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.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Time when trees bloom...

It was the time when trees bloom,
When bushes leaf
Fields grow green,
And every bird singing in Latin
Sweetly greets the morning
And all nature is aflame with joy
That the son of the widow dame
Of the lonely wild forest
Arises and saddles his nag...

Thus opens the epic poem of Chretien de Troyes (around 1185), Perceval --- or the story of the Grail. The boy enters the woods, encounters knights whom he mistakes for angels, and decides he wants to become one. And so to his adventures.

At Cottarton the birds have been singing in Latin for almost two months. We’ve barely seen any rain. Each morning Amber and I look out at a blue sky and say, “Here’s another sunny day in southern California.” It’s warm --- possibly the warmest April on record. Evenings we eat dinner at our outdoor patio, something that in past years was a rare treat.

The locals are also mystified. And a little bothered by the endless summer. Technically it's barely springtime. Shopkeepers wag their heads.

“Beautiful day,” I say when I reach the till.
“Aye,” says the shopkeeper. “But we’ll be paying for it.”

Things aren’t supposed to be this good. This is after all Scotland. This time last year we were under at least a foot of snow. Now that's the way it is.

A boon for the garden? Not exactly. It’s true that the cold frame is already bursting with plants, large enough to be planted outside. The greenhouse is emptying of seedlings. Tomatoes and zucchini are too big for their pots. But very little that I’ve sown or planted outside is growing. The ground is dusty. Parched. Without water from the skies, things aren’t about to move. Only buttercups, unfazed by the drought and delighted by the lack of competition, are making hay.

So, a Texan will tell me --- turn on the hose! If my plants start struggling for life, it may come to that. But at present I prefer to leave the plants alone. By not watering, I encourage them to send their roots deeper in search of damp layers farther down. Also, there are the slugs --- mollusks that just love the water. Every year we do battle with the buggers. Whenever I watered outside, they would come out at night for a drink, and then have their midnight snack on my broccoli plants. They eat everything except for buttercups. By not watering, I don’t let them know that there are tasty snacks out there.

The onion and garlic crop.
Lovage in the foreground.

Here at Cottarton we hardly have any water pressure. Our water is sourced from a well, gets pumped into a water tank in the attic, and that’s all the water head you have. Not enough for a sprinkler. At best, I fill up watering can with our Evian water, walk out to my field and stand there stupidly, looking like a bloke out of the TV program, “The Good Life.”

What’s going on? Where is our Scottish weather? Curiously this long spring is a mirror image of the dreadful winter we had a year ago, and an equally nasty December 2010. The North Atlantic Jet Stream has tied itself into a loop that takes it far to our west. The high pressure system that normally covers most of Europe now extends over the UK. As I hoped, when we experienced a continental winter, we’re being compensated by a continental spring. That means, long, dry and hot.

It’s time to get out the bull-roarer and perform a Scottish rain dance.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Flash Fiction --- The Ornament

A few years back the following story came to me in a dream. I've never told it to an Analyst. I've no idea what it means. However I thought that it may entertain, so here it is. We're not in Scotland, but deep in the heart of Texas....

Mark Gerald had to be in trouble, otherwise the feds wouldn’t have called at Seven Acres. I knew who they were from their pressed suits, the rented van and the cell phones in their hands as they circled his ranch house, poking their heads in the windows. The tall thin one saw me by the juniper tree, my rifle ready.

“I’d keep your hand away from that,” he warned. “Mr. Gerald around?”

“He stays in Austin. Here on weekends.”

I rarely saw Mark. His father and I had been close for many years. He would have wanted me there to protect his son's place from the goons. I stood by the door while they checked under every bush, all the time talking on their phones. An hour later Mark’s pickup rolled up the driveway. A door slammed.

“Are you Mark Gerald?” the tall one asked him.

“He’s in the ranch house,” Mark said hardly looking at the suit.

“There’s no one there. We’re Federal Agents. AFT. Lying to a federal agent is a federal crime.”

“That’s right.”

Mark came round the corner. He saw me by the tree, nodded in recognition and entered his house by the back door. His overconfident grin made me even more nervous. He didn’t know what he was up against.

The tall man knocked on the front door. Mark opened it.

“Mr. Gerald?” the man asked coldly. “Drake Evans, AFT. Can we have a talk?”

“Greetings Mr. Evans,” Mark cried, slapping the agent on his back. “Of course. We’ve talked on the phone.”

I walked up to the house, eyes on the smaller man. He was sitting in a wire chair, his feet propped up on a log, cell phone at his ear.

“Yes,” Mark’s voice came through the open window. “You’re here about a Chistmas ornament. Which one? See if you can pick it out.”

I didn’t catch the agent’s question.

“You got it. But be careful – it might fly away.”

Another question.

“It’s all plastic. What? It circles the tree when people sing. Want to try it with your favorite carol?”

Two weeks ago, I saw something flying around Mark’s driveway. At first I thought it was a bird. Whatever it was, it glinted in the sunlight and flew off with a buzzing sound. Maybe it was only an unusual bug. But what if it wasn’t?

“Energy source?” Mark asked. “I dunno. What’s that?” After a pause during which the agent mumbled some more. “You think I use my mind to make it go? It’s nothing to do with my or your mind. It’s clothes. You need to wear cotton. It bounces off cotton and flies faster – see those cotton hangings on the tree? My kids made those.”

He had to be crazy.

“Watch it go.”

Mark’s clear voice sounded out singing : ‘Rudolf the red nose reindeer…’

A buzzing sound came from the window. I glimpsed something small darting through the indoor shadows.

“No, it’s not a gyro,” Mark added. “No moving parts. It’s got water in the middle. That’s all. Each Christmas I make one and give it to a kid who has nothing. Really nothing. Have I patented it? Who’d want to fool about with that thing.”

Silence. The man said, “A photo?”

“No sir --- keep your camera away. If you want a picture of it, go look at the Ranch News. Ten years ago someone ran an article about it.”

The tall man soon reappeared and rejoined his partner. He walked unsteadily as if drunk. His white face trembled as if he’d had news of a family death. They spoke in low voices as they walked to their van. They drove off.

Mark met me in the garden, said ‘howdy’ and asked how the calving was progressing. Nothing ever bothered him, and right now his blue eyes sparkled as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

“Mr. Gerald,” I said. “It’s not my place to butt into your business, but I think you need to be careful about those men. They’re after something you have and won’t stop until they get it.”

“My ornament? No one will deprive a poor child of their present.”

Mark was that way. He spoke another language.

“Like I said, I don’t want to be nosey,” I persisted. “This is about you. You don’t have a family, and there’s no one here to help you except for us neighbors. I’m concerned. People who get involved like you sometimes turn up dead. Those men looked scared, about to do something serious.”

It was hard to talk to him when I didn’t know what I was talking about and he didn’t want to help me either. It made no difference. By the following February Mark was dead. An eighteen-wheeler slammed into his pickup. He never had a chance.

In the town library, I scanned all the back issues of the ‘Ranch News’ for a picture of Mark’s ornament. I found a picture of him standing beside the town Christmas tree, surrounded by a troop of kids. He wasn’t looking at them though, but at something like a butterfly floating next to the tree. It was no butterfly, not unless the butterfly had a body like a sphere with curved wings.

Mark did have a family. Somewhere in Texas were kids who each had his ornament, assuming they hadn’t broken it. They’d never be able to copy it, so it wouldn’t make them rich. They might not even know how special they were.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Of Couch Grass and Buttercups

‘Tis the season to fork over the soil while whistling a merry country tune and extolling The Good Life. Like in a Broadway musical. The reality is different. You drive the fork into hard, heavy soil and what comes up is a mass of roots --- two local scourges, couch grass and buttercups. For several minutes you pound a heavy chunk of upturned soil. With your bare hands extract the roots and dump them into the barrow. It’s slow, heavy work.

Who doesn't smile at fields of buttercups? So romantic. Is someone in love? You hold a buttercup under the chin and interpret the golden light that it reflects. As a gardener, you don’t dare let them go to seed. Buttercup seeds remain viable for at least eight years. Once established, you’ll never get rid of them.

Couch grass, cum roots extracted from a bed

Couch grass (The link extols its medicinal uses) must be one of the hardiest weeds, propagating mercilessly by a network of underground rhizomes. In Polish, it’s called “pesz” (pronounced, pesh) and that sums up what the Poles think of it. Couch grass grows rapidly in August, just when your veggies are most vulnerable. Before you can get your spade out, it has formed a thick carpet that squeezes the life out of your produce. My friend Charles Ashton, curious about how deep you need to bury couch grass before it expires, performed a little experiment in which he buried clumps at various depths. It took five feet of burial before the grass expired. He drowns the roots in a bucket and makes wine out of them. I would need a small pond and would end up with 30 gallons of wine of dubious quality. I compost it under a thick layer of grass clippings that generate enough heat to scorch the life out of the buggers.

I’ve always suspected that organic gardening is the cause of my problem. Couch grass tends to grow heavily after an application of dung. Not surprising, as it often grows alongside barley and is incorporated into the barley straw. I was once tempted to use a strong weed killer, but it eradicated the couch grass for only a couple of months. By August it was back again.

How about crop rotation? My parsnip and carrot beds are almost devoid of both couch grass and buttercups. Perhaps they emit pheromones that make our weeds feel unwelcome. While I can’t turn the entire garden into one parsnip and carrot patch, I can move various crops around to help eliminate the problem.

Buttercups on the left; Couch grass on the right

Yet for all their trouble, couch grass at least has one benefit: its roots break up large clay chunks to produce a well-conditioned, fertile soil. I realized this when moving earth to build up sunken beds --- sunken because of the volume of weeds I had to extract the past few years. The soil pile was built up from topsoil scraped off in a construction project, and is topped half by couch grass and half by buttercups. Note how the soil on the right under the grass is crumbly, loose, while soil under the buttercups remains chunky and heavy.

The compost heap is the one place where you want to import some couch grass so that it can aerate the pile. Perennial nettles will also benefit your compost's soil structure. Maybe what we need is a peace treaty with our unpalatable brothers. We’ll set aside some designated areas in our garden where they can grow and be appreciated. Will they in turn agree not to bother our flower and vegetable beds? In the Findhorn Garden they make such treaties, supposedly with amazing results.