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Notes from Kington, Herefordshire, a quiet and very friendly little town.  Coming from Devon to the Marches is sort of analogous to travelling from New England to the Midwest – two different kinds of rural.  And Herefordshire feels a bit like home – everyone smiles and says hello on the street.  The fields are a bit more open and flatter.  This morning, on the recommendation of a fellow wwoofer, I stopped into the Regency Cafe for breakfast, a tiny little place at the center of town.  I walked in, and as all five tables were full, I sat down to share a table with an elderly lady.  An old man in his suit jacket and sweater read the paper in the front table; a young hippie couple ate breakfast across the aisle; a sulky looking fellow with what looked like safety pin earrings was across the way, and two older chaps chatted and read the paper at the table behind.  I walked up to the little window in the back and ordered a full vegetarian breakfast from the lady in the kitchen – baked beans, fried eggs, tomatoe and mushrooms.  The BBC radio played the news in the background.  Somehow, I felt a little transported – surrounded by the older folks and the radio world news, I had the impression of the 1940s, perhaps of the war era.  There must have been something in the air, because when I walked over to the little town museum, I found an excellent exhibit on WWII and its effect on the town, researched by one of the classes at the local school.  Kington, it seems, was home of a US military hospital base during the war, as well as the comings and going of various british troops and a Polish resettlement camp.  In addition, a moving little tribute to a local district nurse who had served the community for over 25 years, with stories of her wartime heroism and adventures, graced the wall above her many medals of commendation.

The war seems to occupy a place in the consciousness here more significant than that in America.  In fact, I was surprised during one conversation with a middle aged woman back in Devon to her reference to the war, something she herself would not have been old enough to remember.  We were discussing politics, specifically, American politics.  So often, among “progressive” people of my own generation, I have to go into defensive mode, to convince them that America is not full of horrible ignorant imperialists… But this woman, while posing some critical comments, still came back and said, “well, we must still give them some credit.  If it wasn’t for the Americans in the war, we’d be part of the German Empire now.”  I was so surprised that this sentiment still lingered, and I have heard other people of her generation and older utter the same sort of thing from time to time.  The memory of privation during the war, and in the post-war period still remains.  Speaking to the volunteer warden of my hostel, who lived through the war, she commented that it still occupies a large part of the consciousness for her and people of her generation.  Something to consider.

Road Trip

It feels like I have come a long way, though I am sure it is less than 100 miles.  After leaving the wwoof farm in Devon, I checked into a B&B recommended by my wwoof host, and proceeded to wander around the Blackdown Hills, beginning my slow but fascinating Road Trip taking me through Apple country and the Marches, an opportunity for me to get to know the countryside of the two regions I am most interested in.

River Cottage Exposed

First, I ventured down to Axminster, where curiousity drew me into the River Cottage Canteen and Deli, spin-off of she BBC show which inspired some of my interests for this project.  I walked in, assuming I could get a table on a Wednesday night in a little town rather far from anywhere, and was told that they were full till 8:30.  However, as I was alone, they managed to find me a table, provided I could be done by 8pm when the reservation arrived.  So, after so much anticipation, what was it like?  Well, it was very good food, I must admit.  More interesting to me was the atmosphere of the place, which played up a theme of countryside summer vacation.  Pale worn colors, baskets, bread boards, oversize pictures of farm animals and produce….sort of Martha Stewart / Shabby Chic / agro-phile look set in a converted store-front.  Not that different in concept from Farm Bloomington, for those of you familiar with that restaurant, though a little more tasteful (though that could be the effect of not being from England).  Take away:  I would definitely reccommend it for the food and would go again, though I neglected to tell my wwoof host I went there.  When I mentioned it earlier, she implied that people around those parts didn’t have much time for Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall, and that he had taken credit for things other people were already doing in the area.  Though she admitted that generally what he was doing, in getting people interested in the countryside and farming issues, was generally a good thing.  I look forward to coming back in October with a friend visiting from the States, when we will attend a day course at the River Cottage Headquarters.  Stay tuned for more on this media enterprise!

Hippie, Festivals…

During the rest of my stay in the Blackdowns, I wandered around the tiny country lanes, got lost a lot, and puttered around the towns of Taunton and Wellington.  I found a gem of a bookstore in Taunton, where I bought lots of books, and I splurged and got a massage at a natural healing storefront in Wellington, as my back was tied in some painful knots after almost two months of farm work.  My massage therapist, a very lovely middle-aged lady with long wavy gray hair and flowy hippie garments, talked about just coming back from a festival and told me a bit about the festival circuit here in Britain.  It seems there are festivals all over the place almost all the time through the summer.  I’d been hearing about festivals from various people, and it seems like a rather significant part of the alternative lifestyle.  Don’t worry, I’m not about to turn into a festival follower.

A Conversation with an Agronomist

At the B&B I was very lucky to being staying there with another couple who turned out to be most friendly and interesting.  The man is an agronomist, so we had some really good chats about agriculture and the countryside.  And he and his wife were both just great company.  They gave me their information and said to visit sometime.  And he has some client farmers whom I could talk to about their switch from conventional to organic farming.  A great contact to have.  On Saturday I left my B&B and headed towards bath, stopping in Chard, a slow country town, and happening upon a local community shop at a little hamlet (name escapes me).  I’ve been hearing about the plight of local communities loosing their shops and managing to keep them going as volunteer-operated shops.  It looked fairly lively when I stopped in.  My devon wwoof host had mentioned that there are schemes to consolidate the post office and community shop into the pub where possible, in order to be able to keep all three institutions going in the small towns.

Into the Somerset Levels

From Chard, I meandered through the area known as the Somerset Levels, a low-lying area that was originally bog and marsh before massive drainage schemes conducted by, among others, the medieval abbeys.  I stopped by an eel smokery for lunch, but alas, found them too busy.  So I continued on to Burrow Hill Cider Farm and Cider Brandy Distillery, as homey a place as you can get in the middle of know-where.  The shop, however, was buzzing with people filling up their plastic jugs of cider.  I took a walk through their cider orchards, following signs that led through plantations of various different kinds of trees, explaining the significance of different apple varieties.  Orchards – more than any other type of garden or crop – have always seemed to me a bit magical.  They straddle the boundary of domestic order and wilderness –  a forest of apple trees, most certainly tamed to human requirements.  But can a tree ever really be considered domestic?  My wwoof host in devon, referring to an old oak she wanted to get rid of, had said that people worship trees in this part of the country.  She wanted to cut it down, because the acorns were toxic to her flock of alpacas, but the neighbor she brought in to look at it wouldn’t touch it – it was too historic, too old.  She mentioned off-handedly about having to ask the witch in the tree, and when I asked what she meant, she said, well, didn’t you have to shoot the witches out of the tree at wassailing (I had told her about my interest in wassailing).  So trees in this part of the country are something apart, and orchards a different sort of garden.  Indeed, with all the pruning and care that goes into managing the trees for maximum fertility, it almost does seem to cross over into animal husbandry or gardening.  A little different than other field crops.

In the shop, I struck up a conversation with a hefty joker of a fellow who told me his name was Pigeon, and I when I started talking, he of course asked where I was from and what I was doing out here.  When I told him I was researching folklore, he said, “Well, there’s no folklore out here; they industrialized really early and all the peasants were gone.”  He told me I needed to go to Wales and Scotland and Ireland.  I mentioned wassailing, and he laughed and waved it off, saying it was mostly the invention of 19th century victorians.  But he was really quite knowledgable, and we chatted about George Ewart Evans and his oral history researches in East Anglia, where Pigeon grew up.  East Anglia, he said was another good place for folklore, because it was a place that wasn’t on the way to anywhere else – you only went there if you had a reason to go there.  Pigeon and I had a good time talking while I sampled the cider brandy, and I’d love to learn more about him sometime if I get back down to Somerset.

More Hippies, of the Goddess Persuasion

Well, after purchasing a store of cider, brandy, and vinegar to accommodate all my culinary, medicinal, and merry-making needs, I headed onwards towards Glastonbury.  Glastonbury is a bit of a favorite haunt for me.  It has everything – folklore, history, archeology, legend….  The Tor is a remarkable landscape feature, a conical hill rising from the levels below, topped with a ruins of a medieval church tower.  The medieval monks “discovered” the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere, which in turn generated a lot of pilgrims.  Today, while there may still be a few Christian or historical pilgrims to the place, the town has largely been taken over by the New Age scene, which shops lining the streets purveying wares for your every Wiccan ritual need.  It is a fascinating scene.  I parked the car and walked into town, looking for a whole foods cafe I had been to the last time, and there it was, full of patrons.  The food was exceptionally good.  Sitting at the table across from me, a young couple bounced their tiny baby, passing her between them while each of them wandered in and out.  At another table, a middle aged man with flowing long hair and a beard texted on his cell phone for awhile before gathering up his rucksack, throwing his woolen cape over his back, grasping his elaborately carved walking stick, and walking off into hazy afternoon.  Maybe I am just keyed into it now, but the town seemed even more New-Agey than the last time I was here two years ago.  I walked through town and browsed in the many bookshops, full of sections such as, “astral travel” “Faerie Lore” and “plant psychology”, among an array of other categories.  I did not purchase any books here, though an ethnography on gypsies titled “Bury Me Standing” did catch my eye.  Glastonbury is, if anything, an oasis for the imagination, a place where legend has been conjured into reality for centuries.  I think this is why it is so evocative and fascinating for me, especially in its modern idiom.

And onto the setting of Austen’s Persuasion, Bath, where I am persuaded to do mostly nothing

But no lingering for me!  I decided to forego a trek up the Tor this time, and got back in the car on the way to Bath, where my hostel awaited.  But oh, to find the hostel.  Such  a run-around.  Bath is a beautiful city, its perfectly proportioned Georgian buildings glowing a sandy golden color in the sun.  However, I was a bit exhausted from my travels, and not really in the mood for a bustling town.  I sought out the bookshops, found some more interesting volumes, and then paid a pound to sit in a lounge chair in the gardens facing the river.  I left the next day and made my way over to Chedder Gorge, a strange little geological formation, upon which has been built a family tourism den, not unlike Nashville, Indiana, for those of you familiar.  The gorge itself was worth the drive, but I decided not to stop and be sucked into the whirl of taffy candy and fudge.  Some things, it seems, are universal across the atlantic.

And into the Border Country, Wye Valley, Land of Romantics and Medievals

I made it through Bristol, over the Severn Bridge, through the town of Chepstow, and started up the shady road through the Wye Valley towards Tintern Abbey.  The Wye Valley is remarkably beautiful, with forested cliffs on either side of the narrow valley hemming in tiny towns which cling to the river side.  Tintern Abbey occupies an advantageous flat land by the river side.  When I got there, it was heaving with people, as it was a bank holiday weekend.  Families with children and their dogs (the British seem to bring their dogs everywhere) were picnicking in the grassy car park or in the gardens by the pub.  You could admire the sight from the pub alone, or pay three pounds to go in the grounds.  I think a lot of people were appreciating the view from the pub.

From Tintern, I made the short drive up to the top of a hill above the Wye valley to the village of St. Briavels, where the YHA hostel is situated in the old Hunting Lodge of King John, which served as an administrative centre for the nearby Forest of Dean, its mines, and their artillery production.  The castle was impressive from the outside, but not amazing from the inside.  Your typical run-down hostel feel, just stuffed into the strange interior spaces of a former castle.  Still, a castle is undeniably cool.

In search of Ancestors

After a quiet evening reading in the pub, I went to sleep early in order to get up and make a pilgrimage to visit family sites.  My mother’s mother’s mother came from a town called Llanarth, and there are family connections to Monmouth and Newport nearby.  So I drove into Monmouth, walked around the quiet town a bit, and then off towards Llanarth, which was little more than a bend in the road, without even a post-office or shop.  But in the churchyard, I did find what I think are some gravestones for my great great grandfather and grandmother, George and Alice Jones.  There was no-one around to ask any questions of, though when I stopped at the Village hall, I did meet two gentlemen who chatted with me a bit about the village, though they didn’t know anything about my family.  It seems that much of the land around that area is owned by a large estate and rented out to tenants. I drove around a nearby area known as Clytha Hill, remembering the name Clytha written on the back of some old family photos, but with no other information.  Apparently Clytha is a large estate –  drove up to the gatehouse, but seeing inside was by appointment only.

A Brush with Fame! In a Spooky Setting! Plus more Apples!

Next day, I packed up my things from St. Briavels and headed north towards the town of Hereford, where I had been before on a trip to the Poultry Auction with my hosts from Old Chapel Farm.  This time, however, I wanted to see the Cider Museum, housed in the old Bulmers Cider buildings.  On the way, driving through the Forest of Dean, I decided to stop and see the Clearwell Caves, a natural cave mined for iron ore and ochre since pre-historic times.  As I drove up, I was surprised to see lots of trailers in the car park, and, a medieval knight milling around…. I realized, having browsed over it in a local magazine, that this was the film crew for the British TV series “Merlin.”  And there he was, Merlin himself, hanging outside one of the trailers smoking a cigarette.  Who knew?  Sadly, I was not plucked out of obscurity to portray a medieval heroine on british family TV… However, I did get to see the caves, which were dark and surprisingly spooky, full of signs describing the horrendous working conditions of child labor, as well as the strong legal rights afforded to any man “from the hundred of St. Briavels, who had worked a year and a day in the mines.”  Pros and cons to the mining profession, then as now – bad working conditions, good labor organization.

My brush with Merlin, caves, and industrial history finished, I did move on to Hereford, where the Cider Museum was about what you would expect from a small museum about agricultural and industrial history – lots of old cider presses, and the cellars full of old bottling equipment.  There was an excellent film, though, and a really interesting exhibit on Thomas Andrew Knight, a local vicar and botanist who experimented extensively with plant breeding and propagation.  I found some good books in the little gift shop, and several flyers about events in the fall.  I wandered into center of Hereford, which is really a lovely town, bustling with the business of its own people, and not overwhelmed by tourists.  I was lucky that it happened to be a market day, and I stopped to chat with an organic farm stall – the guy I spoke to was an employee, from Spain, and a former Wwoofer.  When I mentioned I was doing research, he asked for my card, as he was just finished his own MA.  I got information about the farm.  Another good contact.

After a brief walk through the city, I headed out on the road again, this time to Hay on Wye, “Town of Books.”  My drive took me through an area known as the Golden Valley, a beautiful rolling landscape of hayfields and apple orchards.  Many fields are being cut for hay, so the tractors are out, and the fields full of bales.  Passing through an orchard, a tractor with a trailer full of red apples passed by.  It is a pity that one cannot drive and take photos at the same time (though my father manages to do this, I find it rather death-defying, and prefer not to run into the tractors).

My route from the time I had crossed the Severn has taken my back and forth across the border between England and Wales, and Hay on Wye is right there on the border itself.  Luckily I arrived late in the afternoon, so I only had an hour to spend more money on books.  Only a couple – two by George Ewart Evans – “The pattern under the Plough,” and “The Importance of the Oral Tradition.”  But I was happy to find these, as I had been looking around for them unsuccessfully thus far.

And thus, after a rather full day, I drove into the YHA hostel at Kington, where I settled into the cleanest and most comfortable hostel yet, and even switched on the TV, to find the show “Village SOS,” which I had heard about and wanted to see – it follows villages that are awarded lottery funds to complete a community project, such a rebuilding the village hall.  Exactly my cup of tea.  Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the presence of so much material everywhere relevant to my interests.  I almost don’t know what to do with it all!

Fieldwork mayhem

So long since my last post!  I spent several glorious weeks working at Old Chapel Farm, where I mowed the entire place several times over, producing loads of grass clippings for mulching all the gardens.  We whacked down bracken in the newly planted woodland to stop it from shading the new trees.  We hiked through the boggy fields pulling out ragwort, a poisonous weed, several times nearly being sucked down into the bog, wellies and all.  And we (im)patiently waited for Tess the cow to give birth.  For several days, it seemed imminent: her udders grew enormous; she started laying down in the barn and moaning; things at the business end looked telling ( I spare you the details)…. and then she would walk back out to the field, munch on grass, and look fine.  One day, to check her udders, which were expanding by the hour, I reached down to see if any milk would come out, and with the slightest tug, a stream of warm milk!  So much excitement!  Anticipation!

And then I had to leave – I had scheduled to go down to another farm in Devon on Monday, and had already delayed by one day, so I couldn’t stay any longer waiting for the calf.  As I drove out of Old Chapel with my car full of belongings and fellow wwoofers, Tess flicked her tail happily in the pasture.  I have the report that she finally gave birth a day later to a beautiful baby girl calf.  I can’t wait to go back and see her.

Leaving Old Chapel was both sad and exciting.  Exciting to move on to new things.  Sad to tear myself away from the little community.  Living and working there every day can be all-consuming.  Except for trips to the local town, I really hadn’t left the place for a month and a half.  It is a world unto itself up there.  Working and eating and sleeping.  Your whole bodily, mental, and emotional effort is put into the life of the farm:  the daily chores, the gardens, the animals, cooking dinner, talking to the other people there. Leaving was a bit of a shock to the mind and the body.  I slept for hours, finally feeling exhaustion of dropping out of full gear.

Luckily, I had wonderful companions – two french guys were returning to Bristol, and a local girl was going home to Shropshire, so I gave them all a lift.  Which was lucky for me, since I needed all the navigation help I could get.

And here I am in Devon, in the Blackdown Hills, where I seem to take the wrong turn about 70% of the time in a maze of tiny twisting roads sheltered by hedges so high you can rarely see over them.  Think of it as driving in a hedge maze, with cars hurtling past barely inches away from you, and bewildering signposts leading you in what feels like spirals.  I decided today, while rambling around, that the british social mind must mimic its road system: excessively complicated and bewildering, with little obvious signage, and cloaked in the privacy of sky-high hedges.

Today, however, after leaving the wwoof host I stayed with for a few days here (lovely woman, dainty alpacas, fascinating conversation), I stopped into the headquarters of the local Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) for the Blackdown Hills, where the director showered me with literature and information.  Then I headed for Taunton, where I indulged in some shopping.  Feeling the nesting urge, I bought a duvet, some bedding, and a cooking pot (in anticipation that I will have somewhere semi-permanent to nest soon).  And THEN, I wandered into the local independent bookshop, where I STRUCK GOLD!  OH MY GOODNESS I WANTED TO BUY EVERYTHING in their local books section!

So all this has left me a bit befuddled and excited and overwhelmed!  So much material and what to do?  I plan to return to Shropshire next week to look for a place to live for the next few months, branching out from the network I have established from my time at Old Chapel.  But I am very much enjoying scoping out the Blackdown Hills for future reference.

In between weeding, milking the cow, making cheese, and having general good times in the countryside, I have been attempting to forge my identity as a genuine social/political/economic entity in the UK.  This is surprisingly difficult.  I’ve been trying to open a bank account since the first week I got here, and after several visits to the branch, time on the phone, and various documents signed, certified, and mailed, I am still waiting for the bank account to come through.  And without a bank account, it is rather hard to get anything else done here.  To circumvent the lack of bank account problem in order to buy a car, I simply took out cash from the ATM until I had enough to purchase the vehicle I wanted.  To insure the car, I’ve had to shop around for someone who will insure me on my American license while I go through the motions of getting a British license.  Finally, having found such a company who won’t charge me an arm and a leg, I have found I can’t pay monthly (which I had hoped to do in order to re-negotiate coverage premiums after I get the UK license), unless I have a UK bank account.  AHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!! My head is going to explode.  And my American bank won’t let me initiate a wire transfer unless I am physically present in one of their American branches…..

But on the upside, I have A CAR!  And it is an Automatic!  My very kind host family put me on their insurance for their little car, and my very kind friends Chris and Bea were teaching me how to drive the manual.  I was doing reasonably well, and even starting to enjoy the challenge, but I felt it would be better if my own car was an automatic.  You have to pick your battles. Driving on the left while trying to learn a manual, in a strange country with SMALL country lanes while attempting to conduct research seemed a bit too much.

So, lessons learned: Living in the country requires a car, which requires a host of other bureaucratic entanglements, which is exactly the kind of hassle one hopes to avoid in a back-to-the-land scenario.  A conundrum.  Chris and Bea, who were teaching me the manual in exchange for me taking them places, live here in a yurt and currently have no car.   They cycle into town for work (four miles and significant hills), and they have recently joined the town’s car club to rent a vehicle when they need one.  I am sure there are more lessons to be learned about the car and the countryside, but for sure, when I drove off from the car park where I had exchanged my envelope full of 20 dollar bills with the sellers (a kind older couple who had driven the car there for me) for various pieces of paper and a hunk of metal called a 1999 Vauxhall Corsa cdx V16 Automatic, I felt a sense of freedom of movement I hadn’t experienced here before.  A little like home.  The open road.  No stalling.

Hello,

So much to catch up on.  When I get done with the day, I’m usually so exhausted, I just fall into bed.  Here are some highlights:

Royal Welsh Show!  So, Crystal and Bjorn and I went to the Royal Welsh Show this Wednesday.  Billed as the Largest Agricultural Fair in Europe, it quite lived up to its name.  It was HUGE.  We spent six hours walking around at quite a decent clip, and we only just got to see everything.  Sheep, of course, comprised an enormous portion of the show.  There was a huge stage entirely devoted to the sheep shearing trials, which consisted of about six contendors shearing sheep continuously against the clock.  Welsh contenders versus New Zealanders.  Unfortunately, New Zealand seemed to be ahead when we stopped by.  The cattle were also very interesting – mostly British breeds.

We had hoped to buy some ducks and chickens, but unfortunately, we had the wrong day, so it was bunnies in the “fur and feathers” pavilion.  We also sailed through the food building where there were all sorts of Welsh speciality foods and drinks on sale.  We bought some welsh lamb and venison sausages for a barbeque and tasted many other things, including many draught ciders.  On the shuttle bus back to the car park, I sat next to an old Welsh Farmer who spoke to me in Welsh.  When he switched to English, we had a nice chat.  But it was really remarkable how much Welsh we heard spoken at the show.  All of the announcers spoke in both Welsh and English, and many of the people walking around us were chatting in Welsh.  Cultural autonomy from England is definitely alive and well here.

So, here on the farm, we’ve had a multitude of activities: shearing, a weekend course on bronze ax casting, a flurry of preparation for the family to go on holiday.  Now, it is just me, Bjorn and Crystal, and Chris and Bee taking care of the place while the family is on holiday.  Good thing there are five of us, though.  We feast on vegetable delights from the garden and dairy from the cow.

Speaking of dairy, I am acquiring dairy skills.  I have milked the cow once (more to come, I’m sure).  And I have made cheese and butter.  There is SO MUCH MILK.  From ONE cow.  Milking the cow every morning and evening brings in several gallons, so you really have to keep on top of the cheese-making to use it all up or eat a lot of custard.  And the cream….oh the cream…. either whipped or churned into butter!  Makes you realize how important dairy really is in the farm economy, especially when you don’t have a lot of meat around.  I will do a more comprehensive post on dairy soon.

And last but not least, I had my first lesson in driving a manual car today!  So far, I can drive around the corner, 1rst gear, reverse, and up and down hills.   Definitely stalling a lot, but a good first try, I think.  I practiced for a good half hour.  More driving tomorrow.

Fences

Hello!

So, in the course of today, I got sunburnt and now am wearing two sweaters to keep the chill off while it pours sheets of rain outside.  Every hour is completely different.  The clouds just roll in over the hills, and often there is a spitting mist dangling in the air.

I arrived at Old Chapel Farm completely exhausted and sprouting a cold, which blossomed into sniffles and congestion.  I slept most of the first day (which luckily was Sunday), and then I slogged through my first day of work on the farm.  However, a few days of sleep and a lot of fresh air have restored me.

It is wonderful to have come back to Old Chapel every few years since my first visit in 2004, since I get to see how the farm progresses.  Year after year, gardens mature, hedges grow taller, buildings are started and finished.  Fran and Kevin always have such big and far reaching plans – it is often hard for me to comprehend how they will ever come to pass.  And yet, they do.  My first impressions here are of the very small and very large time scales that one must think in on a farm like this.  The years one must plan ahead to see the fruition of a hedge, a productive vegetable bed, or a fruit orchard.  And the weekly accounting of the gardens, where one must think simultaneously of the mature produce ready to eat, as well as the next batch of seedlings that need to be planted to keep the productive cycle of plants going in and out of the available beds.

The physical labor reminds you of time scales too.  During my first two days here, me and another girl spent about two hours a day digging two post holes for a fence gate.  One meter deep.  Really hard.  And then you look at all the gate posts that had to be dug on a property like this.  HOURS of labor.  I am getting back into shape, through.  And today, we finished banging the rest of the fence posts in and nailed the metal fencing on.  This is when the gendered economy of farm labor becomes ever more appealling.  Where are the strapping young men to dig post holes when you need them?

Right now, here on the farm, there are quite an assortment of people.  A French female university student, a couple from Singapore who are here for six months doing an internship as part of a degree in Steiner biodynamic agriculture.  A couple in their 50s from New Zealand left this morning, replaced by a couple from Australia with their 14 year old son.  There is a young man renting a yurt on the property while he pursues a degree from the Center for Alternative Technology (CATs), and another young couple who live in a yurt.  A young man who is part of Kevin and Fran’s land cooperative lives in a little flat in the barn and has a small nursery business on the cooperative land.

Well, that’s it for now.  More gardening and adventures to follow.  And the meals are amazing.  Tomorrow I am on cooking duty for about 12 people.

Hello Friends!

For those of you who want to keep up with me while I am doing fieldwork this year, come back here to this blog.  I decided to pick up where I left off writing on my last trip to Wales.

I arrived in Dublin last week and flew to the Isle of Man for a conference on Vernacular Architecture.  Convinced by my dear friend Gabi at the last minute to join her for this conference, I dropped into the middle of it and found myself immersed in very interesting discussions about architectural preservation and…..THATCH.  Yes,  THATCH.  It is a highly controversial subject, it seems.  Correct thatching techniques.  Theories as to height, depth, and construction materials….Actually, I found it all quite interesting, and I was fortunate to meet some really knowledgable and helpful people working in the fields of archeology, architecture, history, anthropology, and folklore here in British Isles.  A really fantastic way to start my research year.

Also at the conference were another fellow student, Art, and two of my professors and mentors, Henry Glassie and Pravina Shukla.  Not only did we get to have some great conversations about research, but they also gave Gabi and I a wonderful itinerary of things to do during our little trip to Ireland after the conference.  We managed to do almost all of them!  We flew into Galway and wandered around the city for an evening, stopping into a cozy little restaurant for some hearty shepherds pie and guinness beef stew.  The fortifying meal was necessary to sustain us during our next day’s trek out to the Aran Islands, where we rented bicycles and rode around the island of Inish Mor all day long.  The island was bleak and stark and beautiful, and we were blessed with a miraculously sunny day.  We even got a little sunburnt!  Who would have expected?  In Ireland?  We dipped our feet in the icy cold Atlantic waters on a beach of soft grey-white sand.  On the far end of the island were a group of seven ruined churches, home of an ancient monastery started in the 8th century.  Walking up to one of the highest points on the island, we walked into an ancient pre-historic fort circled by several huge stone walls, enclosing an inner space which faced out to a sheer cliff dropping several hundred feet to the sea below.  A stunning and dramatic structure, and a grand mirror of the stone walls that cover the whole island.  Some of these stone walls are amazingly intricate – all stacked without any mortar.  To think how many hours of labor were spent building the stone walls is astounding.  The whole while we were thinking of JM Synge, a titan of Irish Literature and folklore studies.  His book, The Aran Islands, is a classic of folklore ethnography, and I’d just written extensively about it in my Phd exams.  So it was really exciting to get to come and see the place where Synge, encouraged by Yeats, went to find the spirit of the Irish people.

We took the bus to Dublin and lost no time.  First, a trip to the National museum (FREE!), where there we saw some really fascinating exhibits on the bog people – human remains preserved in peat bogs.  It seems these folks were unfortunately cruelly dispatched in what are theorized to have been ritual sacrifices.  The most magnificent part of the exhibit was the collection of gold ornaments and jewelry – also often recovered from peat bogs – from the bronze and stone ages.  So delicate and intricate – some of these pieces were from 2000BC.  They positively glowed – thin moon shaped necklaces and thick twisted torqs.  Really makes you understand the word “covet.”  Made me want some shiny gold jewelry of my own.

Right across the way from the museum was the national library (FREE!), which had a dense and detailed exhibit on WB Yeats, whose influence seems to permeate this city in every nook and cranny.  What an individual.  What an intellect.  It is so interesting to learn about a country where art and politics are so closely intertwined, where expression draws on and contributes to the identity of a nation in such a tangible way.  Yeats, as well as the other writers we encountered at the Writers Museum, seems like such a passionate figure.  It’s given me a whole new view of nationalism as a form of social consciousness.  We also took in a play at the Abbey Theatre, the National Theatre of Ireland, where we saw “Translations” by Brian Friel.  Set in the early nineteenth century, it portrays encounters between local Irish-speaking people of Donegal and the colonial English army surveying the area for the ordinance survey mapping scheme.  Language and identity and politics clash.

We also had some wonderful food at the Pig’s Ear restaurant, and we ventured out to a pub recommended by our professor as a place to see excellent traditional Irish music.  Such a treat!  Everyone was so friendly, and the music so convivial.  People showed up with whistles and fiddles and flutes and harps and accordians.  And a few men sang some plaintive ballads.

Stepping out of the purely literary and musical and back into the world of bog people, we spent a day taking a tour out to Newgrange, a neolithic passage tomb, and walked over the Hill of Tara.  I’ve read about Newgrange and had always wanted to visit.  Built 5000 years ago, before the pyramids of Giza, Newgrange is just one of several large passage tombs in the area of the Bru Na Boinne, all of which are aligned to astronomical events.  On five mornings surrounding the Winter Solstice, the sun shines directly through a window above the tomb’s entrance and lights up the inside of the tomb.  Pretty AMAZING!  I’d been to a similar but much smaller passage tomb before in the Orkneys, and it is still always mind-boggling to walk inside the massive stone structures, decorated with swirling carving and designs.  After Newgrange, we walked over the Hill of Tara, ancient seat of the Irish Kings.  The view from the top of the hill looks out over miles and miles of the landscape below, and the hill itself is riddled with undulating man-made embankments.

Well, that’s almost it.  Today, I went to see the Book of Kells, which seemed to be an appropriate and beautiful way to cap an amazing visit to Ireland.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend an animated film called the Secret of Kells, which gives a fictionalized, but historically and folklorically evocative account of the making of the Book of Kells.  And it is graphically extremely beautiful – emulating and celebrating the style of the Book of Kells itself.

Tomorrow I get on the Ferry from Dublin to Wales, and I look forward to working on my friends’ farm and mentally digesting this experience as I set up my fieldwork plans.

Will upload pictures here or on Facebook.  Stay tuned for more postings!

Maria

home!

Hey all,

I’m home in Indianapolis.  I had a grueling 24 hours in transit – but managed to change my ticket so that I didn’t have to stay in Toronto all night waiting for the morning flight to Indy that I stupidly booked.  However, it meant I had to fly from Toronto to Chicago and Chicago to Indy instead.  And then, just as I was getting off the plane in Chicago, feeling like I was on the last few hours of my journey, my flight to Indy was delayed by 2 1/2 hours.  So by the time I got into Indy it was about 2:30am, and parents and Andy, looking weary but dedicated, greeted me happily. 

It’s good to be back home.  I’ve been very spoiled with Muffins and Ice Cream and attention. 

I will post the rest of my pictures here sometime soon.  It’s been fun writing!

Maria

Oxford cont…

Back from a tourist extravaganza.  Visited two colleges this morning on the walking tour – Exeter and Oriel colleges.  Both suitably impressive.  Our guide was an exuberant and dramatic ex-pat Lebanese man who liked to charm everyone he ran into on the street.  Amusing.

Well, I have seen quite a bit-the pub where the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and other notables hung out as students, the pubs where CS Lewis and Tolkein discussed high matters of literature, philosophy, and religion.  And much more./  I spent the afternoon wandering through the Oxford University Botanical gardens, which were relaxing and a quiet respite from the hordes of tourists.  This town is remarkable to walk through just to hear how many different languagues are being spoken by visitors and students from all corners of the world. 

A few final words though, about the farm that I didn’t get to write before.  We had a few funny days toward the end of my stay, where Tess, the young cow, went into heat and bellowed constantly while making advances on the horse.  It was impossible to ignore the bellowing but hilarious to see this little randy cow affectionately sniffing the horse and licking her and then occasionally really putting the moves on…need I say more?

In other livestock news, we had a look at the bees on my last workday and discovered a mystery of missing larvae which Fran called the Bee Inspector about.  Mystery yet unsolved….

Oxford

Hello!  Writing now from Oxford. 

I was very sad to leave the farm.  Fran and Kevin and everyone there are so wonderful, and it is just such a beautiful place. 

However, I am now in Oxford for the rest of my journeym, soaking up the intellectual inspiration and all the beautiful architecture.  It really is an amazing city – overwhelming in all its grand possibility.  The many colleges are a maze – I’m never quite sure where one starts and one ends.  There are 39 in all.  I planan to be really touristy today and take the guided tour of the city – just to get really acquainted with it all.  Yesterday, I wandered around and found a poster for a concert of Baroque music that evening in the chapel of New College.  After a half pint of ale and several wanders around the streets, I finally found the entrance to the college and followed some other people into the courtyard and through some mazes of buildings and into the magnificent church, where we listened to a wonderful concert of Bach, Purcell, Handel, and Scarlatti.  So beautiful  Well, computer time is running out.  More later!