April 30, 2012

Parallel Worlds

With both girls asleep upstairs (and it is still early evening) I sit outside with a glass of wine and a dim sliver of moonlight hardly able to see the keys on my laptop straining forwards in the only place where I can receive clear reception from my dongle. Half an hour passes just like that. I realise how seductive this screen can be, causing me to lose all awareness of my beautiful surroundings, completely missing the vast night sky reaching out above the rooftops with only a slight breeze to remind me that I am somewhere other than our stuffy flat in town. Half an hour is more than enough!

This is our third consecutive night at the farm, due to the May Day bank holiday... and I already feel totally at home. The week gone by has seen the return of twenty something degrees and bright sunshine, long distance views and clear balmy evenings.

I have finally managed to eradicate the sombre dark red tones in the living room of the flat with a coat of thick white, something to neutralise the space and enable some sensible planning. The previous owner was ever so proud of her earth pigment paints with which she decked the whole farm for less than fifty euros! Yet in compact indoor spaces they simply serve to highlight the blemishes of mediocre plastering and only add to the sense of run down loveless neglect that pervades the entire interior of the flat.

Outside the walls come to life with the terracotta pigment and look like they have been that way for years, somehow almost Mediterranean, especially in this light. The austere grey plaster beneath that remains visible in sections captures the recent memory of life under Communism where everything looked similar, unified and homogenised by a mean average of human need and collective intention.

Out back the boys (Flo and Patrick, our self professed ‘knecht’ willingly slaving away for us for a couple of months, fed and watered into the bargain!) have been tirelessly preparing the ground for our huge polytunnel, given to us by a friendly young biodynamic farmer ten kilometres north of here. We met him on our first visit to this area just over two years ago and he has proved to be a great ally and friend.

This plastic dome is now the one aspect of our farm you can easily spot from the top of the hill, yet just hidden enough to remain this side of being an eyesore. In an ideal world we would have installed a big glass house with self ventilating windows in the roof which would have looked magnificent from any angle. Sadly, this is well out of our budget.

The polytunnel is crucial to our operation at this stage, set to house the thriving tomato plants that have been lovingly nurtured from seed suspended from the windows of our flat in town, now desperate to snuggle into the earth and stretch out, to grow and bear fruit.

Our neighbour to the southeast, beside the stream, has shown real interest in our endeavours and has no objection to the view of the poly tunnel from his garden below. He is quick to offer a small generator to assist the drilling of the frame, as well as his two fat sheep to graze our lush, overgrown pasture.

After breakfast this morning we set off to continue preparing the ground for the tomatoes in the polytunnel. Just as we round the back of the barn we see a tractor in the field above with a huge metal arm reaching metres either side, spraying a thick shower of what we guess must be fungicide onto the grain crop that stretches north and south above our enclosure. The smell is immediately perceptible. I quickly go indoors with Maia, before taking her for a walk away from the farm, furious that it is not customary to inform inhabitants of imminent spraying and saddened by the fact that so many land workers still find it necessary to pollute the soil, wildlife and groundwater for the sake of large monocrops that require little human interaction, defying the laws of nature and leaving the land depleted and inert. Can we really call these crops food? Is this what is left of the culture of our land?

Our work has only just begun, but our vision feels all the more necessary now. When the grain crop is finally harvested, two and a half hectares of that field become ours and at last we can begin the slow process of nurturing the soil (and the culture of our farm) back to life.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @ www.porkandgin.com

April 23, 2012

April, April, der macht was er will...

Preparing for the polytunnel

Bursting into life

Borrowed assistence from a neighbour
View from above

So far, so good...

April 17, 2012

Common Unity

Away from the farm (visiting family and friends back in England) it all begins to feel a bit like a dream. The view from above sits on my screen available to view from anywhere in the world – a memory or a plan, as mood dictates.

Whilst my big girl does the rounds of grandparents and friends, little Maia and I settle into community life for a week – a job to finance this journey, yet also an insight into a way of life that attracts so many, but never quite captures them all.

My role is to make sure a good hot meal is on the table by exactly a quarter to one, to monitor all the laundry, listen to daily gripes and double check medicines, take phone calls, do the shopping and support the preparation of supper for precisely ten past six.

Habits and routines are essential to the smooth running of Camphill, a place where different generations of mixed abilities coexist in a village setting that provides food, work and a home for adults with special needs and their carers. I have dipped in and out of this work (covering for house parents in need of a break) for the last five years and revisit it now to make this trip possible. It could well be the last stint away from our farm for quite a while.

My favourite part of this job has always been the walk up to the vegetable shed first thing in the morning. There the day's pickings are neatly laid out along the shelves in piles and in crates ready to inspire the flavour of lunchtime creations.

The next best part is the larder - a walk-in cold room filled with staples like flour, oil, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, as well as treats such as olives, chocolate and wine.

Cooking in this way – led by the daily harvest and consolidated by an abundance of basic ingredients – makes the creation of a meal an absolute pleasure. Sharing it is the central point of each day, the coming together that enables everyone to check in and air joys and grievances and to remain up to date with any new activities or changes ahead.

Eating together is essential to well functioning community life. It is also the glue that binds family and friends; the only context that makes meetings worth attending; a child’s best teacher; and the ice-breaker that transcends all verbal and written language. Partaking in the food culture of another is to experience the visceral reality of the ‘other’ in a way that sight-seeing, screen technology and academia simply cannot rival.

We have made a conscious choice with our farm project to begin alone. This is both challenging and empowering. To address the challenge we will need to develop a network community that reaches across borders and inspires participation, enabling our power to remain focused on a clear vision for the future.

Our very first step is to welcome and encourage interest by opening our doors for the month of August to friends and acquaintances from near and far. We will provide a place to camp, hot meals for the workers and plenty to do. All that is needed is a sleeping bag, all weather gear and lots of energy.

Our ongoing network community will be nurtured and developed thereafter through the sharing of seasonal food on the farm once a month, whatever the mood or the weather.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @ www.porkandgin.com

April 9, 2012

Camping on Our Farm

We pack up the car with sleeping bags, pillows and blankets, lots of fruit, vegetables and bread and set off on an adventure to the farm. This will be our first overnight stay!

The flat is now clean, the hole sealed up, a makeshift kitchen set up and a wood burning stove fitted (found, discarded) in the end room. We have managed to find enough mattresses for all of us along with a treasure trove of useful items up in the attic - woolly socks, cups, cushions and a thick jumper, old pans, a coffee maker and stacks of great books.

We make our evening meal outside in the courtyard over a small fire - a hearty vegetable stew cooked in our huge, cast iron potjie pot (cauldron) that travelled with us all the way from South Africa a couple of years ago.

Cutlery and candles are two things we have neglected to bring and that the attic has unexpectedly failed to yield. So I tie Maia to my front and we take a stroll down the road, just a few hundred yards to the village stores.

There are three options - a 'drinks market' where you can buy beer by the crate (a whole range of local, national and imported, cheap, superior, dark, medium, light) and various juices for the feint hearted!

Next door up some steps is where I find what I need stacked amongst souvenir trinkets, plastic bicycles and flipflops, china figurines and greetings cards, little bits and pieces that clutter the place with the promise of being useful to someone at some point, perhaps.

I walk away with a packet of plastic spoons and a pair of slightly warped candles, as well as a printed newsletter that keeps the village up to date on any activities or changes afoot. I wonder how soon it will be before we drift onto its pages?

The third outlet is a mini supermarket located round the back of a garage. It feels a bit like a warehouse at first, with crates of local apple juice stacked up on all sides. Through the glass door is the shop proper. Everything on the shelves is in twos and threes, neatly arranged with ample space between as if to emphasise the importance of each item. They are mostly uniform, cheap brands of basic food items and it almost feels like how I imagine wartime rationing would have been like - nothing fancy, nothing unnecessary, everything simple, functional and without a particular identity. The back of the shop is dedicated to work gear - boots, overalls, tools and basic building and gardening materials.

Craving black tea I have to settle for peppermint and leave the 'shopping centre' having spent less than three euro! The simplicity is cost effective for me with my particular taste and obsession with quality and immediately as I leave I see in my mind's eye a full colour three dimensional image of our farm shop with sweet smelling fresh produce, brightly coloured jars of sauces and pickles, jams, wines and unusual experiments, the smells of cooking and freshly ground coffee... and I wonder with a smile how many of our fellow village folk will venture our way, intrigued or disapproving, curious or dismissive, embracing our endeavours or set on keeping things just as they are?

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @ www.porkandgin.com

April 1, 2012

Storm & Mortar

All of a sudden, the weather has turned.

Driving to the farm today is a steady battle to stay in the right lane (no longer an English car, so no excuses!). The wind blasts hail against the windows pushing our little box car further into the middle of the road, spinning the turbines in the open field beside us faster than feels comfortable and drowning out any hint of conversation. Maia refuses to sleep, cranking up her own volume to join in the fun.

We arrive rather battered and in need of some peace. The greenhouse has suffered. A roof panel has blown off into the bed below and the glass beside the door has shattered from the force of the unfastened metal door frame swinging relentlessly against it. We hadn't thought to secure it as the last few weeks have blessed us with clear blue skies and only gentle breezes.

After roughly fixing up the greenhouse with boards and planks, we set about our mission for the day (dictated by the weather and imminent visitors): spruce up the flat in the main house to a respectable standard.

The living room and two of the bedrooms just need a sweep and an airing and some mattresses dragging across from the pile in the main room. The kitchen will need a gas hob and bottle and a stock of water. This basic set-up will invariably feel like camping, but so far it scrubs up rather well.

The main bedroom proves to be the real challenge. A section of the ceiling plaster has been ripped out (it appears to be the beginnings of a plan to build an access into the attic). Any heat escapes right through the bared wooden slats of the attic and straw and old plaster litter the floor beneath it.

We figure we can patch it up without too much trouble and begin by stapling chicken wire across the whole surface to aid the grip of fresh plaster. It soon becomes clear why plasterers take time to learn their trade! First the mixture is too stiff and drops off like sand. Loosening it with water we then experiment with the trowel at different angles applying varying degrees of force. Needless to say, we are quickly covered in blobs of the stuff and precious little clinging to the ceiling.

Working on a vertical edge beside a window proves pretty straight forward and delivers good results, but nothing to encourage any real progress on the part that matters most – the roughly hewn square above our heads that ensures the room will never hold its heat for very long.

After a brief call to a brother who knows about these things, we liquefy our mixture and literally throw it up onto the raw ceiling making a lot more mess and decorating the walls like a cow shed. The result is lots of small dabs of plaster dotting the entire surface of the hole. Once dry, these will apparently help grip the next round of slightly thicker mixture using the trowel as it was designed for. We will be bracing ourselves for the next stage in our training!

The other foul-weather job is to dismantle a shoulder-height-right-angled wall in the small house on the ground floor. Although it is a priority right now to create a 'summer camp' in the flat, it is the small house that occupies our thoughts and begs for some clear design time. Our intention is to have it fully fit for us to move into before the next winter sets in.

This freshly built wall appears to be the beginnings of a cloakroom or a small toilet. Regardless of the plan it feels superfluous to us with our vision of an open-plan food-centred living space.

It is incredibly satisfying tapping the bricks free of their cement, quickly sensing how much force to use and the most effective angle to approach from. The dust is phenomenal but in a couple of hours the space is clear. Now at last we have a good view of the ground floor and can begin in earnest to design the all-important kitchen that will become the centre of our family life for years to come.

Weekly column 'A Taste of Earth' published @ www.porkandgin.com