Thursday, 31 May 2012

I see white

I have been meaning to post about something else but I can’t help it: May is all about nature, plants and flowers. Towards the end of the month all fresh flowers at our place have been white. The decades-old apple trees are in full blossom and the lilies of the valley under the spruces at the far end of our back garden are flowering.

What more can I say. I’m exhausted every night when I force myself to leave my ‘gardening’ and go inside. And I sleep like a log, even more so than usually. As if I had done some heavy physical training. I suppose this is the closest I’ll ever get to enjoying some kind of exercise, at least almost.

Monday, 28 May 2012

The time of the yellow dust

For some time now, everything has been covered with a layer of yellow dust and the air seems to be thick with it. When I was mowing the lawn by the side of our garden the other day my arm brushed every now and then a branch of a spruce tree releasing a yellow cloud each time. I never knew even spruces produce such a lot of pollen.

Many people consider the season of the rebirth of nature their favourite. For some, however, it is the most inconvenient despite all its beauty and splendour. When there is so much pollen in the air that we have to brush it from the floor of our porch, patio and balcony every day it is easy to imagine the distress this wonderful season may cause to the allergic ones.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Legacy of elephant's ears

The previous owners of our place had planted elephant’s ears also called pig squeaks (Bergenia cordifolia) (vuorenkilpi) all over the front garden. I am not particularly fond of them but as we have quite a lot of space, I’ve let them be to fill a few corners here and there. I’ve figured if I started replacing everything I dont love with something I’d like better I would be finished earlier than the replacing job. After all, life is full of compromises, even a perfect one.

And I must admit elephants ears look rather nice when they are blooming. I’ve almost grown to like them because of the few weeks in late spring and early summer when they are, in addition to a few shrubs, the only plants in blossom. Moreover, they are easy to nurture and will survive almost anywhere.

This time the flowers are especially big and I’ve been wondering why. Perhaps it is because last year I actually took the time to give these plants some proper care removing not only the spent flowering stems but also the damaged foliage.

I’m no gardener but I’m slowly learning some basics thanks to the pieces of advice my daughter keeps throwing my way every now and then. She is a city girl but more hands-on in the country than I ever was.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Floods and gurgles

There is a creek flowing by the border of our lot bringing any excess water from the farmers’ fields behind our place and carrying it away towards the sea. In the summertime the creek is often practically dry but a few times a year – in the spring when the snow is melting or any time when we have extremely heavy rainfall – it will flood over its bed forming a small wetland we call natura, our private little nature reserve.

In recent years, the floods have been quite heavy because we’ve had such a lot of snow and rain and also because the subsurface drainage of the nearby fields have been improved. This means that much of the soil around the roots of the trees and shrubs growing by the banks of the creek bed has been flushed away leaving them more vulnerable to the ordeals of winter: the heavy burden of snow and the storms like the one we had in December.

We do not have any actual forest at our place but we do have quite a number of trees. So each winter will cause some damage toppling or breaking down a few trees and bushes if not elsewhere at least by the creek. In the spring, the horrible truth about the wetland will be revealed and some human intervention will be required to redeem it from its natural state to something you and your neighbours bear to look at every day when passing by.

There is a short window when this clearing up can be carried out: when the flood has disappeared and the soil is dry enough to walk on but the undergrowth isn’t too high yet. This is just the time and the other day we spent a few hours by the banks of the creek equipped with a chain saw and a pair of Fiskars heavy-duty loppers.

My husband cut the trunks and the thicker branches with the chain saw and took the pieces to the woodshed to dry to be burned in the fireplaces next winter. I cut the medium-sized branches with the lopper to be utilized as firewood in our campfire to be. I once saw a Swedish gardening programme where they built a very nice campfire pit covered by natural stones. They even cut some stools out of logs arranging them around the pit. We are planning to implement that later this season.

Our nature reserve is once again somewhat presentable and the kingcups or marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) (rentukka) are free to continue blooming in the mud and the gurgles of the creek without any further disturbance.

Monday, 21 May 2012

First day of summer

I will certainly never be among the first to declare that spring has turned to summer, rather the contrary. I am the one who will be the last to wear long sleeves and pantyhose and whose body doesn’t tolerate any kind of draught without consequences, be it wind or air-conditioning. This is a genetic annoyance I’ve had to live with and it isn’t getting any better with age, I’m afraid.

They said in the news today that the progress of spring towards summer is now two weeks behind here. I must agree nature is behind. In our garden, the forsythia (onnenpensas) that was blooming when we returned from Catalonia two weeks ago only just dropped its yellow flowers and developed leaves and the cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera) is not in full blossom yet.

Nevertheless, I cannot but report that summer has arrived to our corner of the world. The temperature rose above +25°C (+77°F), which is regarded as the limit for heat around here. This figure might not mean warm enough for me to change into lighter gear but today it meant summer. My wearing short sleeves and no pantyhose and staying most of the day outdoors is the best proof one could possibly have. Let’s see about the consequences tomorrow.

Friday, 18 May 2012

At the vet

Earlier this week I took the cats to the vet with my daughter to have their annual check-up and vaccinations. Jack was the first one on the table as he is the bravest of the three, a domestic ‘man of the world’ who has seen a thing or two during his ten years. He doesn’t like it, of course, but he will endure the examination table without panic. My daughter is a natural with animals so she held him and I could take a few photos.

With her Maine Coons it was different. They were wriggling themselves so much that shooting them was practically useless. The second in line was the princess who is very timid but at the same time extremely curious about anything new or different. She was so stressed that her sweating paws left wet marks on the table. Nevertheless, the vet was able to carry out all examinations with her, too, and she was free to run and hide in her box.

Then came the prince, the biggest and strongest of the three who sometimes tries to bully the smaller ones but luckily without much success. He was scared to death, trembling all over with a heart rate of 220. The examination was pure agony to him but still the vet managed to perform everything else except for taking his temperature so even he made it without any major complications.

Once again Jack proved his adaptability. The only thing he doesn’t tolerate on these kinds of trips is the time he has to spend in the transport box. In everyday life he virtually never meows or growls but when he is kept imprisoned in a small box he is making most unhappy sounds nonstop. He should be safe for another year now.

On amusements and beliefs

Thursday was public holiday thanks to Ascension Day or Holy Thursday commemorating the Ascension of Jesus into heaven on the 40th day from Easter.

Religion has lost much of its importance in our society during the past 50 years or so. Yet the religious feasts that were moved here to the weekend in the early 1970s to save a working day were returned to their original place less than 20 years later. Rather a nice achievement by the trade unions, although I sometimes feel it would be healthy for some people who overdo the amusement part on their extra day off to be aware of the reason why they are having one in the first place.

Don’t take me wrong. I’m not a spiritual person, at least not in the sense that I’d consider any religion to be superior to any other or to guarantee you eternity. To me, all religions represent basically the same values of humanity: you should be good, respect others, protect life on this planet and never hurt anyone intentionally. Isn’t this something that should be self-evident to each and everyone in his/her right mind?

Be there an afterlife or not, I don’t see any harm in believing. But when these basic facts of human ethics are buried under know-it-all dogmatism or fanaticism dating back to a completely different kind of era, that’s when I lose my tolerance.

The photos are from the Tibidabo mountain overlooking the city of Barcelona. In addition to an amusement park originating from the turn of the 20th century, there is also Catalonia’s own Sacré-Coeur, the Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor, at the top. It was designed by the Catalan architect Enric Sagnier and completed under the supervision of his son 60 years later in 1961. The exterior is not much of a beauty to look at but the lower sanctuary or the crypt is lovely housing, among others, fascinating altar decorations in mosaic. I loved their colourfulness.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

A piece of cake

We’ve had several important days recently: my daughter’s birthday, mother’s day that is always celebrated here on the second Sunday in May, and Jack’s tenth anniversary. So I baked a cake.

I love cakes, especially those with chocolate or berries, but I’m not any particular baker, yet. That’s why I baked a simple sponge cake with whipped cream icing and some lovely decorations, a box of Spanish strawberries I found at the grocery and some handmade chocolates I ran into at Barcelona airport the other day, to be exact.

We had some time at the airport and as we had not been at El Prat since the opening of the spacious new terminal completed in 2009, I decided to have a walk while my husband was sitting down reading the papers.

I had no intension whatsoever to buy any chocolates but the shop of the Chocolat Factory was so inviting I simply had to step in to admire the tasteful arrangements of the elegant boxes and packaging. As the contents were also on display, I couldn’t help stepping out through the counter. There were so many stylish sizes and shapes available I ended up choosing two simple carton cylinders they call Tubes. And the chocolates were delicious, especially the long sticks containing candied orange peel. Just mouth-watering!

Chocolat Factory was founded 15 years ago by Michel Laline, a Barcelona-based Belgium-born architect who, at 45, was not happy with his career and decided to start an artisanal chocolate business spending the first year studying the metier. ‘Design with content’ was the concept for the brand from the start. In fact, the chocolates have been a hit and the brand has won several design, communications and design management awards since 2000. Currently, the company employs about 120 people and has some 30 shops located mostly in Spain but a few are in the Far East.

Sometimes turning into a master chocolatier may be just a piece of cake for an architect and interior designer and will create his greatest success.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Clivias and a farmer’s emblem

One of the most memorable of the many picturesque places we visited in Catalonia was the medieval village of Peratallada, about half way or some 20 kilometres towards the coast from Girona, the capital of the province where we stayed. We had lunch there at El Borinot restaurant and the ‘Bumblebee’, as the Catalan title translates, certainly was a place to remember.

Orange bush lilies (Clivia miniata) led our way to the restaurant at the end of a side street. We sat outside at a long table the restaurador arranged for our group in front of the place and were served an excellent lunch consisting of local specialties.

When leaving the place we stopped to admire the old stone building. Its handsome facade was decorated with an emblem and some text carved in stone above the windows indicating that it was built in 1594. My friends daughter and her Spanish partner had already continued towards the main square but luckily my friend speaks Spanish, too, so she asked the owner about the history of the place.

The gentleman told the house was one of the oldest buildings in the village and had been in his family for several generations, probably six if I remember correctly – my Catalan skills are even more non-existing than those of my Castellano although I may understand something thanks to my basic knowledge of French. He was visibly pleased by someone’s interest in the historic building, which attracted even the old lady of the house to step outside to explain about the emblem.

The symbol carved in stone was clearly designed to bring good luck to a farmer. There is an ox in the middle with the sun above and soil underneath, as the old lady told us. I can’t decipher much of the Latin inscription accompanying it but it probably refers to the strength given by the sun and the earth to provide the farm’s livelihood.

However, the text above the other window is explicit: Labor improbe omnia vincit, ‘Hard work conquers all’. This is a belief also our ancestors – and even I in a more modest scale only a few decades ago – had to rely on but it sometimes seems the truth in it has gone with the wind since then.

The few extra sentences with a ‘stranger’ were handsomely rewarded: both parties left the scene most contented. This time my lack of language skills served as an excuse to be silent but it felt as though there were some hope for me. I may have finally reached the age when I might be able to forget about my modesty and shyness and start talking to someone without any actual reason once in a while. Hooray to that!

Catalan dreams

We’ve been home for five days now and I’m still somewhere over there each night walking the stone-paved streets of yet another unexplored medieval town or village. The mellow state of happiness I reached on this perfect Catalan holiday is staying by my side. No wonder!