Pumpkin Time

Pumpkins

I’ve made no posts for quite a while.  Everything is fine, it has just been a busy summer and world news has been a little scary.  I have a sense of holding my breath. (Not literally of course, I would be more than a little purple in the face by now) It feels like watching a ski crash in slow motion and hoping that the racer will somehow recover balance and swosh past the finish mark.

Meanwhile the UK experienced a rare event: a real summer.  Day after day the sky was blue, the wind was light and warm.  There was talk of water shortages and hose pipe bans but it seems that there was enough water from the previous season.

Of course that didn’t help things at the allotment and it was necessary to try to get there almost every day to water.  Even so, things have suffered somewhat.  My potatoes produced a good crop but neighbours have not done so well.  The climbing beans eventually made it to the top of the poles, but the crop has been about half the usual output.  Most of the beans for drying are already picked and sitting in bowls in our living room.

We had strawberries, but they were over fast.  The pumpkin and winter squash pictured above were picked at the end of August, whereas I would normally wait until the end of September at the earliest.  The Crown Prince are a good size, but the spaghetti squash and Turk’s Turban are smaller than usual.  The only reason I have a good crop is that I ended up with an extra bed where I re-structured the old compost bins and planted it up with all my spare plants.

The weather has returned to our usual mixture of sunny intervals and showers over the past few weeks and the grass soon greened up.  The runner beans are producing a new flush of flowers and the yacon have finally started to grow.  It feels as though the Earth is finally breathing again – at least my little patch of it.

As to the political situation?  Still hoping.

 

 

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Today I Re-potted a Tree

20180625_171253.jpgFinally the allotment is under control, the squash and pumpkins have taken off, the beans are climbing the poles, and even flowering.  I’ve harvested the last of the strawberries and the raspberries are coming on stream.  I’ve picked the first few blackcurrants.  This morning I picked the first of the broad beans and dug up the first potato plant in the row to find half a dozen new potatoes under it.  It was jolly warm down there by 11am and there’s been no rain to speak of for weeks so after many trips with the watering cans everything has enough to keep it going for a day or two.

It’s not really the time of year for re-potting bonsai trees, especially deciduous ones.  The norm is to do them just before the leaf buds are about to break in the spring.  The thing is I didn’t get my act together and make the new pot in time.  Then I didn’t have enough of the granular potting soil that they seem to like.  I tried to get that at Heron’s Bonsai last week, but they don’t have it.  On Friday I found some on Amazon and ordered it.  I was sitting for meditation later that afternoon when the doorbell went.  I didn’t move as I thought D would get it and it would probably be for him in any case.  It was my bonsai soil.  It turned out that the supplier is based in Dartford and as the chap was coming this way he just stuck some in his car and dropped if off as he was passing.  Order to door in about two hours – that’s service!

So this afternoon I pruned the tree hard.  It is very vigorous and I do this every year.  Having removed so much of the top growth it seemed safe to disturb the roots so I re-potted it in the pot that came out of the kiln last week.  Then I sat down with a cup of tea to admire the work that nature and I have collaborated on.  I started this tree from garden centre stock abut 15 years ago.  It is Acer Palmatum ‘Bloodgood’, and although the leaves are a bit big for bonsai they are such a fantastic colour in spring and autumn that it’s worth it for that alone.

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Birds of a Feather

The past couple of months have been filled with birds.  We started with blue tits nesting in the box on a North facing wall in our small courtyard garden.  The blackbirds then built a nest in a corner above the patio.  For some reason they then abandoned this and built a second one in a climbing rose right under the blue tit box.

Blackbird

Female blackbird

Then the robins moved in.  In the centre of the garden is a Himalayan palm tree (Trachycarpus Fortunii) with some old leaves hanging against the hairy trunk.  They found a route in from the top and constructed a nest from the coir-like fibres of the trunk.  Next we noticed that the wren was darting into the same tree, but from below the old leaves.  The male wren builds several nests and the female picks one and lines it.  She chose this one, so we now had another two nests with little space between them and only a couple of metres from the other two.

There is a camera in the nest box so we could see that the blue tits had ten or eleven eggs and hatched about seven young.  It’s always sad that some die and we don’t know how many they managed to get out of the nest if any.  The blackbirds fledged at least two chicks.  The male was looking after the first to fly and we fear that the magpies got it one morning.  The female is still feeding another, which hides amongst the shrubs.

Robin

Robin

 

The robins have also fledged and although we have never spotted the chicks both adults and the female blackbird are back and forth to our patio door demanding meal worms.  Unlike the sparrows they are bold enough to approach when I’m sitting on the patio eating my breakfast.  D has even had the robins eating from his hand.

A few days ago I noticed that sometimes one of the robins would return to the palm tree with its goodies.  However, instead of going in at the top where their nest had been it was entering where the wren’s nest was.  Sure enough there were little beaks poking out of the hole and the robin was not only feeding its own young in the garden, but that of the unfledged wrens as well.

WrenChick

Wren chick

This morning the three wren chicks flew the nest and settled initially around the pond.  The robin was continuing to feed them along with their own parent.  I’d never heard of this but according to this article by the British Trust for Ornithology it is quite common.  Mother wren has since hidden them away in the bushes so I’ve no idea whether the robin is still lending a hand.  It is back looking in the window now with that look that says that I’m failing in my obligation to provide dried worms on demand.

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Anti-Allergy Soup

For a few months I’ve been following The Doctor’s Kitchen channel on YouTube.  This is presented by Dr Rupy, a Londoner of Indian ancestry who shares his intuitive way of cooking combined with maintaining health and his medical knowledge.

CauliWatercressSoup

Generally my hay fever takes the form of a headache that just won’t go away.  I have to ask friends if the pollen count is high and then I realise that is the cause.  But this year I had no symptoms early on but when it struck I got the whole itchy eyes and runny nose thing.  Right on cue Dr Rupy has a video on foods that help suppress hay fever, and an associated recipe on his website for Cauliflower and Watercress soup.

He made the point that watercress is in season at the moment.  Well it might be, and maybe it’s not the best way to buy it, but Sainsbury’s are charging £1.50 for an 80g bag.  The recipe calls for a large handful, which is translated as 150g.  That was going to make it a bit expensive so I tried it with one bag, or 80g.  It made a pretty good soup, but it lacked something for us.  I repeated the recipe a few days later, doubling the garlic and onion and added some mixed herbs.  I also tweaked the method to make it a one pot recipe.

Ingredients (serves 2):

4 cloves Garlic finely chopped
4 Spring Onions chopped
250g Cauliflower finely chopped
500ml boiling Water
0.5 tsp Salt (I use lo-salt)
2 tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
80g Watercress
0.5 tsp dried mixed herbs

Method:

Fry the garlic and onions in a little oil, just until they are looking transparent.  Don’t let them brown – so keep the temperature low.  As soon as they are done add the mixed herbs and pile in the cauliflower.  Remember you can use the stalky bits of the cauliflower and some of the leaves too.  If you do then put them in first and stir-fry them a bit before adding the chopped florets.  At the water and bring it all back to the boil and at the salt or lo-salt.  Let this simmer for 20 mins.

When the cauliflower is quite soft add the watercress to the top of the pan and cram the lid back on.  The watercress will steam and wilt in about 3 minutes.  I added a little back pepper at this stage.  Remove from the heat and zizz the lot in the pan with a stick blender adding more water to reach the consistency you want.

Pour into bowls and drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil.  It makes two generous servings.  That’s it – serve with fresh, home made sourdough bread – naturally.

So did it fix my hay fever?  Hard to say, because I also resorted to antihistamine tablets.  It was a smashing soup though and one we will choose to repeat as long as we can get watercress.

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Vipassana Course – Take Two

MeditationHall

Meditation hall and gong

Yesterday I returned from sitting the ten day vipassana meditation course for the second time at Dhamma Dipa.  Apologies to those who have been trying to contact me – I think I’ve dealt with the backlog of messages now.  You can read about my first experience here.  To summarise: it’s ten days plus the evening of the day before and the morning of the day after.  Nine and a bit full days are spent in Noble Silence, which means not communicating with other students even by gesture or eye contact.  About ten hours each day are spent sitting in meditation.

It was tough the first time – why put myself through it again?  Well the answer to that is complex.  To start with it is recommended to repeat the course once a year.  I didn’t feel the need to do that.  However, after two years I began to appreciate the privilege of having ten days in which to focus on nothing else but meditating.  My own practice has been steady at most mornings for a short meditation and then about three afternoons per week to sit for one hour.  I was starting to feel a little stale with it so this was an opportunity to refresh and deepen my practice.

So was it tough the second time?  Yes but in different ways.  Knowing what to expect certainly helps.  My existing practice meant that I don’t find it difficult to sit on the floor for an hour – although that can still become painful when repeating it hour after hour with just short breaks.  Old students are asked to practice in a slightly different way to new students and this requires even more focus and sensitivity. This was frustrating at the start, but I did get it eventually.

The main aims of vipassana are to train us to:

  1. Recognise the changing nature of everything, that some things are pleasant and some unpleasant but either way they don’t last forever.
  2. To realise that our bodies respond to events with sensations which we find pleasant or unpleasant and that we can break out of old patterns of reaction by treating all sensations with equanimity.  This leaves us free to act rationally rather than react out of habit.
  3. To see that the stream of internal dialogue that we have is not our ‘self’.  Neither the sensations we generate nor reactive habits we have are the self either.  There is no need to identify with them.

S.N. Goenka, the teacher, explains that many students get caught up playing games with the sensations.  It took me almost to the end of the course to realise that I had also fallen into this trap.  It had become relatively easy to deal with the pain of sitting still, and to feel connected to most of my body with sensations that if not pleasant, were at least not unpleasant.  The danger is in becoming attached to that state – to cling to it, and to crave it when it disappears.

Sure enough, on the ninth day, in the first session I was all cocky and feeling that I’d worked my way steadily though the course.  Unexpectedly I struggled to focus.  I felt something dreadful going on in the left side of my trunk and it was so distracting. My mind played every trick in the book to avoid even acknowledging the sensation. Only after an hour and a half of this did the realisation strike:  Oh, this is what he’s been talking about.  It was like coming to from daydreaming at the back of the class to find the teacher shouting “YOU BOY! YES, I’M TALKING TO YOU!”  Here was an unpleasant reality and it was my job to treat it no differently than the pleasant warmth from the blanket draped over my shoulders.

Woods

A path through the walking area

After breakfast I went for a short walk in the woods and admired the daffodils waving their heads again after several days of being blanketed by snow.  Returning to the hall for the next session with some apprehension, I found to my surprise that the sensation was barely there.  Lesson learned, I knew better than to rejoice as it continued to dissolve. Better just to observe, and to realise that I can be happy in myself in any case.

In the following session we practised metta meditation, which is a way of focussing outwards after the inward gaze of the previous nine days.  I find it akin to Quaker worship in the way that it turns the mind toward the well being and happiness of others.  With that done we were permitted to talk, and the course entered the wind-down stage.  It was good do hear the experiences of others, and to realise that they are all different and all valid.

Will I be doing it again?  Yes, probably.  One option is to volunteer to serve on a course, which means working in the background to help run the centre for the meditators.  It’s a way of expressing gratitude for the benefit of a course, by supporting others.  I think I would like to do that.

Meanwhile: may all beings find true love, true peace, true happiness.

 

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Please give me a Placebo

This morning an article was published on the BBC News website:  “Anti-depressants: Major study finds they work.”  Apparently there has been some debate about this.  “Scientists say they have settled one of medicine’s biggest debates after a huge study found that anti-depressants work.  The study, which analysed data from 522 trials involving 116,477 people, found 21 common anti-depressants were all more effective at reducing symptoms of acute depression than dummy pills.”

Pills

The BBC article came with a meaningless picture of pills, so here is my meaningless picture of pills.  They are multivitamins in case you are interested.

Well that would seem like good news.  Until that is you read a little deeper.  Then we find that “the study found they ranged from being a third more effective than a placebo to more than twice as effective.”

Just a minute.  If a drug is one third more effective than a placebo I think that means that in a trial where the placebo cures 3 people the drug cured 4 people.  So this means that for every extra person cured by the drug three other people are cured, but would have also been cured if they took a sugar pill, and would have suffered none of the side effects.

Even the most effective drug on the list of 21 studied was only “more than twice as effective.”  Given that they didn’t say “nearly three times as effective,” let’s assume that it was at best 2.5 times as effective.   That means that if 10 people could be cured by a placebo 25 people are cured by the drug.  In other words, nearly half the people taking the drug would have been better off without it.  And this is for the best drug available.

Now let’s be clear: depression is a terrible thing, and it blights the lives of some people, or even leads them to take their own life, and sometimes the lives of others too.  However, most of the data in the study came from trials covering just eight weeks of treatment.  If all of those people had been treated with a placebo for eight weeks a bunch of them would have become better with no side effects at all.  And if those that didn’t improve were then given the drug that would result in about the same number again getting better, albeit some weeks later.  Wouldn’t that be a great result?

For some reason giving people placebos is seen as unethical but I can’t quite work out why.  Sure, it’s important to address the needs of someone with suicidal thoughts as fast as possible.  We should trust the doctors to have some idea who those people might be.  Let’s also bear in mind that some anti-depressants have also been linked to increased risk of suicide and we trust the doctors to prescribe them appropriately.

All I can say is that if a drug is only twice as effective as a placebo, then for my own case, in a non-critical situation, I would much rather be prescribed a placebo in the first instance.

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Express Espresso

At the end of January David Leeper came to have a chat with me whilst I was stewarding at ArtSpring Gallery.  He explained that he has entered a coffee barista competition, and would love to have some coffee cups custom made by a local potter.  Well all that sounded lovely and he liked the sort of work I showed him.  The problem was that he needed them for 17th February.   Suddenly it’s starting to sound like one of those silly challenges on The Great Pottery Throwdown.

FreshlyThrown

Freshly thrown

I was careful to be frank with David about the risks.  Even if I made the pots the next day they would then have to dry, the bases would have to be turned, they would have to dry completely before firing.  That wouldn’t be quick in February – a week if we’re lucky.  Then they have to be glazed, inside one day and outside the next because they have to dry again in between the two stages.  Then the final firing.  A quick flick through the diary app on our phones.  Hmm, they would be ready a few days before the competition.  And that assumes that I don’t mess up anywhere along the way.

TurnedBases

Based turned

On the plus side I had made some espresso cups some years ago and they held exactly the 4 fl. oz. he was looking for.  What’s more I already had batches of the glazes he liked made up and I’d used them recently so the risk of the glaze not working was minimised.  I had the right clay in stock.

I scaled up the cup I had made before to allow for the shrinkage of the clay in drying and firing and did a test run that night to work out what weight of clay would be right.  (Because of course I hadn’t written it down when I made them!) I turned the bases the next day and measured them to check that the size would be OK.  I wasn’t convinced – they looked a bit big.  Nevertheless I ploughed on and made a run, including some spares.  After a few days they were all made, turned, and brought into the house to speed up the drying.

InKilnUnfired

Glazed and ready to fire

The following week they were in the kiln for the first firing.  As soon as they emerged I lined one up next to the original and to my amazement it looked about right on size.  There is still a little shrinkage to go in the final, and highest temperature firing.  I glazed the inside with white and let them get touch dry before applying wax to the rim and the area of the side where the lip will rest.  The next day I sponged off any white below the wax line and let them finish drying.  The final process was to dip them in the grey glaze and wipe the base clean.

InKilnFired

Opening The Kiln

The next morning I loaded them in the kiln and programmed the glaze firing for 1200 Celsius.  I go for a slowish ramp up a short soak at top temperature and then a controlled cooling for a couple of hours before the kiln switches off and cools naturally.  The next morning I was able to take a few out provided I used oven gloves.  I marched straight down to Tonbridge Old Fire Station, where David runs the coffee shop 65mm Coffee.

EspressoArrayWe were both really excited to see coffee in them for the first time.  He made me an excellent espresso, and then poured two with added foamed milk in a fancy pour pattern.  David was very happy with the cups, and I was relieved that I’d managed to produce what he wanted and not ruin his chances in the competition.

Good luck for Saturday David!

InHand

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