Starting in the middle

In order to write up my various projects for my Permaculture Diploma I have been going back through my books to remind myself of the structures and principles. And something has struck me. Although it is not explicit, there is an assumption that the site is essentially bare. The same seems to be true for most Permaculture Design Courses. Given the origins of Permaculture this is perhaps not surprising and I suspect that current teachers and writers, understandably pick up the assumption and, because it is not explicit, do not notice it so carry it on. But it has consequences.

blogOPD1Firstly it explains why so many people who have done a course feel impelled to go and buy a field! I say impelled because some of them may have perfectly satisfactory lives in a town somewhere but ‘How to use Permaculture to improve your life in an office job and a three bed terraced house in Anytown’ doesn’t seem quite right.

Others, of course, did the course precisely because they want to move to the country and earn a living from a piece of land. For them One Planet Developement planning policy is a way to get a home and smallholding with very little capital and Permaculture is the ideal design system to make it work. Read more about OPD here The downside is that existing smallholdings are often bought up by larger farms and the house sold off with just a smallish garden to retirees or as a second home. Or they become hobby farms or somewhere to keep the ponies for the children. One working smallholding is replaced by one somewhere else plus an incoming household which further changes the demographics and the income profile of the community. Does it matter? I cannot be sure but my instinct tells me that it does.

I have to say I envy OPD people for being able to start from scratch. We moved here before that policy was in place and in order to have a house that did not have near neighbours but did have a large garden we had to buy an existing one. We had thought very carefully and made a list of things we wanted – this house was the best we could get. We were free to replace the rotten windows and to reconfigure the inside but the outside had to remain essentially the same. Would we have designed a house to this footprint? NO!! Originally two cottages it is long and thin which means it has a large surface area for the volume and that makes it expensive to heat. Would we have built a different design on that footprint? YES!! For example although the windows are larger than the original ones would have been, probably due to building regulations when it was renovated from derelict in the 70’s, they are smaller than we would have chosen given that the house faces due South and could get better solar gain. Would we have built on the same spot? Yes. Which brings me to my second thought about permaculture as taught and written about. The lack of emphasis given to ‘futureproofing’ (I say that with the benefit of hindsight – it never occurred to us at the time as I will explain!)

We bought a house set back into a steep slope, south facing, with a fairly level garden a few feet below it next to the stream and a steep bank between.  Once the large self sown trees had been cleared from the garden we had a clear space to work with. So whilst in the house we were constrained by what was already there, the garden was the blank canvas we preferred. It provided a nice view from the windows and, once we had arranged a path to drop gently down across the slope it was easy to move loads up or down.  Then we had the chance to buy more land behind the house and beyond it. It was so steep we had it terraced but it was another blank canvas. Except that the position of the house was fixed. Since it took 2 years to get the terracing done we had plenty of time to think about what went where but it boiled down to ‘least worst’ options. If the veg patch was by the stream that meant we did not have the sitting area in the nicest place. Whilst the renovations were ongoing the workshop needed to be at house level so the veg ended up on the higher terrace. I curse that decision every time I push a bag of compost up the hill!

And now that the house is finished and John has died, the workshop is only used occasionally but to knock it down, make a veg patch there then build a new workshop higher up seems too much work for the gain. It would, though help with water collection. I can collect huge amounts of rainwater from the roofs of the house and the sheds but need most higher up where there are only the greenhouses and a small shed to collect from. We designed for two fit people in their 40’s both with part time jobs and part time on the holding; Now I am nearing 70, retired but not wanting to work full time on the land and looking at how I can adapt this place to suit me when I am 100.  That is what my Diploma is about. But I often think rather ruefully that ‘If I was going there I wouldn’t start from here’! Why is there nowhere to buy hindsight?





The Gift Economy

I have spent a lot of time over the last few weeks picking fruit and vegetables from the garden and hedgerows and preserving it for winter. Most of the mushrooms I picked in my neighbour’s field were dried, as were some of my cooking apples (the first crop off the tree in years!), and some apples and other fruits were bottled or made into jam, some of the elderberries became Pontiack sauce to enrich casseroles, and the eating apples my friend Marie gave me from her hugely productive orchard went into the steam juicer with a cinnamon stick to make a lightly spiced juice for winter nights, whilst most of the tomatoes were roasted with slivers of garlic and a dribble of olive oil before going in the freezer. So this

Became this (plus lots of boxes in the freezer!)



But I was also able to give lots of produce away. Most people had more than enough courgettes and green beans but tomatoes, mushrooms and grapes were welcome.  In the days before freezers everyone in the neighbourhood feasted when a pig was killed on a farm because with only limited means of preserving the meat it made sense to share it and, in return, be given some of a future supply. The same ethos applies to garden crops now – anything surplus is shared out. But I realised I was making choices about who got what.

It set me thinking (there is lots of time to think whilst peeling and coring apples or waiting for jam to reach setting point!) about the amazing people in Todmorden (and other places) who plant unloved or underused public spaces with edibles and invite everyone to help themselves. I think that if I was one of them I would start with a pretty rosy picture of the benefit I would be bringing to the community. I would imagine helping those elderly or disabled people no longer able to tend a garden and missing having freshly picked fruit and veg. Those parents struggling to feed their kids and relying on the food bank could have freshly plucked salad for tea. They are the deserving poor.

But what if I see that lad from the rough end of town, the one who has never wanted, let alone had, a job picking ALL the strawberries I carried water to when the weather was hot and dry? Do I tell myself that at least he wants to eat fresh food and they will be good for him or do I worry that he will simply trash them and curse him? The ?underserving? poor.

Or what about that couple with two good salaries and a big house saving a bit on the Waitrose shop – is that OK? The ‘too lazy to grow their own’.

Maybe this is why Community Supported Agriculture and Community Farms are so popular – only those who put in cash or work benefit.

But that begs the question – Those parents using the food bank may be unable to put money upfront however economically advantageous in the long run, and may not have time or energy to volunteer. And the retired or disabled folk may have the same problem. Community agriculture and Community Farms can easily become middle class enclaves however worthy the aspirations.

All this linked back in my mind to a conversation with a friend earlier in the year. We were talking about birds taking our black- and red-currants. To net or not to net was the dilemma. My choice, because I have plenty of space, was to not net but to increase the number of bushes until even the most voracious of flocks cannot eat them all! Not so easy if all you have is room for one bush I know.

It all seems to me to be part of the same questions: How generous should I be? When am I being greedy or overly self protective? At what point do I give so much stuff away I am not being properly caring towards myself? And how do I cope if my generosity feels unappreciated or even abused? Despite reading a number of books recently on our attitudes to money and possessions I have no answers to these conundrums – but I would love to hear your thoughts!

The consequence of reading books

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of years ago Mark Boyle, Guardian columnist and author of ‘The Moneyless Man and ‘Drinking Molatov Cocktails with Ghandi’, put into words a discomfort I had been feeling for a while. When John died I claimed the life insurance originally intended to pay off our mortgage. In the event it we had paid down the mortgage every time we had a windfall or an extra piece of work and no longer had a debt. Unsure what to do with the money I contacted an ethical investment firm and let them take care of it. It did rather well. Suspiciously well. Mark Boyle’s books made me look more closely. Ethical is a vague term – some of the money was invested in property funds. There was no reason to think this was unethical was there? Then I thought again. Were these buildings constructed using the most sustainable designs and materials? Maintained to the same high standards? Were the tenants vetted to ensure they were running ethical companies? Hmmm. I decided it was time to stop being lazy and shuffling the responsibility onto someone else’s shoulders. But what should I do with a sum of money which, by my standards, was quite large? I waited for an answer to present itself.

My first 2 attempts to buy pieces of woodland came to naught. Then, last year, the farmer who owned some land adjoining Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust let it be known that he was having a bungalow built on one corner of his land, retiring and selling the house and fields. If the Trust wanted to buy all or part of the land he would be happy to sell to them. The Trust did want to buy 2 fields because it would improve the balance of grazing fields to old hay meadows, but it did not have the money or the capacity to raise funds in time. So I offered to buy them on the understanding that the Trust would look after them and finance any fencing and so on that needed doing, in return for being charged only a peppercorn rent.


My money is no longer earning interest in money terms but I am happy it is being put to good use and I am enjoying the interest I am taking in the land and its progress. The dividing hedge has already been planted with fruit trees and bushes during a workday (see a post about this here More than just a hedge) and new fencing is being put up to allow the hedges to be protected from grazing so that they grow thicker and fuller. Eventually they will be laid to give a good stock-proof barrier that is natural and sustainable. With less intensive stocking wild flowers are beginning to emerge


IMG_0240Last Saturday we had the Trust AGM and once the business part was over we had a celebration of the new fields. The furthest one had been called Cae Cornel (Corner field) because ofits shape and the nearer one Cae Gwaelod (Bottom field) because it was furthest from the farmhouse and the lowest. But in terms of the Trust land it was middle-ish. So I renamed them Cae herc (lopsided field) its older name found on old maps, and Cae Novello after the lady who, with her husband, sold it to us.

Led my the inimitable Pamela Gaunt, storyteller, celebrant and psychotherapist, in her dragon costume, and Dafydd, partner of one of our neighbours, with his bagpipes, we sang our way round the fields washing our feet in the water of the West, playing natural percussion instruments in the earth of the North, blowing bubbles in the air of the East and lighting candles in the fire of the South. Then repaired to the barn for tea and cake! A lovely afternoon! Thank you Mark Boyle!

Well spent Idleness!

Having been prevented by my broken wrist, aided and abetted by a lot of cold, wet weather, from doing much, I have had more time than usual for reading. Some (well quite a lot if I am honest – it has been holiday time) has been undemanding novels of the bed-time reading variety. But 3 have been non-fiction, all obtained from Cardigan Library, and have proved very interesting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first was ‘The Secret Life of Trees’ by Colin Tudge. I have a copy of his ‘Future Food’ which I enjoyed very much so I was looking forward to this one and was not disappointed. The first and last sections were particularly fascinating. The first grapples with the question of what makes a tree a tree not a shrub or other plant and how they came into existence. The third describes how trees communicate with each other, share resources thanks to collaboration with mycelia and why we should value them more. As I have a small area of woodland here, rent another few acres from an adjoining farm and did the 6 month, part time Woodland Skills course at Coppicewood College to learn how to manage them, I loved learning more about them.



The second book was Adam Rutherford’s ‘A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived’ which describes the discoveries about human evolution and genetics which have been made possible by the advances in genomics. The Mendelian inheritance that I learned in school and at University turns out to be far too simplistic! It seems that each new discovery adds to the complexity of the mechanisms involved and throws up new questions. Given the vast amounts of data each research project generates and the computing power needed to make sense of it, even if no more sequencing was done there would be plenty of new discoveries to be made. I suspect that the book was going out of date as it went to press but it was mind-boggling even so. And because Adam Rutherford is an academic geneticist turned journalist he writes well and no previous knowledge is required.


The final one, which I have not finished, is Waterlog by Richard Deakin. As I don’t particularly enjoy swimming, and especially not in cold water, this is not an obvious one to appeal to me! But the writing is beautiful and, like Charlie Connelly’s ‘Attention all Shipping’ and ‘And Did Those Feet’, it uses a journey of exploration, in this case to to wild-swimming places, to scaffold a travelogue. I am enjoying the sensations he describes so sensuously of immersion in rivers and lakes – but only by proxy!

Eating for real

A while ago I read Joanna Blythman’s book ‘Swallow This’ – scary stuff! To the extent that she was able to penetrate the fig leaves of weasel words, marketing meaningless and ‘commercially sensitive information’ she reveals how far many of the things on shop shelves have traveled from real food. ‘Baked in store’ may indeed mean ‘our staff got up at silly o’clock to mix dough, let it rise, shaped it and baked it ready for you by 9’. Or it could mean ‘they rocked up at 8, got part baked stuff that had been made in a factory using goodness only knows what (we don’t), read the instructions on the label and bunged it in the oven to finish off. And that ‘goodness only knows what’ can include all sorts of ‘processing aids’ which do not need to be declared on the ingredients list even if they are enzymes from animal sources used in vegan products or pig products used in things like bread which could well be bought by practicing jews or muslims.

It seems that unless we make all our food from scratch using only ingredients we have grown or reared ourselves or bought from trusted suppliers who produced it as we would have done, we are taking risks. Even ‘organic’ is no guarantee. ‘Organic Greek style bio-live yoghurt’ (style is the give-away term) is thickened with ‘modified starch’ – much cheaper than straining off the whey, but the starch gives an unpleasant taste so it is masked by sweetening and flavouring. That is why you never see a plain version! The milk was organic, the starch, etc may have been too but I still prefer to leave it on the shelf!

Apparently even tins or the lids of home made jam may leach hazardous chemicals into the food they contain. If it is packaged in anything fancier than a plain paper bag it is potentially bad for you.

Of course there is nothing new about food manufacturers, caterers or home cooks trying to reduce their costs by substituting cheaper ingredients like margarine for dearer ones like butter. Nor is it only recently that people have made their buying choices based on cost rather than quality. And the result has been ‘food like substances’ for a very long time. What is new is the ingenuity of manufacturers of all the preservatives, flavourings and so on the effects of which on the human body over the long term are unknown. They may indeed, as claimed, be harmless but I prefer to stick to the tried and tested food we have eaten safely for hundreds of years.

Now life is full of risks and all most of us can do is make educated choices about the ones we are prepared to take. As those of you who read ‘squirreling away’ (find it here Squirreling away) will know I am fortunate enough to have access to a garden to grow at least a proportion of my own fruit and veg, local market gardens to make up the shortfall, a choice of ‘proper’ butchers and friends who rear animals for meat, and sufficient funds to buy organic staples. Plus I have learned the skills to cook and bake and preserve.

However food does not exist in isolation from other issues. I can grow food because |I have a large garden. If everyone is to have the choice to do the same that means planners must ensure land is allocated for gardens, allotments or community gardens. Which has a knock on effect on housing density and therefore housing costs. I can cook but it has gone way down the educational system’s priority list so there are many people who would struggle to feed themselves from basic ingredients and without instructions on the label. I can grow food because I am fit enough. What about those who are too frail or infirm (physically or mentally)? If hospitals, care homes, day care centres, or meals -on-wheels are to provide real food that has budget and staffing implications. For them to be able to buy truly fresh produce means having farms, smallholdings and market gardens nearby – another planning issue. This issue has become very meaningful for me since I broke my wrist and have had to rely on people to take me shopping, which has meant using supermarkets and convenience foods – I have bought mince pies for the first time ever. ‘Rubbing in’ and rolling out were not possible so I looked for ready rolled shortcrust pastry but the only one I could find was made with palm oil so I decided that ready made ‘all butter’ pies were the least worst solution.


And then there are all those things I cannot produce for myself – milk, flour, sugar (yes I do need some to make my gooseberries palatable!) are more expensive if organically produced so a bigger proportion of pay would have to go on food meaning less to spend in other sectors of the economy. Probably pensions and benefits would have to go up since we regularly read of old people having to choose between heating and eating or parents going hungry to feed their children.

Of course if everyone grew up healthy and stayed well for as much of their lives as possible there would be savings in the long term. But holistic, joined up thinking that invests for a return beyond the next election is not what politicians are renowned for! So it seems that for the foreseeable future it will be down to each one of us to do the best we can and hope that by refusing to spend our money on ‘food like substances’ whenever possible we may be able to make a difference.


Several things recently have resulted in me reflecting on the journey I have been on since my lovely husband died almost 7 years ago – a flurry of funerals, the news that my son-in-law’s mother is terminally ill and the conversations with members of the family about ‘afterwards’, chatting to Richard, my Welsh Tutor, whose father died in the summer (see my post on Cooking for One) .

Before John died I knew a lot about grieving; I had taught loads of sessions on loss. In the weeks after his funeral I sometimes caught myself commentating on my progress – ‘Oh, we’re at that stage now are we.’ But none of that helped. Loss just has to be got through and there are no waymarked footpaths let alone motorways.

I wrote the following to a new widow who I had been supporting through her husband’s last illness, after his funeral;

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘I guess by now everyone has gone home, you have tidied up after them and for others life is getting back to normal. But you are probably wondering what normal is going to look like because it will certainly not be like it was. Waking up with a space on his side of the bed, making a mug of tea or coffee for one, having the TV remote all to yourself.. This stage of looking at the wreckage of normality is probably the hardest part of grieving, believe me. And you cannot order a new life on Amazon Prime for next day delivery! Nor can anyone else tell you how to get through it. For now all you can do is survive by whatever means you can – comfort eat or exist on tea and biscuits with the odd crisp sandwich; clean the house to within an inch of its life – even behind the fridge and oven! – or let the dirty plates pile up in the sink then smash them all and leave the bits on the floor; go for long walks in the pouring rain screaming obscenities or curl up under the duvet for days on end emerging only to go to the loo and feed the cats; start to knit something with a fiendishly complicated pattern that needs you to read the instructions every 2 stitches and stops you thinking about anything else or slob in front of daytime TV unable to knit a dishcloth without loads of mistakes; or an eclectic mix of any of the above and other ways…. None of it matters and it will take as long as it takes.

Then one day you will find yourself looking at a couple of tatty bits of your old life and going to get a safety pin to fasten them together, and go back to just getting by until you decide to patch a hole in another bit.. And gradually you will make a new ‘normal’ – part of it recycled bits of the life you shared and some of it new. Maybe it will not fit very well and need adjusting, or you will go back and take out those safety pins and stitch that seam properly. Who knows – one day you may replace a hasty patch with fancy applique?! But eventually you will get there.

 Meanwhile be selfish. Do what you need to do and don’t give a fig whether other people understand or approve. Ask for the help you need from the people you think can give it and refuse well-meaning offers that are no help at all.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd which strategy did I choose? Well since John spent his days in the dining room listening to radio 4, reading and doing research on the laptop, I holed up in the kitchen for weeks with daytime TV for company (yes it was that bad!) and bought an iPad so I did not have to see what he had written. I gave myself a rigid timetable for the day with coffee or tea breaks and meals at fixed times to stop me lying in later and later and therefore going to bed later and later until I was out of sync with the rest of the world (other than teenagers!) It also meant each chunk of time that had to be filled was manageable. I accepted every invitation to go out and join things so that I built friendships which did not have old memories attached. In the evenings we went in the sitting room and watched TV and I did some crochet, so now I watched in the kitchen – no risk of looking at him to make a comment and seeing ‘his’ chair empty – and I knitted instead of crocheting. When I could I went in the garden and took my feelings out on the endless brambles. Exhaustion was the way to find sleep. We had already decided to have a new heating system and had asked a builder to do some jobs we could not tackle.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA When they had finished I had to do some re-decorating and felt ready to choose new colours for the walls and put the furniture back in different places. With a new dining room table and ‘his’ chair gone from the sitting room I was able to use those rooms again but it took a year to get there.

7 years on am I ‘over it’? No, and I never will be. I think of him every day and if it was possible to have him back fit and well I would do so in an instant. If he was to be still ill I would have to give it a lot of thought, not because I would not want him but because I think he had had enough of the frustrations and frailty. But I have built a life which is good, done things I would not have done if he had been alive and built a new support network, found new challenges. Life goes on, different, not better, but still good.


I’m Busy

Yes, as usual, I’m busy. And I don’t think it is just a case of Parkinson’s First Law which states that work expands to fill the time available!

Since Steve Jones of Chapter 39 in Newtown, Powys challenged me to think about, and plan for, the year 2050 I have been doing so. And one of the results is a decision to have the chalet in the garden, originally built as consulting rooms for our Counselling business, refurbished as somewhere someone could live rent free in return for helping me in the garden and woods. Time was John and I would have done the work between us but he is dead and I am older so I have employed a builder to do the work that I feel unable to do. But he still needs me to make decisions, source things like the small woodburner that will heat the place and to pay the bills. And I am doing the jobs I can manage like decorating and building the carcasses for the kitchen units. It all takes time.

Because I am doing so much thinking and designing (the chalet is only the start although probably the most expensive  item on my list of changes) it seemed only sensible to get some credit for it and in the process have someone else to look at and comment on the plans. Therefore I have signed up for the Diploma in Permaculture Design which is a self directed course of study in which I have to submit 10 designs for land, house, lifestyle or whatever. I get the support of a tutor to guide me so that I meet the criteria for standard of work. Unfortunately there is no fixed time scale so I can prevaricate to my hearts content! And all those ideas, thoughts, musings have to be transferred from my head to paper in a form which makes sense to someone else. I must be mad! Why do I do these things to myself?!

Now in my dreams all that work would result in a house so easy to manage that I could drift round in dolled up to the nines, nearly tens, whilst the ghost of my mother beamed approvingly. I should explain that the greatest compliment she could pay another housewife (always a wife in those days – men did manly things not housework) was ‘You could eat your dinner off her floors’. Even as a child I wondered how she would react if that was put to the test! And my garden would look like those the National Trust runs – thriving plants, no weeds, tidy paths… Meanwhile my woodshed would be bursting with neatly stacked logs from the acre that was coppiced each year, my car would be valeted after every journey and my outgoings would be minimal because of my reduced energy and water bills, the volume of garden produce and my general thriftiness. Undobtedly only in my dreams!

In the real world 2 dogs and 3 cats help me trail in mud. They rub dirt on the soft furnishings as they pass and leave hairs everywhere. I am convinced that old spiders use this place as cobweb building boot camp for the youngsters and it is ideal for the purpose being old, wonky and full of nooks and crannies. In the garden it is jungle warfare and the jungle always wins. I clear, mulch, plant and before I can get back to the beginning the weeds have gone mad. I have couch grass, nettles, brambles, bindweed, rosebay willowherb and himalayan balsam in abundance and some of the banks between terraces are so steep that working on them is well nigh impossible.

I have given up writing ‘TO DO’ lists – they are too depressing. Partly that is because jobs like housework or gardening tend not to have defined finishing points – however much I have done I could do more or do it again. Instead I write lists of what I have done and often it is quite a lot.

One of my favourite definitions of stress is that it occurs in work when demand outstrips capability. Both those things are ultimately a choice for me. I have no boss telling me what I must accomplish by the end of the day, week or year. I decide what I want to get done and what, realistically, I might be able to manage. I can choose whether or not to give myself a hard time if I fail. And I can choose to say ‘I can’t do that. I don’t have the skill, knowledge, experience..’ or to say ‘I can’t do that YET but I could learn’. It is true that as I get older I tire more quickly and I have less brute strength than I used to. But I also know more, have more experience of doing things or watching others do them, and am more willing to ask for help or advice. One of the advantages of grey hair and wrinkles and going deaf is that people feel good about helping me.

So, yes, I am busy. At the moment I am particularly busy. And, you know what? I am loving it because I CAN be busy and it certainly beats being bored and reduced to watching daytime TV! Next time I grumble about how hectic life is you can remind me of that!