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!

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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

cow 2

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.

yarn

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.

A Quick Update on Trees from Seed

If you have been following this blog for a while you may remember I posted about growing trees from seed (read it again here). None of the Apricots which had germinated in the fridge survived but 3 more sprouted after I put them in compost in the greenhouse and they seem to be thriving. And a cherry picked from a tree in my daughter’s garden has germinated too. The fruit on her tree are so bitter that they are inedible and even the birds leave them alone! It is therefore very ornamental with spring blossom and beautiful crimson fruit which hangs there for ages.

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What has been really impressive is the apple pips. I have no idea how many I had saved but so far I have pricked out 138 plants, no that is not a typo! And there are lots more still in the trays but ready to go into pots. These are, of course, unknown crosses so there is no way of knowing whether they will be crabs, cider, cooker, eater or just horrible. Not all will survive but they will fill quite a lot of space and as I have chalara on the Ash trees they will be welcome.

Nature is amazing

Each year I save tree seeds when I can. Mostly these are from fruit I am given or buy to eat although last year I picked up acorns that had fallen on a nearby lane and that I spotted on one of my dog walks. So by late autumn I had acorns, apple pips (mostly from fruit given me by Marie at Over the Rainbow), plum apricot, peach and cherry stones, and rowan berries from the young tree I planted a couple of years ago. I also had some bright red cherries from the tree in my daughter’s garden which are so horribly sour and bitter they are inedible but even the birds turn their beaks up at them so the tree is very ornamental! All these I put into peat or sand in recycled plastic cartons and stored in the fridge to chill over winter.

A couple of weeks ago I retrieved them to begin putting them into trays of compost in the greenhouse to see what would grow. Last year I got quite a few apples, a cherry and a sweet chestnut so I was quite hopeful that something would come of them.

To my amazement when I opened the first pot, which was Apricot stones in dry sand, there were several which had germinated! Only 2 look good enough to survive but even so! Years ago my late husband ate an apricot and found the stone had split and the seed was beginning to grow so he potted it up and later planted it in the greenhouse. It fruited well but because of his poor health he didn’t prune it well enough or consistently enough and it grew too big so had to be taken out. Maybe I can be more successful now that I have more greenhouse space and am able to prune every year. I looked in the second pot labelled Apricot and found that in that one I had used damp peat – no sign of germination there. Maybe they were a different variety of apricot or from a different orchard but I was curious as to whether it was the sand / peat that made the difference.

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Then I opened the pots of apples – some of the ones with damp compost had germinated whilst the ones with sand had not! Again I cannot be sure that any will survive but again my interest was piqued. Was the difference between the two types of tree significant or just chance?

Sadly nothing else was showing signs of life but then nothing germinated in the fridge last year. They are all now in good compost in trays and I will wait and see. I have made a note to myself to be more methodical next year about splitting batches and experimenting with different media to store them in. I still have so much to learn about gardening! One of the permaculture principles i ‘Observe and Interact’ so that is what I shall do – but in a more organised way than usual!

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.

studying

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

gardening

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!

 

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!