Rebel yell(ow)

We are rebels for a cause, poets with a dream, and we won’t let this world die without a fight.

Albert Camus

The older I get, the more of a rebel I become. I’m not sure whether this is evidence of me living my life backwards or simply the fact that being old(ish) and wise(ish), I feel that I really don’t have anything to lose by sticking to my principles and saying my piece, whoever it might upset. The state of the planet bothers me hugely and I can’t imagine any greater shame than shuffling off the mortal coil with my grandchildren thinking I stood back and did nothing. I am super frustrated by people who (1) just don’t care, so carry on regardless (2) people who say it’s too late anyway and carry on regardless (3) people who pay a lot of lip service to their ‘green’ credentials but carry on regardless . . . we all have our own interests, preferences, enthusiasms, causes and opinions and of course, I don’t expect everyone to share my views. Ever. I certainly don’t intend to preach. It’s just that this is quite a big one. For us all.

When it comes to taking action on climate change, there’s a lot of debate about who needs to make the biggest effort. Is it largely down to governments or individuals to take responsibility and shift themselves? Personally, I think it’s both. Governments have the power and clout to make policies and enshrine them in law, to work with others at an international level in seeking agreement and identifying ways to move forward. There are problems, though. This week I heard a politician stating that the answer to tackling climate change lies solely in the development of new technology; I don’t doubt that to a large degree he is right, but such an assertion suggests that as individuals we can sit back and carry on while brilliant scientific minds get busy behind the scenes. This is a lost opportunity, since individuals (and communities) can make worthwhile contributions in their own right that might feel like tiny steps and gestures but which collectively add up to a great deal. As individuals, we can also respond more quickly than vast governmental machines and tackle causes rather than symptoms; for example, rather than deciding whether it’s time to buy an electric car, we can ask ourselves honestly how many of our journeys are actually necessary and then reduce them accordingly. We can choose to change our diet, refuse packaging, reduce consumption, boycott global corporations and the rest, well ahead of policy. We can also become activists – and that doesn’t mean we have to chain ourselves to railings or live up a tree; for those who prefer a more gentle or comfortable form of rebellion, there are plenty of opportunities.

To this end, I’ve recently accepted an invitation to join the Friends of the Earth Supporter Panel; each month, I receive a short online survey to complete, giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and opinions and ultimately help to shape future campaigns. I’ve never been given to supporting any cause or organisation wrapped in a blanket of unthinking and uncritical acceptance – I don’t always agree with everything that comes out of FOE, believe me – so the chance to engage at a deeper level and gain a greater insight into their workings is a welcome and exciting one.

I’m also taking part in the current Canary Craftivists project (thanks to Farn for the heads-up on this one!) which takes a gentle and positive approach to climate activism. The idea is that instead of feeling depressed, anxious, frustrated or powerless in the face of climate change, a quiet and gentle yet powerful protest can be made through thoughtful and compassionate crafting. There are two strands to the project. Living in France, I am unable to join a public crafty gathering but I can fashion a canary to send to my MP in early September as Parliament resumes after the summer recess and ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, urging the government to take a strong lead in acting more quickly; this is especially pertinent following publication of the latest chilling IPCC report. UK citizens who live abroad currently retain the right to vote for 15 years in the last constituency in which they lived (for us, that means Ludlow / South Shropshire) and so I have been working on the gift of a crafted canary to send to the Right Hon Philip Dunne MP. In planning this project, I felt it was imperative to really put my money where my mouth is and try to demonstrate, even at a very simple level, that I am committed as an individual to doing everything within my power to address my own impact on the planet. Bottom line: this canary needed a tiny carbon footprint!

Bright, sunny pieces of yellow felt and fabric certainly had smile appeal but it will come as no surprise to those who know me that I turned to wool, a scrap of homespun Southdown fleece dyed with French marigolds from the garden, knitted up using the Canary Craftivists free pattern and stuffed with tiny bits of Kent Romney fleece. As a farmer living in sheep country, I’m hoping that Mr Dunne will appreciate my choice of two (of many) excellent British wool breeds; for years, I’ve mourned the fact that wool has been such an undervalued and underused material, watching farmer friends having to dispose of worthless fleeces at shearing time year after year. I applaud the Campaign For Wool which seeks to raise the profile of wool use in fashion and furnishings, but there are so many other possibilities for using even the scrappiest, daggiest bits of fleece; I can’t help but feel that such a versatile and natural resource is what we need to be turning (back) to in a greener, regenerative future.

Natural dyes, too, are worthy of consideration; true, a chemical wool dye would have given me the brightest of canary yellows but weigh the manufacturing process and transportation – not to mention environmental impact of the stuff itself – against a handful of garden flowers simmered on the woodstove and there is no competition in my mind. The problem, of course, is that the colour is muted and a bit on the sombre side, but I’m hoping that my soft little canary with wings in flight and small enough to sit in the palm of a hand, exudes a rustic charm all of its own. Certainly, the time taken to craft it in quiet moments enjoying the gentle rhythm of my spinning wheel treadle, the fragrance of the dyepot and the clacking of my knitting needles, gave me an opportunity to reflect upon not only the myriad issues surrounding climate change but also the ways in which peaceful protests and gentle co-operative activism can be every bit as powerful as waving placards on large marches. (There’s a place for both, of course.)

As a friendly and respectful handwritten letter needs to accompany the canary, I decided this should be done in the same vein if I am going to be true to my principles: at last, the perfect excuse to indulge in a bit of paper-making, something I’ve been wanting to dabble in for a while. Making paper is a popular handicraft and there is oodles of helpful guidance on the internet about how to turn scraps of waste into beautiful and often very artistic new sheets. Most sane people use two key pieces of equipment, a designated blender and a deckle and mould; I have neither and I’m not given to rushing out and buying new kit for what might turn out to be a one-off activity, so it seemed like time for a little ingenuity and innovation. A blender will turn paper pieces and water into pulp in a matter of seconds, but since the fibres are soft, I saw no reason why I couldn’t do it by hand; it’s not like I was trying to grind coffee beans, after all. Into a bowl, I chopped a pile of scrap paper (normally destined for the compost heap) into tiny pieces, covered them with water then sat the bowl on my knee and mushed away with my fingers. It took about 20 minutes to reduce the lot to a gloopy grey pulp and I must say, it was a very therapeutic and tactile activity, sitting in the garden and enjoying the peace of a beautiful evening. I love a hands-on approach to activities like this, it gives me a true feel – literally and metaphorically – of how the whole process works. I could see almost straight away that it had been a mistake to include some spent sticky notes in my paper pile; the things are practically indestructible so I was at least relieved (given the whole canary colour scheme) that they were yellow and not screaming pink!

Pulp done, I turned my thoughts to a Heath Robinson deckle and mould design. From what I could tell, they generally comprise an outer rectangular frame covered in stretched mesh with a smaller removable frame that sits snuggly inside; I don’t think it would be too hard to make one and I may well attempt this in the future. For now, though, I decided to use my wooden embroidery frame with a circle of scrap mosquito net stretched between the hoops; let’s face it, nothing says paper has to have straight edges. Be a rebel. What could possibly go wrong?

As I felt this whole experiment could be a bit on the extreme side of wet and messy, I set up a little work station outside using trestles and a sheet of plywood covered in an old bed sheet. A couple of old towels, some scraps of cotton fabric, an absorbent cloth and a bowl of water was all the equipment I needed: so far, this hadn’t cost a penny.

I slopped some pulp into the bowl of water, swirled it around with my hand then dipped the embroidery hoop in and lifted it rather nervously out; there was something quite magical about the soft, even layer of pulp caught in the frame – children would love doing this! I placed it on a piece of cloth sitting on old towels, loosened the clip so I could remove the inner hoop and gently mopped up the excess water with the absorbent cloth (a sponge would do fine, too). I then lifted the outer hoop away to leave a perfect circle which I carefully inverted onto a piece of cloth and slowly peeled the mesh away. Wow! I had honestly expected all sorts of disasters, but this was truly as easy as falling off the proverbial log. Or maybe just beginner’s luck.

Being me, I felt the need to add some floral colour to the next sheet so I scattered a few calendula petals on the surface of the water before dipping; I could already see the thousands of possibilities of using fresh and dried plant materials to create beautiful papers. Mmm, I don’t think this will be a one-off after all . . .

As I’d had no idea what colour my basic paper would end up being, I’d also decided to experiment with dipping into coloured water. I’ve grown dyer’s chamomile for the first time this year, drying the sunny flower heads for some winter exploration with fleece. There are still plenty of blooms on the plant, so I simmered a small amount in water to create a light yellow dye which I hoped would make up for the rather drab shade of my canary. It worked a treat and I plan to keep woolly dye baths in future to use for paper; it’s another little way of keeping resources in our ‘system’ a bit longer and I can already imagine the delicious shades possible with dyes such as madder and indigo.

Having made five circles of paper in all, I’d intended to leave them to dry in the sun . . . cue a rainstorm, the story of our summer! In the end, I left them to dry in the airflow through a bedroom window, covering them in cloth and weighing them down with various heavy things overnight to encourage them to lie flat. I will need to practise writing on one before composing the official letter as obviously the surface is more textured than commercially-produced paper; also, I am not known to have the most beautiful cursive script in the world and it would be a tragedy if my letter proved to be illegible after all this input. Handwriting practice it is, then! I shall parcel letter and bird carefully in a re-used envelope and despatch it to Westminster early next month where I am hopeful it will join hundreds if not thousands of other humble canary gifts all winging their way to MPs’ offices. I will report in a later post how it is received by Mr Dunne, if I hear from him, of course. I hope he will see it as a thought-provoking and meaningful gesture, a tiny reminder of just how precious and fragile life on our planet is . . . but if not, he can either gift it to someone else or compost it, seeing as the whole lot will be 100% biodegradable. 😉

So, what next? Well, I think there’s still plenty to be done, other avenues to explore, cages to rattle, principles to defend, points to be made and ideas to share. I’m never going to be a high-profile, trail-blazing, super hero kind of eco warrior – there are others who do that far better than I ever could and it’s simply not my way. Environmental crises need grand gestures and loud protests more than ever now but I realise more and more that there is strength and relevance in the small things, too. Every letter written, petition signed, blog post published, seed planted, canary crafted or whatever is a tiny but positive action in the right direction. Activism doesn’t have to be aggressive or antisocial, rebellion doesn’t need to be riotous or radical. Protest can be poignant and peaceful . . . but it’s no less powerful for all that.