Friday, 25 February 2011

A Story in Stone

While fitting together the angular stones to make our new patio, a task that resembled the assembly of a large jigsaw puzzle, I began to dream about the stones' fabulous story. “If those stones could talk!” --- Who said that? Who said that they can’t?

We found them piled up on the side of a drainage ditch. The County, which occasionally spends a penny of our Council Tax to benefit us directly, sent in a backhoe to dredge the ditches that line our main road. They were clogged with mud and stone. Frequently overflowing after it rained. The backhoe excavated mounds of slate : dark blue rocks that cleave naturally along mineralized layers; also some pink, streaky quartzite. Between 3-5 inches thick, the rocks are perfect for laying out a pathway or a patio. For centuries the farmers used them to build walls separating various pastures. Charles A. came by with a trailer. We hauled several piles off to Cottarton.

The rock hadn’t grown in the ditch or anywhere nearby. There isn't a slate outcrop for miles. The closest outcrop is of Archean quartzite, a couple of miles up the road. It may have been the source for some of the rocks. Archean rocks formed around a billion years ago; long before the first shell fish and creepy crawlies evolved in our oceans. Life had already begun in the form of bacteria and the first cellular plants and animals, those that don’t leave any fossils.

Our slate may have crystallized around that time. But imagine in what forge the stone was melted and cooled. The dark minerals, amphibole and hypersthene that give the stone its colour form only under intense pressures and high temperature, not found anywhere close to the surface of the Earth. You have to dig 15 miles down before you find such conditions. Close to the Earth’s upper mantle. An unnamed rock, could be sandstone,shale or granite, was partially melted there. Under intense pressure little mica type minerals crystallized to give the rock its streaky fabric. Its cleavage. Then the rock was brought up to the surface. Not by a volcano the way basalt or granite are exuded but by active faults, fractures in the Earth's crust, moving over millions of years.

How did the slate fragments reach Cottarton? Either on the back of a glacier or pushed by a one as it advanced from the north, scraping up any rocks in its way; like a snow plough with a blade several miles long. That was recent history, within the past hundred thousand years. Due to small changes in the Earth’s orbit, the planet cooled a few degrees --- not so much as you might notice over a few winters, but enough to trigger an ice age. Starting in the Arctic, glaciers formed and migrated southward, carving the valleys that we admire so much these days. The Scottish Highlands, Kings Canyon and Yosemite. The slate and quartzite outcrops were crushed, their pieces churned up and pushed along to fill the valley floors. Smaller pieces altered chemically to form clay minerals: the heavy soil where today I grow vegetables and flowers. Fodder for our buttercups. I swear that the resilient buggers lasted the entire ice age under the ice and were the first to pop up once the ice disappeared about 12,000 years ago. If the ice couldn't kill them, what hope have I?

And so the forests returned to an altered landscape, the rounded hills and valleys of today. Great Britain, which had been connected to the rest of Europe became and island. Stones whose story began over a billion years ago lay fragmented in our glen until the backhoe dug them up. Now they grace our patio. Treat them with the respect that the grand old rocks deserve.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Is this my house?

Notes from Scone --- 6 AM, one grey February morning.

She’s sitting up in bed; more anxious than usual. You can see it in her hollow eyes. Though she’s barely able to articulate the words, she asks, “Is this my house?” She asked the same question several times the previous evening. “Where are my keys?” was a common question when she was at hospital, whenever we’d take her out for a drive or for a hair cut. Questions that I'm unable to answer rationally, in a way that would satisfy her.

Well, might she ask. Decades ago she lost her house; at least twice. The first house wasn’t sold in order for her to move. It was taken from her by force. W√≥jcza was the centre of a large farming estate in the Kielce region of Poland, where she and her siblings were born. During WWII the Germans burned it to the ground. The second house was Ruszcza, a mansion outside Krakow where she and my father settled three months before the war broke out. They barely had enough time to complete one harvest. She spent the war years there while her husband was locked up in a POW camp. A 19 year old girl, just married, she had to run the estate, deal with farm production, personnel issues plus provide a home for refugees, for dislocated family and even the occasional Jew. This was the war occupation, as in “Schindler’s List”.

When the war was over, she emptied the house,sending flatbeds of furniture to family homes in Krakow. She turned the key in the lock for the last time and walked away. Her husband, recently freed from the stalag, was waiting for her to join him in Germany.

A new home waited for them in Scotland, a one bedroom cottage provided by the local laird. No plumbing or electricity; no rental agreement. Just a handshake; an understanding that they would be allowed to live there. The agreement could be rescinded if the laird decided he needed the space for someone else. They were exiles, separated from family and home, and that’s how they felt. My father also lost his home at least twice. The first being a forest estate on the banks of the Prypiat, now in Bielorus. The Red Army ransacked the house then set fire to it. His second home was leveled along with all of Warsaw in 1945.

They bought the present home in Scone in the mid 1970s. But even owning the house outright doesn’t bring security. Not when you are burdened by such a past. The questions go on: “Is this my house?” Amber reassures her that it is but the answer doesn’t end the questions. Mama has lived there for years; she has lived in many other houses but I wonder whether her question, following her recent brushes with death, doesn’t contain another meaning. That at the end we are gypsies in temporary lodgings, and we’ll all be moving on.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Ah, the manure!

Gardening sustainably in north-eastern Scotland, presents its challenges. Not the least being how to maintain the fertility of the ground. Without artificial fertilizer. We have heavy, acidic clay soil that sticks to every part of you. Infested with creeping buttercups and couch grass, dandelions, daisies and dock weed…Arghh!

You might think that a dollop of dung will sort it all out. Easy there. Raw dung will often bring you even more couch grass. Scorch your tatties too. Plus it tends to make your soil even more acidic than it already is. Welcome creeping buttercups! I knew you’d like it here too.

You need compost. Mountains of it! What in old Scotland was called a midden. We’ve had a mild winter. It’s the perfect time to load your matured compost into the wheelbarrow and spread it out on freshly turned beds. Then sprinkle them with lime. The buttercups don’t like lime, but then I don’t like buttercups. At least not in veg or flower beds.

This year I’ve finally succeeded in accumulating enough compost to cover most beds. Two ingredients every compost pile needs in order to mature are heat and air. Heat in Aberdeenshire? You’re joking. For half the year the temperature remains in single digits. During the winter months the sun skims low over the southern horizon for a few hours before dipping below. That’s why you need biofuel. Grass clippings and dung are two best friends. Pile your grass clippings onto the mountains of couch grass and buttercups extracted from the beds over the summer. The heat generated by decaying grass is intense enough to kill the weed seeds. And scorch the weeds. By the following spring, the compost under the grass clippings is clean enough to use.

The scenic view

Our main compost pile is formed from kitchen waste: vegetable and flower cuttings. The trick is to make sure that there's enough air for the bacteria, worms and insects that decompose the waste. They need to breathe. I build the pile in layers, first straw or plant stems from peas and beans, kitchen waste and nettles, grass clippings and dung.It all goes into a wire frame so that air can get in around the sides. I also add Comfrey plants. We grow Comfrey in large quantities and extract the juice to fertilize tomatoes and courgette.

When the pile is a a few feet high, turn it. That’s when you’ll appreciate the reek of the compost. “Ah the manure!” you’ll say with pleasure. Putrification --- the word comes from ancient alchemy, is a perfectly respectable alchemical process necessary for refining the philosopher's stone. There's gold in that thar pile! After another couple of months you’ll turn the pile again. And so you have several piles next to each other in various stages of maturity.

The key to your garden’s success is to replace whatever you remove from the soil. If you cart away five loads of weeds, you replace them with equivalent compost. Nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium all need to be replaced. Sprinkle your wood ashes on beds where tatties will be planted. They're a good supply of potassium. Unfortunately planting beans and peas doesn't fertilize your garden. Not unless you plough them under, along with their fruit. Don’t apply lime and dung in the same year. They cancel each other out. It's why I also apply compost and dung in alternate years.

This sort of gardening isn’t the most glamorous. You don’t take your photo standing beside your compost for “Gardening and Good Housekeeping”. But it’s what keeps your garden alive.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Glass has got talent

Cottarton Cottage is located in Glass. To those who ask: “Where the hell is Glass?” I usually reply: “It’s a small Aberdeenshire town, the home of the Glass Symphony Orchestra. The name has Celtic roots, meaning “grey”. Yesterday the symphony orchestra didn’t show up in Glass Hall and so we were treated to the local reality show, “Has Glass got talent”?--- An evening of music, song, recitation, dance and comedy.

Remarkable the talent that appears when people aren’t trying to compete with the hotshots on the X-Factor. Miranda played us a scale on her new viola. Not bad. Mike Taitt, our local wizard of Oz played a jig on a harmonica; danced a jig too until the game was up. We realized the music was coming from a 78 recording behind a screen. Nick showed us how to pull a thread from nose to ear, Anne recited her beautiful poetry. Of the talented Yuill family grandmother Christine was the hall’s favourite. Her recitation of “The honey bee from the old town of Effen” had the room in stitches. Note the double entendre of “Effen”. I’ve no doubt that by now the Effen residents are tired of the jokes at their expense.

Vivienne McIntosh treated us to a medley of highland dancing. Her feet moved with breathtaking precision that instantly drew in your eye. She appeared totally weightless. Moira Watson and Liz Brown, “The Local Miracles”, sang in perfect harmony. Great standup comedy from Bob Yuill. He had us in stitches while he embarrassed his family. I swear that Rob, Katie and Christine had red faces. Glass definitely has talent.

Who stole the show were the five sexy ladies, Lilian Cameron, Frances Harrold, Ruth Wright, Sue Brown and Margaret Slorach, known as “Over the Hill.” Dressed in burlesque and swinging their furs, they performed the red-light district song, with parent advisory lyrics “Let’s Do it!” Ooh la la! With a direct reference to a romantic couple in the room. After walking away with the top prize, they were called back for a reprise.

None of the performers appeared to feel ill at ease. They were all having fun on the stage. I often wish that performing art was no more than fun; not the cutthroat competitiveness of “Strictly Come Dancing” or the “X Factor”. Which doesn’t mean that the artist isn’t striving for excellence if that’s what they choose. It’s the drive for recognition that ultimately puts a chokehold on the art.

Our compere, Gary Coull, with a perfect Glass accent kept us laughing between acts. I will use some of his jokes, so watch out. Thank goodness the symphony orchestra didn’t show up.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The Queen will pay for it

“Is this new greenhouse expensive?” I asked my dad forty years back. Old Scone Nursery, his business for over 25 years, contained hundreds of cold frames with seedlings, fields of chrysanthemums, dahlias, lettuce, cabbage. You name it. And here was a new, 100 foot long greenhouse taking shape in the field. “The Queen will pay for it,” he replied. He meant that he’d received a government subsidy for the project.

Back to the present. When I arrived in the living room I found mama sitting in her chair, perky, irascible and funny. Her eyes were bright as if nothing had happened. Frailer than before; she can no longer walk alone; needs assistance going to the toilet. She’s conversational but often not understandable. The stroke left its mark on her speech.

She came home from hospital to a new bathroom --- built at taxpayer expense: slick, white walls, a shower, toilet, small lavatory and a wide doorway to fit a wheelchair. Wow! Not only has she a new bathroom but a twelve foot long ramp so that the house is handicap accessible.



How did all that happen? A year ago when I first heard that the Scottish government is in the remodelling business, my first reaction was --- “You’re joking.” For thirty years I lived in the US and no one came barging in to remodel my house. Over here, they’ll not only pay for your doctor and hospital but they’ll re-do your house and your home decorations. Even if you're not on welfare.

The wheelchair ramp

The logic goes something like this. A few years back the Scottish government committed to providing free care for all elderly people; at least for those with savings below a certain threshold. The others have to fork out a co-payment. It’s a lot cheaper for the government to keep the elderly in their houses and to send over carers to assist with dressing, washing and food --- in mama’s case four times a day, than to pay for the elderly to be cared for in nursing homes. Plus, there’s a quality of life issue. Everyone wants to be cared for in their own home. So the government will spend the dough to make your house handicap accessible, and upgrade your bathroom so that you can be easily cared for. Of course, you won’t be given a choice of bathroom style or colour, but I haven’t heard too many complaints about the government's taste in decoration.

Conservative as always, mama took one look at the new shower and declared that she hates all showers. She won’t use it. Too bad, said no-nonsense Agata, our live-in carer. You’ll be using it. Mama bowed to the inevitable.