An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Monday, August 23, 2010

Lamentations 1:1

I was really hoping that I wouldn't have to write this. I've been, we've been, denying it for weeks. Given the nature of it I'll make it swift. I don't wish to linger.

! 2010 IS A DISASTER !

Yes, you read that right 2010 is officially a disaster. It's the last half of August and the first angustifolia harvest should be done and distilled but instead we have a single table of dried flowers and a thin dribble still coming. No purple haze this year.

It's more or less the last week of August and the spica harvest should be well under way but instead great chunks of the bushes are dying or dying back . That's right - dying back big time: a drought tolerant lavender is dying in parts. In all areas of the farm lavender is dying back and we have been irrigating since April.

The olive trees that have had a set, and those that haven't too, are spotted with yellow leaves. Olives are wrinkling and dropping from the lower branches even while the trees put on ridiculous thin top growth.

The ground is like concrete. The wild carrot that dominated the fennel this year is dead. There is scarcely a wild flower or grass in sight.

The plants are exhausted. The soil is exhausted. We are exhausted.

Autumn 2009 was warm and unusually dry. Winter 2009 was warm and unusually dry. The olives did not swell fully. Our olive harvest was one of the few in our valley - most people didn't even bother. Spring 2010 was short, hot and dry. By the end of April 2010 we had started to irrigate the lavender weekly - the stress was showing. Summer 2010 started early and has been consistently hot - the daytime temperatures have been over 30ยบ for months. It has not rained since March. The UV readings have been over 11 on a regular basis and there has not been a dew for longer than I can remember. Night temperatures have been in the mid to high 20s save only when they too have been in the 30s. We have had heatwaves  too,  with 40+ temperatures for a week or so at a time every few weeks. And almost no breeze. No wind.

Weird shit has been happening all throughout 2010. Hindsight is amazing but we did notice all of this weird shit as it happened it just wasn't possible to predict what it all presaged.

Some of our olive trees flowered in January - and set. In january one of our dogs was attacked by ticks and fleas that should have died in the winter. At the end of January our avocado tree - the one we had nurtured from a stone some years ago - turned brown and died in only 3 days. 

The rest of our olives refused to flower. The walnut tree failed to put on leaf and I took it for dead. Months after they were due both sprang into some simulacrum of life but the olive blossom was sporadic and sparse and the walnut lacked any real conviction. By this time we had noticed a scarcity of both pollinators and wild flowers. The main crop olive trees had a small set eventually and the walnut finally took on a lightweight coat of paler green leaves but none of it was terribly convincing.

The mulberry trees produced almost no fruit and so did not carpet the ground with mushy fruit and buzzing bees. And so it has continued: some things are months early and some months late. All is spindly and weak and the weather refuses to vary. And now the cumulative effects are killing things off.

I was really hoping that I wouldn't have to write this. I've been, we've been, denying it for weeks but now it's written it's time to move on. We are fundamentally optimists. At heart we try to find the positive in life's buffetings but this really has us scratching our heads and looking at what looks dangerously like a glass that's more than half empty. 

There's a lesson sure enough and that is that you should never assume you have mother nature's number - she always has a curve ball left but we knew that already!

And there we are - digging to the very bottom of that half full glass there is a possible upside: any plants that make it through will be ideal for propagating as the only stock that is fit for prolonged drought conditions. It isn't much but it'll have to do for now and we shall have some sort of olive harvest albeit much reduced.

! 2010 IS A TRAGEDY !

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Aunty Who Turned Herself Green

Luke drives southward, The road is narrow and winding. One one side there is a sheer rock face towering above the little car. On the other a sheer drop. There is no edge nor kerb to the patchy asphalt.

Kate sits beside him in the passenger seat. She has the sheer drop on her side and refuses to look that way. She peers past Luke myopically at the gouged out rock face. Kate does not herself drive. She gradually becomes aware that Luke is checking his rear-view mirror more often than is strictly necessary - there are no cars behind them and there have been none for the last 20 km or so. Not since they left the little mountain village where they stopped for coffees.

Aunty Maureen is in the back seat, positioned to obscure the driver's rear view perspective. Aunty Maureen has never been to the Greek Islands before and stares fixedly through the windscreen. Looking neither left nor right she sits forward in the seat, almost breathing down Luke's neck.

It is hot in the car and sweat beads down Luke's cheek. Kate leans over and dabs at it with a tissue that comes away sodden. Luke turns up the aircon and shifts in his seat - haemorrhoids draw in the heat.. The aircon seems to make no noticeable difference and Kate passes him the cold water when they reach a straight section. Slugging back a mouthful of once frozen water he hand it back and again glances up at the rearview mirror. Kate feels Aunty Maureen lean forward and feels her breath. She hands the bottle back and concentrates on Luke who is by now checking his rearview mirror every few seconds.

Luke is aware that his concentration is slipping and shakes his head. His mouth is still dry, he shakes his head to clear it and a solitary drop of sweat from his forehead splats onto the windscreen. Not thinking, he switches on the wipers and curses under his breath. He switches them off as they scrape back to park in the layer of dust. He simply cannot believe what he is witnessing.

 Aunty Maureen is turning green as he watches her assiduously. He nods archly and raises a damp eyebrow to Kate who he knows is watching him, and asks solicitously,  "Are you feeling OK in the back there Maureen?".  

"I'm fine, pet - I could do with a comfort break - I'm a bit hot but - no I'm fine thank you". Aunty Maureen is now a shade of green somewhere between olive which is very appropriate as they descend through olive groves and khaki. And, finally, Kate looks round, looks directly at Maureen, and cottons on to what Luke has been hinting at.  She swivels back to Luke and nods knowingly,  "Can we stop at the next taverna Luke? I could do with a break too. And we need to check some things on the map".

Luke drives on. The road has straightened now and the driving is easier but the sun has strengthened. HIs T-shirt is firmly stuck to him and he shifts in his seat again but without achieving any relief. A sign appears for a taverna in 1000 meters and he relaxes. He checks the rearview mirror and gulps. He slips into the forecourt of a traditional blue and white painted taverna and parks up under a mulberry tree. He slips the car out of gear and pulls on the handbrake in welcome shade as a scream escapes Maureen in the back. Kate and Luke, seatbelts now released, turn round swiftly. 

Luke is sitting looking down to the Libyan sea and drinking a frappe - black with a little sugar. The girls are in the toilet. It is a pleasant enough little taverna and the frappe is fine, strong but good and cold. The girls have been in the toilet for some time now. Maureen was near hysterical and sobbing as Kate led her off but the taverna owner had scarcely appeared to notice as he shuffled from behind the till to take Luke's order. Luke had ordered only for himself - who knows how long this would take and in this heat ice melts quickly. He motions the owner over, orders a small beer, lights a cigarette and continues to wait.

Halfway down his beer Kate appears. Aunty Maureen is dogging her footfalls. Kate smiles wanly, unconvincingly. Maureen has paler streaks down her cheeks where her tears have flowed. They sit resignedly and Kate orders two glasses of raki - Maureen does not normally partake of alcohol but has decided to make an exception today - under the circumstances. Maureen is still green - a muddy pond bottom green. Not just her face, but pretty much all over.

Kate leans forward and in stage whisper describes how Aunty Maureen has been using a fake tanning foam since she arrived and how, on hearing of the clouds of mosquitoes common on the south coast had decided at the last moment, just before leaving the house, to slather almost half a tube of mosquito repellent on every exposed inch of herself. The green colour was clearly the result of a chemical reaction of some description, perhaps accelerated by the sun and the heat. Luke laughed. Kate scowled. Maureen burst into tears again.



Thursday, May 06, 2010

Book Review - The Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano.

Galeano is one of only 2 Uruguayan authors I have read (the other is Onetti). His trilogy Memory of Fire is one of the few non-fiction works that I have regularly recommended. The trilogy is a more or less complete history of America and it is organised as the most humane of narratives possible on a history that is far removed from humanity. This work is an earlier and more overtly polemical history of 5 centuries of the bloodletting of the Latin American continent almost unto death.

Written in 1971 The Open Veins has become a classic among scholars of Latin American history and although it does not have the wonderful structure and narrative flow of the Memory of Fire trilogy it is an incredibly compelling read even for the non-historian. Galeano's gift has been honed over the years but his talent for engaging you with history shines even in this earlier work. Galeano has been compared favourably to Dos Passos and Marquez and that is not too high a praise.

If you want to discover how a mythically rich continent can be reduced to penury read this book. If you want an insight as to how the IMF can enslave not just nations but whole continents read this book, What the hell - READ THIS BOOK.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Book Review - Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou

Mabanckou is a French speaking Congolese and his is a fresh voice on the literary scene. Whilst not strictly speaking a novel in its modern sense this is an uplifting and joyous read, The narrator, clearly unreliable since he is a recurrent drunk, relate tales told to him by various customers at the Congolese bar Credit Gone West. His little notebook, forced on him by the bar's owner the Stubborn Snail, gradually fills with riveting little lives until he slowly reveals his own version of his own story. The lives he shows us are not our western lives but the problems are similar. Mabanckou writes in a consistently engaging way with scant regard for traditional grammar and punctuation but he always takes the reader with him. Filled with asides to great literature this text shines with a light from within.

Only two of Mabanckou's books have been translated so far but I await more with bated breath.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

3 not 2

Now here's a turn-up for the book. Until January I thought that we had 2 varieties of olive tree growing in our grove. I even thought I knew both varieties - Koroneikei and Rethymniote. Imagine my surprise then when it dawned on me that we actually have 3 varieties.

I had observed in previous years that some of our trees come into flower earlier than others but this year the difference in blossom time prompted some serious thought. Some of what we refer to as "the house olives" were starting to bloom in January and February when we harvested them. The bulk of the trees - the eating olives (Rethymniote) and the main-crop oil olives (Koroneiki) started to bloom this week (April 2010).

This prompted, as I said, some serious thought and ongoing investigation. There are maybe 11 of these trees that bloom early and close examination reveals that the trunks are bigger in girth than the Koronekei but not ancient like the Rethymniotes. The leaves are subtly darker green and the bark is rougher. They are bigger too (particualry height wise or height aspirationally). With hindsight it may well be the case that the fruit matures earlier in the season but we shall keep a close eye on them come October November and watch for drop behaviour.

On reflection I had known for some time that the Koroneikei require another variety to help with pollination but had always assumed that either the Rethymniotes did that or that other olive trees in the valley did. Perhaps these 3rd way olives do it.

Well, you live and you learn and as to identifying the variety I shall pursue the issue but my main thread of investigation will be to do with which varieties need very little winter chill to produce flowering (there is some 1950s research on this topic that I am tracking down).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Book Review: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Hey Laz, where you been lately? Two months, perhaps 3, without a review? That's so not like you. I been on an infinite quest. Been looking into Infinite Jest (IJ) by David Foster Wallace (DFW). So amny people recommended it that I had to do it. Glad I saved it for winter.

Infinite Jest then, Is it? Is it infinite? Well then, when you get to around page 666 and know that you aren't two thirds of the way through this heavy1 tome you kind of think it might just be. Is it at least a jest then? That sort of depends I guess as to whether you think that a tale is a comedy2 if you laugh now and then but that's not my take. So it's neither infinite nor jesting? Got it.

So it's long and a bit of a downer then? You could say that. And I'd tend to agree with you. But is it him or is it the material do you think? Let me take that sideways on. Take it via  Beckett3 maybe, now he, Beckett,  deals in some pretty gloomy views of what life is and is capable of being but leaves you laughing and ready to " ... go on" no matter how bleak it is.  With DFW you get the feeling that he not only sees the absurd bleakness of life but subscribes wholeheartedly to it. Enters the spirit of it so to say. Becomes one with it.

He takes 3 slight stories of gross inadequacy4 and plaits them into a rope thick enough to hang himself with. He takes 2 schoolboy jokes5 and stretches them into ever thinner territories until he has made a scaffold. He takes a view of a near future that looks now almost laughable6  (retract that almost - it IS laughable) and fashions the drop. Not as inventive as modifying the microwave oven so that you can cook your brain but just as effective.

So you're none too impressed with his material but what about his style? His structures and such? I liked a lot of it, it's a curate's egg of a book. I wish he'd had Gordon Lish instead of Michael Pietsch (whose job I wouldn't have wanted but hey if you step up to the mark you'd better be prepared to do it well and he didn't). DFW turns a good sentence maybe every ten or so. He drops in a lot of esoteric words. I don't know - feels more like a journalist than a novellist and yeah I guess I love a lot of his journalistic pieces -  the Federer article is sublime. Maybe that is the basic inadequacy that he is addressing - his own inadequacy as a novelist.  Round about page 666 I got to remembering Ellmann's biography of Joyce, or maybe it was from the Joyce Letters, where we find that in one of his last moves (it might be the move to Switzerland or Trieste) he took 17 packing cases full of material for The Work in Progress. Luckily for us he didn't put it all in to The Wake directly7 - seems to me that DFW dug up around 3 trunksfull of stuff and put it all straight into IJ. But what about the footnotes? The famous footnotes? There are 388 of them (and they're footnotes printed as endnotes)  feller, what else can I say? About 200 of them seem to have been sponsored by pharmaceutical companies in much the same way the years in the book are sponsored by retailers (is that my insight or his?). Don't get me wrong I like to know about drugs - as a kid I used to read the British Pharmacopoeia, which I just discovered is available online these day for the price of a subscription) for fun and the Extra Pharmacopoeia for research but flipping anywhere up to 900 pages back and forth for a couple of months and using 3 and at times 4 bookmarks does not make for fun. According to Wikipedia (where did the diphtong go?)  "Wallace claimed that the notes were used to disrupt the linearity of the narrative, to reflect his perception of reality without jumbling the entire structure". Apparently Pietsch got him to ditch a lot more of them but but they still run out to 100 pages. Maybe what was called for was a book designer and typographer who was familiar with B S Johnson's work8. Anyway whatever there they are - my wrists are stronger now.

I understand that lots of people find IJ better and deeper in every reading. Will you be reading it again? That's a no feller. Life is short and there's plenty of Sorrentino left for me to get. I'll reread Ulysses regularly. There are maybe 1500 books in my library that are marked for possible rereading but IJ isn't joining them. As the man once said - nice try but no coconut.

But did you enjoy it? Would I? Should I read it? Yeah, I enjoyed it plenty. If you like this review you'll like the book. Who am I to tell you what you should read? There are no oughts only coulds. You could.


1)  Heavy in the sense of having a large gravitational force acting on the mass of the volume as opposed to having a large amount of gravity working on the text itself.
2) WS did comedies, tragedies, histories and if WSa is good enough for DFW he's good enough for this review.

a: DFW's choice of title tells you enough of what to expect. Taken from a Hamlet soliloquy (the mighty and complex "Alas poor Yorrick" spiel)i beware of tragedy to come. 
i: That's the one, so you don't have to look it up, set in the graveyard (a laugh a minute it ain't) where Hamlet's holding the skull of the dead jester of his youth "a man of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy" and is being revolted by the memory of touching him. Still thinking it might be a jest?

3) DFW is most often compared to Pynchon andor Gaddis and simply on the density of the text they are kin but on the material and the treatment which drive this thing you've gotta look at Beckett IMHO. If DFW had taken "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." as his mantra he might not have topped himself. If you're looking for an American progenitor Gass or even Vollmann might be your best choices.

4) Story One: First and most compoundly inadequate is the tale of "recovering" addicts in a fundamentally inadequate "treatment plan" that makes them all feel inadequate, and in fact to be inadequate, in wholly related and equally inadequate ways.
   Story Two: Just up the hill from the addict centre is the tennis academy where children overadequate in one or two overly specific skills and physically, asynmetrically overdeveloped but socially inadequate and most of them destined to fail to achieve The Tour. An academy dedicated to inadequacy.
   Story Three: A bunch of doomed and infiltrated secessionist terrorists in wheelchairs because they are legless due to an inadequacy to get out of the way of oncoming trains (how big a pile of inadequacy do we need to have?) wage a doomed quest for an entertainment that itself dooms anyone who watches it to an apathetic death.

5) 2 jokes: a major world state that has O.N.A.N as its acronym and the idea of cripples as assassins.See what I mean about schoolboy humour?  DFW has north american government designated as wankers and terrorists as cripples. Self reference back to the author here is not impossible of course. Likely even.

6) DFW's view of the future has the US and Canada in an uneasy alliance to create his seed spilling state and sees some clunky and proprietary extension of the VHS film cartridge as the delivery mechanism for the dominant entertainment. True he has an ecological disaster driving the US and Canada into their alliance but not to see an interactive future and the rise of computer gaming? Lame. 

7) JJ took 17 years working on FW - probably 16 on Ulysses (8 according to some) - and the effort paid off -each work flows along like a riverrun where IJ is punctuated by gear changes and nearly stalled moments, hand brake turns and emergency stops.  

8) B S Johnson was another suicidal author. An experimentalist in the sixties he constantly reimagined the structure of the book trying to challenge the linearity, the serialness, the imposition imposed on the writer by the hardcopy. BSJ did not know about hypertext and hyperlinks - DFW did.   

9) This one is just hanging here signifying nothing, full of wind and piss.

Friday, February 05, 2010

More from the harvest

We may finish the harvest tomorrow. This morning we woke to a bright dry day and were frankly stunned to see frost lying in patches of shade in the valley bottom that the sun had yet to reach. Frosts are pretty rare here. We checked the skies and then we checked the weather forecast and both seemed to agree that there was a good chance of two dry days together.

We settled back into a two coffee pot morning and waited to see if anything was moving in on the cold northerly bimbling in from the sea but by the time we had sorted out the dogs and cleaned the cellar we were as sure as we could be that we were set fair. Out came the nets and the rakes and the buckets and the sacks: on went the work clothes (crushed olives really do stain clothing) and the wellingtons (it is still wet underfoot amongst the rampaging oxalis) and the gloves and the eye protection and out we went into the grove in a bright but not very warm morning.

We finished up at around half two. The day had not heated up. The sun shone but did not warm. We had, however, finished another ten or eleven trees and counted the remaining trees (tomorrow's all being well) at six. An early start tomorrow should enable us to finish them off, bag up and get the new crop to the factory. Today's trees were over on the northern boundary and unlike most of the other trees had fruit only on the north sides. I'm wondering whether the shade from the house is keeping the south sides of these trees too cool but I am just guessing.

We only collected the oil from our first batch yesterday and it is a fine tasting vintage - light on the tongue but with a nice aftertaste and a light peppery aroma. As we had suspected the stone to flesh ratio was up so although the biomass of the drupes collected was good the flesh yield was lower than last year (I blame a lack of a really hot summer and especially the absence of any heatwaves, Gill blames the dry spring, we all have our theories). Fruit fly infestation was noted at 2% and overall acidity was 0,5, the same as the last two years. It turns out that we had picked and bagged 395.2 kilos of fruit over last weekend and after the factory had taken oil to cover their costs we brought home just over 75 litres of single estate, single variety, transitionally organic, EVOO. A satisfying result for us and, from anecdotal evidence, a good harvest relative to other olive farmers in the area.


Friday, January 29, 2010

Picking Olives 2010 day 1

It was bright this morning. There had been a heavy dew overnight and the weather forecast was less than promising. We loitered through the chores and Gill did the laundry that I then hung out in hope. It was warmer now and though the sky held cloud the sun was peeking from behind clouds. We looked at each other and nodded. "Let's go and see how things in the olive grove look". Well, they looked pretty damned fine. The dew had dried from the trees and they no longer glistened. The oxalis was wet and the ground all but sodden. "We looked at each other and nodded. "He who dares wins!." We trudged back up the steep slope for the first time today.

Unpacking the nets and sacks from the supposedly rodent safe storage we found we had lost 3 sacks to mice. So much for rodent proof. The mice clearly prefer hessian to nylon. The nets were untouched.  We opened up the drying room since all the other farm buildings currently have very wet floors.  We laid out the sacks, gathered up the olive rakes, grabbed our buckets and changed into work clothes. Wellies on, we took our second trip of the day down the slippery slope. There would be many more.

By the time we got down to the first (or is it the last?)  row a crew of olive pickers had assembled in a field nearby and had started up their whizzers. We could hear them but not see them. That's how it would stay for the day. We don't use whizzers. We use olive rakes. They are gentler on the trees and on the ears. We can talk as we pick. Spreading the olive nets beneath the oil tree (oil trees as opposed to the eating trees) furthest from the house we reacquainted ourselves with how big those nets are.  Big green buggers. Two of them. The sun was a little further up now and had begun to warm our bones. We set to. The olives were all purpled and came off the tree so easily that it was hard at first to appreciate just how many drupes there were for the taking. Finish the first tree and move the nets on to the next tree in the row, After four trees we can no longer move the nets and so we stop to clean leaf and twig. There is a huge pile of olives on each of the nets.  The sun is really warm now. It is another hour and a half higher in the sky. We crouch on our haunches and clean the gatherings discarding twig and detritus in a pile beneath a finished tree behind us. 

We are no longer young and neither of us is strong enough of back to hoist a full sack of olives on our shoulder and climb the slope to the drying room. As an aside, the old people here, people of our generation, are much tougher and harder working than their kids who almost without exception hate doing olives. The old ones just knuckle down to hard physical work and set their tempo to suit their bodies. We try to emulate the old ones. So, since we cannot lug full bags up and down all day, or once even, we load up buckets with clean olives and tramp up to the drying room where we empty them into sacks that we never fill more than half way (we have to take the sacks up to the pickup when we have enough). And so we trade more walking up and down hill against lugging huge sacks a few times. This will take its toll on our legs and hips but will save our backs.

The newly emptied nets are dragged under the next tree and the harvest resumes. These trees in this bottom, or top, row are heavy with drupes. The sacks are starting to fill in the drying room and I regret the loss of 3 sacks to the mice. At this rate we may have to get some more sacks. And so it goes until the first row is done and then we turn and start back on the second row but in the reverse direction. The sun is high and about to begin its descent. It is hot now and we are sweating as we work. We wear hats, gloves, and protective eyewear when beating and the olives drop into shirts and shirt pockets, and bras and trouser turn ups. Gill stops now and then to empty olives from her wellington boots. Somehow my wellington shoes do not suffer the same problem.

Half way across row 2 and about when we hear the other crew packing up in laughter, the sun droops lazily behind the house and the temperature begins to drop. We finish the tree in progress and rubbing our sore backs we clean the last of today's harvest and trudge for the nth time up and down that hill to the drying room and when we are done with that we have 9 half full sacks safely in. Trudging back down the hill it is good to think that this will be the last time today. Surely that slope has steepened as we worked? Fold those big green buggering nets, but clean them first. Gather up the rakes and gloves and water bottle and, each of us with a  net clamped under an arm, we take that final trudge. We are done for the day once everything is stored away in the drying room. Tired but satisfied.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Gilbert gets the iPad

Gilbert and Rebecca relax. The stove is burning. The room is warm. The DVD is playing a cinema noir classic from RKO. The coffee is hot and strong. It is late at night and outside it is cold and raining. Gilbert slips the iPad out from its place down the side of the sofa and quickly checks on imdb the name of the actor playing the hood or gunsel - William Bendix. Just as he thought.

Later, snuggled up in bed, he reads a couple of chapters of Infinite Jest before switching over and writing a new chapter of his own new blogella and pushes it up on his site before finally switching off for the day.

At four, in the pitch dark, he wakes sweating from a very dark dream and grabs the iPad to make a few notes for tomorrow's episode before turning back to sleep.

At 0830 he wakes, his bladder pressing him hard but looking through the bathroom window he surveys a grey, wet morning with disappointment. Padding back to the still warm bed he pulls the covers up to his neck and grabs the iPad again. He checks his emails - nothing pressing. He reads the news - nothing pressing - Federer is thru to the final, the Haitians are still suffering. He parks the iPad and snuggles spoonwise into Becky's back.

Gilbert gets the iPad.