My singing tree is a wise teller of time
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – My main criterion for the date when I can safely shop for plants, especially blooms for my garden is the flowering of the 112-year-old apple tree, a wise old thing. We pruned it radically 10 years ago, since no one had done it for at least 25 years, then we gradually slowed down the pruning and two years ago we decided to let it live in peace.
As a result, the fruit, an old variety that to be honest we don’t particularly like, is smaller and on branches no one cares to try to reach.
But the flowers! It is thick with white blossoms, so dense we lose sight of the bigger world, and the birds love it, so it becomes a singing tree in May.
It blooms later than trees on the plain, waiting until there is no danger of frost, although we often have one final spring snowfall around 15 May because we’re at 1,100 metres altitude. The tree takes this in stride.
It’s in full, gorgeous bloom right now, so I’m off to Schilliger for the start of my spring shopping spree. If I get carried away I’ll have some plants that must be brought inside at night for another three weeks, so wish me a little constraint.
And I’m taking the advice of a local garden work man who suggests that I buy fewer low-altitude plants and go to a specialist in Sion for higher altitude shopping. So join me while I shop at two garden centres this year.
If you’re an international person who moves around, one of the odd side benefits is that you learn about the many faces of snow. I grew up in the Midwest, in the US, and winters meant we had huge piles of heavy wet snow dumped on us. I remember walking to school along what felt like an open-top tunnel. We were small people then, but these were enormous piles that gradually sank. That’s what snow did in that flat land: it sank, and sank until late March, when green grass reappeared.
Then I lived in Minnesota, not far from Canada’s Midwest, and our snow was dry and light. It had a particular crunching sound and feel to it that you get only in very cold places. Everyone parked on the street and we had long extension cords running out to charge our car batteries during the night. Most people put blankets over their engines as well, at night.
Snow in Paris existed only in the sky, for once it came too close to buildings and people it turned into something else that was brown and sloppy, lacking beauty or elegance.
Snow in Ireland, near Galway, arrived just in time for Saint Patrick’s day in March. It crippled the countryside, but since nothing happens there in winter it made little difference. It had the extraordinary quality of a bird that’s landed in the wrong place and is temporarily stunned, before it gathers it wits or its courage and moves on.
But Switzerland! Oh, snow in the Alps is altogether different, coming in great dense piles and then settling like an older child home for the holidays. It ignores our usual routines, our expectations of daily life: it’s noisy with snowplows (heavy metal). It has an ego.
Or so it seems until it is diminished by the foehn. This, to me, a lowlander, a flatlander, is the great mystery of snow in the Swiss Alps. It comes, it sits, it – gets pushed away by these strange yellow winds that blow from the Sahara.
I spent part of Sunday working near the window. The foehn is not a gentle wind in any sense, or to any senses – it roars around you, turns the air yellow, shoves up against the shutters and doors until they bang hard.
It blows the snow, getting into every nook and cranny and upright bank of snow until the white stuff can no longer resist.
First there is a hole in the snow. In the end, there is only the hole. The wind worked for two hours on the 100-year-old apple tree outside my window and won. The snow-decked tree was nearly stripped of snow in that time.
For further lessons on snow and how it works, the Swiss federal avalanche institute has a glossary that makes interesting reading if you are really trying to avoid going outside or looking for excuses not to work on your end of year bookkeeping.