Thursday, 27 September 2012

Dark and sweet

In those times of tension brought on by the strains of family life, I often forget what is available to me outside my door. When Rob is around and I know I need to quickly grab some time and space for myself I panic a bit. What to do? A run, a bike ride, some projects that have been waiting to be completed for a long time? I had such a moment on Saturday. I was looking outside at the bright equinox day, unsure about how to best use my time when I heard the woods calling me.

The woods run right up to the back of our house and as soon as I remembered them I knew this was what I  needed. I was quickly out of doors with camera in hand and crossed the yard. Slipping into that dark familiar embrace brought deep and immediate relief. The air smelled sweet and damp, the soft mud of a million fallen leaves squelched deliciously as I walked gratefully up the path. Illuminated leaves shone against the dark, and I was rapt.

There is so much relief and refuge to be found beneath a leafy canopy; these woods are mostly birch, airy and full of life. Ferns and grasses cover the floor, cobwebs stretch across pathways with their spiders dangling from threads, performing aerial tricks and small furry creatures scurry towards hidden dens.

Underneath these kindly boughs seemed to be the perfect place to contemplate the closing of the summer. Where light and dark produce such perfectly balanced beauty, where sharp air fills the lungs and clears the head. It's a good time to take stock of the harvest, both personal and edible, to look at the seeds that were sown last Autumn, see what has come to fruition in our lives and be thankful for our gifts. Here, with the sun playing amongst the translucent forms of the wood, I am thankful for the rest and regeneration that is constantly open to me through connection with the land.

The pagan year is drawing to a close. In a few weeks Samhain will celebrate the new year and welcome in the dark, cold, wet and barren months. No doubt there will be challenging days ahead and I am hoping that, if I can ready myself, perhaps I can weather the winter with a little more grace and patience than usual. Walk, when I can, with the falling leaves and the keen wind, say soft goodbyes to the fading green, remembering that it will return.

Soon, the trees will be stripped to their bare bones and will stand like ranks of skeletons across these hills. But they, like us, will only be resting; putting their energy into their roots, reaching down into the earth for strength and sustenance; ready to emerge next year, into the light once more.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

A forager's tonic

Having had a poor year trying to grow my own vegetables (oh wetness, oh slugs!) I was getting a mite obsessive about putting by some sort of harvest for the cold months ahead. Having stumbled across a fine recipe for elderberry syrup in my Earth Pathways diary, I was determined that I would have at least one store cupboard triumph this year.

I've had a hard time finding elderberries in my immediate area but managed a good haul from alongside the canal near Bingley when visiting friends. It was a drizzly day and little legs were weary but still the children immersed themselves in the work of gathering, running about excitedly shouting over each fruit-laden bush they discovered. There is satisfaction in both discovering shiny wild treasure and in the anticipation of brewing and bottling something of the season.

So, without further ado - here is Glennie Kindred's recipe for elderberry syrup...

  • Strip the berries from the stalks into a good sized pan - a fork made this less of a chore
  • Add cinnamon sticks, chopped lemons, a couple of star anise, slices of ginger and some allspice
  • Glennie advises being intuitive with amounts...I used about 1 and a half lemons and about an inch and a half of ginger
  • Stir it all up and leave overnight.
  • The next day heat it up until it gets juicy - I possibly left mine a little too long and I think it just started to reduce

  • Strain it all through some fabric - I used a bit of muslin in a sieve but I think almost anything clean would do. This bit looks messy because it is.
  • Measure the liquid and return to the pan to heat again gently
  • Add the same amount of honey to liquid - I used a fifty percent manuka blend  
  • Store in bottles or jars - I asked a herbalist friend about storage times and she suggested that keeping them in the fridge would help preserve the syrup a little longer

The resulting syrup is deep, dark and delicious. As it was so loved by the boys I checked on its toxicity with my friend who said that it was probably advisable to stay within two dessert spoonsful a day. Raw elderberries can be none too good if you eat more than a few so I was glad to be reassured that once cooked they are fine to consume in moderation.

I have been enjoying using the concentrated mixture as warm drink diluted with water. I think it would be good with yoghurt or ice cream and I'm looking forward to trying a splash in something bubbly like cava or prosecco. It's also good slurped straight from the spoon.

I'm told by those that know that elderberry can ease congestion of the body, heart and mind. It's a sultry brew to be sure and I'm trusting in a little hedgerow magic to keep those autumn coughs and sniffles at bay.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Into Autumn

Autumn. Is there a season more written about? It's such a nostalgic, wistful time of the year. As we feel the first licks of cold around bare necks, as our feet catch a few fallen crisps of colour, as our breath takes its  smoky form in the still of the morning, we are pulled from one season into another. I almost feel ready for the shift, almost ready for boots and blankets, scarves and soup. Almost.  

Hips, haws and berries are gleaming in the hedgerows just now and my little one's mouths have been often stained purple from blackberry bingeing. On returning from walks our pockets and bags have been heavy with harvests of foraged fruit. We've made use of the elderberries already and I'm hoping to gather enough rose hips to make a vitamin c rich syrup...on Richard Mabey's advice Eli tried raw Hawthorn berries but reported that they didn't taste a bit like sweet potato.

The boys and I seem to have found a little bit more of an indoor rhythm after some disharmony last week; we're taking it easy, trying not to overstretch ourselves. It's starting to feel easier to stay home and enjoy cosier activities. Our summer window display has been dismantled and the usual leaf, nut and acorn gathering can commence. We even started a little tentative seasonal crafting with some waxed leaves stuck onto transparent film; I think they look lovely with the light behind them at the window but Eli is a little disappointed that the glue is visible so we may have to try again with different materials at some point. Such a perfectionist my boy!

(Eli sporting his latest skate-park style - the vest.)

And so, with an extra layer or two and some berries and spices simmering on the hob, we slowly begin the season.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Flowers and firearms

Our week has been a little wobbly. Tiredness and the realisation for Monty that he is is really away from me when he goes to Kindergarten has left us more emotional than usual. We're trying to be gentle with ourselves, but it isn't easy with two boys who find it hard to be anything other than maximum strength. 

Despite our disarray we did manage to visit a little local museum this week. I'd spotted in a flyer that Bankfield museum in Halifax was holding an exhibition of textiles on the theme of gardens which I was keen to see. I imagined conversations with Eli about the artist's processes; materials and techniques used. I thought we might marvel together at the stitches used liked brush strokes and hoped it  would inspire us to run home and start our own creative project...

I pointed out the journey from photographs, to sketches and finally stitches. We looked at how some of the pieces were layered with sewn fabrics behind screen printed transparent cloth. I enthused over the botanical motifs and impressionistic effects...

Meanwhile, Eli was tugging on my arm, desperately trying to stay patient...because what he was interested in,  what he really wanted to look at...was the Duke of Wellington's regiment museum.

Dutifully, and with little enthusiasm I allowed myself to be lead to look at cases filled with uniforms and weaponry. Along with my discomfort at us being surrounded by the apparel and apparatus of war, I realised my knowledge of battle history was severely lacking. Now I was on shaky ground. I didn't have answers to the questions being asked of me. Waterloo? What was all that about again? American wars? Erm...let me see...

I did manage some vague mutterings about the trenches and we both enjoyed looking at various soldier's personal effects - what they ate from, the bags they carried - the everyday objects that remind us of their humanity rather than the violence they were embroiled in.

Learning together may not always be what I expect it to be. Although I set the agenda for our museum visit, and had my own expectations about what we might explore together, Eli had his own ideas. Those ideas meant that I looked at things I wouldn't otherwise have looked at. I found I was interested in some of those things and I found that when it comes to history I am pretty much clueless.

Time for a trip to the library I think...

Monday, 10 September 2012

Tuesday Tune

It's a bit of wet autumn morning, so here's a rather wistful song and video to match the mood, by the wonderful King Creosote and Jon Hopkins:

Just lovely...

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Sylvan wanderings

On last week's walk to and from Kindergarten we noticed an Autumnal nip in the air, enough for Monty to put on his hat. A few fallen birch leaves on the pavement inspired some early season kicking and scrunching. The sun cast its light in the spaces between shadows and the boys ran eagerly into the morning. Instead of taking our usual path across the field and alongside the river Monty asked if we could go on an adventure through the beech wood. The trees on this hillside are tall and bewitching, I am hushed each time I wander beneath their dark boughs.

On this day I noticed nature's details: the colours of decay amongst the green, criss-crossed threads of a spider's silky den and diaphanous canopies high above

After dropping off a confident and happy youngest son, Eli and I carried on our quiet way, stopping off at deserted tennis courts once part of the Cragg Hall estate, their overgrown and crumbling grandeur at odds with the little clubhouse kitchen.

We meandered down to the river where Eli climbed across branchess that hung over the river while I sat with the late summer sun on my eyelids and wondered at this tiny window of harmony we had stumbled upon.

Summer is heaving her last sigh, may we all hold on tightly to these final golden days.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Healing stitches

Moved to tackle my mending pile by Zero Waste week, I've been reminded of how good it feels to take something broken and make it whole again. Where once there were holes there is now wonky darning or patches, rips and tears have been tended to with healing stitches. This was the work our great grandmothers would have taken for granted but in this age of disposable fashion we are losing the skills we need to exist frugally.

These slippers belonged to Eli until his toes poked holes through the crochet, now with a little attention they are providing warmth and comfort for Monty whilst he is away from me at Kindergarten.

As a society we're being seduced by newness. We're constantly encouraged to spend and fill our lives with luxuries. If I can take care of our possessions and extend their life where possible I can free us a little from these temptations. We can't afford it and neither can our planet.

Click here for National Zero Waste week 2012

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

First days and compost bins

Yesterday was a strange sort of a day for me, my youngest went off to be away from for the first time ever, at the local Steiner kindergarten, and my eldest stayed home. Monty was really excited and very ready to go off on a new adventure but I hadn't expected to feel so emotional. I had a very real ache in my chest as I said goodbye that didn't go until I had him back in my arms at the end of his big first day.

I decided that as the weather was perfect for a spot of sawing and hammering, Eli and I should get cracking with the planned compost bin.

Recycling facilities in Calderdale are pretty good I think, with collections for glass, paper, plastic and food waste it doesn't leave too much recyclable material left over. As a household however we still don't manage to deal with all of our compostable waste. I've had intentions to build a compost bin for some time without actually just getting on with it so Zero Waste Week has already been a great motivator!

Eli and I used bits of wood that had been lying around for ages; the remnants of an old Ikea child's table and some old skirting board that I'd been hoarding. We also had some really thick planks that we split down the middle to make two of the uprights. Now, I'm fully aware that this construction of ours is not going to win any prizes for looks, but as it will mostly be full of decaying matter I don't think that's too important.

We've just put it together with nails for now - hammering in nails is much more fun than screwing for a five year old - and we'll get some screws in it before we put it to work.

I think Eli was fairly proud of his first joinery efforts (as you can see from the cheesy expression) and I'm hoping he continues to be interested in the whole business of filling up the bin and watching the decomposition process. I'm also fairly proud that I finally did something I've been talking about doing for at least a couple of years!

There are so many things like this, that as individuals and families we know we be should be doing. Life is busy and time is short, but I'm already feeling better for doing my 'one more thing'. Thanks Rachelle for giving us the push we needed.

Click here for National Zero Waste week 2012

Beautifully bizarre

Yes, this is a Two Post Day! As well as stating my intentions for being a little more environmentally responsible this coming week I also wanted to share two of our favourite events of the Calderdale calendar that happened this past weeken - the Norland Scarecrow festival and the Sowerby Bridge Rushbearing. We've attended both of these quirky local practices over the last three years and I'm hooked on the sense of place and community I get when in the midst of them.

The Norland Scarecrow festival has been running every year for 13 years and the people of the village are showing no signs of letting their scarecrow standards drop. This year's theme was celebrations and people's interpretations of this ranged from the Olympics to the anniversary of the Beatles first single. We really needed the whole day to walk the full route and discover all the scarecrows but in our few hours there the boys managed to still spot plenty of curious creations in fields, on driveways or cunningly attached to houses.

We managed to squeeze in a couple of rides...

...before driving down one hill and up another to catch up with the Rushbearing procession. The boys and I jumped out of the car to run behind the procession, getting giddy with drumming and morris people. We managed to pass the procession as it stopped at St Mary's church in Cottonstones and hurried on to wait for the cart at the next stop, the Alma Inn.

From the Alma Inn we witnessed the stirring sight of the rushbearers pulling the rush-cart over the bridge and up the hill - the sound of 120 clogs striking the ground in time making my pulse quicken.

I so enjoy the atmosphere of this day - it's a little off-beat but feels so solidly English with its associated mummers, morris dancers and beer. This version of the rushbearing was revived in 1977 but its roots go back much further to 1685 or perhaps even earlier. It's believed that when the rushes on the floor of the area's churches were changed at the end of the summer a local tradition grew up around the practice. A fair maiden now bravely sits atop the rush-cart and all the bearers are kept well topped up at each stop with sustaining tankards of ale.

Whilst the cart is stopped the crowd is entertained by an assortment of folk dancers, musicians and a few crazy blokes with blacked up faces who perform an entertaining if somewhat baffling piece of historic pantomine.

Finishing off the Alma Inn leg of the journey were the splendid 400 Roses - they belly dance to morris music! These wonderfully decorative women do for folk dancing what Hasselhoff did for lifeguards... Their dress is ornate and unapologetic; age nor shape seem to be any impediment to moving their hips in a most marvellous manner. The amount of effort that had gone into those costumes and carefully choreographed dance was quite lovely to see.

Yorkshire. In't it grand?