Am I working?

I have had another of those ‘several things coming together to make me think’ times. Whilst Mrs Snail and I were indulging in lunch at Studio 3 we somehow got onto the topic of retirement. I officially retired just over 8 years ago when I got my State pension and John and I decided to claim our small (in my case minuscule!) private ones as well. In terms of transitions it was barely a ripple. I had been John’s full time carer for a few years so day-to-day life didn’t change at all. The big difference was that my state pension was several times bigger than the carers allowance I had been getting and with the private pensions as well we could stop quailing at the sight of envelopes with windows in!

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A rag rug made from re-cycled fabric

Then another friend, Jasmine Dale, sent me a piece she had written for the online magazine ‘Dark Mountain’ asking me to give her feedback on the final draft before she submitted it. In order to read it in the context in which it would be published I found the site for Dark Mountain and read the ‘about’ page  and a couple of published articles – including one about work (find it here) which argued that our conventional definition which limits ‘work’ to ‘paid employment’ is too narrow and excludes voluntary, caring, intellectual or emotional work thereby discriminating against women, the disabled and the unemployed / retired. This resonated strongly with me because at present my daughter works as a Learning Support Assistant in a primary school where she spends half her time working one-to-one with children with serious long term difficulties (an 8 year old who consistently self-harms, an autistic 10 year old….) and is therefore regularly on the receiving end of physical or emotional abuse. The other half she works with children individually  or in small groups to provide support through difficult situations such as family trauma, being a young carer.. For this she is paid, once unpaid preparation time and buying bits of equipment herself are taken into account,  barely above the minimum wage. My son is a software developer managing technical projects for IT companies. In his present job the worst that can happen if he makes a mistake is that some executive’s G & T will not be waiting for him in the executive lounge at the airport during his stopover. For this he is paid monopoly money. Luckily all three of us are very well aware of how ludicrous this discrepancy is and the true value of the work each of them does.

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seedling trees found weeded out of the garden plus others grown from pips grown on for re-planting

Then I listened to a podcast of ‘Thinking Allowed : Work – what is it good for?’ (BBC radio 4 broadcast on 2nd January 2019) It covered a lot of ground but 3 things stood out for me:

Firstly that until the 1800’s the distinction between work and leisure was much less clear for most people. Work was done in or around the home and those elements which generated cash were much less distinct from those which sustained the household. It was only with the enclosures and the Industrial revolution that ‘work’ came to be seen as what was done for money outside the home whilst work inside the home was not ‘real work’.

Cooking, preserving and baking

Secondly that whilst there are benefits which accrue for having a job – pay, structure to the day, something to do, socialising with colleagues – there are, in many cases, downsides and even harm from the insecurities of temporary or zero-hours contracts, the abuse and isolation which targets can produce and the de-humanising effect of constant surveillance.

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And thirdly that in our culture idleness is demonised even though this is when we reflect, daydream or simply recuperate.

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And me? Well for most of my adult life I did work I enjoyed in teams which were very mutually supportive and whilst the pay was not great it was enough for my needs. Just as changes in management made it less rewarding in the non-financial sense, John’s health deteriorated and my hearing began to fail so I had no trouble deciding to leave. Do I work now? Is doing the Diploma in Permaculture design work? Is learning Welsh? I could quite legitimately describe myself as ‘part-time student’. Is gardening and cutting firewood work? Is volunteering work? I am as active physically, mentally and in my communities as I ever was – the difference is that I am now paid by the government whether I do these things or not. An argument for a universal basic income?

friends, family and community

What I still find difficult is to be idle! The protestant work ethic runs deep. Plus there are so many things I enjoy doing and others I would like to try. I really will have to live to over 100!

I would love to hear what you think of as ‘work’, whether you enjoy it, whether you are looking forward to or dreading retiring, have retired and are enjoying it or hating it and if any of the ideas in this post resonate with you/

PS I couldn’t think of pictures to illustrate most of these ideas so have used ones of ‘work’ I do!

 

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A Merry Start to Christmas

Those of you who have been following this blog for  while will remember that over the summer Chris, Matt and their family who run C & M organics started holding markets on Saturday mornings. They were a way of providing a space for new food producers in the area to sell their wares and meet potential customers even if they had not reached a size where it was sensible to obtain proper ‘Organic’ status. If you missed the post you can read about it here

When Autumn came around there was less to sell and the market stopped but a collective decision was made to hold a Christmas one with craftspeople invited to join in as well. So last Saturday two marquees were in place on the yard, heaters on full blast, Christmas music on low, a table set with activities to keep children amused, two pigmy goats for us all to coo over, plenty of food and drink to consume and lots of beautiful things to buy. I think we were all wondering what the turnout would be like. Weekends in December are always busy for people with visiting and being visited, general preparations and, of course, lots of special events. To make matters worse the weather forecast was awful and it rained hard all morning. But  in fact within an hour of the start things were beginning to buzz and by lunchtime the marquees were heaving, the car park was full and people were leaving their cars in lay-bys and walking the rest of the way. Everyone was smiling, chatting, eating, drinking mulled wine (or a non-alcoholic version), spending and having a great time. There was an amazing feeling of a community having formed and come together to celebrate – whether the Winter Solstice, Christmas or just the turning of the year people wanted to meet and mark it in the company of their  local friends.

Three days later in the Welsh class two people who are very involved in their local areas were saying that one of the problems they face is the lack of young people. In villages where the majority of the residents are elderly it is hard to find anyone with the energy to organise events or to do jobs like maintaining the  public spaces. It made me realise how many young people and families were at the market and what a difference they make to the collective energy level. And one of the factors attracting them is that there is a growing group of One Planet Developements (read more here)  – Lammas ( read about the eco-village here here) came first and others have come to use the policy but where they can access the support of others on the same path. A number of us who are older, particularly Chris and Matt,  have welcomed them and supported them in whatever ways we can and between us something very special has happened. What a privilege to be part of it!

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!)

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.