Create something new: What would you do with 500 olive trees?

Olive trees under a blue sky with a mountain in the distance and green grass underneath.
500 olive trees. Sciacca, Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

I recently came across another inspiring example of using your inheritance to create something new.

Alessandro inherited 500 olive trees with his grandfather’s Sicilian property. Most people look at 500 olive trees and think olive oil, but Alessandro had a different idea: soap.

His engineering Ph.D. comes in handy for designing the tools he needs to create Saponi & Saponi’s soaps from local ingredients: bay laurel, prickly pear, oranges, honey, and, of course, olive oil.

Creativity isn’t limited to soap from olive trees. All around the house, his environmental worldview is in practice. A solar panel is installed just inside the gate. He has his own water purification and passive hot water systems and his house is heated with olive, persimmon, and pine grown on the property.

I’m fond of the sustainable mowing team: a horse and a donkey who are clearly good friends.

Horse and donket grazing among the olive trees. Sicily.
Sustainable mowing team. Sicily. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We got a glimpse into the culture of soap-making in the soap museum. The guided tour includes Alessandro’s steadily growing collection of soaps from around the world and an exhibit about the soap-making process (in English and Italian.)

I loved his story about the way soap is made in Aleppo–may peace come there soon!

Most scents fade away in traditionally hand-made soaps because of the long curing process. Aleppo soap is the exception. It’s a dark green color because up to 50% of the soap is bay leaf extract. It’s also a cube shape, rather than a bar, because the liquid soap is poured out in a thick layer on stone or tile floors, rather than in shallow frames and then cut.

Maybe the story feels even stronger if you hear it while standing in a stone building where olives were once pressed. The soap museum’s cool stone walls must be very welcome when the hot Sicilian sun arrives. Plain square tiles cover the floor, unpainted versions of the vibrant tiles common in this region. Local products, used creatively, yet again, this time by taking the decoration away.

Handpainted tiles with bright yellows, blues, reds and greens.
Ceramic tiles from Vincenzo Arena in Sciacca, Sicily.

Ceramic Artist: Vincenzo Arena

That brings me to questions I’ve asked before:

What in your life could be transformed into something new?

Or something beautiful?

How could you give new life to something you’ve had a very long time?

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Hope for Spring: Prince Charles’ Duchy Home Farm

Snow pea seedlings in a pot.
Tiny snow pea seedlings on the balcony. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

We just watched DER BAUER UND SEIN PRINZ (The Farmer and his Prince) about Prince Charles’ organically run farm. I ordered the DVD from the local bookstore here in Germany. Oddly, it’s unavailable anywhere in the Commonwealth.

The film made me think about growing things and raising chickens. For years after failing with chickens the first time, I didn’t try again because it felt too frivolous and too much of a luxury to keep hens of your own when you knew you could buy eggs, even organic ones, at a fraction of the price.

The film reminded me of what matters to me. The farmer kept going into the middle of various fields and pulling out a plant or a handful of dirt and explaining why it was better or stronger or different than the plant/dirt in the control field. The smell of the good garden soil in spring is so hopeful.

The film gave me a new view of cows. Their cows loll around in a huge barn with deep hay bedding, looking for all the world like bovine matrons in the Roman bath. Comfortable is not a word I connect with cows in a barn. Resigned or placid, but not comfortable.

Prince Charles demonstrated how to make a hedgerow. He leaned thorn trees at a 30 degree angle and then wove all kinds of other things into it. There were lovely photos of established hedgerows covered with blossoms with flocks of birds sailing in and out of them. My resident zoologist has been saying this for years: Hedgerows are good habitat.

Prince Charles’ farm manager said that the average age of farmers in the UK is 59 and young farmers are needed. My youngest is interested in farming so we all perked up our ears. He also said that many young people don’t seem to have had the kind of practical childhood that would help them with farm skills. We’re all brought up to sit in front of computer screens these days.

It’s hard to move toward the future, even when you are convinced it’s worthwhile to do so. We resisted getting a car for three years because we know that petroleum reserves are already so low. But now we have one even though I wanted to go everywhere by train.

I’m wondering how I can contribute to conserving the soil and growing more organic vegetables on my balcony. It’s easy to say: “There’s nothing I can do about it.” But there are always seeds to plant.

In January, I looked up a planting calendar for my area and planted snow peas in a big pot outside. Now they’re coming up. We can’t eat them yet, but they make me welcome the rain.

It’s like writing a book (or reading one). You don’t get guarantees about how it will come out. But we know, inside ourselves, that the attempt is worthy. Even if we fail, this is what life is about.

 

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Spring is coming. Let’s not give up on hospitality yet.

Forest road in spring green with a blue sky above. Kottenforst, Germany.
Forest road in spring green with a blue sky above. Kottenforst, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if migration is our natural lot and living peacefully in one place all our lives a rarity. Cranes are migrating and their calls remind me of spring.

The current news shows destroyed cities in Syria, failed cease-fire talks, and a refugee bus being shouted down by people in the former Democratic Republic of Germany.

At my mother-in-law’s birthday party, some friends told how their families fled from the invading Russians, near the end of World War II. One family fled as late as 1945. Here’s my rough translation into English:

A knock came at three o’clock in the morning: we had to get out. We fled in a matter of two hours, with only the clothes we had on. The snow was up to the horses’ bellies and my mother packed us into the hay wagon with bedding, so we wouldn’t freeze.

Our father was one of three men assigned to the farm, to keep producing food. Unarmed, they were supposed to stay at the farm to defend the front against the Russians.

The countess, our angel, helped us to get out. She didn’t take any extra luggage for herself and invited three new mothers with their infants into her carriage, so they would survive the trip.

She bought a big sack of bread whenever we came to a big bakery and hung the sack from the side of the carriage. We had a camp kitchen, a “Gulaschkanone,” to cook huge quantities of soup. We had plenty to eat then.

Once we came to an abandoned town with a castle and people had fled, leaving everything behind. We slept anywhere we wanted, even in the castle. The houses were full of food, because these people had also fled. But after three weeks, we heard the Russian guns.

Eventually, we arrived in Schleswig-Holstein.  The countess’ brother had made arrangements for us, but the Nazi’s were still in charge, so they assigned people to various houses in the village as they saw fit. It was awkward and unpleasant.

We lived over a bakery in a tiny room with five other people. Baked goods were rationed, so we smelled a lot more bread than we ate.

People looked at us funny because we weren’t from there. My mother and sister argued about words for years, because my mother didn’t want us to blend in. She thought we were still going “home” one day. She wanted us to fit in there.

Epidemiologists like to study the “immigration effect.” That’s the idea that people who stay home are systematically different from the people who don’t.

For example, people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables, little meat, and little refined sugar in their home country may have a low risk of colon cancer. If some migrate to a country with the opposite pattern, they will probably increase their risk of colon cancer compared to those who stayed at home. But because they keep some of their home country traditions, they will probably have a lower risk of colon cancer than the natives of their adopted country.

For epidemiologists, a pattern like this means the risky behavior is “modifiable,” not genetic. If you can get people to eat more fruits and vegetables, little meat, and little refined sugar, then you will probably see less colon cancer. It’s hard to change behavior, but it’s possible. It means hope.

After World War II, many, many people fled from the Eastern block into West Germany. They know what it means to be forced to rely on strangers. They know first-hand that the scarcity mentality isn’t true. Hardship can teach us generosity, if we let it.

We all wish for peace, but in the mean time, people all around me are eager to help the new arrivals feel at home. When peace comes, I think our hospitality will be gladly returned.

Spring is coming. Let’s not give up hope.

 


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Wait–My free calendar from the health food store has predictive powers?

Wild boar with nose dusted with snow from January page of my 2016 calendar.
January’s Wild Boar from my ReformhausMarketing GmbH 2016 calendar. Image: Horst Jegen/ImageBROKER/mauritius images

My youngest took a horse for a walk in the forest this week. I went along.

The horse, Rökkvi, is a shaggy, black, Icelandic pony with a mellow disposition. We were walking along one of the forest’s old hunting roads when Rökkvi pricked his ears and turned his head to the left.

When we finally looked, we saw a wild boar hurtling through the forest parallel to us. The boar shot past us, made a 90 degree turn, crossed our road, and disappeared into the forest on our right.

Rökkvi’s expression: “I told you there was something.”

I haven’t turned the calendar page yet to see what’s coming up in February.

 

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Exploring: A word in favor of happy bees

Blooming sage with bee in windowbox
A blurry bee is a happy bee

In graduate school, my major professor, Dr. Sandra Melnick, gave me some good advice about moving to a new place:

“You have to find out what you can do there that you can’t do anywhere else. And then try it out.”

How do we thrive here? This advice is as true for gardening and writing as it is for exploring a new home. What thrives in this soil and this climate? What parts of my life hum along better here? What does this manuscript have that is new?

My balcony is an in-between place, an incubator. Our balcony is like a giant concrete bathtub with a red racing stripe. The balcony above protects us from the rain. There’s nothing remotely natural about it. It’s for a table and chairs, coffee and cake, Rhine wine and olives.

But little by little, the earth came to our balcony. First we hung up windowboxes, then insects came, then a few weeds, and the birds that dig up big clumps of dirt and chuck them over the side. Deep purple pansies transplanted themselves from the upstairs neighbor’s window boxes.

The other day I found a big, fat, caterpillar, a gift from one of the birds. Too heavy to take home to the kids? Uh, thanks.

Maybe this year is the year. We have a small peach tree in a pot and it’s making peaches again. Will they make it to peachdom this year or will they fall off like last year? A real peach would be a prize.

My daughter started 14 lemon trees from seed. There’s a world heritage site, Brühl palace near here, modelled after Versailles. Maybe they could use some lemon trees.

My tomato plants are full of promise. Their deep green leaves and stocky stems comfort me.

And so do the happy bees: I like the way their work absorbs them. They enjoy each flower on the sage. They stop in mid-flight and zigzag back to one they missed. They climb into each flower as if it were a cave full of treasure, which I suppose it is.

And the humming. Humming while you work is a good sign. Although they only hum between flowers. They also fly a little drunkenly. Are they really working? Or does the pollen load ruin their aerodynamics? It’s hard to look elegant when you have a lot to carry or a lot to learn.

Large black Wood Bee and sweet pea flowers in windowbox
A Wood Bee: even the bees are bigger in the North.

Last year, I had sweet peas in my window boxes and this Wood Bee visited often. It was so big and black I felt skittish around them, even when they were doing the happy bee thing. I thought they were some kind of GMO bee or Chernobyl bee, but they aren’t.

This year, we have different flowers so we have different bees. We live in a different place and culture and are learning to thrive. It gives me hope to see the blurry, buzzing bees on our balcony. Three are out there right now, exploring every flower they pass.

What can you do where you are that you can’t do anywhere else? What can you do with this novel, this project, this family, this class, these friends, this museum, this library, this forest that you can’t do with anyone or anything else?