René, the cèpes, and a busy month!

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Forest cèpes (Boletus spp.)

There’s been so much going on this month, it’s difficult to know where to begin, but I think my neighbour René and his cèpes deserve pride of place. (You’ll have to imagine what he looks like as he doesn’t want his picture to appear on ‘The Internet’, and I respect his wishes).

For me he epitomises the spirit of still being able to gather what Nature has to offer us, and he does it in a sustainable way, on his own, using his local knowledge of where and when a pigeon will be flying over, or the forest mushrooms will appear in the undergrowth. A modern-day hunter/gatherer, he takes just what he needs for himself and I get to share some of his bounty!

But on a wider scale, he symbolises one of the important principles of the forest, that of Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP’s, or Produits Forestiers Non-Ligneux (PFNL) in French). This is to say that the forest is so much more than just trees, not only the mushrooms mentioned above, but also berries, leaves, medicines, fibres, fodder, bush meat, animal skins and so on; something that has been known over millennia, but which has often become forgotten or pushed to one side in the rush to produce timber for industry. In tropical countries, whole populations still rely on these products for their livelihoods, and so deforestation there can have disastrous knock-on effects. The existence of NTFP’s is also welcome evidence of a rich biodiversity as well as complex ecosystems and food chains, and they and people can quite easily co-exist with mixed-species timber trees if the forest is managed in the right way.

All this about food gathering is highlighted by the season of course, and I have been busy too. Do you have trouble cracking walnuts? All you need is a good hammer and the right position. Hold the nut upright, pointed end down, flat end to the top; one sharp tap with the hammer and voilà!

Apart from shelling nuts and cooking cèpes, I have been making soups for the freezer from my crop of squash and also some green tomato chutney. Another neighbour very kindly gave me two freshly shot pheasants which I skinned and gutted and they too are in the freezer.

The mention of biodiversity and ecosystems leads me on to something else that has been happening this month, a collection of user-friendly media events concerned with ecosystem restoration, regenerative agriculture and reports on plant life, all of which are relevant to the Project here, and which show an increased awareness towards and by the general public of environmental issues, and that we actually need to do something about them, instead of it just being talked about in the rather inaccessible domain of the researchers, valuable though that is. The rise in these events online in recent months is no doubt a direct result of the Covid crisis, and so a sort of silver lining if you like. I find this very encouraging.

The UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew published the State of the World’s Plants and Fungi, a well-researched and readable global report which covers subjects such as finding new edible plants, new ways to use plants sustainably for healthcare, and new plants for energy, and with lots of interesting facts and figures. As Professor Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science, says in his introduction: “… humanity is still a long way from utilising the full potential of biodiversity, in particular plants and fungi, which play critical roles in ecosystems. Now, more than ever before, we need to explore the solutions they could provide to the global challenges we face.”

The TED Countdown, a “global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis, turning ideas into action” was launched on October 10th, with many high-profile speakers such as the Pope and Prince William as well as many ordinary people on the ground. ‘Countdown’ refers to a proposed 10-year window to set us on the right track. (Professor) Tom Crowther of the Crowther Lab in Zurich, a research organisation working on grassroots landscape and ecosystem restoration through large- and small-scale initiatives worldwide, spoke about the global movement to restore Nature’s biodiversity.

And then at the end of the month came the film Kiss the Ground (available for streaming on Netflix or Vimeo, about 1h30m), alerting us to the problems of industrial agriculture and desertification. A little bit Hollywood and americo-centric, with over-enthusiastic celebrities, but the message from the real practitioners was loud and clear, with sound evidence for the benefits of regenerative agriculture. (And if Hollywood gets the message out to a wider public, I’m not complaining!)

Let’s come back down after that and talk about the weather, or rather weather-recording! I have finally not only got my weather station up and running, but installed where it has to be (after several attempts at getting the signals right), connected to wi-fi (after getting help from a computer technician), and producing lots of lovely tables and graphs on my computer. This will all be very useful for the Project – temperature, pressure, wind speed and direction, humidity, rainfall, insolation and UV index. Reports will start at the end of November after a full month of recording.

October’s weather was colder in general in the mornings and evenings, but with a mixture of cloudy and sunny weather during the daytime. We had 190mm of rain, the same amount as for the four months from June to September, and nearly two-thirds of this fell during the first week, a period of storms which rocked the south-east of France with severe flooding and landslides on a scale that we have become used to seeing in tropical areas, not western Europe!

I decided as I had nearly a year’s-worth of data from the wild flower censuses that a change of format was required. It is now done as a complete list in alphabetical order of all the species seen on the property this year (108!) with boxes at the end of each line to tick for the species observed that month. I have done this for October (see below) and it works well, as it is a memory-jogger and avoids having to look things up every time. There were still 25 species this month, some returning after the rain, and including 8 new ones, notably Wood Sage (Teucrium scorodonia), with one-sided heads of tiny cream flowers. The little cyclamen that I noted last month turned out not to be a one-off, because several more appeared in October! The new species are simply added to the master list.

I also completed the Site Evaluation this month (see below, English and French versions), which has been self-promised for some time now. It includes location, climate, topography, geology and hydrology and again is a vital document for the Project.

The evaluation stage also requires a map, and this still has to be done. I am hoping to join Tom Crowther’s (see above) RESTOR global ecosystem restoration project, and for this mapping is required, so it will be the incentive to get it done!

The fruit tree planting planned for this winter has moved to the next stage, with a provisional list and the Site Evaluation now with my contact at the Conservatoire Régional. I am waiting to hear back from him. They also have an ‘agent’ nursery not far from here, so a visit to them to get their advice is in order too.

The compost heap has been remade with kitchen waste, cut plants, nettles, comfrey, wood ash, wood chips, cardboard and a generous helping of my own manure! A small amount of ready compost that I had left has been put around the new trees with urine also. The soil around the trees is now looking good and humus-ey.

Here is the lentil ‘bed’ for next year, made by clearing a 6m x 5m area, covering this with cardboard, grass and weed cuttings, tomato and squash haulms, and some chipped wood for carbon, covered in black plastic anchored down with grass sod dug out for the purpose.

This will now be left to decompose over the winter, and lentils will be sown in the spring. They should germinate before any grass tries to re-establish itself. Another way of doing this would have been to just sow the lentils in the grass next spring; I decided against this because the grass and weeds were so long-established that the lentils wouldn’t have stood a chance!

I also redesigned the website at the beginning of the month and feel it is now easier to navigate, and has a more attractive Home page. The Blog and Articles are on separate pages and I have made extensive use of widgets, the things you see in the right hand column and at the bottom of the page, including one for Google Translate for anyone who needs it!

A very satisfying month, I feel the Sombrun Forest Garden Project has moved on to the next stage!

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