Tick Tock

Time has been much on my mind lately.

Yet again there is not enough of it for me to do everything I want to do. And not, it seems, only for me; almost every blog I have read lately has started with an apology for not having posted much lately. But when I think about what I have achieved over the last month or two it suggests I have not been that much of a slouch! The garden is very green (even if a lot of the growth is weeds) and I am eating something from it every day. I have visited and had visitors, been to events, written up more of my diploma… I just haven’t done as much as I hoped and intended.

When I am waiting for a bus / train / appointment time drags very slowly. When I am trying-to-get-everything-done-by.. it races past. Which is odd because according to science each second is exactly the same length as every other. According to the National Physical Laboratory ‘The second is defined by taking the fixed numerical value of the caesium frequency ∆ν, the unperturbed ground-state hyperfine transition frequency of the caesium 133 atom, to be 9 192 631 770 when expressed in the unit Hz, which is equal to s−1. The wording of the definition was updated in 2019.’ I am not sure why that definition was chosen or how they know, but it sounds impressive and they seem pretty sure it ensures that seconds cannot wriggle around and change their length! But I am equally sure that they do in the real, lived world!

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I love clocks, preferably ones which tick and chime although with my deteriorating hearing I notice them less. My favourite is the grandfather clock I inherited from my mother’s oldest sister and which passes from woman to woman through the family. My aunt was childless hence it coming to me. In due course it will go to my daughter and then to her daughter. There is only one place in the living room where it can go because it is tall and the ceiling, though undulating, is low. For telling the time it is hopeless! It runs for eight days between re-windings, though I try to do it every Sunday so I remember, and is usually at least an hour wrong by then. When we first got it we decided that since it was not reliable for knowing the time we would set it to local time which here is 18 minutes behind GMT and we pay no attention to British Summer Time. However this summer, as last, it refuses to go at all. This old house moves as the temperature and rainfall cycle through the year and at the moment doors are sticking and the old clock has stopped. In the autumn I will find it will go again. It clearly lives in its own little world where seconds are constantly changing in length.

Then there is the face of the old Postman’s Alarm clock which stopped working and no-one could get to go again. The chains and weights needed such a long drop that it was very hard to find somewhere to hang it. I replaced the old mechanism with a battery one and it now lives in the porch.

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The one on the oven returns to noon whenever we have a power cut however momentary. It is often the only way I know there was one. If that happens the oven refuses to come on until the clock has been reset. Why? Why does it have to know the the time to be able to get hot?

The laptop, tablet and my mobile phone also have accurate clocks, updated by their internet connections and no doubt accurate to the fraction of a second – but only useful when they are switched on!

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I have other reliable clocks for knowing when I need to go out or expect visitors. They are battery operated and radio controlled. The packaging on one boasted it was accurate to ‘one second in a thousand years’ though I doubt if anyone will be able to hold them to that. Nor do I understand why any ordinary person would require that degree of accuracy.

Apart from when I need to be somewhere at a particular time most of my life is lived by approximate time. I get up when I wake and go to bed when I am tired. I eat when my internal clock tells me I should. In winter days are short and evenings long. In summer it is the reverse. The transition between the two is gradual – none of this disconcerting springing forward and falling back. So presumably the time will come when life is more leisurely and blog posts more frequent. You can decide for yourselves if that is a threat or a promise!

Now my highly accurate internal clock is saying it is time for a cup of tea so that is what I will do next.

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The Rules of Knitting

You may remember that a while ago I wrote a post about things I had been making, including 2 cushions. (If you missed it you can read it here) One was a present for my daughter and made of fabric, the other was knitted using some wool left over from another project. I noticed that I made the fabric one during the day and the knitted one in the evening whilst sitting with my feet up. Which sort of made sense – to cut out fabric on a big table or to sew on the machine I go into my studio over the utility room. To go up there after dark when it is colder took more effort than sitting in front of the fire.

But now spring has come, the evenings are light and the weather is warm and still I only do sewing in the day! Then I realised that I had inherited this pattern from my mother. The more I thought about it the more curious it seemed. It was only when I began to remember my childhood home that it all began to make sense.

My mother kept her hand powered singer sewing machine (so no integral light!) in the tiny ‘boxroom’ which had a fold out camp bed for visitors but was essentially used for storage. To use the machine she carried it down to the living room and used the dining table so it had to be put away in order to serve the evening meal. After that she would sit with my father and watch TV – and knit at the same time.

I also realised that, like many houses of that era, there were no table lamps, and certainly nothing like the flexible task lamps we have now. In fact, I now remember, there wasn’t even a standard lamp which she could have had by her chair. Each room had a central pendant light so that to do sewing involved moving a table so that the light fell on it (but never as bright a light as I would expect to have now) or positioning it in front of a window. Another reason for sewing in daylight. Knitting, of course, can be done with weaker light – at least if it is fairly simple. Hers always was rather ‘functional’! Endless plain jumpers in sensible colours.

Now my studio is well lit with strip lights down each side of the ceiling and a choice of task lights. I have a fan heater in there so that I can be warm whatever the outside temperature.

So Why? Oh Why? can I not sew in the evening or knit in the afternoon? But I feel ‘all wrong’ if I try!

If you are still bound by old, irrelevant rules I would love to hear about them. I would feel less stupid!

A muted Hooray!

The BBC’s Welsh news carried a report this morning that ‘the UK Committee on Climate Change is advising that Wales should cut the numbers of sheep and cattle, plant more trees and encourage heavy industry to clean up’ (read the full article here) What’s not to like?

Weeeellll?

Whilst some smallholders of my acquaintance keep sheep and poultry primarily as pets not many of them keep cows. Cows, at least on any commercial scale, involve getting up at silly o’clock every morning, seven days a week, bank holidays and Christmas included, to do the milking. And repeating the procedure in the late afternoon meaning that even a day out has to be a short one. At the large organic dairy farm up the road Charlie, the manager, milks over 200 cows every day except between Christmas and Easter-ish time when the cows are dry because they are pregnant. At the moment he is calving (regular checks, helping any cows which are struggling to deliver their calf and frequent visits from the vet for the problem cases) AND milking the cows who have had their calves AND feeding the calves which are old enough to be taken off their mothers. He cares about his cows but he does it because it is a job, it keeps a roof over his family’s head and food on the table. Even if only one or two cows are kept, as Michelle and Phil do at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust (links at the bottom of this post) going on holiday is a logistic nightmare

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Sheep are just as demanding. At lambing time shepherds sleep in their clothes and patrol at frequent intervals day and night ready to intervene if a sheep is distressed. And there is hoof trimming, fly-strike prevention (Flies lay their eggs in the mucky wool at the rear end of a sheep, the eggs hatch and the maggots eat the flesh into sores. Regular trimming of the wool and vigilance are needed to prevent it) and then there is shearing…

Like most of us farmers get satisfaction from doing a job they are good at and of course there are compensations but for most it is as stressful as any other type of self-employment and physically grueling. Farming is not for whimps!

So reducing numbers of livestock would help them right? Would you be happy to take a pay cut even if it meant working less hard? No, I thought not.

The Government seems to be taking the Marie Antoinette approach ‘Let them eat cake’. Or rather ‘Let them diversify’

farm cottages

That often means tourism. Not every farmhouse is easily adaptable to B&B. Not every farm has a set of picturesque outbuildings ripe for conversion to holiday cottages and not every farmer makes a good host. Even if you enjoy welcoming people into your home and have the right infrastructure it is hard work and a precarious business. And it has implications for the community. Until Pemberton’s Chocolate Farm closed I regularly encountered drivers who were quite unable to reverse to a passing place along these single track lanes. So instead of them going back 100 yards I would reverse a quarter of a mile. An irritation for me but no joke if you are in a tractor with a trailer behind waiting whilst they panic and weave their way slowly back, or are a courier driver with an algorithm imposing deadlines on you that take no account of such things (townies all, those algorithms!) More importantly some villages on the coast have become ghost towns in Winter – they might as well put up a ‘Closed’ sticker on the ‘Welcome to..’ sign on the road in.

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Plan B is ‘Added value’. Make your milk into yoghurt or ice-cream, get your fleeces spun and sell the wool or, better still, knit or weave it and sell your crafts, sell your meat direct to the customer on-line. Animals were traditionally sold through the marts and not every farmer can, or wants to, become an entrepreneur. And as for on-line, unless there is serious investment in good broadband for rural areas, dream on sunshine. Read about my switch to a satellite based system (here) Compared with the speeds and reliability on my landline it is fabulous but pathetic compared to the service my son gets in Luton.

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my internet satellite dish

So unless the drive to reduce livestock numbers is associated with increased farm payments, or increased prices for the food they produce, or investment in alternative employment and infrastructure, the result will be even more rural poverty and homelessness.

Secondly, what about those fields which will no longer have animals in them? Left to their own devices they will become massive bramble patches with a few chest high docks and nettles thrown in. Not what the tourists pay to come and see. Give them a few decades and they will transition through scrub woodland (mainly blackthorn round here) to woodland. Of course they could be planted with trees to shorten the process. The Government could fund that and pay farmers ‘rent’ for the land. They could call it a ‘carbon sequestration services payment’. Mmm can’t see it happening somehow, not in the long term. And sitting at home living, effectively, on benefit would not be good for the mental health of the farmers. They could be encouraged to manage the woodland but that is a very different skill set from farming and one they would have to learn. Even if they did where would the market be for all that extra firewood, coppice product and timber? What would they live on until the trees were big enough to be harvested? Questions, questions, questions and a shortage of answers.

Thirdly those animals currently supply the food chain. Unless the population as a whole reduces its consumption of dairy produce, eggs and meat, the shortfall will be cheerfully filled by the supermarkets importing more. There would be no reduction in global carbon emissions because no overall reduction in animal numbers. But the animals would probably be reared to lower welfare standards according to the expert I heard on the food programme (listen to it here) Wales could feel virtuous by ‘off-shoring’ the problem.

If only life was simple!

I will welcome comments, arguments, or questions whether you agree with me or take a different view, but please keep them respectful, thoughtful and evidence based.

My pictures are supplemented by ones from my good friend Michelle Laine of Scythe Cymru – find out more about her and her family’s low impact lives here and on facebook here The picture of farm cottages for holidays is from google images.

Egos and Gaia

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the nature of work and what work we value (if you missed it read it here). Another idea which has been buzzing around in my head was sparked first by something Cassandra Lishman wrote on the Lammas facebook page.

For those of you who have not come cross it before Lammas is an eco-village which was established on an over-grazed sheep field just over the hill from my home. Each household has its own plot and has built (or is in the process of building) some kind of dwelling on it under  the One Planet Development planning policy (read my post on that here) of which it was a pioneer. The access tracks , community hub building, water and hydro-electricity supplies and some other things are held in common. You can read more about it here.  You may even have seen the building of  Simon and Jasmine Dale’s home on ‘Grand Designs’ or read about the fire which destroyed it on New Year’s Day 2018.

Anyway, like all villages Lammas, being full of people, is not always all sweetness and light.  There have been disputes over all the things neighbours fall out about fueled by the passions and dogged persistence that enabled the project to happen in the first place. The point Cassandra made (as I understood it) was that much of it came down to over-inflated egos – my truth is the truth and so you, with your truth, are wrong.

Then Jasmine (now living locally in a rented home and planning to sell their plot and do something different) sent me a draft of an article she had written for an on-line magazine, Dark Mountain, for me to critique before she submitted it. It was about the life journey they had taken and which had led them to Lammas and now to uncertainty about the next stage. Like many of us they had seen that humanity has damaged the earth and had thrown themselves heart and soul into trying to do something about it. So much self-denial and striving had left them battered, bruised, dispirited and having to re-assess.

The third strand was a novel about an alcoholic who eventually achieved sobriety with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous but only after she had reached rock bottom and admitted that she could not do it for herself. Inevitably there was a lot of detail about the AA programme and how it works with the word ‘ego’ occurring frequently and being seen as the block to progress.

Mmmm!

We call this era the Anthropocene. We have changed Gaia in ways we never planned, never anticipated and we have only a vague idea what the consequences may be. Probably we did so because we came to see ourselves as separate from, and vastly superior to, everything else. It was all there for us to benefit from; to use and abuse as we liked. The problem has been our over-inflated egos, our lack of humility.

But maybe, just maybe, our next mistake will be to think that we should / could put it right. Like some heroic surgeon, god incarnate with a scalpel, we want to make it better (and make a name for ourselves in the process?). We will look for techno-fixes which we hardly understand and the consequences of which we can barely guess at. We will fall out over the best strategy – No more plastic straws, permaculture, organic, sylvo-pasture, vegan, extinction rebellion… My truth is the truth. Egos again!

My experience of living on this plot of land for 24 years tells me that if Gaia could speak she would probably tell us all to get out of the way. She is perfectly capable of healing herself if we would only stop interfering.

So.. I stop cutting down trees for firewood? Get rid of everything with a plug on it (even solar panels have high embodied energy)? Eat only what I forage? Socialise and exchange ideas only with people who live within walking distance?  No thanks!

But I can try to live ever more lightly on the land. I can ask myself what impact my choices are having on the world around me. I can stop imposing my ideas, designs and will on my land and ask what it wants to be – then we negotiate. I am a part of nature. I do not need to abase myself or deny myself the things I need (need not want). Hair shirts are not sources of joy. There is no need to actively deflate my ego.

Will I ever get the balance right, my ego its correct size? Who knows. Probably not. Or is this whole piece a load of arrogant nonsense?

 

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!

 

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?