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I learned a little bit about fermentation when I was researching From Pemmican to Poutine. I know that the process goes back thousands of years and was almost certainly discovered by accident (as so many things are). So I love this story about a microbiologist in Quito, Ecuador who was able to bring back to life yeast that had been scraped from the inside of 1,300 year old storage pots found in a burial site in Quito.

The containers were used by the Quitus and Ipias peoples to brew a drink called chicha. Yeast biologist Javier Carvajal Barriga discovered that the yeast used was a previously unknown strain and named it C. theae, which means tea.

Aside from the connection to Ecuador, where I lived for a year as a teenager, I’m also very interested in the 20 bodies found in the burial site. All bodies are wrapped in textiles that are wonderfully preserved. You can see from the photo that the textiles are whole, the weave structure is intact, and even some of the dye remains. I hope that these textiles are not undervalued and discarded in all the excitement over this new/ancient yeast.

In my last post I asked if anyone could guess the items I bought at an antique store in The Junction. Despite some good guesses (and my knitting friend who was gracious enough not to guess) no one commented a right answer.

I took the photo to my trivia team and had some luck. My friend Lex was able to tell that the item on the bottom is a crochet hook. This particular crochet hook is made of bone, or possibly ivory. This likely dates it to the Victorian period, but I need to do more research to be sure.

The item on top is a darning mushroom, which is used in darning socks. The large rounded head is used to support the part of the sock (usually the heel) that is being darned and allow it to keep its shape while the hole is stitched up.

So those are the latest additions to my textile tool collection. In future posts, I’ll introduce you to some of the other fascinating items I have.

Yesterday was so beautiful, especially after the horror movie fog we’d had all Saturday, that Nyron and I couldn’t resist taking a walk around the Junction, even though our original plan for the day was to run a few errands and then veg on the couch. One of the nice things about that neighbourhood is that it’s full of interior design and furniture store, so we spent some time looking at dining table made of reclaimed barn wood that we can’t afford and have o room for our tiny townhouse. We got some groceries at a local grocery store and a blueberry pie from a local bakery, but my favourite find were these:

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I found them at an antique store. I asked if he happened to have any vintage textile tools, which I collect, and he preceded to pull out boxes and baskets shoved haphazardly under a table against the wall. He didn’t know what most of it was, so I took a moment to explain to him what he had. Any guesses?

Althouh I have really bad reactions to spider bites, I’ve always found spiders fascinating, not least because of their web-spinning ability and its ageless connection to the art of spinning and weaving (it’s from the story of Arachne that we get the word “arachnid”). As I child, I loved to sit and watch a spider spin a web from start to finish and I love to hear news about spider silk (one of the strongest materials by weight in the world) being used in interesting ways. So I was thrilled when I found this article about a scientist in Japan who has successfully made a full set of violin strings out of spider silk.

The scientist, Shigeyoshi Osaki, has been studying spider silk for 35 years, including its prospective use for bullet-proof vests and as surgical sutures. But when he heard violin music in church, he couldn’t forget the haunting tone it made and set about combining his new musical love with his research. He quickly discovered that he would need to learn more about how violins work, so he took lessons to learn how to play the instrument and has spent ten years on this project.

Go to the New Scientist article linked above to hear a sound clip of the spider string violin being played and read about the physics of what makes spider silk strings so unique (the spider silk actually changes its shape under torque in a way that may never have been documented before). I’m no violin expert, although it is one of my favourite instruments to listen to, but apparently serious violinists can hear the difference and are pleased with the complexity of the new sound.

This reminds me of a group I read about in Africa that wove a shawl out of spider silk threads, and, for all my fellow video game nerds, the silk farmers of the Webwood in Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning. I wonder if or when spider silk will become more commonplace, not just in items needing strength like bullet-proof vests and violin strings, but regular clothing. For the moment, the process of extracting the silk (usually the dragline thread is used) makes it prohibitively expensive, but Osaki is currently looking at ways to make it more affordable, which could have a far-reaching impact in our day-to-day lives. I would wear a spider silk blouse, wouldn’t you?

When I was a kid, I was a master at making garlic bread. It became one of my jobs, and I could even make my own garlic butter in a pinch. But somehow, over the years, I’ve lost my mad garlic bread skillz. Every time that Nyron and I have wanted to have it to accompany our pasta (usually spaghetti and meatballs) I’ve managed to burn it to a crisp.

But not tonight! Tonight the heavens opened, the stars aligned, and I remembered not to leave to oven unmonitored for even a second, and I managed to make perfect garlic bread.

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And what could possibly stand next to such toasted cheesy perfection? Why, none other than fettuccine and home made Alfredo sauce.

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Delicious!

As part of my preparation for Camp NaNoWriMo, I’m writing character sketches. This is something I’ve never been very good at, going all the way back to grade school when I’d have to write them for creative writing or drama class. When I try to think of a character, I have a hard time making specific decisions about what the character is like. I have a vague feeling of the character, but when it comes to saying something like “My character’s personality traits are…” I get stuck.

I’m a very systematic person and I like to have a list or group of things to choose from. When deciding what to have for dinner, for example, my mind goes blank, but if I’ve got a menu in my hands, I’m fine. So I started out trying to fill in the character sketch questions in 90 Days to Your Novel, but I found many of them seemed too specific, like “What is your character’s favourite food?” It is, of course, important to know as much about your character as possible, but I found starting out with such specific questions was causing a block; I need to get a more general outline before I can start deciding the small stuff. So I looked at the character sketch template in Scrivener (is there anything this program doesn’t have?!) and found that it simply asks for things like”Physical Description”, “Personality”, “Mannerisms”, “Background”, and “Internal and External Conflict”. This pared down version is easier for me to start with and I can fill in specifics when I learn more about the character as I write.

However, when I got to “Personality” I felt like I’d been asked what I want for dinner. Trying to determine specifics from this vague feeling of a character was like trying to hold on to fog. Whenever I would try to think of traits to choose from, my mind would be blank, or would come up with things so clichéd and one-dimensional that they were useless. So I googled “Personality Traits” to see what the internet could tell me.

I figured I’d get some personality quizes (that I could pretend to fill out as my character) or maybe lists of some kind, but instead the very first hit was a Wikipedia article on the Big Five Personality Traits. This is a theory in the field of psychology that states that the personality of every person in the world can be broken down into five major categories: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. What this does for me is narrow down my choices; I look at each category in turn and think, ‘what traits (or opposite traits) of this category does my character have?’ Before you start to think that this would create cookie-cutter characters, think of how many different traits fit inside each of these broad categories and their opposites (which really amounts to 10 categories from which to choose traits). I’m finding it really useful for focussing the decisions I have to make into smaller, easier to handle chunks of information. Which is what makes my brain happy!

Yesterday I joined two online communities that I hope will help in my writing. The first is I finally joined National Novel Writing Month. I’ve known about this thing for years, but have never joined. NaNoWriMo isn’t actually until November, but they do have Camp NaNoWriMo, which takes place in July and August. In each case, the object is to write a 50,000 work novel in a month or less. You can track your progress by inputting your word count as you go, but you’re not declared a winner until you upload the finished draft and specially trained computer robots have checked it for authenticity. Authenticity doesn’t mean quality, it just means making sure you didn’t write “All work and no play make Homer something something” over and over again until the word count reaches 50,000. The purpose of this is to force you to just write, without second guessing or self-editing. Just write until you get to the end and then stop. Editing and revising comes later (the website provides support on that, as well) but in the meantime you’re left with a complete first draft of a novel and a feeling of accomplishment. Novels written in past NaNoWriMos include Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen, so that just goes to show what this event can accomplish.

The other thing I joined is 750words.com. This website is based on the Morning Pages exercise in The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. The premise is to write 750 words every day, about anything. This has a similar focus to NaNoWriMo, in that it gets you to just write, without self-editing or over thinking. It should also help form the habit of daily writing, which will help me in NaNoWriMo, as well as be a vehicle for brain dumping all the stuff that’s floating around in my head and fighting for focus. I’ve done it two days in a row, so far, and I find it very freeing. I just write stream of consciousness crap for 750 words (which only takes me about 15 minutes) and then I feel better and can start to write seriously, which is the point.

I’m thinking of writing the novel I’m currently working on as part of Camp NaNoWriMo in the August session, and then coming up with another novel idea for NaNoWriMo in November. If anyone has an idea for a November novel, please leave it in the comments. If I pick one of your suggestions and it ends up getting published, I’ll give you credit in the acknowledgements and a signed copy when it comes out.

I know you’ve all been hanging on the edge of your seats to discover how the war with my mystery garden nemesis pans out. We spent all last week bringing the strawberry box inside until we could find the time and energy to tackle the problem in a more permanent way. My friend Dave’s suggestion in the comments was that we take care of it by means of a BB gun and hunting blind, but we don’t have space for a hunting blind on our balcony. Of course, we don’t believe in capital punishment just for eating our delicious strawberries, although I started to reconsider this stance when I sustained a spider bite bringing the box in one night. It was my second spider bite already this summer and it still itches, almost a week later.

Yesterday, we finally had the time to deal with it. We got out the bird netting and bamboo sticks left over from when we made a protective cage around our 2’x6′ garden box last year (this is not our first time tangling with thieving neighbourhood critters) and some cotton string and made a strawberry cage.

Strawberry cage

We were able to leave the strawberries outside all night last night and not a single bite or pilfered berry. Although we haven’t been brining the onions in at night, they have also gone unmolested.

Now that that’s fixed, I just need to wait for this spider bite to heal.

We hadn’t planned to grow strawberries this year. I’ve tried planting strawberries for several years and never had much luck. At best, I’ve gotten one or two small berries off the whole crop, so when we made up our garden plan back in February, strawberries weren’t even on the list. Nonetheless, back in April I was walking down the main street in my neighbourhood and I noticed that our local green grocer had strawberry plants for sale. They looked healthy and already had several blossoms. Something just clicked; the strawberries seemed to say, “This is the year”.

I bought 6 plants on a whim and planted them in one of the railing boxes on our balcony, the only plants out there at the time. The very next day, we had a hail storm that stripped the plants of most of their leaves and all of the petals. Stems were broken, and I worried that the plants might die just as they were getting settled. I wathced them every day, allowing the broken branches to stay on the plants as long as possible in the hopes that they were still getting some photosynthesi,s and dead heading them as each one finally died. But through it all sprouts of new growth began peeking up from the centre of the plants, and several weeks later they were all stronger and healthier than when I bought them, with nice big strawberries.

But it looks like something still doesn’t want me to have a strawberry crop. Two days ago, when I went out to check on the plants as I do every morning, I found a still-green strawberry with a big bite out of it, and another laying on the soil.  Two holes had also been dug in one of the railing boxes containing onions, but the onions themselves were undistrubed. Yesterday, I found the two largest berries on the soil with bites out of them. I don’t know if I have a squirrel (because of the holes in the onion patch) or birds, or a combination of both, but something must be done.

Half eaten strawberries

Two strawberries with bites taken out of them

We’re trying to devise some way of securing bird netting around them, but for now we’re just taking the whole planter in every night, since whatever is doing this seems to be nocturnal.

What I’m reading

Dance of Dragons by George R.R. Martin

What I’m playing

Kingdom of Amalur: Reckoning on PS3

What I’m knitting

Socks

Chirp, chirp

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