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.

Circles and cycles

Going back to a simple life is not a step backward.

Yvon Chouinard

Although we don’t officially practise permaculture, I do feel like the focus of our activities has started to drift as if from Zone 0 at the centre to the outer circles of our living space. When we first moved here, our priorities were to get a roof over our heads (literally) by renovating the house into a warm, comfortable and functioning home, and to create a productive vegetable garden from a former jungle. Three years on and job done, at last we can switch our concentration to new and wider things, to those aspects of the outer zones that need thought and attention; that is a very exciting point to have reached.

The development of the former chicken run / rubble heap in Zone 1 has been underway for a while but is a very slow process. The shade-loving flower seeds I scattered are germinating slowly and sporadically, along with the much stronger ubiquitous self-set nasturtiums and a whole host of weeds; this is going to take some careful management if we are to achieve the look we are aiming for and I need to be patient while nature does its bit, too.

Looks aren’t everything, of course, and there have already been some high points. Having placed stones to give access to the water trough, the birds are using it on a daily basis for drinking and bathing and the beginnings of a rotting log pile has already gained an Appreciation Society.

The orchard (Zone 2) has been one of those features that has frustrated us a great deal, namely because we haven’t had time to sort it out properly, so it’s a lovely feeling to get stuck in at last. It’s an awkward area for several reasons. First, it’s incredibly steep which makes access and maintenance difficult, especially as an army of moles has done its best to undermine the paths we have dug. Second, it is not so much earth as a thin layer of soil covering piles of buried rubble and rubbish, as if a former owner hosted the municipality dump there (hard to see why anyone would go to the trouble of carting stuff halfway up a mountain to dump but something bizarre went on here, that’s for sure). Third, years of neglect had given the brambles full permission to do their thing and they haven’t been too keen to relinquish their stranglehold. So, how best to tackle the area?

Well, one thing we did manage to do a couple of years ago was to plant some new fruit trees – lemon, orange, apple, plum, pear and cherry – where we could find soil deep enough for them to put down roots. Dwarfed by the mighty walnuts, they have looked less than enthusiastic about growing until this year; now a decent growth spurt, dense foliage and the promise of the first fruits suggests they are much happier trees . . . and that makes me smile!

In order to battle the brambles and give the young trees every chance, Roger has been strimming the grass regularly; this is such a difficult job, wielding a heavy machine on a vertiginous slope which has the nasty habit of crumbling underfoot, and is lethal when the grass is wet. No problem, then, in deciding that the bramble situation is under control enough now to stop cutting and let large swathes of grass grow into areas of meadow with simple paths cut through.

I have to admit I am a sucker for grasses; not in a contrived way (I loathed the prairie planting that was so fashionable in gardens some years ago), but in a soft, seedy, billowy haze running wild in the right places. Grasses are so often taken for granted or ignored, but those seed heads caught in sunlight are so beautiful, sheer works of art.

There is already a good variety of wild flowers scattered through the grass so we are doing all we can to encourage them to spread; we are also currently collecting seeds from the verges to increase the number of species.

It’s a slow process but so good to see progress; there is still much to do but we are already enjoying the changes . . . and we’re not the only ones.

We’ve needed several trips to the wood (Zone 4) this week to cut sturdy poles to support the brittle branches on some of our peach trees; they are so loaded with ripening fruit that they are in danger of breaking and that is the last thing we want. It’s a good time of year to think about the woodland and assess our winter fuel requirements; as cut wood takes time to season, we always have to be at least two years ahead of the game!

In all honesty, we don’t like cutting down trees so we try to keep it to a minimum. For a start, we scout the wood for any trees that may have fallen in the winter storms and start with them. Chestnut, which makes fantastic logs, lends itself to coppicing so there is no need to fell the trees at all, simply cut several trunks and leave them to regrow. The eucalyptus was originally planted with harvesting the lot at once in mind; we have no intention of doing that, but take out odd trees here and there, especially where they are crowded. In order to balance our tree-cutting activities, we encourage the growth of new trees as much as possible. ‘Rewilding’ is a hot topic at the moment and although projects are generally large-scale -and often controversial – we see nothing wrong in letting our little patch of woodland develop and thrive as a habitat for (we hope) a growing biodiversity of species. To that end, we allow native tree seedlings to grow where they appear – mostly oak, silver birch, chestnut and holly.

We keep several access paths clear but otherwise give the underbrush free reign, including large areas of brambles; surely we are forgiven for banishing them from the orchard now?

Staying with trees, and a recently purchased box of Pazo de Vilane eggs contained an invitation to participate in their 1 idea, 1 árbol scheme where customers are asked to submit original ideas for re-using the box once the eggs have been eaten. I sent them photos to show how I use their boxes as soap moulds and for storing cured soaps and was delighted to receive a message saying my idea had been accepted and that a deciduous tree will be planted on my behalf in the autumn. It’s just one tree. It’s a small thing. It’s a wonderful thing.

Our change in focus offers an ideal opportunity to reflect upon how far we have come in our pursuit of a simple life and how much more we still need to think about. John Seymour suggests a selection of what he calls ‘family units’ as a tool to measure progress towards self-sufficiency; it’s not an exhaustive list by any means but I like the holistic nature of it, encompassing diverse measures such as miles driven in the car, time spent watching television, weight of rubbish produced, hours spent working for other people and money spent on energy.

I also like to periodically use the World Wildlife Fund Carbon Footprint Calculator to see how we are doing. https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/#/ It’s a very basic tool (there are far more sophisticated versions available online) but it’s user-friendly, done in a jiffy and does at least give a rough and ready indication of where we are and what we can do to improve. I think it’s a shame that since the comparative measure changed from the number of planets we are using to the UK government’s 2020 target for annual household carbon emissions (10.5 tonnes), what I regard as important areas like water consumption have been removed from the algorithm. However, whinges aside, the latest questionnaire showed that at 7.1 tonnes, we are currently operating at 69% of that government target. That’s good news, but we are still above the world average and there’s always plenty of room for improvement. The work goes on.

One area where we don’t score very well is travel. Living in such a rural location, it would be almost impossible to manage without a car as our main means of transport. Our ‘normal’ mileage is very low, partly because we are happy to spend most of our time at home – it’s not unusual for the car to go nowhere for a fortnight or more – and partly because we try to combine trips out to save on journeys as much as possible. Where we fall down are our road trips to the UK, arguably better environmentally than flying but still an exhausting study in notching up three thousand miles or so of driving every time. We have tried to reduce them this year but this is still a serious work in progress. In the meantime, we have at least made one small step towards greener transport by putting our bikes back on the road.

I have owned two bikes in my adult life; the first, a secondhand buy thirty years ago, came to be fondly known as Trusty Rusty. It was a basic machine with three gears (allegedly!), poor suspension and a wildly uncomfortable seat but with a child carrier bolted on, I rode many happy miles around the Shropshire countryside with assorted Little People on the back. I’ve had my current bike for a dozen years or more so, relatively speaking, it’s more up to date with fifteen gears, off-road capability and a luxuriously padded gel seat. I rode it several times a week when we lived in France but for the last three years it has been sadly neglected, sitting in the barn and slowly morphing into Trusty Rusty II thanks to the Asturian humidity. However, with essential repairs carried out and a good dose of TLC from Roger, it is roadworthy once again and I’m very chuffed to be back in the saddle!

Well, maybe. The biggest difficulty with cycling here is the topography of the area we live in which means to go anywhere from home, it is all steep uphills (puff, puff, pant!) or steep downhills (wheeeeeeee!) punctuated by sweeping hairpin bends. This, I’m sure, makes it a lot of fun for the serious Lycra-clad cyclists who pass through the village at weekends but for an amateur pedaller such as myself, it’s bloomin’ hard work. With the nearest shops being many miles away, using our bikes to do the shopping is never going to be a valid option but where I think we can boost our green credentials is in practising ‘eco-tourism’. So, where we would normally combine a journey to the supermarket with a long walk, we can take our bikes instead; yes, it’s putting bikes in the car to go somewhere, but the point is we can cycle much further than walk in any given time which allows us to explore areas we would normally drive to. It’s a small gesture, but it’s a meaningful one.

For our trial run, we cycled along the Senda del Oso (Bear Trail) which follows an old mining railway track along the beautiful Trubia river, passing through spectacular gorges, ancient villages, rock arches and tunnels in a truly stunning landscape. We paused to say ¡hola! to Paca and Tola, two female Cantabrian brown bears who were rescued as cubs thirty years ago and now live in a special enclosure at the side of the trail. What beautiful, majestic creatures they are and how very precious the endangered wild population is to Asturias. What a wonderful day: 40km later and more than a little saddle sore, I reflected on the joy of ditching the car and exploring this gorgeous place at a slower pace. I think this will be the first of many adventures on two wheels!

Where food is concerned, we score very well on the WWF Carbon Footprint Calculator but one of the things that frustrates me a little about it is the fact that the best you are allowed to do in terms of sourcing fresh food is to buy local produce. Now in itself I believe that is a worthy action but I do feel it needs qualifying a bit; after all, local produce may not have travelled very far but that doesn’t automatically mean the entire production process has a low carbon footprint (or low environmental impact, for that matter). Take for instance lettuce, something we have in abundance in our garden at present.

We plant successions throughout spring and summer, small pinches of mixed types of seed all in together; well, why not, seeing as variety is the spice of life? They do not require any heat or special treatment to get them started and grow in soil enriched only with well-rotted manure from the village farm and our own homemade compost. They are watered by the rain, never sprayed with anything and if pest control becomes necessary – which it usually doesn’t – we use wholly organic / natural strategies. They are not processed in any way, don’t come into contact with any mechanised systems, are not wrapped in plastic or transported any further than to the kitchen by foot.

Now unless I walk to buy a lettuce from a neighbour who grows them in exactly the same way, then surely anything else passing as ‘local’ produce must have a higher carbon footprint? Let’s hear it for home grown, I say!

Staying with lettuce, I feel very deeply that it is an underrated and often maligned food which really deserves more love. With more plants than two people could ever need (it’s so hard to grow tiny quantities!), we have no choice but to explore different ways of enjoying it; of course, any that get away from us will be recycled through the compost heap but I prefer to use things as we go along if we can. Naturally, lettuce makes a great salad leaf but it can do far more interesting things than support a bit of dreary tomato and cucumber; in fact, I much prefer it without those things as a simple leafy salad with just the addition of herbs and flowers and a simple homemade dressing.

It also makes a brilliant base and crisp contrast in what I call ‘meatier’ salads, those that contain grains or seeds like quinoa, buckwheat, bulgar wheat or lentils; this is the kind of thing we often eat for lunch with fresh bread and maybe a little local cheese or chorizo. The brilliant thing, though, and the fact that is so often overlooked, is that lettuce makes a wonderful cooked vegetable, too. Honestly, it really does. A large lettuce will shrink down during cooking but not as much as something like spinach, so it can be shredded and added last minute to enhance all sorts of dishes: pasta, risotto, trays of mixed roast veg . . . your imagination is the limit. One of our favourite ways of eating it is braised in a little olive oil and white wine with spring onions and young peas and /or broad beans, finished off with a handful of fresh mint and dill. Sublime.

Reducing consumption and waste are central to our way of life and I’m very proud that -so far – I have stuck doggedly to my resolution not to buy any new yarn this year. This isn’t some painful sort of exercise in self-denial but an acknowledgement that there is simply no need to stockpile yarn that I might use ‘one day.’ In truth, I’ve been having a very happy time using up what I’ve already got in a wide range of woolly projects. I’ve spun and dyed fleece to give as gifts, both as skeins and knitted into garments; I’ve used tiny scraps of coloured yarn to make children’s finger puppets and ends of cotton balls to crochet dishcloths; I’m currently knitting up my penultimate ball of sock yarn and finally, after many months of making solid granny squares from little bits and bobs, I’ve reduced my bag of left-over yarn to next to nothing and started to piece my second patchwork scrap blanket.

Up to now, this has been my most unplanned blanket project ever; I had no way of even knowing how many squares the yarn would run to when I started so I just kept on merrily stacking them up until the yarn bag was almost empty and then thought about what I could do with them. At 184 squares, I decided I had two options: ditch four squares and make a 10 x 18 rectangle or try and squeeze anther twelve squares out of the dwindling yarn to make a 14 x 14 square blanket. Well, I love a challenge so squeeze it was . . . and I just made it! Piecing the blanket is both the most exciting and trickiest part of the whole process because organising colours is great fun but isn’t as easy at it first seems. My brain automatically goes for colour washes like rainbows or paint cards but I had a feeling random would be better for this project, especially as I had such uneven quantities of colours. I decided to start by organising the squares horizontally in individual colours so I could see what I had to work with.

This proved less straightforward than hoped as the table wasn’t wide enough for 14 squares so I had to overlap them a bit and those tails I’d left for sewing up kept unravelling and twisting themselves round each other. Aaaargh! Anyway, from this position I could at least move squares around and around and around until I ended up with something that pleased my eye. I know from past experience that it’s perfectly possible to spend hours faffing about in pursuit of perfection but really, this is just a scrap blanket and once a mischievous little breeze picked up and started to rearrange things on my behalf, I decided enough was enough. I think I’ve managed not to place the same colours next to each other anywhere and avoided too many repeats in any row, so that will do.

Now all I have to do is sew the 196 squares together before working a border. Mmm, this is the point at which I wish I’d opted for a join-as-you-go method as I detest woolly sewing but that would have meant buying extra yarn which wouldn’t be in the spirit of the whole project, would it? Nothing for it then but to knuckle down and get on with it; after all, if I aim to do a few squares each evening it won’t be too painful, especially sitting in the garden and enjoying the beauty around me. The warmth of the sun on my face, the dreamy scent of sweet peas, the soft flutter of butterflies, the bubbling chatter of swallows, the busy buzz of bumble bees dive bombing phacelia flowers . . . I shall be happily cocooned in a special little ‘zone’ all of my own. 🙂