After a short spell of wet and gloomy weather, we have been luxuriating in a run of the most beautiful days imaginable. Early mists have dissolved quickly to leave skies of aching blue and bright, golden sunshine that sets the landscape alight. The mornings are dew-drenched, all slanting shadows and spider silk, and the afternoons are hung with a sweet softness that belies the season. Forget renovation work, the guest room will have to wait! We have been spending every moment possible outside, it is simply too good to miss. We’ve even dug out a couple of garden chairs again so we can sit and enjoy a coffee break outside, watching the birdlife and butterflies, turning our faces to the sun and generally making the most of every minute. These are such precious moments.
Warm weather aside, ’tis the season of soup and nothing brings me greater joy as lunchtime approaches than knowing there’s a bowl of steaming gorgeousness awaiting my attention. Soup is such an easy and forgiving food to make, simple, filling, comforting, delicious, nutritious . . . and when most (if not all) of the ingredients have come out of the garden, so much the better. This is food security at its best. The basic ingredients for our current mixes are garlic, onion, squash, beans and stock, and beyond that, anything can happen and no two soups are ever the same! Sometimes we use a homemade vegetable stock, others a meat stock and there’s nothing strange about that in a vegetable soup, classic French onion soup is made with a rich beef stock, after all. We might leave everything unblended so that it’s more of a broth, purée the lot into a creamy soup or ~ my favourite ~ blend everything bar the cooked beans and stir them in to finish. Flavours and extra ingredients change depending on mood or whatever comes to hand first so that it might be the addition of a rich tomato sauce from the freezer, a whack of fresh or dried chilli, some chunks of potato or carrot, parsnip or Jerusalem artichoke, sliced leeks, shredded greens or maybe some chopped celeriac leaves with their hunger-inducing herbal scent. The latter always reminds me of the delicious fasolada (bean soup) that our landlady Olga used to make when we lived in Cyprus and of which I ate huge quantities when I was expecting our first baby there. Cypriot tradition maintained that if a pregnant woman smelt food cooking, she had to eat some of it to ensure the baby’s good health, so the ever-generous Olga would send her girls knocking on our door with a plate or bowl of whatever culinary magic she was working in the kitchen. How I loved fasolada days . . . and how I didn’t end up the size of a house (pregnancy aside) I will never know! Olga used to buy and use flat-leafed parsley in gargantuan bunches and so given we still have a garden full of the stuff, I’ve been making my favourite soup topper which is a twist on Italian gremolata. Simply take a large bunch of parsley and chop finely with a couple of fat garlic cloves. Stir in a generous piece of hard cheese, finely grated (the classic recipe uses lemon zest of course, but I love a bit of cheese in my soup); in France, I use something tasty and unpasteurised like Comté or our local Tomme de Pail, in the UK a mature Cheddar is just the job. Add a glug of olive oil, bring it together into a thickish paste and that’s it: stir a dollop into hot soup, let that cheese start to melt then tuck in. Bliss in a bowl.
Happily, the fine weather has coincided with me feeling better than I have for months, not exactly pain-free yet and still a long way from normal but certainly far more mobile again at last. As standing up and moving about are now the most comfortable things I can do, I’ve been able to enjoy longer walks along the lanes, drinking in the beauty of the season and the colours of the trees now finally on the turn. There are birds everywhere, including several newly-arrived migrant species, fieldfares being without doubt the most vocal amongst them. There are huge gangs of them in the orchards, clacking away noisily and making fast work of clearing up the windfalls. The bramblings are back, too, chattering cheerfully in busy flocks mixed through with chaffinches and once again, great white egrets are striking statuesque poses in the wetter fields. Perhaps the most exciting sight, though, was a male hen harrier (busard Saint Martin in French) swooping overhead, unmistakeable in its snowy-white plumage with black wingtips and stunning against the blue sky. They are year-round residents here and the focus of a local environmental project to protect them through regeneration of the heathland habitat they prefer: something that obviously appears to be working. Closer to home, I’ve put out the bird table and feeders and it hasn’t taken long for them to become Takeaway Central once again; not that there’s any great shortage of natural food given the weather but I like to think this sort of nutritional support will be paid back next growing season when the aphids and caterpillars appear (are you listening, birds?). One thing I’ve noticed on my walks is what a tremendous crop of holly berries there is everywhere, still very much untouched but no doubt next on the menu for the fieldfares once the apples are all finished.
I’ve been managing a bit of light pottering about the garden, nothing too drastic but it’s been good to feel useful once again. I’ve been spreading mulch around the vegetable beds, tucking everything up before winter and giving the worms a lovely feast to work on in the coming months. Green manure of all kinds is flourishing, and not only in the garden; a short way up the lane, a field of phacelia has started to bloom and a little further on, a huge crop of mustard is in full flower, primrose yellow and smelling of spring. We have carpets of white clover and pockets of buckwheat, linseed and crimson clover volunteers all in flower but as ever, it’s phacelia that’s being a complete thug and I’ve had to chop it and drop it in several places where it was threatening to engulf food plants.
I’ve also started sorting things out in the mandala bed where the first proper year of cultivation has seen an unexpected abundance of growth and harvests. Of the 32 herbs I planted round the edge, only two failed to survive the summer so I’m planning to replace them with a couple of self-set rosemary plants lifted from the gravel. The others have thrived, particularly sage and hyssop, and in many places they have already closed the gaps between them to make a hedge which is what I’d hoped for. I weeded around them, leaving the weeds as a mulch and cut back some of the more enthusiastic growth where it was impinging on other plants. In places, annual flowers had collapsed on top of the herbs and those needed cutting back, too; hard to believe how much I struggled to get them to germinate looking at so much prolific and woody growth now! I worked at ground level which gave me a wonderful insect’s eye view of everything that is still flowering and the abundance of creatures still feeding ~ honeybees, bumble bees, solitary bees, hoverflies and many different kinds of butterflies, including a clouded yellow. The latter is an interesting case as it is a migratory species, following the swallows up from northern Africa in the spring, and part of me suspects it shouldn’t still be lingering in Mayenne. Is this a reaction to climate change? Will there come a time when the clouded yellow stays here all winter? Now for a cautionary tale, the moral of which is never let yourself be distracted by the wonders of nature whilst wielding a pair of wickedly sharp secateurs . . . I was so engrossed in the fragile beauty and extraordinary journey of the clouded yellow that it took me more than a few seconds lo realise I’d made a half decent job of slicing the top off a finger. Mmm, I’m not exactly in a fit state to go running for first aid at any great speed, either! As Roger patched up the damage, he wryly observed how typical it was that no sooner had I recovered enough from one thing to be let loose in the garden again than I had started trying to chop another bit off. He’s right, of course; personally, I blame my butterfly mind. 😉
There’s nothing too unusual about a November day that brings clear blue skies and unbroken sunshine except that normally it would follow a night of hard glittering frost and offer a daytime temperature in single figures at best; 18C in the second week of the month isn’t unheard of, but neither is it ‘right’ and once again I’m wondering if this isn’t yet more proof of climate change. I’m not a great fan of cold weather and I love these warm, sunlit days that are such a bonus at this time of year . . . but it would be facile to even think for one moment that they are a good idea long term. Frustratingly, I can’t find a particular report I was reading about COP27 this week so I’m unable to say who I’m paraphrasing (scientist? politician? campaigner? journalist? protester?) but the gist of their comment was that we must guard against releasing a single extra tonne of carbon dioxide or methane into the atmosphere that isn’t strictly necessary. Call me cynical, but that comment had me immediately pondering just how much an event like COP itself contributes to the problem; according to this CNBC report from a year ago, emissions from the Glasgow COP26 summit were estimated to be about 102,500 tons (93 000 tonnes) of carbon dioxide. This figure is roughly double that of the emissions from the COP25 Madrid summit in 2019 and around 60% was accounted for by air travel. Now I am no expert, so I don’t feel qualified to judge whether the benefits of these climate summits outweigh the detrimental impact they have on the environment but am I alone in thinking there is a certain irony in thousands of people travelling from all over the globe to discuss solutions to the problems in no small part caused by, er, thousands of people travelling all over the globe? I know I’m part of the problem, even when consciously trying to tread lightly on the Earth: I put fuel in a car, use electricity and the internet, buy industrially-produced goods and foods, even if in small quantities; I rarely fly but I did climb aboard a plane to Norway in the summer. I am no environmental angel and I am the first to admit I have to do my bit if there is any hope of leaving an optimistic and viable world for my children and grandchildren. I don’t blame others or expect someone else to solve all the issues . . . but I do think, in these days of clever technology, that there has to be a better way for countries to seek a way forward than gathering together at a huge annual summit.
As I’m happy to put my money where my mouth is, I’ve been having another look at my own carbon footprint again this week. It’s something I like to do from time to time, if nothing else as a reminder of which areas of my life I need to keep tackling in order to reduce my carbon dioxide emissions. I knew that the flight to Norway would skew things a bit this year but even so, it’s always good to look for a downward trend with each analysis. As an interesting bit of research, I used several different carbon footprint calculator websites in English and French and ended up with results ranging from 3.44 tonnes to 7.94 tonnes per annum and yielding an average of 5.5 tonnes. In each case, I was well below the national or European average, but not always the global average ~ there was a surprising variation in figures for that ~ and I certainly have some way to go in reaching the global target of 2 tonnes. These calculators are useful tools as a basic guide but there’s a lot of discrepancy between them and I have to admit I found some aspects very frustrating. For starters, the information I keyed in was for our household of two, not myself personally, and I’ve been unable to clarify whether the algorithms automatically adjust to give the amount of emissions per capita. Also, I think our rural lifestyle counts against us as so many questions didn’t offer appropriate answers: one site didn’t give the option of our house being built from stone, several insisted that heating a home with wood meant burning pellets, none allowed for us growing our own food; one site automatically added figures for municipal sewage treatment when we have a private septic tank (no question of a compost toilet!), one refused to let me ride any kind of bike other than electric and several considered gardening to be a ‘hobby’ so that expenditure in that area seemed like an indulgence.
I liked the fact that in some cases I was able to select a statement that best described my behaviour (for example, that I only buy new clothes when necessary to replace old ones) rather than give a rough figure for average expenditure. I was also pleased that some sites took water usage into consideration since treated water piped to homes has a carbon footprint which is all too often overlooked. There was, however, a good deal of cherry-picking going on with detailed questions about showers, baths, laundry and dishes but nothing about toilet flushes, car washing or irrigating the garden; in a similar vein, there was a lot of focus on how much and what kinds of meat people were eating with no consideration of how many meat-eating pets they might be feeding. I think there is also a danger of making simplistic assumptions. Where diet is concerned, I believe people have to make up their own mind and if someone wishes to be a vegan, then that is their right; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean any particular individual vegan is eating a ‘better’ diet than those who choose to eat meat, especially if it is based on imported foods with questionable provenance such as soy, almonds and avocados or highly-processed and packaged plant-based junk food and fizzy drinks. Without knowing more specific details, it’s difficult to make a meaningful judgement.
This, I think, is one of the biggest drawbacks of using footprint calculators; as I said earlier, they are a great basic tool but in so many cases, the information needs to be qualified in order to give an accurate picture. So much of the assessment is dependent on consumption in a linear economy and there’s no leeway to break out of that mould; there’s much attention paid to the accumulation of ‘stuff’ but very little acknowledgement of the accompanying waste stream. For example:
- Driving a medium-sized diesel car makes us instant environmental pariahs but I would point out that we bought our car second hand, it is six years old, has been regularly and well-serviced, is extremely fuel-efficient and we do so few miles annually that we only put fuel in it once in every three months or so ~ and that includes any UK trips we make. Would it honestly be better for us to scrap the car and replace it with a new electric model, or should we try to eke as much ‘life’ out of this one as we can first?
- When it comes to books, I have to admit to regularly buying big piles of them . . . but they are second hand from a local charity shop so we buy, read and then return for re-sale in a simple yet satisfying and very successful example of a circular economy.
- Heating water on the stove using logs from our coppice (which provide space heating and cooking heat at the same time) to make a herbal tea from plant materials collected from the garden, dried naturally then composted when used, is an example of a closed-loop system which it is impossible to describe within the set parameters of algorithms.
We have recently bought a new washing machine to replace the one that was left here by the previous owners; to be honest, it was in a pretty poor state when we moved here and I’m amazed we managed to have nearly two year’s use from it. When it finally stopped working, our first thought was to repair it; Roger is an engineer who once built a car, so a washing machine is well within his capabilities but unfortunately, it wasn’t that straightforward. For starters, the replacement parts needed were so expensive that it didn’t cost much more for a complete new machine (and what guarantee that having replaced those bits, something else wouldn’t break, given the age of the old machine?) The bearings were one of the things that needed replacing and according to the manufacturer’s guidance, in order to do this the drum and its casing had to be split and separated, but when Roger investigated it became clear that it would be totally impossible to do that without breaking them. Talk about planned obsolescence: an expensive machine with a ‘quality’ brand name and A+++ efficiency rating, deliberately designed and priced out of the repair market. What hope for anyone’s carbon footprint when this is the way of the modern world? (Even worse, when we took the dismantled machine for recycling, the site assistant decided that the drum/casing part had to go into the general waste skip ~ and ultimately landfill, I assume ~ because it was impossible to separate plastic from metal. Waste in every sense of the word.)
Overall, it’s been an interesting exercise and the upshot is that I need to keep on reading and learning from a broad spectrum of research and opinion, but I think any decisions about changes in behaviour still need to be based on pragmatism and common sense. After all, it could be argued that it would be best to ditch the car and washing machine altogether: that wouldn’t be impossible, but it would make life less comfortable and more difficult. Looking at the smaller things, should I carry on writing a blog, buying books and feeding the birds or are those all unnecessary indulgences? There’s a lot to think about and much of it isn’t easy, but in the end all I can do is try my best in practical terms and not become too weighed down by it all in the process. I’m not being flippant when I say that bright sides are important, too; that the weather is unseasonably warm could be an indication of very serious things going on but it does mean no heating needed in the house, the laundry drying on a line in the sunshine and a garden full of food . . . and in the short term at least, that’s a little silver lining on a November day.