Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Lammas/Lughnasadh is here!

Cool spring weather notwithstanding, Seven Trees is starting to enjoy the first fruits of summer. Lettuce, broccoli, beets, kohlrabi, carrots and potatoes. The tradition of celebrating the beginning of harvest-time goes back a long way. Here is a wonderful article from The Weather Doctor about the background of these celebrations: To the agrarian societies of medieval Europe, early August signalled the beginning of the harvest season, the time when the first grains were harvested and many fruits and vegetables ripened, ready for picking. A quarter of the annual solar wheel had now turned since the celebration of Beltane, the time of planting crops and vegetable gardens. Those crops and gardens planted at Beltane, now poured forth their bounty proving early August a reason for celebration.
As the month of August begins, the rising and setting positions of the Sun move noticeably more southward each day. So too, the mid-day peak elevation of the solar orb begins dropping at a rate evident with the passing days. As the long, high-sun days of summer come to an end, August 1 signals the beginning of solar autumn. Early August, usually the first, is one of the four annual cross-quarter days -- days at the midway point between the solstice and equinox. (The other cross-quarter days are known to us as Groundhog Day, May Day and Halloween but had more significant titles during pre-industrial times.) While today we take the "official" beginnings of the seasons to be marked by the solstices and equinoxes in the third week of December, March, June and September, many people and cultures have considered the seasons to change at the cross-quarter date.
In pagan cultures, the August cross-quarter day was the time to honour the mighty sun god and the gods of the grain by ritualistically sacrificing the first grains to ensure the continuity of life. In the British Isles, the Anglo-Saxon (Lammas), Celtic (Lughnasad), and Irish (Lughnassadh, (pronounced Lunasa) festivals honoured Lugh, god of light, and John Barleycorn, personification of barley and other grains -- and the brews made from them.
There are many names by which this day is known, but the most common to the English-speaking world is Lammas. The name Lammas derives from "loaf mass" an early Anglo-Saxon feast celebrating the corn (i.e. grain) harvest through the ritual killing of the corn king. (Through the ritual re-enactment of the slaying and restoration of John Barleycorn, he became associated with beer and cider drinking.)
With the advent of Christianity in Britain, pagan rituals were officially replaced by a Mass in which the first harvested grains were baked into loaves of bread, taken to church, blessed and then offered as thanksgiving to God. Over the years as British society turned from its agricultural roots, the traditions of Lammas faded away across the kingdom. In 1843 at Morwenstow in Cornwall, England, the Reverend R. S. Hawker decided to revive the Harvest Festival, urging its celebration in schools and churches across the nation.
In many agrarian communities, the last harvested sheaf of grain was treated with special honour, for the farmers believed that with the cutting of the last sheaf, the corn spirit retreated into the soil. There in its underground refuge, the corn spirit slept throughout the Winter until Spring. In the Spring that last sheaf was returned to the fields when new seed was being sown, so that its spirit would awaken both seed and land.
One traditional Lammas custom was the construction of the kern-baby, corn dolly, or corn maiden. This figure, braided into a woman's form from the last harvested sheaf of grain, represented the Harvest Spirit. (In America, the tradition is continued in the making of corn husk dolls.) The doll would be saved until Spring, when it was ploughed into the field to consecrate the new planting and insure a good harvest. In other traditions, the corn dolly was fed and watered throughout the Winter, then burned in the fires at Beltane to insure a continuation of good growth.
Another custom drawn from Lammas relates to fire. Lammas was, to the Celts, one of four Great Fire Festivals, held on the cross-quarter days. During Lammas, the custom of lighting bonfires was intended to add strength to the powers of the waning sun. Afterward, the fire brands were kept in the home through the Winter as protection against storms, lightning and fires caused by lightning.
Throughout much of Europe, Lammastide was also a traditional time of year for craft festivals -- and still is today in many British communities. The medieval guilds would create elaborate displays of their wares, decorating their shops and themselves in bright colours and ribbons, marching in parades, and performing ceremonial plays and dances for the entranced onlookers. The atmosphere must have been quite similar to those activities displayed at our modern-day Renaissance Festivals.
In America, the small town or country fair echoes the Lammas tradition. Their agricultural competitions and midway games resemble the ancient European festivals at which people gathered to pay homage to the land and the fruits of their labour and to take part in community reverie.
The recognition of this cross-quarter day is not restricted to the British Isles and Celtic traditions. Games and contests honouring the harvest have been an ancient tradition across Europe. For example, in many Slavic regions, the harvest festival is called Dozynki. Villagers, who work the fields and harvested the crops, dress in colourful folk costumes and carry wreaths made of corn, wheat and a variety of flowers to the owner of the lands. A loaf of bread, baked from the fresh grain, is presented to the lord and lady of the manor, who then return slices of the loaf to their guests who had worked hard to make the harvest possible. During these festivities, the villagers play instruments, dance and sing in praise of the harvest and their landlord.

With the beginning of solar autumn at Lammastide, the Sun enters its old age, its golden months. The heat of summer lingers a little longer, perhaps even bringing in the Dog Days of August. The ripening grains are followed by the ripening of the fruits of tree and vine. A perfect time to give thanks to the Earth for its bounty and beauty. Truly, early August is a time to rejoice and be festive, a time to honour those among us who still know how to reap the harvest and connect us with our ancestors.
For more information about Lammas/Lughnasadh, try these links:

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pony day!

Here's Gem, waiting patiently while we sort out all the straps & buckles to his gear.
Yes, he's in the living room! There was actually an old Irish tradition for bringing luck to a household that involved walking new livestock in the front door & out the back (Irish Folk Ways, by E. Estyn Evans). Although in those days, many people kept the family milk cow & a few laying hens in one end of the kitchen. Houses were built with a slight slope to the kitchen end, which often had stone flooring, to keep the manure from spreading. But we just thought it was funny when he came to the front door and acted like he wanted in. Maybe he knew more about the lucky tradition than we did & wanted to help.
And on the back porch... Now we have to pony-proof the porch when he's out grazing in the yard.
Notice the outraged cow in these 2 clips....

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Gemini!He's a 14 yr old Shetland gelding, about 11h (44" at the withers) tall. Gemini was formerly used at Lang's Horse & Pony Farm to teach people how to drive a cart. Since there hasn't been much demand for his skills recently, they decided to find him a home where he would have a job.
We both got a lesson on cart driving (and we bought his cart & harness too) and he was a real professional! I can't wait to drive him up to town to get a latte. He's got such good manners, we let him graze around the yard for a bit, and it's hard not to brush him and pet him while he eats.

After we brought Gemini home Saturday, we had a BBQ with some friends. It was also the weekend for the annual powwow down the road, so we got to enjoy eating, drinking & being merry with background music courtesy of the Nooksack tribe.

While we were out working on the pony/bull barn, there was a commotion in a patch of brush in the corner of paddock 5......
Wild cow!! Stella likes to stare at Gemini, but they aren't in the same pasture. She's a bit cranky because once she eats all her food, she wants to eat his too but can't. Hopefully her greediness is a sign that she's eating for two. When we have the vet out for Gem's shots, we'll see if the timing is right for Stella to have a pregnancy check.

The garden is starting to pick up steam, and we'll have some riveting photos coming up of harvesting & freezing beet greens & chard! The Reddale potatoes are coming in nicely. So far the straw mulch method is working fine. The hens are laying about 5 mini-eggs a day now, which means not long until 8-10 full-sized eggs a day. Stella is getting even better about letting down for milking, but Doug is bigger and hungrier, so we're still getting a steady 3 quarts each morning. I dread weaning him, just because of the yelling involved, but Ryder will be here next month and that seems like a good time to shake up the living arrangements.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Here's a batch of "Stella cheese" underway. I start with a gallon of milk, and heat it to 90F. Then I add whichever culture I'm using, usually mesophilic or fresh starter from New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. After I add the culture, I put the lid on and put the pot in a blanket-lined cardboard box, to retain the heat longer.
The proto-cheese sits for a couple of hours to let the bacteria do their thing, then I add 1/2 tsp of rennet, and put it back in the box for another hour to let the curd set up. I use a giant butter-knife-looking tool called a card knife to slice the gelled milk into roughly 1/2" lumps, which then sit for 10 minutes. I gently stir the curds for another 20 minutes to help get the whey out and to "toughen" the curds a little so they don't dissolve back in to a soggy mess.

I pour the curds & whey into a cheesecloth and hang it up to drain overnight. Most of the time the chickens get the whey. The extra protein & calcium makes for much better eggs production. This week I'm using the whey for an experimental batch of blaand, a very ancient Scottish "wine" made from fermented whey. Needless to say, detailed recipes are scarce, so I'm improvising.
The final stage of the Stella-cheese process is to take the big lump of cheese out of the cloth the next morning, cut it into cubes, sprinkle them with coarse salt (we use Kosher) and let it sit til the end of the day. The the cubes go into a bowl and into the fridge for snacking. It tastes like a cross between feta and cottage cheese.

Here is a pot of our first Reddale potatoes of the season, soon to be boiled and eaten with butter, salt & pepper. Yum! This variety of spud has done really well here, and we plan to keep growing it.
And here's Magnus, finally feeling better about losing his sister, relaxing in a sunbeam....

Thursday, July 10, 2008

St. Swithin's Day approaches!

In the US (at least on the east coast), we have the tradition of Groundhog's Day to fortell the weather. In the UK, they have St. Swithin:

St Swithin's Day, if it does rain
Full forty days, it will remain
St Swithin's Day, if it be fair
For forty days, t'will rain no more

Celebrated (or berated as the case may be!) on July 15th, weather sayings pertaining to St. Swithin's Day are probably the most infamous weather sayings in the UK. St. Swithin died 862 and was buried outside Winchester Cathedral so that he could 'feel' the raindrops when he was dead. However, when he was canonised a tomb was built inside the cathedral and July 15th 971 was the day his body was to be moved. Legend has it that a storm, breaking the end of a long dry spell, on the 15th and rain on each of the subsequent 40 days led to the monks taking this as a sign of 'divine displeasure' and left his body where it was.

There is, however, some evidence to suggest that St. Swithin's remains were, in fact, moved on or around 15th July 971 and no evidence exists to support 40 days of bad weather. Following the Norman conquest St Swithin's remains were then moved to a new shrine and new cathedral in Winchester. There was a large St. Swithin's cult in the Middle Ages though and this is where the legends and sayings surrounding his day are likely to have come from. During Henry VIII's reign this shrine was destroyed in an attempt to try and end these legends and sayings about St. Swithin. This probably guaranteed the sayings immortality and they have continued to be passed down through the ages!

This is the most famous of all the weather related saints' days in the UK. The legend originally only concerned rain, but later related to 40 days of similar weather. There is very little truth behind these sayings, and since 1861 there has neither been 40 dry nor 40 wet days following a dry or wet St. Swithin's Day. In fact on average about 20 days with some rain and 20 rain free days can be expected between July 15th and August 24th, and of course it goes without saying that the weather on July 15th is independant of conditions for the following 40 days.

However, the summers of 1983, 1989, 1990 and 1995 were near misses. During these summers July 15th was dry over southern England, as were 38 of the following 40 days and on those days on which rain fell, it was only light rain. Meanwhile, in 1976 38 of the 40 days after July 15th were also dry, but on July 15th itself late evening thunderstorms affected parts of southern England, around 25mm rain being dumped on Luton, for example, in just one hour. So 1976 was either a spectacular failure or a near success depending on how you look at it! As for wet weather, Philip Eden reports that in 1985 it rained on July 15th in Luton and then rained on 30 of the subsequent 40 days.

Still, the perpetrators of the sayings surrounding St. Swithin's Day during the Middle Ages were obviously aware that summer weather patterns are usually quite well established by mid July and will then tend to persist until late August, a fact backed up by the fact that similar sayings exist around the same time of year in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and France. It would seem that the sayings surrounding St. Swithin's Day perhaps ought not to be taken completely literally but that a grain of truth does lie behind them. Maybe the sayings should be updated to read, "St. Swithin's Day, if it does rain, 40 days staying unsettled, St. Swithin's Day, if it fair, 40 days staying settled.". Not quite the poetic punch as the rhyme at the top of the page but you get the idea!!!!

As mentioned in the paragraph above some of the UK's northwestern European neighbours have similar sayings based around the idea of 40 days of similar weather (ie wet or dry) after a given day. For example the French have St. Medard's Day and St. Protase's Day on the June 8th and 19th respectively. The Germans have the Day of Seven Sleepers on June 27th whilst the Belgians have St. Godelieve on July 27th. Meanwhile, the Dutch clearly like to hedge their bets with sayings surrounding St. Henricus on July 15th ("Met St. Henricus droog, zeven weken droog. Met St. Henricus regen, veertig dagen duurt die zegen." - Dry on St. Henricus, 7 weeks dry. Rain on St. Henricus, 40 days rain.") and St. Magriet on July 20th ("Is het droog weer op St. Margriet, dan regent het dertig of veertig dagen niet." - Dry on St. Margriet, dry for 30 or 40 days - and "Magriets regen brengt geen zegen." - Margriet's rain is no blessing.).

Oddly enough, while most of us would rather not see rain on July 15th, apple-growers hope for it on this day, as well as on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29) for it is believed that the saints are watering the crops. If they fail to do so, the apple-crop will be a poor one. Furthermore, no apple should picked or eaten before July 15th and all apples growing at this time will ripen.

References/Sources An articel by Philip Eden in The Daily Telegraph one summer between 1998 and 2000. EDEN, P. 1995. Weatherwise, Macmillam, 323pp. MARRIOTT, P. 1981. Red Sky at Night, Sheba Books, 376pp

Friday, July 04, 2008

Beloved Mercia

We discovered this AM that our sweet little Mercia cat had been struck by a car sometime over night and lay just across the road from our gate. She appeared to have died instantly, but that is scant solace to us this day.

Her brother Magnus, to the left in the photo below has been watching for her between naps and now lays at the cat door waiting for Mercia to appear. There's no way to explain to him that she won't be returning here tonight, or ever.
Mercia was only 9 months old, but she brightened our days with her energy, and unique demonstrations of her bountiful love. We'll miss her always.