Green and gold

The Autumn Equinox has passed, the days are shortening and most of the swallows have departed but in every other sense, it still feels very much like summer here. We bask in exquisite days of green and gold beneath flawless cerulean skies, blanketed in a delectable warmth and seasoned with the buzz and flutter of a myriad insects.

There is still a potent atmosphere of growth and busyness, as if nature is having a long, last workout and stretch before the season truly shifts. A good soaking of warm rain has freshened the faded landscape, restoring it to intense shades of verdant green in a single, sweeping brushstroke. My goodness, how the green stuff is growing once again.

The passion flower has known no bounds this year, shamelessly threading itself along the whole fence, then scrambling to the very top of a peach tree and tumbling down in a fountain of floral Catherine wheels.

I’ve warned it that I really must cut it back this autumn and try to instil at least a modicum of control, but with a nonchalant shrug of its shoulders, it’s simply decided to start a new game. What can I say?

Along another fence line, a new beauty has appeared. This was one of those neglected little supermarket bargain buys, not much more than a stick on a root when I planted it last year. The poor thing was completely swamped by the poppy hedge for many months and quite honestly, I’d forgotten it was there so what a fine surprise to find an outburst of velvety blooms this week. Another surprise is the colour. I swear it was supposed to be magenta. Oh, well.

The squash plants need no lessons in how to exert their authority; they totally refuse to stay politely on their terraces and tumble down the hillside in a relentless tide, joined in the rush by several hoodlums we didn’t even plant.

Unlike previous years, though, when the plants have all died back simultaneously and the harvest has been a concentrated day of furious activity, this year they are ripening a few at a time in gentle waves. The first few are curing in the sunshine on the horreo balcony but there are still many, many more to come.

Having let the self-setters do their own thing as well as planting seeds from a mongrel we grew and ate last year, I am fascinated by the sheer range of shapes, colours, sizes and textures that have emerged from the mix so far.

We did, of course, plant several official varieties, just to be sure of a fail safe supply: ‘Crown Prince’, ‘Butterfly’, ‘Speckled Hound’, ‘Speckled Pup’ and a couple of Hubbards. What has really captured my imagination, however, are the characteristics being flaunted by those of lesser pedigree: we’ve never grown a variety here with that classic Turk’s Turban belly button, so where on earth did it spring from? The magic of open pollination is completely spellbinding.

Bewitching, too, is the play of light through the trees. Walking through the woods, I sense just the merest sigh of autumn, the faintest whisper of things to come.

The verges and wild patches are still a vibrant embroidery of wild flowers, each dainty head spun with a filigree of spider silk.

Ah, ’tis time to stop wandering and settle down to a more serious business. The ‘eco’ day I planned in my previous post proved to be every bit as revealing and inspiring as I had hoped, leaving me with much food for thought and a wealth of new ideas to put into practice. Let me start with a tough one: life without tea or coffee is a challenge! However, I can see that reducing my consumption even a small bit each day would make a difference to electricity usage, food miles and also possibly my health. I’m persevering with trying to drink more herbal concoctions, lemon balm and lavender being my favourite so far with fragrant apple mint (of which we have several acres) a close second.

Now, as part of the effort to make fuller use of our produce, I am drying Japanese quince to use in a herbal tea blend over winter. We have three large bushes close to the house, covered in striking, bee-filled flowers for many months and now literally dripping with golden, aromatic fruits; I like to put a couple in the fruit bowl to scent the house with their tantalising perfume but using them for tea is a whole new escapade.

Actually, making full use of our produce has been quite a theme for the week let alone a single day. It’s so easy at a time of ample harvest not to pick as much as we can because the amounts seem overwhelming or there’s a limit on how much we can preserve. After last year’s disappointing walnut harvest, this year we have collected buckets and buckets of them and there are still several trees’ worth to come. Dried on trays in the sunshine, they will keep for the next year in the horreo and will play a major role in our diet.

To us, figs are such a luxury food and I am happy to tuck into piles of fresh ones, either with yogurt and walnuts for my breakfast or as a snack; no need to try and do clever culinary things with them, they are perfect just as they come. They keep for such a short time, though, and we have such an enormous crop this year that we have been experimenting with drying them to keep and use later. A wet day saw us light The Beast for the first time since spring so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get preserving. I’d like to say at this point, it might have been wet outside but it certainly wasn’t cold so the house was like a sauna; talk about sweltering and suffering for our art!

Anyway, we set whole and half figs to dry on racks above the hob, slices of pear (another bumper crop) to dry in the warming drawer and boiled up a huge vat of peach jam, as well as cooking dinner and baking bread. How I love that stove! I’ve never quite understood how I can be a glutton for fresh figs but can’t bear them dried (it’s something to do with Fig Roll biscuits, I think) so I wasn’t sure about this idea; what a revelation, then, to find myself tucking into something akin to soft, fruity toffees. Sublime. The problem is, I’m eating them now which wasn’t really the point. We need another wet day, pronto.

Backtracking to pears, we have put plenty into storage in the cool and dark of the underhouse barn to be eaten whole and those dried slices turned out to be totally delicious. Trying a different strategy, we’ve also bottled some in mulled cider, one of the top local products in Asturias; as Roger had been given a bottle in a post-race goody bag, it seemed perfect for the job. These are not meant to be sweet treats but rather served as accompaniments to savoury dishes and foods like cheese; I can already see them being a great base for a dish in a tapas meal. It all went so well, Roger decided to do a second batch, this time in mulled red wine; well, you have to do these things, don’t you?

Looking further afield, I have been making plans for using some wild foods, too. The coming weeks should see a proliferation of parasol mushrooms in our meadows and as the cows have been and gone on their regular circuit of the valley, we should be able to get in there and pick some without them being trampled. They are supposed to make excellent eating so I’ve been studying recipes to try. At the same time, I’ve been researching ways in which we can use chestnuts, a huge harvest that is desperately underused. Obviously, they have a wide range of culinary applications but I’m interested in the Italian tradition of making them into flour; they don’t contain gluten so they are no good for bread flour, but are perfect for flat breads (which we love) and pasta. A walk into the woods told me they’re not quite ready but very close . . .

One of the many things I did on my ‘eco’ day was spend some time leafing through our cook books, not in a random way but with the intention of finding and listing new recipes that we can try with the foods I know we will be harvesting through the coming months. I love the idea of baked fennel agrodolce and kale with oats; why not have a go at making a walnut dukka or beetroot kimchi? The garden is still so full of food: aubergines, courgettes, peppers, French beans, kale, summer cabbage, chard, beetroot and salad crops.

Waiting in the wings are Florence fennel, autumn carrots, more chard, more beetroot, more beans, parsnips, leeks, winter cabbages, Jerusalem artichokes, chicory and broccoli, along with those things in store – squash, onions, podding beans and chillies. I need to plant some overwintering crops in the polytunnel but it is still full to the rafters.

Having spent time riffling through our food cupboards to check on countries of origin and packaging, I realised more than ever that what we must do is persist with a totally holistic approach. How badly do we need a plastic package of prunes from Chile? What can we use instead? Figs, pears, kiwis . . ? How on earth did we manage to buy a packet of white beans – one of the biggest products of Asturias – that had come from Argentina? Why don’t we grow more of our own, enough to last all year? Why don’t we pay more attention when we’re shopping?! I think the message to self is clear: every meal, every dish, every mouthful we can produce here reduces our consumption in a positive way so we must, must, must make the most of everything we have.

This will mean very careful planning for the garden next year; there is plenty of time to organise that, but in the meantime the spaces that open up need some loving care and – bottom line – a good feed. I don’t want to go the whole Masanonbu Fukuoka hog and leave the ground untouched, mostly because we are still battling oxalis and I welcome any opportunity to knock it back. Where spaces have begun to appear such as the climbing bean and cucumber patches, green manure (whether sown deliberately or naturally-occurring clovers and trefoil that I left to spread) has done a wonderful job in suppressing weeds and creating a soil beneath that is to die for, such a rich, friable loam.

I’ve lifted the plants, extracted those infuriating oxalis seeds, relocated a few pansies and then left the green stuff to wilt on the surface. In a while, I’ll tickle it in with a fork, throw on a pile of muck and let winter and the worms do the rest.

In other places, I will leave patches of crimson clover in the hope it goes through the winter and provides an early nectar source whilst on the squash terraces I plan to broadcast a mix of Hungarian grazing rye and tares as a winter green manure. I love the fact that even through the quietest months, the garden will be far from bare and thoroughly nourished for next year’s planting.

So what else did I learn? Well, the whole business of heating a bucket of water in the sunshine for my shower has already led to a complete change to my body washing approach. I took the bucket into our shower cubicle and had a ‘scoop and slosh’ wash which worked brilliantly and felt lovely: solar heated water free from a mountain spring – just perfect. This got me thinking that, apart from days where I’ve had a very hard, hot run, I am filthy dirty from gardening or I need to wash my hair (which I only do every four days or so anyway), there is really no need for me to shower; a good old-fashioned stand up all-over wash using just a couple of litres of hot water in the basin will suffice. . . and in the cooler months, that water can be heated on The Beast. I will be clean and I will not smell nasty but it will certainly reduce my carbon footprint and our electricity bill. Modern living sucks us into so many activities that are really not necessary. Having regular showers or baths is a habit – like so many others – I developed to satisfy the demands of my working life. How refreshing to step away from it now. ๐Ÿ™‚

My shower bucket warming in the September sunshine.

Assessing our progress on the environmentally friendly personal hygiene front, I decided we aren’t doing too badly in general. I need to make a new batch of soap and, having made and tested several different varieties in the last few months, I have come down to a single recipe of olive, castor, coconut and avocado oils enriched with shea butter and scented with tea tree, rosemary and lavender essential oils which works well as a solid shampoo and soap. We don’t need anything else. I’d like to try rye flour as a shampoo if I can find a supplier here where we can buy bulk quantities; it’s not easy to find, is only sold in small volumes and is relatively expensive – none of which would matter if we weren’t feeding a sourdough starter, I just worry about running out as we shop so infrequently. It’s one to work on, as is tracking down bamboo toothbrushes with firmer bristles; I like the ones we have now but Roger finds them too soft. No surprise, I came out of my ‘eco’ day with a very long to-do list.

When it comes to leisure pursuits, I treasure the simplicity of my old wooden spinning wheel that needs nothing more than a little mechanical effort on my part in order to work and I am enjoying my evening spinning moments so very much. With a large box of natural white fleece to be spun, you would think I would leave my two coloured batches until later to alleviate the boredom of white, white and yet more white. Well, no. A coil of commercially dyed Merino left over from a project some years ago caught my eye and that was it; I couldn’t help myself, there was something of the season about those luscious colours.

Merino is the finest fleece in the world, beautifully soft and silky, lofty and warm. Not much good for socks that have to do some work but this is not all about socks; there is enough here for gloves, mittens, a hat, or to be used as an accent yarn in something bigger. Ah, the pure pleasure of seeing those colours twist around each other on the bobbin . . .

. . . and then plied into the finished yarn in gorgeous ripples of berry shades. Yum.

So, on to the white stuff now? Um, not exactly because what else should I have lurking in that box but a pile of ‘rescue’ fleece that had been thrown into an inexhaustible dyepot a couple of years ago in my frantic efforts to use up a purple and turquoise mix that just would not disappear. Poor unloved thing. I owed it some attention.

This is Kent Romney, my number one choice for sock yarn: soft enough to hug next to the skin but strong enough to wear in boots, fairly dense but elastic, medium staple so easy-peasy to spin – in brief, an all-round good egg. The slight problem with this batch is as a result of the dye session chaos, I took my eye off it for a while and it felted ever so slightly. Well, I spun it anyway; it won’t make socks but has turned out to be the perfect yarn for a little bag project (and I know a small person with a passion for purple). The beauty of this for me was having to card lovely, fluffy rolags, something I haven’t done for a while. I’m a simple soul but things like this just make me so happy.

So yes, now I’m on the white and settling into some really serious skeins for dyeing and sock knitting, starting with more Kent Romney blended with kid mohair, which adds as much strength as nylon does in commercial yarns and also an antibacterial quality for healthy toes. It’s a gentle thing to be doing, sitting outside in the evening light, treadling and drawing and watching the bobbin gradually fill. At the same time, I’ve found the loveliest and most peaceful of pastimes: collecting skies. Those colours . . . if only I could spin clouds.

Who needs television? ๐Ÿ™‚

Eco Worrier

The Earth is a fine place and worth fighting for.

Ernest Hemingway

It’s been a sobering week. We’ve had an all too clear view of a savage forest fire, burning just a couple of miles from home as the crow flies. On the day it started, two helicopters, supported by ground crew bomberos, flew relentless shuttles with water bombs for more than eight hours.

It’s hard to convey the sheer size of the fire but if you look carefully at the smoke plume on the right, you can see the helicopter which gives a sense of scale.

They returned again and again through the week but five days later, the fire was still burning. It is a terrible thing to witness and I can only begin to imagine how horrific the larger fires raging around the world – and especially in the Amazon rainforest – must be.

Five days on and still burning . . .

With climate and environmental issues prominent in the news this week, it seems like a good time to stop once more and reflect on our behaviour and how much more we personally could be doing to reduce our carbon footprint and our impact on the planet. I know there are those who deny climate change or, at least, the contribution of human activity to it, and I don’t intend to become embroiled in a political or scientific discussion here – partly because that’s not what my blog is about, mostly because it’s being done so well in other places by people with far more expertise than myself. For me, it’s not just about climate change, anyway: what about the destruction of habitat, extinction of species, plastic in the oceans, loss of topsoil, air pollution, gross consumerism and the appalling amount of waste that goes with it, to name just a few things? Anything I can do – no matter how small – to try and mitigate against these disasters is, in my book, well worth doing. I don’t agree that individual efforts are a waste of time or subscribe to the view that it’s too late, so why bother? I have children and grandchildren and a deep respect and reverence for the natural world: they are all extremely precious to me and all definitely worth fighting for.

I’m not in a position to go on strike, and driving somewhere to join a protest would, in my opinion, be the greatest irony so what am I planning to do instead? Well, I have decided to spend a day next week totally committed to all things ‘eco’ whether through physical activities at home, researching or studying new things to try or lobbying the powers that be online. By the end of the day I’m hoping to have deepened my awareness of our own approach and attitude, put some new strategies in place, made plans for the future, shared ideas with other people and added my voice once again to the global concern.

In order to make sure I use the day wisely and meaningfully, I’ve been looking at several lists of key ways to reduce our carbon footprint and choosing what to focus on. I’m pleased to say that we already do most of the things suggested (switching off lights and electrical devices, line drying clothes, buying less stuff, not buying fast fashion, planting a garden, composting, reducing food waste, using reusable bags, avoiding excess packaging, etc, etc) but that doesn’t mean it’s alright to become complacent: there’s always room for improvement! In a recent discussion with my lovely daughters about how we can do our bit and encourage others to join in, the consensus was to keep reading, sharing, trying things then normalising them – and the latter, I think, is the key. It’s amazing just how quickly small changes become the norm; things we weren’t doing this time last year, such as reaching for bee wraps and cloth food bags or using homemade toiletries and cotton hankies are now second nature.

Homemade soap and solid shampoo.
Homemade cotton drawstring bags for food storage.

So as not to get too bogged down, I’ve come up with some general headings to help organise my ideas for the day.

  1. Travelling. I will commit to going nowhere other than by bike or on foot. This in itself isn’t too difficult as we use the car as little as possible anyway, always combining errands and often going nowhere for ten days or more at a time. If we don’t use the tractor or strimmer either, then no petrol or diesel will be burnt. We have booked flights to the UK in November and I have to admit this does grieve me; it’s the second time I’ve flown since moving here in May 2016 and only the third time in thirteen years but all the same, it would be better not to be doing it at all. I need to address the carbon offset and we are currently having some very serious discussions about our travel in the future; some difficult decisions loom, but then this isn’t a lightweight subject, is it?

2. Shopping. I will commit to buying nothing. Like travelling, this isn’t a huge challenge as we only ever shop when we need to (as in a depleted food cupboard or fridge, mostly!). I actually don’t like going shopping at all, even when it’s necessary, and as the only option would be to cycle several miles to the local Farmers’ Co-op, I think this one’s a safe bet. I rarely shop online these days, either; in fact, only really to send celebration gifts to family as it seems the most sensible option from here. I would like to do more research into ethical shops and I think this would be time well spent. We are avid readers, buying all our books from charity shops then returning them for resale; I have also occasionally used https://www.worldofbooks.com/en-gb for buying secondhand books online. For new gift books, though, I’ve recently started to use https://www.hive.co.uk as an ethical alternative to shops like Amazon and I think this is a worthy area to develop.

Something I have had to buy in recent weeks is a new pair of running shoes. As a pastime, running is fairly low impact, certainly in my case where I run from home, have no gadgets whatsoever and wear the same kit I’ve had for years. Shoes, though, do need replacing after several hundred miles of pounding the ground; I then relegate them to walking footwear in summer as they are lighter than boots and finally to gardening shoes if they are still in one piece. I’ve been doing some reading lately about how manufacturers are moving towards more eco-friendly designs and materials and also ways in which worn out shoes can be reused or recycled in socially and environmentally acceptable ways. This is definitely another area for further research as well as considering just how long we can go without buying anything new, clothes or otherwise. Where running is concerned, what can we do to try and make races more environmentally friendly events? They don’t tend to hand out pointless participation medals here and more and more races are giving us the option of turning down a commemorative t-shirt; it’s also great to see Roger coming down off a podium with a box of local foods rather than a trophy. It would be good to be able to hand timing chips back for re-use or proper recycling and as for all those plastic water bottles . . . there must be an alternative, surely?

3. Using energy. I commit to using the bare minimum. This one promises to be quite a challenge! Roughly a third of our electricity comes from renewable resources; it’s more expensive than in the UK but I don’t think that’s a bad thing if it means the energy companies are making long-term investments in clean energy and we are encouraged to keep an eye on our meter. Where our electricity consumption is concerned we are a bit of an anomaly as our usage is much higher in summer than winter. During the cooler months, our woodburning range heats the entire house, provides hot water for drinks, washing the dishes, hand and face washing, hand laundry and house cleaning as well as an oven and hob for all our cooking. At other times, we rely far more heavily on electricity so my intention is to reduce consumption drastically for a day by using only essential appliances.

The fridge and freezer are non-negotiable for obvious reasons but beyond that, what can I manage without? Instead of boiling the kettle for tea and coffee, I’ll drink cold water – this will score some food mile points, too. I will need no persuading to leave the washing machine, iron and vacuum cleaner alone; to be honest, we don’t use them much anyway. We don’t have a television, we can manage without listening to music and appliances like my hairdryer and sewing machine are only used once in a blue moon. The laptop and internet are a lifeline, though, and we need both for online banking and organising our business and financial matters; they are also our first port of call in keeping in touch with friends and family. If I’m going to spend some time on proper research, I will need to use them but other things like blogging and my daily language study will be put aside.

September evenings are very beautiful here so we tend to stay outside until the sun has set and then go to bed early; this means our use of electric light is very small but in the spirit of my challenge, I can always light a candle or two.

I can’t turn the water heater off as we will need to wash dishes but I can do something about the shower. When we renovated the house, we chose not to install a bath; it would have been a very tight squeeze in a small space and we didn’t want to replace a perfectly modern and efficient 50-litre water heater with a bigger one. A shower is more eco-friendly anyway . . . as long as we don’t linger. Having read about someone’s ‘eleven minute shower routine’ recently, I was left with two thoughts: how have I lived so long without realising I needed a routine in the shower and what on earth could anyone be doing in there for eleven minutes? Astonishingly, a quick internet search informed me the average shower time in the UK is eight minutes, during which time 62 litres of hot water have gone down the drain – not much better than a bath, then. I have to admit we are very speedy shower dwellers but even so, heating the water tank is a big use of electricity. My plan is to spread a full hosepipe across the yard with a couple of clean buckets of water; it is still very much summer here, so by evening the sun will have warmed the water enough for me to have an outdoor shower!

The other big electricity guzzler, of course, is the cooker. We bake bread several times a week and always organise the timings so the oven can be used to cook dinner at the same time; on other days, we use the hob, barbecue or eat simply eat cold foods (we don’t have a microwave).

Not using the cooker at all for a day is perfectly possible but obviously needs some careful meal planning beforehand – there’s no point in deciding to have, say, a barbecue with homemade hummus if we then remember we need to cook some beans and chickpeas! Generally speaking, though, a barbecue needn’t cramp our style and we can still make plenty of good use of vegetables from the garden: aubergines, courgettes, peppers and tomatoes brushed with a little olive oil and cooked directly on the grill are heaven sent.

4. Eating. I commit to eating foods with the lowest food miles and least packaging. Basing our meals around what comes out of the garden is a way of life here and at this time of the year, we have enough fresh produce to feed the entire village so this shouldn’t feel like much of a challenge at all: no food miles, no packaging. Job done.

Mmm . . . but we can’t just live on fruit and vegetables so for anything we buy from elsewhere, food miles and packaging become a consideration. Since finishing the house renovation and no longer needing to trek off to distant places in search of building materials, we have been shopping very locally and paying far more attention to food provenance. I know that becoming vegetarian or even vegan is cited as a major way to reduce carbon footprints; we aren’t vegetarians but we eat far less meat than we used to – in fact, most of our meals and several days a week are completely meat-free. There is, of course, a huge debate around this issue – and I don’t want to open a can of worms here – but I would argue that there is a world of difference between the animals extensively raised on small, local, family farms and those that are raised intensively on feed lots and in factory farms around the globe. We buy high quality local meat from animals that have been reared slowly outdoors on natural foods without any antibiotics, growth hormones or other nasties pumped into their systems; yes, it’s several times more expensive than the ‘other’ stuff but as we don’t buy it often, that’s not a problem and I would prefer to support farmers in continuing with this sort of meat production where animal welfare and care of the environment are of the highest concern.

Other fresh foods we buy, namely dairy and eggs, are all produced in Asturias, and with dry goods such as flour, we opt for local where possible. I’m not about to start buying green beans from Kenya or Brazilian prawns but the main problem is with ‘world foods’ like tea, coffee and rice which can’t be produced close to home (or even to Europe in some cases). Should we be reducing our consumption of these foods? On my eco day, I shall scrutinise the origin of everything in our food cupboards then keep a rough tally of food miles associated with what we eat that day, trying to keep them to a minimum. That should be an interesting and revealing activity.

At the same time, I will assess the packaging situation. We are lucky here in that pretty much all types of food packaging can be recycled including rigid plastics and Tetra Pak, but reducing is far better than recycling and I don’t think we’re anywhere near the mark with this one. Bags for life are common practice and it’s possible to buy all sorts of foodstuffs loose in some places but only plastic bags are provided to decant them into. I’ve tried to mitigate against this by re-using them and sticking a new label over the old one at the scales but it’s far from great; ideally, I’d like to use my own containers but so far I haven’t seen any evidence of anyone else doing the same. I don’t feel my Spanish is fluent enough to try and explain my intentions to shop assistants but that is something to work on. Buying meat and fish loose from counters means they come wrapped in paper rather than on polystyrene trays covered with clingwrap which is something, I suppose. We choose unwrapped foods like local waxed cheeses or chorizo on string, and jars and tins over plastic where possible; we never buy multi-wrapped goods – but still, there’s far too much of the stuff and we definitely need to move forward with this one.

Golden Hubbard squash comes in its own biodegradable packaging.

5. Bits and pieces. There are many other areas of our life which I would like to give further thought to. It’s been an interesting year in the garden and I’ve learnt much from using green manure, selective (minimal) weeding, self-setting and seed saving. I think it would be worthwhile now to really focus sharply on growing fewer varieties of single vegetables – the ones we know are successful here – and creating a sustainable, ‘nothing new’ garden: if we can’t raise it ourselves from seed, cuttings, roots and the like, then we don’t have it. There’s no need to be buying new plants for the sake of it.

I’d also like to consider how far we make full use of what’s available, from the garden, orchard and further afield. What wild foods could we forage? We’ve just started collecting this year’s walnuts but every autumn we also have a tremendous crop of chestnuts and barely use them. It seems like a missed opportunity so what are the options there?

I’m picking chillies from the polytunnel and garden a couple of times a week at the moment and stringing them up to dry. What other ways of preserving our produce could we be exploring? Just how self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables could we be?

We gone a long way down the green household cleaning and toiletries route but I feel there’s still a lot more we could be doing. Research needed! It’s the same with our efforts to be plastic free and achieve zero waste; it’s easy to get so far along the path, then sink into some kind of complacent smugness and I think this is where other people’s ideas, experiences and encouragement are vital to help keep the ball rolling. It should be a community thing, surely? After all, we’re all in it together. As one of our neighbours so eloquently put it (in Spanish), ‘We are all sailing in one boat and if it tips over, we all go down.’

Expanding on that idea, I believe it’s important to be active beyond our own patch, too. I’ve committed to stopping and picking up any bits of litter I see when I’m running, even if that means adding a few seconds to a timed run; actually, I also deviated in both 10k races I’ve done here to put my water bottle in a recycling bin – no wonder I can’t crack that golden hour! No matter, as far as I’m concerned, caring for the environment will always be more important than how fast I can run a few kilometres. There isn’t a huge amount of litter here but I’m not prepared to pass plastic bottles, beer cans, chocolate wrappers, cigarette packets and other discarded junk lying in the verges if I can collect it, and either recycle it or put in a bin. I did draw the line at a plastic food wrapper full of dog turds but I hope I can be allowed that one.

I keep an eye on meaningful petitions to sign and email politicians about environmental issues when I can; it might seem like a minimal impact thing to be doing but it’s a case of tiny drops making an ocean. I’m sure there’s more I could be doing in this area, too; it’s not as exciting as making soap or planting seeds but now more than ever, I think, a very valuable way of spending time.

Self-set phacelia (green manure) completes a natural cycle.

I realise that all this might sound a bit superficial, something of a game, in fact; in truth, it doesn’t look like I’m planning to do much that is different to a normal day and I am aware at how privileged I am to have so many blessings in my life and to be able to spend a day in this way. I’m very lucky to be able to choose to use less electricity or hot water or a range of foodstuffs when so many people don’t have those things . . . but that, to me, is precisely why this exercise is so important. There is no question that is totally serious and is about complete and unequivocal focus. From the moment I wake up and remember there is to be no morning mug of tea, I will be approaching every single activity with total concentration and reflection on the environmental impact it has . . . and if that leads to just one tiny improvement in helping the planet, then it will have been time very well spent. ๐Ÿ™‚

This single self-set sunflower plant has 25 flowers on it – that’s seed well worth spreading!

Wild and woolly

By all these lovely tokens September days are here, With summer’s best of weather and autumn’s best of cheer.

Helen Hunt Jackson

This is such a beautiful time of year, one that always makes my heart sing. We have been enjoying those perfect late summer days, with cloudless skies colour-washed in blue from pale duck egg, delicate as the finest porcelain, to a deep cornflower so achingly intense and pristine, it almost hurts the eyes.

Sunset brings a cloak of rich purples . . .

. . . or something altogether different if clouds have bubbled up during the afternoon.

I love the way the shift in light illuminates plants in the garden in different ways, like swivelling the beam of nature’s spotlight to a new angle, uplighting leaves and dappling fruit.

At other times, the weather has been the kind that took me so long to get used to when we moved here, the low cloud weaving itself moodily around the mountain tops bringing a level of light that instinctively says it’s time for long trousers and socks . . . but step outdoors and it’s still most definitely shorts and sandals territory. The warm evening air is still and laced with a sweet softness, scented with the unique fragrance of Japanese quince and a subtle hint of wood smoke drifting up from the village.

The air is clotted with spirals of swooping swallows and martins, feeling their wings and filling their boots before their thoughts turn southwards. Flocks of gaudy goldfinches have returned after their summer business, chattering and flapping low-level through the meadow, greedily plucking at fluffy seedheads in their noisy charge. Butterflies flap languidly, bumble bees hum sonorously, the robins strike up their melodious fluting once more; no question that the slow pulse of late summer is wrapping itself around us now.

One of my favourite things about our home is that it sits snuggly in its own patch of land; the garden area may not be particularly large but we benefit from borrowed light and space and landscape from the meadows beyond.

This time of year is a great one to actually leave the garden and go a-wandering further afield (no pun intended). The grass practically stops growing through August so the cows have been off the fields for some weeks and in their absence, other life is thriving even more than usual.

Our meadows are about as traditional as they come. When the cattle return, it will be as a small family troupe of one bull and several cows with calves of varying ages, everything from wide-eyed tots staying close to their mothers, to nonchalant, streetwise teenagers, haring about in rowdy gangs. They will graze here for a couple of weeks at most and then be moved on; over-grazing is something that simply doesn’t happen. As the land is so steep, no tractor can work it so there is no question of making hay or spreading manure: the cows are relied on to get busy at both ends to do the business! The result is a meadow carpeted with wildflowers . . .

. . . and the closer you look, the more you find.

For us, it is a lovely place to sit in the sunshine and enjoy the sheer exuberance of the life around us.

There is certainly no shortage of fascinating creatures to observe.

It’s not just the small things that are here, either. We often see deer spill like molten metal from amongst the trees to graze, then slip away silently into the woods; foxes are regular visitors, in particular a large dog fox with battle-scarred ears and a silver brush; wild boar rootle through under the cover of darkness, practising their own particular brand of ancient ploughing and the ghostly barn owl glides past, hugging the ground on its crepuscular hunting missions. For me, this is a perfect example of how it is possible to practise modern agriculture and food production on land that still retains an element of ‘wild’ and is home to a wealth of native species.

It’s incredible, too, how quickly nature moves to exert its authority once the grazing has stopped!

Back to the garden, and here we are revelling in nature’s bounty as well as beauty. Every day brings the need to harvest something (well many things, in truth) and it is pure pleasure.

Preparing our evening meal together, I sometimes look at the garden produce and wonder if maybe we should be inviting other people round for dinner? We are so blessed and it is something I never take for granted, especially considering this lot is about as wholesome and organic as you can get . . . and any leftovers make the perfect base for tomorrow’s lunch.

I love the way the season brings a new palette of floral features in the vegetable garden, too; part of me wonders if I’ll ever bother with flower borders again.

Chicory
‘Red Rosie’ lettuce
Globe artichoke
Jerusalem artichoke

There is verbena bonariensis everywhere so honestly, there’s no need to be fighting over a single flower!

This is traditionally the time of year when my thoughts turn to all things woolly; I normally have a small project or two on the go through summer but they’re always a bit haphazard and piecemeal as I’m generally just too busy to sit still for long. My first task was to finish the scraps patchwork blanket I’ve been pottering away at on and off for many months. Sewing the squares together didn’t turn out to be as arduous as I’d thought, and despite such a discrepancy in the amount of different colours I had to use, the finished piece doesn’t look too unbalanced. In fact, I quite like the jolly jumble of those simple squares.

I really enjoy working blanket borders, they pull the whole thing together and give the finished article a satisfying frame, a little weight and touch of decorum to finish the whole thing off. The composition of this blanket has been entirely dictated by the amount of yarn I had left from previous projects and the border was no exception; these certainly weren’t the colours I’d have chosen (oh, for some blues!), simply the ones I had most of.

After a lot of fiddling about with colour order, I settled on the above and worked a round in each, hoping it wouldn’t look over-pinked. It didn’t turn out too badly in the end.

So, with all my yarn scraps used up and only one ball of sock wool left it was definitely time to blow the dust off my spinning wheel again. As part of my zero waste campaign, I set out not to buy any new yarn at all this year and I’ve stuck to that so far, but now I need to get busy turning my box of fleece into skeins for future projects. Having had a good rummage through my fleece stash, I decided to start with some Blue Faced Leicester in natural shades of oatmeal and white.

Can I indulge in a little wool worship here? I love Blue Faced Leicester: of all the fleece breeds I’ve spun so far (I think it was ten at the last count plus alpaca, mohair and silk), it is by far my out and out favourite. If I could only have one kind of wool ever again, it would be this one. The sheep are not the prettiest, but the fleece is a dream. It’s one of the finest British breeds, not quite up there with the much-lauded Merino but not far behind and definitely far easier to spin. In fact, I often think that once the tension is sorted on my finicky old wheel, the BFL spins itself; I can let my gaze drift across the garden or down the valley, even turn and hold a conversation with Roger, safe in the knowledge that nothing untoward is occurring between my fingers and the bobbin.

It isn’t a hugely elastic wool – more draper than hugger – but it’s soft, fairly strong and has a beautiful lustre; the oatmeal might look a dull brown but when the flyer spins, the yarn shines like deeply burnished pewter.

There is much pleasure to be derived from spinning ready-dyed fleece and watching the colours build on the bobbin, or spinning white fleece to mess about with in my dye pot later, but there is also a certain charm to working with natural shades. I liked the idea of spinning equal lengths in both colours, then plying them together to make a marled yarn with an essence of natural things – pebbles, driftwood, pine cones, mushrooms, feathers . . .

I decided to spin the white slightly thicker, so the skinnier oatmeal would twist round it and puff it up a little to create texture; I also deliberately allowed a few slubs of fleece to slip through in bumps so that the finished yarn has a slightly rustic, earthy feel to it which somehow seems to suit the season.

Putting those pebbles back in my collection, I spied a contented little snake curled up under a piece of slate, a perfect echo of the colours, texture and form of my skein of wool. Nature, as always, having the last word. I like that very much. ๐Ÿ™‚