A single woodpecker was tapping a tattoo around thirty feet up, near the top of the horse chestnut tree here at Pri Colnici 2. It took a while to find him, for despite the bright plumage he blended in well and his sound and movement gave him away first. Soon after he left, four great tits came to dine. I observed them for many minutes flitting rapidly from branch to branch where they were feasting on flies and insects caught in the webs of spiders woven close to almost every twig (I could not tell if the spiders themselves were on the menu) or stuck to the trees still sticky buds.
The horse chestnut trees on this particular stretch of road are well maintained and have only recently been carefully pruned. When the new bridge was under construction there was considerable disruption to the highway and surrounding path as the photographs demonstrate. Their careful protection must have been ordered and so someone here is doing a very good job; I must find out who it is.
The monochrome image seems to show the same tree at an earlier point in a life that witnessed the destruction of the bridge in December 1944 and possibly earlier damage in 1919 . The tree has been lucky and has so far had a more charmed life than the bridge.
Katrin Litschko came from Bratislava to interview me as part of a feature about the Bridge Guard residency programme, which includes interviews with founder Karol Fruhauf and an earlier bridge guard from Germany called Michel Jochum. The broadcast was for Radio Slovakia International and the link below is to the complete half hour show conducted largely in German. Tales of conkers and the sound of crunching chestnut leaves are toward the end. The layers of their inverted pyramid of an office, are like outbound radio waves, selling its messages to the world.
Leaf detritus beneath all the horse chestnut trees I have recorded in Sturovo and Esztergom are home to a huge population of overwintering pupa of the Cameraria Ohridella moth – a species first observed in the late 1970s in the Macedonia region and which has since made steady progress north and west throughout Europe. It arrived in Slovakia in 1994 near the border with Austria (ref. Matlak 1994). These photographs are taken in my studio in Sturovo, using a microscope connected to a lap top.
Which is the more durable. The painted steel of the Maria Valeria bridge or the chestnut tree standing sentry beside it? The latest bridge is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, whilst the tree according to local knowledge is at least fifty. The natural state of iron is oxide wrote the respected Victorian writer John Ruskin and without a coat of this pale utilitatian green every four or five years it will be well rusted in another ten. The seemingly more frail tree, loses its leaves every autumn, but is less susceptible to the insessant weathering and its sticky buds are already set for its own springtime greening.
The last of the conkers are being blown from the branches of the chestnuts on Ostrihomska Cestra, the approach road to the Slovakian end of the bridge. The children do not play conkers, but perhaps this river crossing and its surrounding peoples have seen too much of putative conquerors over the centuries already.
Symbols of love abound in most places where people gather and can take many forms, but hopefully we can manage without etching our enthusiasm for the emotion onto too many more horse chestnut trees. I am all in favour of affection for nature (it’s the beginning of greater care and understanding of the natural world), but not quite so much in favour of affection on nature.
The annual market to mark the feast of St Simon & St Jude, has brought a flood of people who are channeled between two narrow rows of stalls running the length of town, from pedestrian centre to the thinning urban edge; about five times the length of the bridge I am taking time out from guarding. I am amid an expectant, joyful throng shuffling in sociable counter streams; an incoming tide from the east clutching helium filled dalmatian dogs and cartoon mice, over and around an advancing outflow from the west (bearing candy floss or munching on the greatest variety of take away food I have ever seen). Like the waters in a tidal creek, moving slow and occasionally faster, eddying around pavement cafes or swirling by roasting pigs or on one occasion a whole roasting cow (where even the locals pause to take photographs).
I have just read a note by the Major, that in ‘1724 the settlement was promoted to town status with the rights to hold markets. King Charles IV awarded the town market rights and the most significant was the Simon – Juda market, held on the days of St. Simon and St. Jude’. At first I thought it was strange to celebrate Judas, until I read the link below which explains how Jude is a completely different character (and patron Saint, no less, of the Chicago Police Department).
It was hot in the grounds of the Basilica today and the archbishop’s horse chestnut trees were in unseasonal leaf and bloom; new green leaves looking relatively free of the leaf mining moth for the most part. It is a strange sight to see these spring greens sharing a branch with the withered oxide orange remnants of the summer’s war against camaria orhidella. The new buds are very sticky on this the sticky on the bud tree; and they have a sticky sort of problem.
The moth itself of course is as beautiful as the tree. Under the microscope its folded wings are like a cape of iridescent pearly silver and gold, but to the naked eye it is a 3mm long grey speck, and very easy to dismiss. So which part of nature merits my empathy? The tree whose candle like inflorescences I adore in spring and whose large broad leaves shade the paths and roads from harsh summer sun. The tree which I know recycles the air and absorbs the carbon from passing traffic… or a moth I barely notice? It is by no means proven that it is killing the trees, though I assume it must be severely weakening them.
We look at nature from the perspective of our own needs, but it is important (even for our own sakes) to question the legitimacy of this view. Patrick Leigh Fermor in his book A Time of Gifts, relates how in Slovakia he developed a passion for the work of the German poet Christian Morgernstern. One of these poems seemed in a whimsical Spike Milliganish sort of way, to lend itself to the direction of my own thoughts tonight…
At the Housefly Planet
Upon the housefly planet
the fate of the human is grim:
for what he does here to the housefly,
the fly does there unto him.
To paper with honey cover
the humans there adhere,
while others are doomed to hover
near death in vapid beer.
However, one practice of humans
the flies will not undertake:
they will not bake us in muffins nor swallow us by mistake.
Illuminated sign outside a national gambling or lottery store (www.ifortuna.sk) at the Sturovo end of the Maria Valeria Bridge.
I was just wondering about the mixture of striving, hope and chance that carried me here for the next six months, as I walked home with Carl Orff ringing in my head.
like the moon
you are changeable,
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
it melts them like ice.
Fate – monstrous
you whirling wheel,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
you plague me too;
now through trickery,
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.
Fate, in health
and in virtue,
is against me,
and weighted down,
So at this hour
pluck the vibrating string;
strikes down the strong man,
everyone weep with me!’
Early 13th Century Latin Goliardic Poem (set to music by Carl Orff in his cantata Carmina Burana 1936).