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!


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."