Thursday, 29 October 2009

In praise of nettles ~

Planting the tomatoes was a much faster, simpler job than getting the beans in, and I was pleased to have done it but it was finding the nettle seedlings that was really exciting - I thought they'd all evaporated! There are quite a few and hopefully more will follow. These are the small variety of nettle - Urtica urens, not the much bigger variety which in New Zealand is referred to as Perennial Nettle. The latter is classed a notifiable pest in Otago as well as in a number of other regions due to it's invasive tendencies. The smaller one represents no such threat.

When I mention this enthusiasm I usually get two responses which follow each other in quick succession, the first being "You what...?" or similar, then "But they sting! People are allergic to them". This is true, they certainly do sting, and yes, some people do have an allergic reaction, but nettles are a lot easier to handle than the average rose, which draws no similar complaint, and people can be allergic to many things, even foods that are of great benefit to others, such as eggs and nuts! The sting doesn't bother me much. I usually cover my skin and wear gardening gloves so it's seldom a problem, and if I do get 'stung' I pretend to ignore it as I'm such a fan.

The reason nettles are so special is because they are the host plant of larval caterpillars of Admiral butterflies. They seem to eat little or nothing else. In New Zealand we have the Yellow and the Red Admiral.
Here is a Yellow one inspecting my nettles last summer:


And of course, once the butterflies hatch they need nectar to feed on. The hebe is a favourite. There are two butterflies in this image. See if you can find the second one!


Butterflies, along with bees, are major pollinators and vital in our production of fruit and vegetables. Without them we could be very hungry indeed. Sadly, butterflies and moths are in decline around the world. Part of the reason seems to be loss of habitat as well as the extensive use of chemical horticultural sprays. The following two websites mention this. In the first one David Attenborough launches a campaign to address this alarming issue, in which he is supported by David Bellamy. The second is more general.

While I was looking for background information I was pleased to find this article by Kennedy Harris, a fellow nettle and butterfly enthusiast.
Having a clump of nettles in the garden is one way in which I contribute to the world conservation effort. It's easy and free, and watching the caterpillars and butterflies is a happy occupation. Not all of them make it to adulthood of course, but some of them do, and with them the cycle of renewal continues.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

"Do what you can, with what you have, where you are"

This quotation comes from Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States. He lived from 1858 to 1919, quite a while back, yet much of what he said remains contemporary. The quote is one I often call to mind when I'm overwhelmed - either by too much or too little.

In relation to the 'too much' scenario it brings me back to myself when the world at large seems alien and out of control, of helping me focus instead on what my situation is, what my most immediate needs are, on what I am doing to stay sane and calm and active in my own small way.

In relation to the 'too little' scenario, my concern is usually to do with too little control, too little money, or a paucity of stamina.

Note repetition of the control theme in each case. Some may see this as an indication of a controlling personality, and there may be those who perceive me this way. However, loss of personal power is known to be a major stress factor, which possibly impacts more on thoughtful people like me who see themselves as outsiders.

I do tend to panic about issues which affect us now and look set to increase incrementally in the near future: global warming, climate disaster, food shortages, economic and political turmoil... It seems that how we respond to these challenges now is going to define what happens on this planet for a very long time to come.

Reading the on-line article entitled "The global food crisis: the end of plenty" by Joel K Bourne Jr, (National Geographic magazine, June 2009) drove this home eloquently. Thanks for the link, Grace, and I agree, everyone should read it.

The article clearly outlines, not the likelihood but the certainty, that as the world's population increases, which it will massively, pressure on resources will also increase which will force the price of basic foods ever higher. Noticed how these have already been hiking up over the last year or so? This trend is not confined to 'undeveloped' economies - it's just that it affects them worse. In previous decades the problem of world food shortages has been addressed by intensive and increasingly artificial methods of food production. While these solutions have worked wonders for a while, there are parts of the world where resulting issues have already brought the food shortages back to crisis point and with local resources in a worse state than before.

We have to get our heads straight about this. It's not a problem that requires huge braininess, but it does require applied intelligence and shared commitment if we are to survive the environmental impact of our collective stupidity.

In searching for the origin of the above quote (a military handbook!) I found other interesting speeches made by President Roosevelt. They show not only that he was a visionary and man of action but also that we haven't changed at all. The problems he identified are still with us, casting longer darker shadows with the increase of population, our technological capability for harming each other, the toxic waste we create and our heedlessness of others. In using the term 'others' I refer not only to our fellow humans but to all other life forms. They have after all been here far longer than we have.

In 1912 he included these statements in a speech made to the Senate and the House of Representatives:
"The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our National life. We must maintain for our civilization the adequate material basis without which that civilization can not exist. We must show foresight, we must look ahead. [...] The reward of foresight for this Nation is great and easily foretold. But there must be the look ahead, there must be a realization of the fact that to waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed. For the last few years, through several agencies, the Government has been endeavoring to get our people to look ahead and to substitute a planned and orderly development of our resources in place of a haphazard striving for immediate profit."
And further on in his speech:
"Optimism is a good characteristic, but if carried to an excess it becomes foolishness. We are prone to speak of the resources of this country as inexhaustible; this is not so. The mineral wealth of the country, the coal, iron, oil, gas, and the like, does not reproduce itself, and therefore is certain to be exhausted ultimately; and wastefulness in dealing with it to-day means that our descendants will feel the exhaustion a generation or two before they otherwise would. But there are certain other forms of waste which could be entirely stopped--the waste of soil by washing, for instance, which is among the most dangerous of all wastes now in progress in the United States, is easily preventable, so that this present enormous loss of fertility is entirely unnecessary. The preservation or replacement of the forests is one of the most important means of preventing this loss. We have made a beginning in forest preservation, but it is only a beginning."
The speech is complex and lengthy, wide-ranging in subject matter, in vision and in multiple practical applications. If interested you can read it in full here.

Having located this material and made jottings I once more felt overwhelmed, and, I have to say, distressed. I remembered another quote which helps me at such times: Anne Frank's father, the only survivor of his family following their incarceration in concentration camps, maintained his willingness to vote for life - he said:
"If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today."
Thank you, Otto.

I went outside and planted the bean seedlings, which was constructive and calming.

Growing things, including at least some of the vegetables we eat, bottling locally produced fruit and tomatoes, baking using New Zealand grown flour, buying things second hand, walking rather than using the car when I can are some of the things I can control. Talking about it, sharing some of my skills and insights, is another way I can contribute. What happens on a grand scale I can't control, but that is made up of all our little contributions be they active or passive, so I encourage the reader to step out of the modern tide of superficial non-sense, fear and clutter which is so depressing and wasteful, and to consciously exert what influence you can.
"Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."

Monday, 19 October 2009

Rhubarb and ginger muffins

This recipe is a favourite of ours and makes quite the most delicious muffins I've come across. It can be baked as a cake in a ring tin, but I like it so well as muffins I've never tried that alternative. Fancy a special dessert? This recipe may be just what you're after.

Note that quite a bit of preparation time is needed as dicing the rhubarb and crystallised ginger is fairly time consuming. And don't even think of making it without the cystallised ginger!

Ingredients:
Rhubarb, raw – chopped into 1 cm cubed pieces – 4 cups or 450 gms [1 pound]. This is a lot of rhubarb - about six to eight stalks depending on their size.
Brown sugar – 1 cup – well packed, or 135 gms [4 and ½ oz]
Flour – 1 and ¼ cups, or 170 g [6 oz]
Baking soda – 1 tsp
Ginger, ground – ½ tsp, or 1 tsp if you like ginger as much as I do!
Oil – ½ cup
Egg – one
Ginger, crystallised - ½ cup or 90 gms [3 and ½ oz]
Icing sugar for dusting

Method:
Chop the rhubarb and place in a mixing bowl with the brown sugar. Stir well and leave to stand for about 15 minutes. The sugar will liquefy from contact with the fruit.
Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius.
Grease the muffin pans or cake tin.
Dice the crystallised ginger reasonably finely.
Sift together the flour, baking soda and ground ginger and set aside.
Beat the egg with the oil and pour into the rhubarb mixture
Add the crystallised ginger and stir to combine.
Stir in the dry ingredients.
The mixture will seem runny and to consist mostly of fruit, which is correct.
Spoon into the muffin pans or baking tin.
Place in the oven.
If baking muffins the cooking time may be 20 – 30 minutes.
If baking a cake the specified cooking time is one and a quarter hours.
In either case cook until well browned and springy to touch.

These muffins are at their most delicious when eaten hot. If you're careful they can be eased out of their tins soon after being taken out of the oven.
If baking a cake allow it to cool fully before turning out.
Dust with icing sugar just before serving. If you do this any earlier it will tend to melt in and simply add to the general sweetness which isn't needed. The original recipe suggests serving with yoghurt or whipped cream, which I don't think is needed. I've tried serving them with a number of other foods - fruit, custard, etc, and each time like them best by themselves - with a cuppa, of course. :-)

Source: newspaper column, the origin of which has been lost. It was passed on to me by my sister - thanks Big Sis!

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Glad to wake up ~

My cat woke me up by clawing the curtains, and although I usually find this extremely annoying this morning I was glad of it. I had been dreaming I was somewhere in Auckland, alone, didn't know where I was and was walking to an unknown destination in completely the wrong direction. I had walked a very long way, and by the time my dreaming self realised this it was late in the day and the light would soon be fading. So it was a relief to wake up and find myself comfortably in bed! Once properly awake the day outside seemed mighty civilized in comparison. Grey, mizzly and cold it might be, but sitting in the front room, warmly wrapped with a cup of best tea and some munchy jammy toast I could feel my dreamtime angst melting away.

I had my chair facing the window of course, so I could admire my garden: my favourite rose, Tequila Sunrise, is doing very well and the rhubarb has sprung up so vigorously that I'll be able pick some any time I feel like it, a welcome treat after its winter quiescence. The irises have put on a lot of new growth and I'm hoping they will produce flowers this season, which they didn't the last one due no doubt to recovering from subsisting in a single pot for years. It would help if I checked that the corms are partially exposed to the air. It could be a good day for getting my tomato plants in, also the bean seedlings... These possibilities passed pleasantly through my mind while I sipped my tea. Gardening is great: a little work here and there and now and again, and while you're not exerting yourself at all, up it springs and creates all manner of wonders! Just at present it's in a state where I could do work in it, or not, which is a comf0rtable place to be, a position of choice, to busy myself with whatever I fancy.

My cat goggled at me appealingly through the window. She is small, black, fluffy and intense. Her name is Louisa. At my encouragement she made her practiced leap through the open window. It's a big jump as this window is high so she has to think about it carefully first; she springs at the lower window, runs up it as it were, hooks her front paws over the window ledge so she can haul herself up, then she's over and in. This time she chose to linger on the sill pirouetting first one way then the other, fanning her fluffy tail with feminine charm while I petted her. She was damp from the misty air so I decided that the tomatoes and beans in their pots could wait. Maybe I'd clear the pile of papers in my workroom that I've neglected for too long. But that seems far too business-like for this early in the morning; far easier and more pleasant to write a little entry about waking up. My home is a good place to find myself, a good place to wake up in, thank God.

Later: I find I'm dissatisfied with how I've closed the above. I wanted to offer thanks, but to whom or what? Meaning no disrespect, 'God' sounds too religious for where I'm at at present. 'Thank the Lord' has a rather better ring to it but is unsuitable for the same reason but more so. 'Thank goodness'? Quite apart from having already used the word 'good' twice in the same sentence it's too vague; 'Heaven' didn't work either, since it wasn't Heaven I was grateful for, it was the Earth. Ah, the Earth. We don't seem to to be much in the habit of thanking the Earth, without which we wouldn't be waking up from our dreams, either good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. So saying I thank the Earth, and pull on my gardening shoes.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Being neighbourly ~

This morning I found out that Harry is off work on Accident Compensation. He's been having trouble with the carpal tunnels in his wrists which is expected to require surgery. Even holding a cup makes his hands tingle, which is a big worry and hugely limiting.

Harry has never sought us out socially but can be quite chatty if we happen to meet outside. Most of his front teeth are missing which you forget after about the first five minutes, and although he is very much a plain dresser and a no-frills man he has been at pains to let me know that he is most particular about keeping his place just so.

He has a cat called Rex, of some 14 years, who reflects his character to some degree. Rex allows us a nodding acquaintance but makes it clear he doesn't look for anything more! I always chat to Rex when I see him around the place, and sometimes he will give me the time of day but usually he turns his ears sideways, from which I can tell that he's heard me, and keeps his nose pointing straight ahead as he continues on his way without pausing. Although Harry often volunteers conversation there is a certain angular dourness about both of them.

When Harry shared his news with Rewi this morning, Rewi remarked that Rex would be pleased to have him at home more. "Don't know about that" Harry responded. "Have you asked him", Rewi teased. No, he hadn't, Harry replied no doubt with a glimmer of a smile but certainly nothing more. He expressed similar reserve when remarking on his daughter Shelley's move back home. She had chucked her job as a nanny on an inland farm - too much expected for too little, and so on and so on. I know he's very fond of her from comments he's made on earlier occasions, but perhaps the prospect of her undiluted company was a bit of a damper. Anyway, both pieces of news accounted for more than the usual coming and going of late.

I can't imagine how Harry will occupy himself. He's a practical man and a hard worker. Some months ago when business slowed his hours dropped from full-time to sometimes full-time and sometimes not and he was at a distinctly loose end: on one Saturday when he'd been home since Thursday he remarked that he'd done all he wanted to "Yesterday". I found this staggering and was quite envious (briefly) as I've always got dozens of projects which I struggle to get around, quite apart from the ordinary domestic commitments. How different we all are!

In the neighbouring unit where Margaret lives with her two teenage sons there has also been drama but of quite a different sort: they came to live here the best part of a year ago after Margaret's marriage broke up and they've been waiting for the family home to be sold. Well, it's just sold, so I expect she's already looking for a new place and we'll have the prospect of new tenants before Christmas. We will all be crossing our fingers that the next people will be as easy to have next door. ...I already am!

The previous occupants, a couple with two children, were a disaster zone - regularly at war with each other and the woman particularly volatile. As tensions mounted she got in the habit of shouting abuse at both the landlord and landlady as well as her partner, and when they finally moved out left a horrendous mess and an eye-opening quantity of unpaid rent. Amazing how the blame for who's responsible can shift around!

In contrast we've hardly known that Margaret and the boys have been there, apart from the occasional blast of loud music which Kerry, the younger of the two, says is always his brother's. One time when I was out in the garden Bart, the elder boy, was vacuuming his car out with the car stereo going full bore. Since his taste in music didn't chime with mine, I went over to ask him to turn it down. He could see me but not hear, so I put my hands up to my ears. He turned the sound down so we could talk. Was the music too loud? he asked politely. Yes it was rather and would he mind turning it down a bit, I asked. No problem. Which demonstrates the value of knowing people, even if only superficially.

This afternoon when we walked down to the shops Rewi drew my attention to children calling out, and we crossed back over the road to see the young girls who used to live next door. I often used to have them over to do various art and craft activities, so we'd been good friends before they moved away and I hadn't seen them for months. I'd been quite resentful about that actually and felt dumped. All that time and effort I'd given them and they'd never bothered to keep in touch. However, a day or so ago I'd overcome my annoyance enough to e-mail their parents about a cat which has been hanging about which I thought might have been one of theirs. They responded that it wasn't which I was pleased to rule out as a possibility and now today I'd met them on the street.

It's odd the way these things happen. I'd been so resentful yet when they'd sent me a cheery e-mail it started a thaw, and when I saw them today all that melted as we greeted each other with real pleasure. I'm not good at letting go. Today I was careful not to talk for more than a few minutes before saying goodbye, and I didn't reiterate my invitation for them to come around. They know where I am and I don't want to be a doormat - or to get hurt again. And I'm sure they don't mean to hurt me. It's just the way things are sometimes.

So lots has been going on. It's good to know people, and to be known, a little bit anyway.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The view ~ inside looking out

Yesterday when I was sitting at my desk here busily typing away I could see that our new neighbours were moving in. We live in a block of three units and the one at the other end had been empty for some time. My workroom is on the upper level of the house and the desk faces the window which gives me a good view into the street where I see all kinds of comings and goings. Although I am mildly curious about the new people I didn't feel inclined to go across to meet them right away - we'll meet in due course, probably sometime in the coming week and that will be soon enough. I could see that they were making a fairly serious commitment to the place though, from the amount of stuff they were bringing: first the red ute with the tray-back heavily laden, then the red ute again with a further load. An hour or so later a really big truck parked right across the front of all three units and disgorged its contents. Later still in the day, and rather to my surprise, yet another truck arrived, smaller this time, but a truck nonetheless.

Not too much else happened, other than landlord Neil arriving home from his week whitebaiting on the West Coast. I saw him turn in the drive in his shiny black ute, and later unpack his fishing rod. I remarked on this to my partner, Rewi. "Did he go whitebaiting with that?" he remarked absurdly. For those of you who aren't familiar with what whitebait are, the term for both one and many is the same, and a single creature is of similar size and proportion to a modestly sized earthworm. Whitebait come in with the tide at certain times of the year and are caught in nets.

Where ever I am I need a view of some kind. The view here is very much one of people coming and going and pottering about. It's suburban but with pleasantly green surrounding hills which I can see through skeins of power lines. I've learnt to disregard the ugliness of the lines and enjoy the hills. Hopeless for photos though, except for along the street!

The building we live in sits at an angle to the bend in the street so from my workroom I can see well in both directions. From the other side of the house there is an expansive view of the rest of the property which includes the block of two units at the back, then the back of other properties beyond that which face the other way. Over the fence at the northern end I can see into the back yards of other neighbours in the next block of units. I know most of the people who live nearby by name and others by sight. They are all amiable in their way, which is just as well as we live at fairly close quarters, for New Zealand anyway.

Where I grew up we had a very different view from a very different setting. Our home was on a rambling tree-clad hill section with the view focused mainly on the estuary below and the ocean beyond. To the left we could see the distant city and beyond that the mountains. Above it all the sky seemed vast. I haven't lived anywhere else where the sky looked so endless, so high and so wide. We were fairly isolated from other houses and families so we were very much absorbed with each other and the semi-rural area in which we lived.

It wasn't until I moved to surburban Auckland that I realised how much the view meant to me and how ill-equipt I was for life in the city. I missed that long and restful view, and the garden with its glades. Whenever I was on a beach or hill I was aware that I rested my gaze on whatever was far away. And when I didn't have the distance to look at I still found myself habitually looking out the window. I still do. If I'm upstairs here I'm always aware of what it's like outside and what's going on. If I'm downstairs I like to sit and look out into the little courtyard garden at the front. It rests me. I planted the entire garden here myself with the exception of the tall hedge, and I am constantly looking at my garden and examining everything minutely, or simply gazing at it. My need for a view probably stimulated my interest in creating gardens in the first place. I don't want to look just at a fence - I want texture and beauty and growing things, life.

Living in this somewhat restricted spot hemmed in as we are by all these other households is not my first choice at all, but it was what we could get at the time, and there are lots of good things about it. And actually it's been good for me to have to relate to other locals up to a point. I'd so much rather live away in the country, somewhere that I can create my own forest groves and charmed gardens, and write and breathe undisturbed. Which is pretty much the sort of setting in which I grew up. I feel so fortunate to have had that experience, which may not come again.

But as things turned out I've had to learn to relate to people better, to rub along with them as if I belong, which I don't feel I do. I've always been an outsider and fairly solitary, a bit of a loner. Strange as it might seem, being a librarian helped me with this enormously, strange because you might think it would be the ideal job for an introvert, which it isn't: I learnt that I could get along in a friendly enough though superficial way, which is all most people are ever likely to want from me. My role as a service provider in a small community library meant that we had to interact and we got used to each other. I even enjoyed it to some degree. I learnt to like people better. It was good practice.

A number of people helped me learn more about living comfortably, even to enjoy living in a community, but one person takes pride of place: that person is author E. F. Benson whose Lucia and Mapp series continues to be a touchstone, always a reminder to get the very most out of every social situation imaginable, even the unpleasant ones, by observing everything closely, appreciating both drama and boredom, of conjecturing endlessly about all kinds of minute details and above all by participating in it as theatre in which one is both actor and audience. It's harmless, free of charge and wonderfully entertaining. Hence the state of my neighbour Samantha's clothesline becomes an important feature: how much of the washing is actually pegged on today and how much has simply fallen on the ground, and how long has it been there? Harry down the back, who is loves to tinker with his car, and can so often be seen replacing some part or other: last weekend it was the wiper blades; the weekend before that it was something to do with the power steering. Kevin over the back fence spends a lot of time cultivating a large vegetable garden; he has a weather vane which is useful to observe on a windy day, and a revolving clothesline which complains in the wind, but only if there's a load of washing on it, which drives me nuts. If there's a power saw going it's likely to be either Neil, who is often working on something or other out the back, or the man at the end property next to the walkway cutting up yet more firewood on his circular saw.

And I am part of this. How do the neighbours see me? Their chief impression is likely to be of a sun-hatted middle aged woman, moderately friendly, often to be seen doubled over in the garden in her oldest clothes, or - gazing out the window - again! (What can she be looking at?) Taking an interest in all these details means it's never dull here. People who set themselves apart from the little things in life miss out on so much. This discovery was a surprise to me. And through my view I am the richer.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

"The New Encyclopedia of the Occult" - sifting through history

No booklist of mine would be complete without an entry about this remarkable book which was published in 2004. The author, John Michael Greer, is described in the front of the book as having been "a student and practitioner of the Western mystery traditions since 1975".

When I first came across it I was a little put off by the cover: it gave the impression of perhaps containing spells under whose influence I might fall, so I was a bit nervous when I started reading. It turned out to be a gold mine and exactly what I needed - a more objective view of the occult aspects of spiritual and religious practices than I had found elsewhere by an author who was willing to talk about what was true and what was not. This is what proper education should be about: the promotion of dialogue and informed discussion, a characteristic which is conspicuously lacking in the vast majority of literature about religion and spirituality generally.

In the introduction Mr Greer describes the book as "a reference work for practitioners of the many occult traditions of the Western world, as well as for people who are simply curious about magic, alchemy, astrology, Pagan spirituality, or any of the other fields of lore and practice that make up the complex, lively realm of modern Western occultism".

He points out the value of such a book being written by an occult practitioner, and brings a scholarly approach to seeking out historical facts which have often been obscured by mis-interpretation, lack of information, even deliberate fraud.

Testimony to the human desire to be convinced of the supernatural can be found in a range of instances in which the public has resolutely refused to believe disclosures of fraud when these have been made plain, a notable example being the Palladian Order. This determination of the public has given rise to certain untruths being perpetuated as historical fact, which in some cases came to form the basis of cults. The writer chronicles all this with a careful pen and good humour.

It certainly hit the mark for me. When I came across it I was struggling with what amounted to a loss of faith. I had dismantled all my belief systems and had miserably come to the conclusion that most of what I had previously held dear and true was imaginative fiction. Most of my beliefs had centered on New Age 'teachings'. Those of you who are practicing Christians may be nodding your heads sagely. With good reason, you say? Well, you're right, but just so that we are clear, I'll add that I'm not in your camp either. At present I'm standing back from 'believing' and looking rather for what I find contributes to my ability to live a positive, creative and useful life.

One particularly prominent character in the New Age pantheon is Saint Germain. An artist's rendering of him hung on the wall of my childhood home, and in times of trial I would think of him as a source of strength, protection even. I could think of Jesus too, but with somewhat lesser efficacy on account of the dreariness I associated with the Christian church. The literature I had formerly come across described Saint Germain as a French count and part of the French court prior to the revolution. I was familiar with the story of his 'ascension' from the mortal realm to loftier and divine heights from which he could appear and disappear at will. I had also heard of his attempt to warn the French court of the coming revolution after his supposed ascension. As my disenchantment with all things New Age grew, a question mark formed over this personality. What did Mr Greer have to say about him? Here is a small portion of the detailed entry:

"Saint-Germain, Comte de." (Note the hyphen.) "European adventurer, 1691?-1784. Very little is known for sure about this extraordinary person. [...] He was fluent in at least six languages, a brilliant raconteur and conversationalist as well as a skilled musician, painter, chemist and physician. [...] He was also compulsively boastful and vain, surprisingly inept as a diplomat, and not above some exceptionally shady financial dealings." He had many aliases. Mr Greer continues: "The mystery Saint-Germain cultivated lived on after him and his reputation grew uncontrollably after his death." Then, to cap it all: "His last host [...] reported that when the two of them talked about philosophy or religion, Saint-Germain held purely materialist views and rejected both religion and occultism."

As for him appearing to the French court warning of imminent disaster this was a deliberate fraud invented by "a nineteenth century hack writer who made a living from forging fraudulent memoirs." Mr Greer describes these remarks as having been endlessly re-quoted by occult writers. It is a lengthy and colourful entry and closes with the remark that his name remained "one to conjure with".

Oh dear! Despite my increasingly jaded view of New Age and Theosophy-derived thinking I was shocked to read this somewhat sordid tale. Shocked, but not altogether surprised, and after taking time to reflect I concluded that the character of Saint Germain was like the material that grew up around him - full of illusions which appear to have the loftiest content and turn out to be as insubstantial and misleading as fools gold. In fairness to the natural world I must add that minerals which are mistaken for gold are not at fault, it is we who make the mistake in identifying them as such. I do not extend this indemnity to the perfidious if charming Count, so called. Saint he certainly was not.

It's a large book and contains hundreds of entries. Want to read about the history of palmistry or the tarot? It's there. Curious about Madam Blavatsky, the history of alchemy, Gnosticism and the Masonic Lodges, the origin of the mythology of Atlantis? It's all there. Ever heard of the Shaver mystery? Read all about it. Readers with a Christian background need not be put off by there being an entry about "Jesus of Nazareth". It's simply a different view from the one to which you may be accustomed. I found it all fascinating and spent hours wandering from one set of entries to another.

The author closes his introduction with the following: "As this may suggest, the realm of the occult contains truth and nonsense, profound wisdom and prodigious folly. While human beings confront the realms of transformative power that lie just outside the ambit of ordinary consciousness, they reveal their humanity most completely - with all the strengths and weaknesses, brilliance and blundering that this implies. I have tried to present all sides of the picture as clearly as possible; the traditions themselves deserve no less. I hope you, the reader, find the result as entertaining and enlightening to read as it was for me to research and write."

It was. Thank you, Mr Greer!

Book shop links for interested NZ readers:
Fishpond.co.nz
The New Encyclopedia of the Occult

Friday, 9 October 2009

Madeleine Albright and Sister Pauline O'Regan

A number of first rate books have helped me establish my new world view and reinforced fresh emphasis on reason and communication. Madeleine Albright's splendid book, "The Mighty and the Almighty: reflections on Power, God and World Affairs" (2006) was one of these. She was Bill Clinton's Secretary of State and is a first class writer. Not surprisingly she also lectures on Foreign Service.

The book is part autobiography, part history and religious studies lesson. It is bound together with lively and forthright discussion of topics which are of growing global concern. The author's central point is that while religion is best not combined directly with government it is increasingly important to acknowledge it as a profound influence on people's motivation and behaviour. If we take this into account we are much more likely to understand those whose views are different from our own and to be able to work through differences.

She includes a wealth of background information, especially about Islam which has much more in common with Christian teachings than many readers might imagine. Even so, the culture in some Muslim countries is very different to our own and at times I found myself awe-struck as Ms Albright recounted addressing powerful Muslim men on issues such as women's rights along with matters of state. Even though she was a dignitary herself this must have taken considerable courage and conviction, and a firm belief that good could come of it.

Her stories of meetings and discussions with heads of state in far flung areas of the globe take the reader on a fascinating and informative journey. In many ways this is the news behind the news we are more likely to have seen on television.

At a time when international tensions are to some degree fueled by news bulletins focusing on violence and disaster such a book is helpful in shifting ones impressions to a more knowledgeable, peaceable and hopeful place.

Quite apart from the very readable text, the chapter notes and bibliography at the back are worth reading for themselves alone: these are extensive, and the sources of quotations and information many and various, a decisive factor in the book's authority. Not only has the author met and talked with many of the dignitaries she quotes, she also took the further step of submitting her entire draft to both Jewish and Islamic experts for comment and verification, as well as consulting Christians and any number of other people. However, she is careful to emphasize that her decided views and conclusions are her own. I was filled with admiration of her gutsy self-confidence which seems based on a thorough knowledge of her topics, endless dialogue with disparate parties and knowing her own convictions very well indeed!

"There is hope for a tree" by Catholic nun, Sister Pauline O'Regan (1995), was an excellent companion read. Here the writer chronicles aspects of her association with her Church. It is a thoughtful and beautifully written book, and the author's observations are colourful, witty, wise, and at times acerbic. Her description of a social visit to a Catholic home in Northern Ireland in the company of a Presbyterian (Protestant) minister is as astonishing as it is moving. It would seem that reconciliation between such agonisingly opposed groups may be better accomplished directly between ordinary individuals rather than by politicians and soldiers.

Both books strongly underline how important it is that we wish to understand, especially when we don't, and that in tackling conflict that we be willing to communicate constructively for as long as it takes. Both women have committed to this for the long haul in the face of what seem like overwhelming odds. I found I wanted to join them. Inspirational.

Purchasing links for interested NZ readers: 
Fishpond.co.nz - other editions available including audio.  To find them click on the author link of this editions author details.
The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs

Taking time to think ~ Mary Midgley

I first came across philosopher Mary Midgley in a book of interview transcriptions from the UK Woman's hour and warmed to her immediately. That interview took place in 2003 when she was in her mid-eighties. Here was someone who was interested in thinking properly, as I am, and I liked her style.

She described her continuing motivation in tackling big issues this way:
"I see people believing things that I’m sure aren’t right and having a bad effect by so doing, and I think that I could help here by explaining it a bit differently. I have compared philosophy here to plumbing and I think it’s a good comparison. There is s system of ideas running under the world that we live in, and we don’t notice it a great deal of the time, any more than we notice the water. Then sometimes awful smells start coming up from below or the taps don’t run. You’ve got to take up the floorboards and see what’s wrong. This is what I see myself as trying to do and I haven’t stopped feeling like that about it."
This prompted me to read her memoir "The Owl of Minerva" which I thoroughly enjoyed. She studied at Oxford during World War Two, and went on to teach. She started writing books when she was in her fifties, and when she was asked why she had held off from doing so for so long she replied that she had needed time to think.

I identified with this response completely. When I was in my early forties I experienced a grand crisis in which everything, especially my belief systems, came up for review. It was a harrowing experience, and I came to realise that what I had regarded as my own ideas was actually a pastiche of other peoples. This was a shock as I had always taken a certain pride in what I thought was independent thinking. I don't know that we are ever fully independent, to be honest, but there are degrees of it, and after spending further years weighing up my world view I came to a much broader and sounder base for how I see and work things out. It's been a hard-won achievement but a good one.

Like Professor Midgley I hope that sharing some of this may benefit others, not in pushing my own ideas but in prompting others to work out their own. In the words of Gotthold Lessing, a German dramatist-critic of the 1700s, "Think wrongly if you please, but in all cases, think for yourself" - a provoking statement whichever way you look at it! Good!

The interview transcript appears in a book called "Woman's hour: from Joyce Grenfell to Sharon Osbourne; celebrating sixty years of women's lives"

Book shop links for interested NZ readers
"Owl of Minerva" by Mary Midgley
Fishpond.co.nz
Owl of Minerva: A Memoir

"Woman's hour: from Joyce Grenfell to Sharon Osbourne"
Fishpond.co.nz

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Country Calendar - other episodes I've especially enjoyed

As I've said in the item about cornmeal, "Country Calendar" is a wonderful show.
I list some other favourite episodes here for those of you who share my enthusiasm:

"Catlin's organics", which screened on 17th April 09 about the pros and cons of organic farming.
"Of milk and honey", which screened on 15th May 09 featuring a farm which produces organic milk in Southland, including their own ice cream
"Taste of the Land", which screened on 18th July 09 featuring an bio-dynamic (organically farmed) vineyard, Rippon
"Horse sense", which screened on 28th July 09 featuring a new style of natural horsemanship as developed by Kate Hewlett
"Great and small", which screened on 11th July 09 about a retired couple who make cheese from their two cows
And I find I can't leave this one out: "Heaven scent", about a group of sweet pea growers.

Cornmeal and an organics farm near Gisborne

Writing the recipe for Chilli Cornbread reminded me of an episode of Country Calendar about a family who produce cornmeal from their own extensive organically grown maize crops.

All Country Calendar episodes are up on the TVNZ website and can be viewed over the internet.  This is a wonderful service which I encourage you to use.  The only cost is your own internet charge.

This particular episode is entitled "New Growth" and screened on 13th June 2009.
Note that the screen can be enlarged to full size and the larger bandwidth selected which gives really good visual reproduction.

I found this episode really inspiring. Mike and Bridget Parker are a middle aged couple with three teenage children. They decided to go organic when the children were young as a healthy choice for them all and have made a very successful business of it. They farm a number of different crops of which maize is the main one. Just so we get the terminology straight: in New Zealand we more commonly refer to maize as sweet corn, or corn on the cob. And cornmeal, otherwise referred to as corn grits or polenta, is the yellow grain that is made from it along with cornflour and pop corn.

In addition to being farmers they became millers 0f their own corn when someone rang a neighboring farmer asking if anyone local produced organic cornmeal and they decided to put their hand up. Initially they had their corn milled some distance away in Waikato but a year later decided to do it themselves. Pests love to eat the grain which presents a big challenge to organics producers: ordinary commercially produced grain is allowed to be sprayed with up to sixty chemicals while it is in the mill and in storage; the official standard is that the grain must contain no more than five parts per million of what Bridget described as "really nasty stuff". The organic standard is zero.

It was a treat to see the three children - all young adults now - pitching in to help, and the footage of them sitting on the transplanting machine as it was driven up and down the field getting the sweet basil into the ground was most engaging. They were all working flat tack and very dexterously. Heartwarming too, to hear how well each member of the family spoke about the others, with emphasis on listening and co-operation. Best of all they seemed happy together and to enjoy it all.

Chilli Cornbread: casserole or pie ~ whatever you call it it's delicious!

This recipe consists of two parts - the underneath which might be described as a spicy stew, and the topping which contains the cornmeal. It's delicious and very satisfying.

The bottom part is created thus:
About 2 Tbsp butter or a little oil
2 onions
About a cup of pre-cooked lentils - from about 1/2 cup of dried lentils
1/2 to 1 tsp chilli powder according to taste
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp paprika
425 gram can of tomatoes
440 gram can of baked beans
Fry the onions in the butter or oil. Add spices and stir gently before adding the cooked lentils, baked beans and tomatoes.

Now put this to one side and make the cornbread topping:
50 grams of melted butter, or enough oil in which to saute the onion
1 onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup of sour cream or yoghurt
1/4 cup milk
225 gram can of creamed corn, or a tin of whole corn kernels blended.
1 egg
1 cup coarse cornmeal, otherwise known as corn grits or polenta
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup grated cheese
Fry onion in butter (or oil) until soft. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients until evenly combined.

Now it's time to combine the two parts: place the stew part in a buttered oven-proof dish and spoon the cornmeal topping onto the top. Bake at 180 degrees celcius until the topping is firm and golden brown. This could take from 30 to 40 minutes depending on your oven.

A cliff-hanging bird watcher studies fairy prions

In mid September we had Conservation Week, which brought a welcome series of wildlife stories in the local paper, the Otago Daily Times. I particularly enjoyed this one about Coastal Otago Conservation Award finalist, Graeme Loh. His self-assigned project seems so unlikely that I imagine his absorption reflects considerable curiosity as well as love. Why else would you hang over a cliff in the complete dark and exert yourself to count, band, measure and build nesting boxes for wild birds which no one else knew were there. I love his comment: "They seem to like everything I've done for them. I can tell a new bird in a nesting box as it will bite me. They seem to know me". Delightful! Here is the article.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Noise and neighbours ~

Today started well: a beautifully fresh, still, sunny day from which the slight frost rapidly disappeared.

But as the morning progressed we were increasingly disturbed by the noisy revving of cars from a property a short distance up the street. We often get noise of this sort from that place. It's very annoying and I try to practice a tolerant attitude reminding myself that there are far worse things that could be happening which I would find more troublesome, but by about 2pm I was badly frazzled.

I hate noise: it disrupts my nervous system and with it my ability to function normally and especially my ability to think. At such times I could easily dial up a removals company, load all my favourite plants onto a trailer, and depart without a backward glance - until the next time, at the next place.

If humans survive the present age I am sure that future earthlings will refer to this one as the age of noise, which seems only to increase with the passing of time - in my lifetime anyway.

However, I find that this trouble is not confined to the present century or the previous one, as Arthur Schopenhauer's essay, written on the subject in the 1800s relates. I make no claim to be a great intellectual, or even of being an intellectual particularly but I'm right with him on this one! ...And I am sure that it's not only intellectuals who suffer from this form of distress!

Here it is beautifully read by D.E.Wittkower
It's worth persevering past the opening part with the monkey!

Readers who watch the Youtube presentation rather than reading the text may be pleased to know that at the end of the text version the following footnote is given:
"According to a notice from the Munich Society for the Protection of Animals, the superfluous whipping and cracking were strictly forbidden in Nuremberg in December 1858."
Bravo.

Belgium biscuits ~ my variation

These are a good 'plain' biscuit, which is to say, a happy companion to a hot drink without being overly rich.
125 grams (4 oz) butter
75 grams (3 oz) brown sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp mixed spice
2 tsp ground ginger
1 egg
225 grams (8 oz) standard flour
1 Tbsp cocoa - not a usual ingredient in this recipe but I think it makes them more delicious!
1 tsp baking powder

Cream butter, sugar and spices together. Beat the egg and add it in. Sift in flour, cocoa and baking powder. Knead sparingly on a floured board or clean bench just enough to ensure the mixture is properly combined. Roll out thinly a bit at a time, and cut into rounds. Bake on a baking tray for 15 to 20 minutes at 180 degrees celcius (350 degrees fahrenheit).

It's usual to ice half the biscuits with lemon or pink icing and to put them together with the remaining un-iced biscuits with raspberry jam. A sprinkling of red jelly crystals over the icing is also traditional. I like them plain, perhaps spread with a little red jam, or topped with a small amount of chocolate icing. The chocolate icing I use is simply a cup of icing sugar, a tablespoon of cocoa and enough water or milk to make it spreadable. A small knob of melted butter can be included in the icing but this is optional.

Tip: The consistency of the mixture is important. To get this right it's helpful to cream the butter and sugar properly. I grate the butter, then put it in a glass bowl with the sugar and place it in a sink of hot water to soften. It needs to become soft enough for the sugar and butter to completely combine without liquifying. This way it will be possible to roll it lightly whereas if the butter is melted it's impossible to handle and the temptation is to add more flour which isn't otherwise needed.
Enjoy!

Later note: 
Readers who are interested in this recipe may like to compare it with the one given in this article from "The Southland Times".  Baker Jim Fish, who features in the article, has been a professional baker for longer than I've been alive and named Belgium biscuits as a favourite of his own and his customers.  He uses cassia spice rather than cinnamon, which is one spice I'd never even heard of!  Thanks to Grace Dalley for sending me the link!

Baking for ourselves ~

Eating well is important both for nourishment as well as pleasure. At the beginning the year my partner and I decided to stop buying baking from the supermarket. That included all bread. We wanted to have more control over what we eat and also to reduce the degree of control that supermarket operators had over our budget - one week bread would be $3.80, the next it might be two loaves for $2.50, a few weeks later it might be up over $4. When you don't have a lot of money to come and go on this sort of yo-yo-ing can produce undercurrents of anxiety. Later we found out that most commercial baking includes palm oil, the demand for which has resulted in devastation to precious natural forests in remote areas of the world - another good reason for us to do our own baking. I'm a habitual biscuit eater and do eat a lot of bread so it came as a suprise that I didn't miss shop-bought baking at all, and, with the exception of the occasional pack of pastry and crumpets, am proud to say that we have kept up all other baking commitments. Our bread, while variable, is usually good, and I usually manage to bake quite enough cake and biscuits to satisfy our need to these sorts of treats and entertain adequately. I am far from being an expert so recipies have to be easy and I'd like to share some of them here to encourage others who may wish to have a go.

Wonderful Water

Yesterday when I turned on the shower my nostrils were assailed by a blast of chlorine and my heart sank.  Although this is not usual it was expected as our water supply has been switched from the local bores to a "fully treated" supply, which contains chlorine as well as the contentious fluoride.  This is to allow maintenance to be carried out on the bores, which is expected to take five or six weeks.  When I got out of the shower I fancied that the chlorine may have left my skin a little dry and noticed that the drinking water does have a slight odour, but this is slight.  How immensely privileged we are to have this wonderful supply in an age of increasing water scarcity.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Why blog?

I am at present working on content for three very different books. However, this is a long and arduous process, and who knows if any of them will ever make it to publication. In the meantime I have much I wish to share, so this web log is going to be a patchwork of all kinds of things: philosophical and spiritual issues which I've given careful thought, as well as practical tips on gardening, cooking and baking which may be of interest to others who are interested in having more control over what they eat than supermarket shopping generally allows. I will also regularly include links to news items I've found interesting and / or uplifting. There is such an avalanche of depressing news in the general news, that it's good to push the balance the other way for a change. And, since I am an inveterate book-talker there will be book titles, along with general chat and comment. There, that should be enough!