Forum Holitorium

Garden Quarantine

What better place to self-quarantine after a transatlantic flight than in a house with a garden? There no shortage of work outdoors to prepare this year’s crop of vegetables and herbs. My domain is the vegetable garden. The flowers I leave to the Master Gardener who has created this island of biodiversity in the midst of the pesticide-drenched lawns of suburban America. This summer I am an apprentice, keen to learn the names of all the non-edible plants that never caught my interest before. The word columbine probably makes most Americans think of a school shooting, but before the late nineties, it simply referred to the flower shown above. The root of its name is the Latin columbinus, which means dove-like. The flower is supposed to resemble a group of five doves. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if school shootings stopped and future, more plant-savvy generations of English speakers only associated a flower with this word?

The scent of lilac lilting in the air, fan-like leaves of rhubarb concealing vibrant red stalks of sour delight, Cassandra calls of beloved blue jays warning of birds of prey: clues that it is late spring. The next generation of Chippy Chipmunk chirps outside my window every morning at 6:15, greeting the new day.

Most importantly, I have found a good spot to read on the patio, a spot rarely used before COVID made socially distanced meetings de rigueur. Finally I can plumb the depths of the public library and work through my reading list of English language books. What better subjects are there to read about against the backdrop of a lush garden than animals and nature? Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights and Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders are both books of essays, each of which is marvelous in its own way and reflects the unique perspective of the respective author; Macdonald is a historian and naturalist while Nezhukumatathil is a poet.

In one of her essays, Macdonald writes, “Outside is a tumultuous world teeming with unexpected biological abundance, and we are standing in its midst.” That sums up how I feel looking out on this oasis my mother has created. It teems with insects, birds, mammals, and plants. This landscape deserves to be preserved in order to counteract all the environmental destruction going on today. Through the modest daily work of watering, weeding, planting, harvesting, arranging, balancing, and making space, we are shaping a future rich in beauty and biodiversity.

May you work to encourage beauty and biodiversity!

Hardy Times for the Geometry of Knitting

In my last year of high school, my English class spent a semester learning about British literature, reading Hamlet and two novels by Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Since then, I have read three more of Hardy’s novels: The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure (one of my all-time favorite books), and Far from the Madding Crowd. The last has been on my stack of books to (re)read for a long time. Two weeks ago, I picked it up and quickly became drawn into the story, reading a few chapters every evening until there were no more left. Gabriel Oak is an upright, stalwart, and patient shepherd who through a twist of fate loses his sheep and farm and must work in the service of Bathsheba Everdene, a young and independent heiress with whom Oak had fallen in love before she became a landowner. Hardy is famous for his descriptions of (lost) English country life at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. I now dream of traveling to Dorset and Cornwall and finding an antique oak settle. Long ago there was a time when reading nineteenth century British literature was my main focus. It was nice to travel back to this forgotten country and feel how its magical hold on me has not diminished.

The cheerful yarn is a shapeshifter. A row of stitches on a straight needle is subject to paired decreases in the middle and gradually curves until the remaining stitches meet at a point. Voilà: A line becomes a square. A mitered square, in knitting parlance. In carpentry, two pieces of wood joining at a 45° angle form a mitered joint. Fiber can mimic wood when it likes to. In baking, the form defines the shape of the finished pastry. Last year I made strawberry poundcake in a loaf pan. This year it was round.

Enjoy the play of shapes around you!

As Cheerful as a Rapeseed Field

Rapeseed (Brassica napus var. napus) is flowering in the fields, spreading bright yellow cheer across the land. Raps, as it is called in German, is the plant from which canola is derived. Sadly, most canola in North America has been genetically modifed to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, which the WHO has classifed as a probable human carcinogen. The plants above have neither been genetically modified nor doused in glyphosate. It is common to see fields of rapeseed throughout Austria. The color of the blossoms is so intense that it veers in the direction of neon. Yellow is one of the happiest colors.

Pinguini’s parents have been sighted in the crow’s nest tree, on the rooftop of the neighboring building and in the grass. The black crow has a distinctive patch of white feathers on its back slightly visible in this picture. Fingers crossed that another young crow or two will grow up and learn to fly this summer. From time to time, I hear the cawing of a crow that sounds like it could be a young adult Pinguini. It is perfectly plausible that s/he is still nearby. There is so much bird song and chatter from a wide range of different species at the moment. Lying on my back with my legs on the therapy ball, I can see birds flit back and forth between the tree branches.

I remain preoccupied with my knee, which the MRI revealed to be in worse shape than expected. Thankfully I have crutches adorned with large rubies to use when my knee is tired or steps are unavoidable. My physical therapist is wonderful, and the exercises she has given me are already helping. The mission: strengthen my legs.

Between work and doctor’s appointments, there has been little time for grand culinary experimentation in the past few weeks. Nonetheless, I’ve added ground flax seeds to my morning oatmeal to reduce inflammation and have been eating wholegrain rice with lentils or sautéed mixed vegetables for lunch. The first Austrian strawberries appeared a few weeks back. and I have found that sliced strawberries left to marinate in their own juices for a few hours plus a splash of balsamic vinegar go well with socca, a chickpea flour flatbread. Now I am eagerly awaiting the first rhubarb. Last year I didn’t have any at all and didn’t miss it; this year I am eagerly anticipating its tang.

A short-sleeve top I fell in love with last summer is taking shape on the needles with the teal yarn made from corn fibers. The process of making yarn from corn is similar to viscose. Right after the yarn arrived, I watched the documentary Fast Fashion on Arte. Part of the film revealed how an Indian company that promotes its viscose as green and environmentally friendly in the West actually does not protect its workers adequately and dumps wastewater full of chemicals into the local river. Pollution from the factory has caused neurological damage to the children and adults who live there. The images were so haunting that I vowed not to buy viscose or rayon or other such fibers again unless proof was available that they had been produced in a manner that did not endanger the health of others or the environment. It turns out the corn for this yarn was grown in China then spun and dyed using environmentally friendly dyes in Portugal. The dye is indeed friendly and comes off on my hands as I knit. Thankfully it is easy to wash off my hands. My needles, on the other hand, have been stained blue. The yarn and pattern seem to be a good match, and I hope that once I give it a preliminary soak, the dye will stop running.

Revel in the colors of spring and take time to smell the lilacs!

Musings After an MRI

The sickly looking magnolia is just past full bloom, more advanced than in this picture. Petals of the most precocious flowers already lie here and there across the sidewalk and grass. Each time I walk by it, I pause to admire its beautiful display. Magnolias are one of the most ancient flowering trees. Predating bees and butterflies, they coevolved with beetles, and it is thought their blossoms developed to attract these unassuming insects. Not beetles but the Beatles were in my head as I got an MRI yesterday. (Late Beatles. John Lennon vocals.) The first one in my life. I took that knee that started bothering me last year and has stubbornly refused to get completely back to normal to a new orthopedist. My reward was a 20 minute stint in the scanner. The lab technician was a younger man, his accent indicating his Slavic origins and his coloring making me guess a Czech or Pole. No longer an imperial capital, Vienna nevertheless continues to attract people from the former Hapsburg Empire. He got my leg mobilized, set headphones on my ears to protect me from the noise, and gave me the rubber ball to squeeze if I needed anything. I had hoped my head wouldn’t have to go into the tube, but I’m short and my head was at least partially in the tube. I shut my eyes, placed my left hand on my heart and my right hand on my solar plexus, breathed deeply, and directed my mind elsewhere. Because an MRI works with magentic fields, you can’t have metal anywhere on your body. There was a list in the dressing room. About halfway through, I thought: What about my amalgam fillings? I figured the worst thing that could happen is that my fillings would melt in my mouth, leaving me with a mouthful of mercury. Since this hadn’t happened halfway through, the chances were high that it wouldn’t happen in the remaining time.

The loud noises from the machine were something. They reminded me of the noises from games at a video arcade or the golden age of synthesizers. (Yes, that dates me. When did video arcades disappear? The last one I can remember was at the UW Madison student union in the mid to late nineties.) Who on earth developed this machine? Someone with a penchant for science fiction? On a side note, this is not a dementia-friendly technology. I would go so far to say that securing part of the body of a person with dementia, inserting them into a tube where the space between their face and the tube is less than one foot, and telling them not to move for 20 to 30 minutes is a form of torture. People with dementia gradually lose their sense of time and short-term memory. Imagine the horror of realizing every minute or so that you are trapped in a tube with just a few inches above your face and you can’t remember why you are there. Add to that all these loud clanking noises in the background that make the experience like being caught in a bad video game. You might even forget that the technician said to squeeze the rubber ball in your hand if you have any difficulties. Thankfully my experience was not panic inducing in the least. To end on a lighter note, the sight of this pale yellow organic cotton yarn makes me instantly cheerful. The color screams SPRING!

Stay healthy and don’t put off any examinations that you need!

April’s Little Ice Age

The calendar says April 16. The trees are blossoming and budding. The sun rises just after 6 AM and sets just before 8 PM. Then why was it necessary to wear my winter duffle coat and alpaca beret on my walk yesterday? Today it looked so miserable that I didn’t even bother going outside and just kept on working. The annual explosion of green hasn’t happened yet, though now it looks slightly more green than brown outside – a welcome development. The forsythia bushes are still boldly yellow, and many a tree is delicately white or pink. The buds on the sickly magnolia have started to open. Thankfully the color can be enjoyed from indoors.

For Easter, I baked a schiacciata di Pasqua, a Tuscan sweet bread flavored with anise seed. The recipe said it gets better as it ages. If better means dryer, that is correct. When I first came to Austria, I didn’t understand the fuss about Carinthian Reindling, which is supposed to improve in flavor over time. It simply tasted dry. Maybe after the privations of Lent, anything with butter and eggs tastes good. While I didn’t end up sticking entirely to my Lenten fast, my sugar consumption went down enough that I realized how much better I feel when I don’t consume sugar. It also became clear how sensitive I have become to caffeine. An ounce of dark chocolate in the afternoon is enough to keep me from falling asleep. I haven’t had an espresso since the outdoor seating at my local cafe stopped in September, so chocolate has replaced coffee as my only source of caffeine. My body often craves it when my brain is hard at work. This article made me want to curtail my chocolate consumption because the last thing I want to do is contribute to more deforestation. Everything we consume has environmental repercussions.

That applies to textiles too. Over Easter, I swapped my winter for summer clothes and started to tackle the problem of how to better store knit scarves, hats, and sweaters. It was sobering to see the volume of scarves and shawls that I do not wear. There were also sweaters that I didn’t wear at all this winter, but that is purely because it was COVID Winter 1. What I do wear every day are comfortable organic cotton pants sold as pajama bottoms. Many people not accustomed to being at home all the time have taken to living in them as a result of the pandemic. All but one pair are showing wear and living on borrowed time. Yesterday a blue pair with a subdued leaf pattern from an Austrian company arrived in the mail.

When the weather finally warms up, I will debut a pullover in the raspberry cotton-linen mentioned two posts ago. Last summer I knit a linen pullover following the same pattern, and it fit so well that I decided to make a second one. This yarn is heavier than the linen. The bottom edge needs a blocking so it behaves, but otherwise I am very happy with it. The project flew off the needles. What isn’t flying off the needles because there are so many stitches in each round is a laceweight shell top featuring a border that reminds me of shells. The designer finds it looks like a swallow’s tail. Perhaps as the pattern emerges, it will remind me of birds too and start flapping its wings.

May you have good weather to enjoy the show of colors outside!

When the Easter Hare Makes the Ground Shake

On a walk earlier this week, KA and I were amused by the abundance of hares we saw in the fields. One in particular did not appear afraid of us at all and only hopped away from the puddle in the middle of the path where it had been drinking at the last minute. The area where we like to go walking is in the countryside just outside of Vienna. The land is halfway between the Wienerwald forest and the Danube River in the Tulln Basin. The fields are small with hedgerows where animals can take shelter.  We always see birds and at least one mammal – deer, hare, mice, fox – if not several. That is why I was surprised to read this morning that the European brown hare (Lepus europaeus) population in Austria has declined since the 1960s and that most hares have chronic diarrhea. Hares are an indicator species, meaning their health serves as a good measure of environmental conditions in a given area. One hypothesis is that chemicals from agriculture and plastics could be affecting the hare population. A recent study found microplastics in the feces, intestines, and lymph nodes of dead hares as well as chemicals that are thought to have an impact on hormones and thus fertility. I hope that the large number of hares in the fields where we walk mean that there are fewer chemicals sprayed there than in other agricultural areas.

It is that time of the year where changes in vegetation are visible every day. The forsythias are all in bloom, and their yellow is being joined by white and pink blossoms on all kinds of trees and bushes whose names I do not know. No matter – the colors still lift my spirits. I can’t believe how long the days are. There is better light to work on delicate stitchwork like this eye of partridge heel on socks for one lucky blog reader.

After weeks of neglect, the navy jacket is blocked and ready for use as my walking jacket. I have given up on buying buttons any time soon since that is something that needs to be done in person. The third lockdown is supposed to be over on April 11, but I doubt that will be the case. My guess is that the wool jacket will be folded up and put away for the summer, buttonless. Add button shopping to the list of post-vaccination pleasures to look forward to.

What requires no buttons and is ready for warmer weather: the seamed tank top. Setting up the laundry rack next to the window and spreading the pieces of the tank top out on top of a towel, I took my time and carefully seamed the pieces together in the sunshine. It is satisfying to know what to do. With my simple, light linen top, I am ready for hot summer days.

This week wasn’t just about hares and knitting. On Tuesday, I was sitting at the computer, both feet on the floor, when I felt a long vibration through my legs and the chair as if someone had dropped something very heavy – say a piano or another large piece of furniture – onto the floor in another room. It lasted a few seconds, then stopped. At the same time, I heard a few dogs barking outside through the open window. My first thought was: This is probably what an earthquake feels like. Since nothing further happened, I continued what I was doing. It turned out that it was indeed an earthquake – 4.6 on the Richter scale and the strongest earthquake to shake the Vienna Basin in twenty years. The epicenter was by Neunkirchen in the province of Lower Austria, which is about 65 km south of Vienna. The quake was felt in Vienna and across the border in Slovakia. Because it occurred 10 kilometers down, there was less damage than if its source had been closer to the surface. ZAMG, the official Austrian meteorological agency, warned that there could be aftershocks in the next two weeks. I read this morning that a 2.5 aftershock occurred last night about fifteen minutes after I went to bed. That one didn’t make waves as far as Vienna. Having always been fascinated by extreme weather and geophysical phenomena, I must admit it was exciting to have finally experienced an earthquake. Thankfully there was not much damage from either the earthquake or its aftershock.

Have a happy Easter and enjoy the color of blossoming trees!

Things That Came in the Mail

The weather has gone from cloudy, cold, and wintry to sunny, warm, and springlike in no time at all. Good walking weather is finally upon us – just in time for another complete lockdown in the eastern part of Austria that will start next Thursday. Hospitals are already full and there is nothing being done yet to keep the third wave from crashing over us and dragging too many people unnecessarily out to sea. The British variant, which is more infectious and has a higher mortality rate, has taken over and made itself comfortable. No vaccines in sight yet for KA, who will qualify for one before me, until at least June. I am trying to reduce my news consumption because all it does is frustrate me: politicians who put money before health, ignore science, and then blame other parties/entities/individuals when things go awry. More and more family and friends in the U.S. are fully or partially vaccinated and facing the possibility that life might be able to be enjoyed in the company of others soon. That is not going to happen here for months. At least the post office is doing its job and interesting things keep coming in the mail.

Just in time for the spring weather, some crisp sand-colored linen and soft teal yarn made from corn arrived to join a raspberry cotton-linen blend received as a birthday present last fall. My new approach to matching patterns and yarns is to keep a list of patterns I like, then swatch yarn that comes my way and see which yarn intersects well with a pattern. This has helped me make matches I hadn’t thought of before. Based on the mini-swatches above, I have settled on projects for two of these three yarns. Yet gauge is just one element to consider when picking out a pattern. In the process of swatching, the characteristics of the yarn start to reveal themselves. There is surely someone who has theorized on different approaches to knitting and come up with terminology for this, but I think of this as working more yarn-centered than pattern-centered: The yarn dictates what it wants to become. Pattern-centered knitting would be what I used to do: I wanted to knit a specific pattern and then chose a yarn based on its color/gauge/weight without working with the yarn at all prior to casting on the project. Now I am more interested in letting the material guide the way and asking: What would look nice in this particular yarn?

The contents of the yarn package were without any surprises except that the corn yarn was teal rather than navy, one of the pitfalls of ordering yarn online being that the colors can be radically different in real life. The contents of the package above, on the other hand, were completely unexpected: vegan bean-to-bar chocolate and a hazelnut spread that promises to be a type of high-end Nutella. When I finally open it, I will spread it on sleepy spelt bread fresh out of the oven.

The most entertaining piece of mail award goes to the “What’s Your Pasta IQ?” quiz that came this week. How did I score? 19 out of 20 points. According to the key, I am “Awesome Sauce” and a “pasta-making and pasta-eating pro.” The one question that tripped me up was a multiple choice question on what the traditional way is to add eggs to flour when making fresh pasta. I rarely make fresh pasta, and when I do, I don’t use eggs except to make ricotta gnocchi, so I guessed and chose the response to add each egg one at a time. The correct answer is to make a well in the center of the flour and add all the eggs at once. So there you have it. I also made some correct guesses – what a relief to have correctly distinguished radiatore from rotelle! – and learned something new in the process. The Barilla pasta company invented cavatappi, or what I call “squiggles.” KA and I ate a ton of squiggles with feta cheese and thyme last spring. I will always associate that dish with the early months of the pandemic.

The pasta quiz came in this lovely card with a Monarch butterfly. I am worried about these beauties, whose population has dropped by a quarter in 2020. Readers in North America, please do not use pesticides on your lawn. Plant millkweed and other butterfly-friendly plants in your yards and fight deforestation. Read more about how to provide a habitat for these migrating wonders so future generations will also learn how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly by observing a real Monarch.

May you receive something delightful in the mail!

Soup Linen Horizon

Yesterday I paged through my copy of Love Soup by Anna Thomas, searching for soup ideas. KA and I enjoy vegetable soup as a light evening meal, sometimes with pasta thrown in, lately with sourdough whole wheat pita bread. Last night I made Carrot, Orange, and Ginger Soup minus the orange and celery. If you think you are coming down with a respiratory illness, this is the soup to make. The back of my throat was abuzz with the healing warmth of ginger just a few spoonfuls in. The soup was accompanied by whole wheat pita bread. I have figured out how to adapt the pita bread recipe so I can use the sourdough starter: reduce the amount of water to accommodate the fluid nature of the starter.

My love of soup developed as an adult. I don’t remember eating soup at all as a child, but then I was a very picky eater. When I attended college in Madison, Wisconsin, one of my favorite places for a nourishing lunch was Amy’s Cafe just off State Street on W. Gilman. I always got the same thing: cheese and broccoli soup with a baguette. Occasionally I ordered a Greek salad as well. When I finally extricated myself from Madison and went to Warsaw, Poland, to teach English, I found myself in a country where every meal seemed to start with soup. And my close relationship with soup has continued from there. Soup warms you from the inside. It also hydrates you more subtly than drinking glass upon glass of water. The simplicity of tossing indefinite amounts of ingredients into a large pot of boiling water, simmering the concoction over a flame until everything blends together and is transformed, then ladling the elixir into round receptacles – how long have humans been doing this?

Along with soup, linen garments have also accompanied humans for over thousands of years. I have started my 2021 knitting with linen exploration by making a tank top from reclaimed yarn. I had two Euroflax linen market bags lying around that I didn’t use anymore because I had knitted a replacement in blue that matched better. (Yes, I am the sort of person who prefers to use market bags that match my clothing.) The advantage of working with linen that has already been knit, used, and washed is that it has softened and relaxed. Though I normally prefer to knit in the round and avoid seaming, I am intentionally making a seamed tank top. What I have previously learned from linen is that my gauge in the round differs one needle size from my gauge working flat. I want this first project to be simple: one needle, a front and a back, two seams, stockinette stitch with no frills. The length in the pattern is shorter than what I want, so I measured the length of a tank top that fits well to determine how long to knit from the hem to the armholes. I have about two inches to go on the back before I can start the armhole decreases.

What I keep running out of space to write about is the current book I am reading, Horizon by the late Barry Lopez. In one word: amazing. It deserves more attention than I will give it today. The book is a memoir of journeys to landscapes I will never experience in person: Ellesmere Island, the Galápagos islands, Lake Turkana. But Barry was there, even multiple times, and he reports on what he experienced there and how it changed him. If you are from the west and loved traveling until COVID-19 pulled the emergency brake, he is an elder whose stories and writing contain wisdom gleaned over a lifetime that will help you navigate the uncertain future of this battered earth.

May a tasty bowl of soup nourish your body and an intriguing book expand your mind!

Bird and Bread Both Start with B

This week many writers in blogville have looked back contemplatively on one year of the pandemic. Yes, it was a year ago that the yeast hoarding started. And it was a year ago that I cultivated a sourdough starter that became many a delicious sourdough pancake but nary a loaf of bread. A few weeks ago, I thought this spring might be a good time to work on mastering the art of simple unleavened flatbreads like chappati and tortilla. I even made chappati in the oven twice. But then I found myself playing with yeast again, and lo and behold, there is now a sourdough starter on the kitchen counter.

It started with a recipe for Sleepy Spelt Bread. I was intrigued by how the recipe uses a fraction of the fresh yeast I normally use – 8 grams instead of a 42 gram cube. Warm water is not required for this cold fermentation loaf, and the dough rises slowly overnight while you sleep. Since spelt does not hold its shape like wheat, I added some white wheat flour to the mix to give it more structure. I was amazed by how great the flavor and the crumb were. Before I baked the loaf, something compelled me to save a bit of the dough, add equal parts of water and rye flour, and make a sourdough starter. The rye flour is the last of the flour I stockpiled last spring and needs to be used up. I am not a fan of pure rye, but judiciously mixed with wheat it adds a nice flavor, plus rye sourdough starters are reputed to be easier to tend. My intention is to feed the starter with rye and then use wheat and/or spelt flour in larger amounts when I bake.

So now I find myself back to tending a starter, with the difference that this year I am not interested in pancakes and I plan on working that starter hard. I tried the Sleepy Spelt Bread recipe a second time using the starter and 100% spelt flour. The dough rose very nicely but spread out like pizza dough in the pan. The next time I try the recipe, I will use half wheat and half spelt flour and see what the effect is on the shape of the loaf. I still haven’t given up on smaller flatbreads. While looking for recipe inspiration in my cookbooks, I came across a recipe for pita bread in Vegane Köstlichkeiten – libanesisch by Abla Maalouf-Tamer that uses dry yeast. This morning I mixed together the dough using whole wheat flour and my starter instead of dry yeast. The dough has been rising slowly on the kitchen counter all day and will be baked to accompany a spring soup for dinner tonight.

As I finish preparing dinner, it will most likely be around 6:15 PM, the hour of avian evensong. Since noticing it about a week ago, I’ve tried to listen every evening. There is a bird that strikes up a chorus and chirrups away as the light disappears from the sky. It was also a year ago that birdsong became amplified as human noise sank precipitously. Many Austrians are frustrated that the opera houses, theaters, and other performance venues are still closed because of COVID. I recommend they tune in to the myriad free performances going on every day outside their homes. Opera can’t hold a candle to birdsong.

In the morning, the woodpeckers are hard at work. When I hear loud drilling through the closed window, I take a screen break and scan the trees for the noisy bird. Most of the time I can’t see anything. Today I was excited to spy this great spotted woodpecker. The green woodpecker often stops by as well.

At the end of February, I was sad because my rooks left without saying goodbye. I expected their departure, but the courtyard was shockingly empty without them. In the meantime, other birds have moved into the space the rooks vacated. KA and I have also caught a crow examining last year’s nest and cawing away on the branch below. It’s time to read up on crow behavior regarding courting and egg laying.

May you enjoy the avian evensong near you!

If I Were a Rich Crow

If I were a rich crow, I would have more time to blog. Instead of staring at a computer screen, I would spend more time gazing out the window and identifying birds in the trees and make a dent on that stack of books. I would order fine, exotic yarn from points abroad and bring more objects of beauty into the world. And when travel becomes easier, I would start exploring again, first working my way around Italy, seeking out good trattorias and ancient sites, and then island hopping in the Mediterranean.

This morning I read that there is a woodpecker count going on in Vienna. You can participate by sending in information on where you spot woodpeckers in the city. Nine of the ten different woodpecker species found in Austria are found in Vienna. Three are ones KA and I see regularly: the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major, shown above), the Eurasian green woodpecker (Picus viridis), and the black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius). The others are the middle spotted woodpecker (Leiopicus medius), the lesser spotted woodpecker (Dryobates minor), the Syrian woodpecker (Dendrocopos syriacus), the white-backed woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos), the grey-faced woodpecker (Picus canus), and the Eurasian wryneck (Jynx torquilla). Even if you don’t understand German, the site I linked to above has descriptions with good pictures and sound files.

It is not just woodpeckers that are out and about: an unfamiliar bird conveniently landed in the bush right just as I was attempting to take a picture of a blackbird. After consulting my Austrian bird field guide, I decided it was a fieldfare (Wacholderdrossel, or Turdus pilaris). This handsome bird winters in Austria from October to April and then flies north. Once I read the entry on the fieldfare, I remembered that I had seen a flock of them outside the apartment shortly after I moved to Vienna.

Piggy backing on the brown of the fieldfare’s wings, let’s shift to the warm earth tones of the second pair of Cesena socks, the first sock of which is nearly done. For those readers who have frequently knit socks with self-striping yarn, what is with the incredibly wide pumpkin stripe? Did someone make a mistake at the yarn dying plant – maybe taking a longer coffee break and forgetting to switch to the next color? Note the garter stitch heel.

The sock has taken so long because a few weeks ago I became distracted with thoughts of spring and summer, setting aside wool and reaching for linen and cotton. A few summers ago, I knit a linen bag that I had hoped would become my primary summer tote bag. My intention was to line it with linen fabric. Since I have no experience with sewing linings (or sewing much of anything except buttons and seaming sweaters), a friend who can sew offered to show me how to make a lining. Unfortunately, she didn’t end up having enough time, and both the bag and the linen fabric were packed away out of sight, out of mind. Last spring I knit a linen bag from a different pattern to use up a skein of yarn I shouldn’t have bought. The design was very practical, but the color didn’t match most of my summer clothing. I decided that I would knit a second one in a better color. That is what you see below. I raveled the first linen bag and knit another bag following last summer’s pattern. I don’t plan on lining it. The linen is Quince and Co’s Kestrel in the color Quill, a thick ribbon yarn that should hold up well.

The other distracting project was the cotton tweed cowl, which is now finished. Once again, I knit a familiar pattern in a color that matches my wardrobe better Longer and narrower than the first one, the cowl should also fit better. Whereas this winter was devoted to socks, this spring and summer I would like to seek out different brands of linen yarn and become proficient in the ins and outs of knitting with linen. As the climate changes, garments in cooling fibers such as linen, hemp, and nettle will provide relief and should be worn more frequently in these latitudes. These fibers have different characteristics than wool and alpaca. I’m happy to have found a clear knitting focus for the next part of the year and look forward to experimenting with plant fibers.

May you find a good focus for the upcoming months and enjoy the birdsong of spring!