Saturday, May 23, 2015

How it was done

Back when a book was a precious work of art.

In monasteries, novices were never allowed near a psalter book. Part of the training of a young monk was to memorise the entire psalter. Once he could recite it all from memory (in Latin, of course) he was taught to translate it. He learned the chant by rote.

Only a small group of monks in any monastery were chosen to form a "schola" in which they would learn the difficult parts of the Office, the hymns and complicated antiphons for the big feasts. In the schola, the single large song book would be placed on a tall lectern and the monks would gather 'round and all sing from the same book, with one monk given the task of turning the pages as they went along.

This is what our monks do here in Norcia, though of course, novices are no longer required to memorize the entire 150 Psalms.


Oooooooo! Puuuurdy!

Doing a bit of research. It looks like there's other people who like this stuff.

Stuff like this:

(These go by way too fast, but, you know, there's the pause button...)


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Elderflower champagne recipes

Here, here and here. And here's Hugh's.

And elderflower liqueur, elderflower cordial + a Wiki page on it, and another recipe, plus Hugh's version.

And, just for fun, sloe gin.


La Sampogna

The Sampogna is a wooden flute made from the sambuca tree, probably originally by mountain shepherds. There is also an Italian bagpipe, also used by shepherds...when there still were Italian shepherds that is, called a Zampogna.

"Pliny records the belief held by country folk that the shrillest pipes and the most sonorous horns were made of Elder trees which were grown out of reach of the sound of cock-crow. At the present day, Italian peasants construct a simple pipe, which they call sampogna, from the branches of this plant."

I can imagine, at least it seems reasonable to assume that the zampogna, that you hear all over Italy at Christmas, is named after the earlier simpler flute named after the Sambuca tree.

Herblore. It's fun!


Brewing tasty May beverages

So, I went out for a long stomp yesterday afternoon in the Marcite, and was specifically looking for more cleavers. I usually collect up a bunch of it about this time every year, dry it and use it for a tea that's supposed to be anti-cancer and helpful to the lymphatic system. It's quite nice with nettle and chamomile and I'm nearly out.

Well, as usually happens when you go shopping, I ended up coming home with everything but. It turns out that sambucca, that the English call Elder and Linnaeus (and Pliny) called Sambucus nigra, is extremely abundant here. I mean, forests of the stuff, and it's all in bloom right now. I had no idea how lovely it smells! And there are cartloads of it out there.

The Elder, with its flat-topped masses of creamy-white, fragrant blossoms, followed by large drooping bunches of purplish-black, juicy berries, is a familiar object in English countryside and gardens. It has been said, with some truth, that our English summer is not here until the Elder is fully in flower, and that it ends when the berries are ripe.

The word 'Elder' comes from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld. In Anglo-Saxon days we find the tree called Eldrun, which becomes Hyldor and Hyllantree in the fourteenth century. One of its names in modern German - Hollunder - is clearly derived from the same origin. In Low-Saxon, the name appears as Ellhorn. Æld meant 'fire,' the hollow stems of the young branches having been used for blowing up a fire: the soft pith pushes out easily and the tubes thus formed were used as pipes - hence it was often called Pipe-Tree, or Bore-tree and Bour-tree, the latter name remaining in Scotland and being traceable to the Anglo-Saxon form, Burtre.

The generic name Sambucus occurs in the writings of Pliny and other ancient writers and is evidently adapted from the Greek word Sambuca, the Sackbut, an ancient musical instrument in much use among the Romans, in the construction of which, it is surmised, the wood of this tree, on account of its hardness, was used. The difficulty, however, of accepting this is that the Sambuca was a stringed instrument, while anything made from the Elder would doubtless be a wind instrument, something of the nature of a Pan-pipe or flute. Pliny records the belief held by country folk that the shrillest pipes and the most sonorous horns were made of Elder trees which were grown out of reach of the sound of cock-crow. At the present day, Italian peasants construct a simple pipe, which they call sampogna, from the branches of this plant.

Well, what do you do, if you're English, with lots and lots of elderflower?

You make elderflower champagne... durrr...

I could have brought home a houseful, and I think it's finally time to go down to the garden centre and buy me some a them really huge galvanized buckets. I'm gonna need a bale of cheesecloth too. Maybe I'll see how my mosquito nets work. And I'm going to get some of the bottles with the lever-caps too.

The monks gave me a little packet of leftover yeast from their last brew. 200 g will do me for a whole season's worth of brews. I'm looking at mead ("idromele") recipes and of course, the sambuca will produce a huge crop of berries in the late summer/early autumn, so there's going to be loads of elderberry cordial and maybe I'll try my hand at elderberry wine.

I might also have to buy another big metal shelving unit and put it in the workroom/spare room to store all this stuff.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Hmm... that's an odd feeling.

I've just erased eleven years worth of emails from my inbox and changed the account name.

It was weird to scroll through a decade of my life clicking "delete," but I feel now oddly like I've finally got clear sinuses and can breathe again after a long time with a cold. For the last few days, I've been unsubscribing and cancelling all my email subscriptions, news alerts and lists and memberships. Last week I closed my work-related Facebook account, and it all feels so good, I'm looking around wondering what else I can delete.

A long time ago, a friend of mine said that she never stored old emails. She would read it and respond and delete. If it was something important enough to keep, she'd file it under "electric bill" or "directions to mum's house" or whatever. I thought this was an odd thing to do at the time, but now I see the sense of it.

If anyone wants to know my new email address, PM me. I'll be blocking the old one as soon as I figure out how.


For the English Cats are the best in Europe

For I will consider my cat, Joffrey

a fragment of a fragment,
by the mad poet, Christopher Smart

For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Tea for a broken heart

Everything is in full bloom at the moment, including all the very best medicinal and therapeutic wild herbs. I filled a small bag with Red Clover flower heads the other day. I am drying them on the window sill with some wild rose petals.

Combine the dried petals, some crushed dried rose hips and a small handful of clover flowers to make a tisane. Just a tiny half teaspoon of honey, and it will pick you up better than chamomile.



This is egg tempera, one of the major techniques of the middle ages. Ever wondered how these paintings get their astonishing depth, subtlety and translucence of colour? Layers. Layers upon layers upon layers.


What's next

Well, maybe never mind hiatus. I kind of feel like chatting with y'all.


Woke up late this morning, and realised that I had been unconsciously waiting for my little furry alarm clock to come in and walk on my head and demand her breakfast. The first moments of waking up are going to be confusing and difficult for a while.

Am I being dumb that I can't stand the idea of putting away her food dish?

For the last few months, Winnie had been having trouble jumping up onto the armchairs and sofa, so I built a little cat-ladder by piling cushions next to her favourite spots. I had become so used to straightening and restacking the cushions next to the chairs that I just found myself doing it again. I've put them away now.

Honestly, I feel terrible. And I feel dumb for feeling terrible. Not very British all this maudlin mooning about over a cat. (Though I think most British people would agree that cats are usually nicer than people.)


So, I've had quite an offer. The monks have said that I can sell my saint-paintings in their gift shop, and have even offered to let me collect some of the old (five hundred year-old) ceramic tiles from the ruined monastery they own and are slowly renovating and use them as the canvases for extra value-added awesomeness. I'm told the tourists will eat them up like chocolate pancakes. I am not going to call them icons, since icons are a very specific process and style that I know next to nothing about. They're just paintings of saints. With local wildflowers in the margins, like a manuscript, and maybe some local landscapes... with monks.

The fact that I haven't actually painted any saint-paintings seems not to have deterred Fr. Directore Spirituale one bit who seemed to be quite enthused about the idea. He said he'd seen my drawings and had every confidence. (And of course, if I can't do it or they're dreadful, they have the option of not putting them in the shop.)

Maybe it will just be tourist kitsch, but I'll do my best to make them nice. And if I practice long enough, and learn enough skills as I go along, maybe some of them will be thought of as art some day. But they will at the very least be genuine devotional items. Really made by an oblate of the monastery while praying and thinking about the saints and God and whatnot. He said that we can pitch them as being "by an oblate of the monastery who came to Norcia to live a more contemplative, semi-eremitical life." The tourists/pilgrims all have very romantic notions about monastic life, and think of hermits in the way you and I think of fairies and elves. I hope the reality doesn't disappoint. I'm working on my levitation skills.

I've been looking at and copying the saint-paintings of some of the medieval and early Renaissance masters. I think I like these better, for all their technical primitiveness, than the later polished glories of Leonardo and Michelangelo (and who has time for the silly overthetopness of the Baroque?) so I'm sticking with the medieval frescoes, of which, fortunately, there are quite a number all over town. Frankly, I see nothing wrong at all, at least at the beginning, with straight-up copying them. I've always loved miniatures and the lively and bright little paintings in the old manuscripts. I don't expect I will ever rise to the heights of the sublime Daniel Mitsui or the incredible technical prowess of Randy Asplund. But the thing is to get started. To paraphrase Bilbo, you never know where the road is going to take you.

I'm not sure what sort of materials one uses on ceramic and terracotta tile, but I figure I can try a few different things with what I've got in the art-cupboard and just see what works best. I've been up to the old monastery a few times, and the tiles are all over the place there, half buried in the soil, so there's no shortage of them to work out the details. But of course, I'm ready to hear from the experts. Now that I've not got Winnie to care for, I can take a little trip down to Florence to visit the Greatest Art Supply Shop in the World. I'll take a tile with me and just explain what I want to do and buy whatever they tell me to buy.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Little Winnie

My darling little Winnie left this world this evening. She had been falling fast in the last couple of days, and today could no longer walk. Towards the end of the day she only lay very still in my arms, hardly moving or even holding up her head. Dr. B. came over and gave her an injection and she hardly seemed to notice.

I'll miss her terribly.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Storm's comin'

So, this week, following my trip to Rome, I deactivated my work-related Facebook account. A while ago I separated my working contacts and groups - people and organisations that send me information that I pour into my work - from my contacts with personal friends, people I actually know and want to keep in touch with. I have been collecting stuff on the personal FB account that have nothing whatever to do with The News. Mostly stuff about gardening, science, botany, herbalism, archaeology and monasticism.

One day Facebook sent me some kind of weird thing where it showed you what you posted exactly seven years ago. It was a photo album of my first visit to Rome. For some reason, it made me kind of freak out. My reaction was not, perhaps, what FB intended. I put up the briefest possible note saying I was retiring the account, and I clicked it. It's off. The other one, the personal one that's full of stuff about herbal remedies and gardening tips, is still going.

I'm not entirely sure what is happening in my brain at the moment, but I just can't look at the other stuff. Day after day of scrolling up and down that newsfeed and I felt myself diminishing, eroding, almost fizzling away. Finally, I realised that I have to make a choice between activism and a new thing. I was at Mass on Wednesday morning in Norcia after my long weekend in Rome, and it came home to me with great clarity: choose.

As my buddy Steve says below, we certainly seem to be entering a time of persecution and diminishment. It's going to be a testing time, particularly, I think, in the next six to eight months. I'm not saying anything "prophetic," I'm just reading the signs of the times. Suddenly, the reason I came to Norcia is becoming more important than anything else.

Listen to this podcast from my old friend Steve Skojec. It more or less says what I think:

"I can’t do my job — trying to get the truth, which is often unpopular, in the hands of as many people as possible — without living in a constant state of promotion. But this works against the very virtues I believe we must extol."


O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved...
From the desire of being extolled ...
From the desire of being honored ...
From the desire of being praised ...
From the desire of being preferred to others...
From the desire of being consulted ...
From the desire of being approved ...
From the fear of being humiliated ...
From the fear of being despised...
From the fear of suffering rebukes ...
From the fear of being calumniated ...
From the fear of being forgotten ...
From the fear of being ridiculed ...
From the fear of being wronged ...
From the fear of being suspected ...

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I ...
That, in the opinion of the world,
others may increase and I may decrease ...
That others may be chosen and I set aside ...
That others may be praised and I unnoticed ...
That others may be preferred to me in everything...
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ascension Thursday Sunday

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted and some had work on Thursday, so they voted to defer worshiping Him until the following Sunday.

And Jesus came and said to them,“All authority in heaven and on earth has been divided between the denominations, with whom there must be no arguing or trying to win them over, because Amen I say to you, no one has the fullness of the Truth, and to seek it is to exclude others. Which is bad. And mean.

Go therefore and dialogue with all nations, meeting them where they're at, and accompanying them body-to-body, and learning from them in their varieties of ideas.

"But by no means proselytize because that art solemn nonsense...



Thinking locally

I grew up in a place that was in many ways quite a lot like Norcia. Norcia is like a little island of paradise in the middle of Italy; it has a unique culture and climate and doesn't concern itself overmuch with what goes on in the world outside the valley.

Victoria is actually on an island that also has a unique climate and culture, quite distinct from that of the rest of the country. And, when I was growing up there at least, it also didn't really concern itself much with what goes on outside.

We Victorians grew up knowing that the world was made up of two places: the Island and the Mainland. Whatever was not on the Island was the Mainland... Vancouver, Toronto... Australia... India... Antarctica...these were all the Mainland, and all had a quasi-mythological feel to them. We heard that some people went there, and some people even came from there, but no one I knew could confirm their existence first hand. And it didn't matter anyway, since they were completely unimportant. What happened on the Mainland did not concern us.

I will soon make the acquaintance of the local archivist and historian. I think it's time to start writing about this extraordinary place.


Home-home, homity-home!

St. Benedict also thinks it's a bad idea ever to leave the house.

So far as is possible, the monastery ought to be so planned that all requirements, such as water, mill, garden and the various crafts, are all available inside the enclosure, so that there may be no need for the monks to go out abroad, for this is not at all good for their souls.
Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 66

Well, I'm home from the Old Smoke. It was great fun, and there was much excitement. Perhaps the best thing about conferences and meetings, especially when you've been doing the same sort of job for a very long time and some of the shine has worn off, is seeing old friends and respected colleagues. When I was a lay-about teenager, and terrified of entering adult life, I rather wish someone had sat me down and described the pleasures of working life, and how you create a social world for yourself of fascinating people, contacts and acquaintances, as well as close and enduring friendships, that will stand you well in every aspect of your life.

I must say that a weekend like that, no matter how difficult or tiring it may be (my brain kept whispering "You're forty-nine! You're forty-nine!") very much makes you appreciate the colourful, complex and deeply engaging landscape that a long and fruitful involvement in public work can create. I can't help but think that a big part of the reason people get addicted to these silly online fantasy games is that they have not made sufficient use of the real life they've been offered.

Life isn't just for "living," which I think many people equate with enduring until the weekend or until happy hour, it's for building. Your day to day life is really no more than a framework, a blank slate, like my little garden; just a piece of mostly empty ground with a few built-in advantages and disadvantages, upon which we must exercise our imagination and effort.

But I must say, I am very glad to be home. All the fun aside, the noise, the crowds, the confusion, the dirt and grub, the awful buses, the constant pestering at every corner by gypsy beggars... even the road surface, whether you're walking or biking or driving, is like a complete assault on the psyche. Rome is a hell of a lot of work to deal with, a great deal more than I'm comfortable dealing with, and I'm very, very glad I live far enough away to make it pretty impractical to go there more than once in a great while.

Norcia is certainly close enough to go if you have to, and - even better - for people to come here and visit quite a lot. In fact, I've had a nearly constant stream of visitors since I moved here, and there have been days when, if I wanted to get any work done, whether paid writing or simply gardening, I've had to pretty much avoid town altogether. I certainly don't lack a social life.

But nice as it is to see people coming through, and fun as it is to tell them all about it and show them around, and introduce them to the joys of stewed wild boar and monk-beer, it is very nice at the end of the day to go home and sit quietly upon one's own stoop, and sip the tea and watch the birds settling down for the night.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Celebrity watching in Rome

So, this happened. He came to lunch with a group of friends after we'd been seated and got the table next to ours. We made a few polite noises, then left him alone. But later, the waiter realised who it was, and freaked out. Poor guy.


Saturday, May 09, 2015


For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.
2 Timothy 4:3

"...For this is a rebellious people, false sons, Sons who refuse to listen To the instruction of the LORD; Who say to the seers, "You must not see visions"; And to the prophets, "You must not prophesy to us what is right, Speak to us pleasant words, Prophesy illusions.

"Get out of the way, turn aside from the path, Let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel."
Isaiah 30:10

I'm afraid I find both the headline - and the inevitable long, long list of "Amen"s on Facebook which always follow any story like this - more than a little disturbing. Do Catholics no longer have any sense of discernment?

Does anyone remember any more that "unprecedented" is not something that can be applied to anything Catholic in a positive way? Innovation is for technology, not for the truth.

I find this Francismania disturbing for many reasons, but one of the main ones is that it is a manifestation of Fantasy, the dangers of which I have written before. It is centred more on an idea than a person.

I've seen this a lot in the modern world, particularly in celebrity-culture: people create a phantasm in their brains, a kind of puppet, and equip it with the appearance of their latest crush, and then make it dance to their preferences. Many of us did this with Pope Ratzinger, and we were deceived. Many of us still have yet to face the realities there.

But, fool me once...

In the current case, the more I learn about the real man, the more this phenomenon disturbs me.

Give up Fantasy. Only the Real counts.


Friday, May 08, 2015


In Rome.

Hate Rome.



Eating someone else's beef jerky, and having thoughts about the usefulness of activism as it pertains to the single-minded pursuit of The Real and whether "the news" has anything at all to do with The Real.


Monday, May 04, 2015

What do you listen to while you work?

"Radioactive," (the only good song this otherwise tepid band produced) combined with the grimly depressing final season of Fringe.

Good for when you feel mad at the world.