The world needs more gadflies

It took me a couple of days to stop thinking about it; the news that at a nature reserve in Germany insect numbers have dropped by 75% with accompanying reports of ecological Armageddon. It was one of those news items that stopped me short. Yes, I know, or I should do, as I work in the media, that each decade has its own end-of-the-world story, be it nuclear war, AIDS or terrorism. But changing climate and environmental damage is something that really needs to be given more attention, and not less, than it is getting in current news agendas.

There was something about this report that saddened me enormously. After all, telling people that the climate is changing and things are dying is such a big thing to take on board that you are left reeling and wondering what you can do about it. What can I, as a single person, do? In our house we recycle, as well as cycle, compost, and try to live a fairly balanced life. But what’s needed in this situation is the big corporations and governments, the ones with the real power and the ones with a stranglehold on the planet, to bring the anti-environment juggernaut to a halt.

The one tiny crumb of comfort I took from this story was that it brought to mind Socrates and the gadfly. Socrates believed that he had been sent by the gods to act as a gadfly to the Athenian state. He saw the state as ‘a great and noble steed’ which had to be reminded of its proper duties.

In the dark nights of the soul when it seems as though nothing can take on the might of American leviathans such as Trump, and win, I like the idea that something as small as an insect is actually more important than the sociopaths that run our planet. It punctures their power. They don’t in fact know it all. And you never know, this fact may actually arrest the hubris that’s currently destroying and despoiling our planet. It possibly behoves us all to be the modern gadfly to the state and fight for our local environments for the sake of the global ones.

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What is a garden for?

I have a friend who wants to downsize her house, as she needs to reduce her mortgage debt, but is quite understandably is sad about losing her large garden.

I’ve spent years casting a covetous eye over anyone with a large expanse of grass and plenty of room to swing several cats. Yet, I’ve put a lot of time and effort instead to embrace the smaller garden that we have. As a result we’ve gone from having a rather mediocre space to having something that draws comments and admiration from visitors. I’ve chosen to celebrate the garden space we have and risen to the challenges that space limitation offers.

To do that I really thought hard about what a garden should be for, as for many things in modern life, gardens can also become status symbols, and as such appreciating them for what we actually gain from them and learn from them becomes overlooked.

Our garden performs many functions and meets many of my expectations despite its small size:

  1. I can grow fruit and vegetables in it. I grow up walls, in planters and pots and in our front garden. As such, despite the small harvests I have learned about the growing cycle and can eat food that has been grown in our soil.
  2. Somewhere to sit is important. Having somewhere to sit in a garden and listen to the birds, enjoy the fresh air and be among green, growing things is key for me, hence the six seating spaces. One allows me and my son to sit and watch the son come up and eat our breakfast. The second is next to our (very small) pond, but it is home to a frog nonetheless. The third is in the front garden. This is one of my favourite seats – in the summer the sun moves to the front of the house and it’s a great place to enjoy the evening warmth and stillness. A fourth is an area of decking where a living roof of a grape vine and boston ivy grows. Another is a raised bed on which I’ve built a little perch. I want to plant a scented clematis near this so I can enjoy its fragrance. Finally I built a very little summer house with a pull-down table and two benches.
  3. We have several trees, one of which, a rowan has had a treehouse built around it, which leads me to point number 4…
  4. It offers somewhere for our son to play. We don’t have the space to buy off-the-shelf garden toys such as swings, climbing frames etc, so we have built a treehouse with a slide, and a couple of dens. We don’t have the room for him to play football, but as we live around the corner from a large playing field, I’m rather glad that he won’t spend all his summers round nextdoor’s asking for his ball back!
  5. It offers a place for wildlife. We have trees for birds, berry-bearing shrubs such as cotoneaster, rowan and pyracantha. The front garden is maintained with minimal intervention to leave it to wildlife.
  6. A garden is the first place that a child interacts with nature. It’s also in an increasingly urban world a place where adults can interact with an environment that allows them to engage with things that aren’t plastic and manufactured.
  7. Hanging washing out. I love the smell of washing when it’s dried in the open. We have a covered area at the side of the house that means I can dry washing all year round.
  8. In modern parlance gardens are now entertaining spaces or outdoor rooms. We have a lovely enclosed area filled with wooden benches and underneath a golden birch where we can sit and eat in the summer or sit outside round a chiminea at Christmas time.

In short, despite its size, our garden is a little piece of urban paradise and fulfils all the things that a garden should do.

“My little plot, my little Eden I call it. So small, but so well beloved.” EF Benson.

Who made this?

“Mummy,” who made this? Says my four-year-old as he regards the wicker fire-basket that sits by the hearth with the bemused and fascinated awe that comes with children that age.

I was slightly unsure what to reply to this, as I so often am with some of his questions. I am vaguely aware, after watching some recent hipster crafting programme on tv that wicker isn’t able to be made by machine, only by hand. So I had to reply that indeed someone had woven the fire-basket but that I hadn’t the first clue who it was. This feeling of having a hand-made item in our home made by person or persons unknown made me feel a bit uncomfortable. This surely must be the epitome of globalised commerce, that items can be made anywhere in the world then just become anonymous items that wash up without any story or real provenance in our western homes.

My son quickly moved on to his Lego, unaware of my discombobulation. But for a few days afterwards the thought wouldn’t go away. Why do we have items in our home that we don’t know the story of? The fire-basket has a lid that I made last year from some old floorboards we had taken up; I loved their patina and the fact they had supported feet for 60 years. They had a story I valued but I wasn’t applying the same logic to other things in our house.

Now, obviously  it wouldn’t be very green or responsible to go through every item in the house and get rid of anything that doesn’t have a back story, but as part of the general declutter that’s been going on for the last few months I have decided to apply a degree of discernment to what’s in our house.  There are also, I’ve discovered, ways to add a touch of humanity to manufactured items. I started with the kitchen table and chairs. They’re nearly a decade old and after four years of my son sitting and mostly throwing his meals around and wiping his sticky hands on the seat pads they are looking past their best. So I set to sanding the veneered surface down and painting the woodwork a gorgeous soft grey. I can now see paintmarks; which are reassuring evidence of my handiwork. I repurposed some old fabric, ‘Is this my old Play-Doh mummy?’ as well as getting hold of some new I then recovered the old seatpads. Just a few hours, but it has made all the difference. I’ve prolonged the life of the table and chairs. In a few years if we fancy a change of colour then I can just repaint and recover, again. I’ve prolonged the life of the furniture and also added some ‘humanity’ to it. Two for the price of one. Antidode: Ensure that the things in your home have stories. They’ll mean more to you and you’ll guard against inviting things through the door that don’t.

 

Sisyphean sewing tasks

A couple of months ago I bought a pair of trousers, and something about them made me question several things, who had made them, and what was the true cost beyond what I had paid at the till?

As with so many things with our economic model, there really was no way of finding out, so to avoid any more attacks of a queasy conscience, I decided that henceforth I would make my own trousers. How hard could it be after all?

Turns out that it was more difficult than I imagined. Pre-washing the fabric to allow for shrinkage was a lesson I learned after I shrunk the first pair and the now-too-short hemmed bottoms ended up flapping round my shins. Fabric choice was another lesson to learn, as the first lot of fabric I bought was white with pastel butterflies on it. I thought it was pretty and boho, my four-year-old asked me why I was wearing a pair of pajamas, during the day.

But having made one pair of trousers, simply by tracing the ones that I’d bought and had sent me down this path, I went on to make several more, honing my ability as I went along. I then challenged myself to make a few tops, using the same technique: tracing existing clothing and learning on the job.

There are loads of plusses with this I’ve found. 1. I can finally get trousers long enough. 2. I can circumnavigate what I’m told to wear by the fashion police, as I now only sew clothes that suit me and fit me properly ignoring being told that red is the only colour to wear during the three summer months of 2017 or that floral blankets a la post-twins Beyonce are the only things to be seen dead in. 3. I know who made my clothes. Me.

I’ll also be less willing to surrender them to a charity bag and will be more careful about not getting them stained. I’m awful for just doing a bit of painting or DIY and not putting scruffs on to do it!

So far so virtuous right? Nope, there was me thinking that from now on I could quell my queasy conscience regarding clothing, as one of the four major ways we impact on the environment (the others being transport, housing and food).

A few weeks into my new-found epiphany for making my own clothes I was confronted with a photograph on the Guardian website of a tide of toxic slurry apparently from a foreign fabric dyeing plant. So, my making my own clothes could be seen as a good thing, but what do you do to close the loop about fabric sourcing?

During my research I came across Mark Boyle’s Moneyless Man blog where I discovered that to be truly revolutionary and green in terms of clothing I need to be growing my own hemp and nettles and weaving cloth from them instead of sourcing fabric from a nice lady in a nice fabric shop. I guess that rules out using a sewing machine too, as to be truly authentic and post-apocalyptic I really need to be using a needle hewn from a piece of bone.

There are times when trying to do the ‘right’ thing seems like a Sisyphean task – like gender-neutral parenting or trying to keep your kids away from Disney. You’re pushing uphill against a cultural and societal tide that threatens to swamp you coming from the other direction. But, it won’t stop me from trying. I still love my homemade trousers, even if they look like nightwear!

ANTIDOTE: Making my own clothes has stopped me drifting into clothes shops thinking I can buy my way to looking a certain way. It’s a trap. The dream in the shop rarely translates into reality at home.

The first world problems of kids’ birthday parties

I know I sound churlish, but I really do have a difficult relationship with children’s parties. Yesterday we went to the daughter of one of our close friends’ sixth birthday party. It was a disco with an entertainer in a village hall.

We walked inside from a beautiful sunny day and were met by lots of small people running around a darkened room while seriously loud, almost club-like loud music was playing. Not kids’ music or tunes, but club music, with videos. A five-year-old girl walked in wearing scarlet lipstick. I sympathised with our son, who, when faced with his unfavourite things; darkness combined with noise, turned around and tried to go back out.

Eventually we coaxed him into the melee and we retreated to help out with the food in the kitchen, where endless packages of crisps, biscuits, cakes and popcorn were opened, and decanted into bowls. The bin got more and more full; I kept trying to distract myself my saying that my son was enjoying all the mayhem, as was the birthday girl. Surely my unease was just me being a misery, after all what’s a few plastic containers, cups and plates being chucked out if it made a few children happy? But on a sunny Saturday in June this will have been replicated up and down the country. All those plastic containers, so brief in their use, casually discarded and forgotten about, just destined for landfill. Towards the end our son made a bid for the door, for grass, freedom and sunshine. I, meanwhile, helped with the tidying up; taking a big plastic sack of rubbish out to the bin, thinking of how carefully I try to sort things out at home for the compost bin, the fire, the recycle. How I try to be a better gatekeeper.

There must be a way of jumping off the kids’ birthday party merry-go-round with its attendant pressure to invite the entire class and to be bigger and better. Surely they are symptomatic of our out-of-sync way of living? We in the 21st century create and live in ‘a volcano of waste’ and it’s morally as well as materially unacceptable for us to just carry on as if this standard of lifestyle can continue ad infinitum.

So, what do we do this year when it comes to our son’s fifth birthday? Do we not do it at all and opt out of the whole thing? Or do we do a greener version with homemade food at our home? I mentioned to my friend that I dread the gifts at birthdays and Christmas and that I really hate the current trend for piling up your kids’ presents on these occasions in front of the fireplace and Facebooking about how much they’ve got. I suggested that I could put on the invites not to bring presents, but she looked at me like I’d just said I was going to vote for Lord Buckethead.

After the party we drove home past the woods near where we live and decided to opt for a family walk. It was such a palate cleanser, greenery, sunlight and mud. I may have imagined this but our son seemed to relish the freedom and natural feel of being in the woods running around looking for logs and bridges to cross. I certainly did, I could feel my shoulders drop as I soaked up the bird song and crunchy leaves underfoot. I feel much more at home in the woods than in noise and endless plastic containers (not that the woods are free of plastic litter, but that’s a subject for another day), but maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m the one who’s out of tune? But then I think to myself, as I try to swim against the tide, what if I’m the one who’s right and they’re wrong? Such existentialism doesn’t sort the to-birthday-party or to not-birthday-party dilemma though or our love of the disposable. First world problems.

#PlasticFreeJuly