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Category: Books

Linen Lessons

Greetings from the parallel universe of Vienna, where COVID-19 appears to be beating a retreat and things are slowly getting back to normal – plus those masks and minus any travel outside of Austria. The horse chestnut trees are in full bloom, branches and leaves rustling in the wind. It’s cool outside, and as much as I would like to let the fresh air in, a chill comes along for the ride too, so the windows have had to be shut. Today it is still wool weather, but by the weekend, linen may be welcome.

I was so pleased with the pigeon v-neck after I tried on the body. It would be loose and roomy but who wants a skintight pullover on a hot summer day? The neckline also turned out quite nicely, and I like the eyelet detail. Things fell apart when I finished the first sleeve. When I tried it on, the sleeve was too short and more importantly too tight. The proportions were jarring: loose billowy body plus fitted sleeves. Either everything should be close fitting, or everything should be loose; this is not a maternity sweater. (And while I am on my soapbox, I do not find that A-line tops flatter all women.)

It became clear I needed to frog and start over. My frustration was incredible since I have already tried out three or four different projects with this beautiful yarn: Sparrow. I love the color and struggle with how it is taking forever to find the right pattern. The silver lining: the linen has started to soften from being handled so often. I also know how it looks at different gauges because I have tried with U.S. sizes 3, 4, and 6. I was quite upset over the weekend. But all emotional drama eventually subsides. When it did, the only thing to do was to start over again. Now I am using a pattern I tried knitting years ago in cotton but abandoned when the armholes became too batwing for my taste. The chest circumference is smaller than that of the previous pattern and there are instructions for long sleeves, so I hope it will fit better and be more my style. I plan on incorporating eyelet rounds too.

It is common to need two different needle sizes when you knit with linen – one for knitting back and forth and one for knitting in the round. I knew this when I knit the red linen tee a few weeks ago, but I didn’t have the right circular needle so there is an abrupt change in gauge that looks like a design element (I hope). Pigeon v-neck 2.0 looks good so far. I started on a size 6 for the v-neck section and switched to a 7 when I joined to knit in the round. A part of me doesn’t like the looser gauge of this pattern, but I contradict myself: a week or so ago in a moment of weakness, I cast on for a crewneck sweater in laceweight linen. That sweater – should I complete it – will definitely have a loose gauge.

Linen starts out crisp then softens as it is used and washed, becoming better with age. Isn’t that a good image for how we are as human beings? We start out crisp, perhaps with rigid ways of seeing the world and great expectations. We peak physically some time in early adulthood, and then it’s on to worrying about skin, sarcopenia, and bone loss. As we become more experienced and go through the wringer of life, we soften and become less judgemental and more understanding of others. We eventually realize that there is more we don’t know than know and appreciate all gentleness and kindness that comes our way.

The grass just got cut and the starlings appeared shortly afterwards, looking for a snack. Many people do not like starlings, especially in the US where they are a non-native and invasive species. Yet they sing beautifully, as I have recently discovered by listening to them outside my window. When Mozart lived in Vienna, he had a pet starling. If you’re interested in a good story, check out Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book Mozart’s Starling or this article on why we should learn to live alongside these underappreciated birds.

Wishing you a soft and gentle week with birdsong!

COVID Chronicles 7: Baking Alchemy

Maybe it’s easier to stay at home if you frame it as baking bread. For the recipe to turn out delicious, the dough must rest. But it’s not really resting. Critical chemical processes are at work below the surface. Bubbles form and burst, nudging the dough to grow and expand until it doubles in size. The ancient alchemists sought to transform “base” metals like lead into “noble” metals like gold. Modern cooks seek to change basic staples into tasty concoctions: flour, water, and salt into bread; flour, sugar, water, eggs, butter, raisins, and cherries into cake. After it emerges from the crucible of the oven, the end product is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

Commonly grown in Austria and Germany, spelt (Triticum spelta) is an ancient form of wheat derived from emmer and goat grass that is higher in protein than wheat. Its flour is readily available in supermarkets here, and many claim it is easier to digest than standard wheat. The raisin-cherry Gugelhupf above is made with wholemeal spelt flour, as is the loaf below. Paging through my kitchen notebook, I found a spelt loaf recipe that I made a few times and liked. The recipe does not call for 100% wholegrain flour, but that is what I used, upping the amount of water by 30 ml. The loaf turned out moist, dense, and rich in flavor. I have been toasting it and slathering it with white bean spread for breakfast. I’ll also use it to make Welsh rarebit (cheddar and beer sauce).

Simple Dinkelbrot: Dissolve 1 package of dry yeast or one cube of fresh yeast (42 grams) in 300 ml lukewarm water. Stir in 500 grams spelt flour. Let it rise one hour. Knead briefly and put in a baking tin or loaf pan. Let it rise one more hour. Preheat the oven to 170° C/340° F. Bake 40 minutes.

Two more chapters to go, then I will have reached the end of my journey through Germany from 1919 to 1939. I have my neighborhood bookseller to thank for the discovery of Julia Boyd’s enthralling Travellers in the Third Reich. It chronologically pieces together descriptions of the Germans and Germany found in the letters, diaries, and other writings of English-speaking foreigners who spent time in Germany between the first and second world wars. Samuel Beckett and Virigina Woolf were there, as were Charles Lindbergh, W.E.B. Du Bois, Diana and Unity Mitford (Check out The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovellfor another good read that encompasses all the political turmoil of the first half of the twentieth century and then some within one family.), and many others. Boyd has also written books on Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a degree from a medical college; the expat community in Beijing at the beginning of the 20th century; and Hannah Riddell, an Englishwoman who went to Japan as a missionary and became an advocate for lepers at the end of the 19th century. They all sound interesting and have been added to my booklist.

There have been two failed attempts to pick up the stitches around the v-neck of the cranberry pullover – apparently it’s not the right moment yet. The pigeon blue linen v-neck continues to grow. It is delightful to see the yarn coming out of the felted project bag I made while stashbusting last year.

May you experience an alchemical transformation while staying in place!

Early Spring Flowers Bring…

Primroses are flowers that exhibit radial symmetry. That means they have three or more identical parts arranged around a central point. I learned this reading The Rose’s Kiss: A Natural History of Flowers by Peter Bernhardt. My personal subtitle: everything you ever wanted to know about flowers and even more. It is very well written but dense; I must confess my eyes frequently glazed over in the several chapters that went into great detail on the pollinators responsible for the dazzling display of color and scent that flowers provide. I am still working on absorbing the information from chapter one, still struggling to remember the names of all the different parts of flowers.

Snowdrops also exhibit radial symmetry. They were mentioned in the chapter that described the four classes of pigments in flowers from which all colors are derived: chlorophyll (green), carotenoid (gold), betalain (yellow-purple-red), and flavenoid (blues). Apparently snowdrops have green dots and flecks. I’ll have to look at them closer the next time I walk by.

Like we humans, these deer do not exhibit radial symmetry. I was excited to see them yesterday. Not because I am a fan of deer. Seeing the deer in Lainzer Tiergarten meant that I was able to walk normally again. For most of the past two weeks, I have been plagued by a stiff and swollen knee that limited my range of motion in novel ways. Visits to two doctors did not clarify what the problem was, but my self-imposed regimen of comfrey salve, qi gong, gentle yoga exercises, massage, and rest plus a dash of patience seems to have done the trick. The swelling is gone and I can move the joint freely again. How odd that this problem arose at the end of a week of sitting at the computer. I have survived over four decades of movement – including gymnastics, ballet, yoga, and tango – with seldom an ache or pain. This just confirms that sitting is unhealthy – and that move it or lose it is a good motto. So besides walking, I’ll keep turning the pages of Paolo Rumiz’s Morimondo, the story of his journey by canoe down the Po River in Italy. I’ll keep throwing that yarn on the final piece of the grey cardigan, which will exhibit bilateral symmetry – but that is another story.

Keep moving and admiring the flowers!

Entering February

At first I wondered if it had been a good idea to get the hand painted skein of 50% wool/50% silk. But as the shawlette grew, I liked it more and more. This week I finally blocked it and love the result. It looks so nice that I am waiting for a special occasion to debut it. I love the stitch pattern and am curious what it is called. I am not sure if it is a variation on cat’s paw, which I think has six holes in a circle instead of eight, or if it is something else entirely. Do any knitters reading this know what the stitch pattern is called?

Recently I wrote how I rarely read fiction anymore. Rarely, but not never. The outbreak of coronavirus made me dig out my hand-me-down copy of Albert Camus’s The Plague, a book I discovered in my late teens. If I remember correctly, it was among the French books my oldest cousin passed down to me. The book has followed me from apartment to apartment, surviving a major cull of books made a few years ago. I am probably not the only reader whose sympathy has shifted from the journalist Rambert to the doctor Rieux over the course of moving from young adulthood to middle age. Like a good classic, the book is about many things: an ordinary city facing an outbreak of the plague, being separated from a loved one, the disruption of the rhythms of everyday life by events beyond one’s control, the importance of those same rhythms in giving life meaning, the difficulty of dealing with death. I am halfway through this rereading and am thoroughly enjoying settling into the reading chair and sinking into the story.

KA thought cake would taste good and liked the idea of lemon again. As I am trying to avoid butter, I pulled out an old recipe, one copied onto a note card about 20 years ago that I haven’t made in maybe just as long a time. This one is sans butter. I threw in some poppy seed for fun. Since I couldn’t remember which of the lemons were organic and which were not, I didn’t add grated lemon peel. That was a mistake. It tastes fresh but not lemony, like wearing clothes that fit your body perfectly but that are all the same neutral color with no accent color to jazz things up. It is a good basic recipe that I plan on playing with in the future. Sour cherries and chocolate chunks, cinnamon and raisins, plums and poppy seed are a few possible variations.

Stay healthy and happy February!

First Viennaversary

I have been an official resident of Vienna, the city of rooks, for just over a year now. How could I possibly feel lonely in winter when more often than not, a gang of my friends are hanging out in the trees, pecking at the branches or scouring the ground for something tasty to eat? Sometimes they are joined by a lone hooded crow (Corvus cornix) – like when I can’t resist and toss peanuts out the window. Peanuts are their favorite. There is an older gentleman who saves up bread crumbs and shakes them out next to the sidewalk for the birds. The rooks will eat them, but if peanuts are also available, guess what disappears first.

The Keeper of the Amaryllis (henceforth KA) forgot he had received a box of Christmas cookies a month ago. When the box of stale Weihnachtskekse surfaced the other day, it seemed better to offer them to the birds instead of tossing them in the garbage. The vanilla crescents were snapped up but not as enthusiastically as – you guessed it – peanuts. More popular were the ball cookies. Yesterday a rook went to town on one for a good five minutes, beak like a jackhammer, breaking it apart and greedily gulping down the crumbs. I tossed another one out today and it was gone within thirty seconds. A rook picked it up and flew off. Was it the same one?

There is a rook couple that always share what they find with each other, but the cookie rook was not one of them and defended his/her catch. It is very difficult to tell the rooks apart. There is one I see from time to time with grey feathers on the left side of the rump, but otherwise they all look the same. It’s their behavior that sets certain birds apart. I am starting to think that the bird on the branch above is coming back repeatedly, staring at my window, and waiting for food. They are highly intelligent and can tell people apart. Two good books on the intelligence of the corvid family are Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays by Candace Savage and In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John Marzluff and Tony Angell. The first has gorgeous pictures and succinct descriptions of birds in both North America and Europe. The second has more thorough descriptions of research mainly on the American Crow but also on the Common Raven, which is widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

Besides rookwatching and a whole lot of work, there was cake this week. During the holidays, there is always a point when I can’t stomach any more fat or sugar. This is the final recipe from Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles that I was interested in trying out but didn’t get around to at Christmas: Orange Poppy Seed Cake. My version substituted a second lemon for the orange and didn’t attempt the confit. I poked holes in the top of the cake and poured fresh lemon juice in them. The best pieces were in the middle where the most lemon juice pooled. It was tasty, but I have had enough butter now to last until crepes for Mardi Gras.

Happy birdwatching!

Peak Coziness

It was slow in coming, but winter has finally arrived. There was a great storm last Saturday. The amount of snow it left was pretty but unimpressive – a mere two inches. What gave pause was the wind. I was witness to the waters of Lake Michigan covering the sidewalk around the harbor, churned up by wind gusts.

The water level is at an all time high. Parts of the dunes have disappeared, and yet another house on the shore was deemed uninhabitable because it might collapse into the lake. As I watched the waves crash over the sidewalk and nearly lap the building I was in, I couldn’t help but think of video footage I have seen of tsunamis and hurricane storm surge. Water flowing where it normally doesn’t, where we feel it shouldn’t be.

One of my favorite pastimes in December and January is watching the sky before sunrise. No day is the same as the next. I witnessed quite a few good performances. The best ones, of course, can’t be captured on film.

It’s hard to believe that the winter solstice was nearly a month ago. That we are nearly three weeks into 2020. That I am back in Vienna already, and that it is actually snowing here too.

The Advent shawl blocked up beautifully and keeps me warm as I type these lines. Outside it may be cold and damp or snowy and windy; inside peak coziness reigns. Grab a blanket, a book, some yarn and needles. Sit in a comfortable spot near a good source of heat like a pellet stove. Ingest vegetable soup at least once a day. Dream of what would be nice to do when the weather is nice again. Repeat for at least six more weeks.

While browsing through the small independent bookstore in my neighborhood yesterday, I saw that Robert Macfarlane’s Underland has been translated into German (Im Unterland). It was one of the best books of 2019 that I have read. Three others (in no particular order) are Lost Feast by Lenore Newman, The Slow Moon Climbs by Susan P. Mattern, and Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl. Despite having studied literature, I rarely read fiction anymore. Reading about the world as it is is plenty interesting. There is so much to discover.

Wishing you color and coziness!

Indecision in Blue


October is blue yarn month by personal decree. Look closely at bowl and you’ll see a silvery blue merino/silk cowl that shimmers in the light and spiral socks for a friend who looks radiant in teal. And then there is the indigo alpaca, a serendipitous find on the sale rack, which is earmarked for a cuddly warm sweater for me. Pullover or cardigan? That is the question. The gauge is no help because it is spot on for both of the patterns under consideration.

I have been trying but not always succeeding in buying yarn for specific patterns. Yet it’s not just about the pattern, and the luxurious texture and deep color of this yarn were irresistible. In my knitting file there is a pullover pattern saved from a magazine six years ago; I justified buying the yarn to knit the pattern. But then I found a pattern for a cardigan that would match nearly all my fall and winter long sleeved shirts. My hope was that by the time I settled down to start the sweater, a clear sign or intuition would have tipped the scales one way or the other. Well, last night I had a dream about yarn. It was about a skein of blue and white 100% Portuguese wool sock yarn spied in a yarn store a few doors down from where I recently took a shibori workshop. How should I interpret that?

Shibori is a Japanese technique for dyeing fabric by binding or tying it so that the dye does not penetrate the entire cloth. The result: an infinity of patterns. Though indigo is traditionally used, the workshop made use of synthetic dye. Still, it was interesting to try my hand at dyeing and see the patterns that emerged. The artist conducting the workshop complimented me on “my” patterns. This is odd, because what is there of “me” in the cloth samples that remain? The real work was done by the dye, wasn’t it?

I have had indigo on the brain since I read Catherine E. McKinley’s Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World this summer. McKinley spent time in Africa on the trail of cloth traditionally dyed with indigo. Along the way, she learned that a respectable woman has cloth, which is second only to children in importance and even more valuable than land. What most people don’t know is that indigo-dyed cotton cloth was part of the transatlantic slave trade, leading American abolitionists and Quakers to boycott indigo and cotton cloths.

Cotton still remains a controversial fiber today. Its cultivation has led to the disappearance of the Aral Sea, which I first learned about in Tom Bissell’s excellent Chasing the Sea. Buying organic cotton is better than buying conventionally produced cotton, but it is still a thirstier plant than linen or hemp. Like many people today, I am trying to be more deliberate in my choices of what clothes to buy and make, going for fewer, high quality items that I can mix and match. That is one reason my choice of pullover or cardigan is such a strategic decision. In the meantime, the spiral socks are finished and there is no danger of cold feet.

May it be easy to make any decisions you face!

April Braid

A cold clouds my mind. I puzzled a few days over how to tie together pictures and thoughts into a coherent blog entry. How about braiding together three strands of my preoccupations in April: baking bread, knitting neck warmers, and walking in the woods?

The leftover wool wrap in brioche stitch is finally done and protecting my neck and shoulders as I write. It was a good exercise to improvise a pattern, to go through the steps of envisioning what I wanted, researching and learning a new technique (two color brioche), and bringing this vision to life. It had been months since I last made a garment for myself. This is one I will get a lot of use out of; I have already worn it every day since finishing it. Along with one blue sock, my knitting bowl now holds yarn for two cowls – one thick, one thin – that will match most of my spring wardrobe.

It is finally warm enough to open the windows and let in fresh air. Despite my cold, I have gotten out walking every day and can’t get enough of the sunshine and milder temperatures. Tuesday I visited St. Radegund again, my favorite forest near Graz. It has been weeks since I was last there. Fresh air, sunshine, a circling kestrel, eight deer. I am learning a lot about the forest in Germany and Austria from Peter Wohlleben‘s book Der Wald: Eine Entdeckungsreise (The Forest: A Journey of Discovery). Over the course of his career as a forester in Germany, Wohlleben has turned his back on practices he learned during his training and is attempting to forge a more sustainable forestry practice by moving away from the status quo of spruce and pine monoculture (spruce and pine being trees common to the taiga further north) to the restoration of the beech forests that originally covered Central Europe.

One great obstacle to the restoration of beech forests is the overpopulation of deer brought about by the absence of natural predators (wolves and lynx) and their protection by hunters. Yes, you read that correctly. Hunters want their hunting grounds to be full of deer, so they feed them. Yet they do not kill enough deer to keep the population in check. Instead of a sustainable density of one deer per square kilometer, the density today is more like 40 to 50 deer. The result: the deer eat up the young deciduous trees. More deer also means more ticks and thus more Lyme disease. Lots of questions about “my” forest in Radegund are forming as I read this book. Since it is in the Alps, I wonder to what extent the spruce and pine there are native – where the beech forest ended and the conifer forest of the Alps began. There is so much to learn about trees.

There is a lot to learn about baking bread too. Since I will soon be on the other side of the Atlantic for some time, I am putting off working with a sourdough starter. Inspired by Fanatic Cook’s recent no-knead whole wheat bread experiment, I have made two loaves with yeast and long fermentation (40 hours plus) that have turned out tasty. Since I don’t have a special pot for bread, I have just plopped the dough into a square cake pan and let it take on whatever shape it wanted. The elongated hexagon of the latest loaf is quite elegant.

May April bring you fresh air, fresh baked bread, and a warm neck!

The Long Winter Week

The long winter week started out last Saturday with dinner guests bearing tulips and a bottle of Rioja. Knowing that temps in Graz would drop to normal Wisconsin winter temperatures, I had made preparations, buying food to last five or six days. The grocery store is only a five minute walk, but a five minute walk at -4° F / -20° C is to be avoided if at all possible. Been there, done that enough in college. Working at home is a definite plus in winter. I was looking forward to a cozy week. The red-orange of the tulip blossoms were a wonderful companion at the kitchen table and provided a good contrast to the bright white of the moderate snowfall outside.

To get in the mood, I pulled Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter off the shelf. It tells the story of how she and her family survived an unusually harsh winter in the Dakota Territory. Though they lived in town, there were so many blizzards that the trains couldn’t run and bring supplies. By mid-February, most of the food was gone and only thanks to a risky run by two of the town’s young men to buy seed wheat at a distant farm is the town saved from starvation. How easy I have it today in comparison. No need to twist hay to burn because the coal ran out, no need to go to bed early because there is no more kerosene for light, no need to sleep in an unheated attic where the snow blows in. Though there are days where most of the calories I consume come from bread and potatoes, that is my choice and not because that is all that is left.

There is much talk of wool wraps, mufflers (in the older sense of the word as in something that covers the throat), and shawls in the book; making your own clothes and knitting were what everyone did. I started knitting a wrap for myself that will use up leftover blue and gray bulky yarn. Reversible patterns interest me because they look good regardless of what side faces forward. I decided on knitting three panels in brioche stitch. The end panels are single color while in the center panel, I am trying out two color brioche.

Pioneers need to be industrious, keeping things in good repair and being able to fix whatever needs fixing. This week I finally took time to mend clothes and hand wash scarves and wool socks. For the first time ever (and with the help of the internet), I actually darned socks. And they weren’t even my own. Since I have nearly knit through my yarn stash and thus the dream of a future in which not more than 10 skeins of yarn lay dormant looks like it will soon come true, I have started to think about What Next. A major in sock knitting and a minor in lace weight neck warmers are at the top of my list.

The cold spell has broken and above freezing temperatures are working their way in my direction. The snow will soon be gone and it is time for white to be replaced by green. I couldn’t resist a pot of basil at the grocery store. What a difference a few leaves make as a garnish. A shot of color in the kitchen is also very welcome.

May you find the patience and the right technique to repair what needs fixing!

Middle High Autumn

I find myself happier with less. I find I no longer need to seek things out; instead, the important things and ideas find me. I find myself listening. Looking. Observing. More. Not enough though, because I nearly stepped on a fire salamander, so engrossed I was in a conversation, my thoughts darting to possible futures instead of taking in the wonders in front of me.

Fall brings with it a quiet of its own. I am at a point where I am interested in seeking out new rhythms and focusing more on the silence between the beats. When I need to clear my head and breathe deeply, I head to the forest. Somehow the colors of the leaves – those on fire as well as those stalwartly green – seem more vibrant to me this year.

In September I read two books that found me, two books not on my reading list. The first was The Abundance of Less by Andy Couturier. Couturier interviewed ten people living in rural Japan who are treading softly on the earth by making do without money as much as possible. One of the people he interviewed said that we human beings want things because we have too much information, yet the changing weather and seasons are enough. Another says you need a life where you can be aware of nature and perceive it closely.

I stop to admire water drops on leaves and walk away carefully, leaving them for others to appreciate.

The second book was Being the Change by Peter Kalmus. One of the important messages is that although we cannot save the world, we can still change it, and every action counts. Kalmus is a climate scientist who has slashed his CO2 emissions by ninety percent. He writes eloquently about the change in perspective that is necessary to temper global warming and speaks from his own experiences with meditation about how practicing can lead to greater equanimity. What if more people cultivated equanimity?

What both books have in common is the ethic of choosing not to take everything we can take. Just because something is possible doesn’t mean it should be done. Opting out is often a very good option. I don’t need to climb a mountain to appreciate its beauty and be changed by its presence.

Snow has already fallen in the Alps. In the valley where I am typing these lines, freezing temperatures were predicted. Instead of a dusting of frost on the grass, my observations early this morning revealed two magpies in a linden tree nearly devoid of leaves. It is darker longer, and the silence of evenings is intoxicating. Apples are at their peak of crispness; wool begs to be knit into sweaters.

May you choose not to take everything you can!