Yesterday on the beach, our little regular group of meditators came together to celebrate the winter solstice by walking a labyrinth. It was just a circle, really, drawn into the sand with the handle of a tennis racquet. It spiralled in to a centre space marked with a tumble of smooth grey stones. The lines were perhaps too close together. It required concentration and balance to stay between them. But maybe that was the point.
It didn’t take long for me to realise I had to slow down. In order to keep my balance, I had to ensure that my front foot was centered before lifting my back foot. My mind tried to race forward but the constraints of the labyrinth brought me back to my body. Feet connecting with sand. Legs brought back beneath my body instead of charging ahead. For once, the destination was not the focus of my walking. Rather, I was drawn to watch the space directly before me. To gather in my senses. To slow my breath. In my peripheral vision, I glimpsed my fellow meditators. Each one walked as slowly as me. Each deep in their own experience. Once we were inside the labyrinth, there was no turning back. We would walk until we reached the centre, the space where we would meet up. From time to time, we walked alongside each other. Me on my track and they on theirs. Apart and yet together. We did not look up. We did not look at each other. Yet the presence of the others accompanied me.
In one moment, I felt a huge sadness arise, as it often does at this time of year. Sadness for my ancestors no longer in this world. For my friends and family far away. The impulse was to walk faster. To rush through the sadness to a place which felt more comfortable. But the labyrinth would not allow me to rush, so I walked with my sadness, holding it gently. At another point, I glanced to the side, only to see the lines of the labyrinth smushed into the sand. A giggle rose in my throat and I laughed out loud at the way we mess up our lives. There was compassion for myself, for the others. We messed up, yes, but here we are. Still walking towards the centre.
When we reached the middle, first me, then the others, we held onto each other and huddled into the spot. The sun had emerged warmly from the morning clouds but the wind was from the mountains and you could smell and feel the snow on it. We stood still, pausing a moment as the solstice suggests that we do. Sol meaning “sun”and sistere “to stand still”. As the sun seems to pause in the sky, so we paused. Before the flurry of Christmas takes over, we paused.
Over some warming tea, we took some time together to reflect on the experience.
Maybe you can take some time to make your own solstice ritual? To walk slowly. To stand still. Before life sweeps you up again and carries you relentlessly on.
Whilst writing this post, I stumbled across the work of Geraint Rhys, a Welsh singer songwriter who has recorded a great anthem-like song, Visca la Terra. He translates this phrase, often associated with radical independentistas, as “Bless this Land”. Whatever we feel about the politics, we of the smaller nations cannot help but see ourselves reflected in these struggles to be seen and heard.
So it is that I find myself a sunny beach, with the first chill of winter in the air, meditating in solidarity with those striking over the independence question in Catalunya. As foreigners in this land, we may not feel the pain of what is happening as deeply as those who call themselves Catalan, or those who consider themselves Spanish, or both. But what we can do is to listen without judgement. We can hear their stories and bear witness, as the sun and the sea bear witness to our meditation.
It was my friend Joe who recently used the word witness. Just two weeks ago, we were in Germany on a Mindfulness Teacher Training Course and I was interviewing him about his work as an activist. He was bearing witness, he said. And now here I am on a beach in Spain, holding a meditation group for peace in Catalunya. The word comes up in my mind and sticks, like a flag or a badge I can wave or wear. If I can do little else, I can bear witness.
We sit listening to the sea lap on a sunny shore, aware that the traffic is backed up all the way to the city, that public transport is severely disrupted, that many shops and offices are closed as part of the strike. “People were on the streets this morning as I took my son to school” said one woman. “The company I work for has banned us from talking about it.” said another. The idea of witnessing seems important to me, but it is only later that I reflect that it feels good for me to have found a role in this drama.
Last week, Joe wrote to ask how it is on the ground here. I gave him a comprehensive picture of life in our small village, just one hour south of Barcelona. “To be honest,” I said, “on the ground here for us, nothing has changed. Summer is cooling into Autumn. The vineyards around are turning red and golden. Yesterday a huge electric storm shot forks of lightning into the hills around our home, the sky cracking as if the world was breaking part. Nature is far more threatening than the Guardia Civil!”
I was joking, but it was true all the same. And all the same, I wrote, “It’s hard to escape the awareness that our Catalan friends are suffering. It’s been a traumatic time and emotions are being pulled at. Those of us with less rooted connections feel empathy, but also see that folk are being manipulated on both sides.”
When the idea of being a witness pops up, the thread of thought is inextricably linked to Joe, to the Agents of Change course and to the practice of mindfulness. For what is mindfulness but kind awareness? And what use is kind awareness if we cannot find a way to bring it into the service of others? Into the service of wellbeing of humans, animals and the natural world? Into the service of peace?
Husband has found a novel way of dealing with pests in the garden. He eats them. Though he’s not keen on slugs (he ate one by accident and it took two days to cleanse his mouth of slime), he has developed quite an appetite for snails. In Catalunya, where we live, snails are a delicacy. So when they proved to be the culprits who were munching all the tender, young plants in our community garden, he started collecting them up. He feeds them on carrots until their poo turns orange and then fries them with garlic.
At Gaia House Retreat Centre in Devon, I discuss pest control with Will Newitt, the Garden Co-ordinator. His approach to slugs is to pop them into a container with some greens and then tip them out some distance from the centre. “It’s a real way to explore non-violence”, says Will.
I’m at Gaia House on a work retreat. Five hours a day in the garden, four hours on my cushion. It works well, not least because my body is so tired that my mind is happy to sit still. Engaged so fully in the physical world, I notice how joy arises from simple things. The sensation of warm sun on my back as I push tiny potential lettuces into pots. The chatter and squawk of crows. The excitement as seedlings I have sown emerge as bright green shoots. Will explains that the garden relies on volunteers like me to make it work. “Often people will compliment me on the garden and I accept the kindness of that, but it feels a bit fraudulent, because I’m just here for a very short amount of time. It’s whoever comes in who actually creates it. It’s many people over many years, with open hearts and with a sense of care and loving kindness and joy for what they are doing. I think that contributes something precious.”
Working in silence, I become more aware of how this cycle of being recreates itself. The garden only grows some of the food eaten at the centre, but their scraps are returned to the earth as compost, which enriches the soil to produce more food and the cycle begins again. As I harvest the last of the sprouting broccoli, other helpers are preparing beds for the next crop. Slowing down, I begin to notice the cycles everywhere. In the rhythm of day and night; the cooking and eating of lunch. Beginnings and endings. “When you really stop and look”, says Will, the teachings are there in every moment.”
Will remarks, too, on how friendly the wildlife is here. ‘I feel they are drawn to this place because it’s a safe haven. They’re not scared.” I, too, feel safe to dive deeply. Stripped of all the doing in my normal life, there is plenty of time to simply be. I feel content with this. It is enough. I am not seeking excitement, nor entertainment, nor distraction. I am not even seeking ‘liberation’, but it occurs to me that this might, in fact, be something like it.
In his talk one evening, the teacher, Stephen Batchelor, speaks about solitude. On a retreat, he says, we seek solitude amongst others. Alone with our thoughts, feelings, sensations, we have an opportunity to slow down, to watch our breath and feel the beat of our heart. At this time, he suggests, we come close to the fragility of our own life. We understand that any moment, it might end and we will come face to face with death. He directs us to the walking room, where a real skeleton sits in full meditation pose.
As if to reinforce the teaching, the following day as I am sitting in meditation when I hear a thud at the window. I look up just in time to see a dark shape fall away. A fluttering blue tit looks down, a quizzical tilt to its head. I get up and go outside to find a thrush, lying face down, wings spread. Reaching out towards the bird, not yet sure if it is alive, it startles awake and hops into the undergrowth. The following day, underneath one of the apple trees I find a thrush. Its body is stiff, wings tightly folded. Will and I agree to leave it there for a while and I garland the body with dandelions, strung together in the way I wove them as a girl. Bright yellow encircling the small, dead form.
Back in our garden in Catalunya, I meditate amongst the rows of vegetables. In the warmth of the midday sun, I arrive briefly at a place of stillness before words bubble into my consciousness. Limpiar. Cuidar. Plantar. Esperar. Weed. Care for. Plant. Wait.
With this simple set of gardening instructions, the land speaks to me. But then wait, there is more…”Don’t forget to Disfrutar!”
Enjoy. Don’t forget to enjoy.
Because who knows when we will be halted by our own fly-into-the-window moment?
I’m sitting in a sunny garden on a family farm in West Wales. Birds singing. Cows lowing. Wispy clouds skimming the horizon. It’s hard to believe that our world is in the midst of environmental crisis. I’ve been invited to Bronhaul by Abel Pearson. A permaculture graduate, Abe is turning part of his family’s farm over to Community Supported Agriculture, envisaging a time when his small acreage in Carmarthenshire is the “breadbasket of Bancyfelin”. Together with his energised and forward-thinking parents, he imagines hosting workshops for local children to learn how to grow food, and retreats so that people can experience the replenishing effect of immersion in nature. Inspired by projects he has encountered around the world, Abe is planning a sustainable, resilient future living close to the land. He will be carrying out regenerative activities to increase plant and wildlife biodiversity by creating a closed-loop cycle which can continue through generations to come.
I met Abe a year ago, high in the Catalonian pyrenees. I was on a meditation retreat and he was a member of the Ecodharma community, a centre for radical ecology and dharma, for sustainable activism, permaculture and nature-based practice. In discussion over a hearty vegan community lunch, he discovered that I made the series of eco-films he had watched on the Living in the Future website. He told me the films had helped inspire him to turn his dreams for Bronhaul farm into a reality. I tell you this because in the midst of political turmoil, it’s easy to get disheartened and fearful. To fall into despair. But then something comes along that gives you hope, and it may be as simple as watching a film.
As part of the Wales One World Film Festival, Abe and I watch the enlightening and hopeful documentary Demain (Tomorrow). Shocked by statistics about the world their unborn child will inherit, the directors embark on a global journey to discover stories of hope. They explore urban food gardens, local currencies and sustainably-run factories. They investigate new democracies and groundbreaking school systems. What the projects have in common is their determination to look toward the future and to imagine the kind of world we will be living in. Where fossil fuel is no longer an option and where people are empowered through autonomy and imagination.
There’s a lot of talk at the moment about how we need to tell ourselves a new story but sometimes, there are old stories to be revived too, if perhaps with a new twist. What Abe is doing with his family farm is re-working an old model in a way that is more suitable for the times we are facing. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) offers a re-connection for the local community with the land and with each other, whilst supporting a small enterprise to grow vegetables and fruit in a sustainable way. To get some more inspiration, Abe and I visit Cae Tan, a CSA in the heart of Gower, near Swansea. Founder Tom O’Kane tells us :
“People are craving something that makes sense in our natural environment. They really like the connection of knowing the person that’s growing their food and seeing the place where its coming from. There were loads of market gardens on Gower, people were running businesses on areas much smaller than this and it’s been a really short timescale since everything stopped. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be turned around again. There are lots of young people proving that this is a really good business here and they’re having a lot of fun! So they’re selling the idea really well.”
Employee Francesca started WWOOFing on organic farms in Portugal and Germany before landing a job here in Cae Tan. “I love the veg and I love being outside and getting my hands dirty. We now have a project idea for selling leafy greens an high value crops and selling them to restaurants.”
At the end of the day, Abel is buzzing with ideas to take back to Bronhaul farm. “I’m very inspired to see this happening in more places. I dream of a day when this is just the norm.”
In Buddhist circles, January is traditionally a month for retreat. It is the time of the monsoon, when the nomadic life of Gautama and his disciples was hampered by the rains. Instead of their usual pattern of roaming and teaching, they stayed in one place, waiting out the weather until the spring allowed them to once more take their message to the villages. With Husband away for 10 days visiting family, I decide to engage in a self-retreat, committing to stay in one place, more or less, until his return. It’s a way of connecting deeply to myself, but I’ve also been thinking that it’s a way of building resilience.
At the beginning of my retreat I impose boundaries, choosing the lines I draw between ‘normal’ and ‘retreat’ life, making an intention to limit those habits which I know take me away from my present state of being. I decide, above all, to limit my use of media. For me, there is no better tool for producing a sense of FOMO – or missing out on something, than trolling through Facebook! In addition to this, I commit to a daily practice of those things which enhance my sense of being present. Yoga and a daily walk – to bring me into my body. Meditation, to quiet and centre my mind. I add in a writing practice, to exercise creativity and ground my energy, but I promise myself that I will not expect productivity, which helps me approach it in a relaxed way.
The retreat begins as usual, with me feeling very tired. It’s as though in the very act of turning my attention inward, I come face to face the effort of daily life. I sleep more in the first day and on the second, I really enjoy the stillness and softness of a warm home and little activity. On the third, my energy starts to rise and I feel surges of spontaneous joy. My walk takes me through the local village, which is celebrating the Festa Mayor of Sant Pau. What strikes me now about these festivities is how they manage to include the whole community. How everyone takes such pride in their role. An hour before the parade begins, I see people dressed in traditional costume walking purposefully through the village. Their white shirts and pants are immaculate, contrasting impressively with the bright red and blue of their shoes, belts, cravats and headscarfs. Small bells attached to their ankles jingle excitedly as they walk. There is a sense of anticipation in the air.
In Catalonia, no festival is complete without a correfoc, a ‘fire run’, evolved from mediaeval street theatre. Bands of young people dressed in painted hessian cloaks hold aloft fireworks which rain sparks onto the crowds lining the street. Their hoods are adorned with bright red horns, their clothing painted with images of demons and fire. It’s not hard to work out the symbology. This is an ancient standoff between good and evil. These devils are followed by dancers, clearly from the same origins as Morris and Ceilidh dancers, leaping and jumping and swinging each other around, or bashing sticks one against another with a force that suggests the moves, like the katas in karate, mimic combat. Each crew of ‘devils’ is accompanied by an ear-splitting samba band. Each set of dancers by jovial pipers. The whole procession lasts an hour or more and winds up with a moving maypole attended by male and female young people and topped with an extremely lifelike owl. Back in my retreat space, I can hear the sound of real owls hooting in the forest around me as fireworks resound through the valley.
Maintaining my retreat intention, it seems fitting to join the celebratory mass at the hermitage the following morning. The day breaks cold, gray and rainy and as the same parade weaves out from the town centre, plumes of smoke from fireworks fill the damp morning air. The sinister sound of drums moves closer and closer, the fizz, splutter and bang of explosions creating a stir in the atmosphere. I am reminded of the noise and clatter of Tibetan horns, bells and symbals as the buddhas are summoned for a puja. Up close, it can be an unnerving experience. There is little doubt that the spirits are responding, for when the monks play like this, the room crackles with energy. This morning, two new players have appeared in the throng. A woman and a girl in the same fireproof gear join the head of the procession, but instead of demons in yellow and red, their cloaks are painted in white and blue with angels and doves . Amongst the noise and hubris of bedevilment, they make a calm case for the peace and innocence.
Inside the church, where it is standing room only, I am moved to contemplation. The choirmaster conducts a willing congregation, producing melodic harmonies which rise past the elaborate chandelier to the simple arched ceiling. Outside, the dancers continue the procession, filling the space outside the church with a party atmosphere. A makeshift bar is doing a roaring trade in patatas bravas and beer. It seems that the whole town is here and everyone, from the smallest child to the greyest elder has a costume and a role to play.
A week later, I walk the same path past the hermitage and out into the vineyards. I am accompanied by three other ‘pilgrims’ on a small yatra, a meditative walk, mostly in silence, to celebrate Imbolc, the beginning of Spring in the Celtic calendar. Empty shells of fireworks litter the path and along the way we pause to take in the scent of rosemary and thyme growing abundantly in the wayside. All through the fields, the vines are bare, stretched out and prepared for leaves that will soon appear. Warm rays of sunshine have broken through the early mist and we peel off layers as we walk. Pink and white almond blossom, thronged with happy bees, gives pause for reflection.
In challenging times, these resources will create resilience.
Connection to self, connection to each other and connection to nature.
Boodaville. The name is a play on words, taking itself lightly, but underpinned with intention. This is not a folly. This is wisdom in action. The land is 1.5 hectares of tracks and terraces and trees on the border of Aragon and Catalonia. “Cross the blue bridge and take a left” says Anna Gurney, the permaculture teacher and activist who owns this land and runs the eco-project. Of course we miss the turning, and need to drive ahead some way and turn around.
All the best places I visit seem to be at the end of a bumpy track. At my home in Holtsfield, we have both a bumpy track (at the front) and a muddy lane at the back. The residents call the back lane “the time tunnel” because it seems, in this tunnel as it does on the track, that time slows down. You slow down. Somewhere between the worlds, a switch is flicked and the magical zone is entered. In this magical zone, anything can, and does happen.
What happens at Boodaville today is a permablitz. A group of enthusiastic people in shorts and sturdy shoes inhabit a newly-landscaped terrace. In huddles of three or four, they crouch, tending the soil, building small hills of compost and thumbing in favas (beans) and small plants of broccoli and spinach. The chatter is multi-lingual, strings of Spanish and English, smatterings of German and Portuguese. A slender woman with an indeterminate accent encourages us, initiates new tasks, and generally keeping things going. Progress is both swift and congenial.
On a higher terrace, a makeshift but functional kitchen is buzzing with life and the aroma of cooking wafts around, making me aware of my hunger. In a sort while, the group will gather to eat a hearty plate of stew and rice with fresh salad leaves and the conversation will crank up into laughter and even song. But when I mention “hippies” to Anna, her response is dismissive. So where does the inspiration for Boodaville come from?
“It was a silly nickname given to me in my early twenties.” says Anna, a little embarrassed. “The first event we had was a birthday party, which got called Boodaville. Then the next event followed and still got called Boodaville. Then there was the festival…After a few years, it just stuck. So it was unintentional but it sounds a bit like buddha and there are lots of things about buddhas that we like.”
Anna’s modesty is a clue to the ethos behind the project, which is all about community. All of the events, training and workshops are designed to be collaborative and Anna’s long-term plan is that the land will be split between four families, who will live there as an eco-village.
“ With lots of projects, there is one person that is determined to make it happen, and that’s me. I always wanted it to be about permaculture and then I realised how close this community-led approach was to the ethos of permaculture, so it was entirely appropriate. People underestimate how hard it is to get a community project up and running and they often fail before they manage to buy land. Now I feel that having the initial bit done through our courses, activities, buildings, etc, will give the future community a head start.”
On the land, participants drift back to the garden to finish the day’s productivity and I take a look around, walking up the steep hill to admire the view over mountains both near and far. A newly-built cottage in traditional Catalan style will house a floor-full of tired party-goers this evening and the geodesic dome is being prepared for music and dancing.
“We always say that if it’s not fun, it’s not sustainable.” states Anna. It’s important to make sure people enjoy themselves. In order to learn, you have to be emotionally engaged with something – or at least, you learn much better.“
The day’s activities in the garden round off with a small ceremony – a tree planting to honour the life of Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture who has recently died. Bill suggested that if people want to celebrate his life then there could be no action more fitting than to plant a tree, so here we are, holding hands in a circle, moving slowly around so that each of us can splash a symbolic handful of water onto a young almond sapling. I’m amused when the leader of the ceremony invites us to sound an OM together, which we do. Anna, holding hands as part of the circle enjoys the moment as much as anyone, though it somehow runs contrary to her claim of it being a “non-hippy’ environment!
A couple of weeks after visiting Boodaville, I am inspired to see whether we can pull off a permablitz in our area. I open a Meetup group, which quickly gathers 15 members, some of whom sign up for a day at our property, sharing some activities. The day is even more successful than I could have hoped and we adopt Anna’s model of emphasising a good, long, lunch and plenty of conversation. We get a load of things done and people give each other big hugs when they leave, talking what they’d like to achieve at the next permablitz! The focus on shared activity, shared food and shared learning makes a container for activity that is permaculture all over. If you haven’t already tried it, my advice is – don’t wait! Find your local permaculture group and pitch in with a project. Time spent collaboratively is good for the soul. You’ll most likely learn something new, share a great lunch and maybe, like me, you might even make some new friends.
So. House renovations are underway and I have to admit, I sometimes get depressed. Not just because the task ahead of us often seems insurmountable and not simply because my arms and neck are aching from hours spent hunched over a sander, hammer, or scrubbing brush. Much more depressing is the amount of time we seem to spend in FesMes.
For those of you around the world, Fesmes is the Catalan equivalent of B&Q (in the UK) or Bunnings in Australia. Do you have a version of that in the US? Anyway, every weekend, we appear to need at least one visit to Fesmes. First it was for water pipes, as the tubo that connects us to the local well had somehow been cut. Because we were complete novices, it took several visits and numerous lengthy conversations with Francisco, our fontanero, before the water finally flowed in the taps. Each visit also involves other discussions – about lighting, for instance. About possible bedroom, bathroom and kitchen layouts. About furniture or about various ways to rig up some shade in which to work when the sun is high in the sky and it’s hot as hell. The air conditioning in the brightly-lit store is a welcome relief from the burning sun outside, but that just means it’s consuming loads of energy. The things in the shop are cheap, but that just means that the materials are likely to be unsustainably sourced. The trips leave me drained and feeling sad. In addition to the dreary trips to Fesmes, there’s another problem. Money.
The Brexit Effect has left us shorter of cash than we imagined, so we’ve determined on a plan. We will do as much of our renovations as possible from recycled materials. We will make friends with the segundo mano store and in addition, make as much as we can out of pallets. I’m thinking beds, shelving and tables. I’m finding I enjoy sanding pallets in the way that I enjoy ironing – it has a meditative quality, where the mind is completely focussed on one thing and the endless list of things to do stops circling for a while.
Husband is patching the holes in the bathroom wall with a mixture of lime, sand and water. We have yet to see if it will stick. Meanwhile, I’m attempting a bit of the old, varnished wooden floor with my hand sander. It takes ages so I come to the conclusion that we need to hire an industrial sander. Of course, everything seems to take a lot longer because we first have to look up what “industrial sander hire” is in Spanish. (It’s a ligadora para alquiler, in case you’re wondering.) Then we have to phone or go there and try to explain exactly what we want. Then we have to understand the response, the instructions, the price structure, the dangers…It’s exhausting!
Thankfully, Husband’s brother arrives for a visit. Our first volunteer. Someone else with whom to discuss the issues, problems and solutions. The discussions about spaces, materials, electrical and heating solutions go on late into the night and are accompanied by un monton de red wine and olives. I didn’t know he was such a dab hand with a hammer and when the lime plaster cracks and falls off in clumps, he helps to make a beautiful panelled wall from some of the pallets I’ve sanded. There is a bit of disagreement about what to treat the pallets with but a quick search online confirms my hunch. They are now looking healthy and glowing under a luscious coat of olive oil. Well, we do live in Spain…
Have you ever said “yes” to something and then, when you realise the amount of work that’s involved, wondered if you’ve done the right thing after all? In the wake of Britain’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union, I’m sure many ‘Leavers’ are watching the value of their savings/ pensions/ homes/ wage packets plummet and thinking that perhaps they jumped when they should have stayed put. Myself, I’m having the same kind of thoughts about the cottage we just bought in Spain. Before you condemn me as a someone who has abandoned the UK like the other rats from a sinking ship, or grabbed myself a luxury second home, let me explain…
The casita sits on the side of a shady hillside, surrounded by tall pine trees. One of only eight houses in the tiny urbanizacion, it has been empty for more then ten years. The rooms smell of neglect. The water supply has been cut. The garden is unkempt. When we first spot it on the Fotocasa web page in January, we are living amongst the noise and haste of Barcelona city. This small patch of countryside seems a far cry from that and indeed, it takes us an hour’s bus ride and a half-hour walk to get there. Following sketchy directions, we take an unsealed track off the main road and find it sitting there. Is it waiting for us? We clamber over the wall and perch on the abandoned swing, looking at the crumbling facade. The stairs and banisters that lead to the upstairs living space are falling away but when we peer in through the shuttered windows, the space inside seems free from structural damage or damp. It just needs to be loved.
The decision to renovate a house, even a tiny one, can not be taken lightly. We consult a lawyer, talk endlessly around all the options but it appears that the casita already has us in her sights. In the Spanish language, the way you express that you like something is to say that the object likes you. Me gusta means, literally, it likes me. I have to conclude that this house likes us. So we find ourselves saying ‘yes’. One hour from Barcelona, fifteen minutes from the pretty beach town of Sitges and five minutes from the authentic Catalan pueblo of Sant Pere de Ribes, we decide to create not just a home, but a refuge. A refugio. In undertaking the retrofit we intend to be as eco-friendly as possible. Natural and recycled materials, renewable energy, capturing the precious rainwater and re-using the grey waters from our sink and shower. Growing as much food as we can.
As I write this, the thermometer reads thirty degrees, the barometer firmly wedged towards ‘sun’. There’s a cool breeze wafting through the forest and I’ve laid down the hammer and chisel I’ve using to prise the tired tiles from the bathroom walls. Broken shards of sharp ceramic lie in piles on the floor and it strikes me that in order to create the change that’s needed, we sometimes first need to make an unholy mess. Before we can make something new, we need to get rid of the old. As I drift off into my afternoon siesta, it occurs to me that maybe Brexit was a way of doing this, of bringing the old ways crashing down like broken tiles and leaving the space open for a fresh new look. It may look like there’s a lot of work to be done but it seems clear that we can’t go back. It’s time to start imagining what a new Britain might look like and I’m pretty sure what’s needed is more than a fresh coat of paint. I think what’s needed is a complete retrofit.
It’s midsummer and my world is the right way up. Well, sort of. When I lived in Australia, I could never get used to the seasons being out of place. Christmas on the beach, my September birthday in Spring and yes, June being the middle of winter. It just felt wrong. Now I’ve moved back to Europe the seasons are back in the right place, but in the aftermath of the recent UK referendum, the world seems to have gone stark raving mad. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s characters are victims of a mischievous energy that confuses lovers and makes an ass of an ordinary man. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the name Puck is related to Old Norse puki (devil) and Welsh pwca (imp), but also has links to ‘unsettled’, like puke. Upon leaving the ‘civilised’ city and entering nature’s wilderness, our characters become disoriented and things appear not to be as they ought to be. The feeling is a little similar in this post-Brexit world. Somehow, the world has been changed, but nobody is yet sure exactly how. We only know that there is mischief afoot.
My midsummer celebrations began in Wales, where the weather was as un-Welsh as it is possible to be. I spent long, warm, sunny days in the beach with my friends and woke every day to blue skies. Bizarre. I was grateful for the opportunity to get out and walk in the cliffs, to swim in the chilly Bristol Channel and to partake of the odd barbecue, but it couldn’t last, of course, and by the time I was on my way north to visit an old school friend, it was cold and rainy. This did not dampen the spirits in Flash, where the residents of the highest town in England celebrated mid summer with a traditional blessing of the well.
A custom from medieval times which is said to be associated with the spread of the Black Death, it marks an acknowledgement of the importance of pure water and honours the local source. In Flash, the well was painstakingly decorated with flowers and following the small well-side ceremony, the village takes to the streets in the ‘teapot parade‘. Waving banners and marching alongside a giant papier-mâché teapot, the parade remembers the custom of helping those in need by sequestering funds in the household teapot. As I stood back to take a photograph of the whole scene, a woman spectator reminisced about watching this same spectacle as a child. Her family, she said, could be traced back 700 years in her father’s side and 300 years on her mother’s. Her strong Peak District accent dragged vowels long and clipped consonants short, making disappointed claims that the parade was not as it used to be, when it was an excuse to dress up and for women to get a new hat. I looked down at my jeans, still muddy from the morning’s yomp across muddy moors, and countered that it was great that they still kept the custom at all.
In the church, we sang hymns and listened as the vicar gave a reading. He chose the parable of the Good Samaritan where, if you have not heard it, a man who has been robbed and left for dead is ignored by first a priest and then a Levite. The third passer-by, a Samaritan, stops and helps the man, sequestering him at an inn at his personal expense. I had not heard the story read since my childhood, but I remembered being told that the Levite would have been a local person of the same Jewish faith, but that the word Samaritan meant that the person was an enemy, as the Jews and the Samaritans were not on good terms. In the light of the current refugee crisis and the recent violent death of Jo Cox, the tale gained a new poignant meaning, as parables are wont to do, having a timeless moral code embedded in their codex. Even the giant teapot seemed significant, being a symbol of friendliness and neighbourliness in this land where people love nothing better than a nice cup of tea and who rush to provide one at the slightest suggestion of distress. The vicar did not spell it out, but he did take the time to bless those who would be voting in the upcoming referendum.
Back in Spain, I joined in more mid-summer celebrations, but occasionally, the air fell sour with the shock and disbelief of Brits, Europeans, Australians and US citizens. In this atmosphere of multiculturalism and warm abrazos, no-one could understand why the UK wanted a divorce. In my local village of Sant Pere de Ribes, they gathered for the Ball de Diables, where children young and old dress up in devil costumes and hold aloft screaming fireworks in a crazy display of anarchic energy known as a correfoc. Their carnival re-animates the eternal dance between light and dark, between good and evil. Embedded in these ancient traditions is the knowledge that at certain times, we need to be mindful of the uncertainty of our world and of the possibility, always, that mischief will win us over if we only open the door for long enough to let it in.
I am sitting on the back step of my cabin. A shaft of warm sunlight filters through and splashes my foot. In my right hand, I hold a broad sprig of elderflower and with my left, I am plucking the dainty scented petals into a wooden bowl. The memory makes my heart swell, not just because I can feel the peace of that moment, but because behind it in my mind, are a queue of summer-flavoured images and sounds. My grandmother made this sweet, barely alcoholic drink every year and in my favourite scenes, we are sitting in her beloved garden on faded deckchairs, sipping until we are ever so slightly tipsy.
The recipe I am using is her recipe. It was given to me by my Auntie Joan, long after my grandmother had died, and every summer I kept the ritual of sitting and plucking, before stirring in sugar, lemons and a touch of cider vinegar. My friends were wary of my gifts of elderflower champagne. Too often the bottles, expanding through natural fermentation beyond the limits of their fragile glass confines, exploded. The moment of explosion was scary enough but the aftermath – that sticky mess on walls, ceiling and floor, was sometimes more than pleasure of the remaining, intact bottle was worth.
This year, I’m sharing the recipe with the community at Can Masdeu, this anarchist community that has become my haven. The large eldest tree in their courtyard has more than enough flowers. The community likes to dry them for a medicinal tea – a vitamin C-filled curative for coughs and colds. We pick the full blossoms and sit together in the Barcelona spring sunshine, plucking, then stirring, and later tasting. If it’s not too late, head out into the woods, find some elderflower heads and brew your own. But be careful of the explosions!
To make Elderflower Champagne
4 litres hot water
Juice and zest of four lemons
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
About 15 elderflower heads, in full bloom, picked on a sunny day (if you pick them in the rain they smell like dog pee)
A pinch of dried yeast (you may not need this)
1. Sterilise all your equipment. I like to use a few drops of tea tree oil in plenty of water, but it needs a while to air ‘cos it can be a bit smelly. Pluck the flowers from your elderflowers.
2. Dissolve sugar in 1 litre of hot water in a fermenting bucket, then top up with 3 litres cold water. Allow to cool.
3. Add elderflower flowers, lemon juice and zest and vinegar. The elderflowers contain a natural yeast, so you shouldn’t need to add extra. (see below). Leave to ferment.
4. If you did not add yeast and fermentation has not started after 3 days, add a packet of Champagne yeast to get it going.
5. After 6 days of fermentation, strain through boiled muslin into a fresh fermenting bucket, leaving the lees behind. Cover the bucket and leave for a few hours for the dust to settle, then siphon into your bottles of choice. This time I used plastic bottles, for damage limitation, and it worked quite well. We were also able to release a little excess pressure by easing the lids off a little (careful!).
Your champagne is ready to drink after a week. Enjoy!
Place in a fridge or cool place to stop the yeast making any more carbon dioxide and drink. It should keep for up to 3 months, but you may not be able to leave it alone that long!
If the whole popping thing is too scary, try this instead! (Also my grandmother’s recipe).
21/2 il sugar
3 pts water
2oz citric acid
2 lemons chopped
2 oranges chopped
About 20 large elderflower heads
Make syrup by dissolving sugar in water. And simmer for 5 mins.
Pour into deep bowl add citric acid stir.
Putin remaining ingredients. Stir well.
Cover and leave 4 days stir night and morning.
Strain into sterile bottle and keep in cool dark cupboard.