Winter gets me down so much more indoors than out. Outdoors I enjoy the seasons changing. By the end of summer I'm sick of the heat; by the end of winter I'm longing for warmth.
My house is cold. It's old and it's draughty and we struggle to stay warm. Visitors come but sit uncomfortably at the table in their coats clinging to cups of tea. I'm reluctant to crank up the boiler too much, not just for the cost but because I know, despite being with a green power supplier, there's no such as a renewable gas supply. I can't remove the thought of massive, smoke belching power stations from my mind. The thermostat sits at 18C but it doesn't feel balmy, just tolerable. We wear vests, two pairs of socks, leggings under trousers and my head is rarely without a hat, even at home!
Every winter morning brings the miserable task of wiping wet windows. They're single glazed, the original wood sliding sashes with beautiful coloured leaded lights and I love them. But they're hopelessly impractical for a house full of teenagers and their daily showers. We don't have a tumble dryer either so the wet washing hangs off a series of clothes horses making the dining room look like a laundry. After the cold nights, the moisture collects and glistens like fragile diamonds, tearing down the panes with the merest whisper of movement nearby. The first such night of autumn leaves me with a pit in my stomach knowing I have months ahead...
The Karcher window vac is, to my mind, one of the greatest ever inventions, better than the wheel, the internet and the internal combustion engine combined. Particularly for the Edwardian house owner, it's a godsend. It sucks massive quantities of water off windows, tiles and even bathroom floors and saves it amassing in corners as black mould. It's the one gadget I would not want to be without!
Otherwise, windows are opened during (for the brave) or after showers, lids are used when cooking and clothes are dried on airers and not on the radiators. I use the maximum spin on the washing to fling out as much water in advance as possible. And sneaking the heating up a degree (from 17C) did, I concede, make a difference! I gather dehumidifiers can be effective too, but I don't want to buy another new thing, with all the carbon emissions that that entails, without exhausting every other possibility first!
One day, I will have enough money for beautiful, wooden double glazing. Until then, we can just about cobble together. And when it gets too much? Well, I just escape outdoors and relish the icy blast!
We are a family who do sports. Lots of sports.
I think this is possibly the one aspect of life that I find most difficult to rationalise with my greenie aspirations.
Today we've been to Leeds, a journey of 130 miles round trip for my daughter's inter-county hockey tournament. (Hockey is a novelty; it's usually football, but that's another story...) She was one of 15 on her team, with 7 counties represented, so approximately 100 young people, all travelling in individual cars with parents. (Incidentally, hockey families drive big, expensive cars as a general rule. Ours is small and 15 years old. It sticks out like a sore thumb).
100 cars, 100 people buying cheap snack foods with one-use packaging, 100 sets of kit made of fossil fuel derived polyester, 100 people plus at least one parent using the toilet facilities etc etc... And none of it strictly, actually essential to life. You get my issue? It bothers me, and yet I couldn't not-do it, not just for the love of my daughter but also for what the experience brings to all of our lives.
Here's how I try and justify it: firstly, we keep the car journeys to a minimum. In the summer, the shorter journeys to local training we make by bike or on foot, though predictably tired legs are often unwilling! It takes time too, and we've fallen out of the habit (one to add to the 'to do' list again). We occasionally offer spaces in our car to others without transport, and gatecrash the team bus when we can.
We always, always bring a packed lunch and a flask of hot drinks. It's a money saver and a waste saver and steers us clear of the bacon buttie hatch!
Kit is an issue as matching strips are a must. We pass on what we can, but I am reminded that I did consider offering a second hand stall that I've never followed up (again, one for the 'to do' list!) The hockey stick pictured is a jumble sale find, £3. She's been playing with it for years, whereas her team mates have sticks that cost over £100. I asked her coach; the only difference is in weight but as a 13 year old? Really not worth it. She's happy, my daughter's happy, I'm happy. Maybe it's worth asking around for cast offs if you're in the same boat. I notice there are Facebook buy/sell/pass on pages springing up which makes the whole process simple, but the usual charity shops and eBay are an option too. And don't forget to gift your used equipment and clothing. There are other families like us!
And so to the biggest reason I encourage the sport, and one that's applicable to us all, young and old...
To nourish your body, to feed it good food, to keep it functioning at its most effective is not only what you owe yourself (because you are utterly wonderful!) but what you owe your neighbours on this little rocky planet. Illness and infirmity affects your capacity to care for others, to improve your surroundings and to make optimum choices. It costs - financially and environmentally. Whilst it is an option for you to stay healthy, you should grasp that fortune and opportunity with both hands and stride forwards through life's adventuring, because it really isn't a possibility for so many. You owe you good health!
And that's what I owe my kids - the best possible start to their lives, the skills and knowledge to make the right choices and provide themselves with the healthiest, and coincidentally, greenest future.
Tough call, but I hope the right one.
If one thing put me off more children, it was the washing.
If I'm super organised (rare) then I'll manage one wash during the week, but mainly it's an endless Saturday job. And I hate it. Really loathe it.
My children have a different definition of 'dirty' to me. My interpretation is 'caked in mud' (which my clothes frequently are) but I often pull still folded, unworn clothes of theirs from the washing basket. Some have even still had the labels on!
It's not an 'eco' thing; I just want to minimise the time it takes, so there is selective sorting occurs as a first step. Some never make it as far as the machine before they are returned to the drawer, or the top of the drawers in a pile as is more usually the case.
I use Ecover washing liquid. I know it's possibly not the best option, but it's easily accessible so I don't need to make a special trip to buy it, it's relatively inexpensive and it does the job. I have an old stash of soap nuts that sometimes I draw upon, but they're not up to the school shirt wash and there are questions about how ethical it is to source a product from (usually) India and its surrounds and ship it so far. I gather swathes of indigenous food crops are being grubbed up and replanted with soap nut trees to satisfy western greenie demands too. But I had them before this came to light. And we tried conkers too. We're next to a lot of horse chestnut trees so that made sense. Crush the conkers with a hammer and place a few in a jar with water overnight, strain and use the liquid in the machine, conkers in the compost. They work, they really do! Conkers have natural saponins (soaps) that clean, but they're sadly seasonal (and we'd need to collect kilos of the things, before the squirrels, to get through the year!)
This is my secret weapon though, and one I'd recommend - washing soda.
It costs £1 per kg and it's widely available. I use a tablespoon per wash and half the liquid I use and it works brilliantly. And it's super effective. (The jar is my attempt to try and make this particular job as pleasurable as possible!) It breaks down harmlessly in the waste water and does a decent job of keeping the machine sparkly too. It's a really simple 'tread lightly' switch and one that saves money. Add it to your shopping list, give it a whirl!
Best get on...
A kind friend shared this video recently (The Land) and even after a few days, I can't quite lay it to rest.
The awe inspiring lady is living something close to the life I'd like and am working towards, but there are two things she mentions that really struck a chord. The first is her mentioning how much her and her mum laugh. Laugh! Sad to say that I'm really not sure how many people laugh nowadays. Not comedy show laughter, but the deep belly laughter of good times with friends and family. Her simple life provides her with the head space to do this and, looking at her face, you can see the peace and contentment in her heart. I haven't seen that elsewhere for a long time.
The second sentiment is that of the value of community. As she points out, those that choose a life such as hers are often short of cash so rely on others for their skills and time. I see so many people around me struggling and wonder how different it might be if they felt they could call on neighbours. And more importantly, what more I can do to share what I have freely. Sharing naturally builds community, and strong communities build resilience to change, banish loneliness and restore laughter. We need less because more is given. We are so often too proud to ask and too suspicious to give.
And against that backdrop of pondering, I saw this UC Middlesbrough video. The street is maybe half a mile from where I live and I know it well. Behind the lady's house is an alley, and part of the alley has been systematically transformed into a thriving community garden. There are plants and ornaments and paintings, children play safely, people meet to share a beer and a cheeky cigarette. This weekend, we're holding a party there with films, a campfire and the unveiling of the most beautiful mural, cleverly painted by Jo from a neighbouring street with poetry from another valued member of the community, Bob. This is just yards away from where this lady feels so isolated and so worried about her future.
And there it is: if she knew, she would find so much love and so much caring so close. She would find her community. It wouldn't necessarily change anything, but maybe it could make her life a little more resilient, a little more laughter filled, a little more peaceful. I do hope we can find her in time to tell her.
Time for a change eh?
Tromboncino and Nemo
I love growing squashes. They're big, bold, bullies of plants, they have beautiful yellow flowers that attract the bees, they're easy to grow, the squash fruits are delicious and store for months, and above all, they feed a lot of people well for very little money!
The orangey coloured one is a Tromboncino, which was a first for me this year. They grow up to a metre long in a variety of twisty turny, sometimes hilarious shapes! Fresh off their vines they are limey green and taste a little like a courgette but with more flavour and a slightly tougher skin. Most of our harvest was cooked simply - fried in a little olive oil and garlic, with celery leaves and pepper, and then with a glass of water and a spoonful of veggie stock powder added to make a sauce. Dead quick, dead easy. This particular one was cured in a sunny greenhouse to toughen its skin and has now sat happily for three months on our kitchen table. I'll use it when we're desperate to remember the warmth and bounty of summer.
The other squash is a mystery. I don't know what variety it is but it found its way to my office chair yesterday, kindly donated by a colleague. He'd grown it from seeds I'd passed on, which in turn had been given to me by my old friend Alex. Alex died a couple of years ago. He was a wonderful eccentric, always rushing around, always busy, slightly obsessed with secateurs, and very missed. The prospect of salvaging the seeds from inside Nemo to grow next year has brought me cheer, more than the squash itself maybe! And reminded me what a gift seeds are. Saving seeds continues the legacy of generations of gardeners before us and allows us, rightly, control of our own food production. In such uncertain, challenging and so often sad times, it gives us, humble growers, power and control, and that provides security and happiness. Sharing saved seeds builds communities and networks, funny little bartering conversations between friends and recollections of long hot summers tending to plants over steaming cups of tea.
Seed saving is not hard. There are few who haven't, as children, grown apple pips or plum stones. There are plenty of instructions on the web and a quick search will reveal all. Try it next season. Sharing seeds is easier still. Get your seed box out and see what you can spare (ALL gardeners have more seed than they could ever feasibly use!) and offer it to friends and family. Maybe even a well thought out Christmas present. The gift of a full belly next year; what could be better?!
Happy ending huh?
It's difficult to feel motivated when you wake to heavy rain in the knowledge you're going to be outdoors all day. Cold is somehow more cold when it's wet, and worse still when it's dark.
So I ambled into the morning rather than raced, no doubt with a visible scowl across my face. And several gazillion layers of clothing (including a hat that has irritated me all day!)
We welcome (like really welcome!) the help of friends Andy and Jeff at out little salad growing plot on Tuesdays. We are developing a little routine of exchanging soup and crusty bread for their time and assistance. The soup was made this morning (all organic and vegan leek and potato) and left to stay warm in the Wonderbag (more about this later) and together with two flasks of tea, we can just about cope with the absence of power and cooking facilities. The soup pan, in fact, we too hot for me to lift the lid!
Growth is really slow at this time of year; there's too little light. But it's a great point for doing the big jobs, especially those that would be too hot in summer. Today we built compost bays. Six in fact, about 1sq m in size, which is the optimum. We used old pallets, staked through the middle for support and screwed to each other for stability. They're not pretty, but they function and are desperately needed. At home I have six 'dalek' bins, which just about take all our uncooked food waste, plain paper and card, all the garden waste and all the gardening waste! Composting is obsessive. Everything others see as rubbish becomes a resource. I find myself trying to bagsy the paper shreddings from the office and other people's mowings like other people root through the Whoops! bin at Asda. Surprisingly, I don't get a lot of actual compost, certainly not enough for growing food. But it's satisfying to be nurturing your soil with what you've taken from it previously. Circle of life (I think someone sang about that once...)
I've been honing my willow weaving skills today.
I love basketry; it really does (usually) bring joy to my soul. Something about the natural materials and the way they react to the bending and tugging, the uniqueness of the finished product, the tiredness and the smell of willow on your hands... I'm hoping to make a little bit of a career at it in a few months, at least pocket money, but I'm out of practice.
I started with a gypsy basket course run by the lovely Jo at Abundant Earth near Durham (http://www.abundantearth.coop) and I've recently made a round basket at the Wild Harvest School of Self Reliance (http://wildharvest.org) just outside York, with equally lovely Di. I have a 'Modern Basketry from the Start' book (from 1973!) to guide me and of course YouTube should I need.
So I put a bundle of 4ft willow in the pond, weighted with rope and dumbbells, last weekend and fished it out 4 days later, left it to mellow in an old towel and tarp for another 3 days and set out this morning to practice, secateurs in hand.
But it wasn't good. The willow was brittle in places, almost rotten in others (with a delightful addition if some kind of maggoty creatures!) and impossible to work with, snapping endlessly. And too uniform, with too few thick rods for the structure and too few thin rods for the weave, pulling it out of shape. I had soaked and then redried it last year but something had obviously gone wrong along the way.
I managed to fumble and swear and tantrum through one very poor example and gave up before the next went beyond its base.
So back to the drawing board, or more specifically to Somerset Willow Growers for fresh bundles!
In the meantime I consoled myself with the little nugget from the glossary of Modern Basketry and pondering over why my home town, normally associated with heavy industry is used as a term for 7ft willow rods! Fate intervening maybe? And the pile of kindling we will have ready for next year's fires.
And above, my favourite of all my made baskets and proof that with the right materials, I'm not the worst basketmaker in the world! Onwards and upwards eh?
I spend (some, not as much as I would like) Sundays gardening for people. Nothing fancy, just using the skills I have and a love of being outdoors to make people's spaces nicerer for them.
Yesterday's spell took nerves of steel. I started at 10 and the temperature had hit zero. Frozen ground, icy collections of water in the delves and a blanket of frost covering the leaves. I counted 6 layers of clothes on my top half, hat and scarf, and I was double gloved and double socked. But once you start moving, your muscles warm and if you can stay dry, it's rather nice to feel the proper chill of winter!
These are the tools of my trade. Beyond all things, it's the hori hori that I use the most (the thing that looks like a dagger!) And the secateurs at this time of year. They're cheap Lidl ones but they're great and I don't mind so much if I lose them.
The last job of the day was to prune an apple tree. It's been hacked at one point, by someone who's left a perfectly horizontal section of trunk that will leave the tree susceptible to disease as water collects in a vulnerable spot. It's caused shoots to grow vertically towards the sky, crossing in a mass in the middle and rubbing weak spots in the branches. It's a slow process of thinning the crown and cutting each just above an outward facing bud to give a 'goblet' shape to allow air to circulate and improve its appearance. Pruning is a creative process, taking time to stand back and consider each move, making something beautiful enough to stand proud in a garden. The fruit it offers is almost inconsequential!
And I get paid for this! The cold fresh air, the friendly natter, the creation of a piece of art, the birds, the peace... Kind and grateful people pass on their earnings in appreciation; I graft hard and they pay me for my time and my skill, and I sit down at the end of the day in front of the fire, with a tired body and dirty hands with the cash in my pocket that pays to feed my children. Noble work well rewarded. There's something very wonderful about it.
So this is a voyage a little into the unknown...
I'm starting out as a single mum of five kids in a post-industrial town in north east England. My life is pretty green - I work for an environmental charity, I'm a partner in an organic salad business and I do some 'tread lightly' gardening. And on the whole, I live pretty sustainably by most people's standards. But it doesn't feel like enough. There are so many changes I'd like to make, taking little steps forward towards, ultimately, off grid, minimal impact living.
I guess if I can get there, against the odds, then there are others who can take what I learn along the way and travel with me. So this is an adventure that I hope you'll share. Learn from my mistakes, gain spirit from my successes, and above all, join me on the journey.
Treading Lightly is simple living, within your means and the means of the planet, and making a minimal impact on the Earth. Find out more here about Catherine, of Barefoot Solutions, does this from day to day.