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5 for 65

The lockdown has been a strange experience so far. While we are physically restricted to our homes, other things have been released. In our part of the heavily populated English midlands, I never expected the loudest noise around to be the birdsong. The air feels like spring water. The colours are brighter. The garden and the many lives in it can come out to play.

Because of the resurgence of interest in gardening, our tools have never been so popular. As we are a small business, this is challenging, all the way from production through to sending a trowel via Royal Mail (who also have never been so busy).

We are still here, though. If you place an order with us it will arrive. It just might take a little longer to reach you, that’s all.

I suspect the lockdown is giving us each a chance to look at where and who (or what) we are. This writing is about the ‘who’.

As I approach my 65th birthday, here are 5 things I’ve learned about being this age.

  • It’s ok to feel tired.

In the last couple of months, work has never been so busy. At times I have felt grindingly exhausted. I found myself wondering why I was so weary, wondering if I could manage. Was there something wrong with me? I could have easily handled this level of work 20 years ago.

It took a while for the penny to drop. My body is in its seventh decade! Give it a break!

  • Listen to your systems.

A graphic example. When a child says they feel sick, or they need the toilet, you know you have to respond quickly, preferably within seconds. Otherwise you will have to clear up the mess. When children are tired, they just stop. Adults can override those signals for much longer than a child can. We work through the tiredness, or nausea. We tell ourselves how long it is before we can go to the loo.

So, at this age, I have to learn when not to override the systems. I have to learn to listen. Otherwise I am a tyrant on my own body.

Another example: in my twenties I got out of breath running for a bus. Now I can run for a couple of miles – as long as I pace myself.

  • Play to your strengths.

Does experience make a difference? How would I have coped with this workload half a lifetime ago? I wouldn’t be so tired, but I would have been seriously stressed. I have different resources to call on now. I have a better idea of what is draining and what is energising. I am much better at listening to people, for example. I have come to the view that arguments are a waste of time and energy, so I try to find the points of agreement, so that we can find a way forward together. I am learning how to prioritise.

This also speaks of settlement to who I am and what I can contribute. Other people have different life experiences, and different strengths. I trust that they will cover the bases that I am clearly not equipped to cover.

  • No hurry.

I have learned that knee-jerk reactions are a bad idea. When a problem presents itself, I now sleep on it. I brew on it, because I know (from experience) that different departments in me work at different speeds. They will deliver their own responses in their own time. I wait until the issue has been viewed from enough angles for me to take a position about it. That way, I know there is less likelihood of getting sideswiped later by a consideration that hadn’t occurred to me.

  • Where is the love?

At school I was good at exams. I could learn all the useless rubbish and regurgitate it in a format acceptable to the examiners. I then forgot what I had memorised because it had served its purpose. At this age I can’t do that to myself any more. If something is not meaningful, I don’t want to do it.

I have to find the value in the things I do.  I want to be with what is precious, what is important. I want to find the nourishment in a garden, or a conversation. I want those things and people I love to flourish.

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Consider the coronavirus, part 1

I love the word ‘consider’. It comes from the latin con, meaning ‘with’ and sider -the stars. A good place to start for an overview, I feel.

For those of us who haven’t succumbed to the virus itself, it has had two major consequences. The first is that most of us are enclosed in our own homes and can only go out of our front door for essential reasons, such as shopping for food. The second is that when we venture outside our front door we must observe social distancing: two metres apart from any other human being. No personal contact with anyone other than those with whom we share our living space. If we live alone, we have physical contact with no other human being.

These are profound changes. The habits of the human race have had to take a handbrake turn in a matter of weeks. Our routines have been torn to shreds. The routine of getting up, getting ready for the day, going out to work. The routines of socialising: going out with others for something to eat or watching a performance together. All are gone. It is astounding that we have been able to even attempt this change in behaviour on such a scale.

I suspect that this, in part, is where the panic came from. For a start, there is the financial uncertainty: will I have a job to go to when this is all over? And in the meantime, how will I manage? The lives in us that are conditioned to such regularity must be shrieking: where is my certainty? What will I do?

The isolation in one’s own home has been, for the writer, quite strange. I would have thought that, with so few distractions, I would get on with all those projects I had been meaning to do. Instead, I have slept a lot. I have hardly read a book — and I tend to read a lot of books. It is as if the physical lockdown has corresponded with a mental one too. I have been forced indoors both physically and psychically.

And in the quiet of no aeroplanes, less traffic, less distraction, the being forced inwards, it is starting to dawn that something else can make itself known. I have been thinking about mealtimes, and putting more attention into preparing them. The garden is getting a lot of attention too. It is spring in the UK, and the birdsong is loud at this time of year. But this year it is dramatic.

In late March, just into the lockdown, I noticed the planet Venus each evening in the sky above our garden. It was very bright in the sky to the west. I followed it as it lined up with the new moon until it was in front of the Pleiades a couple of weeks later (which can be seen with good binoculars). A breathtaking sight. The Pleiades are on the edge of the constellation of Taurus. From the position of Venus I could work out that the Sun, which had just set over the horizon, was in Pisces. The full moon on the 7th of April was on the other side of the sky, so it was in the constellation of Virgo. But for me the amazing thing is, I could feel it. The world is quiet enough for me to feel this immense realm we are moving within.

Crescent moon and Venus, seen from our garden

It makes me wonder why astrologers (who would tell you that the Sun was in Aries and the moon was in Libra) stopped looking at the sky and relied on charts and tables. They only have to look upwards to see that their charts and tables do not match what is overhead, there to see. Are we now in the time for a new astrology? Can we look at the sky anew?

It is as if I have been forced to abandon the routines I have been trained into — worrying about money, or work, or any of the other things that used to fill my life — and in the quiet, other rhythms can make themselves known. Whereas the rhythms I was conditioned into have disappeared, these ones stretch from my garden to the solar system, to the stars and all that surrounds us. They have always been there, but in the short-wave noise of my daily life these subtler, long-wave frequencies were drowned out. The plants know about those rhythms and respond to them through the days and nights and seasons, but in the artificiality of my previous existence I had hardly registered them.

Which means a massive reprogramming. I can feel my systems almost going into shock at the very prospect. Can I trust this larger realm? Will I still be able to go to the supermarket for supplies, and will I be able to pay for them? And again, how will I manage?

In this context, the social distancing requirement is a bit spooky. Our body’s electromagnetic field, our personal space, stretches about a metre out. This requirement means an almost monastic seclusion within our own aura space. Which is just what is needed if we are being reprogrammed.

There is a serious quality to this reprogramming. It gives me a chance to see and value the place where I live, to sense the many stories going on here, from the wildlife to the trees and plants as they respond to the days and nights and the season. From that location in myself I can start to perceive the larger realm we all move within. And this is real, in a way that the distractions that used to fill my life were not. I feel more grounded, more located, than I ever have been in my life.

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The holiday is over

Who would have imagined, in December 2019, that we would witness the collapse of the holiday industry a few months later. In 2020 we can’t even go out for a day trip, let alone a holiday in another region or country.

Which prompted a ponder: why do people go on holiday? No other tribe on planet Earth does. Some creatures migrate, but none of them go away from their home environment for a few days or weeks, just for a change of scene. Historically speaking, it’s a recent phenomenon for humans, too:

“A wealthy man in ancient Egypt would never have dreamed of solving a relationship crisis by taking his wife on holiday to Babylon. Instead, he might have built for her the sumptuous tomb she had always wanted.” (‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari, p130)

Wealthy young Englishmen of the 17th and 18th centuries didn’t build tombs. They took the Grand Tour. They boarded the ferry at Dover, crossed the Channel to France, made their way to Paris, then on to Italy, where Venice, Florence and Rome were popular destinations. Along the way they learned new skills such as fencing and dancing, looked at ancient ruins, studied works of art, fell in love. Then they travelled back home and redesigned their homes and gardens based on what they had seen and learned.

Tourists at the Pantheon in Rome

For them, the trip was ostensibly to round off their education before they settled down to the duties that awaited them back home. In the following century, the educational holiday became available to the less well-off too, through the work of entrepreneurs such as Thomas Cook.

Seaside holidays started for medicinal reasons. The Prince of Wales, who later became King George IV, suffered from gout. In 1783 his doctor recommended fresh air and seawater as a cure, so he rented a farmhouse by the south coast (which became the Brighton pavilion). As the prince was the style influencer of his time, the concept of trips to the seaside became popular.

As the fashion caught on, a problem became evident. How to change into one’s bathing suit without compromising one’s modesty? Enter the bathing machine. By 1800 there were about 30 bathing machines on the beach at Weymouth, the preferred seaside resort of the Prince of Wales’ father, King George III.

Then, during the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, the necessity of closing down the mills and factories once a year for maintenance was turned into an opportunity to send the workers for a refreshing and restorative week at the seaside. Each factory chose a different week, and laid on transport for the trip to Blackpool and other towns along the coast. ‘Wakes Week’ became ‘Factory Fortnight’ as the holiday period was extended from one week to two.

In the UK we talk of going away on our holidays. The word derives from ‘holy days’, the days in the calendar which were marked as religious festivals and the people were exempt from work so that they could go to church. The US word ‘vacation’ derives from the French ‘vacances’. The original meaning of this word was more like ‘vacancy’, as in job vacancy: something being unoccupied. Again, it meant that people were released from their usual chores. Both words, holiday and vacation, kept these meanings until those wealthy young men started travelling to Europe in the seventeenth century.

So far this tells us two things. First, that the idea of travelling for pleasure is just over three hundred years old, and second, that it resulted from searching for something that the home environment could not provide, be it education or healing.

Our holidays became a highlight of our lives. It was a major discussion topic at work, with questions like, ‘Are you going away this weekend?’ or ‘Have you booked your holidays yet?’. My childhood photos were mainly taken away on holiday. Almost the last thing an elderly family member said before he died was, ‘We had some good holidays, didn’t we.’

Then it all went exponential. Package holidays, cheap flights, cruises … the planet became a playground. Long-distance travel became affordable. It was cheaper for myself and my partner to fly to the south of Spain than take the train to many parts of the UK. People who did not have the means to buy a home could easily afford to spend a weekend in Barcelona or Amsterdam or Prague. For their grandparents it was the other way round: fifty years ago, putting down a deposit for a house was a priority but overseas travel was beyond the means of most. Within the last twenty years, ease of travel reached the point where many of us would fly to a beach on the other side of the world for a week or two. Some places became overloaded and had to restrict visitors. The Faeroe Islands decided to exclude visitors for a period each year, to let the place recover.

And in early 2020 the party was over. We all had to get used to being at home.

Where are we now? Is this time an opportunity to re-evaluate the place where we live, to find sustenance at home rather than waiting 50 weeks for the two weeks by the sea in Bali, or Turkey, or Spain? Will the skies again be crowded with contrails once the current restrictions are lifted? There is a part of me that hopes not, I confess. The part that looks with new eyes at the place where I live, that sees it changing each day as more spring flowers appear. The part that sees people smiling as they take a walk. The part that sees the walkers greeting each other across the road because the traffic no longer drowns out their words.

I suspect there is a restlessness that is hard-wired into the human. We are the species that galloped around the globe within a few millennia of leaving Africa. We settled on every available piece of land, every inhabitable island. One of the last was New Zealand, which the Maoris reached in the 14th century. Then the Europeans got there a few centuries later.

I wonder what we’re going to do with that restlessness now.

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Compost contemplations

Like many organic gardeners, I am fascinated by compost. I know – it’s a bit weird, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. I love to witness the alchemy as my kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, cardboard and other unwanted items are transformed into a rich, chocolate-brown growing medium. It’s extraordinary.

On the right is the compost bin which has just been closed off, and on the left the one which has rested over the winter. A delivery company gave us the wooden frames, which stack on top of each other.

But it does take time to get decent compost. My first attempts, several years ago, resulted in a soggy green mess. I suspect the microorganisms have to build up. So I try to pass on the connection from an old bin to the next one, by layering the base of the new bin with twigs that didn’t break down in the last one.

Into the new bin I put kitchen scraps (potato peelings, tops of leeks and any other vegetable matter), coffee grounds, eggshells, cardboard (with any plastic tape removed), wood ash, weeds and trimmings from the garden. And lawn clippings. I try to spread each layer over the whole of the bin so that it doesn’t form a lump – and that’s it. I leave it to work its wonders.

This bin has been resting over the winter. Yesterday, I took off the two top layers of the wooden frame, and with my Libra shovel, started to dig the compost out. It was a bit soggy, which was either because of the very wet winter or because the frames did not allow enough air in. Previously I have made the bins out of pallets, which look less tidy but let more air through. It was beautiful compost, though – rich, dark and crumbly.

Then I barrowed it to the raised bed, tipped it into the frame, then raked it out and firmed it down with my Perseus Rake. I’ll transplant seedlings into this bed, so I don’t mind the odd twig or lump. If it was for seeds I would use a riddle to get the soil to a finer tilth.

What magic!

The two frames I lifted off the old compost bin are already in position for the next one. Here it is, with a base layer of twigs and the first set of lawn clippings (which will be spread out over the whole bin).

Things I don’t put into the compost bin: teabags (they have nylon and don’t break down), cooked food or meat. Chicken poo or other animal manure is brilliant if you keep hens – but we have none. I tried to persuade my partner to wee on the heap (urine is a good compost activator) but he felt that was a request too far.

There are many variations to compost making. Some use the quick return method, developed by Maye Bruce. Others make hot bins, which heat up and also work fast. Biodynamic gardeners add preparations to aid the development of the compost. Then there is the question of whether or not to turn your compost. I confess that I don’t. I leave those microrganisms to get on with it. For a thorough overview of compost making, Charles Dowding’s website is a good place to start.

A bonus (for me, anyway) with my home-made compost is the weeds. Because I throw seed heads into the bin, aquilegia, Jacob’s Ladder and other garden flowers appear in my vegetable beds where the compost has been spread. When I see them, I transplant them to the flower beds. And American Land Cress pops up regularly, which pleases me a great deal, because it provides winter salad leaves when there is not much else around.

A final contemplation. One of the aspects of compost-making that appeals to me is the containment. The leek tops and other bits of vegetables discarded before cooking, the cuttings and clippings from the garden all go back into the cycle. Biodynamic gardeners have a concept of the garden (or piece of land you are working) as a single entity, an organism. That concept resonates with me. If it is right, then could it be that the return of organic matter helps the garden to know itself? Although the seasons come round every year, each time they are different. Everything moves on. After all, our home planet moves in a spiral, not a circle. Does this continuity add to the story your garden tells itself?

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What can a garden be?

This post is a ponder about what a garden can be – for us, and for the other inhabitants of planet Earth that live in the area. This is a big and sometimes controversial subject, so please take this writing as exploration rather than answers. All discussion that opens up the area further is welcome.

The word ‘garden’ originally meant ‘enclosure‘ and shares its origin with ‘yard’, ‘orchard’ and ‘garth’, among other words. The first recorded garden is probably the Garden of Eden, which from the description in the book of Genesis was just that: an enclosed space. Into such an enclosed space selected plants (and sometimes animals) were brought, maybe from the local area, maybe further afield. It puts me in mind of the images of Persian gardens one sees depicted in carpets and paintings.

Lightly skipping over 3000+ years of human history, it is clear we are in a different world now. Those original gardens were for a select few, the elite, and now most people have gardens to be in and engage with, including you and me. Our gardens, private and public, take up a lot of space. There are few wild places left. This means that our gardens have a new job to do.

There may be some clues as to a way forward in the rewilding movement. In several crowded and not-so-crowded countries, large tracts of land have been allowed to revert. A famous instance in the UK is the Knepp estate in Sussex. 3500 acres of marginal farmland have gone back to scrubland, with fascinating consequences. Birds, bats and insects, not heard or seen for a generation or more have come back of their own accord. Interactions and intricacies of interdependence in the ecosystem have been understood. It is an inspiring story, not least because the land is still productive, but in a way which does not involve eradicating whatever is deemed not to fit.

What is possible depends on the size of the piece of land. On a larger scale than Knepp, at Yellowstone Park in the US, wolves were reintroduced a few years ago. The effects rippled down through the whole ecosystem. The wolves ate the elk, which soon learned to avoid areas where they would be vulnerable. Those areas regenerated, as the vegetation was able to grow back. The willow trees came back and with them the beavers. The beavers’ dams provided more pools in the rivers: more space for the fish. And so the effects cascade through the system.

Can what has been learned in such large spaces be applied to our gardens? My suspicion is, yes in principle. One principle being that Mother Nature has a good track record of looking after her own affairs if we don’t get in the way too much. There is no need to plant native trees on reclaimed land, for example, at least in the UK. Don’t mow it for a few years and the trees will plant themselves. So, note to self: don’t micro-manage.

Another principle for me is that I am custodian of the garden, not its owner. Other species: birds, rodents, rabbits and insects also have their part to play. Leave them to get on with it. Again, don’t micro-manage. Leave the seed heads on the plants over the winter. Better than a birdfeeder!

Thirdly, my needs are valid too. I’ll still cut the hedges, for two reasons. First, the large herbivores that would browse on their leaves haven’t been around here for a long time. Our garden is not on the scale of Knepp or Yellowstone, so I will have to fill that gap, do the job those animals would do if they were here. The second reason for clipping the hedge is that I have my own notions of what is attractive. And a clipped hedge provides a great background for a small garden like ours. I’ll do it when the birds aren’t nesting in it, however.

So, because our world is so crowded, our gardens have become a valuable resource. This presents opportunities for new learning, new understandings of the delicate interactions that we have blithely blundered through for so long. I’m sure we’ll all get on fine in the new regime.

However, there are some adjustments to be made.

For example, there is a big discussion going on in the rewilding world about whether to eradicate non-native species. This is a complete about-turn from the views of gardeners a century, or even a few decades ago. For Victorian gardeners, a garden was a showcase for exotic species. Our garden centres and seed catalogues offer us plants from all over the world, descendants of those brought back by plant-hunters from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Tulips and snowdrops from Turkey, peonies from China, fuchsias from South America: the list is endless. And as for vegetables: potatoes, runner beans and tomatoes from south America, carrots and onions from Asia .. clearly some perspective is needed here.

Here is a comma butterfly feeding on the aster flowering in our garden a few weeks ago, in October. Aster is native to North America – but I don’t think the butterflies and the bees were concerned about that. So I won’t worry about it either. I won’t eradicate human-introduced species for the sake of it, because I have noticed that Nature is pretty robust and adaptable. Having said that, however, I’ll think carefully before introducing anything from outside into the garden from now on. I’ll try to check beforehand, in whatever way I can, with the non-human residents. I’ll also set aside spaces for the vegetable beds, cut most of the lawn and pull back whatever gets in the way. I live here too, after all.

In the end, for me what counts is the love. Do I love this space, do I want it to thrive? What does it call for?

For more about garden-scale rewilding, here is Mary Reynolds’ website: http://wearetheark.org/

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The statuette’s story

Bronze figurine, Ashmolean Museum

Yesterday we visited the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The Ancient Cyprus section was lovely – soft and gentle. I was drawn to a small figurine in a case in the corner. This is what it said to me.

“The men go into the ground, following the seams of green stone. With stone hammers they break up the seams to remove the lumps of rock. Sometimes they come across a nugget of pure copper: solidified strands of tangled pink metal. These they keep. They put the lumps of rock into baskets which they bring to the surface.

Back at the surface, the green stone is crushed and then heated over fires. The heat releases the liquid pink metal which is then poured into oxhide-shaped ingots. Oxhide-shaped in recognition of the time of Taurus, recently passed, when this activity began.

When the men have come out, it is the women’s turn. I do not know if the figurine was made by a man or a woman, but it is the women who take it back into the chambers recently cleared by the men. The women come with value and respect for what has been given by the Earth. They give back something of their own making, in order to reset the balance. A bronze figurine, standing on an oxhide ingot, naked, not hidden, her hair braided, her neck adorned with a precious necklace. They place the figurine in a safe place where the green stone has been removed. They bring food and have a party, a feast. Because of their genuine value and gratitude for the gift from the Earth, the rift is healed. All parties benefit.”

P.S. I have no idea if this is factually accurate. I am sure the humans living in Cyprus over 3000 years ago had their problems. However, I am also sure that living with the consequences of damage to the earth from industrialised extraction of minerals was not one of them. If they travelled to our time and saw the gaping holes that we have made in the ground, I have no doubt they would find such behaviour difficult to comprehend.

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Tamworth pigs, public footpaths and ploughing

Image from https://www.southeastfarmer.net/section/news/safaris-booming-on-farming-estate

The newly-released Tamworth pigs, two abreast, “unzipped the turf down the public footpaths, following the exact routes on the Ordnance Survey map, heading diagonally across the fields. We realized that what they were doing, with the undeviating propulsion of slow-motion torpedoes, was zeroing in on all areas of the park that had never been ploughed – margins rich in invertebrates, rhizomes and flora. In the first few days of their release the pigs drew an accurate blueprint of what modern farming had done to our soil.” ( page 110 of ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree, Picador 2018)

‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree is an inspiring account of an experiment to return marginal land, ill-suited to intensive agriculture, back to the rhythms of nature. As well as leaving the land to regenerate, they reintroduced grazing, browsing and rootling animals – the last being some Tamworth pigs.

The man who inspired our tools, Viktor Schauberger, had a horror of what modern ploughing was doing to the land. At the time, he could not imagine cultivation without ploughing, so he searched for an alternative, less destructive material to make the plough, and came up with copper. Subsequent field trials bore him out. The crops were healthier in areas cultivated with the copper-plated plough.

Times have moved on, and we are rethinking our relationship with the land. We know that the use of chemicals has long-term unintended consequences. Organic growing is becoming mainstream; it is hard to remember how it was seen as eccentric and unrealistic a generation ago. No-dig gardening does not disturb the life of the soil. No-till farming is proving its value. Bronze garden tools, the inheritors of Viktor Schauberger’s vision, share their sentiment of working with nature rather than against it.

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End of a chapter

Today, using my Mira Trowel, I harvested the onions from the new raised bed.

The frame of the bed was laid on the lawn last August, then the grass was covered with cardboard and the frame filled with about four inches of home-made compost. In September the onion set was planted.

The boiler room now has a decidedly oniony aroma. And I have transpanted some calabrese seedlings to where the onions were.

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Gravity assisted

Endorsement from customer David, a health professional. He uses the Atlas Pick, but the reasoning he gives is also valid for the Sirius Hoe, Pegasus Pick, Merak Drag Fork and Tuza Mattock.

If you have navigated to implementations then you are looking at purchasing high quality gardening hand tools. Each tool is manufactured and designed so that it is more efficient when working resulting in being able to do more but at the same time reduce the stresses placed on the body. This stress is often the cause of pain particularly lower back. Pain from gardening is something that takes the pleasure out of something that you take great pleasure from.

Why, because tools such as the Atlas Pick are ergonomically designed better for their particular purpose. They rely on a swing action with gravity to assist. The long shafts improve efficiency of the tool with added leverage whilst working in an upright posture. Next a pulling action using again the upper body. It is a natural fluid motion. The bronze heads and shaped ash handles are forgiving and absorb energy when working.

In contrast consider using a spade. One uses body weight to penetrate the soil, this places more loading of the spine on the left or right side which can expose back issues. Then one levers away from the body often lifting the soil at the same time. This motion is not fluid or natural and places greater strain on the lower back, this is made worse by the short shaft which necessitates one to bend the back. The back is vulnerable when  loading whilst bent but add a little rotation whilst bending over and one increases this vulnerability further.

One has to use the PKS bronze tool in a different way to the conventional British tools but when one has mastered its correct use you will wonder why the tools developed for gardening use in the UK ever became the standard. It does not make sense to continue using tools that take more energy to use and can cause pain and injury.

Why use tools that can reduce the pleasure you get out of something you love. Buying a gravity-assisted tool will not be a decision that you will regret.