Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Phenology: "On the 1st New Moon of March, look at Subasio. If it's green, then plant your seeds. If it's white, we wait."

Phenology: planting by nature's signs

The idea of watching for nature’s seasonal signs is called phenology. For gardeners and farmers, this involves studying natural phenomena to know when to plant crops in the spring.

Trees, shrubs, and flowers are sensitive to temperature and day length, and develop on a regular schedule based on local conditions. Other natural phenomena, such as bird migrations and the emergence of insects and amphibians (like spring peepers), also signify the coming of spring. It only makes sense to use these events as indicators of when the weather is right for planting.

I'm just starting to learn about this. Annamaria gave me a local Umbrian gardener's calendar, and it gives all kinds of fascinating details about the times of planting and harvesting. It says that one doesn't plant seeds straight into the beds until the "crescente" the first days of the New Moon of March, which was the 18th. But then one also has to watch the weather. She came by this morning and said, "Oh no. We can't plant now. Look at Monte Subasio. If there's snow on top at the crescente, we have to wait."

But even with cold, wet weather, I've been having a fine time. Building beds, putting up trellises. This one is where a lot of old junk - sticks and bits of stuff - were stashed. But under it all the soil was quite good, and it gets full exposure all day. So all my tallest things will go in here. Sunflowers, hollyhocks, glads and delphiniums (if I can get them started.)

Annamaria has pruned all her fruit and olive trees and gave me all the cuttings, so I've got piles of sticks to play with.

 In the foreground is the bed I put around the grape vines. Have to build a trellis for them. All around them are about four bulbs' worth of garlic that are doing well. To the right you can see the rockery I built out of tufa blocks. The project for this afternoon is to dig out a trench along its length behind so I can put in another bunch of trellising and make a big wall of morning glories. The tufa forms a little shelf and all those pots are Annamaria's that she's not using. So, flowers, flowers flowers.

I've pulled (and chopped and peeled and stashed away in teh freezer) nearly all my winter brassicas. Plenty of work left to do before the summer veg goes in. Two rows of onions, and three short rows of more garlic. I've got 48 red onion starts waiting to go in.

How to build a trellis out of pruned fruit cuttings.

So. Many. Sticks!

Teaching myself wattling technique. This is my poor rhubarb that I bought last spring and ended up getting moved three times. It's doing much better now, but I wanted to put something around it so no one would tread on the delicate young leaves. All the material here is olive.

Following the manuscripts, I wanted to try a raised wattle bed. This worked surprisingly well, and only took a few hours to complete. It's mostly fruit tree prunings. I'm going to put beets and marigolds together.

Wattle, wattle everywhere...

A week ago, it looked like spring!


Industrial farming; stealing the good to give us fake "perfection"

There's so much wrong with the way we Modernians do agriculture, it's hard to know where to begin. One thing he mentions is the poverty of varieties in most Anglo countries that have gone big into industrialised ag-business. You have one kind of broccoli, one kind of cauli, one or maybe two kinds of carrots, if you're VEry lucky, four kinds of apples. And as he says, what is grown have to be "perfect" crops, even for the gigantic and hugely expensive, highly specialised machines to work. And of course, produce sellers won't touch "imperfect" goods, so huge amounts of what is grown gets thrown out because it's not sellable. So when you go to the shops, you're presented with a tiny fraction of the food varieties - and of course, an extremely narrow range of food nutrients (not forgetting that these highly hybridised varieties ALWays sacrifice nutrient-density for appearance and pest/disease resistance and other purely producer-oriented advantages). So, honestly we're just not getting nearly the food value we used to from fruits and veg.

This has been countered a little bit by the fad for "organic" produce, but most regular people don't shop at Whole Foods or whatever the equivalent is. There are very few farmer's markets, and none at all if you live in a city. Urbanisation, industrialisation, Henry Ford's mass production mindset, has left us in a state of poor health and cultural poverty.

But I know that in Italy, small scale farming - a lot of family farms doing mixed growing - is still a pretty strong thing. It's being strangled by government interference and EU-based agri-industrial gerrymandering, but one of the reasons Italy is still famous for food is this national growing culture. Everyone has a little orto, everyone grows veg and is accustomed to a much wider array of varieties. I don't know how many times I've had to explain that the "weird" stuff I'm growing in my garden is actually perfectly normal for Italians. (And everyone knows what to do with them. Today I snipped off the flowerets off my Cavolo Nero, sauteed them with some shaved carrots in olive oil and garlic for dinner.) Being only one or two generations away from an agricultural economy - in Norcia they only "modernised" the farming practices in 1950! they were still using oxen in 1965 - people are a lot more accustomed to the realities of farm life. People expect the vast array of brassicas every year because they grew up with Nonna pulling it out of her orto for them. There are little mini-farmer's markets in the city centres - a dozen in Rome, some of them no more than three tables worth, but everyone knows where they are and goes to them.

The other thing that survives here is what I call the "housewife culture" in which women generally get married and stay at home. The shopping is done several times a week, early in the morning (all public markets are closed by one pm) and does the cooking for the family who come home from work for the national mid-day break. Feminist politicians complain about women not being in paid employment, but I htink there's still an awareness here that the nation's economic and social health rests on the well-being of the home. And that's where women rule. Food is at the centre of that culture.


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

By the time we discover we need it, it's gone, and we can't ever put it back...

This deserves a separate post. I have always liked this about HRH Charles. He seems to grasp that Modernity has destroyed so much to give us so little. The appearance of material wealth - but a wealth composed of objects that have been drained of their value - in exchange for an authentic cultural wealth that can never truly be regained.

"People are yearning for that sense of belonging and identity, and meaning."


Monday, March 19, 2018

Transylvania: human-scale vernacular architecture

that you can stay in.

The Prince of Wales likes to take a week's holiday there every year. But when he's not using it, you can go and stay there for 118E a night. Meals included.

A human-scale life.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

The call to solitude...

The more I learn about rural Romania, the more I want to go hide there. Rural Italy is pretty great, and Umbria has a piece of my heart, but the part I live in is pretty modern and central. Down here on the lowlands. I keep longing to go back up to Norcia where - even more now - there are really just not very many people, and we were surrounded by the Big Empty. Where wild boar would come close to the house at night, and if you got up early enough you'd sometimes see wolves in your garden. (At least, so I was told my my friend the vet, whose house was close to the base of the mountain.) One of the most painful parts of Norcia was the annual summer tourist invasion. It was just way too popular.

Being from coastal British Columbia, and from a time before it got completely overrun, I find it hard to bear living cheek-by-jowl with so many strangers. It just feels strangely invasive to know what people - people I don't know - are doing every day.

The lower Tiber Valley is very heavily populated for a rural area, this big horseshoe of towns and villages and hamlets and farms, Perugia, Assisi, Bastia Umbra, Foligno, Spoleto... all practically within walking distance. I know for people who only think of Italy as a tourist place that sounds like a dream come true; but how I miss those early Norcia mornings in the winter, the only sound was the birds and the bells of the Basilica ringing for Prime, the mist rising slowly up the sides of the mountains...

I don't know where this thing in my character comes from, this urge to be away from everyone else. But it gets stronger by the year. My 52nd birthday was last week, and though I'm liking my little place here more and more, the urge to be away from everyone else keeps whispering under it all. I guess it's how I ended up here, so far away from where I started. The Island is unrecognisable now, my interior mental landscape of long stretches of the Island Highway with nothing but trees has been completely lost. That highway is one long strip mall now, lined with seedy car and hot tub dealerships; the remote, wild place where my grandparents build their little house on the cliff in the 60s now a tame and paved suburb of Nanaimo.

The more I learn about Romania, the more that instinct starts its little quiet bell ringing.

... Or maybe the Faroe Islands...


Sunday, March 11, 2018

What to do during a Divine Chastisement...

I have a wonderfully interesting book - a reprint of the 1906 original - titled "The Records of Romsey Abbey" - being the long story, put together from original sources, of a women's Benedictine house near Winchester, founded in AD 907.

This morning I was reading an interesting bit from the middle of the 14th century: what to do in times of grave chastisement.

It seems like pretty good advice.

"The advent, in 1349, of the Great Pestilence, or Black Death as it is commonly known, brought desolation to Romsey Abbey in common with other communities throughout the country. It is supposed that this awful scourge originated in China in 1334. Thirteen millions of person are believed to have been swept away by the floods of the Yangtsi or destroyed by hunger and disease, and according to the rumours of the time it was the corruption of unburied corpses which caused the Black Death. [The true cause of Bubonic Plague, the bacterium Yersinia pestis, was identified in 1894, but its connection with the historic pestilences so dreadfully remembered by Europeans, was not widely accepted until after the publication of the book.]. In China the pestilence ended in 1342, but not so for the rest of the world; it spread and being a soil poison found favourable conditions throughout medieval Europe. This was the age of feudalism and walled towns, with a cramped and unwholesome manner of life on inhabited spots of ground, choked with the waste matter of generations.

The monasteries were especially favourable spots. Within the walls, under the floor of the chapel or cloisters, were buried not only generations of monks but often the bodies of princes and notables, and of great ecclesiastics. Again, in every parish the house of the priest would have stood close to the church and churchyard. Thus the pestilence spread slowly but with a certainty, which would alone have made it terrifying, taking a whole twelve months to pasts from Dorset to Yorkshire, and exhibiting its greatest power in walled town, monastery and in the neighbourhood of churchyards.

But whilst this pestilence was a soil poison, it is not to be supposed that it was not directly contagious, it was virulent, and so contagious that those who touched the dead or even the sick, were incontinently infected that they died, and both penitent and confessor were borne together to the same grave. It is supposed that the population of England at this time was not more than five millions, and that half of this total succumbed. One half of the clergy in the diocese of York died, and in Hampshire some 200 clergy perished.

The pestilence entered a port in Dorset, said to be Weymouth, about August, 1348. Bishop William de Edyndon wrote an eloquent letter to the Prior of St. Swithun's, Winchester, on the 24th of October following and sent similar letter throughout the diocese: -

"William, by Divine providence, Bishop, to the Prior and Chapter of our church of Winchester, health, grace, and benediction. A voice in Rama has been heard; much weeping and crying has sounded throughout the countries of the globe. Nations deprived of their children in the abyss of an unheard plague, refuse to be consoled because, as is terrible to hear of, cities, towns, castles, and villages, adorned with noble and handsome buildings, and wont, up to the present, to rejoice in an illustrious people, in their wisdom and counsel, in their strength and in the beauty of their matrons and virgins; wherein too, every joy abounded, and whither too, multitudes of people flocked from afar for relief; all these have been already stripped of their population by the calamity of the said pestilence, more cruel than any two-edged sword. And into these said places now none dare enter, but fly afar from them as from the dens of wild beasts.
Every joy has ceased in them; pleasant sounds are hushed, and every note of gladness is banished. They have become abodes of horror and a very wilderness; fruitful country places without the tillers thus carried off, are deserts and abandoned to barrenness. And news most grave which we report with the deepest anxiety, this cruel plague as we have heard, has already begun to afflict the various coasts of the realm of England.
We are struck with the greatest fear lest, which God forbid, the ell disease ravage any part of our city and diocese. And although God, to prove our patience, and justly to punish our sins, often afflicts us, it is not in man's power to judge the Divine which, propagated by the tendency of the old sin of Adam, from your inclines all to evil, has now fallen into deeper malice and justly provoked the Divine wrath by a multitude of sins to this chastisement.
"But because god is loving and merciful, patient and above all hatred, we earnestly beg that by your devotion He may ward off from us the scourge we have so justly deserved, if we now turn to Him humbly with our whole heart. We exhort you in the Lord, and in virtue of obedience we strictly enjoin you to come before the face of God, with contrition and confession of all your sins, together with the consequent due satisfaction through the efficacious works of salutary penance. We order further that every Sunday and Wednesday all of you, assembled together in the choir of your monastery say the seven Penitential Psalms, and the fifteen gradual psalms, on your knees, humbly and devoutly. Also on every Friday, together with these psalms, we direct that you chant the long litany, instituted against pestilences of this kind by the Holy Fathers, through the market place of our city of Winchester, walking in procession together with the clergy and people of the city.
We desire that all should be summoned to these solemn processions and urged to make use of other devout exercises, and directed to follow these processions in such a way that during their course they walk with heads bent down, with feet bare, and fasting; whilst with pious hearts they repeat their prayers and, putting away vain conversation, say as often as possible the Lord's Prayer and Hail Mary. Also that they should remain in earnest prayer to the end of the Mass, which at the end of the procession we desire you to celebrate in your church."


It's Henry Purcell Sunday: Rejoice in the Lord Alway!


Friday, March 02, 2018

Dulce Domum

The rapid nightfall of mid-December had quite beset the little village as they approached it on soft feet over a first thin fall of powdery snow. Little was visible but squares of a dusky orange-red on either side of the street, where the firelight or lamplight of each cottage overflowed through the casements into the dark world without. Most of the low latticed windows were innocent of blinds, and to the lookers-in from outside, the inmates, gathered round the tea-table, absorbed in handiwork, or talking with laughter and gesture, had each that happy grace which is the last thing the skilled actor shall capture--the natural grace which goes with perfect unconsciousness of observation. Moving at will from one theatre to another, the two spectators, so far from home themselves, had something of wistfulness in their eyes as they watched a cat being stroked, a sleepy child picked up and huddled off to bed, or a tired man stretch and knock out his pipe on the end of a smouldering log.

But it was from one little window, with its blind drawn down, a mere blank transparency on the night, that the sense of home and the little curtained world within walls--the larger stressful world of outside Nature shut out and forgotten--most pulsated. Close against the white blind hung a bird-cage, clearly silhouetted, every wire, perch, and appurtenance distinct and recognisable, even to yesterday's dull-edged lump of sugar. On the middle perch the fluffy occupant, head tucked well into feathers, seemed so near to them as to be easily stroked, had they tried; even the delicate tips of his plumped-out plumage pencilled plainly on the illuminated screen. As they looked, the sleepy little fellow stirred uneasily, woke, shook himself, and raised his head. They could see the gape of his tiny beak as he yawned in a bored sort of way, looked round, and then settled his head into his back again, while the ruffled feathers gradually subsided into perfect stillness. Then a gust of bitter wind took them in the back of the neck, a small sting of frozen sleet on the skin woke them as from a dream, and they knew their toes to be cold and their legs tired, and their own home distant a weary way.

Once beyond the village, where the cottages ceased abruptly, on either side of the road they could smell through the darkness the friendly fields again; and they braced themselves for the last long stretch, the home stretch, the stretch that we know is bound to end, some time, in the rattle of the door-latch, the sudden firelight, and the sight of familiar things greeting us as long-absent travellers from far over-sea. They plodded along steadily and silently, each of them thinking his own thoughts. The Mole's ran a good deal on supper, as it was pitch-dark, and it was all a strange country for him as far as he knew, and he was following obediently in the wake of the Rat, leaving the guidance entirely to him. As for the Rat, he was walking a little way ahead, as his habit was, his shoulders humped, his eyes fixed on the straight grey road in front of him; so he did not notice poor Mole when suddenly the summons reached him, and took him like an electric shock.
The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame


It occurs to me that all the literature of my childhood was about the same longing for home.


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A window through which the winds of heaven blow...

A good article from our Ortho friends about why beauty in sacred art is an absolute requirement for the life of faith.

"Despite protestations to the contrary, it is not the icon which is so offensive to Gnostics and iconoclasts, it is the message which the icon represents which cannot be tolerated."

It's not the thing itself that the Soviets were so keen to burn, but the reality it represented. It is why Muslim militants destroy and forbid religious art.

The Sacred Icon - and as a Latin I would expand this to other forms of true sacred art - is an indispensable sign of incarnational religion. In our time, not creating sacred art is a form of idolatry:

"When a religion rejects images of God, it confirms the message that God is only a spirit, and that He has no physical body. Before the Incarnation, that was true. After the Incarnation, it is false, and is therefore, as false worship, idolatry. Idolatry is worshipping false gods, or worshipping the True God while misrepresenting Him."
Before the coming of Christ, the Jewish Temple signified God’s presence, and His people bowed down toward it. Before the Incarnation, it was impossible to make an image of the invisible God, a heavenly reality, without misrepresenting Him. Once, however, God became flesh in the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth, the invisible God became visible, the immaterial God was suddenly approachable. 

Pic from "Anglicans Ablaze"

Traditional iconography has been described to me as a kind of window onto heaven. The figures of Our Lord and Our Lady and the saints are always idealised, and always presented with exactly the same details to symbolise the absolute unchanging perfection of the life of the blessed in heaven. Heaven itself is symbolised by the colours, particularly the use of gold which never perishes or dulls.

The Icon is not a ‘holy picture’ designed to increase piety. Neither is an icon something spiritual in itself, as it does not depict “God” in general. The icon is a dogmatic expression of a theological truth. It is, therefore, not variable as artists would claim by ‘artistic license’ – a term I, as an artist, have always found to be a cop out for lack of talent or lack of vision.
Just as one cannot translate the Bible any old way one wishes to and still remain true to the text, one cannot paint an icon any old way one wishes to and still remain true to the prototype.


"Come higher up and further in!"

I've long been fascinated by the concept of a door or other opening between this world and another, better more magical, more significant world. It appears too many times to count in mythology and children's stories. I've described my own spiritual efforts with the metaphor of a lifelong search for the Door to Narnia. Many times Narnia uses this image of a magical door - that opens only at the will of Aslan and not yours - that allows you to leave this ordinary, uninteresting and unimportant world behind and go to spend time in the more real, more beautiful and often more perilous world of Narnia. This is a world where the stakes of life are incalculably higher because the Realness there is incalculably more real.

And if you get to go there, the more-realness of that world changes you to become more real yourself. The very air of Narnia has magical properties, bringing out the best, the bravest, strongest and most noble aspects of our characters, allowing you to achieve great feats of sacrifice and self-conquest. Once this air has worked on you for a while you are altered interiorly, making it possible for you to pursue the adventure that Aslan sends, whatever it may be and however difficult. And once you have been there and returned, you will never see this world the same way again - you will have been changed forever. Even if you fail, even if, as sometimes happens, you betray that change and try to forget it, even if you turn your back on it willingly to embrace the old world and the old you as you were before, it will never leave you. You will never be able to un-know what you know.

Lewis described the difference between that world and ours as being like looking at a beautiful scene though a screen door, and then someone opens the screen and all the details are sharper, the colours more vibrant. It is like the difference you see in a garden on a dull overcast day when the sun breaks through, and for a moment all is gleaming, the colours flash and every drop of rain becomes wonderful. Once you know it's there to be sought, you can't stay still, you can't be satisfied with even the beauties of this life. Like trying to be content to stay forever in the Wood Between the Worlds, a pretty enough place but where nothing ever happens and there's no reason for anything.

I suppose the idea of a magic window is similar, one you could put on your wall and look through and remind yourself what is and isn't real... Imagine what a window to heaven would be like. Or, if this is too difficult, imagine a magic window that would allow you to sometimes see through the barriers between the worlds, to catch a glimpse of the Narnian countryside. Maybe if you left that window open in your home, the Narnian wind could sometimes blow through, bringing its scents and magic with it.

You can't get through that window, not yet anyway, but you can at least look, you can gaze through and remember. And you can yearn. I would soon forget about everything else if I had one. Wouldn't you?

C.S. Lewis described the notion of "Joy" as this yearning, this intense longing that one feels all one's life after the merest glimpse of that other, more real place. Once you had seen it, even only for a moment, you would give up everything, every dull and colourless and pointless thing this world offered, to go and spend the rest of your life seeking it.

You could along the way perhaps sometimes lose the feeling of refreshment it gave you, and you could become distracted. But then you would be granted another glimpse, or even a scent that would bring the memory and the longing back as sharp and painful and sweet as before. Or it would come back to you in a dream and you would wake to find everything shiny and lovely in this world returned to its greyed and faded state and you would resume your search, distractions forgotten.

You would wander your whole life, attached to nothing because nothing in it ever came close to what you were seeking. The grandest waterfall, the sweetest fruit, the most delicate flower, would only serve to increase your longing for the more Real things in the more real place. The ripples of fields of summer wheat would only remind you of the wind in the Lion's mane.

We all  know the longing for home, because in a real sense we all leave our home when we are no longer children. That earthly home was the one that we could not have forever. But the yearning to return to it, as impossible as we know it is, is what will compel us forward. There is a home, but it's not here.


Saturday, February 24, 2018

Spring in Umbria

First sunny day in a couple of weeks here. I should have realised it was going to be nice when I heard the wind that has blown away all the clouds.

I've got some deadlines to chase today, but thought I'd share some pics of the garden, and a few ideas I'm working on for the spring. (That is apparently happening right the heck now!)

I've become enamoured of the idea of creating a medieval herb and flower garden in what I can really no longer call The Big Dry Patch. Building beds is rough work though.

Annamaria has pruned her olive grove and there's a small mountain of olive cuttings that aren't doing anything. I've already started wattle fence experiments.

Gathering data for a series of articles - haven't decided where I'm going to flog them - on the concept in medieval mysticism of the "Hortus Conclusus" - the "garden enclosed". It shows up starting in the mid-14th century in the manuscripts, where Mary is often depicted sitting (frequently on a "turf bench") in a lovely garden, surrounded by all manner of flowers and animals, and often accompanied by ladies in waiting like a courtly medieval queen, entertained by minstrels. There's a lot to unpack.

Also gathering garden ideas. I'd like everything to be documentable from primary sources. Fortunately, there's a LOT of stuff uploaded, and the medievals seemed to really love painting their gardens into the manuscripts.

The turf bench shows up again and again in the manuscripts, most often set in front of a trellis with red or red and white roses. Apparently one was supposed to put on one's best clothes and go out in the summer and weave little bonnets with the roses. All very symbolic. I'm working out how to do a turf bench with the materials at hand.

Here's my first trellis, taken a few weeks ago. The side supports are an old wooden ladder that's lost its rungs. The space behind it is just the right size for a melon and squash patch. I'm planning another trellis, made of much sturdier materials, that will be an a-frame for the viney plants to climb. This will create some shade for things that like a bit of shade like lettuces.

New beds, lots of mulch to treat the clay soil and keep the water in when it gets hot; in the background are rows of brassicas in the orto (and Henry, guarding his territory from the farm cats). I got about 25 nice Romanesco broccolis - now all packed away in the freezer for summer - and still have some cauliflower and red cabbage to go. I've planted lots and lots of garlic too, as well as red onions and a few white ones. 

Everything looking a bit grim and grey this time of year, of course, but it's perfect weather for getting out and digging and building. Couldn't do it in the heat. 

Unfortunately, after the very bad drought and unusually hot summer, the loquat tree decided that autumn was spring, and produced all its flowers in November, which were subsequently killed by the frost. A few of the flowers that were a bit sheltered survived and there will be a little fruit. But droughts are bad for so many reasons. 

New beds to protect the beginning grape vines, all planted around with garlics. I'm only about half way done. You can see the big stack of tufa stones in the background along the base of the jasmine hedge. Got plans for all that. In front is my first go at making an obelisk trellis out of bamboo uprights and olive branch twists. It's for sweet peas.

 Here it is in the bed, and the sweet peas are all planted.

That beautiful black soil all comes bucket-by-bucket from Annamaria's family compost heap. It's got to be at least a hundred years old, and covers an area the size of three parking spaces. She's said I can help myself to as much as I like.

Pippy loves to help in the garden.

The apricot in blossom.

My neighbour Franco's almond tree blossoming as it towers above my still-bare fig tree.

Magnificent botanical accuracy in a detail from one tiny corner of the great Ghent Altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck. You can clearly identify every species. So much research to do.