Retreating

When I was working (many moons ago!) one of my colleagues told me that she went on retreat in a local convent two or three times a year. I was intrigued and she tried to explain to me what it was she found so useful from the experience. I kind of understood intellectually but struggled to imagine how it might feel.

Walking the dogs this morning I started to connect my experience of lockdown (which is still pretty much in force here in Wales) with going on retreat. I haven’t followed the horarium of a monastic day but a rhythm has developed which includes work (housework, gardening, decorating, time in the workshop); socialising via the internet; reading; and times to be quiet (yoga, dog walks and crafting in the evening). I have been less secluded from the world than on a retreat but because I live alone apart from my pets there has been a lot of silence. My dogs ensure I go out for walks, my cats give me cuddles and they all entertain me, but great conversationalists they aren’t! So I have spent more time alone with my thoughts and have had fewer means of distracting myself than usual. No longer can I find something to justify a quick trip to the shops or arrange to meet a friend for coffee.

In the early weeks it was fine. I did what I always do and kept busy. I had already planned to do some decorating and bought the paint. There were seeds to sow, veg beds to clear and planting out to do. The weather was glorious. My head was full of lists, plans and ideas. I finished my library books. I noticed that I then chose old favourites to read. Books of short chapters with gentle, amusing tales – Deric Longden and his cats, Jeanine McMullen and her small country living, Peter Mayle in Provence. I needed to be occupied but couldn’t settle to anything demanding. Knitting simple jumpers for charity was fine, complex patterns were beyond me.

Then matters in my daughter’s marriage came to a head and she decided she needed to get out whatever the long term consequences. She has the support of an amazing group of friends who helped her find a house to rent and enough furniture and equipment to live in it in reasonable comfort as well as giving her emotional support and encouragement. Apart from being one of the guarantors that her rent will be paid despite her low income, there was nothing for me to do practically. But emotionally my head was full to the brim! It was weird being unable to follow my instinct and rush to her aid. She was coping well, had all the support and help she needed and I would have been putting myself at risk for no good reason. I could commiserate, encourage and send love by Whatsapp from the safety of home. A hard but excellent lesson in sitting on my hands!

Rumbling in the background has been concern for my son’s brother in law who has been in intensive care on a ventilator and a lung machine since early April with Covid 19. It began to seem that whilst he could technically be kept alive indefinitely the decision might have to be taken to let him die. This weekend he finally improved, was brought out of his induced coma and is being taken off the machines.

Now that the dramas are easing my mood is shifting again. There are still projects I want to do and I find myself almost hoping restrictions aren’t eased too much too soon – not just because of concerns about a ‘second wave’ but because I don’t want to be faced with responsibility for making choices about how much time I spend on my own here getting on with things and how much I go out and about or entertain visitors. I have been surprised how much I have got done when there are no distractions. I have quite enjoyed the solitude. Yesterday I picked up a book on garden design I planned to re-read back in March and a philosophy book the librarian picked out for me on my last visit, also in March. Both had lain on the chest in the sitting room untouched, reproaching me for my laziness. Once I started on them I found I was enjoying them both. The garden one requires me to stop and think about applying the ideas and the philosophy one needs digesting so I read a little bit of each in turn!

I am lucky. I have a loving family, good friends, kind neighbours, a comfortable home, a garden I enjoy, a secure income which is enough for my needs. Even so I have found lockdown hard at times. There have been times of loneliness, worry, frustration. I have learned things about myself. Some have been good things; my resilience and ability to pick myself up when I am feeling down, my ability to cope with extended solitude. Others less so; my need to be always busy, my impatience, my bossiness. And some are just interesting; how much I have to learn about gardening, how my reading choices changed.

I am looking forward to being able to see friends again, to have a hug, to go to the library, to shop for things I want to see and feel before I buy. But I am also grateful for the experience of confinement. I have had no temptation to do an online search for retreat houses (of whatever religious persuasion) but I am beginning to understand better why some people do.

We all know the steps – but we don’t have to dance

Spoiler alert 1: This post has no pictures

Spoiler alert 2: I have been debating whether today is a good day to write this post which is a little close to home at present (my daughter is extricating herself from an emotionally abusive husband) and on what would have been my husband’s birthday so I am a bit off balance. Will I make it too sharp or wrap it up so carefully it is impenetrable? If I get it wrong please forgive me but let me know – I need to learn! The issue has been on my mind and writing will help me think.

Like all of you I was shocked and upset by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white policeman. I have felt your bewilderment and outrage in the posts you have written and the comments on them. Like you I deplore the discrimination and injustices, the inequalities and deprivations that are endemic in our societies and the cultural normalising and acceptance of them – the shrug of the shoulders and the ‘that’s life’ response. What I am not is surprised.

Many moons ago, in what feels like a different life on a different planet, I worked as a trainer for Relate, the UK charity which provides couple therapy. Inevitably part of that was helping trainee counsellors work with abusive relationships. Based on the work of Karpman (google it if you want the theory) we looked at the three roles which are there in all the fairy stories and myths we grew up with.

The wicked stepmother, evil fairy, bad witch, possessive husband, (the ABUSER who can be either gender) drives away, puts to sleep, incarcerates in a tower, the hapless princess, daughter, seal who has shed her skin (the VICTIM – almost always female) until the handsome prince, fairy godmother, brave daughter willing to undergo trials, comes along (the RESCUER) and they all live happily ever after. These stories resonate with us from an early age because they are based on inequalities of power and as small children we know all about feelings of powerlessness, however loving and secure our childhoods are, because as little people we are vulnerable and at the mercy of our caregivers.

The less happy side of the theory is the corollary – we are all capable of playing all three roles. Before you click off this post let me emphasise that I am not saying you are capable of murder! I don’t know about you but I have certainly been fleetingly tempted but I have resisted that temptation as, I assume, have you. I am much more likely to use my power to rescue. That is why I was drawn to counselling as I later came to realise. I am a compulsive caretaker!

But the roles are not stable and if we get caught in the ‘dance’, for which we all know the steps, we move seamlessly between the roles. The abuser sees the prince as an interfering busybody who doesn’t understand the situation and, in an abuse of might, is carrying off his property. The knight in shining armour does nothing in the stories to raise the hapless princess’s self esteem or sense of her own power unless it is that of her beauty and golden hair (not reliable long term sources of power as us crones know only too well!) If his ‘rescuing’ fails and ‘happy ever after’ doesn’t materialise or his armour proves creaky and tarnished he can soon be perceived by the victim as just another abuser. It is the fate of peacekeeping forces the world over – sent in to rescue the underdog they are turned on by both sides in the conflict and feel, with some justification, victimised by everybody.

We all feel vulnerable at times because we all are vulnerable in some ways. I am a strong, resilient, self reliant, older, white woman. But, during this pandemic and lockdown especially, I have been very grateful for the network of support, both practical and emotional I have been able to draw on. If I was young, black or from an ethnic minority, disadvantaged, gay, homeless, jobless, under parented, I would find my ‘tribe’ even more crucial. I might feel much better if we were armed and organised. And because the victim is stereotypically female in our patriarchal society it is very hard for men to own their vulnerability and even more so to admit that they are unable, or choose not to, fight back and protect themselves. To be a non-aggressive, vulnerable male requires vast maturity and huge courage. Policeman and women can feel vulnerable too – they are peacekeepers after all – between warring parts of society.

So I can use theory to understand how these things happen out there, safely away from me. Me? Abusive? Never! Well not often. But the real breakthrough for me came when I acknowledged that I too can abuse. Not by murder or any other ‘arrestable offence’ but much more subtly. I am blessed with intelligence, a sharp wit and a way with words. I can use those words as weapons to cut people to the quick. Just ask anyone who has caught the rough edge of my tongue. I can use my intelligence to out-argue, run rings round, others in a way that diminishes their self-esteem. I can do those things unwittingly or with malice aforethought (usually aforethought in the depths of a sleepless night when I am full of fury). I would like to say that only the unwitting passes my guard but to my shame that would be a lie. Sometimes I ‘open gob without engaging brain’ and sometimes I deliberately speak to wound and even (thankfully only occasionally) enjoy it.

Which does not excuse, could never excuse, killing someone, institutionalised racism or any of the other evils apparent in the George Floyd murder. I too have signed a petition and I salute those of you who have protested peacefully. I offer this post because to solve a problem we must, I think, first understand it. We start from a poisonous legacy of colonialism and slavery overlaid by (growing) inequalities and twisted by the failure of our political and economic system to make good on its promises. The policeman who killed George Floyd and the colleagues who looked on without interfering must face justice. Equally they must not be scapegoats for the system which created them and allowed them to operate freely and with an expectation of impunity.

I wish I had answers. I wish I had the power to change the world. I wish that if I had that power I could be sure I would always use it wisely, fairly and for the good of all.

What I can do is call out injustice wherever I see it. I can use my vote. I can spread kindness, empathy and compassion as freely and widely as I can.

But there is one more thing. This event caused the furore it has because a witness filmed it, and the press and social media published it. Whatever the faults of facebook et.al. they allow ordinary people to publish things the establishment would rather remained hidden. A free and fearless press, from those young reporters who sit through endless boring council meetings sniffing out nepotism, shady deals, collusions and wastes of money, to the old warhorses who interview politicians on primetime TV, is the best protection for our democracy. So when I can go shopping I will buy a local and a national paper even if their main use will be to light the fire and I will continue to pay my TV licence fee, even though I have no TV, in order to feel justified in accessing public radio.

Thank you for reading this long and not very cheerful post. Please join the conversation so we can all find a way forward – I am looking forward to seeing any comments.

 

Encounters

One of the things which has surprised and pleased me about this long period of lockdown is how walking the dogs has ensured I still get social interactions. And because we are all deprived of our usual opportunities to chat everyone seems more willing to stop, stroll over to the gate and have a natter.

A few weeks ago I saw a farmer checking his fences before turning some calves into a field. I didn’t recognise him, though as we talked I realised I had seen him driving his cattle lorry meany times. He recognised me though. I doubt if he knows my name but, like many people round here he knows ‘the woman with the dogs’! We talked for ages and I was able to ask him who owned which fields, something which will be useful when I am able to restart my project to open up local footpaths. Since then he waves to me whenever he passes me in his lorry – not just the hand raised in acknowledgement wave but a proper hand moving from side to side wave.

Last week it was another farmer moving sheep. Meeting a few sheep is not unusual. They are consumate escape artists and when put into a new field will rootle around the fence looking for ways out. It is one of the reasons I always keep the dogs on leads – Roo sees sheep and her inherent herding instinct makes her want to round them up whilst Orchid is a sight hound and thinks ‘dinner’. If they managed to collaborate there would be carnage! This time though it was not a few – the flock was filling the lane for quite a long way. So I waited at the crossroads to see which way they were going in order to get out of the way. The quad bike leading the flock speeded up to block the routes the sheep were not supposed to take. The driver proved to be a lad of about 8 or 9 who clearly knew how to drive! He blocked the lane straight ahead, his Dad asked me to stop them turning left and went down the right turn to open the field gate and stop them going too far. To my relief and delight both dogs just watched quietly and I was even able to get my phone out and take a picture. Behind the sheep were a landrover and car ensuring none got left behind and tooting periodically to keep them moving.

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Today I went to C&M to buy fresh veg and met Phil and Lauren who have bought some land and obtained planning permission under ‘One Planet Developement’ (you can read more about this policy, unique to Wales, here) for a house and market garden. They make sauerkrauts to sell and hope to be able to grow most of the ingredients themselves. The house is almost finished and they were beaming from ear to ear because tonight they will sleep there for the first time!

On the way home I saw a new neighbour outside his house. He lives abroad and has bought his place here for his retirement. When his children’s school closed and he realised lockdown was about to start he flew over so they were not confined to an appartment with no outdoor space. I had felt unable to call and introduce myself because of the restrictions and this was the first time I had been passing whilst he was outside. Another long conversation about his plans and the frustration of trying to get furniture and equipment during lockdown.

So though I live alone and am isolating I am not socially isolated. Thank you dogs!

Lessons from Lockdown

When our children were babies my husband worked for a while as an Audit Assistant with the local Council. It was a small Council and Audit got various jobs that didn’t really belong to any department or took up slack when other departments were unusually busy. One day he was asked to review the insurance for all the Council vehicles before it was renewed. ‘Just think of the worst accident you can imagine and make sure we would be OK’ was the instruction from his boss. His scenario involved a bin lorry, failed brakes, a steep hill between busy shops and with the Council Offices at the bottom.

More importantly it made him think about our lives. What could go wrong? What would the consequences be? Did we have the ‘insurance’ to cope? From then on he was known for his ‘belt, braces and a bit of baler twine just in case’ approach. That seemingly trivial task at work became a foundation stone for our lives. We didn’t become fearful or paranoid, just determined to think about our resilience and try always to have plan ‘B’.

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Soft fruit gives a lot of yield for little effort

We agreed that we would try to accumulate useful practical skills going as far back down the process as possible and to do so using only the most basic equipment. I knew how to sew but learned how to mend, do patchwork using recycled fabric, sew by hand as well as machine, relearned how to knit and crochet, then to spin and to dye using natural ingredients (I am not very good at either but know enough that I could become competent). John added DIY and building to his ‘O’level woodwork then did a weekend course in blacksmithing. We learned to garden and to cook with what was available rather than starting with a recipe and buying the ingredients. Foraging increased the range of foodstuffs we could use. Preserving kept summer foods for winter use. We kept poultry and pigs for meat and eggs.

The spinning wheel I have been lent and the workshop

I hope I am not giving the impression that I live (or have lived) some buccolic idyll of self sufficiency. Complete self sufficiency is a myth. It is also part of the ‘I’m all right Jack’ bunker mentality of the survivalists. I happily accept gifts from neighbours, shop from local farms and buy staples like flour and sugar from the supermarket. I enjoy eating bananas and lemons that will not grow in the UK. I heat my home predominantly with electricity and since heat is needed mainly when the sun is not shining I need the National grid to take surplus power when I have it and sell me some when I need it. I use more than I generate so I am dependent on other suppliers particularly over winter. I prefer to use hand tools but am realistic about the efficiency of powered ones. And so on.


Allowing kales to self seed looks messy but gives me an early crop for no work. Small ones for salad and big ones to cook.

The last few weeks has been the first big test of that resilience for a long time. I have coped pretty well. Not pefectly so there are things I need to think about but on the whole well enough. I am of course lucky to be retired – my income is not dependent on me being able to work. I don’t have young children to care for and school or entertain. Having a mortgage free home in the country with a large garden has been a great blessing and is partly down to luck and partly to hard work and choices. Food in the garden, hedgerows to forage in, preserves and a well stocked freezer mean I have had plenty to eat and gardening, crafting, dogs and a home to look after have given me plenty to do.


Workdays and permaculture groups have made me lots of friends

Getting to know my neighbours, building a wider community by joining in things and volunteering means I have had plenty of offers of help with things like shopping and lots of electronic contact with others. My washing machine stopped working with a smell of hot rubber and some expensive noises just after lockdown started. I could have ordered a new one online for home delivery but I suspect it can be repaired and I know a very competent man who will come and look at it – but not at the moment. My neighbour has been doing my washing each week since and has been pleased to help me since she was becoming embarassed about asking me to drive her children to clubs when she had two of them needing to go in opposite directions at the same time. Of course I have missed being able to go out and meet friends for coffee, walks on the beach, visitors coming here, workdays… but I haven’t been lonely or felt vulnerable.

So where could I do better? I didn’t have enough pet food to see me through even the original 3 week lockdown. I buy dog and cat food in sacks from the farmers co-op but in future I need to have an unopened sack of each as well as the one I am using. That means I also need to make sure there is space for them in the new utility room. I can adjust my diet to suit what is growing but it is harder to do that for the animals! I also went to the vets and got some more of the pain relief medicine Orchid needs. I was a bit over cautious there as the bottle will finally run out tomorrow but even so I need to keep a better supply in future.


C&M have closed the trust shop but between 10am and 2pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday they are open to take orders called through the window. They put everything requested together in a box which is put outside the door for the customer to pick up.

I have been going to C&M for fresh fruit and veg, butter and cheese. I decided a few years ago that potatoes, onions and carrots were not worth growing. Potatoes because I always miss some when I dig them up and get ‘volunteers’ the next year which outcompete the things I am trying to grow, onions because they came out the same size as the sets that went in and carrots because the local carrot root flies get them all. This year I have been able to get some manure to improve my veg patch and am planting lots of leeks instead of onions. I had intended growing some potatoes in pots which I could empty completely when I harvested them but missed the seed potatoes. Butter and cheese I can start keeping in the freezer. So I just need to tweak my growing and storing. On the other hand by shopping there I have been supporting a local business – a balance to be struck.


preserves have been a boon

The other thing I have needed to buy is milk. I have been thinking about that gap for a while and had a go at milking a goat at a friend’s place a while back. Going back into livestock isn’t something to do on a whim or for an unusual event but I do need to have another think.

Of course if this goes on for much longer I will run out of other things, there will be other breakages and breakdowns. My hair needs cutting and since I had it cut short I no longer have slides and clips to keep it out of my eyes. A dental appointment has been postponed. A former neighbour died and I was unable to go to the funeral – it should have been a ‘standing room only’ affair but must have been very small instead – not a fitting send-off for a very popular and respected man.

Sometime fairly soon lockdown will be eased if not lifted and I will be very glad. I will enjoy a trip into Cardigan to have a coffee, meet friends, go to the library, buy some more knitting yarn and restock at the supermarket. I will get my hair cut, my tooth filled and my washing machine repaired. But I owe a huge debt of gratitude to that imaginary bin lorry!

A lot of lemons

My neighbour Beccy sent a message ‘Can you use up some lemons?’ Expecting 3 or 4 I said yes – and got half a carrier bag of them! It seems another neighbour had bought a whole box intending to do something creative with the children whilst the schools are shut. But she was widowed earlier this year and wasn’t able to summon up the energy to actually do it. Beccy was chatting to her in the garden, heard this tale and rescued the fruit some of which was beginning to go mouldy. She ditched the worst ones but still had more than she could use up so gave me half.

Luckily another neighbour had just given me some duck eggs and I missed the seville oranges in January so was low on marmalade. I made a batch of hummus and a lemon drizzle cake (of which not much remains for some reason) then used a kilo to make some marmalade. The last 4 made lemon cheese. It is a recipe of my mother’s which I suspect was a wartme one. It has less butter than proper lemon curd but tastes just as nice.

Lemon drizzle cake

6oz softened butter
6oz castor sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 oz ground almonds
4 1/2 oz self raising flour
grated zest and juice 1 lemon
2 – 3 tablespoons milk

Juice of 2 lemons

Cream the butter and sugar with the lemon zest, add the beaten eggs a little at a time then the lemon juice, fold in the flour, add the milk to give a dropping consistency. Bake in a lined 2lb loaf tin for 40 – 50 mins at 170 deg.

About 10 minutes before the cake is done put the drizzle ingredients in a small pan and heat gently to dissolve the sugar.

When the cake comes out of the oven prick it all over with a skewer and pour the hot drizzle over it. Leave to cool in the tine.

LEMON CHEESE

Grated rind and juice of 2 lemons
8oz sugar
2 eggs beaten
good knob of butter

Put the rind, juice and sugar in a pan and heat slowly stirring frequently until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture hot. Beat the eggs in a bowl or jug. Pour the hot liquid SLOWLY onto the eggs whisking all the time (think mayonnaise but not quite as slow!) Return the mixture to the pan and heat slowly still stirring all the time until it thickens. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter. Pot into sterilised jars and seal at once.

Blessings # 11 – K is for Kindness

There’s a lot of it about! I hope you are being shown it too. I know that many of you who’s blogs I read are noticing it.

I read in the news about the huge number of people volunteering to deliver supplies to those who are having to be very strict about self-isolating. On facebook there are posts from local shops offering to deliver to the vulnerable or key workers. One petrol station even offered to open specially if requested by a front line worker who couldn’t fill up during normal opening hours.

In villages and towns people are standing outside at 8pm on Thursdays to clap and show their support for those who are keeping essential services going. I have seen photos of houses decorated with rainbows to send the same message.

My daughter and I had a video chat this morning – Electronic communication is wonderful! She is a learning support assistant in her local primary school supporting children with special needs. At the moment she is working from home keeping in touch with families by video link and emails and supporting their home schooling as best she can. But one of her colleagues, a single Mum, is still going in to school as they are open for the children of key workers and any on the ‘at risk’ register. She was running low on stocks of food but was reluctant to take her children to the supermarket or leave them home alone. On the other hand giving someone a list would result in lots of ‘They haven’t got… shall I get you ….’ phone calls. So a few days ago my daughter went over to her friend’s house and sat outside with a cup of tea whilst the children played inside with the windows open so she could keep tabs on them, and her friend was able to go shopping. Another friend of hers with a very disturbed adopted child was going nuts stuck inside with him all day every day so was invited round for a break when she got a chance. They sat 2m apart on the small lawn in front of my daughters house drinking tea! It worked really well and neighbours passing by stopped to say hello so the chairs out there will become a fixture – such a good way to get to know those who live close by!

I have had several offers of help including from a young man I don’t know very well at all but who belongs to the Pembrokeshire Permaculture group and who would only have to make a short detour on a regular journey to drop stuff off. And I gave a neighbour some supplies from my stocks and some purple sprouting brocoli from my garden when she couldn’t get a supermarket delivery.

I have found all these things heartwarming and have been reminded that most of the time most people are generous – just often busy and giving mostly to their families and close friends. I am really hoping that once this emergency is over we will all remember how glad we were to have the people next door and down the street, be more aware of who is vulnerable in our neighbourhood, and will keep on showing kindness.

Blessings # 5 – E is for Electronic Communication

When my maternal grandmother died, two months after I was born, my Mother’s older sister took a stack of small change to the nearest telephone kiosk to contact my Mum. There was no phone in my parent’s house but a neighbour who had one had agreed to help. So Peggy dialled 100 for the operater, gave her the neighbours number, and waited to be connected. The neighbour answered and ran to our house, my Mother snatched me up out of my cot and ran back with her to take the call whilst Peggy shoved pennies into the phone to keep the connection and the operater no doubt listened in.

Every Sunday afternoon my parents wrote a letter home as they had done all their adult lives since moving out from their parent’s places. And every week a reply came from one of their siblings. I was 5 or 6 before a phone was installed at our house. After that the letters were replaced with phone calls but carefully timed so they weren’t too expensive.

Subscriber Trunk Dialling so you could make long distance calls without going through an operater, phones with buttons not a mechanical dial, home computers, dial up modems with their sing song tune as they tried to connect, email, cordless phones and car phones the size of a brick, then mobile phones equally pretentious, laptops and tablets, wifi and iPhones…. All that in my lifetime! Now BT is abandoning its telephone kiosks because they get so little use and for many people a landline connection is only used for broadband access.

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Whilst we are all self-isolating my children check up on me every day with Whatsapp and we chat with each other in a 3 way conversation sharing things to raise a smile and commiserating over the frustrations. My daughter emails me drafts of her Open University essays for me to comment on. Friends keep in touch by email, whatsapp and facebook. I read blogs from around the world, see how life is lived in far flung places, get inspiration from the projects others share. Thanks to wifi most of those phone sockets we installed so we could plug the laptop modem in in any room in the house, are redundant. I could write a blog post sitting in the garden! If I had a mobile signal here I would have even more options.

I realise that being constantly available is not always a good thing. Employers can abuse staff by expecting them to work outside their contracted hours. Social media can be used to spread lies or to bully. But I for one would find this isolation a lot harder without being able to reach out and make contact with people instantly and easily – all you lovely people who read my blog and whose blogs I follow included!

In praise of hedges

I spent Sunday at a field just outside Fishguard on the North West coast of Pembrokeshire. One of the members of the Permaculture group has just bought it with the intention of creating a small nature reserve with a wild flower meadow, lots of trees and shrubs, a couple of ponds and somewhere to sit and enjoy it all. He has had the ponds dug and is waiting to see what sets up home there. Some trees have been planted but one of our tasks was to plant more and in particular to put in a double row of saplings along the track leading to the field to grow into a hedge.

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Janey, Ian and I planted the hedge

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Brian and Denise stripped patches of turf off the area where the wildflower meadow will be and strewed meadow hay full of seeds on the bare ground

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our base camp!

Around here most of the farmers have their hedges cut back almost to the ground every autumn using a flail on a tractor. The flail, for those of you who have never encounteed one, is a cutting head like an old fashioned push along lawn mower – a collection of sharp blades spiralling round a central axle

hedge cutting

The result is a hedge which is neither use nor ornament!

No use to keep stock in, no use for birds to nest in or small animals to hide in and producing no fruit or berries. I look at the ugly, mangled stems and feel so sorry for the plants.

Many years ago, before tractors and such like machinery became ubiquitous, farm workers spent days and days in the winter keeping the hedges in good order. It was cold, hard, skilled work and I can quite understand why they would much prefer to sit in a warm cab letting red diesel power through the job! I suspect that it will also be cheaper to do it that way.

Since I have the time and have learnt the skill I lay my hedges the old-fashioned way. My trusty billhook does most of the work. I use it to sharpen posts which I knock in with a lump hammer. The stems are then partly severed, bent down then woven round the posts. I have a bowsaw (or a pruning saw to get into small gaps) to take out any stems too big to weave in or which are surplus to requirements (some of the multi stem hazels are just too dense). Those cut stems are set aside. The thicker bottoms make posts and the brash can be woven in where the gaps between trees are too big or the trees too weedy as ‘dead hedge’ to fill the space and provide cover for the new saplings I put in to thicken the hedge up.

I don’t have livestock but the resulting boundaries are very effective at keeping my elderly lurcher, Orchid, from wandering off in pursuit of interesting smells. As the trees put out new branches and the whole tangle gets thicker, wider, denser, they will provide a safe place for small creatures and food for them too.

This winter Rob has cleared old dead willows (the remains of some planting my husband did many years ago) from a section of the top boundary, coppiced the living trees and laid the hedges north and East of the orchard. I have almost finished the one on the southern edge of the orchard, cleared the brambles under the apple trees and trained the old loganberry.

There are saplings ready to plant out between the hedge and the top fence. I have chosen species which will provide fruit or nuts for the wildlife – apples (from pips), hazel, holly and hawthorn which I have weeded out of veg beds and rowan which I have bought. Hopefully in a few years time there will be a narrow strip of productive woodland that joins the much bigger wood that I rent beyond my Western boundary and the smaller one to the East.

Even though quite a lot of the material cut out has been used to dead hedge, there are still piles of wood to go for firewood. Many a small farm produced all its fuel from the hedges.

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An entirely natural and sustainable boundary, a resource for wildlife and a source of fuel – what’s not to like?!

I am looking forward to going back to Howard’s field in a few years time and helping to lay that new hedge as part of his wider plan for a small patch of biodiversity in a green desert of farmland.

What if?

I have just finished reading ‘From What is to What if’ by Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of the Transition Town movement. It got me thinking. It got me shouting ‘YES!’ out loud. And as I walked the dogs, which is when ideas tend to coalesce into new patterns, I began to make connections.

The central thesis of the book is that our collective failure to deal with the problems of our time – climate change, extreme weather events, mass migration of people – both refugees and economic migrants, inequality everywhere, breakdown of trust in the political process and the rise of extremism… is all largely down to a failure of imagination. We cannot imagine, or dare to believe, that the problems can be solved.

He goes on to explore why this inability to imagine might have come about. In particular he castigates modern education (not teachers please note) which is target driven and, since Victorian times, has been designed to turn out competent but compliant workers – no imagination required. In fact on an assembly line or working through a script in a call centre imagination can be a definite disadvantage. I was reminded of two incidents from my past.

The first was when both my husband and I were working as fairly new teachers in a Secondary chool in mid-Wales 46 years ago. A colleague joked that teaching was ‘casting imitation pearls before real swine’. Without pausing for a nano-second and without looking at each other we both said ‘They are only real swine because they know an imitation when they see one!’ THEN we looked at each other and knew we had to find other careers! I still think we were right! Most of us delivered unimaginative lessons most of the time, were unpopular with colleagues if we got the children excited (percieved as unruly) and children who were creative were described as disruptive.

The second was a few years later at a party. I was talking to the consultant in charge of a kidney dialysis unit who told me that his ideal patient for home dialysis was a teacher or police officer. They were taught the procedure and would then follow it to the letter. The patients who caused him grief were the ones who were sure that they could see a better way to set everything up and tried it their way. Disaster usually followed.

The book is not all doom and gloom. He also relates how he and others in groups have been enabled to imagine a better way of livng and to believe that it might just be possible to create it. The results have included Transition Towns (begun in Totnes, Devon, UK) and Incredible Edible pictured above (begun in Todmorden, Lancashire, UK) each of which began with a few people asking themselves that ‘What if…’ question.

So far so good.

What happened next was that I made a connection between this idea and ideas from my training as a couples counsellor. Faced with an unhappy relationship clients had 3 options (no-one ever came up with a fourth!) Like it, Lump it or Leave it. Since the situation wasn’t working ‘Like it’ meant changing it into one that was at least likeable and hopefully really enjoyable. ‘Lump it’ was to stay as they were but probably grumble about it to their friends and family and anyone else who would listen. ‘Leave it’ meant just that – separate. Or leave in spirit if not in body – through alcohol, drugs, gambling, depression or other mental illness, becoming physically ill, having an affair or by living sparately under the same roof. Of the three ‘Lump it’ was the least risky. Nobody had to DO anything, the other 2 options were still available in the future if needed, and neither partner had to take responsibility for what was going on; though the ‘leave it in spirit and lump it in body’ ran a close second. What linked this with Rob Hopkins ideas for me was that ‘Lump it’ required no imagination. No need to imagine how our relationship might work better or how I/we might be able to make that happen. Nor any need to imagine life post-separation.

The more I thought about it the more it seemed that the same 3 options face us in the case of each of the global issue I menbtioned above. The outworking is slightly different. Like it again means taking responsibility for my part in the problem and doing something about it. Hold that thought for later! Lump it means acknowledging it is there but remaining helpless – What can I do? Me using paper straws / reusable shopping bags / getting a smaller car / making a donation to a refugee charity… is not going to make much difference so why bother. I am helpless and ‘THEY’ out to do something. Leave it becomes denying there is a problem, or blaming it on others, or the survivalist approach – concrete bunkers full of bottled water and tins of beans.

The Establishment here in the UK and probably in most of the rest of the world is pretty firmly in the Lump it camp. Many fine sounding declarations of a ‘Global Emergency’ but a complete terror at the idea of actually doing something radical. Back to Rob Hopkins – a collective failure to imagine a better world. Not helped by some pretty trenchant vested interests. There are exceptions. The Council for the city of Preston in Lancashire UK (Coincidentally the place where my mother grew up), decided to spend its money with local suppliers. As it is responsible for schools, emergency services, Social Services, highway maintenance (everything from major roads to pavements and street cleaning) that is a lot of buying power. Instead of the money going into tax havens via global corporations it supported local firms and small employers with dramatic results for the well being of the area. (Read more about the Preston Model here)

Just as I was pulling all these ideas together I listened to an episode of the BBC radio 4 series ‘The Life Scientific’ in which Prof. Jim Al-Khlili interviews a leading scientist about their work and how they came to be doing it. The guest in this particular episode was a leading Climate scientist, Myles Allen, who (amongst lots of other interesting things) described talking to a group of engineers from one of the world’s major oil producers. He asked if it would be possible for them to make their industry carbon neutral – to sequester as much carbon from the atmosphere as was produced in the whole extraction, transportation, refining and use of their products. The senior staff looked uncomfortable but the younger ones assured him it was perfectly possible – as long as all the other companies had to do the same. If one company went it alone they would commit business suicide. There would, of course, be consequences including much more expensive petrol and petrochemical products. Which is part of what scares governments and makes them even more likely to play ‘After you, no after you, No you go first…’

So where does that leave me? Well I like a good grumble as much as the next person but I have never really been in the ‘Lump it’ camp. Hiding under a duvet of alcohol or mental illness doesn’t appeal either. And as for living in a suvivalist bunker! On my own I would go crazy and as part of a group, even if they were my nearest and dearest, I would probably murder one of them within days if not weeks. No, it has to be the ‘Like it by changing it’ camp for me!

But what does that mean in practice?

In the political arena I would be a disaster. My favourite question is ‘Why Not?’ I see ‘black and white’ / ‘either or’ thinking as generally unhelpful and tend to the ‘both and’ / ‘shades of grey’ persuasion. I lack the personal ambition and ruthlessness to get any real clout, and despite the views of the current line-up of US Presidential hopefuls I think 70 is too old to be in charge! By the same reasoning I have left it too late to be a Captain of Industry or top Civil Servant. So global, or even National change is not within my scope. In the UK’s ‘first past the post’ system for elections my vote is worthless and I have never thought petitions do much good.

So what can I do? What could any of us do?

Well, even though my thinking carefully about the things I buy, driving less, consuming less stuff, re-using and recycling whatever I can, making puppets for children in Sierra Leone…. is not going to make a big difference in the grand scheme of things, it will make SOME. And as the Tesco adverts say ‘Every little helps!’ By connecting with other people who are making the same effort we can support and encourage each other and maybe, just maybe, demonstrate to others that it isn’t a recipe for drudgery – all worthiness, going without, and eating a lot of lentils (Dont get me wrong lentils can be delicous but they do have an image problem). I can continue to build my own resilience by looking after my health and learning new skills (and learning new skills is good for my cognitive health too). More importantly I can work to build my local community so that we help each other, share resources and skills, look out for each other, inspire each other. That is how all those imaginative initiatives like Transition Towns and Incredible Edibles started after all.

I hope that all makes sense and I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Beginnings – An Update

In a previous post (read it here if you missd it) I shared my intention to see if I could use some of the old footpaths which are marked on the Ordnance Survey map but which proved to be blocked or I couldn’t find. The not finding was not helped by my being unable to tell which side of hedges the path ran and therefore which field I should be trying to cross.

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From the County Council website I could see which ones were recognised by them but the there was a stern note that this was not the definitive map and to see that I had to contact the footpaths officer. So I rang the council and spoke to the lady on the switchboard. I know from previous times when I have had cause to contact the Council that she takes a message and relays it to the relevant person who then gets in touch. She was very apologetic that because it was 5pm she would not be able to get hold of the person she needed and it would be the next day before I got any more help!

Sure enough the next morning an email arrived in my inbox with a link to the page I had already found on the official website but with an invitation to arrange to go and speak to someone and see the definitive map. I wanted to know how to get more detailed maps, how to find out who owned the fence that was blocking a path, what help the Council could offer and whether or not I was allowed to climb over gates or fences. So I made an appointment to go to meet Jason at his office on the edge of Llanelli and the home of THE MAP which was by now assuming almost mythical status in my head!

The Office turned out to be a room in a large wooden hut in a compound used by the highways department as a store. Luckily Jason was looking out for me so I could find him.

He explained that in the 1950’s all parish councils were asked to find any footpaths which had habitually been used by the public and to record them on detailed maps. These were then collated and transferred onto large translucent plastic sheets which are ‘The Definitive Map’. Definitive because they are the legal record – if a path is on there it can be used by the public and the landowner should ensure that that is possible. If it is not on there the public have no legal right to use it. In theory when anyone buys a piece of land their solicitor does searches which should show if there is a right of way on the property but in practice some are less thorough and the new owners get a shock when a group of ramblers walk through their new garden! Occasionally a landowner will ask for permission to move the right of way so that they can build a barn or extension or something. You wouldn’t want people having the right to walk though your new conservatory whenever they felt like it! If the change is agreed then the new route is noted on the map with an explanation and date.

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The overview map on Jason’s screen

More recently the map has been digitised and Jason was able to show me the area round my home on his laptop and could zoom in and out to see a whole path or a section in more detail. I told him which ones I had tried to walk and where I got stuck and he noted the information to pass to the team of rangers who try to keep the state of the paths under surveillance. However there are only 4 of them to cover the 2400 square kilometers of the county so I may have to wait awhile before one of them gets to this bit! He was particularly interested in the path which runs from the road just uphill from my garden along the river to the next village (labelled 4/47/2 on the map above) as that would be likely to be a particularly pleasant and therefore popular walk.

Because my OS map was not detailed enough he offered to send me copies of the screens we had looked at and sure enough, by the time I had driven home, they were in my inbox ready to be printed out.


More detailed maps clear enough for me to see individual fields and the routes I should take.

Since then we have had rain every day and two big storms which have brought disruption, flooding, fallen trees and landslips to parts of South Wales though I have been unscathed. Not good weather for trampling across sodden fields and through bramble patches, over fences or climbing gates. When it finally clears up I can go exploring again. Watch this space!