Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Home cookin

A few weeks ago, I ran out of gas in my gas bombola. It's kind of an Italian thing t have a gas canister in your kitchen instead of having your stove hooked up to the mains. When you run out, you go down to the farm shop and get a new one, the guy picks up the old one and refills it for the next customer.

But for some reason, I just couldn't be bothered. I've got quite a good microwave and of course, it's Umbria so I have a large old fashioned fireplace with cooking stuff. This is also perfectly normal for Umbria. I've learned how to be very efficient about keeping hot coals going all the time on the big flat stone hearth, and it's kind of fun to do the morning coffee on the fire as you sit and say your morning prayers or think your morning thoughts. Even in summer the early mornings here are cool, and it's been raining and miserable for weeks, so it's doubly nice.

Lately, I've been thinking that for the summer I'll just get a big marquee and move the cooking to the big brick barbeque thing in the garden, and have an outdoor kitchen, like we used to have in the SCA. Why not?

Last night, I was doing up some curry stir fry and risotto on the fire, and reading some stuff on my laptop, and thought, again, "You don't have to live like they tell you."

Here's an article about doing things differently.


Monday, May 23, 2016

It's an ex-Hoopoe

Remember when I wrote all about how I'd wanted to see a Hoopoe since I was a kid? Well, the kitties gave me that chance...

just not really the way I'd hoped.

Not to be outdone, Pippin's first mammalian kill. As I was off to Mass on Sunday, he came dashing in with something in his mouth. I got it away from him,

and it was this little shrew.

I thought, OK, a snake yesterday and a shrew today, we're done. But then I went out to get some more firewood in the evening, and found the Hoopoe.


Nature Girl Sadface.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Graduation day! Here's your snake!

Well, the kitties are definitely grown up. They're a year old now, and have become the little murder-machines they are destined by genetics to be.

For some time now, whenever the sun has shone (which hasn't been very much in the last few weeks) either Henry or Bertie have brought me dead lizards. And quite often, live ones.

These are just the little stripy green grass lizards. The other day I caught them both tormenting one of the larger all-green lizards. I tried to rescue it but it nipped me in the thumb and took off into the grass and was caught again. I had groceries to bring in so I left it to its fate.

But yesterday was the real graduation day. I was digging in the garden, all attention focused on getting up the patch of weeds, and I look up just in time to see Henry, with Pippin close on his heels, bounding up towards me through the grass with a fair sized snake in his mouth.

Henry and Pippin were obviously delighted... "Mummy! Mummy! Look at this neat rope we found!"

"Henry, put the rope down!! Put it down!"

I figure it was about 18 inches long and maybe as thick as my thumb. It was writhing in his mouth and as he dropped it for me to admire, it gave a few feeble feints as though to say it wasn't out of the reckoning yet.

After I had shooed them away, I looked at it a little closer - not too close! - and I figure at least it wasn't a viper. They have a very recognisable pattern of markings and the give-away triangle-shaped head. I wasn't going to take any chances, though, and used the broom to sweep it onto the spade of the long handled shovel, and carried it at arm's length and dropped it over the chainlink fence where I knew Henry wouldn't be able to get at it.

He looked quite indignant at all this, and bounded instantly off to the bushes on the other side of the road, presumably to go find another one.

And no, I didn't get pics. I was more worried about not getting bitten and that Henry and Pippin hadn't been already.

This morning, as I was heading off to Mass, I opened the door, and in dashed Pippy with something big in his mouth. I chased after him... "What have you got? Give it to me... come on... drop it..."

It was a shrew. Lovely velvety brown fur and long nose with perfect tiny little paws... quite dead.

Man, were they ever cute...

The kitties spend all their days now bounding around the countryside chasing anything that is willing to run away from them. It has worried me, but mostly that they'll be so intent on catching whatever it is that they'll run out onto the road at the wrong moment. I've covered the garden gate - that Pippin especially was in the habit of just dashing through without looking - and will be putting up some of that bamboo stuff onto the carport gate when I get home this afternoon.

But as for deadly fauna, I have done a little research and found out that there are only 15 species of snake in Italy and only four of these are poisonous. And even vipers for the most part aren't all that poisonous. This isn't Australia or South East Asia. If a healthy adult human gets a bite from a viper, he's not going to drop dead. He can just calmly get himself to the nearest proto soccorso, and get a shot of the anti-venom and he'll be fine. And I think the vipers don't really like the cool climate of the mountains.

That being said, there are some pretty big snakes around here.

I saw one of these the other day. At least, I think it was one.

Coming home from the garden centre, I decided to stop and investigate one of the old ruined stone houses that dot the landscape. There was a nice clear gravel path, only occasionally sprouting nettles. The old house was surrounded on three sides by a neck-high impenetrable moat of stinging nettles, so I followed the path around to the fourth side where there was more grass covering the fallen stones and tiles. I was just about to put my foot down on one sunny spot, an it took off right from the spot my foot was about to go. I must say, I jumped a foot, and yelped.

I caught a glimpse of it, and it was about the thickness of my two thumbs together, and was black with white speckles. So I figure it was one of these.

Hierophis viridiflavus 

Mostly harmless. Mostly. 


Sunday, May 08, 2016

Practicing for old age

Fascinating blog about the people who live in remote corners of Romania, perhaps the last "untouched" traditional agricultural communities in Europe. Wild Transylvania. There are a lot of interesting stories in it, and a great deal of writing about the local ancient agricultural practices of these people. But one story really stood out.

Maria Dogaru is an elderly lady who lives by herself with her sheep and cows, in a high mountain.

"Since Maria's husband died 35 years ago she has lived alone in a small house with no electricity or running water. She uses oil lamps for light and collects water from a spring 200 metres away for drinking and cooking. When she needs to wash her clothes, she carries them down to a nearby river. She lives in a single room with an earthen floor, small bed, stool, stove and a low lying table. It was a cold day but her room was warm and comfortable. Maria liked sitting next to her stove which she would feed occasionally with small pieces of wood cut by herself. After catching up with her family members who visit two or three times a year, she gave us some food, painted eggs from the recent Romanian Easter, bread and salt. Everything Maria eats is produced from her land and the small number of sheep, hens and one cow."

I have a kind of daydream about this sort of life. Maybe it's just a fantasy. I don't know why, but it seems terrifically appealing. But I think I could live this way very happily. All it would really take is a bit of land.

"Maria, why do you choose to live here in the mountains, when you could live a more comfortable life in the village lower in the valley?" She replied, "because here I feel free and because I never liked gossip" She also found it easier to graze her animals on meadows that surround her house. In the village she would have to shepherd her livestock along roads to reach the meadows at the edge of the village. 

I then asked her about her health. She said she has always been fine until recently. Her family took her to hospital where she was diagnosed with hypertension, she was then prescribed medication but she said she never takes it. I asked her what medicines if any she uses for other ailments. She said she only uses herbal remedies from herbs she forages for in the forest. She also eats wild fruits, mushrooms and makes soup and sauces from nettles. 

What intrigued me was Maria's fitness. The route down to the spring involved steep inclines which I personally struggled with just carrying my camera. Maria does this everyday carrying two full buckets of water in all kinds of weather, in all seasons! She also walks nine kilometres down to the village church every Sunday and back again uphill.

It reminds me of Suora Charia Barboni.

I still dream of those things.


Lots of garden work today, starting with some weed clipping and pulling in the back where the path goes up to the house from the car port, and one last turn-over of the veg bed to pull out the last of the sprouted acorns. Oh.. the acorns! Life! It just won't quit!

I planted out six kale seedlings, companion-planted with a whole bunch of garlic, and some nice dark pink gladiolus that should perk things up. The weather has warmed up, so I finally put in the six tomatoes that have been living on my bedroom windowsill. But I completely forgot to add in the rosehip squeezings I have so carefully saved for weeks from the rosehip wine, that was going to go under the poms for fertiliser. I'll have to dig it in tomorrow. I also read that garlic and nasturtiums are good companion plants for poms, since they both tend to discourage aphids and other pests, so another trip to the farm shop  is in order, where the sprouting garlic are for sale for 50 cents each. I've still got loads of nasturtium seeds.

There's still quite a lot of room, and I've got beets, little onions and some butternut squash seeds to go in. Six pumpkin plants have started from the seeds I saved last year, and are happily growing in the east-facing window, but I think I'm going to experiment with these. Instead of the ground bed, maybe put them in a big pot each, and do them next to the fence that gets sun all afternoon, so when the fruit comes, they can be hung up in nets from the fence so they'll be away from slugs and bugs and fungus.

Big plans. Always things to do, especially this time of year.

A whole bunch of the wildflower-mix seeds I buddy-planted with some rucola are starting to sprout in a little tiny terraced step I made in the slope, along with more of the nasturtiums and two more pots of mystery-seeds. The lavender that just sat in its pot and sulked all summer last year has suddenly sprouted and is getting ready to burst forth in flower, and the slope is completely covered in wild purple campanulas. It's been raining pretty steadily for weeks, so the lack of sun has kept them from opening, but the slope is completely covered in them and it can't be long now. The upper part of the garden, that I'm just letting go wild, is completely covered in these wild white ombrellate flowers, that I can't remember the name of at the moment, and all the poppies are coming out in between, like little living scarlet flames.

The slope continues to be a puzzle. I've rescued it from further careless mowing by the Old Guy, but the years and years of careless handling has kept anything from growing up there much. I have found a big patch of wild thyme growing in another section, and I've read that clover fixes nitrogen and is a ground cover that will survive in nearly any conditions. The plan is to cut little plugs from the established thyme - that is a great spreader and ground cover and can grow in almost no soil, and then buy some of the clover seeds that the farmers get for their haying. This, I hope, will fix the soil and stop wind and water erosion, and start building up the nutrients.

The Eruca Sativa I found on the verge and dug up to rescue from the town mowers has finally perked up after transplanting. I thought it was a gonner. It's a nice looking plant with lovely flowers, and is a particularly healthful Brassica, with very peppery tasting leaves that are ridiculously rich in iron and vitamins and antioxidants. It was an unusually handsome specimen, and I couldn't bear to see it killed by the town guys and their horrible gas-powered death-machines. But the day I dug it up I was in a hurry and it was the full heat of mid-day, and the thing was already in full flower. Just about the worst possible conditions. It sat in its pot and drooped, and refused to come out of its funk. I almost gave up on it, but it seems the constant rain has had an effect. It's even producing new leaves and flowers.

To my complete delight, the rose canes I cut in the very early spring and just stuck in pots to make a rose trellis for beans and some other climbers, have actually sprouted. Rose family plants are really resilient, and I knew the canes can often propagate by themselves, but I had left them to dry for quite a long time, and wasn't expecting this. But I cleared away the oak leaves I'd put in the pots to protect from frost, and there they were, four little green leafy shoots of Rosa Canina. Now I think I'm going to go get some more and stick them all over the place.

The other day I brought home some aquilegia and wild strawberries from the Great Outdoors, and they seem to be doing pretty well in planters. I also rescued all the poppies that were growing up in the place where the Old Guy with his death machine comes once a month or so to kill everything. I couldn't bear to have them mowed so now they're all jammed together in one long planter. They were very quick to recover and are now happily producing flowers.

I seeded a bunch of wild poppies last autumn in the pots with the roses, and now they are towering up over my neatly trimmed rose bushes, with huge fuzzy flower heads on them. They bloom until June here, so will be quite lovely.

My big pot of potatoes is recovering from the freak frost night we had in April, and the surviving beans are starting their secondary leaves. Things have been slowed by that awful night of cold. It outright killed all the wisteria blooms in town, just as they were reaching their peak... a tragedy, and it has blighted quite a lot of the trees. Even some of the very hardy tilia and oaks, the ones that had late leaves, were affected.

Quite a lot of the oaks and nearly all the sumac all over the place are affected and some so badly that they are obviously not going to produce any leaves this spring at all. I wonder if a tree dies when that happens. Maybe they'll come back next year, but quite a few of the trees, even the flowering locust and some of the walnuts, have only got little black rags of dead leaves on them and no new growth at all. I'm surprised that the local trees are so delicate. Surely this isn't the first time there has been a late frost.

Most of the flora is just fine though. A short walk in the Marcite yesterday revealed that the elder is about to burst forth in blossom. I'm going to have to bottle that rosehip wine to make room for the elderflower champagne and cordial.

Brother Michael has come home from his beekeeping course. The St. Anthony's nuns keep lots of bees. I wonder if someone would be willing to teach me.


Wednesday, May 04, 2016

You don't have to live like they tell you: Jack's violin bows, Graydon's war bow, and landscaping with ancient tiles...

JACK from Grace Jackson on Vimeo.
Meet Jack. He's 93, and he makes violin bows to make ends meet.

"Life has its problems...it's how well you contend with those problems that's going to be the result..."

Graydon's Longbow

A friend of mine who lives as a "freelance hermit" at home with her family, praying and thinking about things in the Carmelite way, says that one of the most important things she learned in her three years in her Carmelite monastery was how crucial manual labour is.

I knew an independent-minded guy once who wanted to learn woodworking, and taught himself with a special project. He was fascinated with history and was greatly puzzled by the incredible success of the English yew longbow in the wars with France in the 14th and 15th centuries. He had friends who did archery and couldn't figure out how a bow could possibly punch an arrow through plate armour, as the English bow had done at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. So he decided to build one and test it out. He didn't have a workshop, so he just turned his apartment (third floor) living room into a workshop. He wanted the experiment to be completely authentic, so he used no power tools. He researched at the library and spoke to people who did hand woodwork.

In the end, he had built himself a laminated yew longbow, with all the materials according to period sources. It was huge. He was a big guy, standing at least 6 foot 4. But this thing was taller by far, unstrung. He was able to bend it, but only because he was so strong. I couldn't budge the thing. We tested it and it was an 85 pound pull. (A normal target archery bow is usually no more than about 30 pounds.) He brought it to archery practice one evening, and we all clustered around. He pulled, and the arrow made a sound like a bullet. Our ordinary target bows would go the full length of the indoor range, and leave the arrow well buried in the straw butt. With this terrifying weapon, the arrow went all the way through the butt and lodged itself an inch into the concrete cinder block behind it. He had brought along a piece of 16 gauge hot-rolled steel, quite a bit stronger than the steel of the knights' armour would have been. The arrow punched right through it. My friend was very pleased and we all congratulated him. Graydon was not the kind of guy who was interested in living the way other people lived.

Do something physical every day.

Early stages. Mid-March. The bean poles are partly bamboo poles I bought, and partly rose canes I collected. I've made some of the rose canes into an arch, and they have sprouted new wild rose shoots in the pots. Free roses!

Bertie, among the potted roses. The big glass thing is an old insulator that fell off a power pole. You find all sorts of cool things if you just get out of the house once in a while. 

Henry. All growed up and looking for things to kill. During our warm spell in March, he was catching a lizard a day. 

Pippy and the flowering plum tree.You can see the slope of the back garden looming up. That's the neighbour's retaining wall way up there. But the whole thing is now covered in widlflowers. And it's poppy season. The birds and butterflies love it.

I've moved on from merely gardening to starting full scale landscaping.

I've decided to build a little pavement on the flat bit.

There is very little flat ground in the garden, with most of it being a very rocky slope of about 30-45 degrees with a thin layer of good soil. But the soil gets washed down the slope and lands on the little flat strip at the bottom. Out of this,

My veg patch. There are two rows of sunflowers on each end now. But I'm glad I didn't plant out the pumpkin seedlings. We had a nasty night of hard frost in mid-April that nearly killed my potatoes and has killed all the wisteria in town. I've got pumpkins, tomatoes and beets ready to go in. Maurizio at the monks' shop told me the locals only plant after Saint Rita's day, just to be sure.
I've dug a little veg patch, about eight feet long by three feet wide. There's room for a bit more, but the soil is very poor. I've been composting like mad, but really the best we can do is to do things in little patches, which I shore up with big stones (there's lots, and lots of stones) into steps. Everything else is in pots. There is a little squarish patch in front of the front porch thingy where there is soil but it's become very compacted and even the weeds won't really grow on it. But it's in a little alcove with pots of flowers on one side and the terraced slope on the other. If there were a little bit of pavement there, it would be a nice sheltered place to sit and have tea and maybe write in the summer. So I've started collecting tiles.

In this part of Italy, one of the most important building materials were these big, rectangular terracotta tiles, really just thin bricks, made from the local red clay and fired very hard. They're about 18 inches by 8 inches and two to three inches thick and were used to build walls and floors in the Old Days. All the ruins nearby are like little quarries of ancient and medieval building materials. And there are lots of these old houses and buildings obviously having simply been abandoned - probably hundreds of years ago - and forgotten. They sit like big piles of dressed and sometimes carved rocks in the middle of fields, often with the farmers just calmly ploughing and planting around them, as though they are just natural features of the landscape.

One of the bigger ruins. About a half hour hike from my house. 
This is just how things are in Italy. There's so much old stuff lying around that no one really cares about it. (I had always wondered how St. Francis of Assisi could have just found an old church and started rebuilding it. Where I come from, anything older than 75 years has a velvet rope around it and a preservation society. But I wonder no more. There are so many old ruined churches around here abouts that I have had half a mind to do the same thing, just for the fun of it.) A few weeks ago, I had a stomp around and discovered one of these ancient farm houses on the hill almost directly above my house. It was so tumbled that from the road further up it was entirely invisible, looking like just a hump in the ground with some hazel trees on it. But from the other side, you can see a big pit that was once the root cellar, the crumbling remains of walls and even a stone doorway with scraps of the old timber lintel. In front of it, once upon a long time ago, there had been a little pear orchard, and the trees are obviously still fruiting. Around and over top of it is a stand of hazel, mixed with wild roses. I'll be making a point of visiting it a great deal for building materials, and I'll take some pics for y'all next time I go up there.

There's little remaining of the house, though, and not much in the way of tiles. So to find those, I went the other day to a place near the bottom of the valley, about half way between here and the little village of Serravale, where the ruins of a medieval mill - quite a large and important one in its day, I guess - sits like a big pile of useful abandoned things. The place has three stone lined tunnels that run underneath where the water ran through and turned the millstones. But now, the tunnels run under what looks like a big hill, covered in grass and weeds and small trees on one side. On the other the remains of a whole large stone building can be found. No roof, but the walls mostly intact. You can climb up over the walls and down into the room, but there is a small hill of tumbled stones, clay bricks and tiles inside. It can be pretty dangerous, with everything being loose and lots of sharp, pointy bits sticking up, and the whole thing potentially sliding out from under your feet at any moment. It's so cool! I can't resist it.

The other day I went down there and collected up seven tiles, which together must have weighed about 50 pounds. It was all I could carry with my backpack, and I only just managed to get them back as far as my bike. I loaded them into the bike's baskets and pedalled very slowly back to town. I figure I could get maybe a dozen back if I go down with my wheelie shopping cart.

They're really beautiful tiles, with a patina of age on them, but good and sturdy, and each one different. Nothing like the thin, machine-made and artificially identical ceramic floor tiles you see in most people's terraces and houses. I've figured out that I could create a little rustico terrace with about 30 of them. Place them a little apart and fill in the spaces with a little potting soil and plant some of the wild thyme that grows on my rocky slope in between, so when you walk on them in the summer, the scent of thyme will fill the air.

The same rainy day I also brought home a collection of new plants. A beautiful aquilegia, three wild strawberry plants, some blue comfrey and a bunch of thyme.

You don't have to live like they tell you.