On My Way to Lunch in Castellina in Chianti. Pasta and Authenticity.

February 1993.

Today is un giorno festivo according to the bus timetable, which simply means it’s Sunday, a holiday, a holy day, as opposed to all the other working days of the week. I’ve arrived in Castellina in Chianti, a small village 15 kilometres from Siena, after a slow but pleasant bus trip through rolling Tuscan hills dotted with small historic settlements with names that resonate more loudly than they should: Ficareto, Colombaio, Quercegrossa, Croce Fiorentina, San Leonino. I mentally translate every printed word that flashes by: names of villages and rivers, traffic directions and road signs, as figs and doves, large oak trees and Florentine crosses, saints, wells and fountains overload my thinking. This habit is mentally exhausting. Last night’s drift of snow left no visible sign in these hills, but it’s still cold and bleak. I’m wearing a thick brown coat- one that I purchased from the bi – weekly market near the medieval wall just outside the centro storico in Siena. It’s my bag lady coat, coarse and graceless, but warm. I feel like an outsider, an imposter, and terribly lonely: this coat doesn’t help. I’ll blame the coat for my sense of estrangement, given that all the Senese look so elegant in their long, fur trimmed woolen coats, not unlike those well- behaved citizens in a medieval Ambrogio Lorenzetti fresco. Not to mention the local taste for expensive, narrow, fine leather or reptile skin shoes, elegant and totally impractical, which don’t fit my broad Australian feet. The stall holders at the Sunday market in Castellina in Chianti are now packing up: I’ve arrived too late to pick up a little antique hand worked pillow case or vintage ceramic plate. The village looks deserted and uninviting. I’m not sure why I came, or where to go, not having done much research before making this lone journey. A church bell chimes in the distance signalling that it’s already past one pm, a reminder to the secular that it’s time to eat. Distant church bells can be comforting or dispiriting, arousing a sense of belonging or sadness. Today’s bells ring melancholy. A sense of cognitive dissonance overcomes me: it seems that the more I learn this language and bathe in the familiarity of Italian sounds, the less certain I feel about my place here. The empty streets loudly announce that everyone else is already seated at a table, either in a family home or warm restaurant, coats now hanging on pegs by the front door, primo piatto about to be served, a bottle of Chianti Classico proffered, as loud and excitable conversation fills the room. The choice on the menu won’t be novel or foreign: Italians are far more comfortable with regional food, or even more precisely, the food of their paese, the local village or district, food that is cooked simply and according to tradition. That’s what is so appealing about Italian food. At times, I’ll admit, Italian regional cuisine can become stubbornly insular and unbending too. Campanilismo, a word derived from campanile, the village church bell, suggests a rigid adherence to one’s local food, method of cooking, ingredients, dialect and ways of doing things: it’s about local pride. The bell tolls for many reasons.

I’m feeling anxious now and walk more desperately. The town is much smaller than I anticipated. If I’m not seated at a table by 1.15, I may miss out on lunch altogether. I’m looking for a small restaurant or trattoria, one that isn’t too well patronised by noisy extended families in elegant clothes, having attended, or pretending to have attended, church. Pretending to attend church is an art form in Italy, a performance that I greatly admire. You don your Sunday best, make a brief appearance at the church with the family, double or triple kiss your friends at the front steps, enter and sit down for a bit, pop out the front for a smoke (male), or chat loudly with your friends in the mid to rear rows (female), while ignoring most of the action at the front altar. The reverberating monotone of the priest echoing around the walls, ‘Santo, Santo, Santo il Signore Dio dell’universo. I cieli e la terra sono pieni della tua gloria’, produces a ready response from the front two rows of pews. High pitched, croaky voices pray in unison, the pious and the permed: small boned and ancient women kneel, rosaried and devout, as they prepare for their future in paradiso.

I peer through the window of a small and very plain looking trattoria and see a tangle of bright yellow pasta lying on a wooden bench, liberally dusted with flour. A plump middle aged woman in a plastic cap adds more to the pile- pasta freshly rolled and cut for today’s lunch. The menu board says Tagliatelle al Burro e Salvia. ( tagliatelle with butter and sage). I don’t read any further, I don’t need to know what’s on offer for the piatto secondo. I walk straight in.

October 2019.

When the eggs are plentiful and spring vegetables and herbs announce their readiness to be picked before bolting to heaven, I think back to that simple meal in Castellina in Chianti. It was elegant yet comforting, it’s success arising from restraint. Freshly made egg pasta is a joy to make and consume soon after. It requires only 2 ingredients: eggs and flour, along with a bit of kneading, resting, rolling and cutting and that’s all. No salt, no oil, no sourdough starter, no colours, no heavy artisan type flours, no chia seeds and no fuss. The sauce should gently coat the strands. Ideally, you want the fresh eggs to sing, their golden yolks colouring the mixture. At this time of the year, fresh pasta is almost saffron in colour, the eggs are so good. In the case of Tagliatelle with Butter and Sage, the sauce comes from lightly browned butter in which you crisp a few sage leaves. You could add a grating of nutmeg. It is served with grated parmigiano. Authenticity, although a fraught concept, requires you to stick, as much as possible, to the traditions of a country’s cuisine, if you have the ingredients on hand to do so. Once you start fiddling with a recipe, expect the results to speak a different language. Restrained is a good word to describe the elegance of Italian food. I hear those bells ringing. Time to make fresh pasta.

Balinese Offerings, Spirits and Ice cream

Whosoever offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water, that offering of love, of the pure heart I accept.

 Krishna tells Arjuna what God expects and requires of an offering in the most famous passage from the Bhagavad Gita, (ix:26)

This passage lies at the heart of the Balinese tradition of preparing offerings : leaves, flowers, fruit and holy water are presented with devotion. Today’s offerings for Galungan, featured in the images below, however, differ in the sense that they are made to the returning spirits of ancestors and are placed in front of family homes in small enclosed palm leaf or bamboo cages.

Wandering the suburban back streets today, I was rather taken with these elaborately decorated cages at the base of each penjor, filled this morning with special banten or offerings. These offerings are more family based and idiosyncratic, with each basket protected from marauding birds and squirrels, so that the little rice cakes and other treats for the dead might survive for the whole of this auspicious day.

Today’s religious ceremonies start at the home temple: each family compound will have one small temple, usually found in the kaja-kangin corner of the compound.¹  Offerings are made here first, before travelling, on foot or by motorbike, to the larger community temples located in each banjar or district.

Dressed in their finest ceremonial clothes, the Balinese are enjoying their holiday. For the modern Sanur based family, this means a cone or cup of Massimo’s gelato after the family prayers: the queues  outside Massimo’s gelateria are long, as men in ceremonial white udeng and finely woven sarongs, and women in white lacy kabaya and coloured sarongs queue for a sweet treat.

¹ Kaja-Kangin, two aspects of Balinese orientation, will be discussed fully in a later post.

 

And It’s a Hard…

If you are of a certain age, the title of this piece will ring a bell and you’ll automatically complete the line. The song, A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall’, the title of Bob Dylan’s epic ballad of 1962, is perhaps his best known song. Those who recall it will remember the question and answer form, apocalyptic message and length. I feel like I’ve known this song all my life though it’s not a song I care to play these days. But now that old earworm has been firmly replanted, after watching Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story on Netflix recently. The previously unseen footage of Dylan’s performances during this concert tour is riveting. There are many annoying and fake aspects of the film: I was gullible enough to believe I was watching an actual documentary. In a world where fake news dominates the media and lying politicians are believed, you might say, so what, it’s only a film. What stays with me most is the strong performance of Dylan, appearing in that 1975 road tour face painted as a rock star/clown/kabuki performer, as he energetically belts out a stunning and ominous performance of Hard Rain. No more spoilers, except this small film clip.

In the meantime, I’m wondering how we might rejig this foreboding Dylan ballad, which was adapted from traditional troubadour folk ballads with the same question and answer format, in particular the English- Scottish lyrical song, Lord Randall.¹ Perhaps my new version could go along these lines:

And what did you see, my brown eyed girl,

And what did you see when you opened that URL?

I saw one thousand dead fish, in a dried up old river,

A mountain of plastic, afloat on an ocean,

 The ice covered mountains, were crying from melting

I saw ancient green forests, bulldozed for more profit

The skies turned red, the houses were burning

 Coal was dug up, the planet was dying

Men who were lying, the people believing

Wise men were writing but no one was reading

And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard rain’s a gonna fall. Add some more verses of your own, at least another 6 minutes worth. The choice is endless and you don’t even need to lie. Time to bring back the protest song.

¹ For those interested in musicology, follow this link to a version of Lord Randall, with lyrics.

Darker Yarns, Part 2

Curating, Bricolage and Indigo

Those who feel an attraction to yarn probably have a similar relationship to fabric, matched with an irresistible urge to collect interesting textiles when they see them. The two really do go hand in hand, given that yarn is potentilly fabricated into a textile, but in a less industrial way for the home knitter. Those who collect beautiful yarns and fabric face only one difficulty, the issue of storage being the most challenging in terms of space and protection from deterioration from light, insects or damp. In this new era of fashionable minimalism and discard, I stand firmly in the magpie group when it comes to textiles. It is not hoarding. I am the curator of my stash. Sometimes innocent questions are asked by a non knitter. For example, I recently bought one beautiful hank of fine merino wool dyed in indigo, it’s colour hauntingly irregular. The pragmatic bystander asked “what are you going to make with that?”, immediately indicating a lack of appreciation of this lovely yarn or the slow art of design. There is no answer. The beauteous yarn will let me know when it’s ready to be incorporated into something, and that might be never, but in the mean time, the hank of dark promise carries intrinsic allure and delicacy, it’s colour evoking many memories of indigo textiles seen in the Far East, Vietnam, China, and Northern Thailand. Why let function get in the way of a fantastic yarn?

Fine Merino wool. 3 ply. Indigo. Lust worthy.

I recently read a wonderful book on yarns, a pattern book of sorts, but also with delightful chapter introductions. In the prologue, the concept of bricolage and it’s relationship to style is outlined. According to the British sociologist, Dick Hebdige,¹ the only way left to achieve originality is through the mixture of cultural referents. Many modern knitters, as well as crocheters and sewers, (or should I use the French couturiers, so as not to confuse that fine art with smelly drains ) are bricoleurs: they find creative inspiration in ‘the combination of elements from seemingly disparate cultural sources’ creating ‘energy that didn’t exist before’ thus producing more unique and idiosyncratic knits.² I am glad I found this book: this concept legitimises as well as describes some of my favourite pastimes.

Indonesian hand died fabric, small sample of Harris tweed, costume jewellery brooch with inlaid wooden tree, and fine silk German embroidery thread. Bricolage in textiles.

Darker Yarns and Creativity

My aunt was a keen collector of yarns and textiles. Her living room was overflowing with projects. At night when she tired of the sewing machine, she would return to knitting and crochet. She was surrounded by bags of colour: most of the textiles came from factory discards, usually swatches and samples for upholstery. She would mix and match these weighty fabrics, glossy heavy taffetas with tapestries, French imperial garlanded designs with plain textured fabric, lining the backs of her machine sewn patchwork rugs and throws with simple plain cotton. They were strong rugs, both in weight and design, and most suitable to use as floor rugs for babies. The money earned from the sale of her creations at weekend markets supplemented her old age pension. Along with rugs, she would knit or crochet small decorative items and children’s clothes. Her hands were always busy.

One of my many projects. It is a joy to make something from this yarn, a combination of merino and possum wool from New Zealand. A textured pattern would detract attention from the beauty of the wool. Simple fingerless gloves on the go.

I visited her in hospital 9 years ago. She had just had a stroke but seemed to be recovering well. She sat up in bed with her knitting, the pattern spread out on the bed, a lacy design from an old women’s magazine. She remarked with a croaky, almost jolly laugh that she couldn’t understand the pattern, that it made no sense at all, but this didn’t deter her knitting progress. She had similar problems with the words in the magazine. I’m not sure if she ever received any help with this cognitive problem.

A few months later my Aunt committed suicide by slashing her wrists. For a long time, I felt guilty that I didn’t visit her at home after her stroke, and angry that she chose such a dramatic way to exit. Now I fully understand. Like most people who suicide, she chose the quickest option that came to mind at the moment of her decision. Her hands did the work that needed to be done. My memory of her now sails back to a time long ago: she is 22 and I am 5. She is short, soft skinned and beautiful. We are laughing as we pick daisies together in the backyard. She is teaching me to make long daisy chains which we wear around our necks. To this day, every Spring, I make daisy chains.

These hand spun, hand dyed yarns found at a market in Corbost on the Isle of Skye. They will not be used for fear of destroying the magic they hold as hanks.

Yarns and Dementia

Before the fire, I curated a vast collection of fabric and yarn. The beloved stash included antique hand woven Indonesian Ikat and faded blue Sumbas, too precious to hang on our walls for fear that the harsh Australian light would fade their natural colour, womens’ finely embroidered supper cloths, French linen with fine pulled thread borders, hand worked Italian pillowslips no doubt made for the wedding glory box, filet crocheted cotton samplers and tray mats recording historical events such WWI and the return of the Anzacs to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth 11 and a vast array of other textiles and yarns. Among this collection was a modest little knee rug made of knitted squares sewn together, a common enough item, but this one stood out. It was worked in monochromatic colours, dusky shades of sunset pinks and pale orange. The tension was professional while the colours were worked in a most intriguing way, both within each square as well as the way each square related to its nearest neighbours, the whole row, and the whole blanket. It was the work of pure genius, a knitted Monet or Van Gogh in three shades. When we bought that little blanket in an opportunity shop in Beechworth for a few dollars, the saleslady mentioned in passing that the creator of that magic rug was completely demented. I’m keeping this in mind. Although I no longer have that rug, I have the memory of her genius and the knowledge that one day, my hands may be my only saviour.

Japanese silk remnants, shibori dots in silk, with hank of wool, Brigantia Luxury Aran weight, from Yorkshire in the colour of Pomegranate.
Used fabric from the hill tribes, Northern Thailand, found at a second hand fabric shop in Chiang Mai. Draped on Chinese cupboard used for the stash.
Another hill tribes piece, with Australian pale green pottery cigarette case with cicada, sadly cracked and needing some gold infill wabi sabi style.

¹ Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige 1979

² Magpies, Homebodies and Nomads, Cirilia Rose, 2014

Yarns on Yarns, Part 1 may be viewed here.

Yarns on Yarns

The Nordic child teaches the adult

the well heeled politely nod

and heed the warning

as the poor vote for more oppression

believing that old yarns and lies

will save them.

Simple cowl in alternating moss stitch and garter stitch. 100 grams of Aran weight wool, size 5 needles. Celtic pin by local silversmith, Tony Fitton.

I knit and weave this ancient yarn, heath tinted and Celtic hued, with tired hands, deeply immersed in a timeless pastime. Now mindfully, now mindlessly, knit one purl one, the art of ancient knotting soothes my disquiet. As the pattern turns more complex, a row of hieroglyphics looms ahead, demanding more attention, a knitter’s code from an another era. The emerging fabric begins to twist and turn in an interlacing helix as new cables form and cross paths. How did those women of olde translate designs from painted page or stone to yarn, the Book of Kells to knitting?

Post election blues

‘Knit with your hearts an unslipping knot’.  Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra. Act 11, Scene 11.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

We sleep, curled around each other like a loosely formed hank of wool, weaving hands, legs and toes, fingers threading through hair and soft skin: then we unravel, in search of cooler planes of sheet, only to reform like lost souls soon after.

Fishing and Knitting

My grandparents come from wild sea

One knits fine wool to wear

The other knots hard rope to fish

My grandmother was a quiet soul, her stern appearance not helped by her refusal to wear her dentures. She looked ancient before her time. She retreated to the front room early in the evening, to knit or read, or to keep warm in a softer space under a colourful crocheted Afghan blanket. Outside the winds roared across the strait, black ocean and wild tides tempered by isolated islands rising on horizon, Sphinx like, at dusk. Living in the oldest port of Victoria, she made a paltry income from her knitting. Heavy cabled Aran pullovers were bartered or sold to fishermen for a few shillings. Pure woolen garments were water resistant and insulation against the wild winds and inclement weather of Bass Strait. The textured cable pattern, apart from being decorative and evocative of another era, provided more thickness than a plain knitted garment. Perhaps she knew those cousins who ‘met their watery graves’ out at sea as they fished the wild Strait. Maybe she retreated into the rhythm of knit one purl one for sanity, privacy, a safe haven for hands and mind.

Grace and Charles Robinson with Cocky.

My grandfather was a boat builder who knew that sea, its tides, anger and calm. He worked with the sea and on the sea. In his spare time he tied knots from ropes, strong yarns of another kind. In his old age, he taught me to twist fine wool into chord, to create little pom poms and other trims and tassels. His skills, like hers, were timeless.

The Little Black Doll

One year, my grandmother gave my younger sister a gift. This was odd, as she never really gave presents to her grandchildren- the wild sea and the fish, flounder fish as big as a plate, and wild prawns netted from the incoming tide in the channel, were gift enough. The gift was a small black baby doll made of hardened plastic. She had knitted a costume for the doll- a little outfit of yellow and green wool in the finest of ply. The shirt was in moss stitch and the long shorts were in basket stitch, each alternating square less than 50 mm, with tiny buttons sewn down the front. The tension was precise, the hand stitched joining invisible. I was jealous, not of the doll- I was well over dolls as an 8 year old child- but of the beautiful fine work that my sister received, and will most likely not remember. Today, when I knit in basket stitch or moss, I think of Grace, my grandmother, the finest of knitters, the quietest of souls.

Global optimism cowl. Knitted one week prior to the election.

Knitting in the 1950s

It would all begin with choosing the wool. Every suburban shopping strip had a little wool shop in the 1950s and 60s, stocking the latest wools and patterns. Now those shops have long gone. Making clothes for the family was not a pastime or a hobby- it was often a necessity. I’m not sure if wool was as expensive as it is today, I doubt it, but the cost for one garment was staggered through the handy system of Laybuy. The cellophane wrapped wool was put aside in the back of the shop, all in the same dye lot, with just enough balls for the project. Then a little money from the weekly budget was set aside to buy a few balls as needed.

We knitted as a family and could knock up a jumper in a weekend, especially if someone was off to a party. My mother would usually cast on, do the ribbing, the sleeves and the neck, while my sisters and I would knit the main body, perfecting our tension along the way. We produced plain garments in stocking stitch, usually with 8 ply wool from Australian companies such as Patons and Cleckheaton.

It was a cool weather occupation and the annual accompaniment to the onset of late Autumn or the first frost. Even today, as the weather begins to turn, I search for my wool stash and begin a project, even if only to make a cowl or fingerless gloves. My mother, now 96, with stiff, inward curling fingers, a Viking gene she tells me, is calling out for plain yarn to knit. Now it’s my turn to cast on for her and do the first row. I understand her need; it’s ingrained in our history, our DNA.

Discards for small projects, found at op shops.

Knitting versus Kmart

I don’t have anything against Kmart, or other cheap stores such as Target or Big W. These stores have their place and provide basic and affordable goods. But somewhere along the way over the last 2 decades, these stores have made clothing so cheap that knitting has became an anachronism, a pastime of the well heeled. Industrial clothes are pumped out at such volume, exploiting cheap labour, that clothing is often bought on a whim and discarded without a thought.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics figures indicate about 500,000 tonnes of leather and textiles are discarded each year, amounting to 23 kilograms each, and only a fraction of this appears to be being recovered through recycling.¹

As pure wool or cotton yarn very rarely appears in most garments these days, this mountain of discarded clothing ends in landfill, a major plastic microfibre pollutant. The textile industry is the second largest global polluter after oil. Food for thought.

Information and quotes from Slow Clothing, Finding meaning in what we wear  by Jane Milburn.

I hear my yarn calling, “to knit up that raveled sleave of (post election) care.” Do you enjoy Knitting and Crochet dear reader or have you taken up the Japanese art of darning? Does winter draw you to craft or barley soup? Is knitting meditation and when does it turn stressful?

Afloat in a Sea of Generosity. Black Saturday Bushfire Donations, 2009-19

I never sent my thank you letters to all who donated so generously after the Black Saturday Bushfires. This is a sign of ill breeding, I know, but the task seemed overwhelming at the time. For the first year I had difficulty concentrating on defined tasks, looking for addresses, remembering phone numbers, handwriting, and finding things. I was always distracted, anxious, tired, alarmed or annoyed. Burnt out.

And so my thank you letters are rather late. Ten years late in fact, but I have chosen to write the letters today, February 7, 2019. The list will be rather long, dear reader, and so you may want to stop reading here. I remember every gift, donation offer of kindness, and all the faces of every volunteer I met in the weeks and months that followed the Black Saturday bushfires. These memories are very clear. It’s never too late to express my enormous gratitude to the Australian people who volunteered and donated money or gifts during that time. It was a tidal wave of kindness, to which I owe my recovery. If I have forgotten you by name, forgive me.

People Making a Difference.

Most of the large gifts and monetary donations were distributed in a coordinated and egalitarian way. The large donations collected through Red Cross were distributed through government agencies: the amounts varied, according to loss, and were apportioned in parcels over a 12 month period. A significant amount of this fund was set aside for whole community recovery such as town infrastructure, small grants to artists, film makers, workshop providers and so on. Those who lost their homes were appointed a case manager to assist in negotiating the applications for these funds, other services and information: they eased the pathway through the mire of administrative and bureaucratic nightmare facing those who lost everything. I never formally thanked our case worker, Linda Fabb, though I did along the way I am sure. Linda visited and rang us often to see how we were travelling. She stayed with us until we finally re-settled one year later. She visited armed with information, tick sheets for grant applications, forms to fill in, and discreetly checked on our psychological well-being as well. She was on our wavelength, we got on well. Not all survivors were so lucky with their appointed case managers. After we found our new house, Linda visited twice with boxes full of little plants made from cuttings. These were made and donated by her mother. Through these random gifts of kindness, I also learnt how to strike cuttings in recycled plastic containers just like Mrs Fabb senior. I have one garden in your honour. Now I strike, grow and give away plants. Thanks Linda.

Not long after the fire, a wonderful association emerged, thanks to Catherine Lance of St Andrews North. As Cathy’s house survived the fire, she decided to establish a regular morning tea venue for other women in St Andrews who were affected. 65 houses were destroyed overnight on February 7, 2009, and others lost shedding, crops, and outbuildings. We went by the title of “Ladies of the Black Belt”, a geographical reference to the area burnt in St Andrews North but also with visual and psychological connotations too. St Andrews North was black and treeless, as was the outlook of those affected. After the first get together, it became necessary for Cathy to limit the membership of the group to those within a defined boundary to protect the vulnerabilities of its members. We grew as a community over a two-year period and shared enormous friendship and a common bond. Cathy’s neighbour, Barb Barbetta, also offered her house for similar get togethers, morning teas and shed nights. The shed nights started as bloke nights but were soon converted to family nights. Tony Barbetta’s shed became our local town hall, complete with its own clock. These gatherings also defined us as a community, albeit a traumatised one. Cathy Lance was also a font of information along the way, with reminders of grants, events, warnings, funerals, and organised a fine Christmas party catered by Maree and Rodney Adams, restauranteurs at Latrobe University. She also connected us to a caring group of folk in Inverloch, who hosted us for a fine luncheon and then kindly donated home-made little Christmas puddings and cakes for the Black Belt Ladies’ first post fire Christmas. Thank you friends from Inverloch. Through this umbrella, we also enjoyed several women’s’ getaways to Phillip Island, offering us a chance to chat in a completely different environment. To balance this, men’s getaways ( otherwise known as fishing trips) were funded and organised, mostly through Helen Legg. Thanks Cathy and David Lance.

Volunteers

  • Helen Legg and all the friendly volunteers at the Hurstbridge Bushfire Relief Centre, Fiona, Jane, June, Annie and so many others. I’ve written previously about the extraordinary efforts of Helen here .Volunteers also go through enormous trauma during times of national disaster and I am aware that Helen’s team was emotionally exhausted after a long two-year stint. Thank you for making such a difference.
  • Thanks to the owners of the building which became the Hurstbridge Centre, in main road Hurstbridge, who donated the property for a lengthy period.
  • All the volunteers at the Hurstbridge Church Hall, the St Andrews Bushfire centre,  Diamond Creek Sporting Stadium, the Whittlesea Bushfire Centre on the showgrounds, and the Clayton Warehouse Bushfire centre. We came to collect wonderful new and second-hand goods from your vast emporiums which only functioned because of your time so freely given. Thank you.
  • The guys from Hurstbridge, friends of Helen Legg, who came up to our burnt landscape and helped clear the mess, and Sunny Cross who helped clear the toxic stuff on the block. Of course, my immediate family also attended working bees on and off for months. There were many others, too many to mention all by name.
    Sunny Cross (right) and daughter, Rachael Morgan( left). Angels cleaning up the toxic mess. They spent four days on this unrewarding task, and in my daughters words,  ‘we were looking for something.’

    One of those wet yourself laughing moments. Sunshine Cross in full protective gear, takes a ride on my burnt bout exercise bike.
  • Terese, a local landscape gardener and teacher, who designed a garden for me, provided a colour coded plant list and helped me begin my new garden once I resettled. My love of gardens developed further thanks to your inspiration.
  • Louise Ferguson, of Ferguson winery in the Yarra Valley, who voluntarily gave a series of simple cooking lessons to groups of women in the months after the bushfires. We loved going out together and eating your samples. I still make your toasted muesli.
  • Chris, an amazing teacher of mosaics, who freely volunteered her time to organise workshops in the old St Andrews School. She ran these workshops for years after 2009, such was her dedication. You can visit the amazing mosaic bench chair, a masterpiece of history, coordinated by Chris and completed by the bushfire affected in the area. Those who lost their homes added small fragments of old plates and vases to the work. The chair is near the St Andrews hall on the market site. I attended a few sessions but found my artistic skills were sadly lacking after the fire.
  • Jenny Cox, whose name became synonymous with the Knitted Chook for a few months. Jenny and her crafting friends began knitting colourful and exotic knitted chooks ( hens) after the bushfires. These were entered into a grand final competition and comedy night, hosted by Denise Scott. The funds raised from that event were used to gift knitting baskets and hand spun wool to the women who had lost their homes ( and their knitting supplies). This hilarious event, along with the chooks themselves, lightened the mood along the way. It also helped forge a bond between the two burnt communities of St Andrews and Strathewen. Giving comedy, a craft outlet and joy. Thanks Jenny.

    One of those chooks, photo courtesy Melbourne Museum. There were hundreds of chooks knitted. I also made two: mine were quite ugly.
  • A big thank you to all the bands who played at SOUND RELIEF, a huge benefit concert held in the MCG, Melbourne. The highlights included Midnight Oil, Hunters and Collectors, Jett, Kings of Leon, Paul Kelly, and many more. There was a similar benefit concert held in Sydney with a different lineup of bands. The funds raised from this event were huge and were added to the Red Cross funds for equitable distribution.

Temporary Accommodation

Some people have commented over the years on my resilience. I don’t think I’m resilient, just very fortunate. In the early days after the fire, all sorts of offers of short-term accommodation became available. I could have stayed in the city, but felt it important to be near my tortured land, my burnt out home, my community, and to own my recovery in the place that I had always lived and loved for the previous thirty years. Community and support came through being among those who had experienced the same catastrophe. During those early months, I found new neighbours and rejoined with others with whom I had lost contact.

  • Within three days of the bushfire, a large and comfortable caravan arrived in the front yard of my daughter’s house in Hurstbridge. We stayed there for a while, and the van was left there for months for when we needed it along the way. Thanks Rachel Brown and Jason.
  • Tess Baldessin offered us a little cottage on her bushblock. It was simple, beautifully crafted and quite monastic. It came with its own bathroom but no kitchen. Her partner Lloyd soon installed a little gas stove which enabled us to cook simple meals there. My friends, Diane and Brian Gilkes, stayed in another nearby cottage. Together we became a little commune and stayed for three months. Thanks Tess and Lloyd.

    Our little stone cottage at Tess’s place
  • As winter approached, we needed a warmer environment and were delighted to be offered a house in St Andrews to care for, along with an aging cat, Bonnie, while the owners were travelling. Thanks dear friends, Helen Hewitt and Chris Warner. Since then, our friendship has grown, and Chris and Stuart now share a regular music practice together, a sort of musical men’s shed for two.

    Noah and Bonny
  • We were also given a large, 1970s unroadworthy caravan, donated by a woman from Anglesea. The caravan was moved by tilt tray truck to St Andrews, the 160 kilometre journey courtesy of Nationwide, who donated their trucks, drivers and time to move old unwanted caravans to bushfire sites around Victoria. The caravan adoption movement was coordinated by Helen Legg at Hurstbridge Bushfire Relief Centre ( a year later, she also coordinated the distribution of loaned shipping containers). Our Caravan of Courage provided shelter on our burnt out block for 9 months. It was a place to escape the howling winds, which were horrific due to the absence of trees and bush, nature’s windbreaks. After we sold our block, my son-in-law, Kyle Bradley, renovated the van at his own cost: it’s now roadworthy and spends a few months at the beach, providing retro accommodation for my children and grandchildren. Another tiny van was also donated: this was gutted inside and served as a lock up shed for our disposable safety gear, overalls, tools, buckets and so on. We called it the Kebab van. Thanks Matt O’Connor.
  • Transport donated by Nationwide trucks . Donated caravan 70s caravan from Anglesea. Organisation of this gift through volunteer time, donated by Helen Legg.

    The same caravan today. Renovated and roadworthy, but retaining original 70s vibe. At the Mornington Peninsula by the sea. The gift that keeps on giving.

Organisations and Charities

While thousands of Australians donated money to the main fund-raising body, Red Cross, many other organisations and charities collected funds and directed them to those displaced by bushfire. The Salvos distributed shopping vouchers for the IGA supermarket and Kmart, Sussan and Sportsgirl. Vinnies offered vouchers for petrol and the local hardware chain, Mitre 10. The Holden Car company gave us a new car, free of charge to use for one year which included  servicing. The Country Women’s Association provided a farming grant which we used to buy a ride on mower, ( thanks  once again Cathy Lance for coordinating this)  while the RSPCA provided an animal focused grant. We used this to re-establish a chook house and run, along with 6 chickens. ( 50 or so of my chickens perished during the bushfire ) An organisation emerged for the replacement of musical instruments: a rep from Resound personally delivered a beautiful new electric guitar to Mr T, who lost 9 collector guitars in the fire. For guitar aficionados, it’s an ESP LTD EC-1000 with Seymour Duncan pickups. There was also library grant replacing some of my books, including an academic Italian dictionary, gardening books and classic novels.

  • Red Cross
  • Salvation Army ( the Salvos )
  • Holden Car Company
  • St Vincent de Paul (Vinnies)
  • RSPCA
  • The Country Women’s Association
  • Small Business grant to buy computer equipment
  • Library, new book donation
  • Musical instrument grant from Resound

Personal Gifts.

The personal gifts of money and/or items were many. My immediate family, my parents and siblings were all very generous. My niece Louise replaced my Stephanie Alexander book, her friend sent over a bowl made by Leon Saper, local potter, a platter came from a lady in Cockatoo ( Jan?). There were gifts of books and a book voucher. Beautiful hand-made quilts were distributed by key women within the community. When my grand children were little, they could pick one to cuddle each night when they stayed with us. These quilts are our heirlooms and will be handed down to them one day.

Anonymous star quilt. 2009 bushfire donation.

Companies donated linen- new sheets and pillow cases, often remainders in odd colours which are still in use 10 years later, tea towels and a doona. These company gifts came through the Bushfire relief centres in Diamond Creek and Whittlesea. Enormously valuable in the first month was the donation of safety protection gear, full suits and masks, as well as wheelbarrows, spades and tools. A brand new generator arrived from another company. New socks and underwear came from another.

And then came the second-hand things, as Australia cleared out their cupboards and donated goods, useful clothing, and toys, a national KonMari moment in history. We wore these clothes with pride. I remember one evening when Mr T went off to work in an odd assortment of second-hand clothes. He thought he looked pretty dapper. Some of his work colleagues thought he looked more elegant in his new attire, a step up from his pre-fire dress sense. Often when I look at our 2009 photos, I am a little amused at my clothing style back then. Skirts, boots, and odd colours, a sort of aging hippy op shop couture. We obtained second-hand towels with plenty of wear still left in them as well as pots and pans, cutlery, an old Kenwood mixer, crockery, books, you name it – we made use of all your wonderful donations.

Thank you to all Australians who responded so generously and with an open heart in 2009. Your money, gifts and clothing found a new home and was valued and appreciated, both big and small. I know I have forgotten a few people. Remind me if you can. And, dear friends and readers, if you recognise anyone in this post, please pass on my personal thanks.

About Donating. If every working adult in Australia put at least $50 aside each year, imagine what a difference we could make during times of natural disaster, either here in Australia or abroad. If 1 million people give $10 tomorrow to a reliable charity, $10 million would become available to distribute aid to those suffering from the floods in Queensland right now. Multiply this by 5 causes per year, and you have a good recipe for giving, and for changing people’s lives. Other ways to give during disaster: volunteering your time and expertise, assisting in clean ups, donating food parcels or meals to neighbours, sending your unwanted goods to charities that arise during these times.

Donated by Resound music.

This is my last post on Black Saturday bushfires. It is meant to be a happy post and a suitable finale to my previous chapters. By reading and commenting, you have assisted me and my family during this difficult anniversary. We thank you.

Black Saturday Bushfire Anniversary. A ten year old post.

Today I’m sharing a post I wrote 10 years ago. It was written on February 12, just 5 days after the Black Saturday Bushfire, Febrary 7, in 2009. I remember writing this in my daughter’s house in a confused and anxious state. It appeared on Blogger, a platform that I used back then. I have added these photos: the rest is unedited. After 9 months, all my writing just vanished overnight, thanks to a takeover, without warning, of my registered domain. This piece was mercifully preserved by Pandora Archive- National Library of Australia.¹  I’m sharing it again today because I want my children to keep these records. They need them more than I do. As I re-read it, I can’t help but think of all those people throughout the world who experience displacement on a much grander scale than I did on that day- refugees from war-torn countries forced to flee to other lands, to live in camps for years, those displaced through flood or cyclone, left homeless for years. I understand how fortunate I am. The gifts and financial assistance offered to us was overwhelming during the first year and deserves a post of its own, simply to document and thank every individual and organisation. It’s a huge list. Here’s that original post from February 2009.

Citrus grove, post fire 2009

And the Nightmare Continues

” I have been looking back on my previous posts. That life last week, up until February the 7th, seems so distant already, and yet only 5 days have passed. Each dawn brings the fear of more bad news, more neighbours and friends who are dead. My dawns last week took me to the vegetable garden or fruit trees for the day’s picking, or the chookhouse to gather the eggs. So many beautiful dreams for the future of the vineyard, the olive trees. Colourful imaginings of salads of tomatoes in four colours. The figs, although the leaves had already dropped in the furious heat of the previous fortnight, clung bravely to the branches, reminding me each morning that autumn would be along soon and figs would be part of the menu or preserving plan. My partner had planted Albarino grapes, he was excited by this Spanish variety as they are said to be drought resistant. Each morning or late evening he would move water from one dam to another to ensure that these new grape plantings would have sufficient water to survive this summer’s blasting heat. This was our work, these dreams kept us too busy, we had hopes for a small wine making barn, we planned to preserve the tomatoes in the old Italian way, to breed prettier hens, to pickle our young olives, to cart our excess of produce to neighbours, family and friends. It was work, it was our identity. And that’s what we lost in last week’s inferno.

We are reminded daily of the horror that was last Saturday as the death toll rises. We grieve beside our friends, we hug neighbours and are so pleased to see them again as they walk into the Community Centre. We cry as we get over our embarrassment and accept donations. We laugh sometimes as we model our donated new or second-hand clothes. We are overwhelmed by the generosity and the food that comes from unknown people who arrive at the community centres with car loads of items.

We eat food as a matter of course and are very grateful to be offered it from family and strangers. But nothing tastes the same anymore. Like travelling, you are always waiting to eat something that is normal, homely, nourishing. Displacement from a life, from a lifestyle is not about ownership or things. It’s an identity loss.

We are the lucky ones who left St Andrews early. Part of the nightmare puts me back in the house, unprepared for the inferno, like so many other poor souls who have lost their lives. I can’t remove this fear, it’s disabling.”

Electricity pole took a week to burn out
Vineyard. 2009
We were not allowed back into our properties until after February 10, three days after Black Saturday, February 7, 2009. We had no idea what we would find, what might be left. As it turns out, everything was destroyed except for a few amazing items. One of the most insane things was a red plastic petrol container which sat beside the dam. It survived, with all the petrol intact!

¹https://pandora.nla.gov.au/historyachievements.html

Black Saturday Bushfire,10th Anniversary. Finding a Way to Memorialise.

Memorialisation takes on greater significance and more noble heights during milestone years. After one, five, ten, twenty- five years and so on, commemoration of significant events in history or in our personal lives is important to remember, celebrate, mourn or commiserate and in some instances, to learn. As Victorians begin February, they are being presented with an intensification of 10th anniversary events commemorating the Black Saturday Bushfires of February 7, 2009, the day that a firestorm of unseen proportions killed 173 people, destroyed over 2000 homes and left more than 6000 people homeless. These are the figures that scream the loudest. Further facts and figures reveal the impact on the whole State.¹

The commemorative events are many and will appeal to different sections of society: academic presentations at a symposium, a flurry of new documentaries and films, books, interviews, art and photography exhibitions, talks, church services, meetings, newspaper articles and many private commemorative get- togethers. Most of the fire survivors I know will avoid these events. I can’t help thinking that there is a considerable level of opportunism in the timing of some of these new books and films which deal with this national disaster.

One of my deepest residual psychological blocks from 2009 is the issue concerning those who overstepped the mark in terms of opportunism and lack of sensitivity. Within days of losing my house, the vultures were out – first came the tourists with cameras, but they were quickly dispelled thanks to the installation of road blocks soon after the fires. Then came the media, artists and photographers. Some behaved appallingly during those early days, eager as they were to cash in on the spectacular nature of the event and, in the process, make a name for themselves. During a time when people were mourning the loss of loved ones, or their homes, their way of life, the ‘recorders of bushfire’ were on a mission to get in early, at a time when the army was still scouring the hills for bones of the dead, when the helicopters above buzzed like a scene from Apocalypse Now, and when ancient eucalypt trees glowed red in slow death, the white ashen ground still hot.

Media journalists at the time lacked an ethical framework for dealing with a national disaster of this size.² They were simply told to go; get the scoop, the best story. Road barriers were often ignored, especially at night if unmanned: in the day time, fabricated identities were used to gain entry. Some behaved like paparazzi, while others, when faced with the enormity of human tragedy they witnessed, revealed respect, restraint and empathy in their reportage.

Now that ten years have passed, I need to purge this anxiety, a sort of PTSD, from my memory. That’s the plan. I did try to do this back in July 2009. I took up the offer of 10 free psychology sessions at a nearby clinic. I had a rather naive plan in place- the sessions would help remove all that adrenalin from my brain, which included this distaste for these bushfire vultures. I lasted only 3 sessions. I wanted to talk about fire issues: my anger at telcos, bureaucratic nightmares, the insensitivity of media: my psychologist was heading somewhere else. I lost faith in the process when I watched her eagerly jot down some notes after I mentioned the word ‘MOTHER’. Just another Freudian obsessed counsellor. I left, not in a huff, but with all my residual angst firmly intact.

I won’t be attending any major memorial events, I won’t be looking at any documentaries or films with bushfires roaring in the background: I have never watched any TV news or documentaries dealing with fire over the last ten years. Some of these blazing reports are now appearing on my Facebook feed: Facebook, everyone’s pocket TV. I won’t be sitting in the local hall watching the latest film offering, and I won’t be attending any art exhibitions portraying bushfire. No churches for me, no gatherings in silence with a cuppa. No trip up into the hills to see how my old bush block is recovering. But I do plan to do a few things on the day and during the following year. I will look out for an eagle in the sky. It was mighty Bunjil circling in the overheated and smoky sky who warned my dearest friend to leave her home on that day. I will also visit a local gathering in Hurstbridge, one being organised by Helen Legg, an amazing and dedicated volunteer who gave most of her days to assisting those who had been affected by bushfire for two years: a drink is on the agenda. I will give thanks, once again, to all those who assisted my family after that National Disaster. I also plan to read a lot more about fire. I’ll start with works by Stephen J Pyne.³ It’s time to learn from sources that are objective and well researched, especially as the reality of global warming makes wildfire more common around Australia and around the globe, in places that have never experienced them before.

Old man tree with tin and wire.

¹ Wikipedia Stats included in full here.

  • 450,000 ha (1,100,000 acres) burnt
  • 7,562 people displaced
  • Over 3,500 structures destroyed, including:
    • 2,029+ houses
    • 59 commercial properties (shops, pubs, service stations, golf clubs, etc.)
    • 12 community buildings (including 2 police stations, 3 schools, 3 churches, 1 fire station)
    • 399 machinery sheds, 363 hay sheds, 19 dairies, 26 woolsheds, 729 other farm buildings
  • Agricultural and horticultural losses:
    • Over 11,800 head of livestock,consisting of 2,150 sheep, 1,207 cattle, and an unknown number of horses, goats, alpacas, poultry, and pigs
    • 25,600 tonnes (25,200 long tons; 28,200 short tons) of stored fodder and grain
    • 32,000 tonnes (31,000 long tons; 35,000 short tons) of hay and silage
    • 190 ha (470 acres) of standing crops
    • 62,000 ha (150,000 acres) of pasture
    • 735 ha (1,820 acres) of fruit trees, olives and vines
    • Over 10,000 kilometres (6,200 mi) of boundary and internal fencing destroyed or damaged
    • 7,000 ha (17,000 acres) of plantation timber
  • 98,932 ha (244,470 acres) of parks damaged, 90 per cent of which was national park. It was claimed that 950 local parks, 70 national parks and reserves, and over 600 cultural sites and historic places were impacted or destroyed
  • 3,921 ha (9,690 acres) of private bushland
  • Over 55 businesses destroyed
  • Electricity supply was disrupted to 60,000 residents
  • Several mobile phone base stations and telephone exchanges damaged or destroyed

² https://apo.org.au/node/19735

³ Stephen J Pyne’s works are listed here, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_J._Pyne

A film I may consider watching might be Afterburn- in the Tigers Jaws. ‘The Steels Creek community invited the research team to use them as a case-study because they believed that something lasting had to come from this terrible tragedy and future communities would benefit from partnering with the academic and creative industries. Afterburn has the potential to influence future policy development at all levels of government in the areas of collaborative community recovery and the long-term impact of trauma on communities and individuals.’

On my block in April, 2009. Autumn had softened the disaster zone. I’m wearing a red armband, as did all those who lost their homes. This indicated our identity to the police staffing roadblocks. I wore it for nine months and still have it tucked away.

I have great admiration for a few journalists whose work stood out from the pack during Year 1. Thanks to Ian Munro of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers and to Gary Hughes, a St Andrews resident and Warkley award winner, who wrote so poignantly of his own survival. And to Jon Faine, radio presenter from the ABC, whose broadcasting efforts and interviews, particularly in the Strathewen community, were remarkable.

In My Kitchen, February, 2019. Ten Years Ago.

There’s a lot on my mind this week as we approach the 10th anniversary of Black Saturday, the monstrous bushfire of February 7, 2009, that redefined my life and that of more than 2000 other Victorians. I’ve started to look through my old photos today, the first day of February, to renew my acquaintance with my old house and kitchen from 10 years ago. I’m still coming to terms with why things changed so much. In the end, it’s not really about the possessions, the things. Something else happened on that day, an indefinable sense of loss. Was it the house itself or the setting, the way it incorporated the rising moon through the kitchen window?

Front door near kitchen and hand built pizza oven, 2008

We began work on the building of our old house in January 1980, and moved in around August that year, just before my youngest son, Jack, was born. No electricity or running water back then but we didn’t care. The initial house, constructed in mudbrick, consisted of one huge central room with a soaring ceiling, a hand crafted fireplace, old Victorian four panelled doors, leadlight windows, and a staircase leading to our mezzanine bedroom which was neatly tucked into the ceiling at one end. It was, in many ways, an impractical design, hard to heat in winter and rather hot upstairs in summer but we loved it. We were idealistic, young and ready to embrace our new life. The house came to symbolise everything we were choosing ( and rejecting) at the time. This was not a suburban house: its design and quirkiness grew out of the mudbrick movement that was prevalent in the Shire of Eltham, a romantic building style that began with Montsalvat and was developed further by Alistair Knox. This local style was adapted throughout the 70s by other mud brick builders. The house reflected our new life in the bush which centred around the ‘back to the earth’ ideology which incorporated self-sufficiency in food production, small-scale farming, wood gathering for heating, and a building culture based on a preference for natural and recycled materials, mud, straw, large old bridge timbers, Victorian doors and windows, second-hand red bricks, and any other ‘found’ materials that could be recycled. The more modern notions of ‘tree change’ ‘sustainability’ and ‘repurposing’ had not yet enjoyed linguistic currency. The materials used made each house in the area quite unique. Many of these houses were destroyed on Black Saturday and current building regulations now make them too expensive to replicate.

Hopes and Dreams. A new vineyard planting of Albarino grapes struggled with the drought of 2008.

As the children grew, so did the house. The first addition was a small two roomed mud brick cottage out the back of the house. Each weekend friends arrived to help on the construction: they soon mastered mudbrick wall building and rendering along the way. I pumped out the pizzas and other goodies from the kitchen in the main house. Then in 2004, we added a new modern kitchen and dining room to the main house, an expensive project that took more than a year to complete. That huge farmhouse style room became the focus of my life as a cook and a grandmother for the following four years. It was the place to bath a baby, celebrate a birthday, enjoy a wine, stroll out to the BBQ and terrace, make a mess, play guitars or listen to music. It was a kitchen dedicated to my family. I’ve never really found that life again: the disruption after the fire was too great. Of course I see the family in my current home, but that old ‘hearth and home’ feeling has been lost. The moon rises in the wrong place. I know my children feel this too though they say little.

Most of the internal shots below were taken in my old kitchen. It’s a media file so you can scroll through these by clicking on the first pic in the collage.

These few photos of my old kitchen and pre-fire life have been acquired thanks to friends over the last ten years. Of course our PCs died in the fire on that day, and so did the history of our life in that house, but there were a few pics on an old laptop, and others have been sent to us. 

Today’s post is the beginning of a little series I have been working on to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Black Saturday. Words and stories have been swimming around in my brain at night for months, keeping me awake. I hope these see the light of day and finally get transferred to the digital page. I know more thanks must be given, more pictures aired, some myths dispelled, and some anger vented too. And after this year, I might let it all go.

Funky old house.

Thanks Sherry at Sherry’s Pickings for hosting the monthly In My Kitchen series. I know there’s not much kitchen stuff going on in this post, but at least I’ve made a start on my memorialisation and for this I thank you.

The header photo shows apples baked by bushfire. See also my In My Kitchen post on this topic from 6 years ago.

 

 

 

 

On a Broomstick with La Befana.

The Befana comes at night, With her shoes all tattered and torn, She comes dressed in the Roman way, Long Live the Befana.”

These lines sound so much better in Italian (see below) and it’s one poem that all children learn by rote and then recall as adults. La Befana is one of the most loved figures associated with Italian Christmas: the celebration is still popular throughout Italy. It’s nice to see photos of Italian women of a certain age getting into the spirit of Befana, dressing up as witches, while family groups attend the many winter feste and sagre dedicated to La Befana on the evening of January 5, 12 days after Christmas day.

Orion and the Seven Sisters. Photo by my brother Michael, whose celestial photos can be found at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

For those who don’t know the story, the legend of La Befana is associated with the Epiphany which occurs 12 days after Christmas. Befana was an old woman who was asked to accompany the Three Wise Men on their journey to bring gifts to the new-born baby Jesus. She declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, Befana had a change of heart, and went in search of the three astrologers and the new born Jesus. That night she wasn’t able to find them, so to this day, La Befana goes out searching for the little baby on the night of the Epiphany, on January 5-6. Befana is a corruption of the Italian word of epifania, and is derived from the Greek, επιφάνεια, meaning appearance or manifestation. She is depicted as a kindly old witch wearing ragged clothes and riding a broomstick. She enters the house via the chimney and brings a sack of gifts for the children, sweet things for the good children and a lump of carbon or garlic for the naughty ones. See my earlier posts about Befana, here, here and  here.

Image courtesy of my brother Michael at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

But there’s still something odd about the Christian aspects of this legend. Why a witch and why is she flying on a broomstick above Italian villages and cities? As it turns out, there are many pagan and folkloric threads to the story, each one providing more clues. Like many Christian stories, this one has been appropriated from ancient times and tacked on to a Christian legend about the birth of Jesus.

Moon and Tree. Courtesy M Robinson at Mick’s Cogs

‘The origin of the Befana is probably connected to a set of pagan propitiatory rites, dating back to the X-VI century BC, and is linked to seasonal cycles, to agriculture, and is related to the harvest of the past year, now ready to be reborn as a the new year’.¹

In the Roman era, the twelfth night after winter solstice symbolised the death and rebirth of nature, and was celebrated. They believed that the twelve nights after solstice represented the twelve months of the Roman calendar: female figures flew over the cultivated fields to promote the fertility of future crops, hence the legend of a “flying” figure. According to some, this female figure was first identified as Diana, the lunar goddess linked to game and hunting as well as to vegetation and the moon. Befana is also linked to minor deities such as Satìa and Abundìa, symbols of satiety and abundance. There may also be an association with an ancient Roman winter festival in honor of Strenia ¹, the goddess of New Year, a time when gifts were exchanged. (the word strenna meaning gifts is derived from this).

Other precursors include Holda and Perchta, nocturnal witches of Nordic mythology, and in the Veneto region, Erodiade. It is customary in these areas to burn an effigy of La Befana. Good, evil, mother, witch, goddess, housewife, grandmother, hag, crone, the modern, often cartoonised character of Befana, has emerged from a rich store of pagan and Italian folklore. In a sense, the Christian element is just one minor thread.

Seen in Trastevere, Roma, November 2017. The real Befana?

As for La Befana who comes dressed as a witch in the Roman style, historians specialising in Italian witchcraft and folkloric traditions have more to say. A story perhaps for next year’s post on this topic?

La Befana nell’orto d’abbondanza. Madre, nonna, dea, strega, casalinga, vecchia, contadina, amica, cuoca.

There are at least 12 versions of this little Italian poem, but this is the one I learnt many years ago. See opening paragraph above for the English translation.

La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col vestito alla romana:
Viva viva la Befana!  

¹https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strenua