Eco Worrier

The Earth is a fine place and worth fighting for.

Ernest Hemingway

It’s been a sobering week. We’ve had an all too clear view of a savage forest fire, burning just a couple of miles from home as the crow flies. On the day it started, two helicopters, supported by ground crew bomberos, flew relentless shuttles with water bombs for more than eight hours.

It’s hard to convey the sheer size of the fire but if you look carefully at the smoke plume on the right, you can see the helicopter which gives a sense of scale.

They returned again and again through the week but five days later, the fire was still burning. It is a terrible thing to witness and I can only begin to imagine how horrific the larger fires raging around the world – and especially in the Amazon rainforest – must be.

Five days on and still burning . . .

With climate and environmental issues prominent in the news this week, it seems like a good time to stop once more and reflect on our behaviour and how much more we personally could be doing to reduce our carbon footprint and our impact on the planet. I know there are those who deny climate change or, at least, the contribution of human activity to it, and I don’t intend to become embroiled in a political or scientific discussion here – partly because that’s not what my blog is about, mostly because it’s being done so well in other places by people with far more expertise than myself. For me, it’s not just about climate change, anyway: what about the destruction of habitat, extinction of species, plastic in the oceans, loss of topsoil, air pollution, gross consumerism and the appalling amount of waste that goes with it, to name just a few things? Anything I can do – no matter how small – to try and mitigate against these disasters is, in my book, well worth doing. I don’t agree that individual efforts are a waste of time or subscribe to the view that it’s too late, so why bother? I have children and grandchildren and a deep respect and reverence for the natural world: they are all extremely precious to me and all definitely worth fighting for.

I’m not in a position to go on strike, and driving somewhere to join a protest would, in my opinion, be the greatest irony so what am I planning to do instead? Well, I have decided to spend a day next week totally committed to all things ‘eco’ whether through physical activities at home, researching or studying new things to try or lobbying the powers that be online. By the end of the day I’m hoping to have deepened my awareness of our own approach and attitude, put some new strategies in place, made plans for the future, shared ideas with other people and added my voice once again to the global concern.

In order to make sure I use the day wisely and meaningfully, I’ve been looking at several lists of key ways to reduce our carbon footprint and choosing what to focus on. I’m pleased to say that we already do most of the things suggested (switching off lights and electrical devices, line drying clothes, buying less stuff, not buying fast fashion, planting a garden, composting, reducing food waste, using reusable bags, avoiding excess packaging, etc, etc) but that doesn’t mean it’s alright to become complacent: there’s always room for improvement! In a recent discussion with my lovely daughters about how we can do our bit and encourage others to join in, the consensus was to keep reading, sharing, trying things then normalising them – and the latter, I think, is the key. It’s amazing just how quickly small changes become the norm; things we weren’t doing this time last year, such as reaching for bee wraps and cloth food bags or using homemade toiletries and cotton hankies are now second nature.

Homemade soap and solid shampoo.
Homemade cotton drawstring bags for food storage.

So as not to get too bogged down, I’ve come up with some general headings to help organise my ideas for the day.

  1. Travelling. I will commit to going nowhere other than by bike or on foot. This in itself isn’t too difficult as we use the car as little as possible anyway, always combining errands and often going nowhere for ten days or more at a time. If we don’t use the tractor or strimmer either, then no petrol or diesel will be burnt. We have booked flights to the UK in November and I have to admit this does grieve me; it’s the second time I’ve flown since moving here in May 2016 and only the third time in thirteen years but all the same, it would be better not to be doing it at all. I need to address the carbon offset and we are currently having some very serious discussions about our travel in the future; some difficult decisions loom, but then this isn’t a lightweight subject, is it?

2. Shopping. I will commit to buying nothing. Like travelling, this isn’t a huge challenge as we only ever shop when we need to (as in a depleted food cupboard or fridge, mostly!). I actually don’t like going shopping at all, even when it’s necessary, and as the only option would be to cycle several miles to the local Farmers’ Co-op, I think this one’s a safe bet. I rarely shop online these days, either; in fact, only really to send celebration gifts to family as it seems the most sensible option from here. I would like to do more research into ethical shops and I think this would be time well spent. We are avid readers, buying all our books from charity shops then returning them for resale; I have also occasionally used https://www.worldofbooks.com/en-gb for buying secondhand books online. For new gift books, though, I’ve recently started to use https://www.hive.co.uk as an ethical alternative to shops like Amazon and I think this is a worthy area to develop.

Something I have had to buy in recent weeks is a new pair of running shoes. As a pastime, running is fairly low impact, certainly in my case where I run from home, have no gadgets whatsoever and wear the same kit I’ve had for years. Shoes, though, do need replacing after several hundred miles of pounding the ground; I then relegate them to walking footwear in summer as they are lighter than boots and finally to gardening shoes if they are still in one piece. I’ve been doing some reading lately about how manufacturers are moving towards more eco-friendly designs and materials and also ways in which worn out shoes can be reused or recycled in socially and environmentally acceptable ways. This is definitely another area for further research as well as considering just how long we can go without buying anything new, clothes or otherwise. Where running is concerned, what can we do to try and make races more environmentally friendly events? They don’t tend to hand out pointless participation medals here and more and more races are giving us the option of turning down a commemorative t-shirt; it’s also great to see Roger coming down off a podium with a box of local foods rather than a trophy. It would be good to be able to hand timing chips back for re-use or proper recycling and as for all those plastic water bottles . . . there must be an alternative, surely?

3. Using energy. I commit to using the bare minimum. This one promises to be quite a challenge! Roughly a third of our electricity comes from renewable resources; it’s more expensive than in the UK but I don’t think that’s a bad thing if it means the energy companies are making long-term investments in clean energy and we are encouraged to keep an eye on our meter. Where our electricity consumption is concerned we are a bit of an anomaly as our usage is much higher in summer than winter. During the cooler months, our woodburning range heats the entire house, provides hot water for drinks, washing the dishes, hand and face washing, hand laundry and house cleaning as well as an oven and hob for all our cooking. At other times, we rely far more heavily on electricity so my intention is to reduce consumption drastically for a day by using only essential appliances.

The fridge and freezer are non-negotiable for obvious reasons but beyond that, what can I manage without? Instead of boiling the kettle for tea and coffee, I’ll drink cold water – this will score some food mile points, too. I will need no persuading to leave the washing machine, iron and vacuum cleaner alone; to be honest, we don’t use them much anyway. We don’t have a television, we can manage without listening to music and appliances like my hairdryer and sewing machine are only used once in a blue moon. The laptop and internet are a lifeline, though, and we need both for online banking and organising our business and financial matters; they are also our first port of call in keeping in touch with friends and family. If I’m going to spend some time on proper research, I will need to use them but other things like blogging and my daily language study will be put aside.

September evenings are very beautiful here so we tend to stay outside until the sun has set and then go to bed early; this means our use of electric light is very small but in the spirit of my challenge, I can always light a candle or two.

I can’t turn the water heater off as we will need to wash dishes but I can do something about the shower. When we renovated the house, we chose not to install a bath; it would have been a very tight squeeze in a small space and we didn’t want to replace a perfectly modern and efficient 50-litre water heater with a bigger one. A shower is more eco-friendly anyway . . . as long as we don’t linger. Having read about someone’s ‘eleven minute shower routine’ recently, I was left with two thoughts: how have I lived so long without realising I needed a routine in the shower and what on earth could anyone be doing in there for eleven minutes? Astonishingly, a quick internet search informed me the average shower time in the UK is eight minutes, during which time 62 litres of hot water have gone down the drain – not much better than a bath, then. I have to admit we are very speedy shower dwellers but even so, heating the water tank is a big use of electricity. My plan is to spread a full hosepipe across the yard with a couple of clean buckets of water; it is still very much summer here, so by evening the sun will have warmed the water enough for me to have an outdoor shower!

The other big electricity guzzler, of course, is the cooker. We bake bread several times a week and always organise the timings so the oven can be used to cook dinner at the same time; on other days, we use the hob, barbecue or eat simply eat cold foods (we don’t have a microwave).

Not using the cooker at all for a day is perfectly possible but obviously needs some careful meal planning beforehand – there’s no point in deciding to have, say, a barbecue with homemade hummus if we then remember we need to cook some beans and chickpeas! Generally speaking, though, a barbecue needn’t cramp our style and we can still make plenty of good use of vegetables from the garden: aubergines, courgettes, peppers and tomatoes brushed with a little olive oil and cooked directly on the grill are heaven sent.

4. Eating. I commit to eating foods with the lowest food miles and least packaging. Basing our meals around what comes out of the garden is a way of life here and at this time of the year, we have enough fresh produce to feed the entire village so this shouldn’t feel like much of a challenge at all: no food miles, no packaging. Job done.

Mmm . . . but we can’t just live on fruit and vegetables so for anything we buy from elsewhere, food miles and packaging become a consideration. Since finishing the house renovation and no longer needing to trek off to distant places in search of building materials, we have been shopping very locally and paying far more attention to food provenance. I know that becoming vegetarian or even vegan is cited as a major way to reduce carbon footprints; we aren’t vegetarians but we eat far less meat than we used to – in fact, most of our meals and several days a week are completely meat-free. There is, of course, a huge debate around this issue – and I don’t want to open a can of worms here – but I would argue that there is a world of difference between the animals extensively raised on small, local, family farms and those that are raised intensively on feed lots and in factory farms around the globe. We buy high quality local meat from animals that have been reared slowly outdoors on natural foods without any antibiotics, growth hormones or other nasties pumped into their systems; yes, it’s several times more expensive than the ‘other’ stuff but as we don’t buy it often, that’s not a problem and I would prefer to support farmers in continuing with this sort of meat production where animal welfare and care of the environment are of the highest concern.

Other fresh foods we buy, namely dairy and eggs, are all produced in Asturias, and with dry goods such as flour, we opt for local where possible. I’m not about to start buying green beans from Kenya or Brazilian prawns but the main problem is with ‘world foods’ like tea, coffee and rice which can’t be produced close to home (or even to Europe in some cases). Should we be reducing our consumption of these foods? On my eco day, I shall scrutinise the origin of everything in our food cupboards then keep a rough tally of food miles associated with what we eat that day, trying to keep them to a minimum. That should be an interesting and revealing activity.

At the same time, I will assess the packaging situation. We are lucky here in that pretty much all types of food packaging can be recycled including rigid plastics and Tetra Pak, but reducing is far better than recycling and I don’t think we’re anywhere near the mark with this one. Bags for life are common practice and it’s possible to buy all sorts of foodstuffs loose in some places but only plastic bags are provided to decant them into. I’ve tried to mitigate against this by re-using them and sticking a new label over the old one at the scales but it’s far from great; ideally, I’d like to use my own containers but so far I haven’t seen any evidence of anyone else doing the same. I don’t feel my Spanish is fluent enough to try and explain my intentions to shop assistants but that is something to work on. Buying meat and fish loose from counters means they come wrapped in paper rather than on polystyrene trays covered with clingwrap which is something, I suppose. We choose unwrapped foods like local waxed cheeses or chorizo on string, and jars and tins over plastic where possible; we never buy multi-wrapped goods – but still, there’s far too much of the stuff and we definitely need to move forward with this one.

Golden Hubbard squash comes in its own biodegradable packaging.

5. Bits and pieces. There are many other areas of our life which I would like to give further thought to. It’s been an interesting year in the garden and I’ve learnt much from using green manure, selective (minimal) weeding, self-setting and seed saving. I think it would be worthwhile now to really focus sharply on growing fewer varieties of single vegetables – the ones we know are successful here – and creating a sustainable, ‘nothing new’ garden: if we can’t raise it ourselves from seed, cuttings, roots and the like, then we don’t have it. There’s no need to be buying new plants for the sake of it.

I’d also like to consider how far we make full use of what’s available, from the garden, orchard and further afield. What wild foods could we forage? We’ve just started collecting this year’s walnuts but every autumn we also have a tremendous crop of chestnuts and barely use them. It seems like a missed opportunity so what are the options there?

I’m picking chillies from the polytunnel and garden a couple of times a week at the moment and stringing them up to dry. What other ways of preserving our produce could we be exploring? Just how self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables could we be?

We gone a long way down the green household cleaning and toiletries route but I feel there’s still a lot more we could be doing. Research needed! It’s the same with our efforts to be plastic free and achieve zero waste; it’s easy to get so far along the path, then sink into some kind of complacent smugness and I think this is where other people’s ideas, experiences and encouragement are vital to help keep the ball rolling. It should be a community thing, surely? After all, we’re all in it together. As one of our neighbours so eloquently put it (in Spanish), ‘We are all sailing in one boat and if it tips over, we all go down.’

Expanding on that idea, I believe it’s important to be active beyond our own patch, too. I’ve committed to stopping and picking up any bits of litter I see when I’m running, even if that means adding a few seconds to a timed run; actually, I also deviated in both 10k races I’ve done here to put my water bottle in a recycling bin – no wonder I can’t crack that golden hour! No matter, as far as I’m concerned, caring for the environment will always be more important than how fast I can run a few kilometres. There isn’t a huge amount of litter here but I’m not prepared to pass plastic bottles, beer cans, chocolate wrappers, cigarette packets and other discarded junk lying in the verges if I can collect it, and either recycle it or put in a bin. I did draw the line at a plastic food wrapper full of dog turds but I hope I can be allowed that one.

I keep an eye on meaningful petitions to sign and email politicians about environmental issues when I can; it might seem like a minimal impact thing to be doing but it’s a case of tiny drops making an ocean. I’m sure there’s more I could be doing in this area, too; it’s not as exciting as making soap or planting seeds but now more than ever, I think, a very valuable way of spending time.

Self-set phacelia (green manure) completes a natural cycle.

I realise that all this might sound a bit superficial, something of a game, in fact; in truth, it doesn’t look like I’m planning to do much that is different to a normal day and I am aware at how privileged I am to have so many blessings in my life and to be able to spend a day in this way. I’m very lucky to be able to choose to use less electricity or hot water or a range of foodstuffs when so many people don’t have those things . . . but that, to me, is precisely why this exercise is so important. There is no question that is totally serious and is about complete and unequivocal focus. From the moment I wake up and remember there is to be no morning mug of tea, I will be approaching every single activity with total concentration and reflection on the environmental impact it has . . . and if that leads to just one tiny improvement in helping the planet, then it will have been time very well spent. 🙂

This single self-set sunflower plant has 25 flowers on it – that’s seed well worth spreading!

Wild and woolly

By all these lovely tokens September days are here, With summer’s best of weather and autumn’s best of cheer.

Helen Hunt Jackson

This is such a beautiful time of year, one that always makes my heart sing. We have been enjoying those perfect late summer days, with cloudless skies colour-washed in blue from pale duck egg, delicate as the finest porcelain, to a deep cornflower so achingly intense and pristine, it almost hurts the eyes.

Sunset brings a cloak of rich purples . . .

. . . or something altogether different if clouds have bubbled up during the afternoon.

I love the way the shift in light illuminates plants in the garden in different ways, like swivelling the beam of nature’s spotlight to a new angle, uplighting leaves and dappling fruit.

At other times, the weather has been the kind that took me so long to get used to when we moved here, the low cloud weaving itself moodily around the mountain tops bringing a level of light that instinctively says it’s time for long trousers and socks . . . but step outdoors and it’s still most definitely shorts and sandals territory. The warm evening air is still and laced with a sweet softness, scented with the unique fragrance of Japanese quince and a subtle hint of wood smoke drifting up from the village.

The air is clotted with spirals of swooping swallows and martins, feeling their wings and filling their boots before their thoughts turn southwards. Flocks of gaudy goldfinches have returned after their summer business, chattering and flapping low-level through the meadow, greedily plucking at fluffy seedheads in their noisy charge. Butterflies flap languidly, bumble bees hum sonorously, the robins strike up their melodious fluting once more; no question that the slow pulse of late summer is wrapping itself around us now.

One of my favourite things about our home is that it sits snuggly in its own patch of land; the garden area may not be particularly large but we benefit from borrowed light and space and landscape from the meadows beyond.

This time of year is a great one to actually leave the garden and go a-wandering further afield (no pun intended). The grass practically stops growing through August so the cows have been off the fields for some weeks and in their absence, other life is thriving even more than usual.

Our meadows are about as traditional as they come. When the cattle return, it will be as a small family troupe of one bull and several cows with calves of varying ages, everything from wide-eyed tots staying close to their mothers, to nonchalant, streetwise teenagers, haring about in rowdy gangs. They will graze here for a couple of weeks at most and then be moved on; over-grazing is something that simply doesn’t happen. As the land is so steep, no tractor can work it so there is no question of making hay or spreading manure: the cows are relied on to get busy at both ends to do the business! The result is a meadow carpeted with wildflowers . . .

. . . and the closer you look, the more you find.

For us, it is a lovely place to sit in the sunshine and enjoy the sheer exuberance of the life around us.

There is certainly no shortage of fascinating creatures to observe.

It’s not just the small things that are here, either. We often see deer spill like molten metal from amongst the trees to graze, then slip away silently into the woods; foxes are regular visitors, in particular a large dog fox with battle-scarred ears and a silver brush; wild boar rootle through under the cover of darkness, practising their own particular brand of ancient ploughing and the ghostly barn owl glides past, hugging the ground on its crepuscular hunting missions. For me, this is a perfect example of how it is possible to practise modern agriculture and food production on land that still retains an element of ‘wild’ and is home to a wealth of native species.

It’s incredible, too, how quickly nature moves to exert its authority once the grazing has stopped!

Back to the garden, and here we are revelling in nature’s bounty as well as beauty. Every day brings the need to harvest something (well many things, in truth) and it is pure pleasure.

Preparing our evening meal together, I sometimes look at the garden produce and wonder if maybe we should be inviting other people round for dinner? We are so blessed and it is something I never take for granted, especially considering this lot is about as wholesome and organic as you can get . . . and any leftovers make the perfect base for tomorrow’s lunch.

I love the way the season brings a new palette of floral features in the vegetable garden, too; part of me wonders if I’ll ever bother with flower borders again.

Chicory
‘Red Rosie’ lettuce
Globe artichoke
Jerusalem artichoke

There is verbena bonariensis everywhere so honestly, there’s no need to be fighting over a single flower!

This is traditionally the time of year when my thoughts turn to all things woolly; I normally have a small project or two on the go through summer but they’re always a bit haphazard and piecemeal as I’m generally just too busy to sit still for long. My first task was to finish the scraps patchwork blanket I’ve been pottering away at on and off for many months. Sewing the squares together didn’t turn out to be as arduous as I’d thought, and despite such a discrepancy in the amount of different colours I had to use, the finished piece doesn’t look too unbalanced. In fact, I quite like the jolly jumble of those simple squares.

I really enjoy working blanket borders, they pull the whole thing together and give the finished article a satisfying frame, a little weight and touch of decorum to finish the whole thing off. The composition of this blanket has been entirely dictated by the amount of yarn I had left from previous projects and the border was no exception; these certainly weren’t the colours I’d have chosen (oh, for some blues!), simply the ones I had most of.

After a lot of fiddling about with colour order, I settled on the above and worked a round in each, hoping it wouldn’t look over-pinked. It didn’t turn out too badly in the end.

So, with all my yarn scraps used up and only one ball of sock wool left it was definitely time to blow the dust off my spinning wheel again. As part of my zero waste campaign, I set out not to buy any new yarn at all this year and I’ve stuck to that so far, but now I need to get busy turning my box of fleece into skeins for future projects. Having had a good rummage through my fleece stash, I decided to start with some Blue Faced Leicester in natural shades of oatmeal and white.

Can I indulge in a little wool worship here? I love Blue Faced Leicester: of all the fleece breeds I’ve spun so far (I think it was ten at the last count plus alpaca, mohair and silk), it is by far my out and out favourite. If I could only have one kind of wool ever again, it would be this one. The sheep are not the prettiest, but the fleece is a dream. It’s one of the finest British breeds, not quite up there with the much-lauded Merino but not far behind and definitely far easier to spin. In fact, I often think that once the tension is sorted on my finicky old wheel, the BFL spins itself; I can let my gaze drift across the garden or down the valley, even turn and hold a conversation with Roger, safe in the knowledge that nothing untoward is occurring between my fingers and the bobbin.

It isn’t a hugely elastic wool – more draper than hugger – but it’s soft, fairly strong and has a beautiful lustre; the oatmeal might look a dull brown but when the flyer spins, the yarn shines like deeply burnished pewter.

There is much pleasure to be derived from spinning ready-dyed fleece and watching the colours build on the bobbin, or spinning white fleece to mess about with in my dye pot later, but there is also a certain charm to working with natural shades. I liked the idea of spinning equal lengths in both colours, then plying them together to make a marled yarn with an essence of natural things – pebbles, driftwood, pine cones, mushrooms, feathers . . .

I decided to spin the white slightly thicker, so the skinnier oatmeal would twist round it and puff it up a little to create texture; I also deliberately allowed a few slubs of fleece to slip through in bumps so that the finished yarn has a slightly rustic, earthy feel to it which somehow seems to suit the season.

Putting those pebbles back in my collection, I spied a contented little snake curled up under a piece of slate, a perfect echo of the colours, texture and form of my skein of wool. Nature, as always, having the last word. I like that very much. 🙂

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. 🙂

Footprints


I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do. 


Edward Everett Hale
Moonset in the morning

I recently read a wonderful quotation by Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero- Waste Chef. She said, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” Well, thank goodness for the kind of common sense thinking and down to earth pragmatism that cuts through the guilt and frustration felt by so many people trying so hard to do their bit for the planet. Search ‘zero waste’ and you’ll find a wealth of different definitions. Whether it is described as a philosophy, an ideology, a movement, a way of life, an impossible dream or all of the above the bottom line is about ordinary people (and many extraordinary ones, too) trying to reduce and eliminate waste through adopting sustainable natural cycles. It’s a whole lot more than simply (or not!) reducing what goes into landfill; it’s about not wasting precious resources, clean water, fuel, journeys, time . . . it’s about doing what is best for our health, our bodies and minds, our environment, the Earth and all that shares it. It’s hard. Very hard, in fact. Trust me, zero waste is not for wimps.

The internet is a great tool and there are some fantastic zero waste / sustainable living sites out there written by inspiring people doing some amazing things and sharing their expertise and experiences with generosity and enthusiasm. The problem is – and this is my personal opinion so feel free to disagree – that social media, with its emphasis on pithy phrases, clever graphics and arty photos, so often gives the impression of lives lived perfectly (and that includes the zero waste movement) which can lead those of us who are distinctly flawed feeling a tad inadequate. However, it needn’t be that way, hence my appreciation of what Ms Bonneau has to say. Instead of trying desperately to achieve zero waste and failing, surely it is better to do a few things (or maybe only one thing?) at a time and do them to the best of our ability. It’s that old saying about eating an elephant: don’t become overwhelmed by trying to crack it all at once. There is beauty and reward in being one of the millions who do it imperfectly because collectively the achievement is astounding.

Leo Babauta of https://zenhabits.net/ often cites accountability as a useful tool in helping to form new habits and behaviours; if you have to report your progress to someone then the chances are you will stick to your resolution. This is why I think it’s important for me to write occasionally about the progress we are making in our attempt to live as simply and greenly as possible. It doesn’t matter if no-one reads my posts (although it’s always lovely to hear when people have!) but the discipline of sitting and gathering my thoughts and reflecting on where we are is in itself extremely helpful. For us, total zero waste – like total self-sufficiency – is not a viable target, but working bit by bit to a point as close as possible is an interesting, rewarding and thought-provoking process. Here, then, are the recent steps we have taken along this fascinating path . . .

Making soap is a relatively new activity for me and following the success of my first attempts I decided to try and create a hand soap that was slightly more complicated and interesting than my original basic ‘kitchen cupboard’ soaps. It would be very easy to get sucked into the fascinating world of soap-making, there is so much creativity and possibility out there! However, I am adamant about not going down the route of synthetic colourants or fragrances, no matter how beautiful or tempting they may seem; it’s natural all the way for me.

Calendula has long been recognised for its healing qualities in skin care; it’s also one of my favourite flowers and we are lucky enough to be blessed with a year-round jungle of it here so picking a few flowers in the spring sunshine and setting the petals to dry was really no hardship. This is one of the few dried flowers that retains its vibrant colour in soap.

The second new ingredient I chose for this batch was saffron, also renowned for its beneficial skincare qualities. Much used in Spanish cooking, it is widely available and a fraction of the cost in the UK so didn’t seem too much of an indulgence. Mixed in powder form with my blend of olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil and almond oil it also added natural colour so the cured soaps should be a soft yellow. Once the calendula petals had been added along with sweet orange essential oil, the batter looked and smelt good enough to eat!

The finished soaps are now curing on a baking rack, currently the sweet colour of primroses; I am turning them daily and watching with interest to see how (or if) they change in the coming weeks.

Sticking with soap and I have to say that my homemade solid shampoo bars have been something of a revelation. They lather beautifully in our soft spring water and double as a body wash in the shower so are a super-efficient idea. I was expecting some kind of ‘transition’ phase when we started to use them – even my very green and gentle shampoo of choice contains some of those dreaded oil-stripping surfactants – but there has been no problem whatsoever. Obviously, a soap-based shampoo has a higher pH so I use a leave-in final rinse of apple cider vinegar in warm water to balance that. Taking that idea one step further, the fresh new growth on our perennial herbs has provided the perfect ingredient for a herbal hair rinse which couldn’t be easier to make: lavender, sage and rosemary simmered gently in water for an hour, left to cool naturally then strained and stored in the fridge. For each hair wash, I simply decant a small amount, add the vinegar and warm water to take off the chill, then rinse through as many times as I can. The result? Soft, shiny hair that smells pleasantly and faintly herbal (not of vinegar at all!) and stays looking clean and bouncy for several days between washes. Even better, we no longer have bottles of shower gel, shampoo or conditioner in the shower; one bar each of soap and shampoo does the trick. All natural, no harsh chemicals, no packaging. So far, so good.

The next item to try on my list of homemade toiletries was deodorant. Now this is a bit of a tricky one, isn’t it? I have no desire to smell of the harsh synthetic scents that are so prevalent these days and given I spend most of my time pottering about our mountain patch, slapping on deodorant isn’t always necessary . . . but when I do venture into public, I wouldn’t want to offend other people with a pong, no matter how ‘natural!’ Having done a fair bit of research, I opted for a very simple recipe using melted coconut oil mixed with bicarbonate of soda, arrowroot (cornflour is an alternative) and lemon and sweet orange essential oils.

My biggest concern over this was the bicarb. When it comes to deodorising and cleaning everything from teeth to toilets, it’s an amazing substance but there is a danger of assuming that everything ‘natural’ is good and that’s not true. Let’s face it, snake venom is natural but I wouldn’t want it in my bloodstream. The problem with bicarbonate of soda is that it is a powerful alkali which may not necessarily make it a sensible thing to be applying to skin. I read and re-read every article I could find, mulling over the pros and cons; it seems that both extremes of the argument (use it for everything vs. don’t touch it with a barge pole) can be backed up by some pretty complex chemistry and strong emotional arguments. In the end, I decided a dose of pragmatism was called for. I don’t have sensitive skin so I was happy to give it a go, but jiggled the proportions of ingredients around to reduce the bicarb by half. The result, once the mixture had set, was a soft solid that will keep happily for several months in a jar. It is easy to use – just rub a pea-sized amount on with a finger and feels really lovely, far nicer than any other kind of deodorant I’ve used. The big question, of course, is does it work? Well, here is the bit I have to admit I doubted right from the start but yes, it works brilliantly. Considering I’ve been putting it through some fairly serious 10k runs and heavy gardening in warm weather, I am amazed at how it stands up. Wow! It goes without saying that I shall watch for any adverse reaction but in the meantime I’m a convert – and a sweet, citrus-scented one at that!

Moving swiftly from smells to snacks. We’re not naturally snackers as we find three square meals a day of good wholesome food keeps us going well, but occasionally – especially on days involving long or arduous runs – there is a need for a small top-up. Dried kiwi has proved a real success and definitely something I shall be making again next season. They may be a bit of an acquired taste but I love that first tangy sweet-sour whack of flavour like bitter sherbet; a few slices are enough for a fulfilling snack packed with fibre and potassium and they are great for carrying on a long walk. Although our walnut harvest was relatively poor last year, we still have several kilos in store and I love to spend a few minutes each week shelling enough to keep in the kitchen for cooking, sprinkling on breakfasts and grazing in those occasional between-meals tummy rumbling moments. Two healthy snacks, no food miles, zero packaging and totally free. How good is that?

Of course, it’s always great to try new things and as we both love cooking, new recipe ideas are always welcome. We’ve started experimenting with making our own runners’ energy bars, ones that are packed with energy and goodness but without the inevitable high sugar content, additives, preservatives and E-numbers (not to mention excessive packaging) so common in bought ones. In a way, this is a simple exercise in lining up all the different kinds of seeds we have in the cupboard, combining them with something gloopy and baking until crisp. So for our first attempt, a mix of sunflower, pumpkin, sesame and chia seed together with milled linseed and dried goji berries, stuck together with honey, olive oil and a dash of soy sauce. The cooked bars were a bit crumblier than we’d hoped for but fantastically tasty and certainly the perfect post-run booster food. We need to keep playing about with recipes and experimenting with different ingredients; mmm, that will be tough, then!

I think an essential part of our approach to green living is to revisit different things regularly and look at ways in which we can improve them, nudging forward a bit at a time. Take dish washing, for example. We don’t have a dishwasher so everything is washed and dried by hand. During the months when The Beast is lit, we heat all our dish water on the hob; to save wasting water and fuel, we never fill a bowl just to wash a couple of things but let the dirty crockery mount up through the day for one big washing up event in the evening. (Sometimes, we just need to shift our perspective about things: this is not slobby behaviour, it’s green. ) When we are here on our own, we simply cold rinse the same two coffee mugs and re-use them throughout the day – and we haven’t died from doing that yet. Making my own washing-up liquid is something I want to try but for now we use eco-brands, preferably in refillable bottles. Our water is so soft that a 950ml bottle like the one below lasts us six months, even when it’s also used in homemade cleaning potions. For some time now I’ve been crocheting cotton dishcloths which last for ages and can be thrown through the laundry on a regular basis, then composted when they finally give up the ghost. So, what could we do better? Well, one thing I certainly wanted to remove from our lives was scourers made of that nasty scrubby plasticky stuff but how to replace them with something effective? I’ve tried making various knitted scrubbies but nothing seemed to work so in the end the decision was to invest in a couple of wooden brushes which, fingers crossed, should last us for years. That’s another little box ticked.

I’ve been making and using my own washing powder very happily for some months now but now I find there is a bit of a fly in the ointment. I’ve read several articles recently urging people not to do this on any account (it’s a bit like the whole bicarb argument – this green living / zero waste business is tricky stuff sometimes.) The argument is based on the fact that modern washing machines and modern textile fibres are all designed to be used with detergents. Soap-based cleaners can cause a build-up of scum which could ultimately wreck a machine and obviously, having to replace a perfectly serviceable machine before necessary is not remotely green. Also, soap doesn’t clean laundry properly and to prove the point, there are any amount of horror photos of dirty water left behind after so-called clean laundry has been ‘stripped out’ with powerful mineral cleaners. Okay, time for some balanced thinking once again. For every writer standing against homemade laundry powder, there are plenty claiming to have used it for many years without a single machine issue; there are also plenty of people who have stripped out detergent-washed laundry and been left with grotty water, too. As washing soda is the key ingredient of homemade laundry powder, I have increased the proportion in my recipe and reduced the soap; I always fill the fabric conditioner dispenser with white vinegar which it’s claimed helps to stop the scum and as an extra precaution, I am using an eco-detergent every few washes. Not perfect, but I’m hoping it’s a sensible compromise.

Spring clean: winter blankets gently washed in homemade laundry powder drying in the sunshine.

One of the best things I’ve discovered recently is organic bamboo kitchen roll. We don’t use paper kitchen roll often and certainly never for mopping up spillages (a cloth does the job just fine) but there are certain cooking processes and some of my messier pastimes where it’s useful stuff to have around – and it is at least compostable. The bamboo roll, however, takes things to a new level: simply tear off a square, use it for whatever . . . then wash it and use it again . . . and again . . . and again. In fact, each square can go through the laundry as many as 80 times, can be bleached, too, if necessary and eventually finishes up on the compost heap like paper. After the first wash, the fabric becomes very soft and almost fluffy; it’s delightful stuff and I’ve already found far more uses for it than imagined. (The bowl of soap batter above is sitting on a bamboo square.) Our roll of 20 sheets will last us many, many years. What an inspired idea.

Staying with bamboo, I have also recently bought bamboo toothbrushes to try. They are one of those things that seem to attract Marmitesque reviews (love or loathe) so I’m interested to see how we get on with them. I love the fact they have their own leaf pattern for easy identification and I can already see a further life for them as row markers in the garden once their dental duties are done. Now I do love an idea like that!

One of our biggest resolutions on the path to zero waste is to use the materials and resources we already have as much as possible rather than buying new. In this vein, Roger has been demolishing an ugly and tumbledown brick wall and replacing it with a gate he has made from wood left over from the house renovation. Not only has it made access to the field so much simpler (what, no more scrambling over a wall?) but it looks far smarter, has opened up the view from the garden and put some spare materials to very good use.

I have used up my final scraps of curtain lining fabric to make another batch of food storage bags – how did we ever live without them, they are such useful things? I also turned the last two patchworking fat squares in my box of bits into a wash bag to take when we’re travelling. The rather nasty plastic lining of our last one crumbled into pieces many years ago and since then we’ve been using random scruffy plastic bags stuffed into a suitcase. The bag was made in minutes, finished with a scrap of satin ribbon as a drawstring and then sprayed with waterproofer; I’m hopeful it will last us for many years and it’s certainly an improvement on our current system!

Natural toiletries for the new wash bag: deodorant in jar, toothpowder in bicarbonate pot, solid hand / foot lotion and solid shampoo bar in muslin square, reusable razor, bamboo toothbrushes.

Having resolved not to buy any new yarn, I’m enjoying planning my woolly activities around what I already have, whether commercially-produced yarns or fleece to spin myself. Spinning, dyeing and knitting from scratch takes a long time but there is such pleasure and satisfaction in working through the whole process, especially if I have someone else in mind for the finished article. A skein of Blue-Faced Leicester wool spun with kid mohair and dyed with ready-mixed colours left over from the last project brought to mind a cottage garden of delphiniums and clematis, granny’s bonnets and roses . . . perfect for the summer birthday gift had I planned. I’m not a fan of circular needles and my lace knitting is painfully slow but that’s all part of the process . . . there is no rush, just the simple delight of creating something unique from scratch for someone I love.

I’m also working my way slowly through the scraps of yarn left over from various blanket projects and the pile of little crocheted squares is mounting up steadily. I still have no real final plan – there will certainly be enough for a blanket – but it’s good to see those little bits and pieces being put to good use.

So, on we go, taking small footsteps along this tricky path. We still have such a long way to travel and I know it won’t all be easy; the next few ideas to try are already in the pipeline and the coming weeks will see how well they pan out. It’s easy to feel despondent sometimes, despair even, especially looking at the wider world and the problems too mighty for us to tackle alone. However, taking a walk through the woods down to the river yesterday, I paused to enjoy the moment: the trees hazed with fresh new spring growth, clouds of butterflies playing chase in the sunshine, the first swallows wheeling and chattering overhead, the raucous birdsong echoing, it seemed, from every branch.

Yes, this is why we do it, this is what it’s for . . . the hope that in small green footsteps we reduce our giant footprint and leave a beautiful and sustainable world for our precious grandchildren. Surely that’s a future worth fighting for, however imperfectly?

Waxing lyrical

The winter solstice is looming and for the third year in a row it has caught me on the hop because it simply doesn’t feel like the December I know. Not that I’m complaining; this mild weather with its generous sunshine, high light levels and soft, soapy air suits me just fine. I have been busy in the garden, stripped down to a t-shirt, digging over the empty patches and spreading oodles of manure and homemade compost around, feeding our soil while it rests before seed time comes round once again. Give me that over Christmas shopping any day.

Along the lanes, the verges are studded with primroses, violets, clover and knapweed and there is plenty of floral beauty and scent in the garden, too.

The honey bees have no thought for a winter cluster yet; they are still busy filling their pollen baskets in the rosemary.

Despite the bare patches, the vegetable garden continues to bless us with a fresh and nourishing bounty of seasonal delights.

Some not so seasonal, too . . . I think the asparagus is a little confused!

With trugs full of veggie gorgeousness like this one – carrots, Florence fennel, leeks, parsnip, salsify, rainbow chard, kale, calabrese and a bunch of herbs- there will be no need for a festive Brussels sprouts bunfight.

Of course, our winter is yet to come here (and it will) but as we head towards the longest night and that tipping point where the days slowly but surely begin to stretch and lengthen, I feel this is an appropriate time to reflect on the past year and start to make plans for the months to come. After two and a half years of hard graft and upheaval, the house renovation is practically finished which means we will have time now to concentrate on some major outdoor projects. Time, too, to really get to grips with our commitment to zero waste and sustainable living; we don’t do too badly but there is still so much scope for improvement. The ancient Iroquois philosophy of giving thought to a sustainable world for the next seven generations almost seems like an impossibility in today’s society; I fear greatly and passionately for the world we are leaving our children and their little ones, yet alone our great-great-great-great-great grandchildren. However, we are committed to doing our bit, no matter that it is a tiny drop; the smallest, simplest gesture that helps us  to reduce our carbon footprint and tread lightly on the earth is worth every effort. Our main approach is to buy less, consume less, make do and make our own. This doesn’t mean we go without. Far from it, in fact: I would argue we are ‘richer’ now than we have ever been.

Plastic waste is hot news at the moment; it’s not the only thing to consider in a zero waste lifestyle but it is a biggie and one that taxes my green-living brain a good deal. In May, I made beewraps and they have proved to be brilliant things; it’s amazing how quickly we shifted to using them and I can truthfully say we haven’t bought any cling wrap this year. Result! Pushing on further, then, this week I have been making cloth bags for food storage. We bake sourdough bread two or three times a week, always making an extra loaf or rolls to go in the freezer. Although we wash and re-use freezer bags as much as possible, how much better not to be using them at all for ‘dry’ foods like bread where there’s an alternative? I used a strong cotton gingham fabric left over from a curtain-making project from several years ago and it was the easiest sewing activity ever. I simply cut a rectangle of fabric and folded it so I only needed to seam the bottom and one side (some might say lazy here, I prefer efficient! 🙂 ).

I zigzagged the non-selvage edges to prevent bits of cotton fraying into our food; the whole point of these bags is that they can go through the laundry so they need to be robust. Next, I turned a double hem at the top to make a casing for the drawstring. A heavy cotton piping cord would be ideal but I didn’t have any to hand so used up scraps of elastic from my sewing box – not as aesthetically pleasing, but actually perfect for the job. I whizzed up five bags in well under two hours, including at least one coffee break!

I’ve made three different sizes and time will tell which are the most used so I can make more in the future. I had thought the smallest bag would be perfect for freezing things like root ginger but it also turned out to be just right for half a dozen mince pies to go into the freezer for a picnic . . . pressed into action within minutes of being finished (this was a necessity as mince pies have always had a habit of disappearing at speed in our house when my back is turned) . 

While my sewing machine was set up, I decided on a second simple activity: making hankies. I always used to carry a cotton handkerchief when I was younger and I’m really not sure when tissue culture became so prevalent. I know tissues aren’t plastic, but they’re a good example of ‘single use’ packaged products and even if ours end up on the compost heap, they’re still not very green. It can be argued that hankies aren’t very hygienic but as long as they’re changed often and laundered properly, they are no less hygienic than tissues and far less wasteful. So, I cut squares from a lightweight cotton fabric remnant and stitched narrow hems along the edges, each one taking a matter of minutes. I plumped for seven in the end – a clean hankie a day! – with plans to make another batch before too long.

Sourcing truly natural, sustainable products and materials isn’t always easy so I was very thrilled to be given a large amount of beeswax recently. This was the ‘real deal’, wax straight from beehives melted into a cake; it’s wonderful stuff but full of propolis, pollen and various undesirable bits and bobs so my first job was to render it along with a pile of shattered wax foundation well past its useful life. When The Beast is lit, we have a constantly hot hob and oven which is perfect for this sort of activity and very satisfying as we are still burning the old roof timbers – free energy indeed!

The easiest way to clean up this much wax at a time is to place it in a pot of barely simmering water (beeswax melts at about 65 degrees Celsius and overheating can destroy its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties); the melted wax floats to the surface and the impurities sink below.

When the wax is cooled and hardened, the rind of impurities can be shaved off with a paring knife.

I decided to repeat the process once more, then broke the cake into smaller pieces for storage while it was still soft. It looked just like fudge, almost good enough to eat!

I used a very small amount of the cleaned wax to re-coat our beewraps, giving them a few seconds’ blast in the oven which is a good idea from time to time anyway as it helps to sterilise them. I want to save most of this wax for making toiletries but as there was plenty I decided to make a couple of small candles, too. I love candlelight but can’t bear scented candles and to me even the plain white paraffin ones aren’t wonderful. Beeswax candles, on the other hand, smell lovely- just like the inside of a summer hive (there are claims that they purify the air through ‘negative ionisation’ but this is open to much controversial debate). You can make very artistic candles using moulds but I don’t have any so I opted for the simple container type, using some dainty Japanese tea bowls we were given a few years ago. Beeswax can be tricky stuff as it burns hotter and faster than other candle waxes so the advice generally is to mix it with other things (coconut oil, for example) to ‘slow’ it down and also to pay very careful attention to wick size. Mmm, needless to say I ignored all that: I do have coconut oil but it’s so pricey I’d prefer not to burn it and as I had a few wicks left over from previous candle projects I wasn’t about to buy more. I put some lumps of wax in an old tin and sat it in a pot of simmering water, weighed down with an old flat iron to stop it bobbing about and popped the bowls into the oven for a few minutes so the hot wax wouldn’t crack them. When it comes to wicks with metal bases, it’s possible to stick them to the container with a hot glue gun or use a special ‘stickum’ thing but as my life has thus far been complete without owning either, I simply dipped the base in melted wax and used that as glue. Strangely enough, it worked.

I then carefully poured melted wax into the bowls, leaving the first bit to set a little before topping them up.

As there was a bit left over, I poured it into a small bowl lined with parchment paper so it would cool into a block I can use again; no worries about cleaning up the tin as I shall keep it for future wax projects. The wax didn’t crack as can sometimes happen, there was a little bit of shrinkage away from the sides but with their wicks trimmed and combined with a small posy of greenery from the wood, these candles will be the perfect decoration for our Yuletide dinner table.

Green cleaning is second nature to me, the more chemicals I can ban from our newly-renovated home the better and I love the fact that it is so easy to render everything clean and sweet-smelling using small quantities of a few simple ingredients, many of them perfectly edible. For example, lemons literally fall off the trees here; they are fantastic for cleaning the bathroom and kitchen and as a pre-wash soak for whites, they come in their own ‘packaging’ and what’s left is fully compostable. You don’t get more zero waste than that! I’ve been making my own laundry powder this week, mixing equal quantities of grated Marseille soap, washing soda and bicarbonate of soda with a few drops of lemon essential oil (more for its disinfectant properties than fragrance). It’s done in a flash and although the quantity in the photo doesn’t look much, there is enough there for a couple of weeks’ laundry at least.

No need for fabric conditioner, a splash of white vinegar in the dispenser drawer balances the pH and leaves everything feeling soft and lovely; our clothes smell simply of soap and fresh air and most importantly, are beautifully clean. Whilst grating the soap – one of those little therapeutic moments I love- it occurred to me that here is another area where I can experiment with pushing things further. Why not make my own laundry soap, using all natural products? How about body soap for the bathroom and a solid shampoo? No plastic bottles or packaging, no toxic nasties or artificial colours and scents? Is this another way to reduce our impact a little further, to try and leave a beautiful world for the seventh generation and beyond? Mmm . . . sounds like an exciting solstice challenge to me! 🙂

 

Bridging the gap

Spring is almost officially here and we have just eaten the final picking of leeks and the very last cabbage from the garden. It feels a bit sad in a way but we’ve been harvesting leeks since last September so they really have done us proud.

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There is still a good crop of purple sprouting broccoli, rainbow chard and small pickings of mizuna, pak choi and komatsuna fresh from the patch and we still have plenty of squash and beans in storage. We have been using fresh sage, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, chervil and coriander all winter and now the vigorous new growth on parsley, spearmint and chives offers additional delicious flavourings.

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That said, we are teetering on the edge of that ‘hungry gap’ when there will be very little to be had from the garden; if we want a wide diversity of veg in our diet, we have to buy a few now. The next crops won’t be too long; there are flowers on the autumn-planted broad beans and peas, and the second plantings are through the ground. In the polytunnel, ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Red Rosie’ lettuce are leafing up nicely and the first taste of radish is on its  way.

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The bottom line, though, is that it would be good to be gapless.

We were much later getting our polytunnel organised and up than planned (and we’ve had nothing but problems with it since . . . mmm, that’s another story) but next spring, it will be key to bridging the gap. There are many things that can be planted in autumn to give crops all winter or an early spring harvest and we intend to exploit that situation to the full. At the moment, there are a few bits and pieces in the ground but much of the space is either empty or housing the staging, currently heaving under trays and pots of emerging seedlings – our food (and flowers) of the future!

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The plan is to remove the staging when it’s done its job and plant the whole space with tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, chillies and melons plus a few other bits and bobs; we’re also planting everything but tomatoes outdoors and it will be an interesting experiment to compare both lots over the summer. Now I have to admit that I love a good dig – or at least, a good rummage around in soil with my fork. It’s a simple thing, the joy of physical activity combined with that wonderful earthy smell, the sight of worms, that feeling of preparation and expectation . . . but I know there are arguments against it and I’m interested to try a bit of ‘no-dig’ gardening. Roger isn’t at all convinced of the benefits and we have enjoyed some lively discussions on the subject but I’m wondering if the tunnel might just provide an opportunity to have a go this year? To that end, I hauled what felt like several tonnes of homemade compost into the tunnel and dumped it on all the bare areas; there’s plenty of excess to spread around once the trestles have gone. It’s a deep layer of lovely, worm-riddled, crumbly gorgeousness so my idea is not to dig it in but leave it as ta thick mulch, plant directly and observe with interest.

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Back to that gap and another strategy this year is to alter the planting times of some crops; it takes a while to understand a new climate and we are still in the early stages here. This time last year, we had trays of leek plants several centimetres high but we haven’t even planted them yet this year. The truth is, we don’t need to be eating them in September when the patch is still heaving with other veg, so by pushing them back a bit with any luck we will be able to harvest them until the end of March at least. Parsnips have always been a huge winter staple for us; they are notoriously tricky to germinate but we have never had a problem, fresh seed saved from our plants and sowed with freezing fingers in cold, waterlogged February soil always yielding more than enough to feed our family of five all winter. They grow like stink here, too – enormous great roots which do several meals for two of us – but oh my goodness, the trouble we’ve had getting them started.

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Last year, we had to plant three times before anything germinated and then the harvest was not quite as big or prolonged as we would have liked. This year, we’ve started them off in the tunnel, the seeds planted in little cones of newspaper filled with compost (I had great fun making those cones, like folding tiny piping bags . . . very therapeutic!); fingers crossed for a successful germination and then we simply pop the cones into the ground outside and look forward to a winter feast of those delicious beauties.

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On the subject of adjusting to a different climate, we have been catching the tail end of the wintry weather sweeping across more northerly parts; we aren’t suffering from frosts or snow but the temperature has been pegged back and there is a certain amount of gardeners’ frustration at play. Patience, patience! That said, the signs of spring are all around, not least the delicate beauty of peach and apricot blossom.

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This is a timely reminder that the new season’s harvest is on its way and we still have a mass of fruit in the freezer from last year’s glut. No problem, I have been pulling them out in batches, stewing them lightly in their own juices on top of the woodstove and eating them for breakfast. I don’t know about other people, but sometimes when reflecting on our attempts to live a simpler, greener, more sustainable life I find myself focusing on how much we aren’t doing; it’s human nature, I suppose, but occasionally it’s good to stand back and look at the positives, too.  So, here is my breakfast: peaches picked and preserved from our trees, organic oats bought in a paper bag which will be shredded onto the compost heap, and walnuts from our woodland, stored in their shells and cracked as needed. No hint of chemicals, no plastic wrapping in sight, zero waste. (Not to mention it’s a delicious and nutritious combination to start the day!)

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One ‘gap’ we really can’t risk is that of logs; we rely on a steady supply to feed the stove and that means planning ahead. This winter we have been burning the old roof timbers, ‘recycling’ them into heat – the stove heats the entire house – as well as hot water and a hob and oven for cooking. During the autumn, we have cut the remaining timbers and stacked them to dry; this week, Roger has moved them all into the shed for storage and turned his thoughts to logs for 2020!

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We are blessed with several acres of woodland, a mix of mostly eucalyptus (planted by the former owner as a cash crop), chestnut, birch, oak, willow and holly. There is much shrubby undergrowth including Spanish heath and gorse and a wealth of wild flowers, too (there are carpets of sweet violets everywhere at present). It is a beautiful wild tangle of growth and a haven for wildlife – wild boar and deer are regular visitors and there is a tremendous population of birds. Our attitude to logging is to take just enough for our needs through careful ‘management’ rather than greed; fallen trees are always the first port of call. The chestnuts can be coppiced rather than felled – this is typical local practice – and that is what Roger has been doing, cutting selected trunks and hauling them home with the tractor to split and season.

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There’s no waste here, either: the sweet-smelling sawdust is a great addition to the compost heap and I’ve been happily sweeping it up and spreading it across the top of our greatly reduced pile.

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So . . . here’s to another year of logs and compost and  – if we play our cards right – no hungry gap at all next spring. Happy equinox, everyone! 🙂

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To be or not to bee wrap

‘Material life and diet should be given a simple place. If this is done, work becomes pleasant, and spiritual breathing space becomes plentiful.’  Masanobu Fukuoka, The One Straw Revolution

 
I have just finished reading a book about minimalist living. Whilst being an interesting and thought-provoking read, I found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned by some of the ideas being suggested. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own interpretation and opinion but for me, the whole essence of minimalism is about getting rid of excess, living with only what we need and no more so that what is left – whether in terms of space or time – can be used for happier, non-material things and appreciating the beauty of life and the world around us (as per the opening quotation). Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong?

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For instance, there was a lot of time spent on the idea of de-cluttering which seemed to focus far more on organising existing ‘stuff’ rather than reducing the overall amount of possessions; I found it a bit ironic being advised to go out and buy large plastic boxes so I can store things under the bed. There is nothing under our bed at present because, quite simply, there is nothing to go under the bed (and if there were, I’d be seriously questioning whether we really needed it). When it came to getting rid of things, there was also far too much ‘throw it away’ for my tastes: whatever happened to re-use and re-cycle? Well, I’m happy to agree to disagree with the author on a few things but when it came to a discussion of decorating, I felt completely lost at the suggestion of a simple black and white scheme for everything. Now admittedly, we have painted all the walls of our little mountain house white in order to maximise light as the windows are very small . . . but there is colour in everything else. I am happy to embrace a simpler lifestyle but I didn’t realise it extended to removing an excess of colour! I love colour, it brings so much joy and happiness into my world and the idea of eliminating it is out of the question. In fact, quite the opposite – it’s been high on my agenda this week.

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Last year, I decided to brighten up an old garden seat we’d had for many years; we had kept it as natural wood, oiling it every year to keep it waterproof, but the poor thing was really looking its age. I painted it with the dregs of paint left over from a previous project and we placed it in one of our sunniest patches. It has become one of our favourite places, a natural spot to gravitate towards, mug of coffee in hand. Unfortunately it had gone to look weather-beaten again and having no ‘petrol’ paint left, this week I opted for a brighter ‘peacock’ instead and spent a happy couple of hours in the sunshine giving it another facelift.

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I also finished making the crochet patchwork granny square blanket, something I started last year to use up a pile of  yarn left over from other projects. It’s been great fun creating something useful from a crazy mishmash of colours and clashes, although in theory I suppose I could have put the yarn into storage under the bed or thrown it away. 🙂 Instead, it will be a blanket of many uses, including padding out that seat or throwing in the back of the car for picnics.

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We are edging ever closer to being able to move the spare bedroom furniture out of the kitchen and upstairs. We won’t be able to sort our kitchen/living area out properly until then but in the meantime I dug out our old cotton bunting, washed and ironed it (quite something for me!) and we hung it from the beams. A visiting neighbour was very taken with it and asked if we had been celebrating a birthday to which I had to honestly answer no, it was just me being a bit frivolous and girlie and the bunting was a permanent thing.

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He said he thought that was wonderful because it meant we were celebrating our non-birthdays every day and that was surely a great thing to do? What a lovely way of looking at life! Black and white? I don’t think so!

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One of my goals this year is to try and get as close to zero waste as possible. The amount of waste that goes out for the rubbish collection is already relatively small – one small bag per fortnight, rarely full; we recycle everything we can, compost biodegradable waste and re-use things wherever possible as second nature. The composting in particular is a huge success here; as gardeners, we have had compost heaps for 30 years but have never had such a fast working one. It’s like some sort of magical bottomless pit of gorgeous, crumbly compost. I turned it and emptied it in the autumn, digging out enough to mulch the entire vegetable patch. This week, I’ve turned it again, piling it onto the terraces where the squash and sweetcorn are to be planted (they are such greedy feeders), top dressing all our pots and troughs and hauling buckets and buckets up to the polytunnel. I love this sort of activity, definitely not work in my book. What a thing of wonder compost is . . . and all from waste and worms!

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For us, the biggest issue to tackle is plastic waste, and in particular, food wrapping – something of a hot topic at the moment. Luckily,  a huge proportion of our food here comes package-free . . .

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. . . but we are not self-sufficient so inevitably we have to buy from other places and that’s where the problem starts. Even buying fresh meat and fish loose over the counter, there seems to be no getting away from the plastic it is subsequently wrapped in and which cannot be hygienically recycled. I’m not sure what the answer is but I’m working on it and in the meantime, I’ve had a go at making some bee wraps which should at least help to eliminate home-produced cling film waste. Waxed cloth is not a new idea but it has become popular in recent years as an eco-friendly alternative to disposable food wraps. There are some really beautiful products on the market but they tend to be a bit pricey so, encouraged by many helpful websites, I decided to have a go at making my own; driven in from the garden by Storm Gisela a couple of days ago, I decided the moment had arrived!

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The theory is a simple one: soak cotton cloth in melted beeswax, pine resin and jojoba oil to create a waterproof, flexible, washable food wrap. The fabric I used was good quality 100% cotton left over from a baby quilt project (I think it came from Hobbycraft). Beeswax is easily obtainable in a block that can be grated or as small perles, but I had some beekeeper’s waste – a sheet of wax foundation that had shattered – so it seemed the right thing to use. There are various methods for making bee wraps; as the stove was stoked up and the oven hot, I decided to use that rather than the ironing method. I opted for mixing the cold ingredients and spreading them across the fabric as this seemed to be less wasteful and also I know from making lip balm and hand cream that cleaning bowls and utensils that have been around melted beeswax is the very devil!

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It would have been nice to cut the fabric with pinking shears but I don’t have any so straight edges had to suffice; I was working on the theory (correct, as it turned out) that such a tight weave was unlikely to fray after waxing. I chopped the fabric into various shapes and sizes and made a start with the largest square (30cm x 30cm), laying it on a large baking tray covered in parchment paper.

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I popped the tray into the hot oven and the mixture took only moments to melt. I then removed it, used a paintbrush to spread the melted mixture around, making sure it went right to the edges of the fabric, then put it back into the oven for another couple of minutes.

Mmm. What can I say? It did work in as much as I ended up with a sheet of waxed fabric but . . . for some reason, the resin pooled in places and left rather unattractive yellow splodges – no mention of this little problem on any of the websites. I turned the second piece right side down on the parchment which did at least mean the resin wasn’t quite so obvious but I really wasn’t very happy with this method. I honestly wished I’d used the pre-melting approach instead, so for the smaller pieces I piled the mixture on to the parchment next to the fabric, melted it then brushed over. You can see the difference that made in the photo below.

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The upshot of my little wrap making experiment is that I certainly won’t use this method again but will melt everything together first; the good news is that I will definitely be making some more because although aesthetically they aren’t the greatest, they work. They have a strange texture but smell pleasantly and subtly of beeswax and there is something very satisfying about moulding them around the top of a food container with just the warmth from my hands (yes, I’m a simple soul!). I’m interested to see which sizes we use the most in the coming weeks and then I shall make a second batch.

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To me, these little ideas are the epitome of the simple life we live here. I know it’s only a drop in the ocean, but drops add up. It’s another tiny step towards zero waste and steps add up, too. It’s not about grand gestures or dramatic dogma, strict colour schemes or savvy storage systems. It’s about living peacefully, kindly and mindfully every day, taking little steps one at a time to tread more gently on the earth. That’s a life worth living, surely? 🙂

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