Friday, June 12, 2020



Being at home so much now cobwebs catch my eye. At first I want to chase them from ceilings with an upturned broom. Guilt surely. But they have their own elegance. They describe the slightest movement of air - a door opened and closed, a brisk walk by, a cough, a gesture. They respond to delicate, unseen currents with a little ballet of silk and dust. I am reminded of that haiku by Issa, “Don’t worry spiders / I keep house casually.”

A few years back Heide Museum showed a beautiful installation, a mobile called Frost, by Japanese artist, Koji Ryui. Drinking straws threaded and assembled into spare, open geometries hung turning gently in the light. Over time a spider started to throw silk between the shapes, connecting one plane with another, creating new abstracts within and between components. I think Koji would have been pleased with the collaboration.

Late Autumn is a good time to find them outside too. Strung across paths, cast like nets upon the grass, holding from still bare branches. 
They are worth examination. 
They are elaborate or spare according purpose and spider.
They catch the eye after rain or heavy dew.

I have read that spider silk was once packed into open wounds to help the blood clot. 

This year in a phenomenon created by the coincidence of early frost and late morning sunshine there was a mass ballooning of spiderlings. My friend Purdy witnessed it as she drove along her local country lanes and then out onto the highway. The young of the Money spider, still tiny but ready to catch their own prey, are driven by instinct to find elevation - a fence post, shrub, telephone pole, even tall grasses. Then waiting for an updraft they cast out a thread of silk and glide to new hunting grounds  - in effect lighter than air - they leave home to build webs of their own. En masse they create, what Purdy later tells me is known as the gossamer effect. An intersection between physics and beauty.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Birds and flowers

The Chinese once had a whole school of painting devoted to birds and flowers. The study of it was part of the contemplation of place. And one's place in it. Losing one's place was losing the pattern and order of everything.

But sometimes making a little chaos in the order can be fun.

Embroidery emboldens.

Sometimes a needle can be a little subversive despite its seeming to   carry the thread humbly in it head.

The subtext is in the seams.

Occasionally a hiccough helps.

A knot holds.

The pricked finger wears a spot of blood like a red beret.

The world is all about birds and flowers.

Frida and Louisa

Frida and I only knew each other for a little while. She hung around the sewing machine for a week or two. She lay in my lap assembling herself, waited patiently while I fixed her hair. She spent sometime naked on the sunny windowsill while her clothes were stitched - looking on with interest when her skirts were embroidered with birds and flowers.

But once she was dressed she wanted company. It was lonely - just the two of us. She was tiring of my solo twittering - even virtuoso whistling bored her. Should we have a tea party I asked her. Yes, she said. She seemed quite decided.

We invited my friend Louisa and baked an orange cake.

We tidied up just a little bit. Enough that Louisa would find the kitchen agreeable but not so much that she would feel we had gone to too much trouble. We put pink and plum-coloured chrysanthemums in an old blue jug and set out our favourite teacups. We both brushed our hair and fiddled about - fussing over this and that until the doorbell rang.

Louisa took her tea without milk or sugar and only had a dainty piece of cake - she is always elegantly slender.

Frida was impressed.

She and Louisa quickly became good friends.

They talked about everything. Art. Shoes. Growing cacti. Revolutions.

The writing was on the wall really.

When Louisa got up to go Frida went with her.

They drove away in Louisa's car.

I miss her.

There might even have been some unseemly snuffling into a hanky.

But I have dusted the sewing machine off again.

And a small voice in my head says, Viva Mexico!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Osso Bucco day

An oyster shell-coloured sky today - sheets of water all about and it seems a far cry from the dry we had only a few years ago. Any vessel left out on the lawn - the odd jam jar, forgotten coffee cup, empty plant pot, boot, tipped over watering can, (I've told you not to leave them out - they rust through faster than.....), anything left out overnight is filled with rain.

It might seem drab out but winter colour can blaze. The camellias are pink, white, speckled cream and deep rose through to red. There are still haw berries on the hedges and lemons, oranges and cumquats have started marmalade themed cartoons in my head. 

Indoors it's an osso bucco day. I'm simmering one in a black enamelled casserole under a blanket of lemons, thinly sliced. It will get another good dose of citrus with the gremolata and after a 90 minute stew we should be able to eat it with a spoon. Long cooking means a chance to get at the mending too. There are trousers in for repair, socks and an apron pattern to cut. The rain rattling the casement windows makes me glad to be busy inside.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

How to blow a bird's egg

Yesterday my feet took me to the museum and my eyes enjoyed it immensely. Was it Darwin who said that god had a fondness for beetles? Me too! Nothing else comes close to their irridescense, their machine-age aesthetic. Engineered for earthworks, their design almost entirely externalised as exoskeleton - by all accounts what's inside is mostly mush. I want to handle them. I know museums are hands in pockets places but I'm itching to touch. My heart drops though to see the birds - their twiggy toes tagged and no note on the noise they make nectaring or courting. I jolly myself by tracking through to fossils and shells.

On the way home I look in at my favourite opshop and come away with a bunch of books and a Harris Tweed hat. The hat is a good fit, snug and silk lined so no pricks or itches from the wool. Best of all though is the lyrebird brooch pinned smartly to the side. I have done well on the book front too. A 1962  edition of John Gilmour's Wild Flowers - Botanising in Britain, which begins, "The first step to becoming a field to be visited with an irresitible passion."  It's true. To be struck with a lunacy of love is surely how we begin to know. The other book is a musty smelling 1955 print of The Young Collectors. The pages are foxed and yellow but there are articles by Georges Rees on pressing flowers and blowing bird's eggs and one by Clarence Ellis on pebbles. Who these days could wear the name Clarence without an apologetic smile? But as collectors go he is one of my heroes. Other chapters discuss in earnest tone the merits of collecting cheese labels and porcelain - an unusual hobby I would have thought for a child. Georges Rees spends a deal of his article on how to prick out an egg with a thorn. "I carried a few hawthorn points in my pocket, blew the egg straight from the nest and carried the blown eggs home loose in jacket my pocket; and rarely broke one." I can picture the young George kitted out in something like my tweed cap, socks pulled over his breeches for tree climbing and a future in filling museum cases with specimen birds.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A List for Winter

Pipe smoke/wood smoke/sooty chimneys
Early evenings
Pie: chicken and leek,spanakopita, apple
Puzzling out knitting stitches
Hard frost
Birds that are hardier than other birds
Floor wax
Marmalade: cumquat, Seville orange, lemon 
Sock darning /shoe polishing
Seed starting: making newspaper pots/ bird proofing seedlings

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Looking both ways

The word January - the name we have for the first month of the Gregorian calendar, comes from a Roman god. Janus, a god with two faces, looked both towards the future and the past. Big headed, he must have stored all the spent days in memory - far sighted - he must see clearly what is to come. Sometimes his two heads featured twin-like faces, sometimes one looked old and the other younger, one bearded and the other downy with youth.  He was both historian and forward thinker - an appropriate figurehead for the year.

The Romans thought of him as a deity of passage, of beginnings and endings. The doors to his temple stood open during times of war and closed during peace. He is the god of gates and doors. He has a yin yang quality, a tail chasing quality.He rocks back and forth between what we were and will be.

Some Papuan tribes too believe that we move ahead by walking backwards. Being able to see only the present moment and the days past, we face history and not the future. Like an oarsman in a rowboat we sit with our backs to the future, we look to the past to meet the approaching days. 

The last days of the old year seem tidily swept away by the middle of January. It is possible to write 2014 without error and scrubbing out. I'm able to remember the weekdays again after the fug of holidays, Mondays seem like Mondays again. It's a good month to lay plans, to outline projects, to make lists - to look forward like Janus, the uncertainty of things to come hedged by  his knowledge of history.

I like lists, even if not much gets achieved they are a witness to intention. Some of my lists are chores, some of them notes - shorthand reference to the way the days fall in a particular month. Above all January means cherries and swimming to me so here's a sort of list and a recipe for cherry cake.

January 1 through 31

north winds
house flies, horse flies, blowies
lawns that are bone dry
first tomatoes
bare feet, blisters, stubbed toes
electric fans
tennis, badminton, board games, cricket
beach towels hung along verandahs
cake: Christmas cake, cherry cake, pavlova
kitchen ants, bullants, ants in pants, Ant and Bee
sleep outs
sea swims
sunburn, ant bites, all sorts of itches
cherries, blackberries, apricots and mulberries
icecream, icy poles, ice cubes, eskies
shorts and sandals
sweetcorn in standing rows

Sour Cherry Cake

The vinegar in this recipe piques the taste of the already sharp cherries and the geranium leaves infuse the plain cake batter with a rose fragrance. If you don't have rose scented geraniums you could leave out the vanilla pod and add a few drops of rose water to the batter.The cornmeal gives the cake crumb substance and is a good foil for the soft fruit.

250 grams soft butter
1/4 cup caster sugar
1 teaspoon white balsamic vinegar
2 cups pitted morello cherries
1 1/4 cups self raising flour
1/4 cup medium ground cornmeal
pinch of sea salt ground between your finger tips
3/4 cup raw sugar
2 eggs, separated
1/2 cup milk
1 vanilla pod sticky seeds scraped into the milk
6 rose scented geranium leaves

Set the oven to preheat to 170 C 
Combine 100 grams butter, 1/4 cup sugar, and the vinegar in a bowl and then pour into a pan and heat over a medium flame until thick and bubbling. Add the morellos and stir to coat the fruit in syrup. Remove from the flame and cool.Butter and line a cake pan and lay the fresh clean geranium leaves face down over the bottom. Pour over the cherries in their syrup.
Mix flour, cornmeal, and salt in one bowl. In another beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. In a third beat the remaining butter until light and creamy and pale in colour. Pour sugar onto the whipped butter and beat for 2 - 3 minutes. Add the yolks one by one. At a low speed beat in flour and milk in which the vanilla seeds have steeped. With a light hand fold in egg whites. Pour the batter over the cherries and bake for 45 - 50 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean - this can depend a little on your oven's fidelity and size. If your oven runs hot turn it down to 165 C half way through baking.