Friday, January 31, 2014

Collage for January

As part of the new-found joy in photography and hence in blogging, an idea* : a collage of photos at the end of every month, not necessarily the very best ones taken, but illustrating the month in question for me. I've settled on a square format of twelve standard A4 images. 

So, January, not necessarily in order: marigolds still in flower, and gorse; new shoots and dead snails at the base of the sedums; mummified seed heads of Japanese anemone and poppy; plenty of parsley, leaf and Hamburg, scarole and leeks in the veg garden;  poinsettia in the house; socks, scarves and jump leads; eucalyptus logs and evening fires; a winter sunset but walking again at six in the evening.


*taken from another blog I've been mooching about on, the most celebrated and successful crochet blog ever, for which I have the highest admiration, though I am unlikely ever to be getting up at six to bake bread for my family or decking my home with crochet bunting.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

New camera

Useful and beautiful sort of put on hold, because my new camera has arrived.  I am such a spoiled brat; I wasn't going to get a new camera, even though I've had this one on my wishlist for a while now.  The Panasonic really was perfectly good enough, I'm not as preoccupied with taking photos as I used to be anyway, I didn't need a new toy just for the sake of it.  And yet and yet, I always missed the old Canon Powershot which died too young, and never quite felt as happy with its replacement. Yes, it had a bigger zoom, more megapixels, and (perhaps its most genuine advantagefor me) a longer lasting, lightweight, dedicated battery rather than a bunch of hefty AAs, but somehow it always seemed a bit, well, dull: slow on the uptake, reluctant to work well indoors and in poorer light, more difficult to get a good macro, the images flatter, duller, less crisp, like drawing with blunt pencils.

I picked up on this Powershot model a year or so ago and bookmarked it, but didn't do anything about it; I didn't need it, as I said, and further, it had no viewfinder, being really a compact not a bridge, and I've always been rather backward when it comes to using the little screen.  Lately though, Tom's been growing frustrated with the shortcomings of his very basic point-and-shoot Nikon and making noises and dropping hints about how he'd like to get his hands on the Panasonic, and wouldn't I like to replace it sometime? The Canon having been superseded by its next model was at quite an interesting price, I took the plunge.

I'm very happy I did. It is quite an adjustment moving on to a compact camera, and the absence of a viewfinder will take some getting used to, I still can't find things as quickly using the screen, and it feels unsteady in my hands. I feel a little cack-handed having it hanging off my wrist, and am slightly surprised to find I have actually been harbouring a smidgen of vanity that somehow a compact doesn't look as serious, makes me look less like a proper photographer, than an old-fashioned-camera-shaped camera slung round my neck. But it does pretty much everything the bridge camera did, more in some ways, and I can get into the habit of just slipping it into my pocket most every time I go out, where it can stay safe and dry in wet weather, rather than making the decision whether or not to have the encumbrance of it round my neck, or whether I ought to take the case too in case it rains, etc etc, which often meant I just didn't bother.

And the really nice thing about it, which drew me to it in the first place, is that it's particularly good in low light, very steady with good rendering of colours, and for close-ups.  As our Brittany light is scarcely Mediterranean, and as I find in fact that I've more need and interest in details, and in interior subjects at odd times of day, this is really quite a joy. The other side of this is it sometimes over-exposes a bit, but that can be compensated for somewhat in editing, and can lead to quite interesting effects, with extraneous background stuff fading into a blur of light. So altogether well worth sacrificing the viewfinder for. It's nice having sharp pencils again, and I find I welcome opportunities to learn new things, and new ways of doing familiar things. Tom will be, I think, pretty happy with the Panasonic, as he likes the bigger zoom and the scope to take better landscapes, though the first thing he did was switch from viewfinder to viewing screen.

So, I think I might be smitten with photography again, and will probably post more here.  Just for starters, some views of the blue room.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Objects, known to be useful, considered to be beautiful # 2 : a Viking Knitting Nancy

The other week, I had an e-mail from the lovely and clever Soize, a knitting blogger from Quessoy, not far away, who I met last year along with some other local bloggers including her husband, the estimable, knowledgeable and friendly Quercus, crêpier (a professional maker of pancakes) and local historian par excellence.  Soize wondered if I'd like to come and see a demonstration at the library at Quessoy of something called 'la lucette, l'ancêtre du tricotin', by someone, an English lady as it turned out, who she'd met at a Christmas market selling these things. I agreed readily, though I was a little bemused, having only a very hazy idea of what le tricotin was, never mind its ancestor with the strange girl's name.

But I'm a sucker for the obscure and practical corners of history and their evidence, and a quick search reminded me that of course tricotin is what we call in English French knitting, or Knitting Nancy, a kind of cylindrical bobbin with hooks in the top around which yarn is wound, then hooked over itself to create a knitted cord. I never did this as a child, but I remember seeing the bobbins about, and Tom was quite familiar with it, he recalled making them from nails and cotton reels in the days of childhood austerity. I can't find a link in English to la lucette, because I don't know what term to look for, but this site, of a French mediaeval reconstruction society has some attractive and informative images on it, ancient and modern. Essentially, where a modern tricotin bobbin has four hooks (at least, some may have more), a lucette has just two, so it is quite a small, portable gadget, and also a rather aesthetically satisfying one.  It dates, apparently, from the time of the Vikings.

While nowadays the point of making cords and braids might seem unclear, other than for pure decoration, diversion and to keep the fingers busy, in the past, before industrially-made rope and string and webbing and buttons, before plastic and elastic and other such materials, strong and serviceable, as well as pretty, stuff like that must have been very sought after. Tricotin ropes were, it seems, often used for reins and other harness for horses, lucette-made cord was used in all kind of clothing applications. One advantage of it is that, whereas with many plaiting and braiding techniques, it's necessary to measure and cut the amount of thread needed beforehand, an uncertain matter often involving waste or a shorter final product than wanted, with these chaining methods one can go on from a ball of thread or twine indefinitely, joining on more if necessary.

I had to be a bit later than the time appointed as I was giving a lesson earlier in the afternoon, and when I got there the librarian smilingly waved me to the back.  There were Soize, her three young daughters, her sister, and Choco, who I also met last year, all knitting, doing crochet, making doll's clothes and friendship bracelets.  No sign of a lucette or a person demonstrating it, but no one seemed very concerned, the whole scene emanated such an busy-handed, companionable, sisterly tranquillity that I immediately had the most blissful sense of coming home; I had stumbled upon my dream of a knitting circle, but alas, I had no knitting!  I sat and chatted and basked in the atmosphere for a while then tentatively asked about the matter of the lucette demonstration.  Oh, the lady hasn't turned up, said Soize, but never mind, here, I have one in my bag, Quercus made some for us.  She handed me a delightful little fretwork tool, showed me how to use it, and I was set up.

We chuckled somewhat at the image of butch Vikings, thrusting through the waves on their pillaging way, getting out their Knitting Nancies to pass the time.  Choco in particular seemed rather taken with this fantasy, which later focussed on Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas romping about at Fort la Latte just up the road, and we discovered a shared love of swashbuckling historical dramas. We all did our best to convert her to the use circular knitting needles, I tried to convince them of the efficacy of my method for shortening the bamboo ones, and eyed Soize up as a potential source of tuition for cable knitting.  They all kept pulling fascinating and beautiful needlework and wool related items out of seemingly bottomless work bags. During the proceedings Quercus turned up to see how we were getting on, and, being somewhat shaggy, rugged and folkloric, he was cheerfully hailed as our tame Viking.

A couple of hours flew by, at the end of which my second attempt at a lucette cord had reached about two inches before turning into an intractably snarled up knot.  Keep it, said Soize, practise at home, so I did.

The lady with the lucettes never did turn up to show and tell us about them, but it didn't matter, I have found a knitting circle.  We agreed to get together every fortnight on a regular basis, bring your own knitting. Or crochet, or even a Viking Knitting Nancy.


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Objects, known to be useful, considered to be beautiful - # 1

This artlessly artful composition in reds and black greeted me on the table top as we were preparing to leave for Mayenne.  Form following function, gear, tackle and trim, and the happy, serendipitous riffing on the colours, the way the ensemble seemed to be making a cheerful, glowing stand against winter and its vicissitudes, all filled me with such delight I brooked rolled eyes at the dilly-dallying and reached for the camera. It features the famous sock wool scarf, and a pair of Norwegian patterned fingerless mitts I made to keep it company for Christmas.  They were badly done, Emma, badly done, since my tension in the stranded work (the different colour patterns) was tight and snaggy, and I tried to follow an unnecessarily complicated pattern which insisted on counting all the stitches all the way round every time instead of just those involved in the making of the thumb, an act of repetitive numeracy my easily-distracted brain wasn't up to, so the stitch increases for said digit are all over the place and not pretty.  Never mind, with black wool and fierce blocking these things don't show too much, and the recipient likes them, seems to feel ill-at-ease now driving without them, and looks kind of adorable wearing them with the scarf and a chunky black hoodie (sorry Tom - yes my wife knits, why do you ask?) And from them I have learned where I went wrong, have come to understand the structure, sorted out a basic template and now have mittens more or less sussed.

The jump leads just make me happy anyway.  I went to my car the day after Boxing Day, it started, but one back wheel entirely failed to go round, and dug itself into the gravel of the drive in protest.  Nothing to be done but get the garage out.  The slip of a lad who hoisted it up on the truck neatly and kindly smoothed the gravel over with his boot, saying that they would probably need to replace the 'garniture'.  Quite what application this culinary term has to do with the car I'm still not sure, but I later gathered from the bill it meant pretty much the whole breaking caboosh. But they managed one or two workarounds to keep the price down without compromising safety or legality (quite), as they do, and had it done before I needed it on the Saturday.  I drove it back without any problem on the Friday evening, but come the next morning, the battery was as flat as East Anglia, so Tom had to drive me to St Brieuc (no, I don't drive his car, I'm a wimp and he doesn't trust me to; spare me the grown-up feminist disapproval). Tom was able to put his hand on the jump leads, which we have never had occasion to use since living here, but they were crappy lightweight plasticky ones and one of the clamps was hopelessly broken.  So it was back to the garage, who didn't have any in stock to sell us, but lent us a set enormous and heavy enough to jump start a combine harvester (literally, it's a garage that deals with as much heavy agricultural plant as domestic vehicles), went over the procedure for applying them (it had been a long time since Tom had used jump leads, I don't remember ever doing so) and ordered us a new set.

They are really quite lovely: heavy and firm and solid yet with a smooth, satisfying action and flexibility. They're glossy and sleek and smell rather good too.  We will probably never have to use them again, and will almost certainly never have to buy another set as long as we live, but I feel inclined to keep them on show somewhere purely for their beauty.

I like stuff, some of it.

Friday, January 17, 2014

A meditation on the death of trees

A brief clearing and a rainbow the other week, making the birch trees shine very brightly, behind them a solitary, leaning stem of the eucalyptus remaining, the other two having split and blown down in the weather we've had.  The birch trees have always done well, their shapes are pleasant and their white and pink peeling bark has always been interesting. We appreciate trees, and any plants, here that thrive without making demands.  A pretty miniature Japanese maple we nurtured fretfully and laboriously finally refused to make it through the heatwave of 2003, and we let it go with some regret but also a shade of relief (only briefly, guiltily, touching on how its demanding and temperamental nature did remind us just a little of that of the person who gave it to us...)

A couple of blogging friends have commented lately on trees either blown or taken down, and how they feel rather bad about not feeling bad enough about the matter, as it were: not missing them enough or not feeling guilty enough about having been complicit in the act of arboricide, appreciating rather the access of light, the securing of sanitation, the relief at the absence of a rather unprepossessing vegetal specimen and the opportunity to plant something better.

Trees are of course marvellous creatures, which should be treasured and cared for; rare, ancient and magnificent ones, often with wondrous histories - churchyard yews that were there before Christianity, black walnuts that contain stories of empires, sequoias you could drive a car through, massive kauris that hold a whole ecosystem like a Land of Green Ginger in their branches - should indeed be preserved wherever possible. Trees do essential things and we can't do without them, the destruction of forests and woodlands and hedgerows is an abomination which we should and will rue, of course; trees, in the plural, areas of woodland, tree-based habitats and ecosystems, should be nurtured and not destroyed and despoiled through our greed, fear, violence and ignorance.

Yet it's true one can get too anthropomorphic and sentimental about individual trees. Perhaps it's partly because they have a somewhat human attitude, standing there holding their arms out and up as though in worship or welcome, or because on average they live something like as long as we do (so the ones that live considerably longer inspire us with a comprehensible wonder); perhaps their seasonal cycles of growth and withdrawal from life seem to mirror and sympathise with our own moods and life patterns. Of all plants they seem the most like discrete, individual beings.

But they're not.  You don't go cutting the end of a human limb off and expect it to happily grow lots of extra fingers, or for the remaining limbs to flourish, with added vigour.  A rowan which we got so fed up up with refusing to thrive, a scanty, rusty, sickly thing taking up space, that we chopped it down to about a metre, meaning to get the rest out later, has since leaved and blossomed and even fruited on multiple shoots with a healthy lushness ever since.  Eucalyptus trees like ours which split and shed their branches and stems so drastically do so all the time according to need in the harsh climates where they originate.  A single eucalyptus isn't really an individual organism at all, even though we plant them as such, a eucalyptus forest is. Trees reproduce in various ways, but many will do so vegetatively by chance or our design, so that suckers and cuttings and grafts and layers produce a clone, or simply an extension, of the parent plant, so to what extent can they be considered separate, or the original stock to have died? Even the seeded offspring of many are spread with such indiscriminate profligacy that they can't possibly all reach maturity, and no parent tree grieves for them; we are forever pulling out (or trying to, they are very tenaciously rooted) and griping about the weed ash tree saplings which poke themselves out of hedges all over the place, seeded from keys tossed down from the handsome old tree up the road.  We are, I think, still burning the last of its sibling, or perhaps parent, which our next door neighbours of the time had chopped down, tired of the soggy leaf litter, the moody shadow, miasmic green damp and general encroachment of it against their house.

Of course, this almost deathless state of plant existence, the boundaries between organisms and the span of their lives being fluid, porous, undifferentiated, is a wonder in itself, that the web of their ecosystems, the community as a whole, is more important than the individual within it, is a worthy subject for reflection and meditation, and may hold lessons for us, but only to a point.  Our awareness of our separateness, our aloneness and the mysterious intangibility of the love that connects us with other humans, or other animals, and the corresponding sense of absence and ensuing grief when they die, the very differences between our particular bonds and theirs, belongs to us, make us what we are.

Furthermore, trees don't witness our histories, though they are present as they come and go, that's a role we have projected onto them. Frankly, they don't give a damn, and why should they? I wouldn't presume to deny that they have their own spirituality, but we're kidding ourselves to pretend we can comprehend it.

And yet and yet, of course we do come to love particular trees, and they do take on meaning for us, and we do feel sadness when they go, sometimes; because the meaning things take on for us, the role they play in our spiritual lives, is generated by ourselves, does not make it untrue. I'd be very sorry to see the ash tree whose cuckoo brats lodge in our hedges gone, or the lopsided chestnut on the corner of our field. And the passing of the box elder tree, which occurred around the time I was fourteen, was a memorable and quite poignant event.  Box elders are quick growing weed trees in north America where they originate, something of a nuisance largely because of the plagues of eponymous bugs they shelter, I understand.  Our box elder, though, which we only ever called the maple tree, was a unique and long established specimen from well before I was born or my family moved to the house. Until later years, and then only in France, I don't recall ever seeing another like it, though here they are frequent, and I've stayed in a place where they sprouted amongst the undergrowth in hardy abundance. But being dioecious, and our tree being the only one in the area, she, and it was a she, had no offspring.  The delicate bunches of winged keys were always hollow, no matter how many of them I split open in the hopes of finding a seed - nothing sentimental, just an interest in the idea of making a new maple tree sprout as the numerous horse chestnuts in our boundary hedge did from the conkers we brought home.

The box elder must have been a good age, and was a fairly remarkable size for its species, and had probably more or less reached the end of its span.  One night of high winds between Christmas and New Year, with a house full of family, we had a call from a neighbour: a tree was down in our garden.  My nearest brother was enjoying the enviable privilege of sleeping in our small touring caravan, parked under the box elder tree.  He wasn't in it at the time, but would have been an hour or so later, and if the tree had fallen a few feet to the right, the 'van would have been crushed.  However, nothing, not the Bramley apple tree to one side nor the patch of raspberry canes to the other, nor the old brick wall at the bottom of the garden, was seriously or even noticeably damaged.  That the old girl had laid herself down so gently and considerately seemed a not unremarkable act of grace.

We enjoyed chopping her up, my nephew and I playing about with old bow saws and axes before someone borrowed a chainsaw and did the job properly.  The coal shed was satisfyingly full of logs until we left the house a couple of years later.

I didn't know that the picture below existed, but discovered it among the family albums a while after I started this blog.  A hand-developed black and white, rather than an Instamatic snap, I imagine it was taken by my curmudgeonly bachelor uncle who must have been speaking to us that Christmas.  My nieces, who sorted and archived the photos in one heroic, kindly and creative swoop over another Christmas much later, after my father had died and my mother in the process of clearing out and moving house, saw fit to keep it carefully among the images of our births, marriages and deaths, our ancestors and childhoods and family pets. The photograph's existence and survival move me as much as the passing of the tree itself.


Currently back in Mayenne at the home of my brother and sister-in-law (and Belle the cat, of course), but feeling assured of return home tomorrow.  My brother has a dressing on his head, a rather impressive Frankensteinesque scar between neck and shoulder, and a migrating black eye, but despite this slightly zombie-like appearance is extraordinarily nonchalant and even cheerful, and (perhaps a little too) eager to be driving and conducting business as usual, so that's a relief.  I've tended to shunt everything over to the other side of this trip so have a schedule rather full of root canal work, mammogram (routine), teaching and dog haircuts to catch up with in the next week, but feel, hope, that the year is on the up and so are we, and will be back here before too long.