A Skirmish of Siskins and other Garden Visitors

January 16th

We have a new garden visitor. I spied a lone pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) under one of the bird feeders as I was eating my breakfast. We’ve heard him calling for a few days, assuming he was a runaway from a local shoot, taking refuge in a neighbour’s garden. Today he is visiting us. Easy pickings here. He’s taking full advantage of seeds dropped by the goldfinches and sparrows, which don’t seem to mind his presence. We watch him strut about, before he finally squeezes through a gap in the fence and out into the fields.

The bird feeders are busy today, it’s cold and damp. A light drizzle that hasn’t put off the birds. I’m reluctant to step outside. I am bored of wrapping up in coat, hat, gloves and pulling on wellies for every garden chore. I long for spring and warm mornings spent drinking coffee on the garden bench. A few days ago, I made a new feeding station for the robins and blackbirds. I had noticed the blackbirds had been grubbing about in one of the hanging baskets left out over winter. I found an old plate in the greenhouse and put it on top of the soil, adding a few seeds and some raisins. On a whim I hung a seed feeder from the bracket (it had been languishing near the house, most of the birds too shy to feed there regularly). Today I count three great tits feeding greedily and a male robin pecking underneath. It seems that my haphazard arrangement is a success.

We now have three distinct feeding areas, and I’ve noticed a hierarchy among our regular visitors. The goldfinches prefer the feeder that hangs from the apple tree; they flap around noisily waiting their turn, balancing on thin stalks of the Verbena Bonariensis, hoping to find the last few seeds in the dried heads. THis is where the woodpecker feeds every morning. Beside this, a fat ball tower that is the domain of the starlings and beyond that a nut feeder that is beloved by great tits. On the other side of the garden, another fat ball feeder is where the sparrows gather. Mostly house sparrows, the dunnocks prefer to dance around the base of the conifers, hoovering scraps.  Further along the fence is my new addition, close to where the wren can often be spotted, darting out of the conifer hedge to forage amongst the kale and leeks.

The robins and blackbirds will dot around the garden, pulling worms from the damp grass, gobbling up scraps dropped by the other birds and watching me as I step outside to fill the feeders. The robins will often sit in the elder tree watching me. Last winter I started dropping a few seeds on the lid of the feed bin to encourage them down, but apart from one brave fella the others remain timid.

I look up from my laptop (I’m writing this at the dining table), a skirmish has caught my attention. The siskins have arrived and clearly think the goldfinches have been too greedy, their call is high pitched and they jab at the goldfinches with their beaks. The bird feeder is empty, so even if they could get their turn, nothing is left. I take pity on them and prepare to go outside.

I’m dressed like an arctic explorer. As soon as I step beyond the green house all the birds take flight. Two wood pigeons sit in the taller branches of the silver birch waiting. The skirmish has left scraps under the apple tree and they’re biding their time, they’ll fly down soon and have another feast. The squirrel is so hungry, he carries on hoovering up the sunflower hearts from the feeder next to the woodshed. He won’t stop until I pick up the rubber trug beside him to gather logs for the fire.

I walk around the garden, taking in any changes. There are a few snowdrops about to open and daffodils. I pick up silver birch twigs from the grass and wind them into bundles to use as fire lighters. The blue tits and blackbirds begin to call to each other, I am serenaded by a bird I cannot see in the tall branches of my neighbour’s damson. I could stand here watching and listening all morning. The chaffinches have ventured down to scavenge under the feeders, a group of about ten males and females. They swoop about, oblivious to the other birds and their garden politics. A blackbird is having a drink of water from the bowl under the hazel tree, the birds tolerate me, but they will be happier once I step inside.

Back indoors, I pull off the layers, stack wood by the fire, and take another look out of the window – yes – squirrel still there. She’s on top of the wood shed now, nibbling some treasure. I am off to town for a birthday lunch with a friend today, so I kick off my wellies, checking for mud on my jeans. Too lazy to change, I think I’ll do and go in search of a birthday card to write and her present to wrap.

Nature Nurtures Me

nurtured by nature.jpgWhen I was a child, my dad would often disappear for walks. occasionally he’d take us with him, point out grebes swimming on the river, name the trees and the wild flowers or explain why we shouldn’t pick the hogweed*. Mostly he walked in silence, and it’s only now I’m a grown up that I understand his need to be outdoors.

You see, nature nurtures us. In the late 1980’s, I worked in a school in the suburbs of Manchester, it had a stream running through the grounds and some of our more enlightened staff knew that making sure our “troubled children” had access to that space, to “dip” in the pond, discover pond skaters, damselflies and grubs made life easier in the classroom. Those kids were calmer, more able to sit and listen. As teachers, we noticed a difference too, we talked about “clearing away the cobwebs” or how lovely it was to breather fresh air. Truth be told, we dragged those kids outside as much for our own well being as theirs! Thirty years ago it wasn’t called “Forest School” or the “outdoor classroom”, it was just informal access to nature  and we knew the benefits without mountains of research papers to tell us why access to the outdoors mattered. Everyone looked forward to dry days when we could step outside and weave an appreciation of nature into the curriculum – and if you are sceptical of the effect of nature on mood and behaviour, visit any school playground on a windy day and take note of how it affects the children – our dinner ladies* used to  dread windy lunch times!

on the rocks

Whilst we were encouraging those kids to spend time outside, feel the sun on their backs and the wind in their faces, the recognition that being outdoors could improve well being was being accepted across the world. In Japan, the concept known as  “Shinrin – Yoku” (sometimes called “forest bathing” )was gathering momentum. The healing power of being outdoors was accepted as a legitimate course of treatment. Even the NHS implemented changes to hospital design and organisation after published research that showed patients with beds near the window healed faster and went home sooner! (Roger Ulrich‘s research was first published in 1984 and was considered ground breaking at the time).*

Of course, now the media have embraced this concept as “new” and innovative and now we all read constantly that being outdoors is good for the soul as this piece in the Guardian shows, Author and nature lover Emma Mitchell has embraced the idea of being outdoors as a strategy to ensure her mental well being . If you’re interested, then the nature Fix by Florence Williams is definitely worth a read. It’s a fascinating account and exploration of the healing possibilities of nature.

Even the smallest access to green space ( or just being able to see it through a window) can improve out mental and physical health. Notice how children will press their noses to the window on rainy days, anxious to connect with the outdoors. This need to be in nature is with us from the earliest age. I try to eat my breakfast, or at least gulp a mug of tea in the garden every morning. I think of it as a time to balance myself before the onslaught of social media, emails and deadlines. Even better, if I can squeeze in a walk in the forest or through the woods I know my day will be calmer and more productive.  If you’re interested in reading more about this, then I thoroughly recommend  this article in Business Insider, which lists “12 science backed reasons why spending more time outside is healthy“.

Garden Robin

Spending time outdoors has allowed me to observe nature close up, my photographs of birds, butterflies and garden wildlife are a happy accident of time spent sitting, walking or watching. I know that my mental and physical health improves when I get outside, I notice less pain and inflammation in my joints and I often discover the solution to a problem or difficulty. We need access to sunlight to manufacture vitamin D, so clearly the need to be within nature is built into our DNA?

There still needs to be more willingness to accept the existing evidence that nature heals, and to continue to research the best and most effective ways we can use what we already know. Children cooped up in classrooms, prisoners on almost 24 hour a day “lock down”, patients denied access to the outdoors because health care providers prefer to keep them in their beds “where we can see you” and office workers who lunch at their desks because stepping outside the office is no longer the norm. Everyone can benefit from a change in attitude and policy.

It’s hard to ignore the evidence. Nature nurtures, sustains, revives and inspires us. We should all spend more time outside, every day.

 

*The sap is irritating and can cause a nasty rash – leave it alone!

*During my time as a student Nurse, Ulrich’s research was causing a stir. A new hospital wing was designed around a courtyard, so patients could not only see the gardens, but walk in them through patio doors

*dinner ladies / lunch time supervisors

 

Kitchen Chemistry

kitchen chemistry.jpgHave you ever wondered about all the science that happens in a busy kitchen? Raising agents added to cakes, the fermentation of wine or bread, the amazement on a child’s face when you add baking powder to hot syrup to make honeycomb. I’ve always loved making potions, I was that child who would stuff rose petals into jam jars in the hope of making perfume my mother would want to wear and I never tired of pouring vinegar onto bicarbonate of soda to make volcanoes.

I studied chemistry (failed the A level – like I failed most of my A levels – thank goodness for night school and second chances!) and I’m still fascinated by the alchemy that happens in my kitchen. We don’t often think of it as chemistry, but so much science can be learnt at the kitchen table. More recently, I’ve begun to feel like I need a degree in chemistry just to decipher those ingredients lists – even the ones on the back of my “eco friendly” cleaning products. I have a growing unease about just how “friendly” those products are – and the difficulty in disposing of the packaging irritates me. So, I’ve begun to rediscover some of the old cleaning methods I used when we were to poor to buy the supermarket goodies and Mr T complained the bathroom cleaner made his asthma worse.  I’ve pulled a few old favourites out of my kitchen cupboard, white vinegar, bicarbonate of soda, citric acid, essential oils are all store cupboard essentials here, so why am I not putting them to better use?. My Nanna used to say that you could clean anything if you had enough elbow grease, and she’s right. All these modern cleaning aids, the air fresheners, the silicone polishes, the no rinse shower sprays etc. are meant to make the task of cleaning and maintaining a home easier and speedier. Do they?

A quick survey of the top shelf in my kitchen revealed a scary collection of sprays, creams, cleaners and scourers that I’ve accumulated over the years (does any home really need four  different kinds of leather cleaner / conditioner?)  we even have a bottle of carpet cleaner – even though we have no carpets – just wooden floors! Some of them haven’t been used for years and some of them don’t even contain their original products (the very expensive eco friendly widow spray I bought because it promised to smell of lavender, but didn’t) was soon refilled with my old favourite white vinegar and lavender essential oil, which does a better job). I’m ashamed to say I have a bookshelf full of books on natural home making, recipes for window cleaners, beeswax polish and advice on creating a natural home. They need to start making themselves useful and I’m determined to start mixing up a few chemistry experiments once we’re back from our summer holiday. I already make my own hand salves and lotions, and I will pour a spoonful of bicarbonate of soda onto a burnt pan to make it easier to clean (especially since we banned the plastic sponge scourers). So it shouldn’t be that hard to start whipping up a few cleaning and washing potions?

I want to rediscover the joy of stirring potions and making liquids turn to solids. Yesterday, I dusted off those books and began to make a list of all the things I need to buy (turns out not much) to make my own furniture polish, shower spray, floor cleaner and air fresheners. I’ll share the recipes and results here so you can join in too if you like.

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If you’re interested, some of the books on my shelf are: 1001 Country Househld Hints, Sloe Gin and Beeswax (definitely worth seeking out for the jam, cordial and cheese recipes and Pia Tryde’s lovely photography)  and Rachelle Blondell’s  collection of traditional recipes and remedies Forgotten Ways for Modern Days. You might also want to start hoarding your jam jars, glass bottles and empty spray bottles…

Photo credit: Brooke Lark

5 Plastic Free Shop Swaps

plastic free ocado shopBack in January I wrote a post complaining that shopping online was thwarting my attempts to reduce the amount of plastic coming into my home. Several people challenged me to “try harder” and so I’m pretty proud to say that our general household waste bin has only been emptied once since January and the plastics recycling bin has only been emptied twice. In fact, the straight to landfill  “black bin”, the one that just seems to be full of crisp packets, plastic bags from supermarket veg and non recyclable plastic trays was emptied by mistake – only half full, our local refuse collectors thought they were “doing me a favour” by coming down the drive and collecting it on Tuesday. They though we’d forgotten about it and acted out of kindness. So, now the black bin sits empty and I’m darn sure I’m going to do my best to keep it that way.

So, what are these simple steps I’ve discovered to maintain my addiction to a weekly online supermarket shop, but still cut my plastic? Here are my top five, in  no particular order.

  1. Choose cardboard over plastic food containers. Barilla pasta comes in cardboard packets, with no plastic liner. There’s a small cello window which can’t be recycled. But it’s easily removed before recycling or composting. I’ve also found several companies sell boxes of risotto rice, our favourite is Riso Gallo carnarolli, which is stocked by Ocado. Just by making these two simple swaps we’ve cut our plastic significantly.  (Gluten free foodies might be interested to know that the Barilla GF pasta is a pretty good substitute, especially for pasta bakes).
  2. Choose jars and tins over packets and pouches. Just about every pulse and vegetable is available in a can or a glass jar. We use lots of “ready to eat” chick peas, kidney beans and veg. Metal, like glass,  is easy to recycle. Look for olive oil in glass bottles instead of plastic and ditch that squeezy ketchup for a good old fashioned bottle ( a long handled spoon or a knife is great for scooping out the last dregs if you forget to store them upside down).
  3. Cardboard cotton buds. I know “that photo” of the seahorse wrapped around a cotton bud is hard to unsee, but it might surprise you that most of the big brands switched to cardboard cores for their cotton buds some time ago and they’re easy to find in most supermarkets. Remember to bin them (or chuck in the compost) – don’t flush them!
  4. Fruit and veg in plastic trays and poly bags are pretty hard to avoid if you shop online. But at least these organic tomatoes came in a cardboard tray that can be thrown in my compost bin or recycled – I know, the wrapper  is non recyclable in my area, but it’s one less black plastic food tray – so I’m calling that a win. In addition, the bunch of garlic came with a biodegradable label and tie.
  5. Not pictured here, but one of the easiest switches is possibly to ditch those plastic washing pods that laundry detergent manufacturers are so desperate for us all to buy. Like most of us, I was suckered into buying a box of “pods” when they were on special offer. They are very convenient, but I’ve switched back to a bulk box of non bio powder. The cardboard box is easy to compost or recycle. I don’t use fabric conditioner, so there’s been no need to look for an alternative to those plastic bottle or pouches.

These simple swaps have made a huge difference to our plastic waste and to be honest, we’ve not noticed a difference in our spending. We’ve also stopped buying liquid soap for guests. We use bars of “hard soap” and for visitors who don’t like the thought of sharing soap I’ve been refilling the old hand wash dispenser with a home  made version (I’ll share the recipe soon).

I’ve started making a note of the things we were already doing, and which have become second nature. I’m going to start sharing these more regularly.  It’s almost 10 years since the Guardian featured our “Green Lifestyle” . The simple steps we were taking then to reduce our energy consumption, use environmentally friendly cleaning products and cut our waste should have become the norm for all households. It’s a sad  fact that they haven’t. I want to write more posts about the changes we’ve made over the past 20 years, partly to celebrate our achievements, but also to show how easy it can be to shop and live more thoughtfully, yet with little effort. I’m pretty sure we’ve also saved money, but that’s hard to evaluate because I’ve always been parsimonious (posh speak for mean with my money!)

Manufacturers continue to bombard us with adverts for stuff we don’t need to solve problems we never really had in the first place. They play on our feelings of guilt and self esteem (smelly laundry? buy deodorising capsules. Embarassed by bad smells in the bathroom? Squirt your toilet bowl with special potions before you poop and emerge without a red face. And worried about nasty germs? Coat every surface in your house with antibacterial sprays). Just by refusing to buy into their marketing, you’ll save money and reduce your environmental impact.

It’s not easy, I know. But every step  is a step a step in the right direction.  My simple swaps are just the start. We’ve a long road ahead, but at least we’ve begun.

 

The Sound of Silence

squirrel.jpgToday I’m back at my desk after the UK Bank Holiday weekend. This year Mr T went away on a “boy’s jolly” to Scotland, and rather than inviting friends to stay or jaunting off, I decided to treat myself to a few days of solitary  peace and quiet here at home.

There is a certain self indulgent joy in choosing not to be social. I got up when the sun woke me, went to bed when I felt tired and spoke to no-one for two whole days. I didn’t find myself feeling lonely, there was enough activity in the garden to keep me entertained and apart from an indulgent session of trashy film watching on Saturday night I only listened to the radio in the mornings to catch the news headlines, and the TV stayed turned off. I chose not to join the Bank Holiday shoppers or duck and weave between families visiting the forest. I stayed in, pulling on my PJs and not washing my hair!

The silence gave me a chance to listen to myself, to think about how I spend my days and how much of the time is spent trying to please other people or conform to expectations. I relished not having to slap on the cover up that hides my skin rashes and redness (caused by the Lupus and which forces people to stare when I go out). I wandered around my house, touching favourite books, opening them, reading a few pages and then adding some of them to the ready to topple pile of “must re-reads” on my bedside table. I spent long hours in the garden. I weeded, transplanted seedlings and watered pots. I noticed the pesky squirrel who comes to my garden every day is a female. From the look of her, she’s recently given birth and she has a healed injury to her front arm. There is a fresh wound to one of her nipples and I worried that it might become infected, so for a few minutes,  I allowed her free access to the sunflower seeds in the bird feeder. Her survival skills made me feel like she’d earned a break and an easy feed! I wasn’t really alone because I has a garden full of birds, butterflies and bees. They paid no attention to me or to each other. I felt at ease, without the need to hold a conversation. It was enough to just sit and watch the world unfold in my garden

I didn’t feel at all lonely during my two days alone (and let’s remember, it was only two days). Maybe this is because I had chosen this time for myself, thinking of it as an indulgence. Sometimes, I am forced to remain home alone because of work commitments or ill health and on these occasions I often feel resentful and suffer that terrible feeling of missing out on “all” the fun everyone else is having. I found myself dwelling on the subtle difference between being alone and being lonely. I thought about my neighbour, long widowed, who spends many hours in her own company, but protests she never feels lonely or abandoned because she can choose where to go and who to see. This is a stark contrast to her days as a full time carer, when she was never able to go out on a whim – or hardly at all to be honest! Back then she was often sad. She would spend long hours weeding her front garden, cleaning the car or finding any number of reasons to potter about in the hope of a snatched conversation. Other neighbours would take time to stop, to chat, to allow her time to indulge in gossip and let her talk about nothing in particular. Let’s be honest, apart from snatched moments with her husband’s carers or a PPI telephone call, these were her only interactions and she needed more.

This weekend of self imposed “me time” was a treat, a much needed break and a chance to please myself. How would I cope if this was my “every day”? I’m not sure. But, I hope that if / when that day comes then I will have enough resilience to find my own way through the silence and to enjoy my own company …

…just so long as I have access to a window and a full bird feeder!

Why Am I Being Sold Solutions I Don’t Need to Problems I Don’t Have? (Answer – Guilt & Insecurity)!

washable make up remover padsI care what other people think about me. I know I shouldn’t, but there it is, I’m a sensitive soul. When my daughter was a toddler, I hosted a Mums and Toddlers coffee morning for my local NCT group. I happened to overhear an American “Mom” telling the lady sitting next to her that she had just used my bathroom “… and there was the most disgusting bar of soap” by the sink, she went on to lecture this other Mum about how “unhygenic” real soap is, that in the USA no self respecting Mother  would dream of offering such a dirty, germ infested thing to guests. Needless to say, my sensitive soul was mortified and I went straight out that afternoon and loaded up with liquid soap. Over the years I’ve tried organic, refillable, eco friendly versions, but always I had the same misgivings that I was buying a solution to a problem I didn’t have. I rebelled and went back to soap bars a couple of years later (there is still a bottle of liquid soap in my bathroom for those who wish to use it – it’s been standing there so long, the sun has bleached the contents and the once coloured liquid soap is now clear).

While it’s great that I’m making and using cotton wash cloths and make up removers instead of disposable cotton pads, their positive impact is lessened by all the disposable, non recyclable cr*p that fills my bin every week. The more I think about this incident, the more I begin to realise that my house is filled with stuff I don’t need need or never really wanted. How many of us have been sold washing liquid pods, microfibre cleaning cloths, bottled water, disposable everything in the name of convenience? Look at the contents of your fridge, tomato ketchup in squeezy plastic bottles (because it’s “so difficult” to turn a glass bottle upside down and bash out the last few dollops), milk in plastic containers instead of the once returned and re-used glass milk bottle because it’s so much more convenient to buy a bulk carton from the supermarket than have it delivered fresh every morning by the milk man.

Marketing companies are constantly on the look out for new improved ways to get us to part with our money and they are rarely eco – friendly. Now that you’ve ditched your disposable coffee cup, binned the bottled water, bought yourself a bamboo toothbrush and a stainless steel straw (all the “must haves” to display your earth friendly credentials these days), what do you do next?

I’m making a start by thinking about all those modern conveniences that supposedly make my life so much easier. The pump action cosmetic  bottles, the flip tops on shampoo, the plastic lined bags that I buy my ground coffee in are all on my hit list. For years we’ve been washing and re-using plastic food bags, take away containers and yoghurt pots, but eventually I’d like to stop  buying them completely (If I can just wean Mr T off his addiction to putting sandwiches in a plastic bag that would be a start). I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but I think that by asking myself “Will this purchase make my life easier in the long term”? I might be able to make a dent in all that packaging that fills my household rubbish bin.

All tips, ideas, suggestion to help me on my journey to a less complicated life welcome…

 

The Garden in Early May

I am pruning the Dogwood, well some if them at least. I like to leave some until after they flower, although I know  that if I cut them back now I can plunge the cuttings in the soil to make new plants and the remaining stems with be deep red next autumn. I juggle what I know to be “gardening lore”, with my gut instinct to enjoy what I have in the moment. The air is filled with the buzz and hum of insects. There are dozens of orange tip butterflies, I think they must have recently hatched as I’ve never seen so many in one day. They won’t sit still long enough to photograph, which is frustrating and doesn’t stop me trying (and failing). There are dozens of St Mark’s Flies (named because they allegedly hatch on St Marks Day, which is 25th April), they’re not the most glamorous pollinator in the garden, but they certainly are the most numerous!

Last week the farmer ploughed the field and sowed seeds, this week there are dozens of wood pigeons feasting on the fresh young tips of seedlings. They swoop and soar overhead, occasionally landing, picking the green tips from the soil. As I write this, I can see twenty or thirty of them, field walking like overly keen metal detectorists, their eyes scanning the ground as they avoid each other’s patch of earth.

apple blossom

The apple tree, planted as a pip over 20 years ago is heavy with pink blossom, I hope this means a good crop of apples. It only began to bear fruit a couple of years ago and to our delight the apples are sweet and edible! The tree has grown wild, never pruned it has begun to twist and turn, a few branches are starting to rub against each other and I have resolved to read up how best to care for it (probably too late, but in the spirit of “always learning” I shall borrow a book on fruit trees from the library or fall down a rabbit hole of internet research).

fresh green leaves.jpg

All our  trees have burst into life, even the hornbeam hedge is greening up. Every year it slowly progresses from left to right, the shady end always waiting until mid May before bursting into life.  The hazel trees should have been coppiced, but we forgot / didn’t get round to it / didn’t want to risk losing a nut crop and so they have been left to grow tall and spindly. Some of the  ones we have coppiced are now a mass of thick young stems, a green hedge, the branches we cut are supporting sweet peas and criss crossed over the veg patch to deter birds from early veg.

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The whole garden seems ripe with promise, the clematis montana has flowered, the aquilegia that self seeded every spare patch of earth are  bringing some much needed colour, this year we have deep crimson, a pale pink and the deepest purple. There is also a patch  with creamy petals with the palest pink tips which are yet to open. They will either be gorgeous or a sad disappointment. You never know what you’ll get with these self seeders (which of course is part of their appeal).

The past two weekends have been warm enough to sit out doors, which has annoyed the robin. He wants us to turn over the earth, revealing grubs and young slugs. Instead we sit drinking mugs of tea, or sipping wine. The grass needs to be mowed, slugs picked off young green plants, the last of the leeks have been left to seed. They look like the palest cream alliums and are so beautiful I always leave a few to go to seed. There air is filled with birdsong, and I can’t help being filled with joy and optimism every time I step outside – except of course the day after the slugs demolished my freshly planted lettuce – on those days even I struggle to love the pesky creatures!

The Undersong

35711401054_178e4796a5_cLost, forgotten words fascinate me. At university I took a course in dialect maps, tracing the origin and spread of local words around the counties of England. I had mentally collected lists of local words for  wild flowers for years as we moved around the country  and later  I collected words about the landscape and nature. My childhood fascination with collective nouns grew into a love of words that describe the landscape and it was at university that I first heard the word “murmuration”,  it remains one of my favourite words. After my last post about the things we don’t see, a follower reminded me of the books by Robert Macfarlane, he writes beautifully about words and landscapes and he’s definitely worth seeking out. “Landmarks” sits on my bedside table, it’s the book I open when I just need a few minutes to lose myself or need to decompress after a busy day, it’s filled with lists of lost words and descriptions of our landscape. Hard to categorise or describe – just find it and read it!

At the moment I am besotted with the word “undersong”, the subtle, underlying sounds of the landscape. As I sit at my desk I can hear the birds, often so loud they drown out the everyday sounds of home.  Mr T, who normally works from home has made a trip to his company office today, I miss the hum of his computers, the occasional ring that signals the start of a skype call, the huffing and ho hums as he scrolls through emails. His chair creaks as he pushes the wheels back and forth over the carpet and occasionally a tune will drift down the hallway as he plays music to calm and relax the stressful parts of his working day. This is my undersong, not the poetic things you imagined?

You were expecting me to write about the distant call of rooks, the grinding of a tractor as it ploughs the field, the lowing of cows, maybe the song of a blackbird? No, I hear all of these things of course. But underneath, in the background there are the sounds of life and community. The house sounds eerie and empty, so I step outside. Our new neighbours are renovating the house before they move in, for days (weeks), there have been builders calling to each other, scraping, sanding, fixing, painting. The “Hello there” of neighbours passing by – none of us can wait much longer for the big reveal – so we’re all being ultra friendly in the home of an invitation to peek indoors (I’ve already had mine!). A few doors down a dog yaps, excitedly greeting everyone who walks past; our regular postman waves  as he pushes envelopes through the door  and calls out – “parcel on the step Trace” – which means the arrival of more yarn or maybe bike parts. If I close my eyes, I know exactly where I am. I am home and feel grounded in my soundscape.

I’ve written a lot recently about the things I see, not so much about the sounds or smells that are familiar. Maybe it’s because Mr T isn’t here today that I’m more aware of the sounds that are missing, the sounds I didn’t even realise I heard.

The Wonder of Things You Never See

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The sky, this morning. Perfect blue and fluffy clouds!

How often do you stop and look up at the sky? While I was hanging out the washing today, I looked up and saw a perfect blue sky. Such a beautiful sight, but so often overlooked as we walk about, head down or looking at the road ahead. It seemed to be such a perfect moment, the farmer was busy ploughing the field that backs onto our garden, being followed by a flock of black headed gulls, swooping and calling as he turned over the earth. I ran inside to grab my camera, such a beautiful sky deserves to be remembered.

This morning I heard my first cuckoo of the year.  At first I thought I had misheard, but no, definitely a cuckoo. I’ve never seen one, I only recognise it’s song (actually, that’s not strictly true, we once watched a female blackbird trying to feed a cuckoo fledgling). Now that the cuckoo is back, it is definitely spring. We are woken every morning by the dawn chorus, I lie in bed listening to the blackbird, I know it’s him sitting high among the cherry blossom. I don’t need to see him, I know he’s there, competing with robins and sparrows to be heard.

I was walking on the edge of  Delamere Forest, one of the nicer parts, filled with native trees, not the tall, sparse Scots Pine. A robin was serenading me, a woodpecker was drilling, high in the trees. So many birds and yet I couldn’t see any of them. I felt sorry for the posse of young mums pushing their strollers, wrangling toddlers, too busy discussing haircuts and last night’s TV in shrill voices to notice the lone cherry tree covered in the deepest pink blossom (they walked straight past it, not even pausing or glancing in its direction), the runner plugged into head phones couldn’t hear the birdsong that made me stop in my tracks. He had no idea the smile on my face was because of that first cuckoo.

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Tiny thing on leaves – how often do we walk past without even seeing them?

I began to think about all the things we know are there, but hardly ever see. The tiny insects we miss, the first buds on the trees (one minute they are all bare branches, the next they’re bursting into leaf). I realised how many birds I recognise by their song or from the briefest of glimpses (a jay, swooping n front of me as I drove along a country lane, a kingfisher, spied from a bridge as we fed the ducks, listening to the song of a nightingale when were on holiday last summer).

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A small patch of bluebells by the edge of the car park.

I took my camera out, to try and capture the overlooked, the missed and the ignored. A few pretty snaps that capture just another spring day. Nothing special, no rare bird sightings or beautifully captured shots, just nature at her mundane best. These are the moments in my day that are special, only appreciated when you slow down, take time to listen and look for  the small things.

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Comma butterfly, sunning herself.

 

Housework Forever, Crochet Whenever

No, not a typo. I wanted to write in defence of home making. over on Facebook I get tagged in shared memes all the time. Mostly they’re the kind that say “Crochet comes before housework for a reason” or similar. Apparently all knitters, crocheters and crafters are meant to put making before everything else. Housework, cleaning, cooking etc are secondary. Think of that sign you so often see hanging on the wall “Boring women have tidy houses” – well I’m coming out of the closet and saying I’m proud to be tidy.

On one level, these memes, shabby chic placards and posters might raise a smile, but at the same time I can’t help feeling that they are undermining the joy of home making. I don’t mean we should all live in  the showy, pristine homes you see on Instagram or in magazines (the kind where all traces of family life are removed and houseplants are artfully arranged to tumble over perfectly colour co-ordinated book shelves), but the kind of home where you feel welcome and would happily curl up your feet on the sofa with a cuppa and maybe a slice of cake. The chaos of family life is wonderful, there’s no shame in piles of unread post on the coffee tables, tumbling mountains of shoes, hats, coats and bags in the hallway. It’s OK to have unwashed dishes in the sink or an unmade bed. But, if you’re like me and find yourself indulging in a bit of gentle tidying as you go about your day and are happy doing so, why should other people feel the need to use terms like “homemaker” or “housewife” to make us feel small?

I enjoy the rituals of home making, the weekly meander from room to room watering my houseplants. I have about 30 at the moment, scattered around the house, not arranged in any particular order. Some in pretty pots, others standing in margarine tubs. There are a few prize specimens, but mostly they’re a motley collection of things that caught my eye, cutting from friends or presents from Mr T. If you have houseplants, they need to be looked after and there is a satisfaction in keeping them healthy, watching them thrive.

The same with book shelves. I dust them – because who wants to pull down a grubby book from the shelf – I like my books to smell like books, not accumulated dust! Floors are swept, because who wants to walk over a dirty floor in bare feet? Not me. The bathroom is clean – not spotless – but if I’m relaxing in the bath I don’t want to be distracted by cobwebs or tide marks (although it’s worth noting that bathing by candlelight disguises said cobwebs quite effectively).

Does it make me less of a good mother because there were days when I ironed clothes, did laundry or cleaned windows instead of playing with my daughter? Am I less creative because I like to tidy my desk before I sit down to write? If you come to visit and are served fresh coffee and home made cake it’s because I took the time to indulge in the joy of making a home, take pride in my surroundings and get satisfaction from picking garden flowers and arranging them in vases. I used to enjoy the daily ritual of tidying away toddler toys, plumping cushions (yes, I am a cushion plumper too – and no apologies), once my daughter was in bed, sitting in a tidy room , eating a home cooked meal, maybe drinking a glass of home made sloe gin and watching “rubbish telly” felt like a small victory in a challenging day.

You can mock the home maker all you like, keep tagging me in those memes or finding other ways to make me feel small and undermined because I am a home maker. But I tell you, for every woman posting pictures of her carefully curated home, fermented kimchi, gorgeous new kitchen, vintage sourced taps or pristine “creative space”  on Instagram, there is another woman (or man) behind the scenes, dusting, polishing, doing dishes carefully going about the business of creating a home – either that or they live in a hermetically sealed box where no kid is allowed to play with the train set, no husband is allowed to make a midnight snack and no dog poops in the garden!

Living a slower, simple life is about choosing your own path. There is no right way to live, no perfect recipe for a less complicated life. But what I do know is this; being surrounded by the people you love, making them happy and being made to feel valued and cherished leads to a more fulfilling day. If my day involves a slow bit of dusting, sweeping the floor, cleaning or baking and your doesn’t, that’s OK.

 

Interior shot credit: NHillier

Houseplants: Eddie Garcia