Category Archives: Sustainability & Environment

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Life, Death and Gardening

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.

Will Newitt at Gaia House Garden

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.”

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Seedlings emerging

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.”

Gaia Garden Greens
Gaia Garden Greens

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.

Meditation Hall at Gaia House
Meditation Hall at Gaia House

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.

Skeleton at Gaia House

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. As Will comments, “Here is nature, reminding us of the impermanence of life.”

A fallen thrush
Fallen Thrush

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?

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Abe helping with weeding at Cae Tan CSA

Community Supported Agriculture

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.

Bronhaul Farm Garden
Bronhaul Farm. Bancyfelin, Carmarthenshire

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.

Cae Tan CSA
Cae Tan Community Supported Agriculture. Gower, Wales

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.”

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Boodaville Permaculture in Spain

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.

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Boodaville Permaculture Project, Catalonia

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.

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Permablitz – a shared permaculture activity

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!

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Planting a tree in memory of Bill Mollison

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.

permablitz at a property in Spain
Permablitz!
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The all-important long lunch

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Average, Normal People

The recent revelation that Theresa May’s UK government is set to override the wishes of folk in Lancashire and pave the way for fracking in their county. Locals petitioned their council to bar the practice on the grounds that it is potentially environmentally damaging and dangerous and the council agreed. Now the government have overturned that decision and given the go-ahead for exploratory exploration of coal seam gas in Lancashire. This authoritarian, dismissive act started me thinking about a discussion I was having the other day about “average, normal people”

It was early on a Saturday morning after a wedding party and we were having a fry-up in a seafront cafe. I had picked up a newspaper from the ones available at the cafe and it started there. The paper was one I wouldn’t usually read. Its views are pretty much diametrically opposed to mine, but as it turns out, so were my friend’s.

My habit with a weekend paper is to read out an article which has caught my eye and offer my opinion. “Hey!” I say. “Listen to this!” On this occasion, the exchange began with a journalist who thought that offering a help-line after the Archers’ storyline of domestic abuse was namby-pamby. “Who could possibly be upset by that?” he asked. “Surely there are more noble recipients of our sympathy, like soldiers, for instance?” Well I don’t wish to take anything from soldiers, of course, PTSD is a real thing and they could do with more recognition for it, not less. However…

The latest figures show that seven women a month are killed by their partners in England and Wales. 1.4 million women will suffer domestic abuse in the UK this year, mostly at the hands of their (male) partners. if that were a virus, it would be an epidemic. It follows that there must be a huge number of women affected by trauma, sometimes after years of emotional and physical abuse which too often ends in hospitalisation and in many cases, death. I pointed out that the author of the piece was a white middle aged man. I thought it relevant. White, middle-aged men hold a lot of power in the world. Their collective voice is pretty loud. In contrast, the voices of abused women are small and easy to drown out. Like I say, I thought it relevant.

My friend disagreed and took offence. Or rather defence. My feminist analysis clearly touched a nerve and he rejected the idea that patriarchy was a force for the oppression of women. “Patriarchy is an historical fact”. I argued, admittedly taking the bait. I treated him to a brief outline of the ways that patriarchy was evident in modern society – in the system of patrilineage that had rubbed out generations of women from the records and robbed millions of their inheritances; in the fact that men sit at the top of a vast majority of global organisations, hold power in the media, in education, in politics. He argued that we have a female prime minister. I countered that in order for women to hold such a role, they had to play a game of politics defined by machismo and strength. He said he’d rather have a leader strong in negotiations than a wimp.

This week, journalist Zoe Williams said it better than I could when commenting on Donald Trump’s boasting about assaulting women. Although loathe to argue that a female point of view exists in politics, Zoe suggests starting with freedom from violence and reproductive autonomy as good “muster points”. She goes on to point out “A constant eye on the future, a calm assurance that not everything of value can be counted, a love of international co-operation and respect for the institutions it has created, a knowledge that some things are too important to be left to the market, an empathy with the dispossessed : there is nothing essentially feminine about these ideas, yet where no women are, you never hear them.” I wished she had been there to put those ideas before my friend.
Our argument, for argument it was by now, lurched on, until my friend came out with the phrase “Average normal people”. That was it. The voice of Nigel Farage and his Brexit crowing ringing in my ears, I got up and left the cafe.
Outside in the early autumn sunshine, locals and tourists wandered up and down the promenade, enjoying their weekend stroll. I all but collapsed into one of the seafront seats. Tears came. If even my friends think like this, what hope is there? I moaned inwardly. I re-ran the discussion in my mind, trying to come to a place of peace and trying to understand what on earth he, and Nigel Farage meant by the phrase “Average normal people”.

This conversation mattered little. It was just a weekend morning chat in a lazy cafe in Wales, but when the words are uttered by a politician, they matter a lot. By uttering these words, a politician is inferring that you and s/he are the same, which, merely by virtue of their privileged position, let alone the opportunities that probably came about to help them get there, is rarely the case. (I acknowledge there are some notable exceptions to this but they are the exceptions that prove the rule). The language of politicians is designed to make us feel that we are all in the same boat, but we’re not. At least, we might be, but it is only they who have access to the first class suite and the life rafts.

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Earth-Care, Self-Care

Recently, a client of mine made me a wonderful offer. He would stump up the cash to fly me to Australia for the launch of Child of the Earth, a film we made together about the life of activist counsellor, social worker, nurse and educator Glen Ochre. I have to say, I was both tempted and flattered “Go!” my friends said. “It’s part of being a filmmaker, attending the launch!” Well, that’s true, but what if you’re a filmmaker AND an environmentalist. Do you still fly around the world attending every screening just to hear the applause?

It’s a hard call to make, because after the final edit is made and the film has been signed off, those moments of applause might be the best form of feedback you get. To sit in a room and hear people laugh at the funny moments. to watch the tears roll down when the story is sad. These can be defining richly rewarding for anyone who has spent a significant period of their life on a project. Those reactions can stay with you for years. They can help you embark on, stay with and complete the next project. What’s more, in the audience, you might meet your next client, or the person who will produce your next film. So what made me say “no thanks” to this marvellous offer? Why didn’t I grab the chance to meet up with my Melbourne friends and revisit my old haunts? Well, it’s simple. Sometimes, we need to sit still.

In a world of depleting resources and runaway climate change, not to mention stress and over-achievement, we all need to take the time to stop and be where we are. In the recent Brexit vote, a good pal of mine confessed that she voted for Britain to leave the European Union. Her reason, she said, was not to control the borders or to regain access to the money we are supposed to be wasting on European governance. Her reason, she said, was that people need to stay put. This argument was a bit rich, coming from someone who had spent most of her life crossing continents like roads. But I knew what she meant. I mean I KNEW what she meant. I felt it in my heart and in my bones. I, myself, personally, need to sit still for a while.

As a meditator of over twenty years experience, I feel that need often. Those times in my day or my week when only sitting still will enable me to connect with my true feelings, or with others, or with the world around me. Only sitting still will fix the ache in my soul – the one that cries out for approval, or wealth, or notoriety. Only sitting still will make me feel whole. This self-care was also one of the maxims for Glen’s ground-breaking work in group facilitation. So instead of flying around the world to Australia, I set up a meditation Meetup right here in my new home town. I resolved to find some other people who wanted to sit still with me. Together we will sit still for the good of the planet. For the sheer pleasure of it and perhaps most of all, to satisfy our need for connection.

I’m not saying I will never cross continents again, or that I will never travel for work or to see my friends and family. I hope I will. It’s just interesting to know that sometimes, saying “no” can be equally as positive and life-affirming as saying “yes.”

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Manu Chao – An Invitation to Dance

I can’t remember when I first heard Manu Chao‘s music, but I do remember when I started to spontaneously understand his lyrics. A performer from France and Catalonia, he sings in many languages including French, Spanish, English, Portuguese and Arabic. I’ve been listening to his music for years, connecting best with the lyrics in languages I understood, which I expect is the same for all his fans. One day after six months of living in Spain, the words entered my consciousness in the way that words start to after a while in a country – bypassing the “what does that mean?” translation and going directly to comprehension. “I understand the Spanish!” I squeaked. “Dia Luna, Dia Pena“, his wistful song about sadness and the moon began to be sung each time we spotted the moon rising over the mountain, or reflecting light over the balmy Mediterranean Sea. “Arriva la luna, ohea!” It’s become a bit of an anthem for our life in Spain.

So when we noticed he was playing in Barcelona as part of the annual La Mercè  festival, we planned to go. We knew it would be busy. A free concert in his home country? It would be packed. Our home is about an hour from Barcelona so we left early, taking a bus into the city, enjoying a walk through the animated streets and taking in the fireworks in La Barceloneta. It was then that my anxiety started, as a mass of people queued to access the Metro that would carry them to the concert grounds. I hate crowds and am quite claustrophobic, but I breathed deeply and pushed on, hoping he would be worth the effort. A friend of mine had already backed out. “I’m a flower” she confessed. “I’m just no good with big crowds.” Crushed into the underground train, I felt like a flower, too. A wilting one. It’s not just the crowds, but the noise, the shouting, the drunken behaviour and not least, the mess. Big crowds remind me of the enormous amount of waste we humans produce. The Spanish are really good with recycling and disposing of public waste, but the bins were overflowing and it brings home how when we move about, we tend to create even more rubbish. At the concert venue, the stage was a speck in the distance, but huge screens showed images of the performers so we felt we could see perfectly. The atmosphere was buzzing. When Manu Chao sang his more famous anthems, the crowd joined in delightedly. They clearly has no trouble getting the lyrics!

During his quieter numbers, I had time to reflect on my inner sense of conflict. The gathering of thousands of people for a music gig is a huge environmental cost. Any personal savings to my carbon footprint – by restricting my electricity use and car use, not taking planes, or reducing consumption is dwarfed by the impact of this gig alone. Flying in the musicians and their equipment, marketing the event, powering the stage and screens, stocking the bars with plastic cups. An environmentalist could argue that gigs like this should be banned. But when Manu Chao hands over the mic to a human rights activist from Mexico, and a banner appears stating “43 Ayozinapa” to recall the 43 young men kidnapped by the police in 2014, I remember how he uses his music to inspire, inform and mobilise. Through his focus on human rights and justice, many people will come to know about issues ignored by mainstream media. I look around at the waving crowd and think how he often sings of what it’s like to be an outsider, an “ilegal”. It’s quite a bonus that he’s great fun to dance to!

The atmosphere of camaraderie he generates throughout his set spills out onto the pavement with us and not even the heavy shower of autumn rain can dampen our spirits. In the queue as we wait for the Metro, someone is trying to get his mate’s attention. “Lend me two euros!”  he begs, but his friend can’t hear him above the noise. “Here you go” offers a man next to him as he smilingly hands over the coins. The crowd close by appreciate the gesture and gives him a cheer and as we jostle down into the subway station, the mood buoyant in spite of the crush and the rain.

The next day, I’m reading how the camps in Calais are to be dismantled and the refugees dispersed. I think of Manu Chao and the lyrics to “Clandestino“. “Perdido en el corazón/ de la grande Babylon/ Me dicen el clandestino/ por no llevar papel.” (Lost in the heart/of great Babylon/ They call me a clandestine/ because I have no papers). I check in with his Facebook page and see the photos from his shows. In Croatia with a “Refugees Welcome” sign; in France protesting against nuclear power; in Switzerland supporting the campaign questioning Monsanto’s human rights abuses; in Brussels over the TTIP – the Transatlantic Treaty
These contradictions surrounding our decisions are something we have to battle with daily and sometimes, the right decision will be to stay at home and not waste any more resources than are necessary. And sometimes, as Manu Chao would say…”Pachamama… te invito a bailar..”(Mother Earth…I invite you to dance.)

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pallet-panelling

Recycled House

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…

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mimosa

Retrofit

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.

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elderflower-web1

Elderflower Champagne

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.

lemons1
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.

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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

700g sugar

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).

Elderflower Cordial
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.

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earth-stars

Earth Day

I’ve never thought too much about Earth Day. It seemed like one of those forced opportunities to do something we should perhaps be doing every day, like Valentines Day to show we love someone or Mother’s Day to appreciate our Mum. But then, over coffee the other day, I had a conversation about where the names of the days of the week come from. I was sure I had learned this as a child, and felt it ought not be surprising to hear that they are named for the planets*
I’m living in Spain at the moment, and a lot of my time is spent trying to get my tongue around a foreign language. It often brings up discussion about the meaning of words, so when i heard this, I sat down and went through the days of the week in all the languages I know, to see if the theory fitted. In Spanish, it’s easy to see that Lunes – Monday, is for the moon – la luna. Even in English, Monday – Moonday makes sense, and it follows too in French – Lundi; in Welsh – Dydd Llun; in German – Montag… You get the picture.
Martes in Spanish, for Mars; Miercoles for Mercury; Jueves for Jupiter ; Viernes for Venus; Sabado for Saturn and oh, Domingo? Well apparently Domingo was re-named for Our Lord’s Day – Dies Dominica in Latin.
Try this yourself with languages you know. The days of the week are often the first things we learn, so we don’t have to be fluent to know them. It’s interesting that most languages have followed in some way or another, often taking the local name for the god of that planet – Thor (the god of war and thunder) stands in for Jupiter, for instance, which gives us Thorsday in English but also Donnerstag in German, where donner means thunder.

There are a few anomolies. I like the prosaic Mittwoch (Wednesday) in German, meaning literally mid-week. And I love the Scandanavian Lordag (Saturday), which is from Old Norse laugardagr, meaning washing day.

After the fun and games of testing our language knowledge and our grasp of ancient mythology, one thing stood out. Not one country had chosen to name a day of the week after Earth. Somehow, we clever humans have once again neglected to honour the place that gives us life. This amazing, complete eco-system which is right beneath our feet. So suddenly, Earth Day makes sense. If only we could have one every week.

* I later learned this was the Classical line-up of the planets in Hellenic astrology, which was established around …..and includes the moon and the sun.

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