Midsummer meanderings

With our holiday plans scuppered and the Asturian borders opened, along with the rest of Spain, to visitors once again (she says wearing very worried eyebrows) we decided this would be a good time to get out and do a few walks before the main tourist season takes off. Not that it’s ever really that busy here, but we are generally very spoilt in having trails and beaches pretty much to ourselves for most of the year and it’s all relative. Once August arrives, we are happy simply to stay at home.

Midsummer garden

Our first idea was to go back to walk the Ruta de las Xanas which we did with Sam and Adrienne back in January, but instead of risking a possible mugging by the huge mountain hound at the top of the gorge, we thought we would forgo the picnic and treat ourselves to lunch in the village bar ~ and as that is something we rarely do, it really would be a treat indeed. However, having checked online we discovered that it was closed for the festival of San Juan. Ah, okay.

We had a fantastic day out on the Ruta de las Xanas with Adrienne and Sam earlier this year.

Unlike in neighbouring Galicia, June 24th is not a public holiday in Asturias but obviously, as in this case, individuals can choose to mark it if they wish. In many parts of Spain, the night of the 23rd sees huge celebrations where people come together to dance, light bonfires on beaches and party throughout the night. Although as the Feast of Saint John it’s nominally a Christian festival, the celebrations themselves are based on much older pagan ways and share many similarities with other cultural acknowledgements of the summer solstice around the globe.

Time for Plan B and we decided to try a new walk in the neighbouring municipality of Tineo, one we’ve been meaning to do for some time now. As the crow flies, it’s not that far from home but there is no easy or direct route to the starting point so we suspected the journey on twisty mountain roads could end up being as interesting as the walk itself. It certainly was, and the scenery was spectacular, especially a valley filled with white, fluffy cloud; I hope I never become immune to natural beauty such as this.

There was no cloud at the start of our walk, just bright sunshine and a brilliant blue sky that suggested the day would be much hotter than forecast. The scenery was stunning, the trees all decked out in their full summer foliage and the dusky mountains rolling away into the distance.

The path soon turned down a greener than green lane which looked like it was going to develop into a really pleasant hike until some way down, we hit a major snag: the path was completely overgrown. Now, I realise that I might sound very hypocritical having recently moaned about the verges being cut (on which note, the morning’s journey through verges full of wild flowers and insect life had restored my faith a good deal, the strimming obsession seems to be very local to our valley)! One of the results of the COVID-19 situation is that many trails and picnic sites haven’t been maintained as they normally would have been and this left us with a problem. As country people we are prepared to wade through vegetation, squelch through mud, paddle across rivers or clamber over or under fallen trees, but waist-high nettles in shorts? Nope, not doing it . . . especially as it was early on in an eleven-kilometre circular walk and who knows what the rest might be like?

The path didn’t stay this clear for long!

Back to the car and on to Plan C. By this point of our days out, things often start to get a little needy and this one was no exception. Roger, who had been up since cockerel o’clock and run a half marathon distance before I’d even started my breakfast, was ready for his lunch; I, on the other hand, having lounged about drinking far too many mugs of tea and coffee was jiggling from foot to foot in need of a secluded spot for a ‘wild wee.’ We decided the best course of action was to head to nearby Navelgas and have our picnic in a shady woodland site next to the river. I love spots like these, for me they are pure Asturias ~ especially with the sound of cowbells ringing from the meadow beyond.

Navelgas is a lovely little town in a very pretty spot; in certain parts of the UK, it’s the sort of place that would be heaving with visitors, full of tea shops, arty boutiques and hiking and camping outlets. Instead, it’s full of friendly people quietly living their lives in the midst of beautiful scenery . . . and not a postcard or cream tea in sight!

It’s also the starting point for several good walks, some of which we’d already done so opting to try a new one, the Senda Verde de Brezo, we headed out of town along the river.

The route climbed steeply through woodland carpeted with wild strawberries, where the evocative spicy scent of warm pine took me straight back to the Canadian Rockies, albeit without the added excitiment of meeting a black bear around the corner!

There is something so special about woodland at this time of year, with the shafts of high sunlight piercing the leaf canopy and the air ringing with the incessant sound of birdsong. It was truly magical.

Further on, and we emerged from the trees to more open country and another path where nature was doing its own thing but thankfully not in a jungle of nettles this time. There were drifts of cheery yellow St John’s wort everywhere; very fitting given the date, I thought.

The path was still obviously quite passable but the issue with places like this is ticks, which seem to be especially bad this year. I find the best solution is to let another warm-blooded animal (preferably with hairy legs) go on ahead, after which it’s only fair to do some mutual tick-picking in true monkey grooming style!

On reaching the top of the climb, we stood and drank in the wide-reaching views. It never fails to amaze me how we can be looking at mountains higher than Ben Nevis and see farms or even whole village communities perched on top.

Someone with a lot of foresight had placed a bench there so we sat and enjoyed a drink of water, surrounded by the bustling busyness of bees and soporific fluttering of butterflies. Blimey, it was hot!

Given the heat and how much of the day it had taken us to reach this point, we decided not to go right to the end of the walk. Like not climbing to the top of a mountain, this sort of thing never bothers me because it’s about the journey, not the arriving; in fact, sometimes I think doing part of a set trail rather than the whole thing can be more pleasurable and rewarding, especially if a slower pace gives me the chance to really immerse myself and indulge my senses in the surroundings. Retracing our steps through the relative cool of the woodland, I lost myself in awe and wonder at the dancing silhouettes of ancient chestnut trees and the leafy elegance of it all.

Arriving back in Navelgas, we spent a little time looking at the beautiful seventeenth century panera de San Nicolás, draped with dried corn cobs in the traditional fashion. On our way back through the woods, we had collected some huge pine cones to add to the collection of natural ‘finds’ we are incoroporating into the enchanted garden part of our orchard. At first glance, there appeared to be a couple of giant carved ones beneath the panera . . .

. . . but on closer inspection, they turned out to be something quite different! Maybe we should have a go at carving one of these for the garden, too?

Home again, and what seemed to have begun as a bit of a scrappy, stop-go day had turned out to be very enjoyable in a gentle and satisfying way ~ no whizz-bang-pops, no great dramas or challenging paths, just a good walk in a beautiful spot and fabulous weather. Well, I say fabulous but nature had other ideas; no sooner were we home, than the blue sky disappeared in a tumult of storm clouds, the darkened valley became moody and atmospheric and the thunder rolled in. As the first fat spots of rain darkened the terrace slates, I reflected on the incredible range of midsummer skies we had experienced all in the space of one day. So fickle. So beautiful. So Asturias. 🙂

Just enough time to enjoy a glass of wine on the terrace before the heavens opened!

The happy blues

Perhaps the saddest part for me of the whole coronavirus situation is the cancellation of the plans we had made to spend time together with family, here in Asturias as well as in the UK and Norway. Now, I am not whingeing because many people have suffered (and continue to suffer) terribly and we and our loved ones are at least safe and well. The milestones we were set to celebrate won’t come round again but at least once it is all over, we will hopefully be able to catch up with each other again in a joyful celebration of life and love. On the plus side, though, it has been lovely to have very regular video chats with our grandchildren and to help out a little with their homeschooling. Weekly Spanish lessons with Ben, William and Evan are a delight and let me indulge in all the best bits of teaching without any of the headaches; they also remind me how scarily quickly and effortlessly young children learn new things! When Annie had finished her unit of work on rainbows and became interested in indigo, we had a great chat about natural dyeing, and as she and Matthew went off to collect bits of sheep’s wool to dye and weave, I realised this was the nudge I needed to get back to some dyeing, too.

What I realised is that it has been many months since I shared any woolly happenings on my blog; it isn’t because I haven’t been doing anything, just not writing about them so perhaps it’s time for a quick catch-up. Last year for me was all about exploring the possibilities of using natural materials in dyeing, in particular substantive dyes that require no mordant but can be modified in an alkali (washing soda) or acid (citric acid) bath to give a range of shades. Green walnut leaves – of which we have an abundance – gave some beautiful coffee and cream tones in wool and silk.

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Blended together on the hand carders, they made rolags that looked like spun sugar.

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The fibre worked up beautifully into a marled yarn which I wanted to use to make a scarf as a gift, something light and feminine without being twee. As I hate am not a fan of lace knitting, I opted for crochet and a variation on trellis stitch which I hoped would work up well into the garment I had envisaged . . . and that’s where I left the story.

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Mmm, let’s just say things went downhill from there. Several centimetres in and I was starting to feel very unhappy with what I was creating, it was so clumpy and awkward and just felt wrong. Even with the most diligent of blocking to stretch those holes out, I could tell it would still be too ‘heavy’ somehow; I wanted the recipient to feel softly wrapped and cosseted in those subtle walnut hues running through Merino and silk, not like she was wearing the complete tree round her neck. Time for Plan B and here is where my heart sank into my boots because I knew that knitting had to be the answer for this particular yarn. No way could I face a long lacy scarf project, which would take me at least 250 years to finish, and thankfully there wasn’t enough yardage for a shawl so I opted for a happy medium in the form of a shawlette scarf. Yes, it meant a circular needle and several hundred stitches (aaaaaargh!) but the lace border was only worked over sixteen rows and after that pain, I knew the short rows in stocking stitch would be plain sailing, just like turning a giant sock heel. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a few ‘moments’ with this knitting and I certainly ended up having to unpick several times . . . but I managed it and was pretty chuffed with the result which suited the yarn so much better. Excuse my less-than-glamorous background in the photos, I don’t have blocking boards so I just pin the damp garment to an old bath towel.

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Well, I’m feeling a tad friendlier towards lace knitting now but I haven’t quite mustered the courage to do something similar to the fibres I dyed with madder. All in good time.

Away from dyeing and something else I decided to try for the first time is felting; I have no idea why it has taken me so long to get round to this, but with Annie and William’s fifth birthdays looming, I was wracking my brain for gift ideas and thought perhaps a little felted bag full of goodies might be a hit. I started with Annie’s bag in her favourite purple shot through with turquoise, a batch of Kent Romney that had had a tough time in the acid dye bath and certainly didn’t lend itself to socks. I didn’t bother with a pattern, just knitted a long rectangle in stocking stitch with garter stitch borders at each end, and seamed the sides to make a bag, adding a garter stitch strap. I know many people swear by felting in the washing machine but I passed on that one for two reasons: first, I never use a hot wash for eco reasons and the idea of doing so for a little woolly bag didn’t sit comfortably with my green principles, also because I love the hands-on aspect of activities like this and wanted to see the felting process as it happened to better understand it. It was so simple: I poured very hot water from the stove kettle into a bowl, added a few drops of Ecover washing-up liquid and (wearing rubber gloves) beat and pummelled the poor bag to a pulp. Wow! It was a fascinating process to watch as the stitches closed up to make a wonderfully thick and soft felt, with just enough definition left in the garter stitch sections to add contrast. On a roll, I got stuck in with William’s blend of red, orange and yellow Shetland, then decided to have a bit of fun and play around with flowers and butterflies as a finishing touch. I stuffed the bags with seeds ~ they are both passionate little gardeners ~ and chocolate to sustain them in their planting escapades. What a great activity! The sequel is in the pipeline . . .

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. . . and this is where the indigo moment comes in, because having seen Annie’s bag, Matthew immediately requested one for himself, but could it be blue, please? Well, how can a granny refuse? I’ve only had the indigo for ten years (possibly longer) so it really was time to get on with it. As luck would have it, Roger had just finished building the extension to the terrace which meant there was plenty of room to set myself up with an outdoor workshop. Mmm, there was inspiration in that sky, too.

As with all new activities, I like to do a lot of background reading and research before jumping in; true, I love the experimentation and exploration and the excitement of the unknown but that has to be measured against a recklessness that could result in wasting expensive and precious resources. As with so many other things, though, it seemed the more people I turned to, the more conflicting advice I found. For instance, the temperature of the indigo vat: it should be heated and kept at a constant 50 °C throughout . . . no, make that blood heat with a warm-up only if needed . . . no, lukewarm will do, no need to heat at all. Well, excuse me, but in my humble opinion, that’s quite a difference! I read time and time again how essential it is not to stir or agitate the vat as that introduces oxygen, only to find a video clip of a lady who whipped hers into an incredible vortex, stirring crazily one way then the other around the pot. Then there’s the whole dipping scene: is it one minute, five, or fifteen? Honestly, my brain was spinning like an indigo whirlpool itself. Something that most folks seemed agreed on was what a messy business it is and that I could expect to be blue all over by the time I’d finished ~ my clothes, shoes, face, hair, the lot. That had me thinking that anyone who indulged in naked dyeing would end up looking like a woad-daubed ancient Briton but really my main concern was not to create an abstract in blue all over Roger’s carefully laid slates!

In trying to cut through the confusion, I opted to loosely follow the method used by Jenny Dean in her book Colours From Nature, by carefully stirring my indigo crystals, washing soda (the vat needs to be alkaline so the indigo will dissolve) and finally some colour run remover into a pot of hand-hot water. The colour run remover contains sodium hydrosulphite, a chemical reducing agent that removes oxygen from the vat and allows ‘indigo blue’ to convert to ‘indigo white’ ~ the science behind this process and all the activity at molecular level is fascinating stuff! Admittedly, it’s the kind of chemical I try to avoid using but the natural alternative of fermented urine somehow didn’t appeal. I know people use all sorts of fruit ferments, too, but in this first go I felt it was essential to get a proper grasp of how it all works before experimenting with that kind of thing. I put the lid on the pot and left it sitting in the sunshine for an hour or so, by which time it had formed a blue skin over yellowy-green liquid and had started to blow a few bubbles; lots of people talk about needing a large ‘flower’ of bubbles blooming in the vat but interestingly, Jenny Dean doesn’t mention it at all. Well, did I need it to bloom or not? Does it have to be a big ‘flower’ or would a small ‘bud’ suffice? Good grief, here we go again . . .

What the heck, I decided it was time to go for it anyway and slipped in a wetted skein of Merino, replaced the lid and left it for fifteen minutes.

The one thing that all experts seem to be agreed on is that indigo dyeing can’t be rushed; like raising children or making mayonnaise, it requires time, patience and lots of love. While my vat was brewing in the sunshine, I pottered about doing a bit of light gardening then decided that the extra space on the new-look terrace was just perfect for my spinning wheel and what better way to pass the time and celebrate the solstice than working with some naturally-dyed fibre in the Spanish sunshine?

Last year, I dyed some Merino in a pot of French marigold flowers in true rustic style, simply tossing the lot into the dye pot together. After a bit of tweaking with modifiers, I ended up with two distinct shades of yellow.

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I always think the wool looks a bit tortured after its time in the pot, as though the effort to not do what comes naturally and turn to felt leaves it exhausted and wrung out. I wasn’t planning on blending it with anything else, but felt a little fluffing up on the carders would help and would add a bit of air and loft to the finished yarn. Like the walnut-dyed wool, I was amazed by the range of subtle shades there are within each colour, so much prettier and effective than the solid colour of synthetic dyes. As an added bonus, there is also the faintest scent of flowers, too. Lovely.

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For spinning purposes, I’m just pulling random rolags out of my basket so that the finished yarn will be a mix of all the shades together. So far, so good, and possibly another little bag in the making.

Meanwhile, back to Indigo World and the moment of truth once the fifteen minutes were up. Having read absolutely everywhere that the wool needed to be exposed to the air for at least twenty minutes to allow the colour to fully develop, I assumed (completely wrongly, as it turned out) that I would have plenty of time to rinse the wool in cold water, peg it on the line, ditch my gloves, grab the camera and take a series of time lapse photos to capture the colour change. Ha, not a chance! It emerged yellow from the pot and had turned to a gorgeous sea green before it even hit the rinsing water. (I’d like to reassure anyone who might be slightly freaked out by my knees that I wasn’t trying the skyclad, woad-painted thing ~ it was hot so I was wearing shorts. Honest!)

By the time I had walked the few steps to the washing line, the colour had changed again into a beautiful denim blue, exactly the shade I had been hoping for. It was like a magical alchemy, over in seconds, but it had me totally spellbound.

Well, after that I was on a roll and as I’ve been spinning plain skeins for just such an occasion, I threw in a couple of batches of Jacobs and a skein of Kent Romney blended with kid mohair. I messed about with shorter times in the pot and a couple of re-dips, ending up with a range of subtle shade differences that made me very, very happy.

As there was still life in the indigo vat, I then tried a length of Jacobs fleece top and some tussah silk. Oh, those colour variations! If I could turn a back flip, I would have done . . . although possibly on the side of a mountain there could have been dire consequences with that one.

So, what next? Well, I have plenty of new projects waiting in the wings. I can really see the possibilities of creating some fabulous greens by dipping yellow yarn in indigo; I don’t have any French marigolds this year but masses of feverfew and Queen Anne’s lace, both of which are said to yield some pleasing yellow shades. In fact, there’s still a long list of plant materials on our patch which give substantial dyes to experiment with, including things like eucalyptus, heather and sage. I’m currently researching the use of bramble leaves as a tannin-rich mordant; they were used historically which is the sort of thing I find interesting and we certainly have no shortage here, although I think they would add brown to the mix so I would need to choose the dye materials carefully. I have a few rusty nails steeping in a jar of water and vinegar (is there no end to these dark arts?) to make an iron mordant water which should help to enhance colour fastness; iron deepens or ‘saddens’ colours but there’s nothing sad about the possibility of using it to yield a deep purple dye from madder. Lots to do . . . I think my main problem is going to be running out of fleece! For now, though, I’m just very happy singing the blues. 🙂

Every cloud . . .

No matter how chaotic it is, wild flowers will still spring up in the middle of nowhere.

Sheryl Crow

I am an optimist by nature. I’m not old enough to remember Monty Python but I do try to always look on the bright side of life (sorry if that’s caused anyone to have an earworm now 🙂 ). I think it’s important to greet each new day with gratitude, each experience with wonder and to smile far more than I frown. At the same time, I’m also a realist which I believe is essential in life, particularly when things don’t go according to plan. It’s so easy to rant and rage, throw our teddies out of the proverbial pram and look for someone or something to blame or else stick our fingers firmly in both ears and sing, “La la la la la la la, not listening, not listening . . .” in an act of total denial. There’s a lot of both going on at the moment around the world and whilst I appreciate people have the right to find their own ways of dealing with situations that are threatening, frightening and deeply worrying, there’s much to be said for a calm and balanced approach. Change happens whether we like it or not. Life is messy. We have to deal with that.

There is much discussion about the ways in which the experiences of COVID-19 might bring about positive changes for humanity and the planet and as an optimist, I am remaining hopeful . . . despite the queues at shopping centres and diposable gloves and masks adding to the already horrendous amounts of plastic waste. Take wild flowers, for instance. As a family, we spent many years pleading with the local councils in South Shropshire and Powys to revise their roadside management policies. Every year saw the grass verges cut just as the wildflowers were at their very best and buzzing with insect life; the hedges were flailed two, three or sometimes more times a year (and boy, did I have the punctures to prove it travelling along those lanes to work ~ five in one school term, no less!), one of those cuts in early autumn always taking the berries and nuts as well as the last of the leaves, so ushering in winter far too early.

The arguments for this approach were twofold, the first being the importance of maintaining a safe environment for road users and pedestrians alike. Now obviously we completely understood that safety must be a priority, especially on certain junctions and dangerous bends ~ but why then the need to treat all stretches of roadside the same, or to cut to a depth of more than one mower’s width where ‘safety’ obviously didn’t come into it? The answer lay in the second reason: we were told time and time again that people like to see the verges and hedges regularly cut, they like the countryside to be tidy and manicured. Really? Why? This isn’t a bowling green or someone’s lawn we’re talking about. Nature isn’t tidy, it’s messy and chaotic, that’s what creates a healthy biodiversity in different ecosystems, including the tiny ones I wrote about in my last post.

Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t persuade the councils to listen; in fact, if anything, things worsened to the point that over a period of thirteen years in one rural home, we saw the diversity of floral species in the verges dwindle from that gorgeous classic May mix of bluebells, red campion, stitchwort, lady’s smock, foxgloves and wild garlic and the frothy foam of meadowsweet and fiery spires of rosebay willowherb later in the year to sterile strips supporting only nettles and cow parsley. As the flowers disappeared, so too did the wildlife that benefited from them. The ecosystem was greatly impoverished.

More recently, there have been some positive moves such as the ‘bee friendly’ incentives that have seen traffic islands planted with wild flowers but I have been even more encouraged by reports of attitudes changing as a result of COVID-19 causing councils to scale back their roadside cutting regimens. This has allowed the flowers to bloom and, along with clearer skies and enhanced birdsong, it seems that many people are appreciating the true beauty and value of British wild flowers and organisations such as Plantlife are attracting much interest in their campaigns to protect these natural treasures. Perhaps this will be change for the good, a silver lining to the coronavirus cloud? I hope so.

In complete contrast, I have always welcomed the attitude to roadside maintenance here in Asturias which has seemed to be far gentler and more sensitive to the environment in general. The local council only cuts once a year, late in the season when the flowers have set seed and young birds have fledged (they also sweep up after themselves, so no punctures here!); in between times, local people scythe some areas ~ particularly the wide verges on the inside of hairpin bends ~ to make hay or feed directly to stock, but otherwise all is left well alone and the verges are stunningly beautiful.

Well, they were. I don’t know what exactly has happened but we seem to have emerged from the peace of lockdown into Strimmer World, some kind of parallel universe where anything that doesn’t move is razed to the roots by an army of buzzing machines. It’s not just people tidying up their neglected gardens or clearing overgrown paths, either; every roadside strip has been scalped along with places I’ve never seen cut, including riverbanks and even meadows that are normally left to the cows. Even worse, there seems to be a bit of an unprecedented spraying frenzy going on, too. A few weeks ago when we were granted the freedom to walk further than one kilometre from home, we did a circular hike up to the top of the mountain behind the house and back again, climbing up on forest tracks and returning down the winding mountain road. The roadside verges were a real show, full of colour and buzzing with life and we took plenty of photos. A couple of days ago I walked back up a stretch of that road . . . and things couldn’t have been more different. Someone has sprayed the verges on both sides of the road for several kilometres. Everything is dying or already dead.

Where previously there was colour, beauty and life, now there is a barren scrubland. These were the oxeye daisies before . . .

. . . and now.

The knapweed was alive and thrumming with the attentions of insect life . . .

. . . now it’s not even alive.

I’d hoped to pick some beautiful big heads of yarrow to dry for herbal teas. Not a chance.

The saddest part of my walk was the silence: not so much as a single bumble bee to be seen or heard. The heather should be full of them now.

I feel utterly sad that this has happened, partly because it is completely unnecessary but also because it is so very out of character. This is not the Asturian way. What on earth is going on? I am slightly fascinated in an armchair psychology kind of way; is this the result of seven weeks of total lockdown (bearing in mind it was far stricter here than it has been in the UK)? Has being confined en casa or the fear of a pandemic and all its unknown consequences resulted in some kind of atavistic need to go out and destroy and control, to beat nature into submission? I really don’t know but I’m hoping it’s just a one-off, one of life’s strange blips because if it’s going to be a permanent thing, then it very definitely isn’t change for the better.

Back to the bright side, though ~ I’m all for balance! For starters, when I walked out to take those photos, I was bearly a few metres from home when I saw the most beautiful fox on the track ahead of me. I stopped walking and stood absolutely still but it showed no fear of me whatsoever so we watched one another for several quiet minutes before it mosied off through the undergrowth. We don’t have a zoom lens on our camera, which is why my wildlife photos are always composed of subjects I can get close to, but hopefully you will get the idea of how close we were (note our verges had been left in peace). It was a magical moment.

Further on, I joined the mountain road and depressing though the sight of those devastated verges was, when I lifted my eyes I couldn’t help but find some kind of hope and healing in that beautiful view.

The photo at the top of this post was taken a short time after the end of two days of storms that had brought high winds, torrential rain and an unseasonal drop in temperature. In what seemed like moments, the cloud lifted and scattered across the bluest of skies and the sun blazed; the garden was suddenly bursting with life and activity again. I certainly wasn’t the only one enjoying the return of that blissful warmth.

We are blessed to share our space with such a wealth of wildlife and I have to remind myself that where the vegetation hasn’t been hacked back or sprayed, the verges and forest trails, meadows and wild spaces still bustle with nature’s busyness. A couple of nights ago, we stood with our heads out of the roof window watching a deer grazing in the meadow above, serene and silent amidst the raucous din of a joyful frogs’ chorus. I have spent the last few days watching a family of young redstarts take their first tentative steps and flights around the garden; the parents nested in the tiny wild patch we’ve created from an old chicken run and have raised a beautful if demanding brood, who ~ even though they fledged ten days ago ~ are still sitting about expectantly waiting for food to come to them! Again, the photo isn’t zoomed but you can make out one of the youngsters waiting on the rail in anticipation of the next beakful . . .

So, there is still much to be celebrated, much optimism to be exercised. Let me finish with a heartwarming story about a little girl living in Gijón, one of the three major cities in Asturias, which is surely one of the loveliest tales to have emerged from these strange times here. Having spent several weeks in total lockdown like all Spanish children, unable to leave her home at all, she was finally given the freedom to spend an hour outside with one adult going no further than one kilometre from her home. She chose to go to the nearby beach (Gijón is a seafront city) and spent her precious hour picking up plastic bottles and rubbish that had washed up onto the sand during the weeks of lockdown. With caring souls like that in this world, I like to feel there truly is hope for this beautiful planet we call home. 🙂

Freewheeling

All good things are wild and free.

Henry David Thoreau

For my bedtime reading this week I’ve been dipping into Henry David Thoreau’s Walden again; I don’t find it an easy read – in fact, if I’m brutally honest, I don’t even really enjoy it that much. The man is incredibly wordy (which I appreciate might sound a bit rich coming from me 🙂 ) and I do find some of the passages a bit heavy going; however, amongst all his lexical flourishes and literary asides, there are complete gems in the form of his observations of the natural world. Whether it be the calling of owls in the night, the fighting of black and red ants, the colour and behaviour of the fish in Walden Pond or the description of ice formation and snowmelt, his prose is exquisite. It came as no surprise to learn that other eminent naturalists including John Muir were inspired by Thoreau’s acute and perceptive observations.

It might seem like something of a jump from Massachusetts in 1846 to Asturias in 2020 but I’ve found myself reflecting on my reading whilst engaged in several activities through the week. Thoreau reasoned that the simpler life humans choose to lead, the less they need money and fewer hours in paid employment means the freedom to spend time on other things, connecting with nature being top of the list. I went out to pick a small bowlful of nasturtium seeds with the intention of pickling them in spiced vinegar to make a substitue for capers. It’s the sort of job that should have taken no more then ten minutes given that we have nasturtiums trailing everywhere and the plants are literally dripping with fat seeds that are easily harvested. In the days when I was working and raising a family, it’s the kind of thing that would be done in a flash because there was always something else to be moving on to but the joy of a simpler, quieter life now is that I can take as much time as I like. I can idle or daydream ~ or both. In fact, what happened is that I found myself completely absorbed in the busyness of honey bees working their way systematically through the jungle of nasturtium flowers, their pollen baskets so full they looked to be wearing harem pants in spicy shades of saffron, cinnibar and paprika.

We used to keep bees so it would be easy to become blasé about this kind of thing, having watched them returning to the hive laden with a spectrum of different pollens many, many times. The truth is, though, I never cease to be fascinated by their selfless, focused activity and I’m perfectly happy to spend time watching them again through fresh eyes. Actually, I love to watch bumble bees, too; they are in many ways the better pollinators, given that there are more species of them, they will fly in cooler temperatures and are faster and more efficient gatherers using ‘buzz pollination’ (vibrations that literally shake the pollen out) which enables them to loosen tightly-packed pollen and saves them from having to crawl into the depths of every flower. The honey bee, though is a specialist, fastidiously visiting only one kind of flower on every trip and spreading the news of a plentiful harvest on her return to the hive which is what makes them such an asset to fruit orchards and the like. They’ve certainly done us proud in the nasturtiums!

It’s not just the plentiful seed harvest, either; the beauty ~ literally and metaphorically ~ of growing open-pollinated varieties is that every year we find a wider range of colours and patterns amongst the flowers, which are currently ablaze in a stunning display of painted fiery tones.

Moving from my reading in English to Spanish and I am currently translating a news report about Alfredo Ojanguren, an Asturian professor of zoology in Oviedo University, whose research has led him to believe that being a ‘natural paradise’ helps to protect places like Asturias from pandemics and plagues ~ a very pertinent issue just at the moment. He argues that valuable, carefully-preserved ecosystems and a wide biodiversity have much to offer in maintaining the health and well-being of humanity. He uses the metaphor of a hen that lays golden eggs: if we ask for one egg a day, through sustainable exploitation of natural resources including the tourism which beautiful areas attract, then a healthy balance can be maintained between the needs of human beings and the welfare of the planet. Take three eggs a day and the precious hen is overloaded; at that point, we are all in serious trouble.

It’s a fascinating article and I was particularly struck with Professor Ojanguren’s observation that ecosystems are crucially important at every level; it’s natural that we tend to focus on such fragile and prominent areas as the Amazon rainforest, but in the grand scheme of things, the tiniest areas are equally important and deserving of our attention and care. We may not co-exist with exotic species in our garden but the life that thrives in the wild margins of our vegetable patch is essential to the welfare of the environment.

Further afield, and the current phase of easing lockdown restrictions has granted us the freedom to travel anywhere within Asturias whilst the borders remain firmly closed to incomers. With paths and trails re-opened, we are free to enjoy the paraíso natural once more so this week we decided to take our bikes back to the Senda del Oso (Bear Trail); the route is shaped like a capital Y and having cycled up the right-hand path from the fork last year, this time we decided to take the left turn and explore some new countryside ~ 22 miles (35 kilometres) of it, in fact.

Now, I am happy to confess that on a bike I am something of a liability for several reasons. For a start, I am very easily distracted and have an alarming tendency to weave and wobble about the road or slam on my brakes without warning in order to stop and look at something that has captured my attention, creating mayhem for anyone behind me (usually Roger, of course); for this reason, it is safest for everyone if I ride along at the back. Also, if there is going to be a mechanical drama you can bet your bottom dollar it will be my bike at the centre of things. Flat tyres, stuck gears, a wedged chain . . . you name it, I’ve had it to a point that my beloved engineer now always carries at the very least a puncture repair kit, pump and spanner in his rucksack whenever we venture out on two wheels together. Should I mention my issues with wearing a helmet? No matter how much I try to tame and flatten my hair, it is so thick and chaotic that my helmet fights me every step of the way, sticking up in ridiculous fashion like a rocket on a launch pad or necessitating my chin strap to be tightened to such a point where swallowing and breathing become very uncomfortable. Thankfully, on the Senda del Oso a helmet is only mandatory for under-16s so I don’t have to wear it, but I carry it anyway just in case (of what, I’m not sure 🙂 ).

Last but not least, I am an incredibly slow cyclist ~ honestly, sleeping things can move faster ~ and I know this can be very frustrating for others; the point is, though, if Roger wants to do a speedy, athletic sort of jaunt he can go out on his own whenever he likes but on days like this, there is no rush. If it takes us all day to ride the trail, so be it; it’s about spending a happy time together in the fresh air, moving slowly through a wondrous landscape and drinking in the beauty and enjoyment of it all.

I love this place, there is everything here that I adore about Asturias: soaring mountains, a dramatic river gorge, vast swathes of broadleaf forest, lush green meadows, higgeldy-piggeldy villages, cowbells, birdsong and that infinite canvas of green on green. Oh, and barely another soul, either.

When we walked along the coastpath a couple of weeks ago, we knew that we had missed the floral fireworks of early May but my goodness, we more than made up for that on this bike ride. The wildflowers were truly stunning, the verges like rich tapestries of colourful wonders completely a-buzz with the attention of insects. A tiny ecosystem, a monumental treasure: what a privilege to be able to share it, how vital that we care for it.

Yes, Mr Thoreau, all good things truly are wild and free ~ but please let us never lose sight of their immeasurable worth.

Cordial relations

Cordial: a sweet, fruit-flavoured drink. Originating from Middle English (‘belonging to the heart’), from medieval Latin cordialis, from Latin corcord- ‘heart’.

From time to time, I think it’s a good idea to stop and take stock of my life to see if there are things I could be doing better or differently, habits that could be dropped or new ideas pursued. Change is the only constant in life and I’m a firm believer in a little shake up now and again to keep things fresh and interesting. A couple of posts ago, I wrote about re-reading a favourite herbal and that inspired me to take a long, hard look at my current herb-growing status. Herbs have been a part of my gardening life for ever; in fact, if I were only allowed to grow a handful of plants, they would all be herbs. They are just have so many uses: culinary, medicinal, domestic, cosmetic, creative, aesthetic . . . and of course, many of them are fantastic for wildlife and suit the chaotic informal gardening style I prefer.

Rosemary and friend

Poring over my book (plus another couple of treasured herbals I naturally felt the need to consult), I realised that I’ve been guilty of complacency since moving here; happy that at last I’m able to grow varieties that I’ve previously struggled with, I’ve lost sight of the characters that are missing from the cast or the understudies waiting patiently in the wings that I continue to ignore. Time to go forth and make an inventory. Yippee ~ I do love a list! First, the herbs we have growing here and use on a regular basis. The items marked with an asterisk are ones which grow better here than in our previous gardens.

Flat-leaved parsley ~ volunteers appear all over the garden.

Herbs

  • Rosemary*
  • Sage*
  • Thyme (common and lemon)*
  • Mint (spearmint and apple mint)
  • Fennel
  • Dill*
  • Parsley *(flat-leaf)
  • Coriander*
  • Chives
  • Basil*
  • Comfrey
  • Lemon balm*
  • Lavender*
  • Hyssop*
  • Marjoram
  • Chervil
Thyme

Flowers:

  • Sweet violet
  • Pansies
  • Rose*
  • Primrose
  • Wild strawberries*
  • Pot marigold (calendula)*
  • Nasturtium*
  • Feverfew
Wild strawberry

Trees

  • Walnut*
  • Eucalyptus*
  • Bay*

Well, that didn’t seem a bad list until I realised how many old favourites are missing. As soon as we are able to visit a nursery or seed supplier, then I need to start gathering some new stars.

Wish list

  • Tarragon
  • Bergamot
  • Lemon verbena
  • Purple sage
  • Purple coneflower (echinacea)
  • Chamomile
  • Angelica
  • Peppermint
  • Salad burnet
  • Savory
  • Myrtle
  • Sweet cicely
Borage

Bergamot is one of my favourite plants and I’ve never been without it: how on earth have I let this happen? I struggled to grow lemon verbena until we lived in France where it revelled in the heat of a Mayennais summer and made the best lemonade ever; I think it will be happy here in the Spanish sunshine. I’ve always failed with sweet cicely and purple coneflower but it’s time to try again. I’m conscious of limited growing space and I don’t want any more pots to water so it’s going to be a case of balance, careful planning and sensible choices. In the past, I’ve gone overboard with growing as many different mints as I could lay my mitts on and a wealth of fancy-flavoured basils but really, there’s no need. Variety, yes. Overkill, no.

Marjoram

This led me on to a scrappy little list of plants I’ve tried to grow here and failed, or species I have no intention of ever growing again.

Bits and pieces

  • Cumin and anise ~ sowed seed, nothing happened.
  • Lady’s mantle (alchemilla mollis) ~ another great favourite, it just won’t grow here. 😦
  • Soapwort ~ sowed seeds three times with no luck . . . but now I think I might be there having been gifted a slip of root (thanks, Sonja!).
  • Lovage ~ I find the flavour too overpowering. Give me celery leaves any day.
  • Santolina, artemesia and rue ~ silver-leaved herbs I’ve grown in the past as foils for more colourful things but the truth is, I don’t actually like any of them.
  • Tansy ~ yuk! Sorry, I know it’s quite a pretty thing and is supposed to be a great fly repellent but I can’t stand the smell, to my nose it is pure Eau de Dog Mess. There’s just no need for that in the garden.
Honeysuckle ~ so much kinder on the nose than tansy!

The jury is out on on catmint: what to do? It’s a herb I love, pretty and fuss-free, but the problem is the package that comes with it: the attention of cats hell-bent on hitting a feline high and trashing it in the process. We don’t have any cats ourselves but the neighbourhood boasts a raggle-taggle bunch of wanderers who drift through the garden and I’m not about to waste time and money feeding their drug-crazed habits. However . . . I have now discovered that it’s good at deterring flea beetle which is a real nuisance in the tunnel, so I’m wondering whether a couple of pots in there might be a plan. Would they be safe or am I courting trouble from desperate moggies trying to break in and steal a sneaky fix?

Calendula and sage

Finally, I turned to a list of herbs I should be making more use of. It’s interesting that most of them are considered to be weeds, which had me wondering a bit. At what point did plants that had been valued for thousands of years as food or for their therapeutic qualities fall from grace? Who decreed, ‘Thou shalt be a weed?’ Why have they become the target of derision and eradication when they have so much to offer? There is a wealth of goodness here and I believe they all have a certain beauty and charm, too ~ but that’s just me.

Wild things

  • Dandelion
  • Nettle
  • Chickweed
  • Self-heal
  • Cleavers
  • Shepherd’s purse
  • Red clover
  • Daisy
  • Honeysuckle
  • Passionflower – not ‘wild’ as such but one I know I could be using
Plantain

I didn’t know that crushed red clover flowers are an excellent treatment for bites and stings (useful, since mozzie season is upon us) or that you can sprinkle daisies onto salads or turn honeysuckle blooms into a cough syrup. It’s time to get a grip and start giving these modest little plants the attention and kudos they deserve.

Daisies, red clover and buttercups

On which note, I’ve made a start and without wishing to big myself up too much, I’m actually feeling quite proud. Here is the woman who just a short time ago wouldn’t touch herbal teas with a barge pole yet last week I found myself on a foraging mission which resulted in (drumroll, please) . . . fennel and goosegrass tea. Yes, goosegrass ~ or cleavers, sticky grass, bedstraw, beggar lice, bur head, catch weed, cling rascal, sticky weed, sticky willy, sticky bob, stickybud, bobby buttons, robin-run-the-hedge, stickyjack, scratchweed, coach tongue or whatever else you wish to call it.

How was it? Well, the honest answer is it probably wins more prizes for the abundance of names it has than flavour but it was very palatable in an earthy sort of way and I enjoyed it (truly!) hot and cold. The important thing is, it’s a great natural system ‘cleanser’ and spring tonic; the tea was fine and I’d happily drink it again but that said, I’d pass on eating goosegrass as a pulp which I have seen recommended. Slowly, slowly . . . it’s early days yet. Don’t want to rush these things.

Apple mint

I have been trying out a few other new things herb-wise in the kitchen; having a forest of self-set dill, I used a pile of it to turn a couple of plump local trout into gravlax and I’m deliberately letting some plants go to seed so I can use the heads to make pickled gherkins ~ we’re growing a little Spanish pepinillo this year just for that purpose.

Dill

The extra mild winter has left us with more nasturtiums than we can shake a stick at so I’ve picked their crunchy green seeds to make ‘poor man’s capers’ and I’m also planning to experiment with nasturtium flower butter and leaf pesto, and maybe even stuffing the bigger leaves to make a version of dolmades, one of my favourite Greek dishes. Top of my list, though, with the weather hot and summery was to have a go at making a herb cordial.

Nasturtium

Much as I enjoy experimenting with herbal teas, I felt slightly nervous at the idea of going one step further and attempting a cordial as we have something of a family history of disasters where homemade beverages are concerned. The most famous was Sam’s ginger beer, which started off innocently enough as one of those ‘plants’ in a jar that needs daily care and feeding ~ a bit like a hamster, but less smelly and more useful. The resultant ginger beer was decidedly good and an apparent all-round success . . . until a bottle of it exploded in spectacular fashion (think Grand Prix drivers and champagne here), spray-painting the entire kitchen and leaving several indelible works of abstract art spattered across the ceiling. Despite numerous coats of fresh paint, the marks were still there when we sold the house several years later; on reflection, maybe the hamster wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Spearmint

My own disaster was slightly less dramatic but equally as alarming. I set out to make a batch of elderflower cordial, something I’d made previously without any problems. Ah, that summery smell of muscadet flowers and lemons wafting through the kitchen. Wonderful! I don’t remember the exact circumstances but I think probably it was a hectic weekend sandwiched between two busy weeks, the elderflowers were at their best and I was impatient to get on with it; the problem was, I had no citric acid to act as a preservative. No problem, I thought, having a clever little lightbulb moment: I’ll freeze it in ice cube trays then everyone can help themselves to a portion from the freezer as and when they want. Blimey, that’s brilliant, I hear you say!

Double feverfew and nasturtiums

Well, it very much wasn’t brilliant and if I hadn’t been such a fool rushing in and had stopped for just a couple of seconds to think about it scientifically, I’d have realised it was never, ever going to work. There are hundreds of websites out there happily reassuring unsuspecting souls that elderflower cordial freezes like a dream. Please trust me on this one, my friends ~ it doesn’t! For ‘dream’, read ‘nightmare.’ The sugar content is far too high so that in the same way a sorbet is always slightly soft, it will never freeze solid.

Passionflower

Instead of handy little ice cube-shaped blocks to be popped out into a glass, I ended up with a pile of tacky slush; what’s more, it was a pile of tacky slush with a mind of its own which inexplicably travelled throughout the entire freezer (and we’re talking a big family-sized chest job here), coating absolutely everything in a fine film of sticky gunk. How this happened, I will never know but some dark and mysterious forces were at work once the lid was down. The business of visiting the freezer for, say, a bag of chicken stock or a loaf of bread and ending up with hands covered in a persistent, sugary ectoplasm became very tiresome, very quickly. It took months to eradicate the stuff. Never again!

Coriander flourishes outside all year round.

Anyway, I digress. It’s a given that things don’t always go right in life and that’s no reason to give up so, nothing daunted, I embarked on Project Herb Cordial, vowing that this time I would take time and do it properly. First, I considered a wealth of flavour combinations and tried them out as both hot and chilled teas, in the end plumping for lemon balm and rosemary which struck my tastebuds as a perfect pairing. Then, I researched zillions of recipes and methods ~ everything from adding sugar to a simple infusion to steeping piles of leaves, fruits and spices in a clay pot for several days to dancing round a cauldron in the garden under a full moon on the third Tuesday of the month. Okay, I may be exaggerating slightly with the last one but honestly, the more I read the more mind-boggling it became. Truly, how hard could this be?

Hyssop

In the end, I just decided to do my own thing: put a big bunch of lemon balm and a couple of rosemary sprigs in a pan of water, added the juice from two lemons plus the squeezed lemon halves, brought it up to the boil, switched off the heat and let the whole lot sit and infuse for a good hour or so. I strained the liquid through muslin into a milk pan, added the minimum amount of sugar I thought I could get away with (I don’t like sweet drinks), dissolved it in the liquid over heat and brought it back to the boil. We had saved a couple of screw-top glass bottles we were given after a race last year (it was a very yummy Asturian yogurt drink), so I stood them in the sink, filled them and covered the lids with boiling water to sterilise them, emptied them and, holding them in a tea towel, poured the hot cordial in and screwed the lids on tightly. Job done with the minimum of fuss, time, work and ingredients.

Lemon balm and rosemary cordial ~ disaster free!

I’m happy to report two things. One, the cordial is utterly delicious and particularly refreshing diluted with sparkling mineral water over ice. Two, the bottles have sat in the fridge in a very well-behaved manner and the contents have so far managed to remain locked down inside them, except for the portions we’ve drunk, obviously. Actually, now that I’ve successfully grappled with my cordial demons, I really need to get on and make another batch; the question is, do I stick with the same formula or try a different herbal pairing or maybe even another method? To be honest, it would make a lot of sense to play safe . . . but then I do quite fancy that moonlit dance! 🙂