is too cold, too cloudy. Spring is in the air, as they say, and there is an element of anticipation, a desire to strip and run out naked to welcome back the sun. I don’t, of course – I’d freeze my butt off.

It’s as if the entire Nature is holding its breath, not quite believing spring is back, with warmth and long, long days of sunlight. A couple of weeks in which it all hangs in balance, while irrevocably the Earth turns and the sun’s heat comes closer. Days in which every glimpse of the sun is a promise, in which every freezing wind carries the dying breath of winter.

I wait. I collect signs of spring as others collect stamps. Look, the nettles are showing, and in the protected corner just by the house, the Monk’s Hood has broken through the earth, pinnated leaves like dark green lace. I inspect my roses and taste the wind, trying to decide whether it is safe to prune them. In the mornings, I wake to frosted windows and frozen puddles, but I refuse to wear my winter coat, shivering in the icy air as I tell myself that it is April, and therefore spring.

IMG_0093The chestnut by our house is decorated with heavy sticky buds, the pod straining to hold the bud closed, while the newborn leaves within clamour that they want to escape their confining prison. The pod cracks, and a glimmer of green can be seen within. Does it hurt? Maybe it does, maybe that is why spring stands on the threshold and waits, not quite daring to break through the constraints of winter.

One of our more famous Swedish poets, Karin Boye, expresses it thus:

Of course it hurts when buds break open,
Why else would spring hesitate?
Why would all our heated desire
remain fettered in frozen bitterness?
The pod was there throughout the winter
so what is it that now pounds and strains within?
Of course it hurts when buds break open,
for that which grows, and that which is burst open.
(own translation)

Every year, life returns. Every year, we are blessed with the miracle of seeing our world reborn. Gratitude sings in my veins, life pounds in my blood. I am alive – and so is the world!

And for those that just want to shape their mouths around the Swedish version of Karin Boye’s poem, see below.

Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister.
Varför skulle annars våren tveka?
Varför skulle all vår heta längtan
bindas i det frusna bitterbleka?
Höljet var ju knoppen hela vintern.
Vad är det för nytt, som tär och spränger?
Ja visst gör det ont när knoppar brister,
ont för det som växer och det som stänger.

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