A Skirmish of Siskins and other Garden Visitors

January 16th

We have a new garden visitor. I spied a lone pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) under one of the bird feeders as I was eating my breakfast. We’ve heard him calling for a few days, assuming he was a runaway from a local shoot, taking refuge in a neighbour’s garden. Today he is visiting us. Easy pickings here. He’s taking full advantage of seeds dropped by the goldfinches and sparrows, which don’t seem to mind his presence. We watch him strut about, before he finally squeezes through a gap in the fence and out into the fields.

The bird feeders are busy today, it’s cold and damp. A light drizzle that hasn’t put off the birds. I’m reluctant to step outside. I am bored of wrapping up in coat, hat, gloves and pulling on wellies for every garden chore. I long for spring and warm mornings spent drinking coffee on the garden bench. A few days ago, I made a new feeding station for the robins and blackbirds. I had noticed the blackbirds had been grubbing about in one of the hanging baskets left out over winter. I found an old plate in the greenhouse and put it on top of the soil, adding a few seeds and some raisins. On a whim I hung a seed feeder from the bracket (it had been languishing near the house, most of the birds too shy to feed there regularly). Today I count three great tits feeding greedily and a male robin pecking underneath. It seems that my haphazard arrangement is a success.

We now have three distinct feeding areas, and I’ve noticed a hierarchy among our regular visitors. The goldfinches prefer the feeder that hangs from the apple tree; they flap around noisily waiting their turn, balancing on thin stalks of the Verbena Bonariensis, hoping to find the last few seeds in the dried heads. THis is where the woodpecker feeds every morning. Beside this, a fat ball tower that is the domain of the starlings and beyond that a nut feeder that is beloved by great tits. On the other side of the garden, another fat ball feeder is where the sparrows gather. Mostly house sparrows, the dunnocks prefer to dance around the base of the conifers, hoovering scraps.  Further along the fence is my new addition, close to where the wren can often be spotted, darting out of the conifer hedge to forage amongst the kale and leeks.

The robins and blackbirds will dot around the garden, pulling worms from the damp grass, gobbling up scraps dropped by the other birds and watching me as I step outside to fill the feeders. The robins will often sit in the elder tree watching me. Last winter I started dropping a few seeds on the lid of the feed bin to encourage them down, but apart from one brave fella the others remain timid.

I look up from my laptop (I’m writing this at the dining table), a skirmish has caught my attention. The siskins have arrived and clearly think the goldfinches have been too greedy, their call is high pitched and they jab at the goldfinches with their beaks. The bird feeder is empty, so even if they could get their turn, nothing is left. I take pity on them and prepare to go outside.

I’m dressed like an arctic explorer. As soon as I step beyond the green house all the birds take flight. Two wood pigeons sit in the taller branches of the silver birch waiting. The skirmish has left scraps under the apple tree and they’re biding their time, they’ll fly down soon and have another feast. The squirrel is so hungry, he carries on hoovering up the sunflower hearts from the feeder next to the woodshed. He won’t stop until I pick up the rubber trug beside him to gather logs for the fire.

I walk around the garden, taking in any changes. There are a few snowdrops about to open and daffodils. I pick up silver birch twigs from the grass and wind them into bundles to use as fire lighters. The blue tits and blackbirds begin to call to each other, I am serenaded by a bird I cannot see in the tall branches of my neighbour’s damson. I could stand here watching and listening all morning. The chaffinches have ventured down to scavenge under the feeders, a group of about ten males and females. They swoop about, oblivious to the other birds and their garden politics. A blackbird is having a drink of water from the bowl under the hazel tree, the birds tolerate me, but they will be happier once I step inside.

Back indoors, I pull off the layers, stack wood by the fire, and take another look out of the window – yes – squirrel still there. She’s on top of the wood shed now, nibbling some treasure. I am off to town for a birthday lunch with a friend today, so I kick off my wellies, checking for mud on my jeans. Too lazy to change, I think I’ll do and go in search of a birthday card to write and her present to wrap.

Birds from the Train

Yesterday I took the train to Manchester. I chose to take the slow train from Mouldsworth, our local station. It’s a long, meandering journey through the Cheshire countryside, calling at Delamere Forest, Plumley and Knutsford before finally reaching the suburbs of Manchester. I like this route, you can always get a seat and there are plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching.

Soon after we passed Delamere, I spotted a heron flying over the mere. They have such a wide wingspan and long, long legs. I often wonder how they stay balanced in the water. During the rest of the journey I ticked off: jackdaws, a lone pheasant, the sudden blue flash of a jay as we passed through Mobberley and the usual assortment of crows, blackbirds and watched a pair of rabbits running through the allotments at Northwich.

But, it was the journey home where I really struck gold. It was just after four o’clock and we were approaching Northwich. I like this bit of the route, which passes the river Weaver and the Trent and Mersey canal. I spotted a large, inky black gathering of birds, forming and reforming in the grey black sky. Starlings. A few hundred – not a huge gathering – but the biggest I’ve seen for a while. A few other passengers had noticed too, and as the train slowed and then stopped to let a fast train pass by, we sat mesmerised as the starlings played out their formation dancing for us. A little girl asked her Mum what they were “I don’t know sweetie, blackbirds maybe”.

I couldn’t help myself, “They’re starlings”, I told her. “It’s called a Murmuration, we’re lucky to see it”. The mother replied that she’d never seen one before and reached for her phone to take a picture. The little girl sat, playing with her thumbs, repeating over and over to herself “Murmination, murmination”, enjoying the sound of the word and spellbound by the birds. I didn’t have the heart to correct her.

It may only have been a couple of minutes, maybe less before the train moved off again, but I tucked away the memory. It’s almost a year since I last saw a murmuration, I always think of them as precious gifts. Any grumbles about the wet weather, the crowds of Manchester were forgotten. Despite the fact that it rained all day, my jeans were wet and I needed of a strong mug of tea to revive me and take the edge off a busy day, the sight of the starlings, dancing and cavorting with such precision and grace was quite magical.

When I was home, I saw a couple of people had photographed the siting from near the canal and posted them on Twitter, apparently sightings are common there. I found this video on Youtube taken by a man called Ian Coventry in 2016 at Neumann’s Flash, which is close to where I spotted my starlings. Our sighting was much, much smaller.

These small glimpses of the natural world, of birds and animals oblivious to humans fill me with joy, whether it’s the chattering delight of the chaffinches in my garden or a lamb calling for its mother. They remind me there is beauty in the ordinary.

The Blackbird

blackbirdThe blackbird (Turdus Merula), is my favourite garden regular (I’m fickle, so that will change, I can easily fall for the charms of a cheeky squirrel, a bold robin or the delightful wren). In the grey half light I can see six today, five males and one bold female who has tired of fighting off their advances and has taken to sitting in my neighbour’s damson tree.

Two males sit like sentinels on the garden fence, facing each other. it’s just after 4pm and soon it will be dark. The garden is quiet, most of the birds have disappeared for the day, the other blackbirds sit in the tangled branches of the silver birch. They don’t call to each other or sing at this time of day, they seem content to sit and keep watch. Unlike other birds that seem to gather in flocks, the blackbirds sit together, but separate. They are aware of each other, but fly and feed independently. There have been skirmishes all day as they seem to be working out their territory. I wonder if any of these are the offspring of last year’s pair. The ones who  raised two clutches of eggs. I remember we watched helpless as the second clutch was attacked by magpies. The male and female doing their best to defend their nest, but the bigger birds won out, taking the bodies of the young up to the highest branches and gloating as the blackbird pair cried out and flew angrily at them, jabbing the magpies with their beaks. Nature is a cruel thing sometimes.

I have stepped out to fill the wood basket, which disturbs them a little. They soon settle though, not startled into the air like the smaller birds. The goldfinches and sparrows are skittish, these blackbirds seem calmer, happier to share the garden with us. These are the birds that will follow me as I weed and dig, happily grubbing for worms at my feet. Our neighbour has a “tame” blackbird who will feed from his hand. Ours seem content to follow us around the garden, occasionally coming close, but not too close.

The male blackbird is easily spotted, his dark plumage and yellow beak are easy to spot. The female is smaller, brown feathered and doesn’t have the yellow beak or ring around her eye. The females in our garden are more cautious. We often see more blackbirds in winter, I wonder if they are transient visitors or migrants. Or maybe our garden is just “neutral territory” because there is so much food here that they visit from other gardens and then return to roost or shelter in other gardens.

In autumn, these birds stripped the berries from the elder, then gorged themselves on the bright red jewels of the cotoneaster (the photo above was taken in autumn). Now they scavenge for worms and grubs. In spring, they are the first birds we hear in the dawn chorus, one likes to sit in our neighbours crab apple and serenade us at 5am. On those mornings, the blackbird is no longer my favourite and I wish he would stay silent until a more reasonable hour!

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A larger birds swoops low and fast over the garden, a sparrowhawk perhaps or an owl maybe. Whatever it was, it has spooked the blackbirds. They fly away, each in a different direction. I lift a few more logs into the basket and find the dead body of a goldfinch. His body is intact, his plumage perfect, maybe he sheltered here and died of cold (last night was bitter). I pick him up and carry him to the end of the garden, tossing his light body into the fields. As I turn, I see the silhouette of a large bird in the silver birch, maybe the one that spooked the blackbirds. I think that maybe it is an owl. I carry the log basket inside, making a mental note to look up owls in the bird books and see if I can identify it. I pull off my coat, hat, gloves and scarf, kick off my wellies. I clasp my hands around the tea pot, wondering if the contents are warm enough for one last mug before I light the fire. Taking my tea into the living room, I’m drawn to the window. Yes, that’s definitely an owl in the apple tree. I reach for my camera, knowing that it’s too dark, that any photo won’t be worth keeping and as if knowing my plans, a graceful and not identified owl glides away over the fields. It’s properly dark now and another cold winter night begins.

Nature Nurtures Me

nurtured by nature.jpgWhen I was a child, my dad would often disappear for walks. occasionally he’d take us with him, point out grebes swimming on the river, name the trees and the wild flowers or explain why we shouldn’t pick the hogweed*. Mostly he walked in silence, and it’s only now I’m a grown up that I understand his need to be outdoors.

You see, nature nurtures us. In the late 1980’s, I worked in a school in the suburbs of Manchester, it had a stream running through the grounds and some of our more enlightened staff knew that making sure our “troubled children” had access to that space, to “dip” in the pond, discover pond skaters, damselflies and grubs made life easier in the classroom. Those kids were calmer, more able to sit and listen. As teachers, we noticed a difference too, we talked about “clearing away the cobwebs” or how lovely it was to breather fresh air. Truth be told, we dragged those kids outside as much for our own well being as theirs! Thirty years ago it wasn’t called “Forest School” or the “outdoor classroom”, it was just informal access to nature  and we knew the benefits without mountains of research papers to tell us why access to the outdoors mattered. Everyone looked forward to dry days when we could step outside and weave an appreciation of nature into the curriculum – and if you are sceptical of the effect of nature on mood and behaviour, visit any school playground on a windy day and take note of how it affects the children – our dinner ladies* used to  dread windy lunch times!

on the rocks

Whilst we were encouraging those kids to spend time outside, feel the sun on their backs and the wind in their faces, the recognition that being outdoors could improve well being was being accepted across the world. In Japan, the concept known as  “Shinrin – Yoku” (sometimes called “forest bathing” )was gathering momentum. The healing power of being outdoors was accepted as a legitimate course of treatment. Even the NHS implemented changes to hospital design and organisation after published research that showed patients with beds near the window healed faster and went home sooner! (Roger Ulrich‘s research was first published in 1984 and was considered ground breaking at the time).*

Of course, now the media have embraced this concept as “new” and innovative and now we all read constantly that being outdoors is good for the soul as this piece in the Guardian shows, Author and nature lover Emma Mitchell has embraced the idea of being outdoors as a strategy to ensure her mental well being . If you’re interested, then the nature Fix by Florence Williams is definitely worth a read. It’s a fascinating account and exploration of the healing possibilities of nature.

Even the smallest access to green space ( or just being able to see it through a window) can improve out mental and physical health. Notice how children will press their noses to the window on rainy days, anxious to connect with the outdoors. This need to be in nature is with us from the earliest age. I try to eat my breakfast, or at least gulp a mug of tea in the garden every morning. I think of it as a time to balance myself before the onslaught of social media, emails and deadlines. Even better, if I can squeeze in a walk in the forest or through the woods I know my day will be calmer and more productive.  If you’re interested in reading more about this, then I thoroughly recommend  this article in Business Insider, which lists “12 science backed reasons why spending more time outside is healthy“.

Garden Robin

Spending time outdoors has allowed me to observe nature close up, my photographs of birds, butterflies and garden wildlife are a happy accident of time spent sitting, walking or watching. I know that my mental and physical health improves when I get outside, I notice less pain and inflammation in my joints and I often discover the solution to a problem or difficulty. We need access to sunlight to manufacture vitamin D, so clearly the need to be within nature is built into our DNA?

There still needs to be more willingness to accept the existing evidence that nature heals, and to continue to research the best and most effective ways we can use what we already know. Children cooped up in classrooms, prisoners on almost 24 hour a day “lock down”, patients denied access to the outdoors because health care providers prefer to keep them in their beds “where we can see you” and office workers who lunch at their desks because stepping outside the office is no longer the norm. Everyone can benefit from a change in attitude and policy.

It’s hard to ignore the evidence. Nature nurtures, sustains, revives and inspires us. We should all spend more time outside, every day.

 

*The sap is irritating and can cause a nasty rash – leave it alone!

*During my time as a student Nurse, Ulrich’s research was causing a stir. A new hospital wing was designed around a courtyard, so patients could not only see the gardens, but walk in them through patio doors

*dinner ladies / lunch time supervisors

 

Five on Friday

elderflowers 2016I thought it was time to resurrect my weekly round up of things I’m reading, watching and listening to. As usual, this is an eclectic mix of things that have caught my attention or made me pause for thought this week. And also a reminder, there are still elderflowers out there, so it’s not too late to make cordial or even  a batch of my Elderflower champagne!

  1. Life on Gartur Stitch Farm. Kat writes a blog and posts photos of life with her family on a semi remote smallholding in Scotland. A dip into her Instagram or blog is always a treat, and this week her sourdough recipe caught my eye. A  good introduction to their everyday life is this post, written back in March. I often think of Kat when I’m gathering food from the hedgerow or folding my sourdough and mulling over the way our lives overlap. She’s also one of the creative team behind The Crochet Project, together with Joanne Scrace they design and publish an inspired and beautiful collection of patterns each season. It’s impossible to pick out a favourite.
  2. Under the Sea. While I was baking earlier this week, I caught the end of The Life Scientific on Radio 4, I was so intrigued, I searched on iplayer to listen again to this interview with Rachel Mills an oceanographer. We know so little about the world of the deep oceans and this insight into exploration, conservation and a woman’s life in science was the best of this week’s radio.
  3. What’s the Beef With Eating Meat? This article written on the Piper’s Farm blog struck a chord with me. Animal welfare, conservation and ecological issues all sit high on my “agenda”, so it was interesting to read this piece   on modern farming written from the farmer’s perspective.
  4. Belgian Beer Culture. I like to listen to Radio 4’s the Food Programme on catch up as we’re so often busy when it’s first broadcast. In this episode Dan Saladino takes us on a  tour of Belgium’s beer and brewing culture. If (like me), your only experience of Belgian beer is a few bottles knocked back on a boozy weekend in Bruges, this will be a revelation. Mr T and I have already pencilled in a weekend to go and explore, armed with this Guide to Belgian Cafe Culture, written by the lovely Regula Ysewijn (who also features in this episode).
  5. A Daily Dose of Robert McFarlane. I still dip into Twitter on a daily basis. All of Robert’s  books are worth a read and his daily posts of lost, overlooked words are always worth checking out. Regular readers might recall this post about my “undersong” which made reference to his book Landmarks.

I told you it was eclectic….

Kitchen Chemistry

kitchen chemistry.jpgHave you ever wondered about all the science that happens in a busy kitchen? Raising agents added to cakes, the fermentation of wine or bread, the amazement on a child’s face when you add baking powder to hot syrup to make honeycomb. I’ve always loved making potions, I was that child who would stuff rose petals into jam jars in the hope of making perfume my mother would want to wear and I never tired of pouring vinegar onto bicarbonate of soda to make volcanoes.

I studied chemistry (failed the A level – like I failed most of my A levels – thank goodness for night school and second chances!) and I’m still fascinated by the alchemy that happens in my kitchen. We don’t often think of it as chemistry, but so much science can be learnt at the kitchen table. More recently, I’ve begun to feel like I need a degree in chemistry just to decipher those ingredients lists – even the ones on the back of my “eco friendly” cleaning products. I have a growing unease about just how “friendly” those products are – and the difficulty in disposing of the packaging irritates me. So, I’ve begun to rediscover some of the old cleaning methods I used when we were to poor to buy the supermarket goodies and Mr T complained the bathroom cleaner made his asthma worse.  I’ve pulled a few old favourites out of my kitchen cupboard, white vinegar, bicarbonate of soda, citric acid, essential oils are all store cupboard essentials here, so why am I not putting them to better use?. My Nanna used to say that you could clean anything if you had enough elbow grease, and she’s right. All these modern cleaning aids, the air fresheners, the silicone polishes, the no rinse shower sprays etc. are meant to make the task of cleaning and maintaining a home easier and speedier. Do they?

A quick survey of the top shelf in my kitchen revealed a scary collection of sprays, creams, cleaners and scourers that I’ve accumulated over the years (does any home really need four  different kinds of leather cleaner / conditioner?)  we even have a bottle of carpet cleaner – even though we have no carpets – just wooden floors! Some of them haven’t been used for years and some of them don’t even contain their original products (the very expensive eco friendly widow spray I bought because it promised to smell of lavender, but didn’t) was soon refilled with my old favourite white vinegar and lavender essential oil, which does a better job). I’m ashamed to say I have a bookshelf full of books on natural home making, recipes for window cleaners, beeswax polish and advice on creating a natural home. They need to start making themselves useful and I’m determined to start mixing up a few chemistry experiments once we’re back from our summer holiday. I already make my own hand salves and lotions, and I will pour a spoonful of bicarbonate of soda onto a burnt pan to make it easier to clean (especially since we banned the plastic sponge scourers). So it shouldn’t be that hard to start whipping up a few cleaning and washing potions?

I want to rediscover the joy of stirring potions and making liquids turn to solids. Yesterday, I dusted off those books and began to make a list of all the things I need to buy (turns out not much) to make my own furniture polish, shower spray, floor cleaner and air fresheners. I’ll share the recipes and results here so you can join in too if you like.

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If you’re interested, some of the books on my shelf are: 1001 Country Househld Hints, Sloe Gin and Beeswax (definitely worth seeking out for the jam, cordial and cheese recipes and Pia Tryde’s lovely photography)  and Rachelle Blondell’s  collection of traditional recipes and remedies Forgotten Ways for Modern Days. You might also want to start hoarding your jam jars, glass bottles and empty spray bottles…

Photo credit: Brooke Lark

5 Plastic Free Shop Swaps

plastic free ocado shopBack in January I wrote a post complaining that shopping online was thwarting my attempts to reduce the amount of plastic coming into my home. Several people challenged me to “try harder” and so I’m pretty proud to say that our general household waste bin has only been emptied once since January and the plastics recycling bin has only been emptied twice. In fact, the straight to landfill  “black bin”, the one that just seems to be full of crisp packets, plastic bags from supermarket veg and non recyclable plastic trays was emptied by mistake – only half full, our local refuse collectors thought they were “doing me a favour” by coming down the drive and collecting it on Tuesday. They though we’d forgotten about it and acted out of kindness. So, now the black bin sits empty and I’m darn sure I’m going to do my best to keep it that way.

So, what are these simple steps I’ve discovered to maintain my addiction to a weekly online supermarket shop, but still cut my plastic? Here are my top five, in  no particular order.

  1. Choose cardboard over plastic food containers. Barilla pasta comes in cardboard packets, with no plastic liner. There’s a small cello window which can’t be recycled. But it’s easily removed before recycling or composting. I’ve also found several companies sell boxes of risotto rice, our favourite is Riso Gallo carnarolli, which is stocked by Ocado. Just by making these two simple swaps we’ve cut our plastic significantly.  (Gluten free foodies might be interested to know that the Barilla GF pasta is a pretty good substitute, especially for pasta bakes).
  2. Choose jars and tins over packets and pouches. Just about every pulse and vegetable is available in a can or a glass jar. We use lots of “ready to eat” chick peas, kidney beans and veg. Metal, like glass,  is easy to recycle. Look for olive oil in glass bottles instead of plastic and ditch that squeezy ketchup for a good old fashioned bottle ( a long handled spoon or a knife is great for scooping out the last dregs if you forget to store them upside down).
  3. Cardboard cotton buds. I know “that photo” of the seahorse wrapped around a cotton bud is hard to unsee, but it might surprise you that most of the big brands switched to cardboard cores for their cotton buds some time ago and they’re easy to find in most supermarkets. Remember to bin them (or chuck in the compost) – don’t flush them!
  4. Fruit and veg in plastic trays and poly bags are pretty hard to avoid if you shop online. But at least these organic tomatoes came in a cardboard tray that can be thrown in my compost bin or recycled – I know, the wrapper  is non recyclable in my area, but it’s one less black plastic food tray – so I’m calling that a win. In addition, the bunch of garlic came with a biodegradable label and tie.
  5. Not pictured here, but one of the easiest switches is possibly to ditch those plastic washing pods that laundry detergent manufacturers are so desperate for us all to buy. Like most of us, I was suckered into buying a box of “pods” when they were on special offer. They are very convenient, but I’ve switched back to a bulk box of non bio powder. The cardboard box is easy to compost or recycle. I don’t use fabric conditioner, so there’s been no need to look for an alternative to those plastic bottle or pouches.

These simple swaps have made a huge difference to our plastic waste and to be honest, we’ve not noticed a difference in our spending. We’ve also stopped buying liquid soap for guests. We use bars of “hard soap” and for visitors who don’t like the thought of sharing soap I’ve been refilling the old hand wash dispenser with a home  made version (I’ll share the recipe soon).

I’ve started making a note of the things we were already doing, and which have become second nature. I’m going to start sharing these more regularly.  It’s almost 10 years since the Guardian featured our “Green Lifestyle” . The simple steps we were taking then to reduce our energy consumption, use environmentally friendly cleaning products and cut our waste should have become the norm for all households. It’s a sad  fact that they haven’t. I want to write more posts about the changes we’ve made over the past 20 years, partly to celebrate our achievements, but also to show how easy it can be to shop and live more thoughtfully, yet with little effort. I’m pretty sure we’ve also saved money, but that’s hard to evaluate because I’ve always been parsimonious (posh speak for mean with my money!)

Manufacturers continue to bombard us with adverts for stuff we don’t need to solve problems we never really had in the first place. They play on our feelings of guilt and self esteem (smelly laundry? buy deodorising capsules. Embarassed by bad smells in the bathroom? Squirt your toilet bowl with special potions before you poop and emerge without a red face. And worried about nasty germs? Coat every surface in your house with antibacterial sprays). Just by refusing to buy into their marketing, you’ll save money and reduce your environmental impact.

It’s not easy, I know. But every step  is a step a step in the right direction.  My simple swaps are just the start. We’ve a long road ahead, but at least we’ve begun.

 

Rhubarb and Ginger Gin (a recipe)

peak rhubarb.jpgWe’ve reached “peak rhubarb”, that point in the season when we no longer look forward to a rhubarb crumble, even my favourite rhubarb fool (made with stewed rhubarb whipped into freshly made custard) no longer appeals. But my rhubarb patch is at the top of its game, huge pink stalks appear almost daily. There’s jam of course (rhubarb and ginger is a rather fine jam), but we’ve grown tired of the huge number of jars that lurk in the fridge as we don’t eat enough of the stuff to justify making more than a couple of jars. Cordials are a good option, and for the last few years I have made lots of this for quaffing on summer evenings. A couple of years ago, someone gave me a bottle of Edinburgh Gin’s Rhubarb and Ginger Liqueur and that sparked an idea to make my own flavoured gin.

Let’s hope we’re heading into a long, warm summer. The kind where we’ll sit out on the patio or in the park until late in the evening. Sip a cheeky glass of something in good company and spend lazy weekends watching the world go by. That’s my kind of slow summer. But just in case we find ourselves in the middle of a wet August huddled around the BBQ and in need of something to lift our spirits, this gin recipe might be just the thing!

Many of you will be familiar with sloe, damson or strawberry gin. Rhubarb however might be new to you. It’s a great make for summer, quick and incredibly easy. If you make it now, it will be ready to take along to summer BBQs in July and August – much tastier (and a little more original) than a green salad or a bottle of Rose! The sharp notes of ginger don’t play nicely with tonic (at least not in my opinion), so experiment with different mixers or serve over ice – in moderation of course!

You’ll need a large jar with a wide neck, caster sugar, rhubarb (the pinker the better), a small piece of fresh ginger and a bottle of gin (cheap and cheerful, no fancy botanicals necessary). Whenever I make flavoured gin, brandy or vodka, I tend to judge the quantities by eye, but if you stick to proportions of 1 part sugar to 2 parts fruit and 4 parts alcohol that should give a sweet enough concoction. (so for this batch I’m using roughly 250g sugar, 500g rhubarb and 1 litre of gin). Pink rhubarb will impart a pretty colour, while green stalks will produce a more amber colour, either way it tastes delicious.

rhubarb and ginger cordial shot

Roughly chop the rhubarb and slice the ginger thinly (no need to peel),  pop them in your jar and pour on the sugar, stir with a wooden spoon to combine. Add your gin and screw the lid on. Leave in a dark, cool place for a week, turning the jar every day so the sugar dissolves. Then leave it alone for two more weeks. Strain through a jelly bag or coffee filter paper. Leave it overnight so that you extract as much gin as possible. Bottle, label and drink neat over ice, diluted with soda or lemonade. Of course, you can leave out the ginger if that thought does nothing for your tastebuds. You could add a vanilla pod instead or just go for straight rhubarb. Just as an aside, in the photo above, the bottle contains rhubarb cordial made with the late summer green rhubarb stalks, while the glass contains an early batch of gin flavoured with the young pink stalks.

For a non alcoholic option, a rhubarb and ginger cordial is a delicious choice. I’ll share some of my favourite fruit cordial recipes here over the summer, but if you can’t wait then you’ll find a great Rhubarb syrup recipe in Wild Cocktails by Lottie Muir, or try Sarah Raven’s Rhubarb Cordial, which you’ll find here. 

Also, it’s not too late to go foraging for elderflowers to make a batch of Elderflower Champagne, you’ll find my recipe by clicking here!

 

How Sustainable is Your Yarn?

20151007_125641I love working with natural fibres, and British wool in particular. I love seeking  out small producers and listening to them share the story of their yarn. Maybe that stems from a childhood spent on the hills and the fells, seeing sheep in their natural environment. I like to think my British wool is a more sustainable purchase. It’s a natural product, available in a myriad of undyed shades and it’s biodegradable. But is there more to this issue of “sustainability” than just sourcing and disposing of the product?

The whole issue of sustainability is complex and fraught with issues that divide as much as they unite those of us who care about the natural world and our fellow humans. This is especially true when it comes to textiles as many of us don’t really consider the manufacture or disposal of our clothes. For knitters, crocheters and many other yarn crafters, the question of sustainable yarn is only just making it’s way into the mainstream debate. And while many of us are proudly carrying our re-usable coffee cups and refusing plastic bags, there is a huge proportion that continue to knit, crochet and craft with plastic yarn without any thought of it’s origins or future environmental impact.

For years now I’ve had to justify why I’m not a fan of man made fibres and prefer to use cotton, linen or wool for my makes and my designs. My  dislike of acrylic yarn isn’t snobbery. I just care about the long term environmental impact of mass produced textiles and yarns. They  use chemicals, oil and energy to an extent  that is not ecologically sustainable. Many are neither recyclable  nor biodegradable and end up in incinerators or landfill sites. The availability of cheap yarn has opened up knitting and crochet for everyone, with little or no consideration of where the yarn comes from, how it’s made or what might happen to our  projects when they reach they end of their natural life (I’m pretty sure most pilled and baggy acrylic sweaters still end up in landfill and oddments and left overs suffer the same fate).

The production of oil-based synthetic fabrics like nylon, acrylic and polyester requires the mining, refining, and processing of oil. In addition, both man made and natural fibres  use a myriad of toxic additives and colours, as well as massive amounts of energy and water. Many of the chemicals used in the textile industry (such as lead, nickel and formaldehyde) are known to have a negative impact on public health, nature and biodiversity. In addition, many textiles are made in sweatshops  linked to multiple human rights violations, including child labour, sub-minimum wages,and unsafe working conditions.

That all sounds pretty vile and it’s clear that the debate isn’t as cut and dried as man made Vs natural fibres anymore (if it ever was!).

There are no easy choices, and over the years I’ve had to make compromises, requesting “wool rich” yarns for commissions or choosing cotton yarns that might (or might not) have been dyed using harmful chemical in factories that don’t respect their workers  rights. Cotton production is one of the largest industrial consumers of pesticides, fertilizers and water. Contamination of the natural environment and negative impacts on human and animal health are common in cotton growing regions. (You can read more about cotton production on the WWF website if you’re interested).

Then of course, there are yarns made from linen, hemp, bamboo, tencel, recycled polyester and reclaimed fibres. How are we supposed to find our way through the maze of sustainability issues and find a solution that works for us? And, now of course, there is a growing interest in sourcing vegan or cruelty free yarns. Many suppliers sell “vegan” yarn and there are forums and facebook groups dedicated to sharing new discoveries of “cruelty free” yarn. However,  vegan yarns are often  made from nylon or a combination of polymers. Once again this raises the question of “sustainability”.  And, I keep asking myself, is the marine life affected by plastic pollution  of less value than a sheep? But that’s an issue for another day perhaps. There are a number of online retailers selling plant based fibres that have addressed this issue and I’ve included  some of them at the end of this post – they are a great source of information for anyone looking to source non animal fibres – whether that’s for ethical or personal reasons – or maybe you’re just one of the many who find wool, cashmere and alpaca too “scratchy”!

Fortunately, there are a number of yarn companies, shops and small scale suppliers who care about animal welfare, human rights and  the long term sustainability of  their products. Many are offering a choice of fibres which might make us feel a bit better about the impact our craft has on the environment (and our fellow humans). I’ve compiled a short list which you’ll find at the end of this post. It’s not exhaustive (and do let me know if your favourite isn’t listed here). In addition, I would suggest seeking out small batch wool producers or asking where your wool comes from. Visit yarn shows such as Woolfest (held every June in Cumbria) and talk to suppliers about the rearing and shearing of their animals – genuine interest will be meant with genuine enthusiasm and you shouldn’t be surprised by the amount of love and care that goes into that small flock of sheep, alpaca or goats!

When I do use man made fibres I make sure to think of them as long term projects. I use socks with a small nylon content (meant to add strength and durability), I darn the heels and toes and make sure they last. Leftover scraps of yarn are crocheted into baskets and homewares rather than simply being thrown away. I like to think that by the time they are worn out, there may be a way to recycle or reclaim the fibres and put them to another use. I compost left over wool, and cotton fibres are added to my local council’s textile collection for recycling.

As more of us begin to question the environmental and ethical impacts of our yarn choices, we should take some comfort from the wider textile industry, which has been considering these issues for a number of years already.  Many factories now employ “closed loop” manufacturing processes which reduce pollution, recycle water and reduce exposure of factory workers to harmful chemicals. Plastic manufacturers are being forced to consider alternatives to plastics made from oil and are investing in ways to reclaim post consumer waste, one of the most exciting I’ve come across is  Econyl (use by Finisterre in its swimwear ranges for a few years now), made from 100% post consumer waste nylon. There’s no doubt that regenerating existing nylon and man made fibres is preferable to using new. In the long term, we might see more regenerated yarns available for sale to knitters and crafters (some are mentioned in the list that follows). Perhaps we’ll come to see sustainability as more than just a man made Vs natural fibres debate, but for now my choice for personal projects will still be linen, organic cotton or wool  sourced in the UK from small scale producers and companies that care about the provenance of their raw materials.

Your version of what is sustainable might differ from mine, that’s OK. All I’m asking is that we start to consider the human and environmental impacts of our purchases and ask questions about their manufacture and disposal. I’m interested to know how a love and respect for the natural world sits with our constant cravings for quick, easy and convenient choices. I was raised to love nature, to feel a sense of awe and wonder when I climb a mountain or swim in the sea. It’s hard to feel that way when faced with images of towering landfill, incinerator chimneys or beaches scattered with rubbish washed in with the tide.

Shopping online? Try these:

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London shop Knit with Attitude prides itself on sourcing and supplying a wide range of ethical and sustainable yarn, check out their current stock online or in their bricks and mortar shop.

New to me (but not so new to the scene), online shop  Yarn Yarn sells ethically sourced natural fibres (many of them organic). Many have a price tag that won’t make your eyes water!

Wool and the Gang sell FSC certified Tencel yarn (Tina Tape)  and now have a scheme which donates to Friends of the Earth every time you buy a ball of their Heal  the Wool

Katia Yarns sell a blend of cotton and recycled polyester, which has attracted a lot of interest among yarn enthusiasts. They have also launched “Earth” a blend of merino wool and polyester sourced from recycled PET bottles. These are in addition to their organic wool and cotton ranges. You can buy Katia yarns from Yarnplaza. I’ve been very impressed with the range and prompt service of this online retailer.

Erika Knight sells a gorgeous linen made with 85% recycled rayon and 15% linen that is incredibly soft and has beautiful stitch definition. Studio Linen has become one of my “go to” yarns for soft, drapey garments.

A long time favourite of mine is Eco Baby from Debbie Bliss, a Fairtade, organic cotton that gets softer and softer with washing and is incredibly durable (I’ve been using cotton washcloths made from this yarn over over 5 years – used every day they show very little wear).

Finally, Vegan designer Kate Morris designs garments made from plant based yarns  and has put together a useful graphic on the relative sustainability of various plant based fibres on her website. It’s worth taking a look at how she has classified the merits and environmental impacts of various non animal fibres – I found it really helpful.

 

The Sound of Silence

squirrel.jpgToday I’m back at my desk after the UK Bank Holiday weekend. This year Mr T went away on a “boy’s jolly” to Scotland, and rather than inviting friends to stay or jaunting off, I decided to treat myself to a few days of solitary  peace and quiet here at home.

There is a certain self indulgent joy in choosing not to be social. I got up when the sun woke me, went to bed when I felt tired and spoke to no-one for two whole days. I didn’t find myself feeling lonely, there was enough activity in the garden to keep me entertained and apart from an indulgent session of trashy film watching on Saturday night I only listened to the radio in the mornings to catch the news headlines, and the TV stayed turned off. I chose not to join the Bank Holiday shoppers or duck and weave between families visiting the forest. I stayed in, pulling on my PJs and not washing my hair!

The silence gave me a chance to listen to myself, to think about how I spend my days and how much of the time is spent trying to please other people or conform to expectations. I relished not having to slap on the cover up that hides my skin rashes and redness (caused by the Lupus and which forces people to stare when I go out). I wandered around my house, touching favourite books, opening them, reading a few pages and then adding some of them to the ready to topple pile of “must re-reads” on my bedside table. I spent long hours in the garden. I weeded, transplanted seedlings and watered pots. I noticed the pesky squirrel who comes to my garden every day is a female. From the look of her, she’s recently given birth and she has a healed injury to her front arm. There is a fresh wound to one of her nipples and I worried that it might become infected, so for a few minutes,  I allowed her free access to the sunflower seeds in the bird feeder. Her survival skills made me feel like she’d earned a break and an easy feed! I wasn’t really alone because I has a garden full of birds, butterflies and bees. They paid no attention to me or to each other. I felt at ease, without the need to hold a conversation. It was enough to just sit and watch the world unfold in my garden

I didn’t feel at all lonely during my two days alone (and let’s remember, it was only two days). Maybe this is because I had chosen this time for myself, thinking of it as an indulgence. Sometimes, I am forced to remain home alone because of work commitments or ill health and on these occasions I often feel resentful and suffer that terrible feeling of missing out on “all” the fun everyone else is having. I found myself dwelling on the subtle difference between being alone and being lonely. I thought about my neighbour, long widowed, who spends many hours in her own company, but protests she never feels lonely or abandoned because she can choose where to go and who to see. This is a stark contrast to her days as a full time carer, when she was never able to go out on a whim – or hardly at all to be honest! Back then she was often sad. She would spend long hours weeding her front garden, cleaning the car or finding any number of reasons to potter about in the hope of a snatched conversation. Other neighbours would take time to stop, to chat, to allow her time to indulge in gossip and let her talk about nothing in particular. Let’s be honest, apart from snatched moments with her husband’s carers or a PPI telephone call, these were her only interactions and she needed more.

This weekend of self imposed “me time” was a treat, a much needed break and a chance to please myself. How would I cope if this was my “every day”? I’m not sure. But, I hope that if / when that day comes then I will have enough resilience to find my own way through the silence and to enjoy my own company …

…just so long as I have access to a window and a full bird feeder!