Year of Grace, Day 187. Unlikely Philippine cottages

Some years ago I finally made it to Batanes, the most northerly of the Philippines’ 7,100 islands, having dreamed of them since childhood. These islands and their culture are quite different from the rest of the country. The thatched cottages, built to withstand interminable battering from typhoons, are nothing like the customary ones in Luzon. The walls are built of cobbles — of which there are plenty on the beaches, apparently thrown up by past volcanic eruptions — and set with limestone-based mortar. Some of the historic buildings, such as a  church dating back more than 3 centuries, have walls so robustly set that restorers have had difficulty prying the foundation cobbles apart, even with modern tools. The knack of making such enduring mortar has been lost to local builders; perhaps the secret may still be found in Europe.

This charming cottage seems straight out of a British countryside — Cornwall perhaps or Devon. Minus the exotic palm of course (though in some sheltered parts of Cornwall, protected by the warm Gulf Stream, there are magnificent gardens with subtropical plants).

Who wouldn’t be tempted to have these splendid cobbles or boulders for a wall? Nowadays these are protected.

Boulders sunrise

This wall, from one of the oldest houses, has what look like fossils. Continue reading

Year of Grace, Day 186. Filbert or cobnut?

This morning I awoke to a red squirrel busily foraging within the canopy of the contorted hazel tree (Corylus contorta). A few seconds later, it was joined by a magpie, no doubt attracted by  the flurry of activity. It ended up driving the squirrel away (oh that magpie, such a bully!).  Soon after a curious blue tit, keeping well out of the magpie’s way, flew in as well. Well! Isn’t that just the best indication that the hazelnuts are ripe?

So, I set out to see if I could share in the hazelnut’s bounty this year. We’ve never managed to harvest any – the squirrels and birds have always stripped the trees clean. Now how on earth do they know the nuts are ready? That is indeed a wonder! The squirrels have their homes up in my neighbour Frau Grau’s huge poplar. And the only predictable times they come into my garden are when the yew berries are ripe (they like feasting on the red aril, which is edible, but leave the toxic seed alone, which btw is also a source of the cancer-fighting taxol); they also come when the yew shoots emerge, and later in the year, which is now, when the hazelnuts are ready. After three years, I’ve become quite familiar with the pattern of their foraging.

Unlike me, the red squirrels don’t take a daily walk around the garden to check on the state of the things. Are the hazelnuts emitting some sort of phytochemical signalling that they’re ready and broadcasting, “Come and get it, if you like hazelnuts….” They’ve got to be, and that signal doesn’t get watered down (pardon the pun) by rain, since the steady drizzle the other morning hadn’t stopped the message from reaching straight across the garden, over the fence and beyond, and up the squirrels’ lair. It confirms what I thought the frolicking in the grass under the hazel hedge was all about the other day.

So here is today’s harvest — picked off the grass. There were a lot of shelled and eaten nuts — obviously by Mr. or Ms. Red Squirrel — scattered about there. It is only when the nuts have fallen by themselves or can be shaken from the tree that they are meant to be harvested. (I know, as I tried to steal a march on the squirrels last year by picking them off the tree.)

I can’t tell whether these ought to be called filberts or cobnuts or hazelnuts – there is a distinction apparently, as this article makes clear. English cultivated hazelnuts are known as cobnuts or Kentish cobs, Kent being where wild hazelnuts from continental Europe were introduced and subsequently thrived. Curiously, Kentish cobnuts or cobs were initially called Mr. Lambert’s filberts, named after their domesticator. One origin of “filbert” is the German Vollbart or “full beard,” a fanciful illusion to the frilly overcoat of the nuts; the other is St. Philibert, whose day is celebrated on the 20th of August, which is when filberts are usually ready. Well… there are a number of weeks till then, but I trust the squirrels’ judgment on this one.Whether filberts or cobnuts, they are both hazelnuts (Corylus avellana, Haselnusse). Kentish cobnuts, eaten fresh, are an English late summer to early autumn delicacy. As someone born and raised in the tropics whose prior experience of hazelnuts was limited to the dried variety and inside chocolate bars, I was immensely thrilled to see them fresh for the very first time when we lived in England. I adore seeing them in their pale green, charmingly frilled jackets. Eaten fresh, they are creamy with a subtle tart aftertaste.The red berries are cornelian cherries, Cornus mas, or Cornelkirsche. There are improved varieties of these from Eastern Europe where they are made into preserves and liqueurs. These are still a bit astringent, but perhaps I can make them into jam. I’ve never managed to harvest any before. As with the hazelnuts, the birds have always scoffed the lot before us. This year seems to be our lucky year, as far as the hazelnuts and cornelians are concerned. Praise, praise!

Year of Grace Day 185. A baking spree

We don’t have any grandchildren as yet, but we’re gradually preparing ourselves for the eventuality. I’ve been collecting interesting moulds, shaped like tulips, for instance, and the tiniest cupcake pans. M is currently on a self-taught cookie baking course. He’s already imagining the delights of baking together with tiny assistants and apprentices. He’s just started on the first two of 240 recipes. And just as he likes the challenge of savoury dishes that take over 2-3 days to prepare, like Peking Duck, so his preference is for cookie doughs that need chilling for 4 hours or more, preferably overnight.

The first batch was peanut butter cookies that were almost pure peanut butter – crisp and rich, and as he used the crunchy type, studded with bits of peanuts and the occasional crystalline surprise of sea salt and Demerara sugar. He had an oatmeal-based dough in mind, but No. 1 son preferred it without. This first batch didn’t last more than a couple of days. There was more peanut-butter cookie dough and he elaborated on this by painting them with my home-made quince jelly. These were equally delightful – the slightly tart jelly complementing the slightly salty peanut butter. A peanut butter and jelly cookie!

The next batch was oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries, raisins, and, at my suggestion, bits of Chinese haw flakes (these needed using up). These were just as more-ish as the peanut butter ones.

In the jar — oatmeal cranberry raisin and haw cookies. On parchment – peanut butter and quince jelly cookies.

I know I should be grateful — I am, honestly and truly. If you read this, dear M, please know that I am deeply thankful, and appreciate your most admirable efforts at teaching yourself to bake.

These delights go oh so exceedingly well with my morning or afternoon coffee as well. But… the constant temptation of them in a transparent jar is maddening. Every time I pass by them I think, should I, shouldn’t I? And invariably I should, and after the initial gratification I feel just a wee bit naughty (it’s my weight I’m considering). Perhaps I ought to transfer them to another, preferably opaque, container where they cannot be tempting me constantly?Nachtigal cookie jar from above_1275Nevertheless, for the pleasure of having wonderful home-made cookies that I haven’t made myself (and that haven’t been bought), I am exceedingly and deeply grateful.

Year of Grace. Day 184. On the ordinary and commonplace

I was about to use the word “quotidian” in the title and stopped myself. Could I say it more naturally, that is, in the words I use in my day to day life, in my inner conversations with myself? I began with “On the every day” but that was a tad awkward. I reached a compromise with “ordinary” and “commonplace.”

Why did I begin with “quotidian” in the first place? It’s because one of my favourite authors, Carol Shields, has been called a writer of the quotidian, of the things that happen from day to day. And though perhaps it was meant as somewhat derogatory by the literary critic whose comment it was, it is precisely because Carol Shields writes about the ordinary lives of ordinary people that I enjoy reading her.

The website devoted to her work notes that a recurrent theme in Shields’ books is the trajectory of a person’s life. My favourite of all her books – Larry’s Party — is a celebration of how an ordinary person’s life ends up becoming rather extraordinary with maturity and consuming passions, intellectual, aesthetic, or otherwise. The protagonist is a florist (and male – perhaps a dig at customary male roles in fiction?) whose life expands in unexpected directions, intellectual and artistic, as he discovers a passion for hedge mazes on a trip to England. Perhaps as a plantswoman and gardener, and for one brief period a florist as well, I can relate to Larry and the amazing transformation of his life.

How did I end up writing about Carol Shields today? Well, yesterday I mentioned Hemda Ben-Yehuda, whose husband is noted for having transformed a dead language, i.e., liturgical Hebrew, which had not been used in daily life for ages, into a living one. She certainly deserves as much credit as he does; I see it as him providing the hardware — the structure of syntax and grammar and vocabulary — but she provided the operating manual for it.

She did it by writing a column (under a pseudonym) in the newspaper that she and her husband published to disseminate and promote the use of modern Hebrew. But instead of the more weighty topics that others wrote about, apparently she wrote about everyday life as she experienced it. And while I have yet to read any of her writing (I have to check if they’ve been translated into English), I imagine that by doing so, her readers gained a better perception of how to apply this new language in their daily life.

Imagine yourself being transported to a completely alien environment, and not having a clue as to what the strange items in the market are. Are they vegetables or fruit? Does one cook them? Can one eat them raw? How does one prepare them? I would hope that Hemda wrote about these novel vegetables and fruits and other things she saw in the market and on her way there, and named them for her readers new to this strange yet familiar land. I would hope that she described things she encountered everyday – the trees, the plants, the flowers; the games her children played. (Btw her children were the first to have Hebrew as a first language, as their family was the first to be totally Hebrew-speaking.)

Because I write about the things in my day-to-day life as well – my garden, the wildlife that inhabit and regularly visit it, whatever I am cooking or experimenting with, the fruits and vegetables that come into season, the flowers that are in bloom – I feel a certain kinship with Hemda Ben-Yehuda. And I believe she deserves more than just a footnote for her role in promoting modern Hebrew. And moreover as I had mentioned yesterday, the gift of her cakes was certainly a, if not the, great motivator in her neighbours’ willingness to learn and use the new language.

Which calls to mind a scene from the Tel Aviv market last year. Three women crowded around another buying mangold leaves. These dark green leaves on sturdy white stalks are also known as Swiss chard or blette in French. They are rather similar to what Filipinos know as pechay, only mangold leaves are much larger and coarser. What is it, one of the three asked. How do you cook it? And the one buying it then proceeded to explain how and went through the steps of her recipe. I didn’t manage to catch everything, but I really appreciated the camaraderie of women – who didn’t know each other at all – gathering around a potherb seller’s stall and discussing the merits of each of those greens, and more importantly, what to do with them. And later, a nephew-in-law demonstrated how to cook them the Yemenite way. Absolutely delicious!

One of several red squirrels that visit my garden

One of several red squirrels that visit my garden

Today I came upon a red squirrel hopping and scratching about under the hazel trees. He or she hasn’t been around in a long while. The hazelnuts must be ripe enough to eat, was my thought of the morning. Apparently one doesn’t pick hazelnuts from the tree: when ripe, they fall to the ground, and one harvests them off the ground. As I write, I see the squirrel hopping about at the other end of the garden, despite the steady drizzle. This is the second time it has rained after I’d thoroughly watered the plants (what a waste of tap water, eh?), but the white hydrangea’s leaves were wilting and I couldn’t give it water while neglecting the other plants. Watering my potted plants well or washing the windows or the car – sure makes it rain everytime ☺. It is only the beginning of August, and yet because of the rain and the gradually cooling temperatures, not to mention the squirrel starting to gather nuts for winter storage, I can feel autumn is making itself felt. And yesterday too, I detected a change, subtle but noticeable, in the quality of the light in the sky. I am loth to bid goodbye to summer, even though autumn is my favourite season.

Year of Grace, Day 183. Capturing the butterfly of the moment

The act of writing, or drawing for that matter — of making fast those ephemeral thoughts, impressions, ideas, emotions, visions, hopes, yearning that flit across our minds over the course of our waking and dreaming life – is what I believe distinguishes human intelligence from any other kind of intelligence on this earth. How setting pictographs or alphabets on stone, clay, or plant-based sheets came about is the stuff of myth in many cultures — gifts from various gods, from Zeus’ daughter, from the Hebrew God to Moses, from the Egyptian god Thoth, the Babylonian god Nabu, from Brahma, Odin, and so forth. And when I think about the process of ascribing meaning and/or sound to these symbols – let’s imagine this scenario for a moment and say it’s one person waking up one day and yelling “Eureka!” and convincing other people to accept these symbols and their embedded meanings or sounds — I am inclined to agree that writing systems are more than likely to have been divinely inspired, if not bestowed outright.

More realistically though, I think it would’ve been several and not just one person creating such a system. And the process would not have been anything like spontaneous generation: it would have been exceedingly laborious and complex. It would’ve taken a group of people years to agree on such a system of conveying meaning and sounds, of seemingly “magicking” the real world’s tangible objects and intangible concepts  into the condensed and abstract forms of a written language. We do have a contemporary example of one person creating a modern language — one that is widely spoken today as a first language, and I don’t mean Esperanto. That exceptional person is Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, often regarded as the resuscitator of Hebrew from the dead in the early 1900s, who transformed it from its purely liturgical use into a vibrant  language spoken and written by 9 million people today. To achieve that, he had to have been such an absolute single-minded tyrant, beginning with forbidding his wife and children from speaking anything else but his newly minted language. The transformation could not have been instantaneous – far from it. To encourage neighbours to learn the new language and drop Yiddish or Ladino (whichever language of the Jewish Diaspora they were accustomed to), apparently Ben-Yehuda’s wife, Hemda (born Paula Bella Jonas), went around to sweeten the linguistic transformation with her own unique contribution – her home-made cakes. Come to think of it, perhaps the cakes may have stimulated the language-learning more readily than stern Eliezer’s strictures. Which begs the thought — how many wives or other female collaborators throughout the ages have  contributed, directly or indirectly, to men’s creations and gone  unrecognized? Or perhaps hidden their own achievements thus? More than we shall ever know, that’s for sure. More on Hemda Ben-Yehuda in a later post: a journalist and writer whose first language was Russian, she mastered basic Hebrew in six months.

Back to writing and my thoughts on writing my life’s journey in this grace journal (the words “journal” and “journey,” both stemming from “day” in French: “jour”). As Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) once said, “It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by.” I’ve never sustained regular, almost daily, writing before, but have now gotten into the habit of blogging upon waking. Not everyday, but oftener than once a week. Occasionally I may read the Wei Wu Wei Archives or the Wisdom Blog first to get my brain cells primed to be in the moment, to be aware, though more often than not, whatever I write is sparked by photographs I’d taken the previous day. “How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment?” Sackville-West continues: “For the moment passes, it is forgotten, the mood is gone; life itself is gone.”

A variant Monarch butterfly on Asclepias curassavica, aka Mexican butterfly weed. Taken just outside Villahermosa, Chiapas, Mexico.

And that is indeed why I continue to write. Not only to record the ever-changing landscape inside and outside my mind and share it, but as Sackville-West has done, “to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment.”

Peacock butterfly on Buddleia davidii, taken in my garden in  Leamington Spa.

Peacock butterfly on Buddleia davidii, taken in my garden in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, UK.

Year of Grace, Day 182. Half a year’s grace

Between today and tomorrow, I shall have posted half a year’s worth of gratefulness, praise, and wonder for the little things that give grace to my life. That I have done so is a marvel in itself. I had not imagined I could find things to write about for more than a few weeks, let alone months.

For years, I have been photographing things in my daily life as an aide-memoire and graphic journal, but it was not until I had set up this framework of a year of grace that inspired me to set them and my thoughts and memories into writing on a regular basis. Thank you to my high school friend A whose encouraging words set me on this path.

Today, I am grateful that the Japanese-style meal I’d planned for breakfast came out rather well. Grilled salted salmon, miso shiru (miso soup), umeboshi (pickled Japanese plums), and even some natto furikake (fermented bean and nori sprinkles for rice). Rice was short-grain pudding rice (Milchreis), the closest thing to Japanese rice, which is also what we use for sushi btw. There was even some tsukemono (pickled vegetables), in this instance wine-pickled sauerkraut. The authentic Japanese stuff were courtesy of No. 2 son, who was here for a visit just over a month ago. This morning’s occasion? No. 1 son is visiting us, and the breakfast was a throwback to his childhood years spent in Japan.

Another small thing I am grateful for is that the bamboo plants have flourished so much since I planted them three years ago, that I was able to cut a young culm and fashion it into chopstick rests. ☺

It’s still summer, or so I would like to think, but temperatures over the past few days are already ushering in autumn. Nevertheless, the sun is out today and was yesterday as well, and for this I am equally grateful. It makes such a difference to my spirits when it is sunny.

But of all the things I am grateful for today, is for this visit from No. 1 son. It is such overwhelmingly pure joy to have a grown child visit. All praise and deep gratitude for this super special treat.