29 March 2024

good Friday

Isn’t it amazing the way life can seem too short, and intrinsically magical, yet at the same time feel like a long, uphill road, potholed with fuckwits?

Tom Cox

Good Friday. This is the holiest of holy days in the secular country I am living in. Seriously. By law, all parts of Germany observe nine holy days throughout the year, Bavaria, which claims to be more catholic than others, observes 11 holy days. And these are serious holy days, we stay home from work, all shops, restaurants, cafes are shut, TV programs act as if it's a Sunday. As for Good Friday, no music, no dancing, no long nights in clubs or pubs, no sports and so on. When I was growing up, these days felt like heavy weights of boredom, long and cold and often rainy. Today, I watch the rain, waiting for a break so I can go on a walk. The beep from the house across the road a steady reminder of human acts of fuckwittery. 

Many years ago, during Easter break, we were cycling along the river Danube towards Vienna, battling with rain and headwind so strong, we almost gave up. On Good Friday, we woke in a medieval country inn where I had spent much of the night wandering back and forth to the bathroom on the landing across, expecting an imminent UTI but it was just because my feet were freezing cold. We speculated about Good Friday rules and how to get supplies for the day but walked out into a busy market day with not the tiniest inkling of holy whatever. That's Austria for you. Now, in Ireland, it's also just another busy day, as are all other holy days, like Ascension or Whitsun or Corpus Christi. I was seriously shocked when I found out.

Last night, I've read my way through a couple of obituaries for Frans de Waal, a primatologist I greatly admire. On the bicycle tour mentioned above, we visited an exhibition dedicated to his work at the Natural History Museum in Vienna (one the world's most amazing museums, BTW). 

This is one of my favourite quotes from his work (I have posted this before):

 I cannot name any emotion that is uniquely human. There are maybe emotions related to religion — let’s say spirituality — but even for that, I cannot exclude that animals have those kinds of feelings. Who says they don’t? In humans, religious feelings are not expressed in the face. That kind of emotion is not visible. And if emotions are not visible, how can we exclude that it exists in other species?

One of his findings was the fairness concept, explained here:

I could go on a tangent about studies in primates and how this is so amazing and how we should watch and listen, but it's not just primates.  

Pigs have been found to plan and carry out rescue missions to help incarcerated or otherwise distressed fellow pigs. In an experiment, which has been repeated by others , researchers added two small compartments to a barn where pigs are normally kept and both had a window through which the animals could look in and a door that can only be opened from the outside. In the first part of the experiment, the animals learnt to open the compartment doors by pushing a lever upwards with their snout. In the second part, each pig was isolated from the group once and locked in one of the compartments. The other box was also locked, but remained empty. In 85 per cent of cases, the pigs freed the trapped group member from the test compartment within 20 minutes. The longer pigs looked through the window at the trapped animal, the sooner they freed it.

Cows develop livelong friendships with other cows, as well as dislikes. In a field experiment, the "best friend" and "worst enemy" were first determined for each cow. To do this, all the cows in a barn were fitted with transmitters. A type of GPS for indoor areas then records how much time which cows spend together. A cow's best friend is the animal she spends the most time with. The cow it spends the least time with is considered its enemy. Next, the cows are separated for 30 minutes at a time, once with the best friend from the group and once with the animal they has had the least contact with. Most cows started licking their best friend when they met, and when put next to her enemy, started to push her around. 

But really surprising are goats. Goats ask people for help, so to speak, when they cannot solve a problem themselves. Take this test that was originally developed for dogs. The goat is placed in a room in which a human sits next to a plastic box containing a reward. The lid is only loosely in place three times, the animal can easily push it away with its head and eat the reward. The fourth time, the lid is firmly closed. Now, the goat alternates between looking at humans and at the closed box, as if they are asking for help.

The more scientists find out about the behaviour of farm animals, the clearer it becomes that their cognitive and emotional abilities have so far been hugely underestimated. There is still a widespread belief that all these animals are dumb eating machines that have neither thoughts nor feelings and therefore do not need to be treated with particular consideration. However, this has long been scientifically disproved. 

I have milked cows and goats, mucked out stables of all three (and more) types of farm animals, I observed baby goats and lambs being born, bottle-fed some of them, and I have eaten them, lamb, goats, pigs and cows - disguised as ham, sausage, steak, cutlet, mice, bacon and so on. 

I've also eaten octopus, pheasant, chicken, rabbit, hare, venison, duck, geese, even flying foxes, snake and frog legs. Not including fish and seafood. About twenty years ago, I lost the appetite, my inflamed intestine couldn't handle meat too well and slowly it got less and less until I stopped it altogether.

27 March 2024

Here we have two of our pear trees, nicely espaliered and in full bloom. The one to the left is what we call a Williams' bon chrétien, very juicy yellow pears that need to be harvested and eaten/processed on the spot, the one on the right in front is a Conference pear, which looks green and hard but when picked at the right time, is juicy and delicious, good for storage right through the winter. Both trees are about 25 years old.

This is the state of the vegetables to date. The spuds are in, top left, so are a variety of other seeds, and the shallots and the garlic are coming up, bottom left. The white sheet is to keep the bird away and the empty orange halves are supposedly attracting slugs. Every night, R goes out there with his head torch to lift the orange domes and to kill the lot. The bushy thing top left behind the bed is the rhubarb, early and tender. I already made two big lots of rhubarb crumble, lovely to look at but not possible for me to eat this time in my life.

Also, it's the season of wild garlic, some people go mad about it, we just look at it and because it is very aromatic, grow it in a far away corner, simply to remember that we once walked through a forest in County Wicklow where the entire ground was covered by wild garlic but we never noticed the smell until much later back home because we were in our early madly in love stage.

 Plants become weeds when they obstruct our plans, or our tidy maps of the world.
Richard Mabey

 The sun never sets on the empire of the dandelion.

 Alfred Crosby

I met the surgeon and her surgeon boss and they were extremely jolly and upbeat about the future of my intestine. So I sat there and listened to them explaining how they would cut this piece out and push that thing in and how it would be twisted somewhat but, hey, in a good way, and the whole shebang would be completed with a bit of surgical mesh, like a little trampoline. Which is when I raised my arm and asked to be permitted to speak. I mentioned some risk indices, studies on surgical mesh and autoimmune diseases and poor outcome and mortality and reinfection on top of infection and their faces became bored and with their voices a bit sharper, they replied that life is never without risks and that their approach was very neat and that it would actually be performed by a tiny robot inside my pelvic area and when I continued to show signs of disbelief, they declared that in was in fact, tada!, THE da Vinci robot. Yeah, I know about that one, I said. And they got a bit miffed because look what I did to their punch line. We parted as friends though because getting a second or even a third opinion was one of the promises our current minister of health got elected on and everybody is now in love with the idea. Good luck with that, they exclaimed as I walked out. And so I dug into my files of who's who and made one or two grovelling calls and would you know it, I'll see another expert team in June. What's another three months, I tell myself. 

But you see, my daughter who a while back supervised a government department dealing with literally thousands of litigation proceedings on surgical mesh gone haywire in various parts of the human body had firmly shook her head and said, don't go down that road, never, promise me. And, people, I trust her with my life and soul.

Then there's the nutrition situation, which is now at the stage of serious protein supplementation to halt muscle waste.  I am on a protein drinks tasting spree. I had no idea! The variety looks stunning but so far they all taste like liquid cake dough. Who can drink 500 ml of liquid cake dough every day? Not me. So on to powder, equally stunning selections, plant based (like peas), dairy based (like whey) and all the variations thereof with myriad flavourings and non-sugar sweeteners. My first order of "cinnamon cereal whey powder" is currently lost in the delivery and I have started to communicate with the "chat" voice of amazon to get my money back, at least. Yesterday, I fried a bit of tofu in some sesame oil and pretended I was at a food stall in Singapore. But it's not the answer to my prayers.

Also, there is an alarm beeping since last night in a house across from us, a regular strong three-beeps-pause-three-beeps rhythm and the owners are on holiday in France until the end of next week. We had a brief neighbourhood meeting this morning. Turns out that those with hearing aids can help themselves by switching the gadgets off and some of us, including myself, only hear the beep with one ear anyway, but there are others who will have a memorable Easter week. 

Earlier, we attended another online funeral - quite the thing now in Ireland - and sad as it was, this poem was read by one of the daughters of the deceased cousin and you should have seen the face of the elderly priest behind the altar (not amused).


    You Are Tired, (I think)

    You are tired,
    (I think)
    Of the always puzzle of living and doing;

    And so am I.
    Come with me, then,
    And we’ll leave it far and far away—

    (Only you and I, understand!)
    You have played,
    (I think)
    And broke the toys you were fondest of,
    And are a little tired now;
    Tired of things that break, and—
    Just tired.

    So am I.
    But I come with a dream in my eyes tonight,
    And knock with a rose at the hopeless gate of your heart—
    Open to me!
    For I will show you the places Nobody knows,
    And, if you like,

    The perfect places of Sleep.
    Ah, come with me!
    I’ll blow you that wonderful bubble, the moon,
    That floats forever and a day;
    I’ll sing you the jacinth song
    Of the probable stars;
    I will attempt the unstartled steppes of dream,
    Until I find the Only Flower,
    Which shall keep (I think) your little heart
    While the moon comes out of the sea.

  e e cummings








20 March 2024

One of these days, I swear, I am going to start writing that book, the ultimate guide to living with a shitty disease and I'll start with the chapter on how I went on a 15 km walk because I was so very mad at the world and all the unsolved problems in my life and the loneliness of being ill and I may include some of the pictures I took of the sweeping views across the hills and the newly born lambs kicking their little legs on the field and the first fresh leaves of the beech saplings down low in the forest and in the next chapter, I will list the thoughts that rushed through my mind, briefly, before I found the rhythm of my steps and my breath and how after a while, I was humming, some melody, barely melodious, more like counting steps, and how the sound of the windproof jacket as my arms were swishing back and forth, back and forth made me realise that nothing matters and that everything matters and that I can handle it, have always been able to handle it, the whole brilliant, miserable, frightening, amazing catastrophe of my life, how I love it.

14 March 2024

the vegetable year

So this is how it begins. Outside. Inside, it's been busy for weeks with potatoe varieties sprouting on trays throughout the house, seedlings growing on the sunny windowsills and so on.

This is the vegetable plot, all innocent and virginal. It has been used in a four crop rotation cycle for over 20 years, one quarter each for potatoes, brassica, legumes and root vegetables in rotation. This year, the potatoes go in the top left section, half of the rectangular bed, where the compost has already been spread, with brassica in the top field to the right, legumes in the bottom field on the right and root vegetables in the bottom left.  The snaking tubes on the other sections are the pipelines of the drip feeding system and the metal sheets along the top edges are to keep the many slugs away or at least slow their progress. I like to think that the soil knows us well by now, especially the feel and smell of R's hands, who does almost all weeding and digging and planting and harvesting. In a few weeks time, this area will be full of growth, apart from the potatoes, there will be red cabbage, swiss chards and cavolo nero, cauliflowers and broccoli obviously, later in the year Brussel sprouts and winter sprouting broccoli, sugar snaps, spinach, runner beans and French beans, lettuce, carrots, parsnips, onions, garlic and possibly a pumpkin or two.

The tomatoes and peppers and aubergines and melons and some cucumbers will grow in the greenhouse, one tomatoe variety will grow somewhere in the flower beds as we found it thrives there and the zucchini and many pumpkins will grow here and there and everywhere all over the place. I'm sure there will be more, some new experiments, but I'll leave all that to the gardener I am so lucky to have in my life.


This, meanwhile, is where my work is waiting for me. It is supposedly the herb bed but has been overrun by the grape hyacinths - as are many other beds throughout. It started with a narrow row of snowdrops and these fellows many years ago, but the snow drops were eaten by squirrels and the blue grape hyacinths take what they can get, like zombies. It's of course lovely to have all this blue colour but once they are finished, I will dig them all up - and I mean all - and transfer them to a nice scenic cluster in the front of the house. That's the plan anyway. In my mind, it'll eventually look like a flower show entry. 

This will be the first year without the almond trees along the west of the house. It'll mean less shade to the upstairs rooms there but both trees had a virus, fewer and fewer almonds and dropped their leaves by August. Also, the virus was putting the fruit trees at risk so it was them or the apricot and peach trees, of which this young one is giving me much hope. These stone fruit grow very well as trellis trees, a method that was established in 17th century France as the espalier method and we have visited impressive examples in castle grounds across Germany, France and Belgium and R has fallen in love with it.  We also have two espalier pear trees, but not yet in flower.

07 March 2024



Here we have one of our breakfast visitors. By now, they we are well trained and if we are late with the peanuts, there will be a racket.

When I was a kid, jays lived in the forest and did not come into gardens. To find one of their blue feathers was a rare, special event. There was a goldsmith living in our neighbourhood who would make the most beautiful jewellery incorporating jay feathers and my mother promised me a pair of earrings if I find two feathers. I never found two or maybe I did and she had forgotten her promise. Looking through some old books some time after my mother's death, I found several feathers she had collected. Together with her usual collection of pressed leaves and flowers. 


It's supposedly a busy weekend starting tomorrow. I have been invited/asked to attend to a couple of events in town on the occasion of International Women's Day. At one or maybe two of these, I am supposed to act as a whispering interpreter, meaning I sit in a group of non-German speakers and translate what's being said into English. I used to do this a couple of times at conferences and NGO events. It's not as serious as proper interpretation, where you have to pick up every word and sit in a cubicle with headphones (think Nicole Kidman) so it can actually be quite enjoyable and an opportunity to meet interesting people. 

And on Saturday, the teenage daughter of a friend has invited a group of women of all ages for a walk, a meal and a movie, in that order. 

But I think I'll stay at home on both days because, frankly, it's been a shit week. I'll give myself until tomorrow morning early before I call and cancel. There will be others who can do the language work, I know that, so no big loss. My social life is a long string of cancellations these days.

This week I've seen one doctor who had little new insights apart from the fact that two of the surgery options are definitely off limits for people on immune suppression. I am wildly swinging from, ok, so no surgery to, anything, I'll do anything, all within one day. Also, had a lecture on malnutrition by my dentists, no less, and the way she looked at me and my bony shoulder blades sticking out, I could guess what she was thinking. Could an educated, middle-class, not poor woman in her 60s be malnourished in this day and age? Unless she has an eating disorder? By now, there are others who think that too. Maybe it's time I order that t-shirt, the one that says "I love food, but my intestine has packed it in".

Anyway, International Women's Day. It's a minefield these days, using the word woman but I will not go into that. Only to state that I, with all my heart, believe that trans women are women, just as much as I will never accept to be identified by a gender neutral term. I am a woman. To separate the concept of ‘woman’ from menstruation, breastfeeding, pregnancy etc.,  in order to make it easier for some to become an ‘identity’ rather than a tangible, living, breathing, menstruating, lactating, and quite frankly, pretty fucking angry reality, I cannot get myself behind that. Anyway, the minefield. Go ahead, tell me I am backward and out of sync.

So just these thoughts:

The public censure of women as if we are rabid because we speak without apology about the world in which we live is a strategy of threat that usually works. Men often react to women's words - speaking and writing - as if they were acts of violence; sometimes men react to women's words with violence. So we lower our voices. Women whisper. Women apologize. Women shut up. Women trivialize what we know. Women shrink. Women pull back. Most women have experienced enough dominance from men - control, violence, insult, contempt - that no threat seems empty.

            Andrea Dworkin


Some women retrain, or take up volunteering, or fall in love with their best friend, or finally make partner or are squeezed out of the research lab they founded or become yoga instructors or raise surprise grandchildren or learn another language or dive into genealogy or run for local office or quit booze or drink too much or make other people’s problems their business or give up altogether on other people’s problems or cry themselves to sleep or can’t sleep or divorce or remortgage or develop a cackle or get shingles or go into real estate or animal shelters or floristry or online activism or have to look for a new place when the landlord raises the rent, or get fired or roboted out of a job or have menopausal psychosis or family addiction crises or parents with dementia or home subsidence or violent kids or terminal illness.

           Emily Perkins (from her latest novel The Lioness)

There is a wonderful Celtic archetype, the Cailleach, or Crone, who can give us the confidence to embrace this new voice, this new way of being that comes with the menopause, and she doesn’t give a hoot about being different, being outcast or being judged. An older woman, a shape-shifter, a storm-rider and hammer-wielder, she is responsible for the turning of the wheel of the year from golden summer into the restorative rest and regeneration of winter. She is the one-eyed old woman who takes us, every year without fail, where we do not wish to go.

No simpering female, the Cailleach is known across the Celtic world as the guardian of the world’s natural balance and is a forthright and forceful older woman who takes great exception to any action which harms the natural world. It is said that she created the mountains by dropping huge stones from her apron as she stomped around. Powerful and outspoken, she has no fear of shame, that putrid and poisonous emotion which rules our modern world and keeps us quiet and small. The Cailleach uses her magical powers to hold back the effect of humanity upon the natural world. Goddess of the storms, she knows the importance of anger in the scheme of things.

            Roisin Maguire


 Only recently have we realised that rape is the longest-running war on the planet.

            Stephanie Clare Smith

 The cliche says that women should mother like they don’t work and work like they don’t have children.

 Just me.


03 March 2024

Sometimes I think I am reading far too much and all over the place. Newspapers, opinion pieces, social media commentary, all the blogs and that substack algorithm that comes up with another three tantalising suggestions every damn time I finish reading one post. Then, there's books, of course, real books and the notices from the library when a book I have reserved weeks ago is ready for pick up. But also, e-books and good grief, here we go: audio books and podcasts. At the end of the day, I struggle remember what it was I just read or listened to all day. It's all so brilliant and disgusting and enlightening and confusing and then again, trivial and just someone's string of consciousness.

I sit in the sun on the first warm spring day, I close my eyes and listen to birdsong, to the twin girls from across the gardens playing the lava game, to R hacking away with a machete deep in the overgrown corner at the bottom of the garden. The usual Sunday afternoon noise from a light airplane above, someone living their expensive dream.  Hey honey, I am off for a spin with the plane, or something like that. I had an uncle, a successful dentist in one of the better off cities on the river, who had suffered greatly during WWII and once told me that he promised himself a private little airplane should he survive. He did and got the plane and one day, maybe 25 years ago, I was in the kitchen mixing salad, listening to the news on the radio about a small airplane that had crashed, the single occupant dead and I knew immediately that it was him. I called my sister and told her and when she asked, what makes you think it's him, I said, it makes sense. And it was him.

On Tuesday, I am starting the next medical marathon, finally meeting one expert/week for three weeks to come and, as R tells me, then we should have a plan. He is fed up with cooking and eating alone.

My brother's last day at work was on Friday. Now all three of us are retired. It feels like we are standing in a small clearing in the forest of our childhood, Franconian pines on sandy soil, rows and rows of plantations from the 17th century, and we are looking around us, lost. Was that it? What happened?

Today, we cycled for a couple of hours along the river and back, crossing it twice. It was bedlam, tons of people, everybody got the message. Spring. Now. 

Note these spindly things. a yellow and a red peach tree and one apricot tree as proof.