Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mr.Fothergills Oriental Choice Mixed Poppy Seeds

Thank you to Barb of Skittles' Place, for starting a new award to help make the world a kinder, gentler place and to Curmudgeon ( for thinking that my wee blog makes a contribution to that effort.

Barb "made this award for people who 'Shine their light throughout the Blogoshere. Some do it with humor, others with creativity, and others with their kind and thoughtful natures.'"

I am not sure which category applies to my wee blog, but I am happy to be part of any of them. I began my virtual conversation to help make my new world real to myself and to others and the first few posts were tentative. The virtual and the real worlds --you can decide which is which--have developed along parallel lines: once I made the first tentative steps it got easier and each step seemed to lead to the next. Now I have about 150 posts and people who have never met me read about life here at the very edge of Scotland.

Neither the virtual nor the actual transformation has been immediate or easy. Each time I walked into the overgrown grass of the tennis lawn just outside my back door, I pulled out an armful of wildflower-weeds. Their long stalks filled my arms in a pose reminiscent of a beauty queen making her triumphal walk down the front of the stage. I had the chutzpah to try to reclaim even that small part of the lawn an armful at a time because I had similarly reclaimed a piece of a little wetlands behind my house in the States by pulling up Queen Anne's Lace an armful at a time. It took a lot of armfuls.

That same fragile first season of reclaiming that part of the lost garden, I clipped the tops of stinging nettles as they were going into seed. My husband laughed at me. "They are weak now, I explained, and at least I will keep the seeds from making any more. Next year will be easier." And it was. I cleared the nettles completely from one small corner and I meant to make a lovely planting there to celebrate and to keep the nettles from coming back.

I had been working on the notion that I could conquer a small piece of the yard or the house and then move on to the next. I forgot that those reclaimed spots would not stand still any more than a young child can stay squeeky clean and wrinkle free long enough to get a proper photo or to impress someone. This summer has not been good for farming or for gardening: the weather has been dreadful and my time for gardening has been pre-empted by real and imagined Other Demands, so the nettles were threatening to take back their corner.

In that same spirit of stepwise hopefulness with which I have taken on everything in these past three years, during one brief sunny afternoon I cleared the returning nettles and planted a packet of Mr. Fothergill's Oriental Choice Mixed poppy seeds along with some Calendula and nasturtiums that I had bought for my kitchen garden, which has been irretrievably lost to this season of Other Demands.

I covered the tiny black poppy seeds with sand so that I could watch them grow. A gentle soaking rain came shortly after I planted them,so I had great hopes for the poppies, but those hopes dwindled with each disappointing look at the bare earth until I forgot about them. And then one day in the company of my cats I saw some leaves that looked like poppy leaves except smooth where I expected fuzzy. Even so, I was happy to see them, but by now the season was so shortened that I did not expect to see them flower. I forgot about them again.

The winds picked up, the weather stayed cold, and the presumed poppy leaves were joined by a short, stocky calendula that bloomed even though it was only half the size it should have been--- a jester in the garden. It made me smile, "Bloom where you are planted," I said to my cats, but I still had no great hopes for the poppies or the other seeds.

I visited a friend in town whose garden makes my eyes water with the joy of it as well as the pangs of jealousy that I confess rose up in me as I looked at her careful rows of colorful plants, including beautiful purple poppies. As we stood in her garden and talked, I gladly accepted her offer of seeds and then I noticed the not-quite as I would expect it poppy leaf-- smooth where I would expect fuzzy, exactly like the leaves on my Mr. Fothergill's poppy seeds. And in due time, my own poppies bloomed and presented me with one purple poppy which was quickly blown to smithereens, but several others in a range of hues have blossomed and if these poppies behave as expected, they will continue to seed themselves and to join me in battle against the nettles in the corner.

My blog and I have much in common with Mr. Fothergill's seeds: hopefulness both in the planting and the sharing. And now thanks to Barb, others may visit this space and I have been invited into other gardens.

Thanks, Barb

Thursday, August 23, 2007

You Are What You Wear

If you are ever in the vicinity of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, it is worth a look around the battlefield site even if you are not addicted to reading historical markers or interested in military history. Although I am addicted to reading historical markers, those bronze lines etched by the side of a road usually telling more about who put up the marker than about why it is there, my eyes glaze over at the first glance of diagrams of whose soldiers were where at any battle site. For me Gettysburg, Culloden, or Bull Run are more compelling for what is not said--for the reading between the lines or understanding the iconography of a different era.

If you wander among the memorial statues in Gettysburg, you may well be startled to come across a statue of a soldier clad in baggy trousers, a short jacket, a wide sash and topped off with a fez. That is a Zouave. The brief note at the bottom tells you that it is a monument to a particular New York Infantry unit. I don't recall now if it mentions the word 'Zouave,' which is worth knowing just to say out loud to tickle your teeth and to help the often forgotten last letter of the alphabet get a little more attention. According to this site,, Zouaves were at one time better known than the French Foreign Legion. To add to the confusion inherent in the American civil war, in the first year of the conflict both sides adopted the costume of the Zouaves.

The Zouave costume contrasts with that of the majority of the Union soldiers both by the exuberance of the baggy trousers and the fez but also because of the bright colours. Rather than industrial Navy blue trim trousers and jacket or the raggle taggle homespun of the Confederate soldiers, which might be a demure grey wool or a home dyed butternut beige-yellow, the Zouave wore red trousers, a bright blue short jacket with fancy trim and a wide sash of a contrasting colour.

This morning as I looked out the window at another grey day, I thought not of the baggy trousers and fez or even of the outrageous contrast of the Zouaves from their comrades, but of the colours. The damp, close greyness oozed out of from the North Sea and over the fields, hovering so close to the ground that only the hooves of the cattle showed clearly in the field, and stretched right up to the window where it clung to the glass in lackluster dots. I realized in a instant that I needed the full armamentarium colour-wise of a Zouave to counter this pervasive, persistent clinging drabness.

In no particular order I collected my Fantasy in Blue hand knit wool socks of many colours. A mere glance at my ankle peeping out from between pants leg and shoe top would provide a quick fix for grey sidewalks or wet damp breezes, especially coupled with my Pink Sneakers of Invincibility. And so it went: each piece chosen for its colour power. Finally, topped by a purple raincoat, I felt brave enough to challenge the day.

In my full spectrum armor, I lunched at a bistro, met with friends, and bought clothes for a pirate costume, which offers up another persona with which to counter the greyness.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Atomics, Incomers and a Dog Named Maximus

If you waited for a lovely golden day here, you would spend more time waiting than doing. So despite a steady rain, I am on my way to a walk around Dunbeath. I have been to Dunbeath several times and enjoyed it very much. I have wandered along the stream bed with a group of tree-loving people to learn how aspens clone themselves or to see the remnants of a hazel wood that had been coppiced at some time in its history.

Today I am with a book club that is exploring some of the sites mentioned in a Neil Gunn book, High Tide. The leader is a former "atomic"--one of the people who came here to work on the experimental reactor. The neighbors with whom I rode are also atomics although after 37 years in Caithness, they might pass for locals except that they still have the tell tale accent of the south. The other three walkers are Americans, or, in my case, half and half. I am permanent; the others are just passing through or temporarily resident here, but we all share an affection for this part of the world in which we have landed.

Neil Gunn is a good storyteller whose writing is imbued with a love and understanding of Dunbeath and the surrounding area. He dubbed the area that "place of excellent light". On a clear day the light is transfixing in its clarity; on a dull day like today, the subdued tones make the greens and the budding pinks of the heather richer and deeper, and the light underside of the bracken leaves glows with a lemony luminescence. A grey day in Indiana could not offer such a palette, so I bundle up against the rain and trundle along slippery rocks, muddy paths, a rickety wooden-slatted bridge that sways unnervingly above a peat-brown stream in spate--full flow--to recreate the world in which Neil Gunn created his stories.

We start with the story behind the statue in the parking lot--a young boy struggling with a salmon nearly as big as he is. The statue and the story in the book are based on a real episode in which the author's brother finds a salmon in a pool and takes it home--all quite illegal because the fishing rights are sold or let as an asset of the estate. Gunn's brother compounded his offence by taking part of the salmon to the nearby store for sale. The poached salmon was an open secret in the neighborhood, and the money from its sale was used to buy him a new pair of boots--probably a particularly special treat for a younger brother.

From the parking lot and the statue along the harbor, we drove to the old mill house. One of the walkers pointed out as the old mill race what I might otherwise have taken for just another stone wall. Two kilns remain in the remnants of the now roofless old mill building. No one knows now why there were two kilns side by side: perhaps different kinds of grain were roasted there and each was kept separate. Barley and oats are the two most common now, but whin seed was sometimes ground as feed for horses and some farmers have tried growing wheat in this area, but so much of the everyday running of the world of that time is lost that we may never know how they worked.

From the mill house we traveled along the rocky remnants of a carriageway alongside the stream created by the Victorians in their "Balmoralization" of the area so that the ladies might take the air in the afternoon without having to get too close to nature. The rocks are slick with the persistent rain and jut out now at odd angles that make the walking slow. Each footfall needs to be placed carefully because the grass on the verge of the path is hardly less slick than the stones, so my focus is on my feet as I move along the stream and into the pasture where the sheep and a few goats--relics of an experiment by an American with an idea to save the highlands--graze with little regard for the rain or our passing or the carefully dug trench in the middle of their field.

The trench, with the soil carefully piled on a tarp, looks like an archaeologist's test dig. Long before Neil Gunn or the goats or the sheep were here, people lived here--not just the people who were cleared but long before that a Pictish site, and a broch--a neotlithic round house unique to this part of the world (including the nearby islands). A very small part of the history of Dunbeath has been revealed; this trench may be the start of more research to confirm old legends or to add to the stories. The trench is near the so called hill of peace, so named for an alleged early Pictish Christian site. The story of the site was much discounted until an archaeologist unearthed a stone with a Pictish Christian cross in a test dig of the hill.

Maximus, a great Dane, wants to lead and we are happy to use his bulk to blaze the trail as we swim through a mass of bracken that has taken over a field that once held white roses; we climb single file over a muddy, slip-slide narrow incline and pass through a hazel woods with a convention of lichens in fancy dress. I recognize some from a walk in another woods with a world famous lichenologist. I admire the variety of their colors and textures draped over hazel branches and fence posts as we wind up and around a hill on a sheep-carved path not well suited for feet.

Because I mind each step carefully as I huff and puff up the hill I have not noticed the panorama behind me. When I stop to catch my breath, I am stunned to see the peat brown water is now so far below that it seems to be moving in slow motion, and the silence is complete. No birds, no sheep, no sound of rushing water reaches us on the hill. With the pale grey sky filtering Neil Gunn's excellent light, the mounded, heathered hill stands out like an applique on the foreshortened horizon. The pale green of the grass contrasts with the rich dark green roundels of the heather punctutated by the quieted pink of the blooms shyly asserting themselves.

That moment alone more than compensated for aching legs and the threat that that my Gore Tex boots might succumb to the persistent dampness and ensure that no part of me remained dry before we made it back.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Entre Posts

If there can be an entre acts, then surely there can be an entre posts?

Yesterday was a gray,rainy day but I managed to avoid the doldrums by getting lost in a book, buying a new knitting magazine, and sussing a new crochet stitch.

Lately I have read in bits and bobs--I mentioned Dream Angus in an earlier post, but two others in my Scottification have been the classic, Whiskey Galore, and a recent book that I picked up on a whim, The Stornoway Way. I have yet to start Scot's Quair or a collection of short stories by George Mackay Brown. I continue to pick up Hugh McDiarmid's A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle from time to time, but I may never finish it. I have to read it out loud like I used to have to read student's papers whose spelling was phonetic. Even so, some of the words are not part of the common usage and I have to look them up and then start again. I enjoy the read so as long as I don't feel an urgency, then Hugh and I get along just fine.

In a category all of its own is The Linen Goddess. It is a mixture of travel and textiles. The author travels widely in search of the origins of a particular embroidery motif. The premise sounded so unusual that I had to buy it and I must say I have not been disappointed. The author has lovely prose and manages to keep a coherent narrative thread going with diverse elements.

The crochet book was a chance find in the library when I went to renew my knitting book, Knitting Beyond the Edges. The project that caught my eye in the crochet book is an introduction to lace stitches with a curly froth of mohair scarf. The other project that caught my eye is a scarf made up of several motifs that are crocheted together so that you don't have that dreaded sewing up at the end. It is as far away from Granny Squares as one could possibly get. As always, I have way more projects in my head than I can ever expect to get to, but it is a lovely chorus in the back of my head when I don't need it for other things.

The sun has not yet disappeared behind a cloud and the cleaning lady just called to say that she will not be here today, so I think I will declare a holiday from housework or weeding or cattle wrangling and find a sunspot where I can finish The Linen Goddess.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Cows, Calves, A Large Bull, and One Stot

I dreamed I was being chased by a large bull. If you are expecting some titilating Freudian interpretation to follow, you are on the wrong blog. In the pre-waking hours, my mind conflated the fact that I was going to be helping to move the cattle that day and that I had heard an animal making a loud noise. The bull often complains about his incarceration, so my dream-mind stitched these together with a dollop of anxiety. In my dream, my grandson, who in reality is safely tucked into his bed in Chicago, comes running through the steading with the bull closely on his heels. I jump on to the running board of the combine to get out of the way.

When I wake, I realize that it is the black cow with her calf alone in the paddock who has been calling. Has her calf gotten out? Is she OK? Morris tries to calm my concerns and then discovers that three calves have managed to get into the barley. The black cow is calling to them. Is she telling them they should not be there? In an instant I am out of bed and pulling on jeans in my best imitation of my favorite Golden Book from many years ago, “Five Little Firemen.” By the time I am downstairs, Morris has already checked out the situation and decided that we wait for reinforcements. The wayward calves will be retrieved as part of the overall shifting of cattle. That means enough time for some oatmeal for a quick breakfast.

My first job is to stand in the corner of the farm road and make sure the cattle turn into the field instead of up the road toward the main road. I stand in the soft air and gracious sunlight. The way the wind is blowing I can hear the shouts of the men trying to move the cattle three fields away as readily as I can hear the barley shushing in the wind. And then a long silence until I hear the sound of the ATV. Something has gone awry and I no longer need to stand in that corner. There are many ways for things to go wrong when moving cattle, but this did not seem to be a serious problem, so I dawdled in my garden and talking with one of my cats until I was summoned again.

Once again I am in a road to ensure that the cattle turn left into an open gate. They do not. They did not come fast or look angry, but they did not stop. I stepped aside and swallowed my tears as they tromped past me. I am most mindful of my limitations as a cattle wrangler. The cattle were quickly retrieved and then corraled, but that was just the beginning. We had to separate stots –steers or young male cattle—from the cows, calves, and heifers. Some confusion ensued with cattle every which way. Somewhere in the midst of this shuffling I notice that among the cattle is a bull. When I am told to get the bunch moving and to be tough, I catch the bull’s eye. He is not liking being told what to do and he has a sore foot, so he does not like moving either. I straighten my back and try to look as if I mean business. Either it worked or he decided he was eager enough to get off his feet that he would go along with me. With that collection of cattle sorted, I am off for another group.

Once more into a road. These cattle turn left and begin filing in with the same closeness as a school of fish. I am ready to heave a sigh of relief and go make coffee when one white stot decides to break away. I wave my arms, I shout, I call him names that reflect on his mother’s character, but he will have none of it. He bellows in his rage and flies past me down the middle road between the fields. His excursion is cut short by fast work on an ATV and he is retrieved and turned into the field. As I watch him trotting to join the others in the far end of the field, I fret about what made him do that, what should I have done, where should I have been standing and so on.

Having gone eyeball to eyeball with a bull, a corral full of cattle, and one very angry stot, however, I put those questions out of my mind for the time being and pull off my Wellies and retire to the kitchen and a familiar recipe for Quick Oatmeal Cookies in my well worn old Joy of Cooking, a relic of my life before cattle.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Vagaries of Wind and Water

It has been a wet summer. Dampened spirits invariably remark after a comment about the weather that “at least we don’t have flooding like those poor folks down south.” Last night on BBC, one of those poor folks from down south who has been flooded out of her home went to Bangladesh as a guest of Oxfam and discovered that for all the pain and expense of her own flood, her life looks like a luxury compared to theirs. Twenty million people who had very little to start with now have even less.

My heart does go out to all those poor souls, but my attention is distracted by the fact that the heavy rain outside is now dripping into a telltale puddle in the middle of the corridor that has been fixed twice. Worse yet, it is leaking through the newly installed lamp. I know this is nothing compared to the folks in the south or in Bangla Desh, but I don’t live in Bangla Desh; I live right here with the rain driving water into a place where it should not be. I put a bucket under the spot and set in motion the return of the workmen all the while reciting through gritted teeth: “the charm of an old house, the charm of an old house.”

I wrap my damp spirit into my long purple raincoat and serious, country living style rain hat for a ride into town. We drive past the field of barley that was a luscious golden-amber yesterday to discover that it now has splotches of green where the stems are showing. The golden heads of the grain that were all pointing into the sunlight have gone into tousles like ring curls on a little girl’s hair or micro crop circles from a band of psychotic aliens. Either way, it is not as pleasing as yesterday. It will make harvesting a bit harder, a bit slower, and maybe yield a little less. I know they’d love a crop like this in Bangla Desh; I try to console myself with that fact, but the rain just keeps coming.

We may never know how foot and mouth disease managed to spread from the presumed origin at the labs designed to protect us from disease, but both air and water are implicated in the most likely causes. A capricious wind either from the buildings or carried on the clothes of a scientist to a nearby allotment or an overfull sewage system swollen by flood waters has caused incalculable suffering and considerable financial loss.

The financial loss may be dealt with through compensation or increased prices, but I do not know how to deal with the loss of faith. I would certainly always have cried at the sight of a farmer in tears over the loss of his animals, but now I can taste his pain along with my own: a bolus of tears and fear and anger that knots itself into my stomach like a fist. Arguably, farming is always vulnerable to the vagaries of wind and water, but this virus and the unexplained breach of the safe keepers rides roughshod over the quiet acceptance of that vulnerablity.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Secret Seventh Wave

I walked down to the beach at the end of our fields last week. I do not go there often enough. I was feeling ragged and disconnected and sitting on a smooth boulder watching the tide come in helped me untangle the knots in myself. Because I love the sea but grew up in the middle of cornfields, I give it a wide berth. Long before the boulder on which I sat might have become an island or a submersible, I was heading back to land. Moreover, I always resist the idea of going all the way to the edge to watch the foam curl around the brown, stairstep rocks that march into the kingdom below.

I admired the tiny round birds that move like wind up toys down to the edge of the water and back again. I watched the gulls working in the old fashioned way-diving for fish rather than scraps out of bins or handouts from diners in seaside restaurants. While I watched the waves curling into the ends of the rocks from my cautious distance, I wondered once again about that old notion of the seventh wave as a big one. Seventh from when? or from where? I tried focusing on the edge of the roll and counting to seven. I lost track, lingered a while longer and then turned for the walk home.

I climbed over the rocks where the last of the thrifts held on to their spent blossoms. Using hands and feet in ungainly, grunting movements, I followed along a steep ledge that must have been carved by sheep's hooves and then over the sand bank where the gate now hangs slack and gawking into the sea as if it would join it, which no doubt in good time it will.

"They wanted to feel the sea foam on their faces," the newspaper article reported. Some might read that and shake their heads or cluck their tongues, but we all understand it: the sea has a dangerous attraction for us all. Two sisters clambered over the slippery rocks farther than their companions to feel the foam at Stoer Point, a wild and tempestuous jumble of rock in an uneasy truce between land and sea. There is a lighthouse there to warn ships and boats away, but there is only caution to keep people away from the rocks. When the secret seventh wave rose up, it swallowed one sister and left the other on the rocks screaming her anguish and helplessness.

Her young husband, a former Royal Navy diver, answered with his heart, which leapt into the cold churning waters and took the rest of him along with it. He might have made it back, but he went to help his sister in law. His body was recovered not much later, but her body has not yet been found. Perhaps it never will be or perhaps some other secret seventh wave will send her back to land as willfully as she was stolen.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Dodgem with a Gimmer

Life is getting back to normal, which includes such things as rounding up stray critters on the road. We do not stop for every stray animal. Sheep are very good at finding their way out and then back in again before you can get the car turned around. Also, as you can imagine, we are not always aware of whose sheep or cattle they are, and, hence, to which field they should be returned.

As you no doubt already suspect, you are about to hear about a time when we did know whose sheep they were. I often wear scruffy clothes and sensible shoes sometimes even when we go into town, but this time I had made a bit of an effort. I was wearing a dress--a sturdy washable knit, but smart enough looking, I thought, for all that practicality. I was wearing my new cardigan sweater (yes, it is August, but not warm), and a pair of red sandals. Baring my legs and sticking out my toes is a rare venture up here. I used to see photos of women wearing heavy sweaters and sandals and thought it was incongruous. It still seems that way, but I had really wanted to celebrate as much summer as I could and the sandals were my summer statement.

When we saw a sheep on the road instead of the field where we knew she belonged, we were on duty. My husband stopped the car on the road with the simple instruction that I go into the field and open the gate for the wayward young sheep to return to the fold. He would then back up the road to get behind the sheep to persuade her back down the road, and, ideally, in through the opened gate. It always sounds so simple.

It has not been warm, but it has been wet and the areas around gates, which are typically heavily trafficked, are always muddy. I moved my town garb as carefully as I could over the mucky terrain and slung the gate open inward into the field. None of the sheep showed the slightest interest in coming out of the gate, so I backed away beyond the gate on the other side at a respectable distance so this gimmer--a young sheep getting ready to become a mother for the first time in the Fall--could trot back into the field with her friends and family members.

We had our positions and we knew what we were doing, but the gimmer apparently had been reading Dickens instead of our script and she chose to be the Artful Dodger. If I had not been standing in the middle of a highway waiting for one sheep to come back in through an opened gate while anxiously wondering if several hundred might just as easily decide to come out, I would have admired the way she feinted one way and pivoted the other and dashed one instant and stood absolutely immobile in front of a large vehicle the next. It would have been easier, I think to make lamb chops than to have herded her back into the field.

After being out maneuvered by Lil Gimmer, Morris recruits me for Act II to walk alongside the car to keep her from running back. My anxiety about leaving an open gate shrills in my head. I am not persuaded by my husband's assurances about the sheeps' intentions, and I think he is allowed to make a mistake but I am not and I am the one who opened the gate. After some insightful words, I am temporarily in the passenger seat while we back up the road to the now immobile sheep. As we get closer, she makes a sprint, but at least this time vaguely in the intended direction.

She heads up the road and then looks back at me and the car. For a moment, we have a psychic link a la the Vulcan mind link: Morris has said go to this side of the car. I am eyeball to eyeball with the gimmer and I go to the other side. She breaks the link and heads down the road in the right direction with car and me as drover. This works well for a very brief interlude. She speeds up. The car speeds up. Perforce, I speed up, but this is not as easy for me in my summery little red sandals and dress as it is for the gimmer and the car. I am too out of breath to think what an idiot I must look running up the highway.

The opened gate, however, is in sight--mine as well as the gimmer's. She turns and at the last miunte makes a break for it in the opposite direction. At just this instant a man jumps out of a car that had stopped on the other side of the road and executes a well-practiced herding maneuver. The gimmer, now realizing that she has people in front and behind decides that the gate is a good choice and sails in. Once more over the muck, my red sandals and I tuck her in behind the gate and re coil the wire tie.

The much-needed recruit to the gimmer caper turns out to be a retired farmer. He and his wife, who was expertly driving the car to complete the herding maneuver on that side of the road, have retired from farming but they clearly have not lost their touch with wayward critters. After smiling and thanks we each go on our separate ways. I wonder if he misses chasing down animals or if he is just relieved.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Orkney Stories: The Trip in a Nutshell

A boat named Claymore lumbers through the water.
Where is the lovely Pentalina?
Knobbly paths into her stern but no way out through the bow.
Where is the lovely Pentalina?
Eating, drinking, shopping and lots and lots of talking.
Where is the lovely Pentalina?
St. Margarets Hope coming and going
Angela discovers cold coffee (and likes it)
Sharon gets a sweater/jumper with fish
Alison buys stones
We all buy books and walk the cobbled streets
Tired, tired; homeward leaning
Where is the lovely Pentalina?
Coffee, knitting til the ocean swells and rolls
Find the horizon and hold it fast
Where is the lovely Pentalina?