When I studied  Cultural Conservation at the University of Victoria many years ago, one of the assignments was to complete an inventory of buildings.  The houses on one city block were recorded, photographed and evaluated using a weighted scoring system.  A building's significance was determined according to criteria such as historic features, style, condition, authenticity and age.   This exercise was a preliminary step in the process of heritage designation and long-term preservation of the city's architectural gems.   The lesson learned was that you have to know  and understand what is out there before you can protect it.
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I read with interest an article in Los Andes newspaper reporting that a team of high school students is creating an inventory of trees in the district of Guaymallen, near Mendoza city.   The students each have a section of the city to work on, and are busy recording location,  identifying species and evaluating the overall condition of individual trees.   What a great project for raising environmental awareness and laying the groundwork for an arboreal preservation plan!

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Trees at the edge of the canal on our finca
Canadian scientist Diane Beresford-Kroeger would applaud this endeavour.  In her 2010 book "The Global Forest" she stresses the importance of trees as "healers" of the planet, while explaining their vital role as hosts for diverse insect and bird life, and as anti-erosion and anti-famine plants.    She states that the Western forest has not been intelligently managed since the Middle Ages, when a seven-year renewable cycle meant continuity, and 64 items of market value were carefully harvested from the sustainable woodlot.   Beresford-Kroeger promotes the idea of creating a bioplan for one's farm that includes the addition of trees at the edges of the cultivated agricultural field.  


"A bioplan will walk organic farming one step further to increase the biodiversity of native species of plants and animals.  Quite often an organic farm, good though it may be, can be a desert, too, if the farm is just composed of mile upon mile of crops in an empty acreage.  The forest must come back to the farm in the form of an orchard, nut orchards and set-asides of select trees. "

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If you want to reintroduce a forest to your property, Beresford-Kroeger has these suggestions: 
  • Choose quality seeds or saplings  of species native to the local area, selected from the oldest, healthiest specimens.  These epicenter trees are the most resistant to drought, climate change, and pestilence.
  • Mix deciduous and coniferous trees.
  • Post bird boxes to encourage wildlife presence, (their manure adds necessary nitrogen and an assortment of plant seeds to the forest floor).
  • Allow wind to pass through, bringing spores for lichens, mosses, ferns and mushrooms.

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Alamos, a windbreak for the vineyards
Beresford-Kroeger would also be pleased to know that I am reading  the Kindle version of "The Global Forest" which was delivered in paperless format.   She points out that the sex hormones in trees called "gibberellins" are bleeding into the large bodies of water where trees are milled for the pulp and paper industry.  This huge  hormonal load is being dumped directly into our drinking water and xenochemicals  can now be found in the bodies of all mammals, including humans.   As she so eloquently says, "The broken forest is in our children's tears."

At her country home near Ottawa, Ontario,  Beresford-Kroeger has planted and cultivated, over a 30 year period, an incredible garden comprised of over 6000 species of trees, shrubs and flowers.  She also maintains a seed bank for the future, and is actively working to educate people about methods for the renewal and preservation of biodiversity.  


"The civilized world has not put a finger on the pulse of nature. It has ignored the pattern in which nature works, as if man himself is an independent species apart from the web of it.  The truth is that man is only one species and he stands on a fragile platform of life that is but a whisper away from death.  There is some time left.  There is time for a different way of thinking in which man can rethread the needle and sew a life for the future."

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Bodegas Los Toneles ( the barrels)  is located in Guaymallen at Bandera de los Andes 1393.  The winery boasts an excellent restaurant and conducts guided tours of their facility with wine-tastings.   Owned by the Millan family, Los Toneles  produced this bottle of  2 Estacas Chardonnay 2008, with its aroma of tropical fruit and toasted bread, a medium body and a pineapple finish.   We paired the wine with a citrus salad that celebrates the fruit of our trees -  grapefruit and orange segments, walnuts and green olives -  tossed with arugula, butter lettuce, endive and thin slices of goat cheese.   A bottle of 2 Estacas sells for 15 pesos.

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Citrus Salad
 
 
Today is "Children's Day" in Argentina, a day celebrated by family gatherings featuring a festive meal and presents for the kids.  It's a good time to give some consideration to the living conditions, rights and opportunities offered to children in this country.
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The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child determined that children have the right "to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health care and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health."    Let's look  at some statistics from Index Mundi based on 2009 numbers.  

Argentina's  Infant mortality rate: 11 per 1,000 live births
Canada's  Infant mortality rate: 5 per 1,000 live births  

The infant mortality rate is considered by experts to be the single best indicator to represent the health of the population.  
Clearly Argentina has a long way to go to improve child health during the first year of life.  But so does Canada.
What these statistics don't reveal is the growing disparity between certain segments of the population.  Infant mortality in both countries  is higher than the national average among indigenous groups.  In Canada, the province of Saskatchewan with its large Native population has an infant mortality rate of 8.3.  That's the provincial average, but in two of the northern Saskatchewan health jurisdictions, among the Native population the rate is 14.5.  In Argentina, the province of Formosa with its large Native population has an infant mortality rate of 25.1.  These rates reflect higher numbers of infants with low birth weight or congenital malformation and also a higher incidence of sudden infant death syndrome.  The lack of medical facilities in isolated areas plays a role in infant deaths, as well as the quality of pre-natal care and level of parental education.  There are often cultural beliefs surrounding birthing practices which prevent mothers from getting the very best care.  One of the saddest stories I've read about women in Canada was this recent article from the Globe and Mail, an account of Inuit mothers who must be flown out of their northern community to give birth in a medical centre. The women don't like to be separated from their families and often hide the fact  that they are pregnant in order to avoid re-location.   The end result of a complicated labour endured in a remote village without medical intervention  is often infant death.

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The infant mortality statistics have to be weighed in terms of past history and global context to gain some perspective.  Argentina has steadily improved from an average infant mortality rate of 16 in 2004.  It ranks 148th out of 221 countries on a chart listing the highest mortality rate as number one.  In comparison with other South American countries, Argentina has the second lowest infant mortality rate.   Canada, on the other hand, has been slipping in the charts:  in 2004, the infant mortality rate was 4.75, a lower number than today.  Canada ranks 186 out of 221 countries, which is not an admirable position among industrialized nations.

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Students in San Rafael
What about a child's education in Argentina?  The current government has declared education mandatory from the age of 5 years, and children must complete 9 grades.  Public transportation is free for students and even young children take the bus independently to and from school.   University is tuition- free and open to everyone at the undergraduate level.   Literacy rate is 97%.

In Canada,  public school starts at age 5 and includes 12 grades, but the legal age for dropping out of school is 16.  University education is expensive, with average tuition fees amounting to $6,600 Cdn. per year, not including the cost of students' books, transportation and accommodation.    Literacy rate is 99%.


Educators and sociologists maintain that the greatest determining factor for a child's achievement in education is the level of education attained by his or her parents, a fact that implies a bleak outlook for a bright child whose parents never went beyond high school.  A recently published international  study by Mariah Evans from the University of Nevada showed  that the presence of books in the home can increase a child's education by 3.2 years.   An in-home library of over 500 books had the greatest effect on a child's educational achievements.  

In Argentina, books are expensive and the range of available literature is limited.  Students use photocopies of textbooks, rather than the real thing and libraries have inadequate collections because few borrowers actually return the texts. ( Whenever I have loaned an English language book to an Argentinean, it has come back dog-eared from repeated photocopying, as these multiple copies can be sold to other readers.)  Perhaps the greatest gift that one can to give a child on Dia de los Ninos is a book.

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Overall, conditions influencing the health and welfare of children in Argentina are improving.  From what I have observed in my own community, the Native children benefit from inclusion in families that are close-knit, with several generations actively involved in child-rearing.  Parents and grandparents are present in their lives and serve as positive role models.  The Argentine children I have met are polite, confident, articulate and respectful of their elders.   They may not have the material luxuries of their Canadian counterparts, but their emotional and spiritual needs are well looked after within the family unit.  


In Canada 11% of the population lives below the poverty line.  In Argentina, the number is 23%.  But does a low household income determine that a child who grows up in a poor family is bound to be disadvantaged for a lifetime?   Surely there are simple, efficient ways to break the cycle of poverty and improve the prospects for all children.

 
 
The nights are getting colder as winter approaches and in the late afternoon gathering kindling has become an essential ritual for families in our neighbourhood.  Finca houses are modest dwellings, poorly-constructed, devoid of insulation and designed to stay cool.  Fireplaces offer the only source of heat and when evening temperatures hover around the freezing mark, country folk endure a bitter chill that seeps into cement or ceramic-tiled floors and lingers until noon the next day.  
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Keeping warm in Argentina is not like keeping warm in Canada, where  efficient central heating, fibreglass-insulated walls and roofs, and double-glazed windows create an effective barrier between indoors and out.   Our defence system here consists of handmade fabric "snakes" that plug drafty window wells and door cracks, heavy woollen shawls, thick slippers, hot water bottles and a goose down quilt for the bed.  When the sun sets behind the snow-capped Andes, we bundle up and hunker down.

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Kindling
While wood fires and comforters offer low-tech solutions for combatting the cold, I have discovered one high-tech device that is a lifesaver in this season.  Kindle!  The  new e-reader allows me to download books from Amazon.com in seconds at a reasonable cost, without requiring a computer.  My entire library is now stored in a handy, lightweight device that fits into my purse and can travel anywhere.  Kindle allows me to make personal margin notes, add bookmarks, save clippings, search for a word or look up its dictionary definition at the flick of a switch.  When it's time to make dinner,  I  use a text-to-speech feature and listen while the book is read to me.   Reviews of Kindle often wax nostalgic for the texture of print on paper, coffee rings on faded covers and dog-eared pages, but I'm actually not missing any of those bookish attributes.   In a country where English-language books are nearly impossible to find and imported books are taxed at a prohibitive rate of 50% on the cover price, Kindle is truly the answer to my prayers for open access to literature.

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I have some catching up to do with reading material, as I've missed so many of the newly-released North American and European titles.  My Kindle  can hold 1,500 books, so I'm just getting started with "The Pattern in the Carpet"by Margaret Drabble, "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science" by Richard Holmes, "Solar" by Ian McEwan and "Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill.  While kindling, I can't resist snacking on luscious, chewy coconut and dulce de leche squares from Belen bakery.

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Dulce de Leche liqueur made by Tres Plumas is our preferred fireside drink.  There's an historical connection with Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson which adds intrique to this rich-tasting, caramel dessert liqueur.  A bottle of Dulce de Leche liqueur costs 14.99 pesos and six coconut squares can be purchased from the bakery for 8.50 pesos.

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Los Andes
 
 
Autumn brings cooler temperatures, shorter days and a hint of gold to the poplar trees that grow along Calle La Vilina.  It's the season for pears and this year's crop includes lovely examples of Williams, D'Anjou, Red, Bartlett, Packham and Bosc.  Looking at the range and quality of varieties grown here, it's not surprising that about half the pears imported to North America originated in Argentina.  
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Williams pears are excellent eaten fresh, and ideal for poaching in spiced wine to make an elegant dessert.  They have to be still firm but ripe to retain their shape and texture during cooking, just a little soft at the shoulders when pressed with a fingertip.  The pears are peeled and cored with a thin slice cut off the bottom to allow them to stand upright in the pot.  A bottle of wine, sugar, lemon zest, herbs and spices are boiled in a stock pot to create the poaching liquid.  I use a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme, bay leaves, a cinnamon stick and a vanilla bean to add flavour to the mixture.  The pears are simmered over low heat for 20 minutes and removed from the burner to simply soak in the sauce for 15 minutes before placing them aside on a platter.  The remaining liquid is then reduced to half its volume to make a thick syrup for drizzling over the poached fruit.  By the time the pears are ready to serve, the whole house is filled with most appetizing, spicy scent.   

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The only rule of thumb for choosing a wine to cook with is that it be of a quality suitable for drinking on its own.  I chose Canciller Merlot 2008 for the poaching wine, as its soft, fruity flavour would not overwhelm the delicacy of pears.   One might also use a good quality white such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc which would not change the fruit's colour.   I was pleased with the rich burgundy that the poached pears acquired;  like a crimson silk scarf draped over a grey suit, it added a certain amount of drama to dessert.  We paired our pears with the same Merlot that was used for poaching. 

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A bottle of Canciller Merlot costs 12.99 pesos at Atomo supermarket.  The Williams pears sell for 5.99 pesos per kg. 

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One of the most interesting works of fiction  I've read recently is "The Portrait" by Iain Pears an Oxford educated author, journalist and art historian.  The book charts stages of friendship, betrayal, bitterness and malevolence in a relationship between an erudite art critic and a talented painter who lives in self-imposed exile on an island off the coast of France.  Set in the early 1900s, the backdrop for the novel is the vibrant and competitive art world of London, a milieu dominated by critics who could make or break a career with their reviews.  Written in the difficult and restrictive second person, the novel unfolds exclusively from the point of view of the artist at his easel engaged in the task of painting a portrait of the critic. There is no narration of dialogue from the man sitting passively in front of him, but through artist Henry MacAlpine's personal recollections, confessions and  accusations,  the character of the art critic, William Nasmyth, is gradually revealed.  The book's prose reads like a long, explanatory letter written to settle a score.  Pears' rigorous  style parallels the scrutiny of an artist as he concentrates on the subject at hand;  the intense gaze that attempts to capture both physical appearance and psyche.  As the work of art draws closer to completion it becomes clear that the painting is used as a conceit in a sinister plot.  "The Portrait" is a superbly crafted novel full of  insight into the ways in which power can seduce, corrupt and ultimately destroy.  Read an excerpt of the text - it's as delicious and satisfying as the fruit described above.