Wednesday, 14 December 2011

‘Tis the Season for gathering

Christmas time --- What comes to mind is getting together with family. Not necessarily the family in which one was raised. More often people who have a special significance for you.

Last week on a night when the winter gale blew trees sideways, tore slate tiles from the roofs, and the snow spirits danced in circles in Huntly Square, Amber and I went to the Huntly Area Cancer Support Centre’s Christmas party. Usually I’m allergic to parties and have to be dragged out to them. So many words get thrown about that mean little and are quickly forgotten, that I tend to zone out. But not this time. This was the first Christmas season with my new, extended family. There were volunteers I knew from Thursday afternoons at the Centre. Some had a recent bout with cancer, and were still undergoing therapy. Some I met for the first time.

Fiona, Magda and Bobbie lay out a beautiful spread for us. The punch bowl was filled with sweet but lethal punch . Alistair made sure that our wine glasses were filled. And so once the food and wine took hold we all felt like singing. Liz Hunter led off with several beautiful solos of Christmas carols, and then we joined in. Her angelic voice made ours sound a bit raspy but no one seemed to mind. Or appeared particularly self-conscious.

We traded many stories that night. Pam Heinemeier apparently lives in the house where George MacDonald spent his early life. When I was much younger his fantasy books cast their spell on me. I still regard him as a mentor. We talked about how the railway line first came to Huntly, about several springs in the Huntly area that traditionally have curative properties. Ian Clive Hunter, an artist who lives in Andalusia, described his work and religious Spanish art.

We'd have stayed longer, but the howling wind outside let us know it was time to go. And so, after saying our good-byes, we went off into the swirling snow.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

AWAKENINGS (On the Perth-Aberdeen train)

We all know them.
Unasked for moments when the veil is drawn aside.
And then we see; not only see but understand
What’s so clear; so obvious.
How could I have missed
What's been staring me in the face?
Days or even years?
You bask in the morning sun on a new landscape
With no room for thought,
Or that it’s only a glimpse.
That the veil may be drawn again
And leave you among grey shadows.

And mama, with an old brain
Riddled with plaques and tangles
Looking at me for days, but not really looking,
Not knowing who she is. Where she is.
She awakens.
That smile, half laughing on her lips
Is there for me.
Her open eyes sparkle,
Dewdrops in the morning sun,
A look of more than a thousand words.
She takes my hand; an iron grip
That will not let go.
A moment, a minute or an hour.
Then she looks away.
Withdraws from us,
Returns to the twilight world
Or to a place beyond that I know nothing of.
Not yet.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Huntly Area Cancer Support Centre

On Thursday afternoons I volunteer at the Huntly Area Cancer Support Centre. Set close to Huntly Square, it's a place where those touched by that dreadful disease can find support, advice, friendship and healing.

Cancer is a scary word, so doctors don’t like to speak it when delivering their diagnosis. Families don’t talk about it. Children are most often shut out. I remember, because 18 years ago my wife was visited by cancer. We were bewildered, confused by the range of options, decisions to make, whom to tell and when. Nothing was simple or certain --- except for the reality of the scourge. Luckily we had a supportive network of family and friends. I leaned heavily on whoever was within earshot. Help appeared from unexpected sources. There was a box of oranges that turned up on the doorstep. People who offered to pick up the kids, or keep them for a few days. Or stay with them while I was away on a business trip. Warm soup was often delivered to our kitchen. A religious minister came by regularly and gave my wife a healing. But not everyone is as fortunate as I.

Which is why, when I first heard of the Huntly Centre, I asked if I could help man the front desk. Having traveled the road from cancer diagnosis through various stages of treatment and death, I know something about the way. Also that a cancer diagnosis does not mean that death is inevitable. Most important when confronted by the unknown is to live each moment to the full, not to shut down or succumb to fear or despondency. All medical studies have shown that those who maintain a positive spirit tend to survive. Ones attitude often affects the efficacy of the treatment. Which is where the Cancer Centre comes in.

I found an extraordinary group of people dedicated to helping cancer victims their families and carers maintain their quality of life. Carers are often equally battered by the disease. Depleted. After sharing our stories I felt that we’d known each other for much longer than a few hours. All volunteers have a strong empathic sense. Some worked as nurses or as alternative healers. Others like myself have a history with cancer.

Clients walk in unnanounced, some referred by friends or doctors; others see the store sign and open the door to see what's inside. Often they just need someone who will listen to them; help them deal with concerns or fears, in a non-clinical setting. Sometimes they only need information or a referral to a MacMillan nurse. For clients struggling with the side effects of chemotherapy or radiation, the centre offers Reiki, Reflexology, and other complementary therapies.

On my first day at the Centre a woman came in. Distressed, and in obvious pain from cancer treatment, she asked for a Reiki treatment. Reiki is an ancient, non-invasive treatment where the healer’s hands move above the body, but do not touch it. The treatment relaxes the client, eases pain and helps restore their energy levels. It's effective not only for patients but for carers or family members who need an energy boost. Therapeutic Touch, a similar healing art, originated among nurses in the United States. It is practiced by thousands of nurses in many hospitals.

Pam took the woman to the therapy room. An hour later when the client emerged, she had a more peaceful look about her. Not healed, but with more energy and in less pain. Perhaps not as overwhelmed by the disease. The treatment must be doing her some some good, because she keeps coming back for more.

Monday, 28 November 2011

New Website --- under construction

Scottish wolf

It's been a while in coming, and I'm almost there with the new website, designed to promote Gaia's Children, share short stories, and offer information on the Gaia Theory. Because wolves play such a dominant role in Gaia's Children, I'm planning to post material pertaining to wolves in Scotland and their ecological importance. So far, they are confined to a few wildlife sanctuaries, but by 2050 --- who knows what their range may be.

Gaia's Children is scheduled to hit the bookshops on March 1, but if you want your copy earlier, let me know and I'll dispatch one as soon as I receive the first batch. It will also be available as an ebook. In the US, you can order the book on Amazon. Meanwhile, feel free to peruse or download the opening chapters.

Also, you may want to download The Lottery, a short story set at the same time as the novel.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Her head was missing!

I’m sitting comfortably in my cousin Basia’s living room, and looking at the picture of Jan, her father – my favorite uncle. A poet and story-teller, he was always funny and warm-hearted. Also my worst critic when it came to my early writing attempts.

“Why are you writing this rubbish?” he’d say after reading my manuscript. “Write your own material – not this stuff borrowed from those books that you’ve been reading.”

Among his most memorable stories were his harrowing experiences with ghosts during the summer of 1941 in Pitmilly house – a sprawling manor outside St.Andrews. The estate, formerly belonging to the Moneypenny family was commandeered for military purposes. His army unit, the Polish First Rifle Brigade, assigned the task of patrolling the coast, was stationed nearby. A Scottish Major, with his wife, and his daughter Mary lived in the house. A Polish officer, Jan had a room in the house. Also, he was interested in Mary, and following a short courtship they were engaged.

Staying overnight in the manor house wasn’t a lot of fun. It had already a reputation for hauntings. According to legend a spirit once lived in an ancient yew tree on the grounds of the house. Somewhat ill advisedly a gardener chopped it down with the result that the ghost had to find a new home --- the main house.

One night Jan was sitting up in bed, reading, when he happened to look up, across the room. A large oaken wardrobe standing again the far wall stirred into life, glided across the floor to halt by his bed, where it proceeded to rock to and fro threateningly. Of course he jumped out of his bed and high tailed it out of the room, and out of the house. The next day the Major complained that the wardrobe was not in its place. It took four soldiers to lift the wardrobe and shove it back against the wall where it belonged.

Engagement to Mary took its toll on him. One day upon returning to his room he found all the furniture scattered around the room. Books all over the place. Another time while watching Mary’s mother walking across a carpet, he saw the carpet catch fire where she set her feet down. Jan and a servant grabbed blankets and doused the flames before they caused major damage.

He actually encountered the ghost one moonlit night. He was on patrol in the grounds, when he saw a figure approaching him. As was customary, Jan called out, "Halt." After receiving no response or password he cried out, "Halt or I shoot." The unknown person continued to walk among the trees. Presumably a woman,because of her dress but curiously short. Only after she disappeared from view did he realize the reason for her short stature.

Her head was missing.

“How did you feel?” I asked my uncle.

“A cold dread down my spine,” he said.

Evidently the spirit inhabitants had a reputation, as was evidenced by a letter that Jan happened to see lying on the Major’s desk. From an insurance company. The insurance agent, in the most apologetic tones, said that the company was declining fire coverage on the house, on the grounds that “apparently the house was haunted.”

Granted that Jan, a poet, was also known for his sense of the dramatic,and for his tendency to exaggerate. Listening to those chilling stories on a winter night we wondered how much to believe. Fast forward to 1968 when I enrolled at St. Andrews University. I was determined to find out the truth behind the goings on at Pitmilly. At the cathedral grounds I found an old man who worked as a tourist guide. He must have been there for twenty years as I remember him from my youth as the bloke who always led us up the never ending stairs to the top of St. Rule’s tower.

“Pitmilly?” he asked. “Why are ye asking about Pitmilly? There are chairs jumping up and down there.”

“Pitmilly is no more,” chimed in a second guard.

They gave me directions, and so I biked over to the spot. I found what had once been the manor, now a burned out shell. It had recently burned down. No one knew why. For some time no one had been living there.

Around the end of the war, Mary broke off her engagement to Jan. Reportedly in response to family pressures. My father theorized all along that the Major had mediumistic abilities, and the house’s apparent hostility to Jan was an expression of the Major's dislike of the prospective son-in-law. But evidently that wasn’t the entire story. The house was sold, the buyers tried to make it into a hotel, but with little success. The spirits had a nasty habit of moving furniture around in front of the guests, opening toilet stalls while they were inside. Then came the fire.

Today the house has been rebuilt and is functioning again. Anyone know what happened to the ghosts?

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Celebrate Life

By Amber Poole

What I like most about getting older is giving myself permission to be messy again. Not in the sense of physical disorganization as I must admit I do like tidy, but in the appreciation of drawing outside the lines. With each passing day, I am more and more bemused by my younger self so desirous of acceptance and recognition; the yesterday me surrendering to a social order composed of individuals who themselves are in a similar predicament of framing their lives to fit the equation of “doing the right thing” or “the smart thing” in hopes this will bring about some kind of personal satisfaction. I suppose if society were a static creature, one might be able to reap a reward, a nod of approval from time to time, a cushy place that says “you’re part of the tribe” but the problem with this exchange rate is society is anything but static: it’s a moving target subject to caprice, unpredictability and cruelty.

I’ve spent too much of my life living this way; adapting it to suit some one else’s idea of the way things work and I don’t want it anymore.

I like it that not all my arguments are rational. I like that I look like a jumble sale when I’m walking down the street. I like Flemish paintings. I like still life and split pomegranates oozing their juices and dead pheasants lying on a pine table with robust men and women leaning into each other, tilting their steins heavenward. I like a woman peeling turnips with a faraway look in her eye. I like domestic life caught here in the in between: in between one motion and the next. For that moment, the artist has frozen the full swing of life for us to view in great detail and in deep meditation.

Paul and I have been staying in Dorset these past days, talking long hikes, eating sumptuous meals, sleeping long hours, underground with our dreams and all that is in the mystery. We read to each other.

My life is a blessing, that in my age and wisdom I am learning to celebrate just as it is. I don’t need to be understood or lavished with attention anymore. But I do need to flood my soul with those things for which it hungers; for those things it implores from me.

It says: Draw outside the lines, make your own still life, walk slowly, thoughtfully, write your life into a poem that one ponders and reads again and again. Laugh with yourself like a best friend. Love your imperfections. Hold gratitude up as the most sacred understanding of this chaos and mystery we call life.

These are the thoughts that I’ve been having at Champs Land in Dorset.

My life is like a still life set to motion.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

On Jurassic Coast

Our home --- for now

Our annual attempt to cheat Scottish weather --- grab some extra summer days that, under the rules of the game, we're not entitled to, sent us to the Jurassic Coast, Southern England. Standing below the red cliffs (Triassic --- having formed over 200 million years ago) you sense their immense age.

My geologist's eye immediately focused on the rocks' internal structure: ripples and waves left in the sand. Vast rivers used to flow there, greater than any river system that survives these days. Over millions of years they deposited the sand, moved it about. The climate was arid, about 5 degrees hotter than today. Imagine the Arabian desert criss-crossed with rivers that flooded, receded, dried out for some years, then flooded again. That was the land.

Note that the shallower layers cut down into older ones
the way a fast flowing river cuts into its banks

Back to today's beach, I'm among a sea of rounded pebbles, the water transparent green, as the Adriatic. And a much cooler climate. It's a clean beach without any shells. Some washed up kelp is the only living matter.

Farther East we walked on a cobble beach under the Jurassic black shale, once a shallow sea teeming with swimming dinosaurs. We could tell that it is prime fossil territory because people everywhere were digging at the cliff with small hammers.

An old woman, easily in her seventies, carrying a bag leaned on her stick. With one end she poked at the rocks. She told us where to look for fossils --- under a light marker called the "ice age marker". That's where she uncovered vertebrae bones of a Pleisaurus. She almost had all the pieces. I happened upon a vertebra fragment, now filled in with silica. Holding something so ancient sent the mind reeling back in time, in a real sense that no Spielberg movie, or geologic textbook could accomplish.

I was back in an alien landscape, in days when we not only did not exist, but nature hadn't conceived that we might one day be born. That we would one day dominate the Earth.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Why men don't listen and no-one reads maps

A map of England!!

A typical guy, I don't boast about my listening skills. But I do read and understand maps. Unfortunately my forte is rapidly going the way of the manual typewriter and the dinosaur.

I learned this to my chagrin when Amber and I piled our stuff into the car and pointed its nose South --- destination Dorset. But we had no map of England! All the Scottish petrol stations, service areas and supermarkets, somewhat chauvenist, only have Scottish maps. Or glossy, expensive atlases of the entire UK. No problem. I'll pick one up after we cross the English border.


England has other map issues. There are none. We checked several petrol stations, supermarkets, WH Smith etc and found maps of Carlisle, the Lake District --- Ordinance Survey Maps, maps of postage stamps, but no map of England. My initial disbelief finally gave way to a glimmer of understanding. Of course, these days everyone has Satnav / GPS in their cars--- except for luddites like me who insist on using maps. If you must have one, you print it off Google-map, then crumple it up on arrival. There's not much demand for a published map of England. Perhaps the Scots still hang onto maps because they're a bit behind the times.

I suspect I'll get some sarcastic comments, referring to me as a curmudgeon who resits the inexorable march of modern technology. Yet I feel that something is lost in losing the map and relying on technology to get you from A to B. A bird's eye view of the country, the way that an Eagle sees it, or a satellite. The broad perspective. Call it also the grand picture where we and our problems are small, less significant than specks, rather than the perspective of a mouse that sees everything close up. Impossibly large but limited in scope.

A map can take us in imagination to farther off places, away from the small vehicle where we happen to find ourselves, creeping along some manufactired highway. They're magical. You can use them to locate buried treasure, dowse for water, prospect for oil or minerals. Psychics even use them to find lost objects.

If your only purpose of travel is to get from A to B, then Satnav is all you need. But your journey will likely be one-dimensional, with only fences, houses, hedges and other angry motorists whizzing by. You'll have no idea of where you actually are, because you won't know where you are in relation to. Neither will you know what is out of sight, just over the hill. For that greater perspective you'll still need a map.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Witnesses to an execution

I realize that the following is not a light-hearted story out of northeastern Scotland. However the recent execution of (possibly innocent) Troy Davis in Georgia demands a response, regardless of the country one happens to live in. Some years back I stood outside Huntsville penitentiary in Texas while Dominique Green was put to death. This is the story of that evening.

The night they killed Dominique they did it professionally.

The white room had been vacuumed; its cement floor scrubbed free of any stain. The gurney had a freshly laundered cover; each belt and strap was lined up with the pad’s top edge. Glass vials containing the chemicals lay on a clean tray. Down the hallway a plain coffin of unfinished pine rested on a pair of saw horses, custom made to receive the body of a man who was still alive. Sitting alone in a nearby cell, he listened to his breathing. He didn’t feel dead; he wasn’t even ill. He knew he was about to be ritually sacrificed and he resented it.

The guests had been invited. Dressed formally for the occasion they waited in the hospitality house outside the prison. To pass the time they chatted with inquisitive reporters. No one looked at the walls. Intended to bring consolation they were decorated with oil paintings that depicted scenes from Christ’s passion.

A handful of people in a nearby parking lot waved picket signs at a yellow police tape drawn tight across the main driveway. Guards wearing khaki uniforms with broad brimmed hats paced behind the line to make sure no one crossed it. They chatted in low voices, occasionally cracked jokes and tried to appear nonchalant but they kept up their guard. Like soldiers in a battlefield they never made eye contact with their adversary, but they stirred uncomfortably whenever someone moved quickly toward the yellow line. The protesters were mostly silent. Most had been there before and knew that the time for words was over. Besides, no one could talk for long before a nearby bank of sewer pumps burst into a noisy rattle that drowned out their voices.

A tall man with a thick beard leaned against a chain link fence. He had the informal look of a professor, and indeed he taught criminology at a nearby college. Two or three times a month, whenever an execution was scheduled, he’d be standing by the pumps holding a candle in a glass jar. If the evening dragged on, and it often did, the candle would go out before he left.

Next to him were three female students in jeans and t-shirts. One fingered a rosary. They came regularly, said their prayers and usually left without speaking to anyone. This evening they were joined by a corpulent man who held a bible under one arm and who introduced himself as the pastor of a church in San Antonio. He’d been asking everyone if they wanted him to lead a short prayer. Most protesters were cool to the idea, but the students appeared interested.

Two black youths in low-slung jeans and baggy t-shirts kept apart from the others. If anyone tried to approach them, and several roving reporters with shoulder cameras often did, the brothers moved away. The older one, severely overweight, paced restlessly, his hands in his pockets. His frozen face didn’t reveal any emotion; his downcast eyes were turned inward. His brother talked to him in short sentences, hoping to start a conversation or to at least elicit a response but eventually he gave up trying.

Soon all eyes focused on the driveway beyond the yellow line, and the gabled entrance to the Walls that contained a large clock. Its wrought iron hands were both almost vertical. Usually within minutes of the appointed time a guard would cross the driveway to the hospitality house, and return leading a line of witnesses. They would climb a short flight of stairs and enter the doorway beneath the clock. Six o-clock came and went. Five more minutes passed but the driveway remained empty. The brothers shook their heads in dismay but protesters appeared to take heart. An empty driveway suggested that a Supreme Court judge had delayed the execution to listen to a defense lawyer’s last argument.

The sewer pumps kicked into life and rattled noisily. A black man in a dark suit who had been trying to speak on his mobile phone moved away from the pumps to continue his conversation.

“What boxes is he talking about?” he said. “In Houston? And, what's in them?” He turned to his neighbor, also wearing a suit. "The lawyer thinks there's some lost evidence in a bunch of boxes."

"Like what?"

"Nobody knows."

"What boxes is she talking about?"

"The ones they found when the inspectors shut down the Houston Police Crime Lab. Three hundred of them."

"Man, how long will it take to go through those boxes?"

"A long time. Dominique's said all along he never fired the shot. Never handled the gun. Maybe they’re looking for the gun."

While phones buzzed in justices' offices across the country, the black man in the cell waited. He had refused his last meal. He no longer cared what they did to him as long as they got on with it. However a guard told him that his appointment was delayed. No one knew for how long. Perhaps until someone searched through three hundred boxes. He’d given away everything he owned including his rosary of 101 black and blue beads. The guards assumed that it was gang apparel. They didn’t allow him to wear it when he entered the visiting cubicle even though he was separated from his visitor by reinforced glass. As his appointment approached Dominique wrote about the rosary, that he'd added a bead every time he had to say good-bye to a friend or mentor on the Row who was executed. He thought of his wife, Jessica, whom he'd never see again. Soon after landing on the Row he sent her away, telling her that his life was over and that she needed to take care of hers. He didn’t want her to witness his execution because he knew she couldn’t take it.

Daylight faded rapidly. Guards posted above the walls in corner boxes, scanned the parking lot with binoculars fearing that a prolonged wait might make the protesters restless; more prone to violence. Lights came on along the red brick wall, and encased the tall building in a ghostly hue. Clouds of mosquitoes buzzed around the sewer pumps. Behind the yellow tape the guards paced back and forth. Their captain told them they'd have to stay a while longer, at least until midnight when the execution warrant expired.

A reporter with a shoulder camera ducked under the yellow line and ambled up to the protesters. A badge from a local TV station was prominently displayed on his white shirt. The past hour he’d been up at the hospitality house with the witnesses. He scanned the protesters, a rapid once-over to see if he anyone there was worth interviewing. Turning on a small searchlight, he flashed it on an old man who held aloft a handwritten sign, reading “Lord Have Mercy”. The reporter produced a microphone to interview the man, coughed to get his attention but then unexpectedly put it away.

He’d noticed the brothers, now standing by a grassy knoll next to the police line. They had been joined by a diminutive, black woman with long curly hair. The reporter crept up to them, slowly to avoid flustering his prey. When he was within a few feet of the trio he turned on his spotlight. The boys turned their backs to the camera and pulled closer to shield the young woman.

The pastor whispered to the students. "We need to get that man away from them."

"Who are they?" said the one with the rosary.

"The La-strapes boys. I don’t know the woman.”

Twelve years earlier four boys attacked Andrew La-strapes outside a convenience store in Houston, shot him dead and robbed him of a hundred dollars. When they were caught, two of the four identified Dominique as the shooter. Despite his protestations he was given the death sentence. The two black boys who co-operated, both African American, were given prison sentences. The one white boy in the gang did not spend any time in prison. La-strapes's sons, Andrew and Andre, were four and six years old when their father was killed. The following years they clung to their mother, Bernette. They knew something terrible had happened, but years would pass before they understood. They were often left alone in their small apartment while Bernette worked in a restaurant to support them.

One day when the boys were in their teens a small white man called at the door. He was balding, wore a loose shirt and khakis, and introduced himself as a person opposed to the death penalty. He said he wanted to visit with her and with Andrew and Andre. Talk to the family about their father. Bernette offered him coffee. She spoke to him about her husband, the boys and their hard life. After listening to the story, he said he was deeply sorry. He told them that another man would soon die, the man accused of killing her husband. How did she feel about it? At first Bernette couldn't talk, but then she found the words she'd kept to herself over the years, that killing was wrong no matter who did it. She'd seen violent death and didn't want to see any more, not of the man who’d killed her husband. Not anyone. An execution wouldn’t bring her peace. It could only re-open her wound.

Some weeks later her visitor returned and said that Dominique's wife, Jessica, wanted to meet Andrew and Andre. She and Dominique had met when they were teenagers and had fallen in love. Andre thought that seeing Jessica would help him heal his anger. Bernette and Andrew weren't sure but they agreed to the meeting. The moment Jessica appeared, Andre knew he’d like her and that they would stick together during the coming ordeal. All shared the same sorrow, the reality of violent death and the loss that it brought.

Bernette wrote to the Texas governor, saying that she had forgiven Dominique and that no one in the family wanted him to be executed. Andre participated in a press conference. Bewildered reporters asked him why he didn’t want justice to be done. He couldn’t find the words to tell reporters what he felt. He mumbled that killing was wrong. His dad was gone, and nothing would bring him back.

The governor didn’t reply to Bernette’s letter, but remarked to an aide that the family’s wishes would not factor into his decision whether to pardon Dominique.

The pastor asked the professor. "Who's the woman?"

“That's Dominique's wife.”

“With the boys?”

"I understand that they're very close."

Two more reporters discovered the trio. Flashes went off, spotlights shone in their faces. A reporter stepped forward, microphone in hand, and asked for an interview, but the boys turned sharply away, linked arms and drew a cordon closer around Jessica. She was trembling and had to hold onto them for support.

The full moon, now high above the trees cast its silver light on the walls. The guard boxes and the men with the rifles were silhouetted against the pale sky. Several bright stars gleamed above. The cosmos of stars and planets knew only a higher order and appeared uninvolved in the affairs of the prison. Nevertheless Jessica looked for a long time at the moon, as if deriving some comfort from its steady light. She disengaged from the boys and walked a few paces away from them.

The sewer pumps kicked in. They rattled louder than ever, determined to break up the silence. Conversations halted. The moonlight that had brought Jessica solace appeared to withdraw into an unattainable world far from human chaos.

The suited man with the mobile phone received another call. His face stiffened, and he shook his head. He spoke to his friend, but his voice didn't carry above the pumps’ rattle. In any case his strained expression said it all. The Supreme Court had denied the appeal concerning the unmarked boxes.

All eyes turned to the entrance below the clock, now lit up by yellow lights. Before long a guard came through the door and crossed the street. A minute later he returned leading a line of people across the street. First were two black women who held onto each other, followed by the man who had introduced Jessica to the brothers. Bringing up the rear, were two women in business suits. With clipboards in hand they walked briskly as if heading for a routine meeting. Reporters’ camera flashes caught the witnesses as they climbed the prison steps.

Still shielding Jessica, the La-strapes brothers moved across the street to an empty spot in the parking lot. The reporters decided not to follow them, but continued to film. The pumps cut out. Silence fell, broken only by the Jessica's sobbing and the boys' attempts to comfort her.

“Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us…” The students and the man with the bible repeated the prayer and flipped rosary beads.

Ten minutes passed since the witnesses entered the prison. Jessica had fallen to her knees on the bare asphalt, her body convulsed with cries. The boys leaned over her, each holding a shoulder. Scarcely moving the three clung to each other. They all knew what had to be happening behind the ghostly wall. The man Jessica loved would be strapped to the gurney while technicians injected a cocktail of chemicals into his veins. A doctor waited nearby. He was there only to pronounce the victim dead
because he’d sworn an oath to do no harm.

A spotlight shone on the trio. A TV reporter's camera buzzed, gathering material for a human interest story. The man with the handwritten sign walked over. "Would you mind leaving them alone?" The journalist grunted "Okay," but continued to film the trio. The pastor planted himself between the brothers and the camera. The old man joined him along with the professor and several others to form a barrier that shielded the brothers and Jessica from the camera. For several minutes the spotlight played on the protesters’ faces, but then turned off. The reporter decided that no one in the studio would want footage of protesters in a parking lot. He decamped and moved across the police line to ambush the witnesses as they exited the building.

The guards paced the line as if cold and talked in subdued voices. One removed his hat to swat mosquitoes. They were relieved that there had been no trouble that night. The crying from the parking lot had thankfully stopped.

One by one the witnesses appeared in the main doorway and climbed down the stairs to the driveway. The women in black still held each other’s shoulders. The reporters with clipboards who had walked in confidently now stumbled as if drunk. Cars started in the distance, turned on their lights and rolled down the driveway. The guards pushed the tape aside to let them through. The friend who witnessed the execution walked alone down the driveway, his head bowed. He found the brothers and Jessica in the parking lot. After he hugged each of them, he told them about Dominique's last moments: that Dominique died peacefully. He thanked everyone there for their support and wanted them to keep up the fight. He was sorry he wasn’t strong enough and wanted Jessica to know that he loved her. That he regretted her ordeal.

Jessica listened to the account but said nothing. She wanted to feel gratitude for the sunny days she and Dominique had shared or remorse for not having spent more time with him after his incarceration, but she found herself staring at a void that no one could fill. Not her friend; not Andrew or Andre.

The guards wound up the tape. Talking in loud voices they bid each other goodnight. Their captain thanked them for their work and for staying late. It had been a clean operation without any incidents.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Ridin’ the ol’ folk’s bus

“How much is a return ticket to Aberdeen?”

The woman I asked, the youngest-looking of several queued up at the Huntly bus stop, returned a puzzled look.

“I really don’t know. I have a bus pass.” The others smiled. They all had bus passes.

So do I. Every Scottish resident older than 60 holds a bus pass that gives bus trips, at government expense, anywhere in Scotland.That day Amber and I decided to take the bus instead of our usual train, thinking that we’d save a few pennies.

The big blue bus pulled up at the stop. We loaded our suitcases under the bus. I swiped my ol' folk's pass, then paid Amber’s fare. £16.80. That’s £4 more than the rail fare would have been.

While we squeezed into the seats, with legroom less than a RyanAir flight, I sucked a mint to settle my stomach. The constant vibration made me too nauseous to read a book. So I had time to ponder both the meaning of the universe, and also why the bus is so expensive to take, despite taking 40 minutes longer than the train and being more uncomfortable.

One possible answer was in front of me, all the q-tips poking out above the seats, my own grey head included. Amber was the only fare-paying passenger on the bus. Her £16.80 was bankrolling the entire trip. The rest of us were freeloading.

The money behind
Stagecoach Buses

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Secret Life of Fungi

They're back!

I’ve always had a symbiotic relationship with the fungi kingdom. When they’re ready to pop up, they speak to me in a dream. That’s where I first see them. And then there’s Cottarton --- this year again the Saffron Milk Caps (a.k.a Lactarius Deliciosus) spring out each morning in my garden under my spruce trees. Amber sends me out regularly to collect them for breakfast. I know of no other house that can boast of such an illustrious visitors. I’m convinced that they are there for Amber and I. Personally.

It’s not such a reach to believe that the mushrooms are endowed with high intelligence. Underground, away from out eyes extends a vast network of hyphae, tiny tubes complex enough to make the human network of brain neurons appear simple. The mushrooms we see are only the small fruiting bodies that pop out here and there.

The lactarius mycellium on a tree root

The lactarius mycelium has a unique relationship with the Scots pine and spruces, such as surround our house. The fungus actually interpenetrates the tree roots. From the tree, the fungus gets sugar and nutrients. Meanwhile the tree gets water and minerals from the fungus. It’s a symbiosis that benefits both parties, one that is common with many edible mushrooms. The fungus’s hyphae extend far underground and are able to tap water that the tree roots couldn’t possibly reach, helping the tree to survive during a drought.

In a recent study of a Douglas fir forest in British Columbia, by Kevin Beiler of UBC, isotope tracers were inserted at specific trees and revealed that all the trees of the forest are connected to one another, by pathways that appear to be laid down by the chantarelle mycella.

Interconnectedness between trees
provided by the chantarelle mycellium

There are certain hub trees that dominate the network. This astonishing discovery also suggests a greater interdependence between trees and communication than anyone previously thought. Dare I say intelligence? The destruction of a hub tree might have a greater detrimental effect on the forest as a whole. Maybe this complex network is what we sense when we're sleeping. Our way of communicating with the fifth kingdom.

How did the milk caps find their way to Cottarton? They weren’t there for two years after we moved in, but we did find a few stray ones three hundred feet away at the end of our driveway. I suspect that they found their way to our house via their underground network. The network of thin threads, searching for nutrients found the trees around our house and them established themselves in the tree roots. As we don’t use artificial fertilizer or weed killers, the fungi found a pleasant home.

The following August --- Surprise!!

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Return of the King (Bolete)

It’s usually around the beginning of August each year that King Bolete appears under the trees, along with his subjects. A warm spell such as we’re having now of 15-20C, along with a soft rain brings them out.

My Polish compatriots are already poking about the woods from the beginning of June. Soon tongues wag furiously that, Basia S--- already spotted a bolete in such and such a wood. Directions are always vague. The excitement is not even surpassed by the latest episode of East Enders.

Usually I don’t get serious until I see a few Fly Agarics by the side of the road. Fly Agarics --- what people around here refer to as “toadstools” are not to be tried unless you want an acid trip, sometimes a one way trip at that. Yet they have a curious symbiosis with the bolete. You tend to find them in the same part of the wood, not in the dense centre but close to the edge. Over here they prefer conifers. Boletes are usually found in pairs. If you find one, look around for its brother, a few feet away.

Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria)

And so to our recent haul --- from our local woods, and the forbidden woods patrolled by the fearsome Sir Gibbie, who has a particular dislike for wandering Poles with a bag under one arm. He chases them off when he sees them. That suits me to a T, as those woods are very prolific in boletes. No marauding Poles to put up with there. I know the back paths that take me to those woods.

Then the party begins! Whisky in one hand you clean the mushrooms --- brush off the dirt and duff, cut away any maggot eaten parts. Some go into a pot, the others on the drying tray. You can get a commercial dryer from Poland that will dry the mushrooms in a few hours. Air drying them, in our climate, takes a couple of weeks.

Drying for winter storage.

During the dark months we reconstitute them and serve with pasta.

Fresh boletes can be fried in a little butter and marjoram. After 15 minutes when they’re slightly brown,and the liquid has boiled off, serve them in an omelette. Browned onions and garlic add an interesting flavour, but be careful not to overwhelm the boletes' woodsy taste with too many onions.

Enjoy the mushrooms! Don’t tell anyone where you found them, as this is one instance where Charity is not usually rewarded.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Broad Beans a.k.a. Habas (Sp)

We grow broad beans at Cottarton. It’s about the only bean that does well in our challenging climate. We gather bushels of them. Each year we wonder what to do with them.

They’re not part of Amber’s kitchen repertoire, drawn mainly from Italian and French cuisine. The internet has some recipes. Complicated enough to make you suspect that the chef is trying to disguise the flavour of the beans.

And so I end up taking a bucket of bean pods to Scone where my kid sister Munia, newly arrived from Ecuador is taking care of my mother.

“But of course,” she said. “Those are habas. We lived on them for twenty years in Zumbawua.”

Zumbawua, in the high Andes at an altitude of 14,000 feet, has a climate not unlike Scotland. But there is no Tesco nearby. You subsist there on what you grow locally --- a diet high in potatoes and broad beans. And you learn to be creative about it.

That evening I picked up Munia’s boys at Prestwick. Coming from Northern Italy, they took the Ryan Air red-eye to to spend a few days with their mum. Actually, I had the “red-eye” having to pick them up at Prestwick (a two hour drive from Scone) --- at close to midnight. While driving there, I pondered what I would do to future guests who inflict such torture on me. No doubt some action that would make a tabloid headline. My flinty heart melted on meeting the kids, Juan, Simon, Estevan and Santiago. What could I do but give each a bear-hug!

When they arrived at Scone, after greeting their mum, they unloaded their bags --- Italian coffee, cheeses, cakes, pasta. I swear that half of their carry on luggage allowance (10 kg on Ryan Air) was food.

They’re different from kids I’ve known both in the US and in Europe. Growing up in the high Andes among the Indigenous People, something of the wild nature, unspoiled by civilization, rubbed off on them. They never saw a television except once in three years when they came to Europe. Never cared for fads or designer clothes. In the mountains they spoke a mix of Spanish and Quechua. Lived among people who had absolutely nothing. And they subsisted on broad beans.

Beans (double-peeled) and other garden fruit

Yesterday Juan and Simon double-peeled the “habas”, slowly as if it were a meditation. Double-peeling means shelling the beans then removing the outer husk from each bean. It was a daily chore they carried out for over fifteen years. Many times the volume I had brought because Munia had to feed fifteen people. Perhaps the activity awoke some nostalgia for the clear and cold mountain environment they’d left behind. From Juan I heard about the many ways of cooking the beans.

1. Deep frying in oil.
2. Boiling single shelled beans, salting, then eating the inner beans individually with your fingers while discarding the husk. Goes well with some bread and cheese.
3. Soup --- Juan’s favourite. You cook double shelled beans with bacon, then you puree them.

We had both the deep-fried and boiled beans. Both tasted extraordinary. Was it only the beans, or something of “soul” that had been added to them during the preparation?

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Turning on the Heating

Weather talk in Scotland is usually pleasant, boring conversation. “Nice day isn’t it?” is a common greeting. However the subject can also be controversial.

Today I turned on our central heating.

I ought to feel sympathy for all our friends in the US who are suffering under sweltering heat. I read about it in the news, of temperatures over 100F (42C) in Houston, New York, Washington etc. Hot enough to cause significant distress. Perhaps it has also reignited the global warming debate. But how am I to muster any sympathy for those living in air conditioned rooms, when here at Cottarton, for most of July, night time temperatures have hovered around 6-8C ( 45F)? Daytime temperatures have rarely topped 60F. Last night, after returning from Scone to a cold cottage, I stayed awake half the night, shivering in bed.

No --- I said no, I will not turn on my central heating. Think of your carbon footprint. This is July!! Today I caved into the inevitable. With temperatures unlikely to break 50F, what else am I to do?

Today, Metcheck issued a frost warning for parts of rural Scotland, Omeomeomi! What will become of my dahlias!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

FLOWER POWER: by Amber Poole

Should we sell them or give them away? If you read this, you must write me back and tell me what you think.

It has never occurred to me until this moment that flowers might not stir the heart of another quite like they do mine. In a similar way: poetry. Flowers and poetry, I suppose, are perceived subjectively. I could not say they are themselves subjective in nature. I’d have to ask, whose nature? Therefore they must have an authentic center independent of my projection, a hallmark of the Land like that of a tree, a brook or mountain. So do they influence outside the limits of our interpretation? Have they that power in their beauty?

Paul went out in the rain this morning and came back with the loveliest bunch of flowers. Their variety and freshness enchanted me. Their fragrance, full of grace. They sparkled beneath the layer of moisture that rested on their petals. Holding them in my hand was like the memory of a great poem. Life is a stream/on which we strew/petal by petal the flower of our heart. (The start of Petals, a poem by Amy Lowell)

Cottarton Flower Farm is at a loss in how to define itself. Paul would like to see a conventional outcome for his labor of love and the months of muscle demanded in the preparation of new beds, planting and so forth. I’m more the romantic sort and see them in a wholly different light.

The problem with selling our flowers is in part lack of visibility but in a greater part their competitive cousins from South Africa and Holland who dominate the market. They’re smartened up with packaging and food filled sachet packets, psychologically placed at the front of the store near the cashier, just in case you might grab a bunch on you way through the check out. They’re pretty too. (Goodness, how could one think otherwise of a flower?) But they all look the same. The same, freesias, daisies, carnations, roses and lilies are raised in protected environments, maintained by generous doses of fertilizer, watered by irrigation systems, in short, fostered for one reason: commerce.

If a Cottarton flower comes to full bloom, it has had to partner with the wind, the rain, our bashful sun whose rays are rarely seen, and bugs and snails and other beasties. These are hard working flowers with a radiance that shouts individuality and character. Yes, Cottarton Flowers have character. Ever beyond into infinite ways/We alone stay/While years hurry on/The flower fared forth, though its fragrance still stays.

It wasn’t so long ago that the types of flowers in our garden were the pride of every manor house in the county. Few women had the means to enjoy such luxury of freshly cut flowers on a windowsill in summer. The Canterbury bells, Michelmas Daisies, Sweet Peas, and the local wildflowers were the show of every well appointed household. But like so much else in our world today, the flowers that can be marketed to the masses are the ones raised and produced in greenhouses and poly-tunnels in far away places.

When I lived in Houston, Texas and a friend of mine asked, “If you could write your life in exchange for the one you have now, what would be different?” I had to think about it for awhile because Zach and I were not flush with money and resources, but we were happy and we laughed a lot and we told stories and we listened to music and we ate very well – even if the phone got disconnected (which if often did) our table was full of wonderful, homemade delights. I eventually answered, “Flowers.” If I could change anything, I’d have the money to put fresh flowers on my table every day of the year.

So I have this idea that there are elderly people out there who can’t get to the store for flowers or who can’t actually afford the luxury of them and I think of taking Cottarton Flowers to them, to brighten their windowsill. I think of the homeless who by a stroke of luck end up in a council flat starting a new life. I would like flowers on their table.

Would it influence them in ways of compassion and kindness? Would they treasure these flowers? For those of us who can buy flowers like a stick of gum, who give little thought to them, who perhaps don’t even change their water or split their stems, have they become just “another household item” to us? How do we bring back the divine, the poetry in the flower that sits on our kitchen table? I think it will return when there awakens a deep appreciation for the gift from the Earth, this gift that grows wild in concert with the four elements and produces the most heavenly flowers. Angels and garden sprites abound, dancing in and out of Cottarton Cottage Garden, as high as the treetops and as deep as the roots where the magic takes hold.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Clootie Well

While on one of my walks up Kinnoull Hill I took the wrong turn and, not unlike Dante Alighieri, found myself in an unfamiliar wood. Upon emerging from a thicket I came across the extraordinary sight of several small saplings whose branches were hung with small flags and other memorabilia. In their midst was what appeared to be a small pond --- not merely a pond. Water drained from it into a small creek, suggesting the pond was replenished by an underground spring. Upon closer inspection I saw a pair of beads, and a match box suspended by a ribbon. The scene had the trappings of a religious ritual, but which one? Modern day druids? Hippies?

I recalled my sojourn in Trinidad where people of Hindu origin often hung small flags near their house. Prayer flags to their various deities, asking for favours in money, health or love. The flags were left there and usually rotted and fell to the ground, a sign that the prayer was granted. In the Trinidadian back country I stumbled across a site similar to the one at Kinnoull, next to a spring that gushed out of the rock and into a pool. Nearby were several lighted candles.

Recently I heard of another such site: Munlochy well on Black Isle, near Inverness. The tree branches over the well were covered with rags. Apparently it’s a Celtic healing ritual associated with certain springs. On a nearby tree, usually an ash, you hang a strip of cloth, a piece of clothing or an object belonging to the sick person, in the belief that the magical power of the spring would thereby reach the sick person.

A short meander via Google brought me to the Clootie Well.

I knew the word, but only from Robert Burns where he addresses the devil,

O Thou! whatever title suit thee
Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie.

From Amber I heard about Clootie Dumpling, a desert often served on Burns night. It’s cooked in linen cloth --- or cloot. Hence, Clootie Well.

I wasn’t surprised that an ancient well associated with healing would subsequently become associated with the devil. Isn’t that the way that a new religion supplants an indigenous one? The gods of the old religion become the demons of the new religion. A typical example being the god Pan, whose horns and cloven hoofs became associated with the features of the Christian’s devil. His trident was borrowed from Neptune.

Some of the Clootie Wells have been Christianized. St. Mary’s Well near Culloden is one where people hang crosses and rosary beads in addition to the traditional cloots. When Christianity arrived in Scotland the priests originally tried to stamp out the old beliefs associated with healing springs, but finally realized that people weren’t about to give them up. So they renamed the wells with their own saints. The original Celtic names have only rarely survived.

And so back to Kinnoull Hill and the mysterious spring. On the Internet I found a reference to a Clootie Well on Kinnoull --- Lady Grey’s Well. No doubt she was a person of note associated with the history of the hill.

If you come across such a spring, take it as a stroke of good fortune. You’re in a spot that has been long regarded as sacred; where the spirit of the land is strong. Also, don’t touch the cloots. According to ancient lore, removing them or interfering with them can bring bad luck. In some cases the disease of the afflicted owner.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Who will buy my Canterbury Bells, two blooms for a penny?

And so it’s flower season again. This year we have a new flower stand and a new location, at the end of our access road, by the Smiddy where the flowers are visible to motorists on the main road. The Canterbury Bells are there, a mixed bunch of perennials and wild flowers, and our dry flowers. I confess that I find them all stunning, and not because I happen to have raised them. Dry flowers keep their sunny looks for at least a year. The Bells last for two weeks as long as you change the water and trim the ends every few days. Each morning they seem larger; catch more sunlight. The atmosphere in a room with Bells is transformed as if each bell were playing a tune.

Am I the only one who is so impressed? Over the past week we sold only one bunch. I don’t think that the price is too high --- £2 for small bunches and £3 for Bells. Tesco prices for their flower bunches are higher. What gives?

One issue is that this is summertime --- even though it may not feel like it. Last night’s morning temperature was 4 degrees Celsius. Be that as it may, many of our neighbours already have flowers ready to pick in their gardens. Selling flowers in the Scottish countryside may be like trying to sell ice to an Eskimo.

There’s also tradition and familiarity. Culture. Canterbury Bells, while stunning, are “not in”. They were popular in Victorian days but today no one knows what they are. I get puzzled looks from people to whom I gift the flowers. Forty years ago when my father had his nursery, Bells were common in flower shops. But since that time public tastes have changed, possibly due to the flowers imported from Holland and displayed at each supermarket checkout. The popular flowers are roses, carnations, Gerbera Daisies, gladiolas, alstromeria, freesia, spray chrysanthemums and various Asiatic lilies. These days they are grown in polytunnels, in warmer climates than Scotland.

At Cottarton, we specialize in local flowers, ones that do well in our climate. Also flowers with a strong natural scent. I’m a strong believer in growing things locally, sustainably and out in the open. Our spirit-infused land supports an abundance of many beautiful flowers. Why should we settle for Dutch or Spanish flowers, trucked here over a thousand miles? Or flowers grown in the stale air of polytunnels, prone to polytunnel pests and inevitably sprayed with various poisons? Of course, economics, globalization and advertising have changed public tastes, but Scotland does host an abundance of its own flowers. Flowers that fit into its unique landscape.

This year we have a bumper crop of acroclinium --- paper flower that dries easily. Also heliochrysum, a flower we add to our dried bunches. Canterbury Bells, planted in the summer always survive our cruel winters and shoot up when the snow disappears. Among other early flowers are various wallflowers --- heavily scented, and sweet williams. Up and coming are our sweet peas, dahlias, asters and single blossom chrysanthemums. We grow most from seeds or cuttings. Next year we’ll expand into michaelmas daisies and other perennials.

The main challenge in raising cut flowers here is to protect them against our legendary winds. They’ll batter the blossoms and knock over any stem taller than a couple of feet. Traditional flower netting solves this. Interestingly I have to use “pea and bean” netting then trim off the excess. Flower netting is no longer available. There’s no demand for it. I put a plastic roof over Chrysanthemums to keep the rain off their delicate blossoms.

We need sun! A couple of sunny days a week will do, but we need at least those. Whenever the sun comes out, the acroclinium and sweet peas open up. The chrysanths too. Warmth is even more welcome. It brings out the scents. I'm reminded of days before intensive cross-breeding, when more flowers were scented.

On August 6th we’ll take our flower stand out to the Huntly Fair. It will be our opportunity to talk with customers. Maybe I’ll finally find out --- what is it about Bells and Scotland?

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Dandelion Wine

What do I have in common with Ray Bradbury? A love of the fantastic, good stories, science fiction and dandelion wine. Since my late teens when I read Bradbury’s biographical fantasy, “Dandelion Wine”, I always wanted to taste the stuff. Then one dark winter evening, Charles ladled out a glass for me, from a large tub in his kitchen. I became addicted.

Depending on its maturity dandelion wine can be tart, or sweet, contains a distillation of warm May garden scents. Above all it gladdens the heart. Guaranteed to lift you out of a dark place, it’s perfect for the Scottish winters when everyone is hunkered down a bit. Drink it with friends, and you’ll all turn silly in short order. For some reason the jokes you tell make sense while drinking the wine, but not afterwards.

And so to our annual carpet of dandelions, not an infestation as many gardeners would say, but one of nature’s unasked for gifts. Yesterday Charles came over with the kids and we gathered a couple of buckets of the flowers. They have to be picked around noon on a warm and sunny day when the flowers are fully open. Preferring a sweeter wine I pick only the petals. Not too much of the green calyx. The recipe calls for a minimum of two quarts of petals.

1. Pour a gallon of hot water over two quarts of petals (the minimum quantity). Let it stand for two days. Not for longer because the mix can turn sour.

2. Add the zest from four oranges. Boil the mix for a couple of minutes. After it has cooled, strain through cheesecloth. The finer it is the clearer your wine will be.

3. Add 2-3 pounds of sugar. While waiting for it to dissolve, drink a glass from last year's batch. The more sugar the stronger the wine. Add the strained juice from the oranges. Add dissolved yeast. I usually use baker’s yeast that has the fewest additives.

4. Place in a fermenting jar --- ceramic, glass or a special plastic that doesn’t add a taste to the wine. Attach an air lock, and watch it ferment for 2-4 months. The bubbling will keep you entertained most of the summer.

5. When the mix has almost stopped bubbling. Siphon the clear liquid to another container, leaving behind the dregs. Let it sit and bubble some more. Once it has finished, siphon the liquid off again. Let it sit. Finally siphon into clean, sterilized wine bottles. I usually use ones with screw caps so as not to hassle with corks.

Finally, let the wine mature. Charles reckons that three year wine is highly valued. I wouldn’t know as I’ve never been able to hold onto it for that long. Besides our guests keep demanding to drink it. This year I’ve resolved to stash away a few bottles.

And forget where I put them.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Any feedback?

If you particularly like an entry, Amber and I would like to hear from you. Often we're not sure whether the blog is something people read when they wake up at 2 AM and have trouble getting back to sleep. Do our entries about country living read best at 2 AM? Or do we need to get your blood boiling by posting a controversial, political or religous polemic --- ala Christopher Hitchens? More short fiction? Book reviews? Humour pieces maybe? Alas, Amber assures me that my days as a standup comedian are over.

We promised to keep the blog interesting, and hope that it keeps you awake.

I realize that this somewhat clunky blogsite requires a Google account to post a comment on the page. But --- there's our email:


Monday, 25 April 2011

Salt and Eggs

Easter is most likely my favourite holiday because it falls in April, the month of my birthday. It’s an amiable month even if March does go out like a lion there are still showers and flowers and warmer weather to look forward to. This is the time that Persephone returns home to her mother, Demeter, who restores vitality to the earth after a bleak, bitterly cold winter. A time on the Judaic/Christian calendars when Jews around the world observe Passover or Pesach and Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Children ready their baskets in Poland with the symbolic ingredients of butter shaped into a lamb or a cross, salt, horseradish, eggs, bread, meat and a candle covered with linen while it waits the blessing of the priest. And children everywhere dye or colour their eggs for rolling and hunting.

This time of year encourages new growth and change. In the sermon yesterday Jens-Peter (our minister) said that it’s a time to come out of hiding. No longer can the nourishment and the beauty that wants to break forth from deep within the soil remain there; it must express itself, the bloom and the grain. At the Seder supper, there is a piece of matzah that is held back (or hidden) for later in the service and when it is at last uncovered it is known in Hebrew as Tzofun or Out of Hiding. The dipping of the vegetable in salt water prompts the children to ask “why?” In both the Polish basket and at the Seder, salt presents a dual significance: salty tears shed from suffering and salt as a cleansing ritual.

Easter is a time to come out of hiding, to remember the tears and then to heal what caused them, to break bread, to celebrate each other, to sow new seeds, to activate the inner life of the soul so passionately that it sustains you over winter.
We spent the afternoon with the Ashton children colouring eggs, rolling them, hiding them, hunting them, finding them and then finally eating them. It was a day of friends and feasting and greens from the garden; a day of abundance and gratitude that so much around us is fertile, full of potential. Happy Easter, Sweet Pesach.