Wednesday, 28 February 2007

If Spring Is On The Way, Can Summer Be Far Behind?

With all the current rumours regarding the arrival of spring, I am developing a serious case of “let the sun shine”! Yesterday was mostly grey and rainy, but once in a while sunshine would break through here and there, sending pretty rainbows dancing over the loch. And I would drop everything – in this case the gesso brush (I’m preparing boards) and grab my gardening gloves to do some quick tidying outside. It wouldn’t be long before the clouds would close up again and I’d have to head back in, but those interludes were wonderful; not that much ‘real work’ was done but I think I have found the perfect spot for the hammock. In an ideal world (according to CJ), every garden should have a place to hang one and every gardener should make liberal use of it. On a sultry summer afternoon, while nature gets on with the important business of growing and breeding, the perfect place for quiet contemplation is a comfy hammock piled with cushions, gently rocking in sun dappled shade. Just add a small table, accessorised with a long, cool drink and think of the planning and plotting that can be done; just what’s needed after a few hours down on your knees or grafting away in the greenhouse! Mmm, sounds wonderful! So off I go to find the hammock, never mind that it could be at least two months before it can be hung up…I want to be READY!

Hand-Made-HammockOur hammock in a garden near the Lebombo Mountains, Mpumalanga, South Africa.

Our hammock came all the way from South Africa as hand luggage, well wrapped in three heavyweight black bags and a few dozen metres of packing tape. We have schlepped it all over the UK with us, from Cornwall to Scotland, and had yet to un-wrap it (three years plus, crushed in a bag). I wanted to see if it was usable, being cotton it could be harbouring mildew or moths or something more sinister, but where have we put it?

We’ve only just moved! You’d think that clutter would be at a minimum but one spare bedroom has become a catchall for an odd miscellany of boxes and materials, probably caused by the lack of actual storage furniture and cupboards. Then there is the annex to the workshop, a vast space that years ago would have held livestock; now, while waiting for a ceiling, it houses those larger, essential items needed in every workshop like spare wood, boxes of old tools, garden umbrellas, racks waiting for a place to go and, and, and… Bingo! That long dark shape under the roll of carpeting must be it.

The package was taken inside after we had wiped the dust, mud, spider webs and unidentified gunk off it. M carefully cut the wrapper off from end to end and we shook it out and it was lovely; undamaged and more importantly, no mildew. As you may have guessed, there’s a bit of family history wrapped up in this simple object; I mean what sane, normal people would drag a heavy, four foot long, irregularly shaped bundle halfway around the world with them when they’re not related to it?

I saw my first macramé hammock back in California years ago when both macramé and hammocks were fashionable (the first time round). Many years later, I wanted a special birthday present for M’s fortieth and settled on the idea of a macramé hammock. The problem was, neither hammocks nor macramé were around then so I worked out a pattern and made my own. Although the design was a bit rudimentary, it was a great success, so much so that an unknown admirer appropriated it out of the garden one night! Fast forward to 2002 and hammocks are back in style; in fact in SA they were the patio accessories of the moment! As always we were looking for some way of bringing in extra income and so M and I worked out a design; I had no record of the first one I’d done except for a photo. We made quite a few for game lodges, interior designers and tourist shops and even started incorporating spun African silk (from the Mopani worm) into them. No, we didn’t spin the silk ourselves; it was collaboration between a friend and ourselves. The hammocks helped to supplement our income right up until we left for the UK but as we have never written the pattern down, this one serves as our record.

When macramé is mentioned, most people think of hanging pots, tired plants and the jumble table at the church bazaar. But take the clichéd ‘70’s styles out of the equation and think laterally to the positives of the craft. We have done commissioned pieces, from hanging baby chairs to a set of deck chair seats and they were wonderful; first of all being cotton, there’s both comfort and beauty and a well made item has an almost tribal quality.

The hammock is currently decorating our office/sitting room, lying draped over the two camp chairs we are using until we get a sofa. It’s perfectly happy there; we are always at our desks when in this room, and it is a tangible reminder that, no matter what the weather tells us, summer will be along one day.

Monday, 19 February 2007

Henry VIII

When M and I were married, he came with a ready-made family…animal family that is. In addition to his horse, dog and cat, there was Henry and his wives. Henry was a Bantam cock, a proud, plump little fellow with feathered pantaloons that offset his unique walk to perfection. Somewhere along the way, he had acquired a peculiar gait favouring one or the other leg as if he had gout. M had named him Henry VIII after his portly appearance and the six fine, plump wives that came with him. This little group kept themselves busy and well fed by keeping the garden insect free and when dusk came, would put themselves to bed in the branches of a tall pine tree.

Henry was the inspiration for this painting as I wanted to paint a Rooster and Henry is the only one I have known personally. Although it has not been trimmed, I decided to put the picture up as it is finished otherwise.

Henry-The-Eighth-Rooster-Loch-FyneApart from being a national symbol of France, the rooster is associated with good luck in some cultures.

Bantams get their name from Bantam Island in what was then the Dutch East Indies. Sailors on their long voyages used the native poultry from these islands for eggs and meat because their small size made them easier to keep on board a ship. Eventually the name “bantam” came to mean any small breed of chicken and their little eggs made them popular with European peasants as all large eggs were to go to the Lord of the Manor as part of the rent. Just for comparison, it takes about three bantam eggs to equal one large chicken egg.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

A Valentine Story…Part II

Twelve years went by…years full of learning and growing. The naïve, dreamy child developed a hard veneer; with cynicism shielding her, she completed her education, finding refuge in study. Her friends from that time quickly scattered far and wide - to careers, to travel, to marriage – and she found herself alone and very far from the only place she’d considered her home. One thing remained the same and that was her need to return to Africa, only now it was tempered with reality, economic reality. When, some months later, circumstances blessed her with a small windfall, she grabbed the opportunity, packed her life in a crate and flew back. Back to her Aunt and Uncle and the farm she had loved.

Many things had changed, not just to the people but to the place as well. The social life and most of the friends she had remembered as a child were gone. The farming community was in crisis because of prolonged drought and a lot of the old families, on these farms for many generations, had sold up and settled elsewhere. Her Aunt and Uncle ‘s relationship had suffered with the strain of failed crops and dwindling resources and their home was no longer the happy place of her memories. The drought had broken the season before, but for many it was too late.

Twelve years is not a long time but life never stands still and the first person to visit when she had returned was the boy who had taught her to ride. Those twelve years had been as pivotal for him as for her and the man who greeted her was more beautiful than she remembered but a virtual stranger…for days they spent time together, catching up on the years between. In discovering their common love of art, music and literature, the days became weeks and the weeks became months.

He had just inherited a property (one farm away) and was developing it with meagre funds, buying only what he needed to produce each crop. It was a lonely life, all available money went back into the farm and he did much of the work himself, making dams, contouring lands, ploughing and planting. Slowly his labours were beginning to show results and his equipment was building up; at the time he had just bought his first tractor, an old Massey Ferguson 65. This was to prove fortuitous; not long before she arrived back, his ancient pick-up had breathed it’s last and that old tractor was to play an important role in their lives.

So they courted on horseback, riding the five miles between the farms almost every day. When the work was done for the week, he would borrow an ox cart from one of his labourers who lived on the farm. This was a very rudimentary arrangement of long planks mounted on an old pick-up chassis with a long pole attached to the front for hitching up the oxen. Piled with duvets (this was in early spring) over an old carpet, it was quite comfortable, except for occasional diesel fumes when the wind shifted direction. He would pick her up and drive the five miles to his farm for dinner – a braai (barbeque) in the boma, next to his little farmhouse. This cottage was the original house on the property and it had never been developed – no electricity, no plumbing but the boma (a reed enclosure with a sand floor) with a big log fire in the middle, was warm and they would spend hours talking long into the night before the trip was repeated and he dropped her back at her Aunt’s house. All spring and into the summer, this became the pattern of their life; to escape the rows between Aunt and Uncle, she would sometimes spend the whole day at the cottage, riding back just before dark.

That January, six months after she had returned, they quietly slipped away and with some old friends as witnesses, they were married in the garden of a cousin. Now, many years afterwards they are still together, still in love and the adventure is far from over...

Yes, it's our story... M and I. Happy Valentines

Part I is here and Part IIIis here

A Valentine Story…Part I

The girl was nine when they first met, a precocious, difficult child whose whole world had just fallen apart. All her life had been spent in the gentle realm of the small Cape estate belonging to her Grandparents but now the old couple could no longer cope and the three of them were refugees on a Highveld farm.

Dressed in old-fashioned clothes, gawky, shy and awkward with a “pudding-bowl” haircut, she stood on the veranda of her Aunt’s old farmhouse and listened as her Gran explained why they were there. All her short life, she had believed herself to be the youngest of her Gran’s three daughters, but in a few words, one sister became her mother and one sister became her Aunt and suddenly she was an only child. Now her Grandparents were going to live in a cottage on her Aunt’s farm where they would be looked after and she was going to her mother in America. But before she could go to her new home, she was going to have to learn how to be a modern child and she had six months to do it in.

Having never gone to school or had friends because her Grandmother was afraid she would somehow be damaged, she had a lot to catch up with before she would be ready to join her mother. She found herself in the constant company of people under the age of fifty for the first time. A tutor was hired and lessons began, and although she had known how to read from the age of five, she had to learn geography, how to write and do basic maths. Then there were many new friends, children of local farmers, who were around her age; she learnt to play and swim and get on with other youngsters, although the tendency to behave like a spoiled brat stayed with her for years. In the days and weeks that followed, the sense of betrayal was gradually numbed by this bewildering new world she suddenly found herself part of.

A few days after lessons began, she was taken to the farm next door where her friends' older brother was going to teach the two of them to ride. The fairytale she had been living in since arriving at her Aunt’s was confirmed when she saw the figure on the big horse. He was fifteen but already grown-up, tall for his age, blond and blue-eyed, on his black stallion he looked, to the dazzled child, like some blue-jeaned prince riding out to secure his kingdom. Unlike a lot of boys his age, he was also very kind, patiently giving up his holidays to teach the two girls to ride and taking them out to practice, although she later found out that he escaped many of his holiday chores by looking after them. All through the summer the three of them rode over the two big farms, exploring the Koppies (small rocky outcrops) where the Dassies (similar to a Groundhog) lived and riding through fields of Khakibos and Cosmos. In the sunshine and the space she began to feel that maybe the fairytale would never end, but of course it did and the time came when she had to leave. Those few short months were etched on her memory and in all the dark and lonely times in the years that followed, she would reflect back and promise herself that one day she would return...

Part II is here and Part III is here

Monday, 5 February 2007

The Appeal of Old Tools...

While browsing in “My Pictures” I found this picture of some tools that we had arranged and photographed a few months ago. The juxtaposition of shapes makes an unusual image and I thought it was a good opportunity for me to explain why “old tools” are listed as one of my interests.

When I was a “Starving Student” I had a great studio apartment above a garage in LA. Cheap and perfectly placed for work and university, it was the kind of fun accommodation that you usually see in TV shows. Quiet, peaceful and secure, it could only be accessed through the fully fenced garden and had (at the bottom of the stairs) a small, enclosed private patio. The young, creative couple that owned the house had wonderful ideas and had done most of the work themselves, including the decorating of their home and it had been featured in a lifestyle magazine.

With a non-existent budget, any decorating I did had to be accomplished through charity of friends and thrift shops. My resourceful landlords had used some old saws as decorative features on their wooden walls and I wanted to poach their idea for my little patio. When I found a box of old tools for a dollar at a yard sale, I bought it and although there were no saws, the old iron pieces fascinated me. I cleaned up all the things that could be hung up on nails and oiled them (with olive oil – less than successful) and decorated my little patio space. Those first tools earned me quite a few compliments; back then old tools went well with the “country” look. From then until now, I have been enamoured with old rusted metal objects!


Back at the turn of the last century, tool making was becoming very industrialised. But go back another fifty years or so to the mid 1800’s (or earlier) and you can find some wonderful things. Some of the old squares, used by woodworkers to keep their angles straight, are made of Rosewood or Ebony with brass studs where they attach to the metal, highly decorative when cleaned up and hung on the wall of an office or study. Of course, if you have a Georgian home with fine chintz curtains and mahogany furniture, old tools would be out of place…or maybe not. I’ve framed some lovely old tools (tiny wooden handled screwdrivers) and used them in a traditional home before so why not a pair of fine chisels with boxwood handles and heavy brass ferrules. Hmmm…

M, being a cabinetmaker, knows and appreciates old tools from a completely different perspective bordering on reverence and I have learned a lot from him over the years. Originally, he bought chisels, screwdrivers, planes, levels, rules and saws to use because of the quality of the materials and manufacture. Many of these tools are highly sought after by craftsman of today who use them either for their own work or in the restoration of the ships, furniture, panelling, carriages and buildings of yesteryear. Each and every item was part of the essential equipment that the Cabinetmaker, Shipwright, Joiner or Cooper had to have to ply his trade and a good craftsman kept his tools in pristine order. There are tools that were common to all the trades and then there were speciality tools, made for specific work. Most old tools will have the names or initials of one or several owners because each man marked all the tools in his tool chest; they were prized and valuable and to loose one meant hardship and expense. Many craftsmen kept their tools after they retired, some sold their tools on, some tools were lost, sometimes they were stolen but most often they were passed from father to son. The consideration and the care lavished on these old tools often comes through in the tool itself…they are lovely to handle, often you can see the way the item was used, as in the case of the old wooden planes that still bear the marks of the craftsman’s hands where he shaped a moulding. The very old steel has a deep and lustrous patina once the rust and gunk has been cleaned off. Sometimes, even if the item is too far-gone to take away the rust, it’s still got that honest beauty that comes from a useful life.

Friday, 2 February 2007

Of This and That...

Meanwhile, back in the not-so-watery world, the days are getting longer and out in the garden, things are happening! I’m not going to share pictures just yet as we still have the “bogs” (the old goat pen and chicken run) and a rubbish pile or two to deal with when the soil is a bit dryer. But I am out and about, counting the bounty of spring bulbs coming up all over…in the driveway, under the gravel walk, in piles of discarded potting soil, just everywhere you care to look. I’ve been told that we have some beautiful “Scottish” Daffodils; apparently they have very large flowers but my informant can’t remember where they have been planted. The one group that is coming up outside the office window already have long leaves and thick stems with well developed buds and I’m hoping that these are them. I already have patches of snowdrops in the lawn, just visible from my PC, and some sunny splashes of yellow would make a lovely picture.

There are perks to having the remains of an old established garden. Often treasures lurk below the soil and it’s always exciting to see what is going to sprout next; even the shrubs are unknown entities to our uneducated eyes. Outside the sitting room window, on a sheltered wall are two very neglected rambling roses, colour and type unknown. We are very fond of roses and have re-attached them to the wall supports, pruned them as much as you can prune five spindly stalks and fertilised. I am envisioning crystal bowls of fragrant roses on polished wood…perhaps a little ambitious for two puny little shrublets that have had a bad start in life but my husband is a rose wizard and can coax blooms from the most unlikely looking candidates!

In other news, the weather has been dryer and I was able to spend some time outdoors, taking advantage of the natural light to finish the current painting. Taking a picture of it also gives me a chance to share my treasured easel with you. M completely rebuilt it from an old frame and left the “distressing” as it was, because I love that old and slightly battered look. He added the decorative finials and the centre support with a sliding clasp to hold the board or canvas fast, even in a breeze so now I can take full advantage of dry days outside!

Of course, there is still plenty of wintery weather in the future but don't tell the plants or the birds; they seem to be really enjoying the hiatus from rain, wind and snow. The forecast this morning was for winter to rear it's head again by early next week so there will be more "cabin time" and a chance to catch up on some of the other tasks that taxes interrupted.

For those of you who have noticed the Woodendollars logo on the right, the website is under intense construction. Fortunately, it's not all up to us as we are getting a lot of help from our Webmasters (who are also our Hosting Company), the great guys at Twin Hosting. We are just writing content and providing stock (photos and descriptions) and believe me, that is a mammoth task in itself! So as and when the weather closes in, I'm hoping for a chance to do the final push so that the link can then go "live".

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Of Death and Taxes…

But in this world nothing can be said to be certain,
except death and taxes.
Benjamin Franklin

Finally made it back to my blog. Sometimes so many things crowd around demanding time that there isn’t even the luxury of choosing between them! The end of January is the deadline for Tax Returns and every year I tell myself that I will file before Christmas but every year “Life” happens and I find myself, as the 31st looms, having to cross some more “t’s” and dot some more “i’s” before the whole nightmare is behind us. At times like this, I am so grateful for living in the computer age and being able to file our returns online. Interesting isn’t it, here we are escaping to the country, getting back to nature, leaving the rat race behind, downsizing (OK, enough clichés) and it’s the computer that’s making it all possible!

A while back, a neighbour left a comment on the blog to tell me some sad news about a dead Harbour Porpoise that had been washed ashore about a mile up from us. I know very little about marine life and even less about these gentle mammals so M and I went to have a look and found the body on the beach right up in the trees. Life and death go hand in hand and in the country it is not glossed over or hidden away; the remains stay where they are deposited until nature (via scavenger or time) removes them. One tends to forget that the extremes of weather and the dangers of mechanisation and machinery also affect those creatures, both seen and unseen, that share the environment with us. We are all familiar with the menace posed to badgers, hedgehogs and foxes by vehicles on terra firma. The water presents it's own threats; the propellers of fishing boats, outboard motors and the like, pose a danger to whales, dolphins, porpoises and other sea creatures. What caused the death of this porpoise is a mystery but what a graceful and beautiful creature and I came home to see what I could find out. Further research turned up a few basic facts: The Harbour Porpoise is one of six species of porpoise and occurs in the cool temperate and sub-polar waters of the Northern Hemisphere. They are very shy, only showing their backs and fins when breaking through the water but despite this, they are the most commonly seen and studied of all the porpoises. They can live as long as twenty years; however, the average lifespan is more like ten years with the adult females reaching about six feet in length and the adult males slightly less. Although they have few natural predators apart from the Killer Whale, they are at threat from gill net fishing, pollution, habitat degeneration and depletion of their food sources due to over fishing. We are very fortunate that the Northern waters of the UK provide one of the more stable habitats for these little porpoises; in the Baltic Sea, their numbers are very depleted and in the Mediterranean, they are nearly extinct. Even so around 10,000 porpoises die every year in UK waters as a result of being mistakenly caught in mono-filament gill nets. That's an awful lot of porpoises!


I hope this wasn't the result of a gill net.

And so as we head toward spring in this lovely place, another dimension, the sea, has entered our lives. I can (and do) go on and on about the beauty but you know what they say about beauty? Look below the surface and what you find may surprise you! The beauty continues but not without the reality... yet as I started, nothing is certain but death and taxes!


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