Wednesday 17 December 2014

The Mundane and the Magic

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll

I have an interesting relationship with the concept of faith and belief in the unprovable, the unlikely, and the downright improbable. The human gift for doublethink and early exposure to books about chaos magic has left me entirely happy with the notion of simultaneously subscribing to the idea of both a rational, scientific universe and an irrational, magical one in which gods and monsters dance at the corners of perception.
Similarly, I have no problem with what other people may choose to believe, as long as they don't use it as a weapon against others.
Literal, immortal, blood-drinking vampires? Sure, why not?
Monotheistic creator-deity based belief systems? No problem.
Humans imbued with the spirit of a mythical creature? That's really interesting, actually.
The notion that one day humanity will be able to pull together and go two minutes without murdering bits of itself? Let's go wild.
I may not personally subscribe to your beliefs - I may even think them odd - but I'll at very least try to be polite about them and I'll probably be quite sincerely interested. I feel that the things we believe say a great deal about us as both individuals and as parts of culture.
It's my observation that humans need to believe in things - religions, ideologies, a certain fixed idea of how the universe works; it's as if we've evolved a place in our mind to populate with the fantastic and the unverifiable. That old saw about how, in the absence of a god, we would certainly invent one* is relevant here, as is the vast importance of the human penchant for story-telling to our social and cultural development. Both individually and culturally, we are made of stories.
Tolerance for my own unlikely opinions is also something that I generally appreciate. And here's a thing: I set great store by my personal, subjective, perceptual experience, but I don't necessarily believe it to be a true or accurate representation of the universe. And that isn't a problem.
I periodically believe that I've invoked ancient pagan deities (and Bugs Bunny), worked dramatic effects with magical energy in groups and pairs, believe myself to have manipulated the nature of my own personal reality just as I would re-structure a narrative, and to have jumped from one strand of reality's web of probability to the next.
Is any of this real? Is group energy work a mere reading of cues and enthusiastic brains filling in detail to meet everyone's assumptions? Is work with deities a matter of literal independent beings, some kind of Jungian collective unconscious, or a projection of my own subconscious? Is a belief in results magic merely solipsism of the highest order?
All interesting questions. All worth thinking about.
Not actually important per se.
I'd call you a damned fool if you went for a walk in traffic and decided to see how far you'd get by determinedly not believing in the cars.
I'd think myself an idiot if, when seeking new clients, I made a pretty sigil but sent no emails and gave out no business cards.
When it comes down to it, most of my operating parameters for life line up more closely with old-fashioned "soft" atheism or agnosticism than anything else. (The kind we had before it went weird and evangelical.) I'm not about to trade the laws of physics for a world full of gods and monsters. But they're very welcome to dance at the corner of my eye. My beliefs, whether they are folly, superstition, or a flawed inkling of something that respectable, peer-reviewed science has yet to put its finger on, rarely affect the way I behave in the world, at least no more than any other irrational whim or opinion. Instead, they reflect the opinions I would hold and the behaviour I would adopt anyway. I don't honour the Earth because I am pagan. I am pagan because I honour the Earth. I perceive myself as the kind of person who would honour and respect it even were I not inclined to my strange sort of animism.
My perception of the world is just that - a perception, filtered through a limited selection of sensory inputs and an even more limited brain which estimates, fills in, concocts and applies rules of thumb to make up for its inability to process and store everything that its inputs throw at it. We're all wandering around in our own bubbles of perception, with many of our responses and assumptions so pre-programmed (be that by experience or biology) that basing serious conversations about the nature of reality on what we feel, perceive and believe is a baldly ludicrous idea. Of course, we do exactly that, all the time. It's not like we have much else to work with.
*Apologies to Voltaire, who actually said: «Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer».

Sunday 16 November 2014

HOWTO: Paper restoration and de-moulding

I have an interest in old books, big box computer games and other paper ephemera. In the process of combing through and restoring a few items to a more usable state, I've experimented with a number of techniques for getting rid of damp residue, mildew and unpleasant odours from paper products.

These tend to result from long-term storage in sub-optimal conditions, which you'll encounter both in things you've stored yourself (if you're unlucky) and in items bought at car boot sales, flea markets, bric a bracs and so on.

Please note that I am NOT a trained restoration expert, and that we're totally not responsible for any damage that may result from attempts to reproduce these techniques. They're just what seem to be working for me so far. For similar reasons, I welcome feedback, comments, and suggestions based on your own experience.

This stuff basically runs on witchcraft

I use bicarbonate of soda for loads of things, from treating nettle stings to scrubbing down walls. It's a great natural deodoriser, de-acidifier, and de-humidifier, which makes it ideal for this task. The only reason I didn't use it in the first place was because I'd run out, and even the smallest of these jobs will require a lot of the stuff.

I started with a kilo, which I divided between two smallish plastic boxes that I'm using for this proof of concept. The one below contains two glossy-paper game manuals that smell of mildew but have no visible spores. They are otherwise clean and in good condition.

The next box, shown below, contained two books, one of them fairly rare but in terrible condition, that I rescued from a mouldering box of a friend's possessions during a storage clear-out. They're on standard paper, which is easier to deodorise and dry out than anything with a glossy finish, but which is also more prone to absorbing smells and moisture. In addition to being kept in an outdoor storage locker for years, they were previously exposed to cigarette smoke, various flats full of less than entirely house-trained cats, and sundry other environmental hazards, as well as simply being very well used in the course of things.

Small items are buried in bicarbonate of soda and sealed into an air-tight box
The technique for both glossy and standard paper books, leaflets, and game manuals was the same: bury them in bicarbonate of soda inside an air-tight box , seal the boxes, and gently agitate them to get the soda between their pages.  Larger items, such as computer game boxes, are carefully stacked into a larger box with a layer of bicarbonate of soda on the bottom. A layer of bicarbonate of soda is poured into the open half-boxes.

Large items get much the same treatment, only in a storage tub
Results of this technique have been excellent. After a little over a week, some very musty glossy manuals and game boxes smelled like new paper. The books no longer smell damp or of cigarettes, but they're still a little musty and I'm pretty certain they've have essential oil dropped on them at some point, unless someone's worked out how to make paper out of geraniums.

Addendum: things that don't work

Crystal cat litter is made of silica (the same stuff that goes into those moisture-absorbing bags marked "do not eat" that come with every item of electronics you've ever bought). A technique frequently recommended for de-ickifying (technical term) paper is to take two plastic boxes, one larger than the other, place litter in the large box and the item in need of deodorising in the other, inside the bigger box, without a lid. You then place an airtight lid on the larger box. I can safely confirm at this point that this does not work in the slightest.

Silica cat litter: doesn't work
Experiment two involved burying a few items in the same cat litter. This was slightly more successful, but not remarkably so. Over a period of around three weeks, I've seen some decrease in mustiness of a cardboard "big box" game box, but little improvement to some glossy manuals.

I also wouldn't be happy using cat litter for anything with particularly fragile paper, as the crystal chunks are a little on the hard and pointy side. The small amount of resulting dust was easy to clean off, at least - I'd definitely not try this (or even the box-within-a-box technique) with other kinds of litter, and I don't think that the technique provides any advantages over the bicarbonate of soda method detailed above.

In future instalments, we'll look at cleaning box exteriors, plastic items, and floppy disks.

Friday 31 October 2014

Celebrations for dead years

If you have any involvement with the wide umbrella of modern paganism, then today, Samhain, the most popular term for the 31st of October, is supposed to be kind of a big deal. For that matter, Halloween in general is kind of a big deal in anglophone countries, while here in France, Toussaint, All Saint's Day, on the 1st of November, is a national holiday.

Halloween per se  is rightly regarded in France as an abominable import supported only by people who work in marketing. However, traditions originating from the same root beliefs exist. In Brittany, a Celtic region not far from us, the department of Finistère has historic traditions of costumed processions in honour of L'Ankou, the Breton personification of death. There are even customs of children carving faces out of beets, illuminating them with a candle and placing on them on their heads as they play in the dark at being creatures from the other world.

Image of l'Ankou in Finistère. Source: Wikipedia
In terms of the farming year, it's all about preparation. As I type, I can see one of our neighbours spreading lime to de-acidify his soil. On the other side of the stream, trees were felled today, while we've taken advantage of the fine weather to clear weeds and take down impinging tree branches in preparation for tilling our vegetable patch early next week. On the subject of the weather, the end of October provides a guide point as to when you can expect the climate in Central and Western Europe to start going really sour.

The European farming year is intrinsically linked to the notion of late October as a liminal space, where the veil between life and death thins. The end of harvest and approaching dormancy of winter make for a rich metaphor, even in regions where the origins of the traditions have been masked by Protestant Christian doctrines that celebrate Reformation Day, suitably detached from either popish or pagan trappings.

In countries with different climates, the celebrations and meaning shift. I'm originally from the Greek-influenced Near/Middle East (geographers have consistently failed to pick a regional designation for our small half-island, although now we appear to have fossil fuel, we're usually described as Middle Eastern). As is the way of island cultures, we got a bit of every passing sailor's religion, but like our neighbours Greece, Turkey, Syria and Egypt, we have a climate that bears little resemblance to that of Western Europe and its cycle of spring-to-autumn fertility.

Inheriting copious elements from both classical paganism and Byzantine Christianity, Greek Orthodoxy celebrates its All Souls Days at various points in the year, mostly in Spring, although the celebration of Saint Demetrios of Theassaloniki and the All Souls Sunday (Demetrios Sunday) which precedes it fall at the end of October. Conveniently enough, this roughly lines up with an ancient Greek festival of Demeter and Persophone (Kore), the Thesmophoria.

While, like Samhain, the Thesmophoria is a festival of fertility and farming, the nature of its celebration is almost opposite to October's Celtic festival. As you travel east around the Mediterranean, the summer months become increasingly harsh: too arid to grow crops and potentially dangerous to all but the hardiest of livestock. The Thesmophoria celebrates Persephone's return from the underworld, having spent the summer months with Hades, during which period Demeter mourns the loss of her daughter by denying the world the bounty of her fertility.

Persephone and Hades. Source: Wikipedia
The Thesmophoria were a women's rite, bound up in mysteries, fasting, sacrifice by burial, and ritual foodstuffs. The latter most notably included pomegranates, an intrinsic part of the Persphone myth and also a key ingredient of κόλλυβα (koliva), a ritual food used in Greek Orthodoxy in All Souls and memorial celebrations. In the Orthodox church it's specifically representative of the relationship between life and death, that which is planted and that which is harvested. Plus ça change...

The autumn celebration of Thesmophoria precedes and is intrinsically linked to the sowing of corn (as in grain in general, rather than as in maize), stored through the infertile summer in πίθοι (pithoi)... also used to bury the dead. It's certainly not Halloween, but it is all about death and fertility.

The notion of a relationship between death and life is intrinsic to human cultures. As creatures that are above all interested in themselves, we can't help but be entranced by the two greatest mysteries we'll ever experience. As natural pattern-seekers, we lay our mysteries upon those of the natural world and of agriculture, its domesticated manifestation. Nature dies back at times, only to rise again, renewed. A global history of reborn gods speaks to the power of that idea, and even those of us who live in cities far from nature can't resist the urge to mark the changing of the seasons, whatever form those seasons take.

Monday 20 October 2014

Getting things done

Like many humans, I'm lazy, insecure and easily distracted. This combination isn't exactly optimal when it comes to motivating yourself to achieve anything. Unfortunately, I also suffer from an over-abundance of (admittedly somewhat unusual) ambition, so I've had to develop some tactics to work around commonplace failings such as the tendency to click pointlessly around the internet instead of doing something useful.

It took me a long time to come around to keeping lists, and the process of persuading me to do so has driven more than one of my former editors mad. Having tried methods including random post-it notes, scraps of paper and "I'll just remember it", I finally started getting my act together with online to-do list HabitRPG  - it has collectable virtual pets, armour and XP. What's not to like? As my needs outgrew my gameified to-do list, I began using a slightly modified BulletJournal.

I am slightly journal dependent. I've slightly modified the BulletJournal format to make it work with these pocket-sized books -in the second, closed, book, the calendar page has split columns. Also: green pens or GTFO
Some people just have a natural handle on the tasks that need doing. In my case, if it's going to happen, it has to be on a list, and I find it remarkably satisfying when I cross items off my list for the day or month. On top of that, my pocket-sized journal  gives me somewhere to note down everything from feature ideas, to which plants were sown when and where, to my weightlifting progress.

My Google Calendar records deadlines, meetings, vet appointments and gives me sunrise and set times. It's synced to Touch Calendar on my phone, while critical dates are also copied into my journal's monthly calendar. I've also reached the conclusion that I'm going to need a wall planner to keep track of sowing and harvest times.

I'm what you might call a straight-line thinker. I don't multi-task well, I'm not brilliant when put on the spot about something unexpected and I benefit from routine. To make up for any lack of adaptability, I form habits. I get up at around dawn and try to get to bed before 02:00. I train and then I drink coffee. I get dressed and go to my office to work, because I rarely get much done if I just sit around in a dressing gown in bed, even though I have a computer there. I try to stop work at a sensible hour and create a division between work and recreation. I make sure I go out and do something on the farm or around the house every other day - if I'm busy with work, I just do a very small thing.

Pick heavy things up. Put them back down again. Repeat every day. Also: learn to fill earthen floors
I do these things regularly. I started flossing regularly by doing just one tooth in the morning (hat tip to James Altucher there). I think of myself as "the kind of person who lifts weights", "the kind of person who writes every day" and "the kind of person who flosses". Every repeat of the routine reinforces that perception.

I'm currently terrified by the amount of work involved in deconstructing this decaying, godawful, and inordinately solidly built old shower in our bathroom. But I've got a cold chisel, and I'm going to start by removing a 50cm square section of tiles, if I can. I can think about the next section tomorrow, or later.

The same applies to writing a story or group test, or to restoring some of the farm's neglected fields to a plantable state. Large tasks can be irrationally panic-inducing, even if you have all the skills required, but in small enough elements, almost anything seems manageable. Bringing a mothballed farm into working order sounds massively challenging. Yesterday's task of cutting away and removing old black mulching plastic from a field? That was hard work, physically, but certainly possible. Just as clearing and tilling the ground beneath it will be. As will sowing seed be. And on to the next field.

At the risk of sounding like a sportswear advert, the most direct approach to getting something done is just getting on with it. Okay, that sounds stupid, but let me continue. This is all about making a decision and acting on it. The more you do this, the more you'll create a positive feedback loop, and a picture yourself as "the kind of person who gets shit done".

Start small, by all means. When you think of a minor task that needs to be attended to, and you have no good reason NOT to do it immediately: do it immediately. You can even write it into your to-do list and tick it off straight away, if you like that kind of thing.

I really didn't feel like working on the day I took this. I had to clear thick grass before I could even start tilling this section of field. Three hours later, I'd got further than I'd ever imagined. It was massively satisfying. My most likely alternative activity would have involved dicking around on social media.
Also: avoid over-long captions
If there's something you plan on doing, whether it's getting fit, learning a language, or writing an article, you'll get better results by making a start now than by making a plan to start next week. You can refine your methodology as you go, but no amount of planning and research can be as effective as actually starting the process.

There's a proverb I rather like at the moment, not least of all because I can take it literally as well as figuratively: the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the next best time is now.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Big, green, spiky balls

The fruit and nut trees here seem to ripen late - the redcurrants were on time and we've been eating well on stewed quince, but the pears are still a little hard and most nuts are taking their time. If we'd had a press set up in time, we'd have had more than enough cider apples to feed it, but that's going to have to be a task for next year.

The sweet chestnut tree has only this week dropped mature nuts. Unlike many nut trees, such as the hazel, you have to wait for chestnuts to fall to the ground. When ripe, their spiky green balls fall and split open, revealing the brown seed inside. Early fallers are likely to be unfertilised, with shrivelled nuts filled with a small amount of inedible stringy flesh.

The spiny protective fruit surrounding the nut often splits when it falls, particularly if you've got a properly ripe nut. This makes it easier to get into the thing without being prickled, but you'd still be well advised to wear sturdy gloves.

Before either cooking or planting your chestnuts, check them for pin-sized holes indicating that the larvae of one of several moths, weevils and other nasties has taken up residence. Dispose of these, as the extra protein isn't really worth the unpleasantness of damaged chestnut flesh. It's worth giving your chestnuts a quick rinse in a bowl of water to drive out any other lurking pests, too.

Heat an oven to gas mark 6 (200 degrees). While that's going on, get out a small, sharp knife and cut X shapes into each chestnut. Most of them will have a relatively flat side - keep this down while you're cutting. Once your oven's up to temperature, chuck the chestnuts onto a lipped metal tray, and bake at the middle of the oven for 30 minutes.

Take them out and - if you have any sense - allow them to cool for a bit. Or, if you, like us, lack self-control, try not to burn you fingers and lips too badly while peeling and devouring scalding-hot, sweet, yielding chestnut flesh.

We couldn't resist cooking and devouring this lot in its entirety, but the next batch we collect is destined for planting, as our solitary chestnut tree could do with a friend at some point in the future, and on of our field boundaries is looking a little sparse

Friday 3 October 2014

How to make pourable self-levelling concrete

Today we're going to take a break from the beauty of nature to delve into some construction notes, mostly for our own future reference. Getting a level floor is incredibly useful, but hard to achieve with a standard stiff concrete mixture. This is an experimental liquid mix devised by Andy, my Viking associate, which forms a level floor even on an uneven surface.

It's only designed to be strong under compression, so is good for floors but not much else. We've not fully tested it under load, so this article may be edited in the future to add success or improvement notes.

The proportions are as follows: 3 parts cement, 9 parts fine sand, ~5 parts water.

All measurements are by volume and use grey cement and very fine sand such as this from Bostik, The grain size of your sand is incredibly important to this particular mix - if you use standard coarse building sand, the mix will separate upon pouring and won't set properly.

Start with 3 parts water - you're after a very liquid mix, but depending on factors such as the consistency of your sand and how wet it is, you may need less than five parts: add the remaining water slowly. Use a power stirrer drill attachment to mix and pour immediately after stirring - within 30 seconds is ideal.

You want one of these attached to a power drill to stir your concrete.
You also want to remember to clean it after use
It's advisable to test the mix for your own ingredients in advance by setting up a box on a slant, pouring in a small amount of concrete and making sure that it both levels and sets hard.

We created a stiffer concrete surround to enclose the floor area we were pouring, but if you're pouring into an area that's already vaguely watertight, you can simply reinforce any small potential leakage spots with duct tape, for example.

Note that the setting time is on the order of days, not hours, for this stuff - it took around five for a full set.

Cat-proofing: not necessarily possible under real-world conditions
If you have pets or small children running about the place, you'll want to cover the area you've poured if possible - we used a combination of wood and cardboard. As evidenced by the photo above, this won't necessarily work on cats, who will apparently move the cardboard in the middle of the night, make paw prints, and then push the cardboard back into place.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Winter planting & seed preparation

While the weather here continues fine even though we're now into the dark half of the year, we're nonetheless looking at winter planting.

We've seen the first enthusiastic winter radish, lettuce and spinach shoots from the test beds we planted last week. We're going to have to thin out the rows later in the coming weeks, as we planted densely, but we're quite chuffed at their performance.

See these little guys? They're going to be radishes when they grow up.
We've picked strains that are proof against or even benefit from frost, such as 'Géant d'hiver' spinach, but you'll also notice that we've surrounded the beds with a straw mulch in anticipation of potentially much colder weather. As the weather has been predominately dry and warm, we've been watering nightly. The beds are positioned to get plenty of sun throughout the day and particularly during the afternoon in autumn.

I've planted an experimental pot of winter lettuce, which I'm keeping on a south-facing step by the front door at the moment. We've got a few other plants in pots which are likely to be coming or staying in for the winter.

My chilli plant is a prolific fruiter which has required regular repotting over the last couple of years, and I think it'll have to be cut back this year. It isn't as happy with its current, shadier windowsill as it was with its old one and it'll probably welcome a break from fruiting. I've saved some seeds and should probably plant the next generation this January.

My rosemary plant, on the other hand, loves the increased moisture and shade it's been getting on the windowsill here. I'm contemplating planting it out next spring.

Outside, we have a couple of clumps of mint,:one in a bed that we don't have much else to do with and one death-defying colony in a pot that appears to have resurrected itself on multiple occasions and will probably continue to do so indefinitely. I'm not planting that tenacious little sod out. If I did, we'd just end up with several acres of mint and nothing else.

Other pots contain English lavender, a rowan seedling, a small cherry tree rescued from some guttering and The Mystery Tree. The first two are coming in later this month.

The birds and humans missed a few berries, so I have a source of redcurrant seeds

I've collected some redcurrant seeds from the bush in the orchard here, which I hope to grow. The only awkward part of this process will be getting them cool enough over a three month period to trigger germination later - they need to be kept just above freezing. I'll experiment with planting some out and mulching over them to protect against frost and probably refrigerate a batch for good measure.

Thursday 25 September 2014

5 video games that make you want to go back to nature... and why they probably shouldn't

5. The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim

Skyrim: a land of majestic forests, breathtaking vistas and untrammelled wildlife. As you wander through the land hunting, picking ingredients and waylaying passing legionnaries to steal their boots, it's almost impossible not to wish for a simpler, purer existence.

Yeah, but no. Skyrim is no place for subsistence agriculture. Between dragons, bastard adventurers with an interest in burning beehives and an ongoing conflict between a bunch of racists and some equally hateful expansionist fascists, the average smallholder's odds of surviving the harvest, let alone getting in a decent crop, seem vanishingly small.

See this? That's your farm, mate. (Source: Wikia)
Essentially, you'd be better off packing in the farming and going into the second-hand, slightly-bloodstained armour business. Assuming you enjoy staring down the business end of a Nordic sword.

4. Plants vs Zombies

"Oh, hey, look at those happy little sunflowers! They're adorable! Oh, and check out those peashooters. Heh, those little guys are pretty potent. OH GODS! NO! What IS that rider thing? WHY IS THAT BUNGEE ZOMBIE STEALING MY SNOW PEAS!?!?!"

Gardening is exactly like this. (Screenshot credit: Robin Burkinshaw)

What the game doesn't tell you is that, as well as having to deal with horrible, slimy monsters, your long-suffering plants will have to cope with the cannibalistic attentions of their own kind. Mulch early, mulch often.

3. SimFarm

Before Maxis' Sim franchise jumped the shark with its virtual person torturing simulator, The Sims, one the many surprisingly detailed simulation-cum-strategy games it trotted out was SimFarm. Now only available as abandonware, this 1993 DOS-era game put you in charge of  a small farm with the potential to grow into an agricultural empire.

It really is remarkably detailed, with different ideal growing seasons, irrigation levels and even a bit of animal husbandry thrown in for good measure. As well as keeping an eye on your growing cycle, you have to build an infrastructure of irrigation ditches, roads and fences, and even nurture the growth of a local agricultural village.

It's okay. My farm vacillates between floodplain and arid wasteland, too
What isn't immediately apparent is that SimFarm is a mercilessly growth-oriented look at agro-business at its worst. You've no choice but to intensively use pesticides, herbicides and industrial-grade fertilisers to combat the consequences of keeping your fields in constant use. And if you don't? The ever-present shadow of the bank looms large as your withered crops and dying cattle send you spiralling further and further into debt.

Sure, it might look like an easy-going proto-casual game, but SimFarm is really a harsh insight into a world of profit-at-all-costs agriculture. Just be glad they opted not to include factory farmed chickens.

2. Goat Simulator

No look at the world of back-to-the-earth gaming would be complete without the award-winning Goat Simulator. Experience the joy of hand-rearing a playful, friendly creature that will reward you with affection, milk, and, if you're that way inclined, its tasty (ethically reared) flesh. Oh, wait, hang on... I mean that other thing.

Be a goat. Fuck shit up.
Unmitigated destruction and mayhem. That one.

1. Minecraft

While mining is the headline activity in Minecraft, every right-thinking person will doubtless agree that the heart of the gameplay is in painstaking growing crops, luring animals into fenced-off caves in the hope that they pop out a minature animal, and running around beating pigs to death with a pork chop. (We once ran an entirely vegetarian Minecraft server. That's what happens when a Steve snaps. Pork chop death.)

Oh hell, no. Source: Gamepedia
The only downside to this agrarian utopia of waterways and papyrus fields? Creepers, hell-bent on detroying all your hard work. "But surely," you ask, "Creepers are nothing you have to worry about in the real world?" Yeah, right.

This used to be a wall.

Monday 22 September 2014

Equinoctial planting*

As the dark point of the year begins with the autumnal equinox at 4:29 CEST on tomorrow, the 23rd of September, we are at last in a position to carry out some tentative planting. Much of the land that is destined to become our kitchen garden has been neglected for the past few years: some left lifeless and deoxygenated beneath heavy black plastic mulching material, some allowed to grow wild with nettles, brambles and bindweed.

Today, we uncovered a mulched section and dug out a seemingly endless legion of squirming white tendrils of bindweed, still living despite their years away from sunlight. In another area of the same unmasked soil, we found remains of a fire, likely to have given the soil around it an alkaline taint. This failed to suppress the bindweed's virulent growth.

For every part of the plant we uprooted, still more was left behind

Bindweed, despite the prettiness of its white, convex flowers, is a lethal, choking plant, which burrows its way through soil and winds a fatal net of tendrils about other vegetation, smothering the life from them. Its creeping roots are capable of regrowing from even the tiniest fragment. Its brittle, suffocating tendrils grow at alarming speed from a central rhizome up to five metres deep. We already anticipate that much of the year to follow will be spent cutting the filthy stuff away.

Our intention for this September equinox is to plant out a handful of plants for the coming spring: hardy winter varieties of radish, turnip and spinach, as well as garlic and and golden California poppies. We have only the faintest optimistic expectation of the survival of this first planting, although we have opted to make the attempt in two areas of ground, lest one prove to be hopelessly poisoned.

*The management would like to apologise for any lapse into a pseudo-Lovecraftian prose style, but is sadly finding it difficult to muster any genuine contrition.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Things about nettles – part one of infinity

We’ve got an orchard here, replete with fruit and nut trees. However, standing between us and those trees is a massive sea of nettles. At several points, the things are almost at head height, and they're evil bastards when it comes to stinging.

While decried as weeds and unpleasantly agressive, nettles are actually rather useful plants. They’re a rough indicator of soil type, telling you that you’ve got plenty of nutrients for anything else you may want to grow; an outstanding habitat for insects including stunning butterflies and parasite devouring ladybirds; a great starting ingredient for both DIY plant feed and compost, and a vitamin-rich foodstuff.

You'll definitely want to keep a couple of nettle patches around if you have the space. Just... away from humans. To this end, we've grubbed up many nettles by their long, trailing, but not particulrly firmly anchored roots. We unfortunately got here rather late in the year, so they've already had an opportunity to seed in a few places that'll be hopelessly inconvenient. Roll on next growth. At least you'll be sweet and tender 

We also had a stab at steaming some for greens to have with dinner. Sadly, these specimens were rather mature, so we had to make up for their lack of tenderness with seasoning them to death. Sadly, there's little that can be done about the gritty quality of mature, flower-bearing nettles (caused by calcium carbonate deposits callled cystoliths, according to Wikipedia) but enough cream and garlic hide many sins. They're still packed with nutrients, although you'll want to limit quantity if you have a sensitive urinary tract, apparently. Or just in general. So really, learn from my hopeless optimism and try this recipe with young nettles instead.

Creamed, sautéed nettles

200g nettle leaves 
1 large clove of garlic
100g goat’s fromage blanc

Steam your nettle leaves for 5 minutes – throw them into a pan and pour about a centimetre of boiling water over them, then cook until they’re soft and wilted. You want to avoid cooking any large stalks or flowers. Drain, keeping the water for tea if you like, and set aside the cooked nettles to cool for a while.

Finely chop a clove of garlic. Melt a knob of butter in a pan over a medium head and chuck in the garlic to gently fry off. While this is going on, squeeze out and chop your nettles, before tossing them in with the butter and garlic.

Fry the lot off for another minute or so, then turn the heat right down and spoon in the fromage blanc, stirring it in thoroughly. You can substitute goats’ cream if you want a richer dish – cow’s milk fromage frais should also work, but I don’t get along with the stuff, so can’t confirm.

Cook gently until the fromage blanc is warm, and you’re ready to serve. It goes will with a fried egg and mashed or buttery chopped potatoes. Do yourself a favour and break open the egg yolk right over your nettles. 

Monday 15 September 2014

WHY DO YOU HATE US? - Moving Cats Long Distances by Car

We recently moved two humans and four cats 800km by car from London in the UK to west France. Despite a few moments of stress, particularly with our oldest cat, who was very recently diagnosed with hyperthyroidism and hasn’t begun receiving treatment yet, the whole process went surprisingly smoothly. Here’s a run-down of the process.


Get rabies shots and pet passports for the cats a good couple of months before you travel. The rabies shots MUST be done at least 21 days before travelling for them to be valid – both the rabies shot and the passport are most important for domestic mammals that you plan on bringing back to the UK, rather than taking out, but they’re also important for the safety of your cat if you’re moving to continental Europe. The shot and passport aren’t particularly cheap, so if you have multiple cats, your finances will thank you for doing only one or two a month.

We also got all the cats’ other vaccines updated, as this is the usual point in the year when they go for their annual boosters, but the rabies vaccine and annual vaccine are contra-indicated, so you’ll have to leave two weeks between the two. Note that across the UK and most of Europe, each year’s shots boost different vaccines, so you’ll want to make sure that your new vet obtains records from your old one. We had our cats registered with the Royal Veterinary College’s Beaumont Sainsbury Clinic in London, and I can’t speak highly enough of their treatment of and rapport with the animals.


As the moving date approaches, you should prepare your travel supplies. As this is a long journey and three of our felines are particularly tall, standard cat carriers weren’t even an option. We bought four Ferplast Atlas 40 dog crates, which gave the cats enough room to stand and move around in. These carriers are also rated for air travel, incidentally.

Into each carrier, we first laid down newspaper and then put in a Pets at Home dog bed designed for lining crates. We picked a bed that was a little smaller than the carrier’s floor area, leaving space at the back for a very small litter tray – actually a repurposed plastic takeaway carton. I’d have ideally liked have to have used an Atlas 50 carrier, as that would have left room for a small standard litter tray, but that would have made it impossible for us to fit all four cats into the back of our 2002 Fiat Doblo van. As it is, we had to resort to a bit of bodge-artist engineering to turn four cat boxes into two pairs of stacked carriers.

As bungee cords were too flexible and the van’s hook points weren’t well located for roping or ratchet strapping the cat crates, we secured these in the van by carefully wedging them. We used a combination of sturdy cardboard boxes and pillowcases stuffed with soft materials to wedge the carriers. MAKE SURE that all the carriers have sufficient airflow and that you can access their doors (even if somewhat awkwardly). We had them facing forwards so we could reassure the cats from the front passenger seat.


The floor area of our van isn’t large enough for all four cat boxes – in fact, that’s only space for two to sit comfortably side-by-side and still be visible and accessible from the front passenger seat. It wouldn’t be ideal, but we needed to stack the boxes, and we needed to keep them secure while in this two-box stack. Fortuantely, the Ferplast carriers have eight extra holes where the top and bottom sections meet. These come with nuts and bolts to reinforce the very sturdy clips if you’ve got a particularly strong dog, but the clips alone are more than powerful enough to hold the carrier together against even a determined cat.

For this make, you’ll need two cat boxes, a Dremel with a metal-cutting disc, and four 1m lengths of M8 threaded bar. You’ll be re-using the nuts supplied with the boxes. Because I have no faith in the universe, I made sure the bar thread matched the nuts supplied with the cat boxes by taking a nut with me to my local DIY shop and I strongly suggest that you do the same.

Use a Dremel with an ablative cutting disc to cut the bar into 50cm pieces. Do yourself a favour and use a sanding wheel to smooth off the cut ends afterwards. Make sure the thread hasn’t been crushed and the nut still screws on smoothly. If you have a crushed thread, grind it away.

Place two of your fully assembled Atlas 40 boxes on top of each other and thread the bar through each pair of holes. Put a screw at the top and a screw at the bottom and tighten well. The structure won’t be fully stable and secure until you have all eight bars in place. Practice doing this with empty boxes in the vehicle you’re going to be putting them in – you want to be sure of this step going smoothly.

Note that although the boxes can be moved as a stack in an absolute emergency, you shouldn’t do this. Put the cats in the boxes, stack the boxes in the car, then screw them together. Make sure both top and bottom boxes have proper ventilation. If you have nervous cats, bring along a cloth which you can use to cover the top boxes if they get spooked by traffic. Properly tightened, your nuts shouldn’t vibrate loose, but you can use some thread sealant if you’re particularly worried.


Two hours before departure, take away the cats’ food dishes. Leave their litter trays down and leave water out. Hope and pray to any deities you may happen to believe in that they all go to the tray before you go. They won’t, because ours is a cruel and unjust universe.

Remember to bring bottled water to top up the cats’ water bowls – Ferplast Atlas boxes come with spill-resistant bowls that clip to the cage doors. On a long journey, you should bring dry food, small bowls to put it in and the cats’ favourite dry treats. Avoid giving them a proper meal too early in the trip, as cats really don’t appreciate being stuck in a box with their own fecal matter.

Make sure you have food, water, toys, medication and anything else the cats will need at the other end. Douse the inside of the cat boxes and the car with liberal quantities of Feliway spray. Because our boxes aren’t very portable at the best of times and in this instance were secured into pairs using metal struts, we also brought cat harnesses and leads with us in case we needed to quickly remove the cats from the vehicle in an emergency. Remember: never open the cat boxes if any of the car doors or windows are open.

Our cats weren’t acclimatised to harnesses when young, so become a bit irate about the entire process, but Mynwood Cat Jackets are by far the best harnesses we’ve found for them. We ordered ours with a pocket for a GPS tracking module, as one of our household is entirely too paranoid about our eminently sensible cats getting lost. It’s actually not a bad idea.


Because we didn’t want to leave the cats alone for an extended period of time, we opted to take them to France via Eurotunnel from Folkstone to Calais, rather than via ferry or plane. In retrospect, they may have preferred the shorter driving time involved in taking a ferry from Portsmouth to Caen, but I wasn’t comfortable leaving them unattended for a six hour crossing. They’d have probably slept, mind you.

Most of the cats actually got to grips with the tiny litter trays, but the one that got her positioning wrong did so within the first 20 minutes of the trip. Remember that thing I said about a cruel and unjust universe? Right.

We weren’t practically able to stop to clean her up until we got to the Eurotunnel terminus, which was a bit unpleasant for us and very unpleasant for her. She was also massively upset by the rough quality of the roads (North Circular and M20 for most of the trip), and showed visible signs of stress – panting and yowling. Fortunately, after we stopped driving, let her out for a brief wander around the car while got her and her box cleaned, and fed her some treats (Whiskas Temptations/Irresitables), she calmed down sufficiently that we felt she’d be able to manage the rest of the journey.

There were no notable checks at customs and we didn’t have to present the cats’ passports. This is something of a pity, as we’re certain that any border control official would have melted at the cuteness of their passport photos (see above). I gather that checks are far more rigorous when coming into the UK from Europe, but we’re unlikely to find out, as this is a one-way trip for these cats.

All the cats were entirely happy with the Eurotunnel car shipment trains, far preferring the gentle movement of the carriages to grinding along on Britain’s roadways. We still had a ten hour road trip on the other side, including regular stops to reassure and – towards the end of the journey - feed the cats, but French roads as a rule have a different surface to those in the UK, which seemed to upset Stressed Cat much less. After a short while, she’d calmed down and was casually observing the countryside as it flew by. We kept to around 100km/h to further reduce vibrations.

Having set off in the UK at around 10:30 in the morning, it was a little after midnight when we finally got home, thanks to some unexpectedly closed roads just 20km from our place. We unloaded the car, de-stacked the cat boxes and took them into our almost entirely unfurnished new home. Once free, three of the felines, including Stressed Cat, immediately started cheerfully exploring. Shy Cat, in keeping with his nature, found a shelving unit with a drawer he could hide behind and promptly climbed into it.