Fermenting

During these strange times, I have been enjoying the art of fermentation. A traditional method of food preservation, it appeals to my belief in a simpler way of life. I enjoy the whole process: selecting fresh produce, cleaning, chopping, salting, massaging the leaves and packing the vegetables in the jar. It is relaxing and uncomplicated; my mind has time to unwind and think. While I ferment vegetables, I ferment ideas. Then comes the waiting: watching the bubbles start to rise, checking every few days for unwanted mould and tasting to see if it is pleasing to my palate. The smells as I unscrew the jar lid hit me full in the nose and carry through the house.

Fermentation has opened interesting doors for me. There is a whole world of fermented food out there waiting to be discovered. So far, I have made sauerkraut from Germany, kimchi from Korea and giardineira from Italy. The last is my favourite, at the moment, with its delicious garlicky flavour. Many pleasant hours are spent searching the internet for new recipes. I have found an exuberant man called Brad who shares videos about fermenting on Youtube. His enthusiasm is catching and I like his often imperfect presentation without any artificial polish. It is good when things go wrong. It creates a feeling of humanity and camaraderie. It is because of Brad that I have my ‘fermentation station’.

Fermenting foods is great for the mind and the body. Not only is the process relaxing, the final produce is healthy, being full of good bacteria. Our bodies need this good bacteria for our digestive health. There is growing scientific evidence that gut bacteria play a role in many diseases too, including heart disease, cancers and rheumatoid arthritis. Good bacteria can boost our immune systems and help us to fight disease. Other research has suggested that gut bacteria play a part in our mental health, so eating fermented foods may help to keep us happy.

Fermenting foods is a positive experience for me. Returning to old, clever ways, safe and busy in my kitchen, while the world outside goes off kilter.

The Mask by Maya Angelou

We wear the mask that grins and lies.
It shades our cheeks and hides our eyes.
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts…
We smile and mouth the myriad subtleties.
Why should the world think otherwise
In counting all our tears and sighs.
Nay let them only see us while
We wear the mask.

We smile but oh my God
Our tears to thee from tortured souls arise
And we sing Oh Baby doll, now we sing…
The clay is vile beneath our feet
And long the mile
But let the world think otherwise.
We wear the mask.

When I think about myself
I almost laugh myself to death.
My life has been one great big joke!
A dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke.
I laugh so hard HA! HA! I almos’ choke
When I think about myself.

Seventy years in these folks’ world
The child I works for calls me girl
I say “HA! HA! HA! Yes ma’am!”
For workin’s sake
I’m too proud to bend and
Too poor to break
So…I laugh! Until my stomach ache
When I think about myself.
My folks can make me split my side
I laugh so hard, HA! HA! I nearly died
The tales they tell sound just like lying
They grow the fruit but eat the rind.
Hmm huh! I laugh uhuh huh huh…
Until I start to cry when I think about myself
And my folks and the children.

My fathers sit on benches,
Their flesh count every plank,
The slats leave dents of darkness
Deep in their withered flank.
And they gnarled like broken candles,
All waxed and burned profound.
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.

There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block
The chains and slavery’s coffles
The whip and lash and stock.

My fathers speak in voices
That shred my fact and sound
They say, but sugar, it was our submission
that made your world go round.

They laugh to conceal their crying,
They shuffle through their dreams
They stepped ’n fetched a country
And wrote the blues in screams.
I understand their meaning,
It could an did derive
From living on the edge of death
They kept my race alive
By wearing the mask! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!

#blacklivesmatter

Black Lives Matter https://blacklivesmatter.com/

We wait

Time passes in fits and starts at the moment. As the lock down continues, with no easing here in Wales, hours can disappear without notice yet weeks and months seem to stretch on interminably. There is a paralysis of inspiration, focus and motivation; nothing much beyond normal routine is achieved, activities are cancelled, future prospects and plans are on hold, loved ones are missed, anxiety is buried beneath layers of mundanity.

We wait.

Nature does not wait, however, and time continues in the passing of spring into early summer. The swallows have returned and built a nest in the barn, flitting and swooping above the paddocks, finding pure joy in the hunting and catching of winged insects for their hatchlings. The hedgerows are vibrant with wildflowers, white, blue, purple, yellow and pink; bees darting among the petals, legs laden with pollen. The air is filled with amorous sounds of life; the buzz and hum of mini beasts, the chattering conversations of birds, the throaty calls of frogs, busy in their mating rituals. Less welcome, the local farmers are industrious, cutting silage and spreading muck on the fields during the dry spell. Tractors roar up and down narrow lanes all day and late into the night. The pungent perfume of manure sends us scampering inside with our lunchtime sandwiches.

Staying active in the garden, observing and enjoying small moments of this normality, keeps us grounded and content. Vegetable seedlings need planting, weeds must be cleared, brambles and bracken cut back. A poorly chicken needs care. Wood preservative is ordered ready for treating the stables, barn doors and fencing. There are jobs to do. Physical work to keep us healthy in body and mind.

There is family too. The bliss of being together with nowhere else to be. The pleasure in gathering for good food cooked with love. Sourdough bread is a success; warm, crusty and flavour-full, now yeast has become like gold dust. Pride at how well the young people are coping, with university closed, projects and dissertations to complete in difficult circumstances, unable to enjoy a night out with friends. There is zoom and social media but it is a long period of uncertainty and missing out. They are doing remarkably well.

And there is community. A group of willing and able volunteers in the nearest village. We post leaflets through doors, offer help for those alone and isolated; shopping, collecting prescriptions, posting mail. A support network, building links and hopefully lasting friendships. A chance to give something back for those of us who know how lucky we are. More people are walking; unable to go further afield in their cars, they explore the footpaths of the local countryside. We see new faces, shout welcomes over the hedge, have little chats. This gives us mixed feelings; selfishly we have enjoyed the peaceful isolation, and wonder if we will continue to have walkers once this is over.

Life is quiet and simple. We think about how it will be when lock down ends; what will we have learnt, what will remain and what will the new normal be?

We wait.

At rest

The world is at rest,

a respite from the noise, from the fumes, from the crowds.

Let us be braver,

conquer all our fears, our anxieties, our doubts.

 

Raise our voices in love, in friendship, in kindness.

Notice what’s important, overcome our blindness.

Remember Mother Earth, renew our connection.

Keep safe, keep strong, keep faith in our shared protection.

 

The world is at rest.

We can pass this test.

Relearn old ways for

future better days.

Tough times for a tortoise

Tortoises are awkward animals. Every job they undertake is hard work. Eating is effortful – with no hands to hold the food, necks stretch, mouths grasp and pull. Sometimes the delicious item slips away. Walking is effortful – dragging a heavy shell around, managing uneven ground. Sometimes the weight causes a tricky balancing act with the inevitable toppling over, then there is a scrabbling, useless flailing of legs in a hard-won attempt to get right way up again. Love making is effortful – the arduous manoeuvrings, scrape of claws on shell, crunch of carapaces and anguished cry. Sometimes the other half just wanders off. Life appears tough for a tortoise.

Living with a tortoise for forty-three years has given me some insight and surprises. My grandfather bought me one for my seventh birthday. Named after a popular road safety squirrel of the time, I chose probably the most inappropriate name ever given a tortoise – Tufty. He was beautiful – his shell a shiny, patterned olive green and mottled brown. At that age, I did not think about the terrible journey he had undertaken – snatched from the wild, crushed in a crate with hundreds of his fellows, packed onto a container ship. Shamefully, I think of it now and wish he could be returned to roam the dry, grassy slopes of his home country, sun warming his burnished back. Instead, he has had forty-three years of living in damp, rainy Britain.

thTufty the Road Safety Squirrel © ROSPA

At the end of every November, Tufty has to go to bed in a cupboard box, stuffed with paper bedding, insulated in another plastic box filled with polystyrene wotsits, for his annual hibernation. Every February, there is immense relief when he wakes up, fit and well. For Tufty is a resilient little creature. He is awkward but he is tough, reliable and lovable. He has character. He comes when called and likes human and other animal company. He particularly enjoys chasing other pets around the garden – dogs, cats and even ducks – who never seem to understand quite what he is; a moving rock, how is that possible? He never gives up if he wants something, even climbing out of his run to escape. Tufty may lumber around carrying his heavy home but he can move when he wants to, especially on a hot day. His pleasure in munching on a dandelion or buttercup flower is a joy to behold.

SONY DSC

Despite my guilt at having a pet who was torn from his homeland in traumatic circumstances, I am glad I have Tufty. He has been a constant since I was a small child and he holds an important place in the cycle of my life. Quiet, steadfast, patient and determined, Tufty has kept me company and provides a symbol for simple, sensible, contented living.

Time for change

Here are two recent entries in my notebook. Funny how quickly our lives can turn around.

Saturday 23rd November

I’m appalled at how little writing I’ve done this year. This notebook is less than half full, my novel untouched for months (and months), my thoughts embroiled with work. And now this promotion to a management role. Have I made the right decision taking on more work? I know there will be lots to do and big changes to be made. My mind will be preoccupied and distracted. What will this mean for my writing? Will I ever find time to put pen to paper, to think it matters enough? My writing plays second, third, fourth fiddle to everything else in my life – family, job, household chores. Why can’t I prioritise it and find the space for it? How do others manage it? One friend says I’m not selfish enough. Is that what it takes – selfishness? Perhaps on some level it does require a certain selfish attitude. It requires me to think that my writing is more important than anything else at that moment. And that is an exceptionally hard thing to do.

 

Tuesday 10th December

Ha! I wrote that piece just a couple of weeks ago and the change in my situation has been dramatic. Sitting in this empty café, overlooking a dreary, blustery grey sea, the voice of a young Michael Jackson chirping in my ear about Santa coming to town, I’m wondering what on earth happened. I’m shell-shocked, a turmoil of thoughts and emotions in my heart and head. An occasional anxious panic grips my chest and sets my pulse aflutter. Within two weeks of promotion, I am jobless again. Me being me, I’m questioning whether I made a mistake in resigning. If I hurtled headlong into something, whether I considered it for long enough. But deep in the pit of my roiling stomach, I know. This is for the best. This is the right decision. I know that I could not have continued working for an organisation whose professional values did not really match my own, despite what outward appearances suggested. But, what now? I have no real idea. Some time for relaxation and reflection. Everything happens for a reason; I truly believe that. I rushed into a job when my home education days ended. The void was huge and I was afraid. I panicked. I have always found it easier to think about and help other people rather than face myself, so perhaps the job was a way of running away – from the idea of writing, of being creative, of doing something for me. I don’t know. One thing I’m certain of, I’m going to enjoy Christmas.

Flying

I am off to Norway next week to visit my daughter who is studying at Bergen University this semester. I can’t wait to see her but I’m feeling guilty. Guilty because I will be flying. Flying is a serious contributor to climate change. We really shouldn’t be flying anywhere at all anymore. With the XR protests taking place in London at the moment, my guilt is exacerbated. I should be there; fighting for climate justice, fighting for the future of our society, fighting for the future of my children. But I’m not in London. I’m at home; planning for my trip and getting excited about it.

In my entire lifetime, this will be my eighth trip away on a plane. Sixteen journeys in total, so I can hardly be called a big flyer. I’m aware there are celebrities, businessmen and politicians who hop on and off aeroplanes like they are buses. I am basically vegan; one of the best changes you can make to help prevent climate change is to eat less, or in my case no, meat and dairy. (I do eat my rescued battery hens’ eggs.) I have planted over sixty new trees around my smallholding; trees soak up carbon dioxide and are a natural solution to mitigate climate change. I’m trying in my small way to make changes. However, with the climate crisis in full swing, this doesn’t make me feel any easier about the situation. I’m still going to fly so I can visit my daughter.

Recently, I went on the Global Climate Strike to support the school children and students campaigning for change in our society’s systems. It was an inspiring day; full of warmth, positivity and love. Marching along in Aberystwyth, I found it hard to believe there could be any climate deniers left. The science is clear. As Greta Thunberg states, we can’t ignore it. I felt proud to stand with those young people and their hopefulness. I was brought to tears by their bravery. Just as I am brought to tears when I see the videos of the people in XR; lying in the streets, gluing themselves to buildings, risking arrest.

There aren’t really any realistic options for me to get to Bergen without flying, not with the timescale and budget that I have. Maybe one day, there will be. When the government has listened. When the necessary funding has been put into alternative, renewable technologies. When the greedy, gas guzzling corporations have had their day. In the meantime, I say a big thank you to those school children, students and people of XR. They are our representatives; my love and support goes out to every single one of them.

Joker

Image: Bristol Street Art from BBC

 

A couple of years ago, someone laughed at me for saying I was worried about Boris Johnson. He’s finished, they said, just a big joke. I thought they were being naive. There is nothing funny about Boris Johnson. He is deadly serious – a scheming individual with no moral compass or integrity. He has long hankered for the top spot and plotted his way there with cunning.

Boris Johnson has no ideas, or beliefs, or plans for the future, or for the benefit of the UK. He will say or do whatever he thinks is necessary to gain power. Obvious comparisons have been drawn with President Trump – the wild, straw-like mop of hair, the offensive language used in the name of ‘speaking one’s mind’, the populist rhetoric. The similarity is a big concern – both men are divisive politicians. I have long felt sympathy for my friends in the US, suffering from the embarrassment and hatred caused by their leader.

Unfortunately, it looks more and more certain Boris Johnson will achieve his ambition and become our Prime Minister. And that is not amusing at all.

Growing

There is something special about growing your own food. Gently planting a seed in rich, damp compost, waiting patiently for signs of green shoots pushing up through dark earth, planting out seedlings in neat rows of raked soil, watching the plants grow tall and vigorous, picking fresh vegetables for the evening meal, from garden to pot in minutes, is a kind of magic.

Sometimes, there are frustrations. Seeds rot in the ground, slugs feast on tender blooms, caterpillars attack glossy leaves, backs twinge, muscles ache, nails break and hands become dirt-ingrained, but it is satisfying work, good for body and mind. The clean air breathed in under wide skies, the smell of warm earth, the feel of fingers dug deep in crumbly dirt, the calming buzz of insects and soulful song of birds, the sense of well-being and pride growing brings. It is a connection with the land, a sustaining of life, something fundamental, something ancient.

Many of us have lost that connection, the opportunity to support ourselves, even in a small way, with home-grown food. If there were more gardens and growing spaces in our cities, towns and communities, we would be healthier and happier. Our diets are better, our appreciation of food far greater, when we grow it ourselves. Growing vegetables means being outside, exercising our bodies and working with purpose. The effort is rewarded with vegetables that taste wonderful, like nothing we can buy in supermarkets. Serving up Sunday lunch with three types of vegetables from your own garden is a feeling that is hard to beat.

A Martian Sends A Postcard Home

For World Poetry Day, I thought it would be fun to share a poem I enjoyed as a child and had not thought about in many years.

 

A Martian Sends A Postcard Home by Craig Raine

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings —

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on ground:

then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.

Rain is when the earth is television.
It has the property of making colours darker.

Model T is a room with the lock inside —
a key is turned to free the world

for movement, so quick there is a film
to watch for anything missed.

But time is tied to the wrist
or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt
and everyone’s pain has a different smell.

At night when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs

and read about themselves —
in colour, with their eyelids shut.