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!

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Permaculture Principles 4 – Every element should support more than one function and every function should be supported by more than one elemnent

I will have to try and think of a pithier way of putting that! Though doubtless others have tried and I have no reason to suppose I am better at pithy than they were.

Permaculture is about designing efficient, resilient systems. The efficiency comes from elements which earn their keep or their space in our cupboards. Probably all of us have been given gadgets such as waffle makers, sandwich toasters as gifts and found that we do not eat many waffles or toasted sandwiches! So they sit in the cupboard getting an occasional outing until we decide they can reasonably be got rid of. A wooden spoon or sharp knife on the other hand…  Resilience is characterised by elastic in the system – if there is a failure at any one point there will always be a ‘Plan B’. Think of a road layout. If there is one road from A to B and it gets blocked no traffic can move but if that road is part of a network then everyone can divert around the blockage. The diversion may be less direct or convenient but it is still possible to get from A to B.

I have been rather forcibly reminded of this principle recently. Over a month ago my broadband connection failed (Why it has been down so long is another story) and I have discovered just how dependent I have become on that one element. Partly that dependency has arisen because of where I live and the lack of infrastructure in the remoter, rural parts of the UK; but I had also failed to notice how many things in my life were becoming wi-fi dependent. That one element supports many functions; the problem is that too many functions were supported by only that element!

The most obvious is communication. Because my hearing is poor I find emails easier than even a special phone. So I have been visiting my friends Jeni and Rob most days to collect emails and reply to anything urgent. Lovely to see them but…. I have also been using the free connections in the Library and at the Welsh class when I am in Cardigan but neither of those is secure. I know one of my neighbours uses a mobile phone connection in preference to a landline one but I get no signal at home so a smart phone is not a good use of money.

I also do research for my Permaculture Diploma online, use the web-based resources for the Welsh course including listening again to audio tapes, bank for myself and in my role as treasurer at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust, read the news, check the weather forecast, play games and do puzzles, manage my electricity account, listen to radio as podcasts and occasionally watch TV, join Skype meetings, keep up with friends on social media, shop for things I cannot get locally and, of course,  write this blog.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor some of these there are alternatives. I can phone people if I need to, Radio reception is poor at home because I am right down in the valley but it is good enough to listen to a news bulletin. One of my bank accounts is available by going into the Cardigan branch. The hardest to access have been the Welsh course, Skype meetings and this blog. The audio on the first 2 is anti-social and headphones plus hearing aids is not a good mix! Blog writing has to be done online and takes time.

Well – lesson learned! Even if my broadband is restored tomorrow when the 5th Openreach engineer has a go, I need to have a better back-up plan so I have asked my very tech-savvy son to come over when he can and review the whole system with me. He already has some ideas using gadgets and gizmos I have never heard of. I anticipate a cash boost for Amazon (no local shop is likely to have all we need). Watch this space!

 

A feast of growing and growing a feast

Regular readers may have noticed that it is a while since I published a post. After a particularly cold and wet winter that felt as if it would never end it did – spectacularly! We have had a long spell of lovely warm dry weather. So I have been spending every available moment in the garden.

When, a few years after we moved in, we bought the steep slope behind the house from our lovely neighbour we had it terraced. But that meant the new veg garden was just compacted stone so we built raised beds and filled them with any bio-degradable material we could get. As anyone who has a compost heap knows a mountain of material breaks down into a little hump. So every year we added loads more. Until John was too ill and I was too busy looking after him. When I got back to the garden after he died the beds were very low again and by the time I had pulled out the worst of the really nasty weeds like bindweed and nettles, lower still. Luckily I had access to chipped wood from a local firm so I covered the annual weeds with cardboard then filled the beds with that – and it rotted down and I refilled them – and… This year the stash of material is already well rotted so hopefully from now on it will not go down much more. However I still had to do some barrowing up the hill before planting out seedlings and doing some direct sowing. But at last the bulk of the filling, planting and sowing are done. Which is just as well as this morning normal service was resumed with showers. Actually I am quite pleased because watering so many small things was quite a lot of work and the water butts were getting low. I should explain that I chose to go on water meter so that I would be more aware of my usage (which worked) and I do all the watering with cans from butts which collect rainwater from the roofs of the greenhouses and sheds.

Anyway things are growing and trees and shrubs are in bloom so it all looks much better.

 

By way of a change and some company I spent last Sunday at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust where we weeded one of the forest garden beds. We left some ‘weeds’ which are liked by bees but grubbed up the creeping buttercup and nettles. It was such a lovely day we had lunch outside around the firepit in front of the yurt. Michelle accidentally dug up some Babbington’s leeks, a perennial leek and offered them to me rather than put them back.

I am trying to increase the number of edible perrenials and self-seeders I have because they take much less work and come earlier. On Monday a friend came over for lunch and I picked small leaf lime, hawthorn, vine leaves, buckler leaf sorrel, jack-by-the-hedge, orpine, wild garlic, chives, chive flowers, oregano, corn salad and purslane with a few early leaves of newly sown chard and beetroot to make a big bowl of salad to go with hard boiled eggs from Jeni’s ducks and some home-made cheese scones. Delicious!

 

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!

Permaculture Principles 3- Obtain a Yield

I have mentioned my Mum before in these posts. She trained as a Domestic Science teacher during the second World War – the end of an era when the object of Domestic Science in schools was to train girls (only girls) to be good housewives and mothers and / or good servants. It had not been uncommon for Secondary Modern schools in particular (grammar school girls would be employing the servants!) to have a small flat where girls could learn to clean, wash and iron clothes, bath a baby and light the sitting room fire; as well as a separate Cookery room where they learned to cook. I have this amazing (if grainy) photo of the cookery room she worked in as a teacher in a school near Bolton, Lancashire in 1941.

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Thus when she left teaching to get married she prided herself on her housewifely skills and kept the house immaculate. Things she did daily are lucky to get done here weekly, her monthly jobs are my attempt at spring cleaning and so on. In many ways it was an example of Parkinson’s first law that work expands to fill the time available. Her justification for all this activity was that she wanted the place to look nice if someone came round. However she was so locked into her regime of chores that her only outings were to the shops. She belonged to no groups or clubs until I was well into my teens when she started going to an evening class in cake decorating. As a result there were very few visitors to the house – one next door neighbour came for a cup of tea quite often and relatives or old friends came occasionally but always by arrangement as they lived to far away to just call. And all that cleaning and polishing meant the house never felt homely or welcoming and everyone was afraid of making a mess or spilling something.  And to be honest any impending visit caused so much work and worry and baking that Mum too was happier not to see people.

So what has all that got to do with obtaining a yield? Well the idea of this principle is not to waste time and energy doing something just for the sake of it.

Of course what is wasting time for me might not be for you and vice versa and we will each value different yields differently. When I go to a meeting of one of the Permaculture groups it is not because I want to ‘earn’ a visit to my place and the work that will get done but because I enjoy the socialising and learning and get ideas for my own place. Most of the ‘yield’ is intangible but nonetheless real to me but someone else might think I am stupid to give my labour for free getting  wet and muddy into the bargain.

Another thing both my Mum and my dad were keen on was being sensible and that very lower middle class idea of ‘deferred gratification’. So I dutifully went to University and for want of any better idea became, to their relief,  a teacher. A nice steady job with a salary and prospects and with a pension at the end. John and I got married, bought a house with a mortgage, acquired wills and insurance policies. Actually I quite enjoyed teaching most of the time (though I was a bit creative and whacky for some of my colleagues even then! None of the other Maths teachers illustrated their lessons on fractions with chocolate cakes or used mind reading to introduce algebra!)). blog260418-2But having fun, experimenting, taking risks, chasing dreams were very low on the agenda and I regret that now. The yield was always ‘later’, when the children are older, when they leave home, when the mortgage is paid off, when you retire… H.E. Bates puts it rather well in ‘The Darling Buds of May’ “The word pension made Pop laugh…. ‘You mean sit on your backside for forty years and then collect four pounds a week that’s worth only two and and ‘ll only buy half as much anyway?'” I am not suggesting here that pensions are a bad idea – I have 2 very small private ones that top-up my state one and I am relieved that I own my home; I am grateful for the security those things give me. But I wish there had been more balance, more ‘yield’ of fun and adventure whilst I was young enough to take risks and bounce back if they failed as well as ensuring a ‘yield’ of security now.

Meanwhile writing this blog records events, gives me pleasure in writing the posts, has taught me new skills such as taking and loading photos and the comments are allowing me to meet a new group of people. A good investment – I am obtaining a yield.

Permaculture Principles 2 – Catch & Store Energy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy Mum trained as a teacher of Domestic Science in Liverpool during World War 2. It was not good timing for her training because so many things were in short supply and I have to say that her deeply ingrained habits of frugality could be quite trying in the relatively affluent 60’s! Food was, of course, rationed and to throw away leftovers or scraps was literally a crime. Since she was never particularly imaginative or creative this made for some slightly bizarre meals in my teens! Coal too was in short supply as miners became soldiers to be replaced in part by Bevan Boys. But also because moving all those troops around involved trains which ran on coal. Power stations were coal fired too so everyone was encouraged to use all power sparingly. To put the oven on for one dish only was frowned upon – it should be filled by making other things in advance or baking a cake. I still have some of her old books and have acquired reprints of some of the government leaflets of the time. Why? Because they are an interesting historical record but also because they are useful and illustrate this Principle of catching and storing energy.

When permaculture began in Australia a lot of thought was given to catching and storing water before allowing it to move around the holding slowly, seeping into the ground as it went thus avoiding needing well, bore hole or mains water for irrigation.  As someone recently remarked to me, here in West Wales where it rains a LOT we are more concerned with getting rid of water without it causing damage! Instead we often concentrate on catching solar energy using PV panels or the wind with a turbine. Excellent examples of Earth Care but what about the other Ethics. And what if you live in a rented place or expect to sell up and move on? Or if the capital outlay is more than you can afford?

Over the years, thanks to some windfalls, we were able to insulate this house extensively, put up solar PV and solar thermal and have a heating system powered by an Air Source Heat Pump. Lovely. But the single most cost effective improvement was to make thick linings for all the curtains at the windows and put the same system over every external door. Because the curtains are all made of unbleached calico (it comes in wide widths and is cheap) I bought a lot of seconds quality fleece fabric also in cream. It needs no hemming though I did do zigzag stitching all round to make sure. A single header tape allows me to hook them to the back of the curtains in autumn and take them down in spring. They make an amazing difference to the rooms and feel cosy.

So far so good but this principle applies to energy in all its forms. I can think about my own energy and how I use it or waste it. Because my Mum HAD to give up work when she married (women teachers who had a husband to support them made way for men returning from the services – though how many ex military men would have wanted to teach Domestic Science is a moot point!) she was a bored housewife who therefore devoted too much time to keeping the place spotless. It led to a mild form of OCD against which I reacted by becoming very messy. However I now realise that I wasted huge amounts of time hunting for things I had put down ‘somewhere’. I now try to have better storage and put things away, if not as soon as I have finished with them at least having a good clear up fairly regularly.

Having workdays to help me complete big projects in the garden is a way of catching and storing other people’s energy. In fact I usually find that the socialising and camaraderie make group work more efficient than a lot of people working singly. And if someone has a special skill they can use it to the benefit of all. Then I go and help someone else at their workday and the energy flows on and we all get cared for.

The final ethic is fair shares. I have a big garden and can easily, often without meaning to, grow more food than I need. Instead of putting the surplus on the compost heap I can give it away or take it to a local food bank to help others in need. I have been changing my light bulbs for the new LED ones which use even less energy thus reducing my carbon footprint and my use of the planet’s resources.

All these are cheap, simple, little examples which individually do not make a big difference to the Earth or anyone on it. Collectively and if done by many of us they could have a huge impact. They are not glamorous, bring me no kudos, make no waves. As we shall see in a later post ‘Use slow and simple solutions’ is another of the Permaculture Principles.

Going Round in Circles

When I was a little girl my Mum’s oldest sister, Aunty Nan, and her husband Uncle Francis bought a large building plot in the village of Alsager in Cheshire. They both worked as lecturers at the local Teacher Training College and had been living on campus in half a converted Nissan Hut. Even before they started building their new home Francis, who taught Rural Studies, began to construct and plant a garden. Looking back it must have been really hard for him to live in that hut with no outside space to call his own.

We visited them fairly regularly and once the new bungalow was completed I fell in love with the garden. There was a large and very deep pond which had been dug for some purpose when the land was still a field and which Francis incorporated into the garden and a huge weeping willow hanging over it which made a tunnel to hide in. A pump fed water to the top of an artificial stream which nonetheless looked very natural. A shrubbery between the house and the road was another place to hide – even though no-one was looking for me! But what I liked most was that I could spend hours exploring the network of paths and finding different ways to go from place to place. Of course Francis had designed them to allow himself easy access to each place he needed to work but because they interconnected they made an interesting challenge for a young explorer.

I always wanted a garden with paths like that but small suburban gardens do not lend themselves to lots of paths or you end up with tiny spaces for the plants! Even in the big space here there was, for a long time, only a figure of 8. The top loop went from the drive to the veg patch with a spur to the Orchard, then through the soft fruit and the woodland back to the sheds and behind the house to the drive. The other loop went down to the cabin, then to the stream garden and back up. Boring!

Then a year or so ago I had a digger in to clear the stream garden and the excess earth was used to make 2 new paths, one up to the sheds and the other along the stream to join up with the top loop at the edge of the woodland. Now there were choices. And a couple of weeks ago the Carmarthenshire Parmaculture Group cleared a path through the woodland I rent from my neighbour to extend the top loop. (read about it here Many Hands) A little more work by me clearing the overgrown section of the top loop and Yes! I have a network! Now there are choices and I can walk the dogs different circular routes making them longer or shorter as the whim takes me. It has taken over 50 years but my childhood dream has come true.