From Mountain Goats to Busy Bees

Only a few weeks ago Laura and I were finishing the main tree work for this year tackling the trickiest jobs which I had left until last so that we built up our skills on the easiest first. We cut some trees growing right on the edge of the high, vertical bank behind the greenhouses just before snow came.

The two which are still growing out of the bank are too far down to be reached from above and as I do not want them to regrow we will cut them from stepladders behind the greenhouses later.

Then we laid a hedge in an almost equally awkward place!

By the time we had done that we were joking that we were fully qualified as Mountain Goats!

But now spring has started to appear. The snowdrops and daffodils are out in several parts of the garden.

The wild garlic is reappearing on the path by the stream

The crown of early rhubarb is leafing.

I made a bird box over winter and hung it opposite the end of the deck so I can watch it from the house. I have seen blue tits investigating it – will they move in?

The black elder near it is breaking bud and living up to its name.

And in the greenhouses the 2 apricot trees and the peach are in full bloom.

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Peach

It is too early for many insects to be flying so to ensure a good set of fruit one of us must tickle each of these flowers with a soft brush every day. So now we are no longer Mountain Goats but Busy Bees!

Little Things

Last time I posted I was feeling rather glum as I had been limiting myself to essential trips and then Wales went into National Lockdown just as I would have been able to go out again! At least ours was only two and a half weeks whereas England has just started a four week one. I can go out on Tuesday! And I will – I have an appointment to have my hair cut and plan to do some other errands whilst in town.

After writing that last post I decided I needed to get things in perspective. I am not ill, frightened or hungry. I have plenty of friends and can email or message them. So I took myself off to one of my favourite spots for a good talking to! It is in the woods I rent from my neighbour. There is a small clearing next to the stream and on the hill above it a huge Oak tree which most have been part of a hedge once upon a time as there is a noticeable bank running down the hill to the stream – an old field boundary. The stream chatters away as it rushes to the sea and the tree stands majestic and solid. Both have seen it all before; pestilence, famines, wars (I am told that the Home Guard trained by shooting across the stream into the hillside opposite during World War 2) as well as good things like the farms thriving, children playing, lovers meeting. I tell them my worries and grumbles and I can almost hear them telling me to stop whingeing!

But (isn’t there always a but!) the path from my garden into the woods had become overgrown with brambles so I had to take a pair of secateurs with me and cut them back. As I did so I uncovered a tiny nest – I assume a wren’s. Two tiny birds did all that work to build a home and raise their chicks. They don’t care who wins the American election, who gets Covid 19, whether I am happy or sad. They just get on with their lives and do what their instincts tell them.

The cup is just 2.5 inches (6.5cm) across and beautifully woven

I realised that I needed to stop fretting about things I can’t change and focus on the little things that bring me joy. So as well as that nest…

I finished a jumper for the collection at Studio 3. This is plainer than I usually do and to the pattern they provide. That makes 5 I have done for them to different designs. I have enough yarn in my stash for at least one more which I will try to get done before the end of the year. A group of refugees have recently been moved to a disused army base not far from here causing quite a lot of controversy – some protesters unhappy with the decision especially as it all happened suddenly with very little consultation, and some people organising to try to help and support them. What must it be like to be dumped in the middle of nowhere with hardly any resources in the middle of lockdown? I know my jumpers will go to a different group but if knitting helps people worse off than me I will knit!

A couple of days ago I found this little fellow in the car port. I have seen newts in the garden before but it is nice to know they are still around. Once I had taken the photograph I moved him to a safer spot. I know there is a lot more wildlife here than I know about – they keep well hidden. What a priviledge to share my space with so many other creatures.

I was weeding the bank next to the deck and found these dahlias. They were facing away from the house and as I hadn’t staked them were hanging down below behind their pot. They have taken a battering in the wind and rain but add a splash of colour to the kitchen table. I have never succeeded with dahlias before but will definitely grow them next year to brighten up the Autumn (and next year I will stake them!)

I also came across what, at first sight, looked to be a HUGE toad but turned out to be my son’s drone. Over a year ago he was here and playing with it (He’s moved on from the radio controlled car he had as a child!) and it got caught in the big Ash tree next to the deck. We tried all sorts of things to get it down but to no avail. It must have eventually blown down and landed under some self-seeded raspberry canes where it hid. Finding it reminded me of spending time with him, his 3 small foster children and my daughter, who took the opportunity of lift to come with them. That brought a big grin to my face!

What is making you smile at the moment?

A road to?

In the days when farms were small and only had a few cows, moving them across one or two fields to get to the area they were to graze did very little damage to the land. Now that herds are 100+ strong they can make a terrible mess of a gateway so it is quite common for farmers to put down a few loads of stone around the gates. They may also fence off the edge of the fields and lay down stone tracks so that it is easier to direct the cows to the right field after milking. Open the gate from the track to the field you want grazed then drive the cows from the yard onto the track and the job is done. They will amble along and one man can manage them on his own.

So it was no great surprise to see a gateway on one of our regular walks with newly laid stone in it. Even when I saw the digger still working I assumed it was one of these narrow cow tracks being laid. But when, a few days later, I saw that the digger had disappeared over the hill leaving a beautifully laid wide road behind it my curiosity got the better of me! I knew that as long as I didn’t go through a gate I would not meet any livestock and the dogs were on leads as always when we are off my property, so I began to walk the new road.

I presume the rectangular hole is a silage pit (for those not in the know silage is the modern alternative to hay. Grass is cut but not left to dry. Instead it is trailered to a barn or pit, dumped, compressed by driving a tractor over it repeatedly, covered with a huge plastic sheet, old tyres are put on top to weight it down and the grass ferments – think sauerkraut. By winter it is ready to be fed to the cows who love it) so presumably whoever owns the fields is going to use them for winter feed and needs to be able to move tractors around easily.

I have often sat at temporary traffic lights watching a new piece of road being constructed. Somewhere on the site is a cluster of portacabins to provide office space, storage and restrooms with a potaloo ot two standing alongside. There is usually a contingent of engineers, identifiable by their suit trousers visible between their hi-vis jackets (often rather clean for people on site) and their wellies. They have high tech equipment like digital theodolites and laser levels or clipboards and rolls of maps. The line and gradient of the road is marked with posts and crossbars. Buzzing around are diggers and dumpers moving earth from here to there until the contours of the ground exactly match the markers.

This road has been constructed by one man in a digger and, it seems, one small dumper truck and a roller. No tech, no measuring. Just years of experience and a good ‘eye’. I found myself in awe of his skill!

Topsy Turvy Turning

One of the consequences of having friends from a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs is the number of festivals and greetings that pop up in my social media feeds. Just as Lockdown began my children wished me Happy Mothers Day, some of my friends later wished me Happy Easter, my son sent greetings for Ide Mubarak, and this week it has been Fathers Day from families and Happy Solstice from the earthier contingent. The Summer Solstice always reminds me of my Dad who loved to try to be the first person to say ‘The nights are drawing in now’ – a game he played with the man next door.

What was really weird this year was that it actually felt very autumnal around the longest day. March, April and May were day after day of hot sunny weather and virtually no rain. It felt like summer, the gardens baked and the grass went brown. Local farmers got the first cut of silage in early but then the grass didn’t grow back. The stream at the bottom of my garden reduced to a trickle. In many ways it was a blessing because we were all able to get outside in our gardens or go for walks along the lanes. We saw each other and had socially distanced chats. So much easier than being stuck indoors.

Then it all ended with thunderstorms, gales and torrential rain followed by days and days of heavy grey cloud, those days when it is either raining, has just rained or is about to rain.

So as I walked the dogs in the early part of this week the signs of high summer were all around. The council have cut the verges and the bottom of the hedges so the daffodils, bluebells, pink campion, stichwort and cow parsley have all gone though hopefully they will have set plenty of seed for next year. The lush growth makes visibility round bends poor and once the flowers have gone and there has been time for seeds to drop it needs to be cut back. But higher up the hedges the elders are in full bloom, there are dog roses, honeysuckle, bramble flowers and spires of foxgloves. It looks as if it will be a good year for elderberries and I am grateful because my strawberries and raspberries have been very poor. They were too dry to swell the fruit.

Walking with a jumper on and thick socks in my boots but seeing those flowers felt surreal. But today dawned clear and sunny so maybe summer is back for a while at least. I don’t think I will put my woolies away just yet. It is a funny sort of year.

Just procrastinating!

If I were a baby I would be described as frettful ot fractious today! I lost track of how many times I woke up last night. Each time I was too hot and had to throw the duvet off, then, of course, got cold and pulled it back over me. But I really don’t think it was heat that woke me. I reckon I started to wake up and as my metabolism cranked into life I got hot. What actually caused my waking I have no idea. Anyway I woke up rather later than usual, grumpy with everything and nothing and feeling tired. Not cross enough to have a good rant, bellow or bawl but a lot of mutter and whine and wail.

The weather is in the same mood. Occasional flashes of sun but mostly grey and dreary. We could do with soem rain and whilst I was walking the dogs it started to spit – big fat drops too – but it stopped before the polka dots on the tarmac had time to join up. So lots of nuisance value but no use.

I made the mistake of picking litter whilst I was out. I have noticed lots of empty cans, crisp packets and bits of plastic in the verges and now the grass is growing strongly they will soon be hidden. Then the machines will come along and cut the verges and hedges chewing all this rubbish into small pieces as they go. With everything still visible and very little traffic because of lockdown now seemed the ideal time to do something about the problem. I ordered one of those gadgets for picking things up if you can’t bend down easily because managing 2 dogs, a bucket to put the rubbish in and bending down for it is tricky. Within a quarter of a mile my bucket was full! Some of it was stuff that had fallen off cars, tractors and farm machinery – rubber from a tyre, a huge metal nut – some must have been dropped when the bins were collected but a lot was just stuff discarded fron vehicles. There was noticeably more in lay-bys and where vehicles turn into fields or through junctions. I could just see the culprits cramming the last bit of food into their mouths in order to have both hands properly free to haul the steering wheel round hard, and throwing the wrapper out of the window. It did nothing for my mood.

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So now I have to decide what to do with the rest of the day. I could do some sewing but in this mood there is a serious risk I will make a pigs ear of it and then be even crosser! I need something that is absorbing but not tricky or precise. Should I go in the garden and risk getting damp if not wet? I could take my bad mood out on some weeds. Or go in the workshop and find some wood for a new nameboard at the gate? The plywood I used for the old one is delaminating and the paint is fading and peeling. Or I could rub down the upright chair I bought for £3.50 in the house clearance place and an old chest of drawers that used to live in the kitchen ready to paint them. Unless it rains soon I need to transfer water from the reserve tank to the water butts but the syphon is too short – I could cut a stub of copper pipe to join on a piece of hosepipe. I could go through the seedling trees I have outside and pot some up to go in gaps in my new hedges or plant some in the field opposite. Housework? Tidying up would probably make me feel a bit better when it was done but not whilst doing it!

Maybe I’ll just make another pot of coffee, mooch around and see where I end up. Sometimes being focussed and decisive is just too much like hard work!

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!

Beginnings

Last weekend I went to visit my friends Jeni and Rob to celebrate Imbolc. None of us are pagans or druids, Jeni is a retired vicar who still takes services occasionally to fill gaps in rostas whilst Rob and I are ‘don’t knows’. It is rather that they keep poultry, sheep, pigs and, have just got some bees as well as growing veg as I do. So both households experience shifts in activities and energies as the year turns. Celebrating the eight old festivals encourages us to stop and reflect with each other on our plans, successes and failures. It is also an excuse to spend an evening together sharing a meal and a glass or two of something nice.

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Jeni and Rob live in a beautiful, tiny cob cottage

Imbolc is the precursor of the Christian candlemass – a point where the increasing day length is properly noticeable and the first green shoots are emerging. The first flowers of spring, the snowdrops, are coming into bloom to cheer us up even though winter is not yet over – there is a sign that spring will come. Actually this year the snowdrops were beaten by the first primroses and I have crocus out and daffodils showing fat buds. Maybe with climate change we will have to rethink our symbols if not our ceremonies!

In the same vein whilst winter is a time to cwtch in (A welsh phrase from cwtch = hug or a feeling of being hugged) by the fire and dream and plan, now is the time to start taking first steps to make those dreams come true. Having chosen the things we want to grow / achieve we must start to germinate the seeds. So we sat around the fire and shared what new projects we had chosen to spend our time and energy on this year.

My new project this year (just to add to all the unfinished ones from previous years!) is to explore the local footpaths. Every day I walk my dogs along the local lanes which are mostly single track with high banks either side and whilst traffic is very light a significant proportion of what there is is big lorries such as milk tankers or massive tractors which often are trailing equally large machinery. The dogs and I squeeze onto narrow verges or run to the nearest gateway. The proximity, noise and exhaust fumes are unpleasant. It would be so nice to have some off-road walks we could do.

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This may look like a useable path but after wading across the stream in the foreground I found that the old gate is tied to the posts with barbed wire.

When we first moved here 25 years ago a neighbour who was then in her 60’s told us that as a girl she had walked to school in the next village along footpaths and bridleways through the woods and along the stream. At that time there was a network of such paths connecting the various farms and cottages and other children joined her as she walked so that a whole gaggle of them arrived at school together. Of course in the intervening years rural depopulation meant that there were fewer people living here, houses became derelict, farms were coalesced into bigger units, and the people who remained got cars. A group of us tried to help her do the walk again but found it blocked – as the paths had fallen into disuse and stiles collapsed the route was blocked with brambles, nettles and then fences. What farmer would build a stile no-one ever used when a continuous fence is so much cheaper?

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This cottage was lived in when we first came here but was condemned as ‘unfit for habitation’ about 20 years ago

A check on the council website has shown me that these paths are, however, still public rights of way. So I have made an appointment to see the relevant council official to ask for advice and help in getting them opened up again. Jeni told me I was not alone – two local landowners she knows want to re-create a path that runs through their properties but that will be easier since between them they own all the land involved. I have no idea how successful I will be at persuading my neighbours to help but I will have a go. Watch this space!

Getting Physical

Last week I decided it was time to start cutting trees to refill the woodshed. Rob, who helps me with the garden wanted to use his chainsaw; I wanted to do the felling by hand with an axe. “But the chainsaw is quicker and easier” he argued. I am not sure about the easier because I have hardly ever used one but he is certainly right about it being quicker. I am the boss so it happened my way. I have been musing on why it is that I am so reluctant to let him do it his way and the more I thought about it the more layers I found to my pleasure in doing the job the old fashioned way.

Perhaps fortunately for someone going deaf I enjoy being quiet. I love being in the garden and it being peaceful, being able to enjoy the birdsong, the wind in the trees. The noise of machinery irritates me even at a distance and to me the whine of a chainsaw is particularly unpleasant. It also smells bad and the smell impregnates my clothes, skin, hair so that I feel dirty even if I have not actually been operating the machine. So much of the sensual pleasure I get from being outside is taken away.

IMG_20190313_155022257_HDR Special trousers, helmet, visor, ear defenders and gloves shut a chainsaw operator off from the world around.

Even Rob tells me that the chainsaw drives the work. I have no idea why, but once it is started up whoever is using it goes hammer and tongs at the job. Once the tree is felled the branches have to be cut off and then the smaller branches until the brash is quite small and will decompose fairly quickly (a process called snedding) and the temptation is to use the chainsaw for that as well, get it out of the way quickly and on to the next tree. Often the speed and the bulk of the chainsaw means that this is done quite roughly leaving snags protruding.

IMG_20200126_104047344God snedding leaves a clean pole

IMG_20200126_104056487 but sloppy work leaves snags like this one.

By contrast the energy needed to use an axe means that it is normal to stop periodically to have a breather, take a look at how the cut is going, adjust position to get a different angle, notice what is going on nearby. And since the only protective clothing needed is a good pair of workboots with steel toecaps, I can move and stretch, hear the birds, see the flowers. Large branches are taken off with the axe or a bowsaw whilst smaller ones are cut with a billhook. If the tools are sharp and the worker reasonably skilled the cut is clean against the main stem which makes them easier to stack or carry. I have time to look at each piece and assess whether it would be useful for making something or best put for burning.

I treasure my axe. It is a thing of beauty. Hand forged in Sweden by Gransfors with an Ash handle which I treat with boiled linseed oil every year, it is a Rolls Royce of axes. One of the lightest they do, it is technically a limbing axe for chopping off branches but it suits my height, weight and strength. I could use fewer cuts to do the job if I used a heavier one but I am in no rush and the heavier ones make me tire more quickly. The details may have changed but it would be instantly recognised by a stone age person – a tool design which has stood the test of centuries.

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Learning to use it was not something I found easy. As a girl born in 1950 I was not expected to master manly skills like woodwork, engines or, in fact, anything physically demanding other than housework. My father was a woodwork teacher but although he taught me the names of all his tools, where to find them in his shed and what they were used for, my job was to fetch them and then hand them to him to use. It never occured to either of us that I might have a go with them. Luckily for me when I did the Woodland skills course at Coppicewood College Martin Aughton took me under his wing and with enormous patience insisted that I could and would learn. In the end his persistence paid off. I am still not as accurate as I would like to be but that is because I don’t get enough practice. It would be so easy to let Rob get his chainsaw out and just tidy up after him but that would feel like a cop-out – I would be saying ‘this is hard to get right so I won’t bother’. Having finally understood what I am aiming to do and what it feels like when I succeed I am not going to give up now.

I also rejoice in the fact that I can be this physically active at my age; that I still have the strength to do manual work. To use the axe or billhook efficiently I have to use my whole body not just the realtively puny arm muscles. The power comes from the big muscles in the thighs and backside moving the torso and out through the arms. Thanks to Rose Thorn’s brilliant yoga teaching I now have pretty good balance so I can safely make big, powerful movements even on an awkward slope. And she has also helped me to feel the different muscle groups working. Feeling my power is exhilarating. And as long as I keep relaxed (helped by stopping, breathing, checking myself for tension) I can work for several hours without feeling stiff next morning.

Why would I give all that joy up for the sake of speed?