Water, stone and grain
Barley was among our first cereals. Imagine the small bags of seed, carried overland step by step, century upon century, from its site of domestication to the east of what is now Europe, and then by small boats to Iberia, then Brittany and north to the various stone age settlements of the north-east atlantic coasts, or else by other routes through central Europe and across the North Sea. How many times must those bags have perished and how many times must the boatmen have reached dry land to see the seed rotted or the crops fail. And yet, 5000 years or more later, we still have a landrace of barley, known as bere (sounding in the north more like bear than beer) and still grown for special food and drink.
It's impossible to know what the original bere looked like, and even now it's a mixture, as are all landraces. Once, the grain was ground in 'saddle' querns,and later by hand-turned stone wheels, one on top of the other. And then - and what an invention it must have been - by great round stones in mills powered by water or wind. The Barony Mills at Birsay in Orkney still mill bere grain in winter from crops grown in summer. A great place to visit. See the web site for buying meal and flour and for recipes.
Images above (top, left to right) are part of the working water wheel and an old millstone both at Barony Mills, part of a head of a bere plant full of grain, grown 2011 in the Living Field garden and showing the characteristic red stripes and long awns of the protective 'sheathing' surrounding each grain, and bottom, crop of bere in Orkney 2011, in grey to show the structure of the ears and awns. Thanks to The Miller at Barony Mills for info and the various samples of grain and meal that were used to make bread and bannocks at the 2011 LEAF Open Farm Sunday, and to the agronomists at Orkney College for the bere seed they gave us a couple of years ago and which we are now perpetuating as a Carse landrace! The Living Field will be growing bere along with other ancient and modern cereals in the garden this year, 2012.
Trees in stained glass
The croplands remain warm in early January. Despite the cold this time last year, the met records will show 2011 will join six other recent years in the top-ten warmest of the last 100 years. The great trees of the lowlands continue to be displayed in the turbulent yellows and greys of the late afternoon light. But on 8 January, something happened - by four in the afternoon, the high sky was crossed with huge bands of deep pink and blue converging towards the north west, then ten to fifteen minutes later, as the sun sank quickly, the skeletons of the trees framed the light in a blaze of gold, red and deep blue. A free show for anyone outdoors.
Photographs around 16.14 on 8 January 2012 of the setting sun though trees in east Perthshire, arranged in a three-part panel (Squire/Living Field collection).
..... the man exclaimed, as he climbed the path from a stony Angus beach in the 10-degree heat of late December. Well, you know what he meant by 'mediterranean' - that the temperature was unseasonally warm, reaching double figures during the middle of the day, and especially warm compared to the minus-ten or lower of the same time last year. The evening skies are yellow and grey this December, turbulent, changing by the minute - not the predictable red and blue layering of last winter. The evening in winter, whether cool or colder, back-lights the great trees of the croplands - the oak, beech, elm, ash and sycamore. Their massive and delicate architecture is exposed, designed to hold a huge surface for capturing the sun's energy in summer. Almost everywhere, the fine tracery of this surface contrasts with the vertical frameworks and cylinders made to carry and store fossil power.
The images above, taken from a moving car on 25 December 2011, a little before sunset, show aspects of trees in the coastal landscape (Living Field collection).
End of day, end of year
The days leading up to the winter solstice were cold this year, the young crops and old stubble frozen in a thin layer of soily concrete. Temperatures hovered around zero. Thin patchy ice settled on the ponds. The image below was taken 18 December 2011, three days before the solstice, looking south east just after sunset. This disused, choked millpond was re-sculpted by the farm and stocked with local plants by the Living Field. Duck and snipe live here. The green shoots rising through the ice, bottom right and top left, are Veronica beccabunga, water purpit or brooklime. The reflected trees are growing behind the top of the far bank.
The storm on 8 December 2011 brought down trees throughout the region. The force was strong enough to fracture some of them near the base, wrenching and splintering huge trunks before they fell - leaving the base and roots intact, but bringing a sudden end to 150 years or more of unbroken growth. Fallen trees are an opportunity, for other plants and for timber merchants. You can also read some of the tree's history in the cross-cut trunk.
The section through the fallen tree in the top left image above (Living Field collection) is just less than one metre across. The inner, darker heartwood is well differentiated from the outer, younger layers of sapwood. The sapwood is fractured across the top of the image and has been removed completely from the top right corner. Simple image processing (top right and lower) shows a healthy centre to the tree and, on the darker heart wood, the cuts of the chain saw across the annual rings. The 'star' formation at the centre is a remnant of young branches when the tree was a sapling. After ten years out from the centre, the branches start to disappear as they either died or grew upwards out of the plane of this cross-section.
After food and drink, the plant products that have been most useful to people and most important in trade are the natural fibres. Flax, nettle and hemp are plants that have yielded useful materials in the north-east Atlantic croplands for millenia, but imported fibre, notably jute from India, rather than home-grown fibre, has been the main raw material for major industries here. Jute products are still common in the shops today, as are things made from other imported natural plant fibres including cotton, linen, sisal, coir and manila.
The exhibition From Carriers to Coffins - Jute in the 21st Century at the Verdant Works, Dundee, which ended on 2 December 2011, displayed the many innovative products now made locally from imported jute fibre. The photographs above show, bottom right anticlockwise, 'raw' jute fibre, woven cloth, a sample of chair-covering made from jute and dress and coat with trimmings all made from jute (taken at the exhibition and museum). For more information on natural fibres, check the soon-to-go-live 'fibres' page on the 5000 years project.
Contact for this page: Geoff Squire