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While today wasn’t exactly what I’d call spring like (by the afternoon we hit a mighty -15c), compared to the -40 we had mid week it felt positively balmy! Along with the glorious sunshine and the crunchy conditions underfoot, it was the perfect day to wrap up and head out. Some of us really needed to burn off some steam…
They ran just for the sake of it, bounding across the snow to meet me. They had been exploring their hideout in the hedge line for a good little while before that, protecting the farm from ninjas and other such dangers.
They weren’t the only ones who enjoyed getting out either, even my old girl Bella, who is really struggling with her arthritis this winter, trotted along with me like old times.
She no longer pounds along like a race horse, bounding across the snow, but I enjoyed her company as an old friend. I don’t know how many more walks like this we have ahead of us, so I enjoy her implacable presence and her steady pace.
Of course there are younger members of our family who have no trouble making the most of the wintry conditions.
After the bitterly cold week we’ve had the pond was frozen solid, certainly solid enough for some skidding fun! Watching them zip about, feeling free and alive, brought many smiles and laughs from us all.
It’s been a busy weekend but also a lovely one, I hope it heralds a good week ahead.
A thaw has arrived, bringing with it the illusion of spring and melting. The crunchy, powdered flakes of snow have become slick, slippery ice that tricks our feet and trips us as we tumble into the warming sun.
We turn our faces to the beaming light, rejoicing in the lack of pinching and biting in the winter air. But the ice beneath makes everything seem a little treacherous, a little unsure.
As I watched the chickens tuck into their treats of carrots and apple mush, I tore apart a hay bale to cover the slippery, shining pathways that our feet have made through the snow. From our house to theirs we trudge each day, stamping down the fluffy coating that rain and sun have made hard and smooth. The hay tears apart easily, releasing its bound shape and settling on the white ground, enhancing the illusion that spring has arrived.
The brown and green path cuts through the endless white and blue of snow and winter shadow. It feels as though it sprung up from beneath, like a goddess of spring walked that way and brought life back to the earth with her magical toes. The robust scent of summer blows up from the torn bale, the grass releasing its dusty fragrance and its memories. I am transported to the field where it was cut, the sunset of that day and the gentle warmth of a dying summer evening.
The chickens watch my work with more than usual disapproval. Their judgmental gaze amuses me as I move carefully around, trying to avoid the trap of becoming over confident and slipping. I am not so young that I enjoy the sensation of suspension and the crash down, I’m fearful of it and so I go gently. They look around the edge of their canopy and regard me with dinosaur eyes; the eyes of creatures far removed yet comfortingly domestic.
I walk to the house with surer footing, I turn back and watch the chickens investigate the path. Like me they are freer outside, the warming sun inviting them to venture out beyond the confines of their shelter. They walk along the path a little, enjoying the lack of icy pinch on their feet, they fluff and cluck their approval. I laugh and feel pleased with myself, my plan has come to fruition and surprised them out of their grim, old lady frame of mind.
Suddenly the longing for spring is overwhelming in me, I feel it in my stomach and ache for the green that is momentarily resurrected in the cast down hay. The longing hits my chest, contracting my heart with the desire to run my hand across soft green blades, to be assured the miracle will return this year as it has every other year.
I cast off the stillness and go about my work, throwing ice and water away on a shovel, listening to the patter of the dripping water returning to the ground. But the longing for spring remains, it is always there a little.
So 2013 has officially dawned. Stephen has gone back to work (after prising the boys and, well, me off his legs) and our school has begun again. The house is oddly quiet and there is a big man shaped empty space that I’m trying not to think about too much or blubbing will commence.
Are there people who don’t feel sad when their beloved departs back to work after a holiday? Are there people who think ‘phew, I’m glad to see the back of you’? I can’t really imagine that there are. I am definitely not someone who ‘enjoys my space’, I like the connection, the feeling of company that we had all through the holidays. Sharing each day, each hour together even if we are doing our own thing, separate but together.
Anyhoo, I shouldn’t wax too lyrical or I’ll get myself all sad and today really is a beautiful day. After a day of snow yesterday the world is even softer and fluffier than it was; I am thankful for the 2 hours of snow blowing and shovelling that Stephen did yesterday to clear the driveway and make paths from the house to the chickens.
I think we’ve had more snow in December than we had the whole of last winter. The piles are everywhere and the landscape has the feeling of being covered by a massive, fluffy duvet. This morning dawned cold and clear, with a crescent moon hanging bright in the sky, preceding the golden dawning of the sun, finally hitting the trees in the forest as we all launched into a breakfast of oat pancakes with butter and maple syrup.
Every time the snow falls I feel a bit like I’m relearning this place we live. It is so familiar and yet there are little changes everywhere. Some things (such as piles of scrap left over from the previous owners) I am glad to see retreating others, like the pond, slip quietly from sight to return again in spring. I notice the pile of snow on top of the chicken bungalow getting higher and higher, it is at least 2 1/2 feet now, I’m curious to see how big it will get.
Each time Stephen ploughs the drive and pathways he pushes a bunch of snow on top of the toboggan run he made over Christmas. Beneath the snow are hay bales that the boys have played on since the summer, now they are covered in snow and are creating new entertainment. They are much more fearless than I am, they slide and skid without worry and I envy them a little. I’ve never enjoyed that feeling of moving too fast, out of control. But I love to watch them, alight and alive, full of excitement each time.
After the time inside, the cosy shelter of our family and home over the Christmas season, I feel like I am emerging again. I have no plans to rush, I want nothing more than to continue the gentle pace of life we enjoyed over the holidays. I’m happier than ever to keep the busy, concrete world at bay as much as I can. Instead I’m planning little excursions, to the library, to the feed and seed and out on our own land.
Each day is a discovery, each day we wake up new.
I think if I asked most people where their meat comes from they’d say ‘the supermarket’. That’s fair enough and when people lead such busy lives with so many demands on them, sourcing food any other way can feel like a huge hurdle. But raising our own meat has driven home something that we already ‘knew’ but didn’t know, deep down. Our meat comes from a living animal.
When we eat that meat we eat what has been a living being, a creature who walked the earth. For some that realisation leads to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, for others it means sourcing ethically raised meat from their local area; for us it meant creating a farm and raising animals to feed ourselves and others.
These days when I cook or preserve our meat I’m aware of a very different feeling within myself. I no longer see this simply as ‘food’, I approach it with a much greater sense of reverence and thrift. When I rub in the curing mix that turns our pork magically into bacon I feel almost meditative. I’m reminded of the animals we cared for and loved over the spring and summer months, I look forward to raising pigs again and bask in the memories of green pastures and hot summer days.
When I cook a chicken I am committed to using the animal fully, wasting as little as is possible. If we roast the bird (giving us 2 days of meat for 4 people) we then strip the darker meat and use it for a stew or a stir fry/curry (another 2/3 meals for adults or more for children). Then I use the carcass to make a stock, this is something of a 2-3 day event as I aim to draw as much goodness out of the bones as possible making the broth deep in nourishment.
When the stock is suitably thick and rich I often then cook it down again to make a thick jelly that can be used as a concentrate and has the added advantage of taking up less space in the fridge! This can be added to green beans, rice, stews, soups, gravy…anywhere that you’d use a stock cube really. Then the bones are stripped again (including bits we don’t eat like the neck and wings) and Winnie benefits from a good dose of meat and bone in her diet.
This kind of thrift used to be taken for granted and not just on farms or in rural settings. All kitchens, big and small, were units of production and economy. What we now throw in our recycling bin would once have been sold to the rag and bone man generating income for the family, nothing would have been wasted.
While I can never lay claim to producing no waste (we still buy things from the store and they come in packages) we have dramatically reduced our food waste since we moved onto the farm. Our animals take up quite a lot of the slack, with veggies going to the chickens and grateful dogs receiving meat scraps and bones! But we also endeavour to create a menu that uses all of the meat thriftily and with as much respect as we can give it.
It may seem cruel or heartless to some people that we raise up animals, know and care for them, then send them to slaughter. And I admit it is not always an easy process, I’ve shed a few tears as we’ve sent animals to be ‘finished’ at the slaughter house. But the truth is I’d rather have it this way, I’d rather know the life my animals, and my family lead. I’d rather know where each piece of meat has come from, what’s gone into the processing and know that there has been as little waste as possible, honouring the life that created our food.
Each meal, each piece of an animal that we consume has a life attached to it, has a story. That’s the bare truth that many ignore or would simply rather not think about. But it is crucial for the health of our food chain, our children and for the animals themselves that we don’t turn a blind eye to the conditions most animals are raised and slaughtered in. When we make a conscious choice buy as ethically as we can, use the meat as thriftily as we can and treat the meat with the respect and care it deserves we are active participants in making our homes, our diets and our nation’s farms better, healthier and more nourishing than ever before. That is the story I want to be a part of.
I have no words that can make sense of the madness that happened yesterday, no one does. I feel, like everyone does, shocked, horrified, saddened and angry. I feel like I was in some kind of accident and my nerve endings are still buzzing with the shock, my mind is a little numb, a little slow.
I find myself having to step away from it a little, I am grateful that I can. When I think like that I feel tears for those who cannot step away, for whom reality has been forever changed. There is no silver lining, no good side, this is one of those things that can never be turned around.
So, like everyone else on the fringes of this tragedy, I’m focusing my mind on how lucky I am. I’m holding my boys a little tighter, a little longer, I’m giving in to a few more requests for cookies, I’m pulling them into inexplicable hugs at inexplicable moments. I’m thanking all the gods that exist that they are here with me, that I can hold them, smell them, love them. I’m trying not to let them see the sadness that we are all carrying around like a cloud.
I don’t think the sadness will every really be gone, I don’t think we’ll ever forget what has happened. I really don’t think any of us should.
I’ve been re-reading the excellent book Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes recently, I’ve read it before but that was prior to us moving here and doing some more of the activities she talks about in her book. Reading it with fresh eyes (and with the perspective of new experiences) gave the book a much sharper resonance for me and has brought up questions that I have no real answers to but still can’t shake off thinking about.
One of the things I come back to over and over is, are we really so radical? Ok, yes, I know not everyone raises their own animals for meat or has the space for a largish flock of chickens, but not all of the people that Shannon Hayes interviews and discusses in her book do either. Each person or family that she looks at has a unique approach to their lives but with one common thread that connects them all, produce rather than consume.
This core idea is one that I grew up with, so it doesn’t seem alien to me. My Mum knit and sewed for us, made stuffed animals and clothing, she learned to make jewellery, made teddy bears, iced cakes and a million other little decorative touches around the home, that just seemed a part of her. My Dad was always busy, he participated in lots of sports, gardened, took us on mammoth bike rides, grew flowers, tomatoes, whatever took his fancy. If jobs needed doing Dad generally did it, painting, hanging wallpaper, redecorating old bikes to make them new. People (or at least all the people we knew) didn’t have much money for extras so they did things themselves.
When I met Stephen he was at the end of an Mechanical Engineering degree, so it’s safe to say he’s a pretty handy chap. As well as being able to turn his hand to computer shenanigans, he could also garden, redecorate, put up shelves, cook, assemble ikea furniture and generally make himself useful around the place. When I met his parents I found that his Dad was a genius carpenter who could make furniture, do plumbing, electrics and actually built his own house; his Mum is an accomplished knitter, used to sew clothing to sell and makes a cupcake to fight over.
When I look around at the people I know they can all ‘do’ something, they all create and produce something for themselves. My sister cooks, sews, quilts and still manages to hold down a sensible job, my friends are all creative people making a vast array of wonderful things; I wonder to myself, isn’t everyone like this? How can it be called ‘radical’ when everyone is doing it already?
But then I realised that I needed to stick my head a little outside of my bubble. I know that I do live in a bit of a world of my own making. My family are all great, my friends are lovely, caring individuals, I live in a place I love and spend my time online reading the blogs of other people with similar interests; it is easy for me to think this is the whole world. But when I accidentally slip out of my bubble and onto the hard pavement of reality I see a very different world.
Recently we had the misfortune of needing to be at the children’s hospital for a good few hours, the tv’s there run ‘children’s’ tv the whole time and I became morbidly fascinated. Was this really what young people were watching? These glossy people who seem to do nothing but gossip, get into silly conundrums and unkind badinage? I restrict my kids to certain selections from netflix and prechosen documentaries and movies so we’re not used to the barrage of advertising that comes with mainstream media, after 5 minutes my brain hurt. After several hours my heart did too.
It seems there is always something to buy, something else you need, another smell, another car another…something. It’s ok to say ‘stupid’ a lot, being mean to other people is funny and casual cruelty and bullying are to be expected. No one makes anything, loves anything, which is in direct contradiction with the people, young and old, that I know. The world depicted by the media is shiny, glossy, terrifying and…empty.
I know this is nothing new, this is common knowledge, but it makes me realise why the title of Shannon Haye’s book is so appropriate. It is, in our culture at this time, a radical statement to say ‘no I won’t buy it, I’ll make it’. To take control of one’s consumption, to decide what items are not ok, to eliminate the cultural elements that we don’t like. Instead of being dictated to by the mystical forces of advertising and the media, we can instead turn inwards and find our own journey, our own voice.
I don’t think that making bread, or yoghurt, or jam is an earth shattering thing; I don’t think that staying at home to raise my children is a radical decision. From being a teenager I have considered myself to be a feminist and always believed that position simply meant, valuing the female mind as unique and worth listening to. I didn’t think it meant only one type of path, one view of what I could be, quite the opposite in fact. So when I decided to step away from a career outside the home and instead pursue a life within it, it just seemed like another decision. It was the same decision my Mum made when I was born, it seemed a pretty natural way to live to me.
Yet when I look around outside of my bubble, I don’t see stay at home Mums being represented in a positive or realistic way. Mum’s are either 1) filmy, beautiful creatures who’ve been no nearer a real child than I have to Jupiter or 2) terminally pissed off. Now I have my moments of frustration for sure but I do want to be at home with my children, a decision that seems at odds with how I’m ‘supposed’ to see myself. I’m getting pretty tired of seeing female characters in films and on tv shows making the same predictable ‘I don’t cook’ remarks when they are being depicted as strong and clever. Apparently to be strong and clever you must reject anything associated with a kitchen and in fact reject a certain amount of independence.
Because that is what happens when you learn these skills. When you cook instead of heating up something inside a plastic package, when you make some jam instead of relying upon the frankly unreliable labeling of superstore foods, when you even grow something yourself on a plot of land or in a small pot on a window ledge. Each act of do-it-yourself leads to a feeling of independence and confidence, it leads to a sense of self reliance and, perhaps, a greater willingness to perceive the flaws in the status quo. When you are less reliant on a system it becomes easier and less frightening to see it’s limitations and dangers.
Perhaps that is what makes it radical to turn one’s attention inwards, to develop skills and spend time on projects not purchases. To be sure we buy things, more than we would like at times, but most of those things are tools so that we can make something else. Fencing for animals, canning supplies, a big silver tarp. We are still ‘plugged in’ to the economy but we are taking control of our home at the most basic level. We control much of our food, we control our exposure to the culture outside our door, we set our values and try to pursue them in our everyday life.
Shannon Hayes talks in her book about the increasing feeling of distance that can occur when people step off the ‘mainstream’ and start beating a path of their own.
“Those who choose to align their lives with their values typically experience a sense of isolation from anyone else whose outlook is defined by conventional cultural codes. David Korten explains that people who transition may even occasionally feel like creatures from outer space.” p 243, Radical Homemakers
For me that isn’t about distance from my nearest and dearest (unless you count the physical distance which is profound) but just about a sense of distance from the culture around me. I see messages spinning past me, things I know I’m supposed to care about or be engaged with that I’m just not. In fact I am beginning to view the more ‘mainstream’ culture as alien, while I feel more and more rooted in my own sense of truth.
If it is radical to close my door to the eternal noise and chatter of the world then I suppose I am, if it is radical to want to cook, make and spend time with my family then I definitely am. This is not the only path I could have taken, nor is it the only ‘moral’ or ‘good’ road, I think we get into seriously tricky territory when we start making those kinds of definitions. But what I notice, and respect, in lives that I admire, is a commitment to a goal, a choice that is being made. If instead we allow ourselves to be buffeted and defined by the shifting winds of ‘society’, if we never make choices for ourselves, always assuming that because something is ubiquitous is must therefore be benign, then can we be surprised when eventually and inevitably, we end up ship wrecked?