Monday, 25 May 2009

A new life


Michael, my daughter's first baby; born on the afternoon of May 22nd.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Wild garlic in the woods


Finding the cash to go Green

Here's a thought. See what you think.

If I had the means and the skills to do so, I would install solar panels, a windmill and a compost toilet to the place where I live. The only electricity I personally require is the means to charge my notebook and mobile phone. The only water I personally require is a standpipe or wild source (unlikely in the UK) of clean (uncontaminated) water.

My heart and soul are for the environment, and I have spent a long time getting my life worked round to the place of simplicity where I can walk the talk.

I don't run a car now, and my life is a very small, local, low-cost affair (a love affair - with the Earth).

There are still things I have to work on. I mostly shop on ebay, but occasionally in chain stores for cheap clothes. My aim for the next year is to make the change to buying groceries from small independent local traders with a low carbon footprint - the street market especially: no shop fittings, no electric tills, lights etc. Connected with that is my aim to work on reducing packaging waste: buying food in a basic state, sold in brown paper bags or one-skin plastic bags, instead of plastic boxes overwrapped with plastic shrink-wrap and sometimes cardboard sleeves as well.

One issue I have to think about here is the meat-eating versus vegetarian thing. Vegetarian food is often very processed and heavily packaged, and transported from manufacturing bases elsewhere: so its processing for retail must have a considerable carbon footprint. Aylesbury (where I live) is traditionally a farming area, so meat, milk and eggs are readily sourced locally, supporting the local economy, working with traditional skills still in place, and generating less packing and transportation.

I do know, though, that eating food made from animals (meat, eggs and dairy) is very heavy on grain and water usage, and creates considerable pollution. It matters to me to source compassionately farmed food. I accept that unless they were farmed for our food, the animals would never have lived at all - but I believe most passionately that they should be able to trust us to provide them with an enviromnent that allows for their nature to be expressed - stimulus and variety and the opportunity to live in flocks and herds and raise their own young, as well as enough of the right kind of food, water and shelter for their health and wellbeing.

At the moment on balance I am thinking to move in the direction of locally sourced food, in the most basic form, with the least packaging from the simplest trader outlet, involving the least transportation and least animal suffering. I think I have to change from canned pulses to dried - a change I am reluctant to make, because the dried ones never come up as soft and tasty as the tinned ones - but, hey.

Anyway, that wasn't my thought, that was a digression.

I wanted to say, I think there are many people like me who are prepared to commit really properly to living green. Some of them are rich and powerful, or are very skilled, so can make big changes (like the Prince of Wales), making sure their homes are designed, built and run in harmony with the environment, and their mode of transport has a small carbon footprint. That, incidentally, means the transport that services their lives, not just the vehicles they travel in. If we don't run a car but buy all our veggies imported, we still have a hell of a carbon footprint.

But many of the people who chose to live really green have very little money. Often they live in urban settings, where they can get a job (which they need), while running no car, living simply, having access to a wholefood outlet and stores that sell Green goods.

These people, the ones who have little money but still make lifestyle changes, even if they save up often can't afford the big things: installation of a big enough rainwater tank under their garden, solar panels and windmills on their roofs, double glazing, and compost toilets. The new government grants for roof and wall insulation are very helpful, of course, though (in my experience) very hard to access - we tried a lot, but gave up in the end and just paid for and installed our own.

I think there will also be in our society a great many people who have a conscience about the environment, but have a visceral aversion to the idea of using compost toilets, and can't be bothered with catching rainwater and sunshine and wind. There will be many people who want to go on driving gas-heavy cars and using masses of electrical gadgets, and shopping in the mall, and going on holiday in aeroplanes - but feel guilty, and would like to make some kind of Green effort as well.

And my thought was this: I wonder if we could hook up the two groups of people somehow?

I mean, if Family A would use a compost loo if only they could afford to install one, and Family B thinks compost loos are disgusting but has lots of money and a bad conscience about water use and the environment; might not Family B be prepared to finance Family A's loo, so that between them one family converts from a water closet to a compost loo?

Or if there is a rich businessman who cares about the Earth, but whose wife (who runs their household) thinks Green initiatives are for cranks, and has everything from a coffee-machine through a bread-machine, and icecream-machine, a tumble-dryer and all the rest; might not the man be pleased to fund a solar panel for a person who lived simply - in a mobile home, say, and could cover most of their electrical needs that way?

Or if there is a business company, flying executives round the world, running a fleet of leased cars for their employees, working in an articially lit office and running computers and all the related gizmos all day long - might they not be pleased to club together to fund one family to have a rainwater tank, or a solar panel, or a windmill?

Or might not a church be pleased to sponsor a family to adopt an Earth-friendly initiative like that? Maybe in a big church with a good age range, some would have the skills, and some would have the money, to create green roofs (maybe on the garden sheds if not the houses) of church members who hadn't got the skills or the money.

I think there are many people who would live Greener than they do if they could afford to. Especially, this is because many poor people live in towns, where household overheads are lower, so they can't just adopt a bucket-and-chuck-it compost loo, or cook over an open fire, as they might if they could afford to live in the country: they have to have the proper installations. And I think that many people who are wealthy enough to live Green are too entangled in the brambles of getting and maintaining wealth to take on board the complexity of going Green.

But I think if you put the two together, the rich people may well be prepared to finance the consciences of the poor - after all, that's what the rich countries always want to do in the big eco-summits.

The 'send-a-cow' and 'good gifts' initiatives to help people overseas seem popular, especially among older people who are happy to receive them in lieu of gifts, as their shelves and cupboards are full up of things acquired over a lifetime, and they are more into down-sizing than building up. This could work in a similar way, but for people in their own country.

What do you think? Would it work? How could we organise it? I don't think it should be set up as a charity or government project, because the administrative and regulatory systems associated with those are so monolithic.

I wonder if we could dream this into being.... If we can, please may I put up my hand for a green roof, a compost loo and a solar panel!

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A tree family




The first child of my daughter Grace will be born any day now.


I am thinking about birth and death, about being born, growing up, growing old.


Yesterday I was at Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire, where I met this family of hawthorn trees that offered such resonance for me of the place I stand in this moment.


There was a grandmother tree, finished now for growing the new - a crone tree. She was old and sere, but still when I climbed up the bank of earth using her roots as a stairway, they were resilient and trustworthy; they didn't break or snap. They bore my weight and didn't let me down.


That was some root system the grandmother had. The trees were growing on the banks of a river full from the spring rains. The shores of the river showed signs of previous floods and torrents. The banks had been eroded, washed away in times of flood, leaving the roots of the grandmother tree all exposed. Maybe it was the repeated battering of floods that had taken her life in the end. Even so, she still stood firm, holding in place the earth where the mother tree and the child tree were growing.


Next to the grandmother tree was a mother tree. She had white blossom in her hair, like a bride. She grew at a little distance from the grandmother tree, but still within the shelter of that sturdy root system. One of the roots encircled her loosely. She had loads of space of her own to grow, but she was growing up within the circle of that tough root like an arm around her.


Beneath the protection of the mother tree's branches, at a little distance again, grew a tiny new child tree: a hawthorn baby, just starting out.


For a little while I sat in the place where floods had swept away the sustaining earth, leaving the grandmother tree all exposed, with not enough to live on, but still keeping things together for the mother and child growing under the spread of her branches. That tree had made herself entirely into a shelter, for every living thing that came her way.


I think that old tree was not a hawthorn: but she was a shelter; she was a grandmother.

Sitting with the grandmother, mother and child


The hawthorn's child


Thursday, 7 May 2009

You see this person?


You see this person?


I really, really love this person.


This is a special thing, to share this picture with you: because this person is precious to me.


Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Mary Gott and her family


Mary Gott, my great-great-grandmother, with her daughters. My great-grand-mother (Nellie) is sitting next to her.

Nellie Thornton and her sisters


My great-grandmother, Louisa Ellen Hird (née Thornton), stands here at the front of the line of the Thornton sisters.

Strong women



My great-grandfather, James Hird, started and ran a village shop in North Yorkshire. His trade background was with the Co-op, and he brought with him the Co-op ways of thinking, that worked for the well-being of customers and employees as well as shop-keepers. He was a thinking man with a vision for a fair and humane society. My great-grandmother, Nellie Hird (born Louisa Ellen Thornton; daughter of Mary Thornton, née Gott) worked alongside him in the establishment and running of the shop. She kept the accounts for the shop, and was also responsible for their household economy. At one point they were investigated by the Inland Revenue because the tax inspector didn’t see how they could run their home on so little money.

Before Nellie married she had worked in Bradford as a cloth designer. She and her sisters were artistic, capable, practical, intelligent, imaginative women. They made beautiful clothes and painted very good water-colours; they designed and stitched lovely tapestries. I remember Nellie’s garden, which was her pride and joy. For some years I kept a book she gave me when I was ten – The Law of The Rhythmic Breath – a book about Hindu breathing exercises; which indicates something of the breadth of her mind and her high regard for the intellectual capacity of children. Even as a widow in her nineties, Nellie continued each week to cook herself a roast dinner (and then frugally eke out the meat in cold cuts and shepherds pies) and bake a Victoria sponge. She believed in home cooking, and she thought she was worth it. She died when I was thirteen, and I still have her commonplace book. I learned to write in copperplate handwriting, so I could follow on from the entries she had made – which in the main were poems and sayings exhorting and reminding of the value of a good attitude and positive spirit.

A vigorous, determined, kind, wise, fierce, tough, positive woman, I think it should be mentioned that an achievement of which Nellie was especially proud was staying supple enough into her nineties to lift her feet into the water of the washbasin.

Nellie and James had two children – Philip and Kitty (Kathleen). Kitty married Charles Turton, a very resourceful man. Charles was the son of a mother of harsh and zealous religion, and she instilled into him a certain hardness of attitude, which manifested in self-discipline and determination, but also in a certain personal coldness at times. Though he had this quality of aloofness and was not, I understand, the easiest man to live with, he was fair and generous – a good man. On the wall of his house he kept a framed motto: Help thou thy brother’s boat across; and lo! thine own has touched the shore. And in the course of his life he did indeed through his own unremitting hard work raise the funds for his brothers to take their families to start a new life in Canada.

Charles was raised in a poor family; but he had aspirations. He started by renting a field in which he sowed peas. He left his father to tend the field, while he himself went to work on the cruise ships Mauritania and Aquitania as a silver-service waiter. Then he came back and harvested the peas, sold them, and with the proceeds rented two fields the following year, in which he sowed more peas. In not too many years, he had acquired a familiarity with the manners and requisites of fine dining in high society, earned a lot of money, bought a farm and a handful of other houses, and become probably the richest man in his village.

Kitty, my grandmother, worked alongside him in the farm office, keeping the books.

They had four children: Jeff, Mary, Jean and Jessie. Mary is my mother, and her memories of growing up on the farm (and summer holiday visits spent rambling happily about on that farm and the surrounding countryside) have shaped my concept of what life should be.

My mother was born in 1937, at a time when we are encouraged to imagine women were disenfranchised and excluded from the workplace: but the contribution of women in traditional society was very vivid in her experience.

Nellie’s background as a textile designer added flair to the practical skills and abilities that were taken for granted. Nellie and her sisters had hat blocks at home and were skilled milliners, for example. Once married, they didn’t go out to work for a wage so they could pay for a hat made by other women who worked for a wage in a hat factory – but why would they when they made their own? Nor did they go to the jewellers and pay for the services of a beautician to pierce their ears: they did it themselves at home with a needle and a cork, and a sock stuffed in their mouths to stop them screaming!

When anyone in the family had a baby, Aunt Jessie – one of Nellie’s unmarried sisters – would move in for a while to take over the household tasks. Aunt Pat was a teacher. My mother remembers going to stay with Aunt Kate and Uncle Hubert – an exotic household where wide-eyed little Mary marvelled that they sometimes ate cake for breakfast! One of Uncle Hubert’s habits was of keeping a sharp eye out when he went out for a walk, for dropped handkerchiefs. He’d bring them home for Aunt Kate. Hearing this as I child, I thought it a wonderful idea – and from childhood still to this day I do the same (except I have to be Aunt Kate as well as Uncle Hubert in this enterprise).

The farm where Mary (my mother) grew up was alive with people. Every year my grandfather would go to the labour market to choose his work-force for the coming year, and during the war his farm labourers included prisoners of war. My mother was curious to meet them – wondered what they would be like, these Germans! It was a formative insight when she, a child looking on, realised that the enemy was – just like us!

On the farms in those days, the women managed the dairy and the poultry, and the garden, while the menfolk took care of the fields of grain and beet and beans.

While Kitty was busy running the farm office, the household was run by Suzy, a woman from the village, who became in effect a member of the family. She raised the children, and did all the housework, and my mother loved her dearly. Time spent in Yorkshire in my childhood always included a visit to Suzy and George’s small redbrick cottage: I loved the simple living room, with its low ceiling and huge kitchen range; the couch drawn up before the fire, a home-made rag rug before the hearth, everything homely and welcoming.

Those were the days before ensuite bathrooms – or even indoor toilets. The family were the proud owners of a very upmarket privy; a two-seater, no less! But Yorkshire is cold, and the privy was for the movement of the bowels only. For passing urine, everyone had chamber-pots: and emptying the chamberpots from the bedside nightstands each morning was Suzy’s job. Suzy cleaned all the windows every week. Suzy scrubbed the floors and cooked the pies. And she was beloved. And she was dignified: in that culture, manual work was not demeaning.

My mother grew up wandering happily around the farm. Self-reliant and independent; as a little tot, if she wet her knickers she took them off and buried them; earning the affectionate epithet ‘Dirty Blossom’ from Aunt Jessie when she came to help in the house.

Himsworth Farm, where my mother grew up, was a mixed farm. I remember from my own childhood the bullocks standing patiently at the field gate beside the barn, their breath in clouds of steam on the frosty air. Big vats of potatoes were boiled up for the pigs, and my mother as a child used to sit on the stone steps of one of the brick farm buildings, eating pig potatoes with a sprinkle of salt and a dab of butter – and ‘pig potatoes’, boiled in their skins and seasoned with salt and butter, became one of the delights of my own childhood.

My mother learned from her mother and grandmother about household economy – how to make the budget stretch to miracles. She learned from her father, who had inched his way up from a rented field of peas to his own farm, how precious is the land, and how dearly prized the chance to ‘own’ a piece of it. She saw how men and women worked together as a team to create stability and prosperity: a marriage that was a firm as well as a personal relationship. That team was the core of prosperity, and generated trade relationships; and work, shelter and belonging for a whole tribe of relatives, employees. It gave people a place in the world, meaningful work and productive lives. It made people capable and resourceful, and gave them a sense of purpose.

Once, as a girl, my mother grumbled about all the work to be done – and my grandmother turned to her in some amazement saying, ‘But what would we do, without work?’

Work meant contentment, to those people.

My mother applied what she had learned in childhood in her own life. She knew the ways of frugality and economy: she sometimes spoke to me of two farm labourers that stayed in her memory; they both had the same wages, but one always had meat or cheese with the bread of his packed lunch, while the other had to be content with ‘pepper-and-salt-sandwiches’ – the difference was in the way the woman at home was managing the household budget.

In my own childhood, I remember gardens that could have won a prize – my mother grew flowers like the fields of heaven. I remember as a toddler, standing among dahlias as tall as myself, seeing the diamonds of dew held in their gaudy petals, smelling their sharp, clean scent. I remember learning the names of flowers as soon as I learned to talk; going along the herbaceous beds at my mother’s side, emphasising every syllable with a jabbing finger, exclaiming ‘these are the me-sem-bry-an-the-mums!’

My mother never took a job outside the home: home was where she wanted to be. My father’s income was small, and his work took him travelling all over the world, so he was often absent: but with the help of a modest amount of inherited money and years of the tightest budgeting imaginable, she eventually achieved a redbrick sprawling house in five acres of land, with an orchard, a wood, a walled vegetable garden and paddock, and a river running through it. There we raised sheep and kept hens, grew fruit and vegetables and flowers. For me as a teenager, eating an apple meant wandering through the orchard from tree to tree, choosing which one to pick, and eating it with the rain still on it. Coming in from school ravenously hungry, ready for a sandwich, I would stop by the greenhouse and pick a ripe tomato warm from the sun, and that sprinkled with a smidgin of salt went in the new bread from the village bakery to put me on until supper time. And when supper time came, I would be sent out to cut some asparagus, or pick some French beans, to go with an omelette from our hens, or some of our grass-fed lamb.

My mother was one of those who ‘never went out to work’! Yet on a summer evening, oftentimes she would be sitting up until two or three in the morning, her fingers stained with the ingrained juice of vegetables, podding and blanching broad beans for the freezer, peeling and coring and stewing apples, ready for the long days of the winter.

I am so grateful for the wisdom and influence of traditional women, strong women, in my life. They held their families together; quiet and gentle in their exterior, and as tough as baked leather underneath.

Sunday, 3 May 2009



My great-grandmother and great-grandfather, Nellie and James Hird, with their children Philip and Kitty (my grandmother).


If this day would never come again...

I like thinking, and a good place for thinking is the bath.

It has been a beautiful day, and this morning I opened the bathroom window (which is big) wide, to let in the birdsong and the sunshine and the fresh air.

I had some bubble stuff in my bath. It smelt beautiful. I spent some time there, thinking about how I use my time and what determines that.

I thought about heaven, and resurrection, reincarnation. I wondered whether it would make a difference to how a person values their time on Earth, if they thought they would come back many times; or if they thought they would never come back but would be part of the ‘new heavens and new earth’ that is written about in the book of Revelation.

And then I asked myself – suppose there is no heaven, no resurrection, no afterlife; just this? One life, one chance; this living moment or not at all. If this should turn out to be all there is – what, if anything, would I do differently?

I came to the thought that with such a philosophy, I would spend more time out of doors. I like to be close to my nest, so I would have a shepherds hut or a caravan or a small shack, near a pond and a tree, in the grass somewhere. I would sit in my doorway with a tin mug of tea, a low fire in a small firepit dug nearby: and I would look at the blue of the sky, and the way the wind blows the green grass back to silver. I would watch the small frogs clambering on the grass stems in the summer. I would sit quiet and still so the birds were not afraid, and watch them coming and going, fetching twigs to make a nest, questing for food in the morning and as the day goes down to dusk.

I would look at the rain clouds moving across the valley, and listen to the sighing of great trees bending in the breeze.

I would gaze at the purity of snow in the cold times, and let my soul arise into the amazing azure of the sky in the days of summer.

I would get up early, wrapped in my blanket, and behold the clouds still lying in the ditches as dawn, and then sunrise, brought a new day.

I would marvel at the gold and purple and vermilion of the sunset; watch the rain splashing in puddles, the air pockets under the ice when the puddles freeze, the cracks in the dried mud when there has been no rain for many days.

At night I would sleep with my window open, the quilt pulled up to my nose against the cold, so that nothing – not even a clear pane of glass – came between me and the blessing of the moon; so that if it were possible I could tie a thread to the evening star and hold the other end in my hand.

I would feel the silky dust in my fingers and look for spiders’ web sparkled with dew in the morning. I would smell the dear homely fragrance of woodsmoke and the sharp clean scent of the wild garlic.

I would listen for the last, late thrush singing from the branches of my tree, and for the call of the owl and the snuffle of the badger looking for the chocolate I left out for him.

I love this earth, this dear, beautiful earth; the only one. I am so grateful to have had the chance to fill my senses with the wildness and sweetness of what is all around.

I am so sorry that we confine brown bears in cages to tap their gall bladders for bile; that men shoot the wild creatures from trains and planes and cars and speed away laughing because they made a kill. I am so sorry for the fox-cub’s still, bedraggled corpse at the roadside; for the eyes full of hopelessness of the monkey in the vivisectionist’s laboratory: so sorry for living creatures skinned alive to get a better cut of fur. I am so sorry for what we have done to the Earth.

Whatever happens after we die, I shall never pass this way again. This day will never come back. Unique and precious, God’s gift of time and possibility: may I become simpler, freer, quieter, less complicated, until my soul and my senses open wide to beauty, to the music of creation, and the beautiful colours of the sky.