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.