One step forward . . .

In all the excitement and busyness following our move six months ago, it has been easy to lose sight of how we stand now in terms of our green credentials. For much of the time, in fact, I have been mourning changes and losses that have felt like giant steps backwards including:

  • leaving an established garden with excellent soil and a good variety of fresh produce, even in December
  • lack of fresh food from the garden
  • lack of stored foods such as jars of preserves, sacks of nuts and a shed load of squash
  • no compost or manure
  • no polytunnel or greenhouse
  • exchanging natural spring water for treated mains water
  • the need for more heating
  • lack of logs
  • the need to buy new furniture
  • running out of homemade soaps / toiletries
  • no crafting
  • not having time to look at new ideas and changes we could make

However, dwelling on the downside of anything for too long isn’t healthy so I’ve decided it’s time to stand back once again and take stock of exactly where we have got to in our quest for a simple life that encourages us to tread gently on the planet. From time to time, I like to look at our carbon footprint using two very simple calculators, the World Wildlife Fund carbon footprint calculator and the Global Footprint Network ecological footprint calculator. They are pretty basic and there are some issues that frustrate me (not least, where are the questions about water consumption?) but they are free, user-friendly, full of helpful tips and provide a way of checking progress over time. The good news is that, on both measures, we haven’t gone backwards and in some areas we have improved, even if it doesn’t feel like it!

So, in the name of balance and keeping a sense of perspective, here’s the list of positive things to date:

  • Fewer car journeys and greater fuel efficiency as ameneties are closer and we aren’t driving on mountain roads with hairpin bends
  • Using my bike to go shopping / run errands
  • Solar water heating
  • Installation of wood panelled ceilings and insulation upstairs and heavy lined curtains on windows to improve heating efficiency
  • Electricity on a 100% green tariff from Planète OUI
  • Additional water butts to increase rainwater capture system
  • Large polytunnel full of food plants
  • Large vegetable garden now producing most of our meals
  • Composting system set up and continual soil improvement in action
  • Log shed slowly filling
  • Some secondhand furniture bought and / or revamped
  • Local charity shop, especially good for books!
  • Store of preserves fetched from Asturias plus a start made on new ones
  • Plans to have chickens and bees again
Garden ‘green up’ – lettuce, perpetual spinach, rainbow chard, New Zealand spinach, beetroot leaves, chickweed, courgettes, peas, garlic scapes, basil and chives. Cooked together in a little bit of olive oil and their own steam, this makes small amounts of veggies go a long way (and it’s efficient, nutritious and delicious, too).

There are some things we can’t change and will have to learn to live with. It would be lovely to have our own spring water again and certainly, at some point in the property’s history, there would have been a well here somewhere. However, there is at least a separate tap in the kitchen with a filter attached for drinking water so we can’t taste the chlorine; we intend to keep extending the rainwater capture system and also install a grey water tank to keep our consumption down to a minimum. Insulating upstairs made a huge difference to the temperature of the house (it must have been unbearably hot in summer as well as freezing cold in winter) but the kitchen woodstove and heating system need a major overhaul to improve efficiency. We’ve looked at installing solar panels for electricity but it simply doesn’t cost in, especially as we are such low consumers; it would also mean tying ourselves to EDF and on balance, I think supporting an ethical green company like Planète OUI (who encourage us to send a meter reading every month so we can track our consumption and pay just for what we’ve used rather than setting a monthly payment) is a better bet for us. Roger is currently turning part of the outbuilding into a practical utility room which will suit our lifestyle well; there is already a toilet in there but I’m frustrated by the fact that it isn’t a compost toilet, which would make so much sense all round. That’s one to think about for the future.

It’s good to feel like I’m starting to get up to speed with things once again. It seemed very strange running out of handmade soap, my tried and tested recipe that doubles as solid shampoo has served us well and now I have my equipment back from Spain, I can start another batch as well as experimenting with soapwort from the garden. I’m a complete convert to herbal teas (which just goes to show you are never too old to change) and I’m also set on shifting my understanding and use of herbs and plant materials in toiletries, medicines and the like up several gears. I’ve been dodging heavy downpours in the last few days (who said Mayenne has hot, dry summers? 😆) to harvest as many different flowers and plants as possible for drying. I don’t have a dehydrator so I’m hanging big bunches under shelter outdoors and spreading smaller things across the windowsills. It’s starting to feel like a herbal treasure trove and the house smells wonderful.

Lavender, rose petals, calendula and thyme.

One of the things I love about reading other blogs is the wealth of helpful information and ideas they share, so a big thank you to Sarah of WeAreTreadingSofter for flagging up the Count Us In organisation and Plastic Free July. Both these movements and challenges have given me the nudge I need to get back on track with some green stuff; I don’t want to become complacent and there is always something new to learn or try, or perhaps just a different perspective to consider. For Count Us In, I’ve pledged to ride my bike for as many shopping trips as possible over the next two months. I realise this might seem something of a cop out as I’m doing it a bit already but I intend to use the time to get a firmer grasp on what is truly possible and, combined with Plastic Free July, I’m hoping good things will happen as a result.

For instance, if I commit to riding to St P on Wednesday morning for the market, I can buy good quality produce including meat and goat dairy products direct from the farm that are sold loose and wrapped in paper. I’m hoping not to be using the fruit and veg stall for a while but nothing is pre-packed and they are always happy for me to take my own bags. I’m building a good relationship with several small outlets in the town and getting to a point where I could take my own rigid containers (say for meat), but I need to sort out the logistics of transportation as space in my bike basket and rucksack is limited. Compared to supermarket prices, meat in particular is expensive but we don’t eat very much these days and I’m happier supporting local family businesses and farmers in this way; the steaks from local pasture-fed cattle I bought to celebrate our wedding anniversary this week were arguably the best we’ve had in years.

Anniversary salad from the garden – only the olives were bought.

I also want to experiment with going further afield and in particular to Pré-en-Pail which is about 8km (5 miles) away. There’s a wider range of shops and amenities there but for me, the biggest draw is the Helianthus charity shop which is a complete Aladdin’s cave. We bought a beautiful tub armchair from there when we moved here (that definitely wasn’t one for the back of my bike!) and I’m planning to make good use of the clothing and household linen section but the number one treat for us is books – shelves and shelves of them. At 20 cents each, we buy piles of them, read them and return them for resale; it’s like a handy borrowing library and we are enjoying it immensely. If we went more often, then we could easily manage to carry a reduced number of books on our bikes and also spend some time exploring what else the town has to offer. If we can reach a point where we are seldom venturing any further than that for shopping, I’ll be very happy.

Soapy soapwort . . . look at all those lovely bubbles! Natural shampoo made from simmering chopped soapwort stem and leaves with rosemary and sage: 100% natural gentle cleansing.

We’ve gone a fair way in reducing single use plastics over the last few years, but it’s always good to stop and take stock once in a while to look for more possibilities. Cloth food bags, reusable shopping bags and bee wraps have become a way of life and we never buy the big offenders like carry-out coffee cups and lids, plastic straws or cotton buds. Pretty much every kind of plastic packaging can be recycled here but recycling is only one notch up from throwing away, and I remind myself often that in fact, ‘away’ doesn’t exist. My favourite permaculture principle is ‘produce no waste’ so it’s imperative that I keep working towards that. In order to do a bit of an evaluation, I hit on two ideas. First, instead of storing the recycling until we go somewhere in the car, I’m going to take it to the nearest recycling point from home which is about 2km away on my bike. That means I will have a much greater awareness of the quantity we’re producing and any reduction in weight and volume will make my life easier! Second, I set myself the challenge of spending a day eating and drinking only foods that had arrived in the kitchen free of plastic. Here’s how I got on . . .

Breakfast – hot honey (glass jar to be re-used) and lemon (no packaging); oats (cardboard and paper) soaked in apple juice (glass bottle to be re-used) with walnuts (orchard) and sunflower and pumpkin seeds (bought from a bulk hopper into paper bags).

Mid-morning – lemon balm, lavender and thyme tea (fresh from the garden).

Lunch – homemade basil bread (flours in paper bags, yeast from sourdough starter in jar in fridge, basil from garden), cheese (Bleu de Bresse in foil and cardboard, Doré de l’Abbaye in paper), salad (garden), homemade chutney (re-used glass jar), homemade elderflower cordial (re-used glass bottle).

Mid-afternoon – yarrow and peppermint tea (fresh from the garden); bowl of stewed gooseberries (garden) sweetened with a little honey (glass jar to be re-used).

Dinner – omelette made from onion (garden), mushrooms (paper), eggs (cardboard) and herbs (garden) with new potatoes (garden) and ‘green-up’ of courgette, chard, perpetual spinach, New Zealand spinach, garlic scapes, peas and broad beans (garden). Local apple juice (glass bottle to be re-used).

White clover, red clover, daisies, honeysuckle flowers, selfheal and plantain.

That certainly didn’t feel too stressful and it was lovely to know that so much of what I ate and drank had come from the garden or hedgerow, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. What couldn’t I have that I would have liked?

  • Coffee: we have a big stock of bulk Spanish coffee beans which come in those plasticky ‘foil’ bags (recyclable).
  • Black tea: I’m currently drinking a spiced Pakistani tea which came in a cardboard box but with a plastic window (recyclable).
  • Salt: cardboard tube with plastic lid (recyclable)
  • Black pepper(corns): plastic bag (recyclable)
  • Milk: plastic bottle (recyclable).
  • Coulommiers cheese: plastic wrap (non-recyclable).
  • Greek yogurt: plastic pot (recyclable) and lid (non-recyclable) .
  • Butter: plastic wrap (non-recyclable), although we usually buy one in paper.
  • Dried apricots: plastic bag (recyclable).

Did I fall off the wagon? Um, yes – with olive oil (recyclable plastic bottle)! I needed a small amount for cooking my omelette and couldn’t think of a way round that one. There was salt in the bread, too, as it had been made prior to my Plastic Free Day. Looking through our food cupboard, I realised that rice, pasta, grains and pulses would all have been off-limits, couscous being the only one in a cardboard box. Other things seemed to be a mix such as one crunchy granola in plastic, another in cardboard. I used to make granola and yogurt so perhaps it’s time to get back to that, as well as hunting down alternative brands or sources, especially for dairy produce. I know there is an argument that as individuals we are better addressing the big changes we can make in our lives (travel, energy use, diet, consumerist behaviour and the like) rather than worrying about every single yogurt pot but I think it’s important to look at the small things, too.

That said, it’s also important to keep things in perspective. We buy olive oil in bulk, in five-litre containers that we then decant into a smaller (re-used) bottle; yes, it’s (recyclable) plastic, but is one bottle like that better or worse than five glass ones? It’s very easy to end up going round and round in moral circles, ending up far more dizzy than enlightened! Still, I really enjoyed that particular challenge and it’s given me a lot to think about. It’s all too easy at times to be frustrated, despondent and sad about the state of the planet and modern society and to feel a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, but I’m an optimist and a fidget who’d rather be doing something about a problem than sitting around dwelling on it or waiting for other people to sort it out. I know I am an infinitesimal drop in the ocean but as I’ve said many times, tiny drops together make vast oceans. In the same way, small footsteps lead to big journeys: sometimes there are pauses – even steps backwards – and huge obstacles to overcome but for me, it’s important to keep going, no matter how slowly or imperfectly. It isn’t always easy being green but it’s a challenge and an adventure that makes life interesting and rich in all the right ways. I like that very much. Time for the next step forward . . . 😊