Field Clocks

Excerpt from the Crescenzi calendar (c. 1306) via Wikimedia by Pietro de' Crescenzi

Excerpt from the Crescenzi calendar (c. 1306)
by Pietro de’ Crescenzi via Wikimedia

There’s something reassuring in the routine of sowing and harvest. It’s not just the crucial aspect of food security.

It’s one way we, as humans, keep time. A vast clock that we make every year anew.

A nearby field, ready for final clearing. All photos: PKR

A nearby field, ready for final clearing.
All photos: PKR

It’s blazing hot here, and as I wrote yesterday, the local farmers are using the heatwave to cut, dry and bale the early wheat crop. The air is thick with the sweet scent of cut grain.

Prickly wheat heads try and hitch a ride on my socks as I run past. Even though they’ve been processed and sown and harvested, hitching a ride is just what seeds do.

The same field, less than 24 hours later.

The same field, less than 24 hours later.

In the pre-industrial era, how long would it have taken to work one complete grain cycle on this field? It would certainly have required a vast collective effort.

Even today, most of the large machinery is shared between local farmers. But a harvest like this only takes a day or so from start to finish, and the same machines can be seen rotating around the village this week, cutting and baling one field after another.

Ready for the next crop.

Ready for the next crop.

Locals tell me that sometime in the middle of the last century, fields were mandated to lay ‘outside’ the village so it could develop into a more ‘residential’ locale – but it’s only recently in the last 15 years that this tiny village of 700 inhabitants started really growing. Even when we moved here back in the 1990s, it was mostly families who had been here for generations, most of them with small farms that encircle the village like a moat.

Now, with new apartment developments springing up faster than summer corn, and the farmer families selling their land and moving away, the harvest is seeming more and more like a clock that is slowly winding down.

The Harvesters (1565) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder via Wikipedia

The Harvesters (1565)
by Pieter Brueghel the Elder via Wikipedia

Year-Round Gardening

After ringing in 2014 with good friends, I was thinking on this first morning of the New Year about the annual milestones and celebrations provide a mooring for the passage of time.

Door to the Chancellery of the City and Canton of Geneva, Switzerland Photo: PK Read

Door in Geneva, Switzerland
Photo: PK Read

Actually, what I was really thinking about was how helpful it is to have regular markers, seasonal dates and observances to create a recognisable path through what might otherwise be an overflowing delta of uncollected life events.

Ever-ready trowel at the gate to the farm kitchen garden next door. Photo: PK Read

Gate to the farm kitchen garden next door.
Photo: PK Read

I don’t mean clocks and calendars so much as moments like New Year’s Eve, an otherwise unremarkable night that acts as a passage from one time to another. And with it, the reflections on the past and resolutions for the future, as if the tools for constructing the way forward aren’t always ready and at hand.

Regardless of which markers we use in our own country or cultures, time and life flow forward at their own pace.

Layers of time in the Long View
Source: The Long Now

So, Happy New Year and best wishes for 2014, but also: Best Wishes for Now, all the time.

Solstice Unspools

Another winter unspools

Winter’s coil

Welcome Winter Solstice 2013. Last year I was relieved that the Mayan End of Days turned into just another day; this year, I’m relieved that the icy grip of early winter thawed for long enough to do some end of year, last-minute garden work.

We’ve been keeping ourselves warm with our Whisky Advent Calendar, and there are a couple of standouts thus far. Both of them are Speyside single malts.

One is the Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask, which is aged in oak casks for fourteen years before being transferred to rum casks for a finishing touch. Very smooth and rich in caramel and vanilla notes, it also carries a swingy basket of exotic fruit – mango, nectarine.

The other current favorite was a discovery for me, a Tomintoul 14 Year Old. It had a creamy, almost buttery taste, like an almond croissant, with a bit of apple and orange. It also seems to be a good value for its reasonable price.

Mistletoe hangs in a tree near our house

Mistletoe hangs in a tree near our house

I’m ready – well, as ready as I’ll ever be – for the snow to pile up.

Better, I’m ready for my favorite part of the winter solstice, the lengthening of days, the shortening of nights.

That said, now that the fog of the last couple of weeks has lifted, it’s almost ungrateful to wish for shorter nights, as the clear sky has been an indigo veil cast with countless gems and the crown jewel of the Full Cold Moon.

A little moon music to warm the coming winter nights.

Summer Farewell

A walk during the last evening of summer on the Autumn Equinox.

The images aren’t as sharp as they could be, much like my memories of this long season.

Mont Blanc across the Lake  Geneva basin. Photo: PK Read

Mont Blanc across the Lake Geneva basin.
Photo: PK Read

Welcome autumn, season of harvest and provision, of warm golden days and crisp evenings.

Jura mountains, facing the Rhône Valley. Photo: PK Read

Jura mountains, facing the Rhône Valley.
Photo: PK Read

A favorite season, the season of new seeds ready to be hardened by winter in the trust that, against all expectations, they will sprout in spring.

Autumn field, just plowed for winter planting. Photo: PK Read

Autumn field, just plowed for winter planting.
Photo: PK Read

Moon and Moss

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

It finally stopped snowing here. We had a single glorious clear afternoon and night last week, during which I took the picture of the full moon rising behind the budding plum tree in our garden. Depending on the culture (according to the Farmer’s Almanac), this is the:

Full Worm Moon – the ground begins to thaw, earthworm casts appear, heralding the return of the robins.

Full Crow Moon – when the cawing of crows signaled the end of winter

Full Crust Moon – the snow cover becomes crusted from thawing by day and freezing at night.

Full Sap Moon, marking the time of tapping maple trees, is another variation.

Lenten Moon – the last full Moon of winter.

Since then, non-stop rain. At least the moss on our trumpet vine is having a season of plenty.

Our mossy vinePhoto: PK Read

Our mossy vine
Photo: PK Read

Renewable Spring

Polyethylene strand

Polyethylene strand

In the spirit of eternal renewal, on this first day of spring I thought I’d talk about plastics. Infinitely adaptable, modern plastics are integral to modern life more than almost any other material. Plastics are the very stuff of modernity. Take away the excessive packaging, the unnecessary plastic bags, the plastic drink bottles and even the plastic baby diapers (none of which will ever really leave us, long after we have stopped producing and using them), we would still have a life based on some kind of plastic.

What is one of the best ways to know we are watching a film about old-timey times, or to make light of a backward culture? Everything is made or being done with wood, metal, horn, stone. No plastics.

A 17th-century definition of plastic describes something that is “capable of shaping or molding,” from Latin plastics, and from Greek plastikos “able to be molded, pertaining to molding, fit for molding.” Our human inventiveness has demanded nothing less than materials which can be shaped to our demands. It has only been during the last fifty years that the term ‘plastic’ has come to mean ‘false’ or ‘artificial’ in a perjorative sense.

We used to produce plastics that were based on natural materials we could mold. Horn, and later hard rubber. But, like all natural things, these have the tendency to break, to deteriorate, to lose their form.

So we adapted, and made better plastics. And now here we are, with a vast array of plastics based mainly on polyethylene, a material that is made from one of our other favorite elements of modernity, petroleum. Not only do we have plastics that do whatever we want them to, we also have them forever because even when are finished with them, they are not finished with us. We have mountains of plastic trash on land, vast , island gyres of plastics in the oceans, plastic molecules in our water and in our food.

It is impossible to think away plastics, no matter their immense downstream costs. At an annual production rate of 80 million metric tons (2008), plastics are big business, and they make big business possible wherever they are used.

Still: We can cut down our production and consumption, even if that process tends to come up against our stony stubbornness as humans rather than our plastic adaptability. We can find new materials to mold to our needs, ones that are lasting but also fall into their respective components after a reasonable amount of time has passed.

So, on this vernal equinox of 2013, I salute our ongoing ability to renew, to mold and adapt our expectations, to grow and find our way ahead even after a long, dark winter.

Oceans of GarbageVia:

Oceans of Garbage



Plastics Are Forever website

TED2013: The Young, The Wise, The Undiscovered – Plastic Eating Bacteria

Mother Jones Magazine article – Biodegradable Plastics

Addicted to Plastic (documentary preview)

A bigger snowflake

Art & Photo: Simon Beck

Art & Photo: Simon Beck

It’s raining here, the snow at our altitude is all but gone, the first flowers have already pushed up through the recently thawed earth. But just a little more than an hour’s drive from my doorstep, up in Val d’Isère of the French Alps, it’s still winter. So I thought I’d post a picture of what one guy is doing up there besides skiing.

Simon Beck is snowshoeing instead. But in very specific patterns.

One week until vernal equinox.

Simon Beck’s Facebook pages here and here.

Simon Beck at work

Simon Beck at work

Whisky Mo’ (Advent Calendar revisited)

A winter month (almost) of whiskiesPhoto: PK Read

A winter month (almost) of whiskies
Photo: PK Read

Over the month of last December, we had the pleasure of exploring an Advent calendar comprised completely of whisky. I never got around to talking about its contents, but I thought I’d remedy that oversight by starting with an image of all 24 whisky days. In the interests of full disclosure, I will admit that we did not finish all 24 bottles in the allotted amount of time (i.e. between the 1st and 24th of December). It took us a bit longer, although we were very good about unpacking each new bottle from its nest.

Next week I’ll list each whisky day by name.

This song deserves a better video, but I couldn’t get it out of my head today.

A Bodleian picture a day for Advent

Bodleian Library, Oxford

I ordered this Bodleian Advent calendar the other day – it features an image of famous Oxford works in the Bodeleian library, dotted with 24 small doors, which open to show famous paintings from the library. It will be placed next to my eagerly awaited Whisky Advent Calendar, which has not yet arrived.

This morning I received a massive, padded envelope labelled ‘Documents Enclosed’, with a shipping slip in plastic attached to the front. I thought maybe I’d gotten x-rays taken and forgotten about them. Or finished a university degree in my sleep and the diploma was arriving in the mail. What I’m saying is, I didn’t remember any recent activity that would have generated the mailing of Documents in such a  fine and official envelope.

So I gingerly opened the envelope, and found: My Bodleian calendar. No note, no further documents, just the mailable calendar, along with its own mailing envelope. Huh. Those Oxford folk really do things up right! Also, thanks for the super envelope, which is lovely, reusable, and probably more expensive than the calendar itself.

(If you want your own, I can’t promise you’ll get the beautiful mailing package, but the shop is

Now I’m disappointed that the card, its envelope and the shipping envelope didn’t come gift-wrapped in a box, inside a bigger box.