Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Fried pumpkin flowers

Right, that's a keeper...

Having finally learned the difference between male and female flowers on my pumpkin plants, I collected a few of the male flowers to eat this morning. They are very popular among the Italians, but I had no idea how to do them apart from the deep-fried-in-batter-with-cheese thing you get in Rome restaurants.

Not having a deep fat frier I just washed them in cool water, sliced them in half (and plucked out the dead ants) dipped them in a bit of whisked egg, then dredged in some seasoned flour, and fried them in less than an inch of hot olive oil in the bottom of my cast iron enamel pot.

They're completely addictive.



Also, discovered that if you cut them young enough, even halloween pumpkins are very tasty, like dense zucchini, sliced thin and deep fried the same way.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Before and After: some gardening pics

Steve has kindly posted the piece I did on the medieval "Hortus Conclusus" - a surprisingly complex and multi-layered concept that combines practical gardening techniques with monastic mysticism.

Hortus Conclusus: My Medieval Garden, Inauthenticity, and The Real

in which we find connections between medieval gardens, Byzantine carved onyx chalices, the Venetian Trinket Principle and Cardinal Dolan at the Met Gala...

"The first time I went to Venice by myself I must have taken 1000+ pictures. As everyone is, I was overwhelmed by the Realness of Venice. I was in a kind of panic to take some of that essence of Realness home with me. But when I got home I didn’t know what to do with a thousand pictures. This, I suppose, is a useful analogy for the Church too. We saw the Venetian Trinket Principle at work at the vulgar spectacle of that Met Gala that happened while I was looking at medieval carved stones in Venice. One of the worst, most embarrassing, aspects of it was the grinning presence of those Catholic prelates, men who appear to be just as duped by the lies of the modern world as the celebrities dressed up as the Virgin Mary. These are supposed to be the men who carry the Ultimate Real with them to offer to the world, but they’ve forgotten somehow."

Anyway. Steve only posted a few pics of the garden, and I love before and after and how-to kinds of things. So, here's a few more...

The Big Dry Patch, shortly after I moved in.
Add caption

The same spot in mid-February this year

Taken yesterday afternoon from just about the same spot.

I have about 200 square meters. When I moved here the patch had been left dormant for several years, and its clay soil that had been rototilled every spring and autumn for many years had baked into an impenetrable grey brick in which absolutely nothing was growing except the trees and a few very hardy and determined weeds. This is because of the typical Italian contadina style of vegetable gardening that leaves large patches of soil bare, which also wastes a great deal of water - an issue which made us all nervous last summer as the drought brought the well level down.

It works well in good years for the purpose of growing typical Italian orto favourites: tomatoes, squash, aubergines and fava beans. Soil fertility isn't really an issue here, especially if you're growing just the usual Italian favourites, legumes, nightshades and brassicas. My own brassicas - fibonacci broccoli, white cauliflower, cime di rapa and Tuscan black kale, did wonderfully this winter (the red cabbage not so much). But if you like root vegetables (except for aliums) it's hopeless. My poor carrots tried... they really did.

And if you like an English style mixed garden of herbs and flowers you have to do quite a lot of work, because really only raised beds and careful soil amendment will produce the results. So, almost as soon as I got here, (and mainly as a form of mental therapy) I started digging. Prozac might work for some people, but I've found one of the best anti-depressants/anti-anxiety drugs is dirt. And of course, for exercise, little can beat lifting tufa blocks, pulling weeds and taking huge overhead swings at the earth with an iron mattock.

The trouble this garden had is that top-tilling destroys the soil's natural substructure. I've been reading Roger Brook, an advocate of the no-dig method who explained how clay soil works:

Soil structure is not just much loved crumbs in a handful of soil, it belongs to the whole soil profile.  A good soil is honeycombed with channels, cracks and connections through which air and water can move. Worms wriggle and spread organic fertility. Worm-casts accumulate on the surface to enable a fine tilth. A firm settled surface gives the gardener access in all kinds of weather without causing compaction. Most of the gardening world confuses a firm settled surface with compaction!

There are various methods to improving this kind of soil, and I'm trying a combination of things to see what works best. Part of the orto (vegetable patch) I'm just leaving as is, and planting direct into the native soil - several rows of onions and garlic, as well as a great crop of coriander are doing very well. And as I said, my brassicas loved this soil and I have a freezer full of broccoli and cauliflower and other greens to last all summer. Tomatoes also love it (though I'm taking it easy on poms this year, since I've still got about 30 pounds in the freezer).

But I'm also building small raised beds - and learning wattling techniques - that I'm filling partly with pulled weeds. This wattle bed, one of two, started life as a pile of pulled weeds from around the garden. I just raked it all up into a pile and put in the stakes around it, did the wattle and then filled with Annamaria's family compost.

A few days ago, I dug into the soil and there were so many worms it was difficult to find a spot safe to dig down. Worms are a rarity in the native soil, so this is obviously a good sign.

Did the second, smaller one,  at the end of March, and a rectangular one on the end with sides built of terracotta roofing tiles. (Ran out of fruit pruning sticks.)

Here they are all planted out with peppers and some marigolds. The twigs between the plants are to discourage the kitties... we've got eleven cats here. No mice. I've sown a lot of ground cover white clover so when the seeds start sprouting you can take the twigs away and it looks much nicer.

I've also been trying Hugelkultur, a very old method of building raised beds in which you bury a great deal of woody and green matter and pile the native soil up on top.

After I built the tufa block wall, I thought it would be fun to grow a row of sunflowers and put in some climbing morning glories to create a kind of flowery fourth wall of the square garden. But looking at the very hard clay soil I thought the flowers would have difficulties rooting, so took this as a chance to try the hugel bed method.

The logs were already sitting around on the Patch, and obviously had been for a long time. Half rotted logs are perfect. The idea is that they absorb water in the wet season and hold it like a sponge that the plants can then use through the drier spells. The wood breaks down and adds organic matter and nutrients to the soil over a long period.

Then you cover it over with smaller woody material, dried leaves, dried grasses and weeds. This is the carbon layer. This is covered over with half-rotted green compost for lots of nitrogen.

Then you replace the soil, top dress with finished compost, and sow it all over with a ground cover - white clover produces good shade leaf cover, meshes well, is drought resistant and as a nitrogen-fixing legume adds nutrients to the soil. To this I added wildflower mix, lots and lots of morning glory seeds and sunflowers - that have nice long tap roots. Then I put in my trellises, built from Annamaria's fruit tree prunings.

And this is what it looks like today. The large plants are squashes (mystery squash) that started from seeds that had failed to completely break down in the winter compost. There are quite a few "wild" squashes and tomatoes too. (Obviously I'm going to have to up my composting game.)

I've decided to leave the squash where they are, and take care of the rest of the patch by putting down some black plastic mulch. This will protect whatever fruit comes along, and suppress weeds and give me some time to think about what I'm going to do with the rest of this section.

I'm just very pleased with the results overall.

It's producing exactly the lush effect I was hoping for.

Here's the second hugel berm, a 1/4 circle around the base of the hazel tree.

A big part of medieval gardening technique is to completely cover the soil. Every inch should be covered either with plants or ground cover or mulch or a combination of all three. The white clover is doing a great job of this, and I can already see great improvement in soil quality where it has taken well. It doesn't like sprouting directly in the clay, however. Takes quite a lot of coaxing. More boosting for top dressing everything with compost.

Medieval garden design, based on the atrium gardens of Roman houses, always have a square layout of narrow, rectangular low raised beds surrounding a round central feature. In my case the beautiful loquat tree Annamaria's mother planted 15 years ago was the obvious place to start. You can see it to the left in the first pic of the Big Dry Patch.

I started the Big Round Bed right away, but we got hit by the Horrible Heat Wave - 16 weeks of awful African wind blowing the whole world into a new desert all summer - and pretty much all outdoor work ceased.

But a friend came to visit in September and we were able to get it finished. The blocks are tufa and instead of top dressing, we mixed compost into the native clay soil, something I wouldn't do now.

I planted a few herbs - thyme, majoram, a lavender, some rockweed, bought from the shop and saved from the garden in Norcia, and put in daffodil bulbs in bunches in November, scattered it all over with dead leaves and waited.

As the "winter" progressed, I transplanted a lot of things we found here and there - lots of chamomile which grows wild here and starts coming up in January, some wild calendula, white campion and melissa, field poppies, lesser celandine (that in Italian are called "buttone d'oro") salvia and a few rows of garlic, and all did very well. In the long planters are some white onions from starts.

All the transplants had a good winter to settle in, and I set about building the rest of the beds, defining the space, and laying down a lot of wood chip mulch. At first the pacciame was to deal with the muddy clay soil which was a pain to walk on. Then I started reading about how wood chip mulch is the solution to all your problems, especially if you have heavy clay. So now I'm looking around to find a more practical large volume source. It's great stuff, but a 40 L bag doesn't go very far and they're 8 Euros a piece. I really just need a truck load. There's a firewood lady who brings me my stove wood who might be a good person to ask. There's also a horse farm up the hill a bit and I'm willing to bet Annamaria knows them.

Here it is about three weeks ago.

And here it is today.

By the end of March there was quite a change. The basic layout of the garden was finished, and the beds had been settling. The foreground here was just built straight into the native soil around three young grape vines. Into this I added about 40 garlic plants. The two rectangular beds on the left are filled with finished compost from the Pettirossi family compost pile, a hundred years old. They're planted with a mix of flowers and herbs,

The same spot two months later.

and a patch of strawberries.

The area behind the shed and right in front of the grape/garlic bed, was just piled up with old tomato canes, bits of wood and odds and ends. I cleared all this away and built a large tufa-block bed. It gets full sun all day so it's where I'm going to put all  my sun-loving tall flowers, sunflowers, hollyhocks, foxgloves and gladiolus.

Along the back wall of the property, I had already put a bed in for the acanthus that you can see behind this. I've started a brick path in a traditional layout, but this is something of an ongoing project.

Here's a little corner of it today, with the transplanted field poppy doing nicely, and glads coming up. Must finish the trellis before the morning glories get too big.

The whole thing is sown with flower seeds. For some reason I've not had my usual good luck with the nasturtiums. I keep putting them in and niente. But everything else is sprouting.

The sandy gravel path divides the ornamental "hortus conclusus" from the orto. Of course, weeds were not nearly as deterred by it as I had hoped. But I still think it looks quite nice... in a rustico sort of way.

The orto section is another matter, and hasn't had nearly the attention I've given the first bit. But I'm starting to think about it and make some plans. But digging in tufa blocks or even the thin terracotta roofing tiles for raised beds isn't something you can do in the warm season. The clay soil bakes so hard that even the mattock bounces right off. I've been able to dig it a bit, since we've had some rain, and by dumping buckets of water on the bits I want to dig, but building beds is a winter activity, so we're pretty much done for the season.

There are advantages to clay. The fibonacci broccoli loved it, and it's one of my all-time favourite vegetables, so there's going to be a lot more of it from now on. I'm going to leave a good bit of the orto as it is, planted in rows in the traditional Italian way. Though I think I'll also take Charles Dowding's methods and start loading compost on top, as well as burying green matter in patches, which also seems to work well.

Just separating off sections and dealing with the soil in patches, and mulching heavily around the patches and beds, seems to be the best strategy.

Here's my first round wattle - olive branches - in early March. I put it up around the rhubarb, at the base of the plum tree, so it wouldn't get stepped on as it was sprouting. At some point rhubarb needs to have its root divided, so when it comes to digging it up it will be a chance to give it its own raised bed.

But for now it seems happy enough where it is.

Built quite a lot of trellises out of the fruit tree prunings.

Grapes are doing well too. We had a bad sharp frost late in April last year, just as the fruiting plants were putting out flowers, so no one got any grapes. Then the drought ruined all the soft fruits. So far much better luck this year. No late frost and a good generous mix of rain and sun. Annamaria says these are purple table grapes, and there's lots of little sprouts already.

The first side bed. Sown with sweet peas, but they've been very reluctant to germinate. Apparently this is quite common. I'm going to have to step up my seed-starting game too.

After. I'll have to cut the chamomile today. There's a little miniature rose in there somewhere that isn't getting much light.

The most recent project was this third large hugel berm, in the sunniest spot, for cukes, zucchini, pumpkins and cantaloupes. There's a lot of hardwood in a trench, a good 10 inches deep, and then a layer of dried grass cuttings, pulled weeds, half finished compost and several buckets of finished compost.

In front of this I'm going to put up a lean-to trellis so the fruit won't sit on the ground.

It's right behind this trellis, which on one side is morning glories, and the other is pole beans. In front of the pole beans will be just enough room for the last of my red peppers.

And that's about it so far.

Except for the obligatory kitty-pics...

Henry and Pippy have discovered there's a bird's nest under the roof tiles of the shed.

Bertie inspecting the new canes, ready to be put up on the terrace for the morning glory trellis.


A beautiful evening last night.


Friday, April 27, 2018

Wonko the Sane is taking a few days off from the asylum

“It seemed to me,' said Wonko the Sane, 'that any civilization that had so far lost its head as to need to include a set of detailed instructions for use in a package of toothpicks, was no longer a civilization in which I could live and stay sane.”
― Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

I'm offline at home or a few days. I have limited monthly internet. I can use it up fast by binge-watching Netflix shows, but it means when it's done I have to wait 'til the ricarica date to get more. It's a good system, actually. Like a failsafe. Use it too much and it forces you to take a break. I'll be coming in once a day or so to check messages at the wifi cafe in the village, to see how the horror show is going, but the innernet's off at home, and thank God.

After even a short time away the difference is striking. Sticking your head into the internet all the time is like - as Kathy Shaidle memorably put it - shaking up a bag of feral cats then sticking your head in to see how they're doing. Already I can feel my brain defaulting to its original settings. I read three chapters yesterday of a book - an actual book! - by Christopher Dawson I've been meaning to get into for years.

Last week I had one of those days when you just want to run away from the innernet screaming. I had an encounter on Twitter with a woman who I'm sure thought of herself as a good and devout Catholic – clearly superior to me! – who thought it was just wonderful that Pope Francis had told a young boy that he, the pope, was “certain” the boy’s deceased atheist father was in heaven. I was scolded because I insisted that a child, like all human beings, has a right to the truth, and that only the Real counts. The pope had deprived this child of an opportunity to do the good and holy work of praying for the repose of his father's soul.

The woman, a total stranger, objected to my objections by telling me what a wicked, unfeeling, “rigid” person I was, addicted to doctrine... yadda yadda... Didn’t I know this was “just a child!?” and that one has to be “compassionate” to children… even to the point of telling them comforting falsehoods.

Truth, you see, doesn’t matter when there are feelings to be considered. And anyway, “Quid est veritas?”

For the record, here's what you say to a grieving relative of a deceased atheist:

"The first thing to remember is that God is love and His mercy is available to everyone in life, and He will seek any sign of a response from a person, up until the very last moment. These things are mysterious and we cannot make any kind of judgement on the discourse between the individual human soul and God. We have no power to determine in this life what happens in such cases. We know, because Jesus told us, that even if things are impossible for us, they are not impossible for Him. But we also know that He likes to work through human beings, so it is very important for you to pray every day for the repose of your father's soul. Even after his death this is important and useful, because
 God is the master of time and space and your prayers for your father are never going to be ineffective or 'wasted,' so you must pray for him and trust in the mercy and love of God, which is greater than any sin. And also remember that when you are in heaven, absolutely everything you need for your perfect happiness will be there; nothing will be missing."


After that we all got to spend a weekend watching as a young father in Liverpool, desperate to save the life of his two year old son, was overruled by a court and a hospital who want the child to die. And of course, again we were bombarded with commentators on TwittFace telling us what wicked, wicked, unfeeling, uncaring, religious extremists we are for opposing the hospital’s deeply compassionate and caring orders to see this child off to the next life, against the wishes of his parents.

The week before that – that is, a prehistoric time now lost in the murky depths of the internet-past – I vaguely recall being frightened that the US decision to bomb Syria was going to trigger World War III…

After staying up til two am on Monday night, following Alfie Evans’ extubation, witnessing his steadfast refusal to die, I finally went to bed and spent the night thrashing around revisiting my old Cold War nightmares about nuclear attacks.

So the reader will perhaps not be surprised to hear that yesterday, when the device that feeds the magical internet juice into my computer told me I was all out for the month, I was hardly weeping into my tea. A blessed and glowing vision came to me of a few days off, maybe me taking some walks, or me reading my long-neglected books, me finally planting out squash seedlings, perhaps me biking into the village to go check messages once a day with the café wifi...

And the sense of interior quiet – that comes when one ceases clicking back and forth between Facebook and Twitter, having pointless arguments, restively searching back and forth for The Answer – has reasserted itself and I am again left wondering, “What was all that about, anyway?”

Have you ever come away from a loud party or concert? The frenetic evening, the superficial conversations, and the immense, stupefying levels of noise leaving you a bit dazed, maybe a little sick? Then that feeling that silence is like a physical thing, pressing on your ears, making them ring?

Living with your head in the internet is like attending a very loud, overcrowded party where hardly anyone knows anyone else but we’re all on a first name basis, and at which about half the people present are in a shrieking rage, shouting insults, curses and obscenities at the other half, while a loudspeaker booms advertising jingles into the room that is lined from floor to ceiling with television screens playing a bizarre combination of cat videos, Fox News, pornography and Marvel superhero movie clips.

In a corner of one small room at this nightmarish party, a small clutch of traditional Catholics is desperately trying to ignore the horrific cacophany long enough to explain to anyone who will listen what the Social Reign of Christ is, mainly by standing on chairs and shouting as loudly as they can over the deafening noise.

In this room a group of conservative Catholics are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a tightly closed circle around a video screen showing Raymond Arroyo interviewing a never-ending parade of American conservatives shaking their heads in solemn, perplexed bewilderment at the latest papal outrages. Quite a few of them are weeping. Occasionally a conservative in a clerical collar turns away from the screen long enough to tell the Trads to shut up.

Suddenly being tossed out of the party, the door slammed behind you, you sit for a moment, a little dazed, on the damp lawn, and you realise that this is suddenly... abruptly... quiet. It is night, and there is a bird singing for all it’s worth in the trees. You can see the stars and you can just make out the shape of a bat flittering back and forth in the moonlight. You take a deep breath and realise there is the scent of flowers in the cool spring night air.

You suddenly remember that there was a time when it was normal to see this every day, to have quiet alone-time in the evenings after work when you didn’t need to be connected to the internet-party until bed time; you could just be by yourself and that was fine. You recall suddenly that you once went out to places outside the house and met with real-life friends and had conversations using your voice, instead of your fingers on a keyboard.

The internet is not mere distraction. It is racket. It is noise. It is a gigantic room full of... yes literally... billions of people, total strangers all shouting personal insults at each other. It’s the introvert’s worst nightmare. I can’t help but think of Screwtape’s description of Hell as “the kingdom of noise” in which silence is never heard. And I'm also reminded of a strange warning I read once by an exorcist who was asking questions of the demon as part of the procedure; it responded, “You idiot! There are no relationships in hell…” Is the internet actually, literally, hellish?

I keep wondering what the internet is doing to us. We hear that it is truncating our mental focal length, making us mentally myopic, even people who were adults – bookish adults – before it came to rule our lives. But what else is it doing? What is it doing to our ability to perceive reality, to tell the difference between the internet world and the real world?

And why is it so difficult to shut it off? To turn off your phone, to pull away from the screen and look around the room, at real life. Why are we so addicted to it? Because I think that’s the only word. The people who study these things have told us that we get a little zing of dopamine when someone “likes” a post or comments, and that this is the same mechanism of physical addictions to drugs. How did we get so terrified of silence and our own company, or the company of our families, that we must stick our heads in this thing every day? Are we lonely in the presence of others? Does it give us a sense of being connected that we can’t get from real life?

Or is it that it creates a safe distance from others that makes us prefer it to our realtime relationships? And we do seem to prefer it to everything else; to our hobbies, books, gardens, homework, spouses, friends, even careers… Do the real things we do seem less real when we don’t “share” them on Facebook?

Do we ever get the feeling that maybe we’re becoming the Borg, connected in a giant virtual hive-mind, but one that allows us at the same time to maintain a minimum safe distance, so we don’t really have to connect, really? Does the thought of being cut off from the Collective bring us running back? Even when it shows us horrors that give us nightmares?

Anyway... I've been informed by the internet that it doesn't want to come over to my house to hang out for a while. I didn't inquire further. We'll see what happens. But it's a funny thing I've noticed, that my productivity as a writer - and for everything else - goes up considerably when it's off...


Monday, April 23, 2018

The Hermit Problem

All hermits tend to experience this; as soon as people hear about a hermit, they want to come and see him and ask what it's like.


Saturday, April 21, 2018

You don't have to live like they tell you: dare to be "poor" on purpose

I'm thinking of building something like this out of scrap lumber and string. The garden doesn't have a lot of shade, and I can't afford a commercial pergola (though I did see a pretty nice one in Ikea last time we were there.)

Annamaria's been bugging me to buy the place. I always say the same thing, "Non c'e soldi." She always says, "Ma puoi ottenere finanziamenti." Then I say something lame like, "Non sono pronto per comprare una casa." And "Ho bisogno di un'altra stanza per gli ospiti." Then we start talking about the garden. I think she's trying to wear me down.

I moved in here a year and three days ago. The garden has grown into a huge deal. The more I do, the more raised beds, trellises, Hugelkultur berms and paths I build, the more ideas grow. And of course, I've known from the start that this is not something one can pack up and move. Last September when Anna rototilled the Big Dry Patch, I knew immediately that to really bring it back to life would be the project of at least a few years. It's progressed faster than I expected, but so have my plans and hopes for it. Ultimately, it's become a work of art, like a very, very slow painting, as well as an opportunity to learn more than I ever have before about gardening: the needs of various species of plants and soil management, and especially about my own abilities and limitations. The garden is a kind of living laboratory for me, and many of the experiments I've started there won't produce verifiable results for at least a few years.

I know the world tells you to live in a particular way, especially the world I left behind - that urban, car-oriented, stuff-oriented scrabble we have started thinking of as "normal life". A life in which the goal is all, and the process is to be shortened as much as possible. And the goal is just a thing. And then the next thing. And the thing after that, with no end in sight of the things we get because someone has told us we're supposed to have them. And the only way to live in that world is to shut your mind off, to build a huge interior wall between yourself and your awful surroundings. I lived in cities for 40 of my 52 years. It's going to be a while before I get that wall dismantled. (But the bricks are going to make great garden beds.)

For me, I think the garden is like a metaphor for an entirely different way of looking at life. It's not goal oriented. There's never going to be a day when I say, "Well, that's that done. Now I can go do something else." Anna's family has lived in this bit of Umbria for more than a century. On All Souls last year I went to the San Martino cemetery to pray for the dead, and I found her family's site. The dates and names went back to the 1860s. On my walks around the area I've run into her cousins who always stop and say hello. The property includes a bunch of farm land, and it's all worked by members of her family, various cousins. Her daughter is leasing a chunk of it for an orto. So I really do feel very much included by her generosity. None of her grown-up kids want to have it and they all seem happy enough for me to stay. I've never detected any of that kind of family jealousy.

Whether I would be able to manage the money to buy it, and whether it is the thing for the long term is another question. I've got a three-year lease, so we'll probably be thinking and talking about it until then at least. But for the moment, I'm getting it into my head that there is another way of thinking about life.

Anna and her family work the land here. Most of them also have day jobs elsewhere, but the land is the base, the foundation. She comes every day, winter and summer, to look after things. Nothing she does is hurried, everything is in its proper time in the annual cycle. She never worries when something happens. Last year I was disappointed when the little cherry tree on my patch died of black fly infestation. Her bigger tree got it too, but she just calmly cut the dead bits off, and now she's bought another tree and planted it. For the little one I sawed off the dead branches and kept the trunk as a trellis for sweet peas. That's how it goes. Life isn't goal-oriented, but process oriented. It's not aimed at a particular material outcome. You don't try to get some particular thing out of it, you just live it.

In fact, it's the whole rhythm of life in Italy that you see in the food. You can't buy broccoli in the summer or strawberries in January. Those things don't grow at those times, and if they were in the shops no one would buy them. Why would you want to eat broccoli in July anyway?

This way of living is one that humans have done for 10,000 years or so. And before that we had a vastly deeper well of time in which we simply took what came around. Who knows how long. Maybe 100,000 years. Compared to all that, the "normal" life of urban Vancouver or Toronto or London is something we've been doing for an eye-blink, and we're rapidly learning that it's horrible. It's destructive beyond description. The diseases of Modernia - our stress and obesity related illnesses, our depression and anxiety, our sitting-down malaise - are absolutely new. Our bodies can't adapt to this, which is saying something considering we are the world's champion adapters.

I suppose if I'd wanted to have a lot of money, I probably could have figured it out. A lot of the things I've wanted to know how to do I've figured out from book in the library. But what I saw was that you had to pay for your money and house and car with everything that was worth having in life. To pursue those things you had to say goodbye forever to all the things I already loved.

I think I was 22 when I figured out that the modern world didn't have anything I wanted. I spent a long time being very confused about life. And for a long time, seeing only this narrow range of possibilities, I felt trapped by it, as though I were already living in one of those dark dystopian sci fi worlds. But in the midst of that misery one thing I was completely sure about was that I didn't want that. The only thing I wanted then was to escape that.

I felt like the guy in 1984 or Brazil. Every one of those dystopian movies is about our own civilisation, and how it feels to live in it.

Every one of them is about some individual realising it's a horror and trying to figure a way out of it.

Office Space is about a guy who escapes his dystopia by learning not to want what it offers.

American Psycho is about what happens to a human being when it accomplishes the work of interiorising the modern urban dystopia. Don't be Christian Slater.

It is the unconscious assumption that we have to want what they tell us to want that keeps us trapped. Break out of that assumption, learn to want something else, something obtainable and inherently good, and you're free. When I hear about Japanese high school students jumping off buildings because they fail the university entrance exams, I always think, "Why not just want something else?"

I still struggle very much with my own brain. A lifetime of assumptions that life is awful and good things don't happen don't get broken over night, or even in a whole decade. I'm coming up on ten years in Italy. There's still a ton of things I haven't done (improved my Italian from "barely functional" to "conversational" high on that list). And with every item on my list of "Gee, I ought to do that" or "I'd really like to try that..." I still hear the chorus in my brain starting up, "Oh, you can't do that. You don't know how to do that sort of thing. You wouldn't be any good at that. You don't have any money. That wouldn't work. You've never done anything like that before... And anyway, people don't do that..." All followed with the worst of all, the sign nailed above the entrance to the nihilistic despair rabbit hole: "What's the point anyway?"

But with every new thing I do - starting, I suppose, with moving to and living in a weird foreign country that until I got here I strongly suspected was mythical - I chip away at the mental edifice of "You can't do that." I can now confidently say, "Well, I did all this other stuff, and that worked out pretty good."

I was raised in a kind of mental dystopia. The post-Christian culture - the post-traditional culture - is one of despair and hopelessness. I suspect that a lot of people live in it. I think that's why so many people can't accept Christ. The Good News is too good to be true. Good things don't happen, and things that good are just literally unimaginable.

Our mental maps for life start in Brazil's dystopia and move on to the post-apocalyptic wasteland of The Road. If you were raised in this, it's going to be the work of a lifetime to pull your mind out of it. I'd just like to let everyone know that it is actually possible to completely change your inner world.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

Keanu says, "Yes, do that."

I've always been a big Keanu fan. I liked him in Bill and Ted, (though I didn't really like the movies much). I liked Speed a LOT and Point Break has become a classic action cop movie. But I liked him as a person too. He seems... humble. Kind of down to earth. The stories of him giving away his salary to the technical workers on the sets of his movies are pretty impressive. He seems like a decent guy.(Hard to tell with Hollywood types, I know...but on just a gut-level...) Now he's started a company that makes custom motorcycles, which seems like a manly thing to do.

So, I'm willing to listen when, to the question, "Should I work on transitioning from writing to full time painting?" he says, "Yes, you really like painting."

A while back I emailed Daniel Mitsui, whose work I've been following for years. He's a man after my own heart, who loves sacred art, medieval manuscripts and botanical/biological art. His style is completely different from mine (and his "brand" is instantly recognisable and is appearing in more and more places around the innerwebz.) I asked him, "Is it possible to make a living doing this sort of "popularised" sacred art, full time?"

His quick answer was, "Yes, definitely."

His long answer, if you're interested in the details of how one does this, can be found on his website, here, here and here. But the gist was that it is certainly possible, mainly because of the nature of the kind of work we do (well, that he does and I aspire to do.)

The first step, of course, is to do the work.

I have a commission that I haven't even really started yet, a St. Anne and the Virgin. I'd like to do a test to see if I can complete an entire tile-painting in one week. That would make the price range sensible in terms of the ratio of hours put in to money earned, keeping the work affordable to the target market and at the same time make it worth doing in terms of time spent.

I've got a few models from the High Gothic I've picked out for the project. I've got the tile selected and prepped. But haven't started the work.

Why is painting so much more intimidating than writing? It's not like I don't know at least the basic techniques. I haven't really thought about it deeply, but there is an odd fear of making art. Someone wrote a helpful book about it. I'm glad at least to know I'm not the only one who experiences this.

Anyway, as with everything else that you think you ought to do but are scared to try, the only way to get past it is to actually do it. So, I'm going to try the 1-week experiment this week.


Saturday, March 31, 2018


Built another one. Nearly out of sticks from this year's prunings. Just enough left to do some more trellising. This one is lower because I'm going to put runner beans in. The taller one is for beetroot (already sown) that needs more depth of soil.

Note how dry and cracked the soil is. This is after weeks of constant tremendous downpours in Feb & March, followed by three weeks of cold, sunny days with a lot of wind. This is what clay soil does, and it turns rock hard. The only thing to do is mulch and build raised beds. Long process.

I've done beds and wood chip mulching in the ornamental/herb garden, but the orto is going to take a lot of work that I'm mostly going to have to save for next winter. One thing I'm doing is sowing everything with white clover seed. This is a plant that "fixes nitrogen," pulls it right out of hte air and pumps it into the soil through nodes in the roots. It helps the soil retain water and the leaves shade the soil from the sun and protect it from wind and reduces evaporation and helps the clay soil by retaining water below the surface, preventing that cracking and the formation of a hard crust.

This is an old medieval gardening trick. Medieval pottager or herb gardens were always set up with raised beds and paths, so no one ever walked on the places you plant and sow, and there was absolutely no bare, exposed soil. Grass on the paths was common, but here would take too much water in the summer to keep it alive. I don't want to do sand or gravel paths, because that would just be adding stones to soil I'm trying to reconstitute. I'm trying hugel beds as well, where you bury woody material along with half-finished green compost. These take about three years to really get results, but it's supposed to be great for clay.

But it's tricky to manage no matter what you do. You have to make absolutely sure never to walk on anything you intend to plant. Make paths, and stick to them for your feet, and then mulch the heck out of the paths with an organic mulch, so walking on it forces organic material into the soil. I'm mixing white clover seed, which you can buy in bulk, with composted soil and peat/wood mulch compost, and sprinkling it over the clay beds. The green looking bit in the back of this photo shows the difference it makes.

The Patch was rototilled every year for many years when Annamaria's mum lived here, and it has left the soil in dire condition. It's the reason absolutely nothing but a few VERy hardy and determined weeds would grow on it. The grass from Franco's orchard stopped in a clear line where Annamaria's mum's garden started. The soil is so hard packed after decades of tilling even the grass wouldn't encroach on it.

Frankly, it's a ton of work, but I'm enjoying this project immensely. What a thrill to bring life back to it!

Plum, always the first to bloom...

Hugelkultur; a Swiss thing I think, in which you bury half-rotted wood and dry sticks and brown compost, cover with a layer of green compost, and then pile on the soil from the trench. Sow with a cover crop like clover and plant with whatever you like. Three years later, the soil will be completely reconditioned.

Since childhood, my favourite flowers. A sign of spring and new hope. A new start, and a way back from winter.

Happy Easter.

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!