In praise of gleaning.

In praise of gleaning.

I can remember often uttering phrases such as “from what I can glean” or “I glean that the management had plans to close the unit“. All these times I spoke about gleaning I never actually did any gleaning, and was unaware of the origins of the verb, until recently. Today, however, I, and my wife, were mainly occupied in gleaning.

Gleaning is the action of collecting leftover crops from fields when either the form of collection, e.g. mechanization, or the quality of residual produce, make it uneconomic to collect 100% of the harvest.

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An overnight bag of hay for the goats.

Today we gleaned our neighbour’s field for some hay. His cutters and balers do not work into every corner of the field and there is plenty of good quality hay which goes to waste because it can not be gathered mechanically. When we collect it by hand we save on our feed bills for the goats and our neighbour benefits, marginally, by having a tidier field. By gleaning after the main harvest we increase the productivity of the field to closer to its maximum.

The practice of gleaning has a long history and is discussed in the Hebrew Bible where it was seen a right for the poor – only the poor were allowed to glean, not the rich landowner, when the crop was taken the remainder was to be left for the gleaners. It was in 1788 that the right to glean in England was removed (to secure property rights), prior to this often a church bell would toll morning and night to let the poor of a village know when it was right to glean the harvested fields.

As it increases the efficiency of the harvest by reducing waste we need to promote gleaning but it need not be as physically demanding as our day raking the loose hay in the fields. The developing action of giving unsold food in supermarkets to the poor is a modern form of gleaning, as are the trends to gather and use the “ugly” fruit and vegetables that can’t be sold in the normal trade. At its extreme “dumpster foraging” is a form of gleaning as it saves some of the harvest from being lost.

It is shameful that we waste up to 40% of the food we harvest. We need to try to tackle this problem. In America the Society of Saint Andrew is the largest gleaning organization, here in the UK it is The Gleaning Network. Excuse the dreadful pun, but I’d urge you to try and glean as much information as you can about this and see if there are opportunities for you to take part in this activity.

 

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings.
Deuteronomy 24:19

 

The L-Shaped Room

We have just finished making hay. This is perhaps the busiest time of year for us and is certainly the most laborious task we have. We must spend three to four days in the fields cutting, turning and moving hay under a scorching sun – if there isn’t the heat the whole process is rather pointless. The power scythe largely held up after its repair though it did lose a few teeth on stones in the field which has left the main slope looking as if it is wearing a Mohican haircut.

We did manage to get all the hay in although img_20190705_111459_3422155165393471256542.jpgwe had a delay of a day because of an unexpected cloudy day which brought some showers. We kept the hay in wind rushes in the field during this day and resumed the turning and drying the following day.  Although we feel we are not using much modern technology, and think our work looks like something a medieval peasant would recognize, during the rainy day I realized just how reliant we still are on modern technological developments.

We require at least three consecutive sunny, hot and preferably breezy days to make hay. Modern farms who take a lot of sillage can wrap  the produce up in huge, black, polythene bales and allow anaerobic digestion get to work. The rain doesn’t worry them as much. We can’t do this and need to be able to predict the weather over the next few days. I just don’t have the skills for this, despite knowing many of the old rhymes which are meant to help, and rely on AccuWeather or the Norwegian meteorological site (yr.no) which is unnervingly accurate in our patch of North Wales. It is my opinion that our ability to make our own hay reliably, and hence feed our stock over the winter, without this aid would be severely compromised. I am going to have to look and see if there is any way I can learn some of these old skills and see if we can become a bit more self-reliant and independent.

In any event, we are still pretty primitive and manual in our hay making and by the last night I was dog tired and wanted to do nothing more  than to eat some hearty but unhealthy food and sit and ache and throb in front of an undemanding film. The film channel that runs nostalgic material seemed a good bet and it was showing “The L-Shaped Room“. To tell the truth a number of British films from this decade blur into one in my memory. They all become a black-and-white, rags and riches, melodramatic morality tales. I knew this was not “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” but half-remembered it as “Room at the Top“.mv5bndflzgzjyjatmti2zc00owm2lwe3nmytodg2yjczmje2n2i3xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtmxmty0otq@9205484766079009546..jpg

‘Room at the Top’ is a wonderful film and I initially thought I was going to be disappointed when I realized, after a few minutes, I was not going to watch a working-class anti-hero, fighting for power and philandering with an older woman. Instead I was settling down to watch the sad tale of a single French girl living in poverty in the seedier area of London and coming to terms with an unplanned pregnancy.  I was thankfully very wrong. “The L- Shaped Room” is also a wonderful film. It too has excellent acting and in particular Leslie Carron shines and carries this film throughout; although it has to be said that all the actors warrant praise. The script is accurate and the moral and practical dilemmas facing the characters are well explored. All human life is here, the unmarried pregnant woman, the jobless men, the black immigrant, the old and lonely lesbian lady, the prostitutes working at the bottom of the house, the failed writer, they all play their parts. But interestingly they are not stereotypes, they are not there to be pitied as victims, but rather they are there to remind us that we all human and all have something to offer.

Though sad and downbeat in the main the thread which ties the film together is the ability of people to make connections with each other. These can be connections we would never anticipate, but they form the mesh which supports us  in our day to day lives. Friendship, love and affection come from all sorts of people and when it is honest and true its source does not matter. I can not say much more about the film without risking giving away the ending (if it has an ending!) and can only say that it is a warm and enveloping film which you should consider watching if you have not already seen it. In theme and feeling it is akin to “Midnight Cowboy”, this might not seem likely but if you watch both you will understand what I mean. 5star

Grubby lessons

Grubby lessons

Over the last few days I started to get ready to be able to take a crop of hay. The last time we did this we had major problems – when we were on the last small field the power scythe blade appeared to jam and stop working. We tried, with limited success, to get the remainder of the field by hand but this really didn’t work and I needed the power scythe working before the end of the month. The grass has been growing well and looks like a fair crop, we have to be ready should there be a dry sunny period long enough to do the work.

The power scythe is an implement which attaches to the front of our two wheeled Goldoni tractor. It is quite expensive so buying a new one is not a prospect I wanted to consider. The companies who sell these machines are keen to sell the kit but, I discovered, much less keen to get involved in repairs so it was down to me to get it working again. I had the instruction manual so what could go wrong ?

Firstly, the manual itself could throw an obstacle in my path. These machines are made in Italy (the small farms and olive groves make two-wheeled tractors popular there) and the manuals likewise.  Thus my manual was written in Italian which made the first step an attempt to decode the booklet. It had few diagrams or schematics to ensure that there were no unnecessary visual clues.

Over two days I, with the help of a neighbour, stripped the machine down to all its constituent parts. We inspected and cleaned every piece and then reassembled the machine checking all the settings with feeler gauges to the millimeter. With new grease and oil the machine moved smoothly with no jamming or hesitation. We hooked it up to the tractor and proudly set forth into the field for a celebratory and confirmatory cut of some long grass. It cut smoothly and effortlessly through the sward for about a yard then jerked and the sickle blade seemed to seize. No further cutting was possible. No amount of rocking, shaking, cajoling or threatening, coaxed even an inch of movement from the machine’s teeth.

Back in the barn we disassembled the blade to seeimg_20190611_1533491793820467678928354.jpg where we had gone wrong. This is not a fun job. The piece weighs about 80kg, is oily and slippery and has two rows of menacingly sharp iron teeth.  I have seem those teeth slice effortlessly slice though the legs of an iron park bench – it is no fun to handle! After having looked everywhere there was no sign of any jam. No sign of anything that could block the transit of the blades. The problem had to lie in the connection between the power unit and the appliance but we had checked this twice. In additon we had checked with two other appliances to be doubly sure that the transmission linkage worked properly.

While we had the machine upside down we noticed a small hole and wondered what is that for. Peering in we could see nothing of note, just black think molybdenum grease. Five minutes later, after poking our fingers down the shaft and pulling out all the grease img_20190614_0852139102052722490262669.jpgwe could, we were able to see a small circlip around the drive shaft. As we rotated the drive shaft we saw that this was held in place by a small set screw – a small grub screw about 3mm across with a hexagonal allan key head. We checked and this grub screw was loose so we tightened it up.

We realized that when slack this grub screw would not stop the driving spline from being pushed back just far enough to allow the connection between the power unit and the scythe to be lost – the two connecting faces img_20190612_2005567828267653246616948.jpgwould no longer be sufficiently close to carry the power down to the blade and instead they would just bump over each other. After tightening up the screw we powered up and returned to the field where the unit ran perfectly. We cut grass, tried on an area of brambles, and pushed over rocky ground and through dense scrub – it didn’t waver. It just ploughed on cutting as it went, it was well and truly fixed.

This episode taught me a two lessons. Firstly, be careful no to jump to conclusions. Had we spent more time at the beginning thinking about the problem we might have realized the problem lay further back in the chain from power unit to cutting blade. We might have saved ourselves a lot of work. However, I am glad I have dismantled and serviced the machine, it needed it anyway, and I feel much better knowing exactly how it is made and how it works. Even when we did realize the problem was to do with the power take off it would have taken us a while to find this small screw that appears no where in the manual.

The second lesson is perhaps more important. I often wonder if there is any point in trying to be green in my daily life as I try to reuse and recycle. I wonder if my attempts to reduce my consumption make any great difference. What does my level of consumption matter in the greater scale of things. On a wider basis I wonder if it makes any point that I, as a fairly insignificant and powerless individual, try to do my bit for a better society – can one person make a difference ?

This little grub screw was only about 0.0001% of the metal parts of the mowing machinery;  of the parts it clearly was the “least of these“. Hidden down a shaft in the bowels of the machine, in the dark, covered in oil and grease this little screw had slackened off, stopped doing its job, and the whole hay making project shuddered to a halt. In the interconnected system it lived within it was as valuable as any other. And so it is with all of us. We might often feel small and powerless in comparison to our rulers, or the celebrities we see daily, but we all play our part and it may be our part which proves to be the vital step in how things change.

Rape and pillage

Rape and pillage

There have been distressing times on the

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farm this week. A veritable fortnight of acts of rape and pillage, in which the major culprits have been the ducks.

If your look very carefully at the photograph on the right there are two things to be discerned. One you can see and one you can not. If you look carefully you will see that there is not a single surviving leaf on any of the runner beans. Not a solitary leaf survives, and the culprit? If you continue to look carefully your can see a fat, well fed Muscovey duck wearing a smug grin. She has just gone steadily up the row, truss by truss, and assiduously plucked every leaf for her lunch.

However, it is difficult to be angry with her as her plundering occurred because she is a refugee. She is fleeing the duck yard and trying to find safer pastures. The duck yard at the moment

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has fallen under the control of a belligerent and vicious rapist and the females are fleeing his attention. As your will see in the photograph on the left the females have been left almost bald at the back of their necks. This is due to the drake pulling on their neck feathers when he mates with them and pulling them out.

Ducks mating, like most fowl, is never gentle and romantic but rather brutal and violent. I have heard of drakes killing their mates, as they cause then to drown, while they mate with them in the water. Unfortunately I, and the fox, must take my share of the blame for these recent problems.

The fox has taken a number of our ducks and now the drake only has a meager four wives. He really feels this is inadequate. Thus his lusty attentions are only quartered between four ducks rather than decimated between ten as before. I have the incubator running as we speak to try and address this aspect of the problem.

The other part of the problem was my fault. Much as I like Muscovey ducks I wanted a change. The meat on Muscoveys is a good substitute for red meat and it is very low in fat. However, Muscoveys, with their knobbly wattles faces, are not going to win any beauty contests. I fancied changing to something more traditionally duck-like and, if I am honest, prettier.

In my shallowness I went for Aylsbury ducks.

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These looked sweet, they looked like kindly cartoon ducks. These were the kind of ducks I recall from reading story books to my children when they were small. Just look at him, on the right, I thinkl you will agree that he looks as if butter would not melt in his mouth. But this is the villain of the piece; he is the lusty, belligerent, abusive partner to my refugee girls. His cute appearance belies his fierce cunning and his domineering behaviour.

I now have a difficult dilemma : Do I procede with the ugly but healthy Muscoveys or change over to the cute but tasty Aylsburys? If I do the latter will they ask prove to be as difficult as my first? The balance of what hatches next week will help me make the decision.

The Silence of the Lambs

One of the primary reasons that I was keen to move to the country was to escape the noise of the town. Over the years I had become aware of the increasing cacophony that surrounded my daily life. My penultimate house in the town had been sandwiched between a railway line bordering the garden and a dual carriageway at the front door. I had become inured to the noise and after a number of years only really noticed it if the trains stopped running or the traffic abated. It was eerily quite and normally presaged knowledge of an accident or problem. Our last town house was less troubled by railway noise but the noise of the town was everywhere. Cars revving, horns tooting, kids screaming, drunks singing, planes landing, families arguing, ice-cream vans luring, football fans cheering, metal workers banging – there was always some noise and something going on. This all seemed so different to the silence we experience when we ventured out of the town and into the country where we started to hatch our escape plans.

If I had to choose a single noise which prompted this decision it would be fairly easy. It was the sirens. A day would not go by without hearing a siren, there would always be a reminder from at least one of the emergency services. This sound was always depressing as it alerted us to the fact that somewhere somebody was having a terrible time. Somebody was being rushed to hospital gravely ill or injured, or someone was waiting for the fire brigade to come to help as their home burned, or the police were rushing to help someone who was being assaulted or robbed. There is never a ‘nice’ reason for a siren to sound, they were a daily reminder of misery and misfortune. Indeed, after we moved, the absence of the sirens was something I did, in fact, notice and welcome.

At first, we used to marvel at how quiet was the area around our house. We used to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet. Until we noticed the obvious – the countryside is not quiet. The noise is different but it is not absent. We listened to birds overhead, the animals in the fields, the wind in the trees and the noise of the river passing by the house. These noises never stop. They change through the day but it is never quiet. Even at night, after the evening serenade from the birds as they settle down for the night, the sounds continue: owls hoot, foxes scream, the river gurgles and snuffling, scurrying animals pass by you in the murk of the hedgerows. Different noises; some pleasant and some scary.

Indeed, during the day, especially in the summer, the animal noises are quite loud and prevalent. Cows, horses, goats, dogs, poultry and sheep all add their bit to the daily background thrum and in the main it is quite pleasant. It is the sound that things are as they are meant to be, that the world is running as it should and not a siren in earshot. But there is a fly in the ointment. Most animals have a happy noise, a noise that reveals them to be contented. There are many examples : cats will purring in the sun, cattle lowing as they graze, the whinny of horses at play, chickens contentedly clucking as they find some interesting morsel to eat. Even the waking cockerels greeting a new day ,or excited dogs yapping as they see their friends, are sounds of happy animals and pleasant on the ear.

However, sheep do not have a happy sound and unfortunately it is with sheep that we have arranged to surround ourselves! Sheep bleat and they bleat incessantly. It is no surprise that we use the word ‘bleat’ both for the noise made by sheep and the noise made by whiny, demanding people.  There is no happy, cheerful way to bleat. A day in the country beside sheep is a day of “Meh Meh, I’m hungry”, “Meh meh meh, where is my mum”, “meh meh meh where’s my lamb”, “meh meh meh I’m still hungry”, “meh meh I’m stuck in the brambles”, “meh meh did I tell you I’m hungry”, “meh meh meh don’t forget now”, “meh meh meh still hungry here”, “meh meh..” There is no variation to this song even if you appear with a bucket of food “meh meh meh only one bucket meh meh where’s the rest“.

So after our move we still value peace and quiet. It is nice sometimes to notice that there no real noise and the farm feels serene. Until we realise the sheep aren’t bleating ! They are quiet, something must be wrong as they are never quiet, they are never not hungry ! They must have escaped or be taken unwell. That absence of bleating kicks a hole in our tranquility – the silence of the lambs is our new siren!

 

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Sheep temporarily quiet as even they have difficulty bleating while eating

Cutting Edge Peasantry

I am sometimes envious of other people’s gadgetry. I look at their tractors or back-hoe diggers and think “I wish I had one of them“. However, we have eschewed buying many of these items as we have sound reasons to avoid them. Firstly, if I can do a task by simple ‘manpower‘ rather than by petrol, or electricity, I tend to imagine that I will have less of a carbon footprint. Secondly, some of our fields are so steep that operating a tractor on them would verge on the suicidal. It would be very easy to topple a tractor on their inclinations – I sometimes think I might need crampons to get to the top of our small sheep field. Thirdly, machinery makes me less self-reliant, I can only do the work if I have petrol or electricity, and fourthly I would miss the opportunity for exercise. Avoiding gadgets, and using brute force, means I can avoid the gym and all that goes on there. But above all of these I am aware just how much these items cost. We just can’t afford them, so much better to realise that those grapes would be sour anyway and persevere in our morally pure manner.

However, today we saw a giant leap in our technological solutions. My task for the day was to put 200kg of fertilizer (25-5-5) onto our central field. Obviously, I was going to do this in the time-honoured way with a bucket and a cup. I would walk the length and breadth of the field like a medieval peasant scattering the fertilizer granules in front of me. If this was good enough for them back in the middle ages it was going to be good enough for me too! Indeed, it was a lovely dry and sunny day, so I realised I was going to kill two birds with one stone. I would improve the nitrogen content of our field and at the same time I would get my exercise. I have a project I call “Running away from Death” and try to keep active, hoping that meeting a high step count daily as well as getting my heart to beat a bit faster I might not drop dead too young due to my previous years of sloth and gluttony.

Then I had a brainwave. The fertilizer granules are quite small and my eyesight is not great, it can be difficult to be sure that you cover the entire field evenly as you are scattering. It is difficult even when you mentally divide the field into sections to be sure you don’t double dose or miss patches. I knew that the new fancy tractors had GPS systems which took care of this, but it was just me, a bucket and a cup so this seemed an unlikely solution. Until I remembered I had been given a smartband for my birthday. It is a gadget which tracks where I go and how many steps I take and nags me if I don’t do enough during the day. If I was the tractor with the fertilizing attachment, then I did have the GPS module also. I switched on the band and was able to check that I did cover every area of the field and that there were no blind spots or areas of double dosing. Two hours and 6 kilometres later the job was done, and my envy of my better endowed neighbours had almost completely dissipated.

Doing Planks

Since I stopped working as a doctor there has been one aspect of my changed life which has kept me going; the ability to learn new skills and knowledge. Obviously, when I was working as a medic I was constantly in training and re-training, as is everybody in every line of work, but this training led to me being more and more specialised. It lead to me knowing more and more about a smaller and smaller area of knowledge. At the same time progressing in a large organization leads one into a deeper and deeper rut  where one’s room for development becomes increasingly restricted. In your twenties you can consider and change your career plan. After a mortgage and children, in your thirties, you can dream of changing but probably won’t do it. By your fifties you can think about your career but wouldn’t usually dream of changing it.

As I followed my deepening rut, personal circumstances, which I never anticipated, forced me to consider what I thought was important. They forced me to risk a change which looking back I don’t regret. True I have lost a lot of things, mainly status and wealth, but I think I have gained more in return. My change in life has necessitated that I learn how to meet new challenges and I have discovered that it is this learning that is the most enjoyable facet of my new circumstances.

This week we decided we needed planks for a minor construction project. Now we have woodland but I had not put the obvious two and two together to make four. Our woodlands are a source of fuel for us and forage for our animals but as my neighbour pointed out they are the obvious source of our needed planks. He informed me that we could borrow a mobile sawmill and create planks on our back door. So how do we make planks ? It is surprisingly straightforward..

Firstly collect your trees. We used someimg_20190327_1222326051720164084962884.jpg American Cedar as it is lovely wood with a wonderful colour and smell. It is important to try to cut these to the lengths of plank you want to create. We cut at 8ft and 12ft lengths and removed any branches with an axe or saw. Then arranged these at the edge of clearing where we were going to set up the mobile mill.

People are often worried about the safety of using chainsaws and sawmills and this is very correct. Forestry is one of the most dangerous occupations and you are more likely to die or be injured in this job than you would be were you to work as a soldier. However, the most dangerous thing is not the machines. These at least were designed with human safety in mind. The most dangerous thing is the timer. The trees have no concerns about human safety and the logs you see above each weigh about 2 tons. If these roll, or fall, on you the damage can be immense. For an idea of scale imagine a fly and an rolled up newspaper- this should prompt you to wear your safety helmet and boots. Don’t take any shortcuts and always think and plan every movement of timber deliberately. The cutting is going to be the easy bit; collecting the wood and getting it to the saw is the most difficult bit.

img_20190327_1231302217926684723653391.jpgHaving cut you log place it on the bed of the mill. You need now to check the entire surface of the log. You are looking for stones and rocks which may have been pushed into the surface when the tree was felled. If any of these small stones remain and hit the saw blade, as it works at speed, then sparks may fly. Sparks, however,  will be the least worrisome things. It is possible these smallstones can cause the band saw to break and the last thing you want is a fast moving, unpredictable band of highly sharpened steel flailing around you. So don’t skimp on this checking process.

The next step is to create a rectangular pieceimg_20190327_1225213822195427243105853.jpg of timber ready to be cut into planks. This means cutting off a face, quarter rotating the log, cutting a further face and repeating. This will not only create the shape you require it will also remove the sapwood. This is the lighter outer ring of soft new wood which we do not want for our planks.

This step is one which require planning and patience. Your logs will not be regular and it is important to try and see a way to create a rectangular block without much wastage. If may be necessary to jack up one end of the log if one can visualise a rectangular block running the length of the piece of timber.  The face of wood removed are not in themselves waste as these crude planks are useful for rough and ready work like stockades and shelters.

img_20190327_1243253319814703555371052.jpgOnce you have your rectangular piece of timber it is plain sailing to run the saw repeatedly through its length to create planks. Here we are making cuts at 1 inch depths for fairly robust planking. This final piece of work might, on average, constitute about ten percent of the work;  all the foregoing is more important.But once you have done this part you will start to see your collection of nice new, wonderfully smelling, planks mount up. You will also find that doing this type of plank will be a lot better for your health than any number of planks in the gym. You will sleep a lot more soundly because of the exercise but also because of knowing you have created something new and the materials you are now going to use have had a much lower carbon footprint than might otherwise have been the case. It is also likely that you will treat these planks with a bit more respect and be less wasteful of them. It is, as they say, a win-win situation.

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A sheep in wolves’ clothing.

We have had a bit of a problem over the last few days. One of the ewes who had healthy twins (a boy and a girl) was causing concern. She would not let the boy feed and would head butt him away quite vigorously whenever he came close. Sometimes she would toss him up into the air and over a meter away from her. It was quite distressing to see.

We were worried she might have mastitis and that pain, when the lamb suckled, contributed to the problem. Therefore we needed to get her to the vet for review and possible antibiotics. Now this is sometimes easier said than done. It is fairly easy to catch the ewes now that they are bucket trained, but it is a different matter to get 40kg of reluctant and annoyed ewe into the back of a pickup or into the vet’s surgery. Though goats may get all the praise for being nimble and quick I can assure you that a sheep that wants to escape to somewhere else is no slouch. They will wriggle, jump and run; it can be quite a task at times.

I wasn’t looking forward to this when my wife had an idea. We had recently invested in a macho harness for our German Shepherd – perhaps we could press this into use for the ewe. After a minor skirmish it was on and all of a sudden we had a ewe we could move at will without hurdles or a sheep dog – it was a sheep with a handle on it and it made life so much easier. It may look odd (see the picture below) but I can commend this strategy to any other smallholder with wily ewes and large fashion-conscious dogs.

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After the vet had reviewed her it seems unlikely that mastitis is at the root of our problems. Sometimes ewes will just take against a specific lamb, it seems that there is just something about the look of their face to which they take objection. We are assured that often this can be overcome by just ensuring the lamb does get to feed regularly whether the ewe wants to or not. So we have a period ahead when we have to immobilise the ewe every two hours while we let her son feed. Our other cunning plan is to smear some poo from the bum of the lamb she has accepted onto the bum of the lamb she rejects- apparently this sometimes fools the ewe back into acceptance.

Hopefully these strategies will work and will avoid us the need to start bottle feeding as I think I am too old to go back to night bottle feeds.

 

The perversity of ewes.

It seems only a short time ago that we had warm sunny days, dry days, pleasant days, in fact, ideal days for lambs to start their lives. However, our ewes eschewed starting lambing during this period ; “too easy” they said. They have waited until just after the hail and sleet of yesterday and the start of Storm Gareth  today and decided that this is the perfect time to start lambing. The pervesity of ewes knows no bounds.

We have our fingers firmly crossed and  our lambing box at the ready and I’ve made this short post just to explain that there will be little activity on this site for the next few weeks.

 

The 3 ‘R’s

The important triad that we need to consider, if we are to have any hope of tackling the problem we face with climate change and degradation of our environment, is the triad of:-

  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle

Unfortunately, it is the most important of these that we tend to forget and ignore. The most important is “reduce“; indeed, the instruction to reuse and recycle are just other methods to avoid using new things and thus simple practical ways to reduce our consumption. If we recycle something, or use if for a different purpose, it saves us from buying or creating something new, it reduces our consumption. The key part of the triad remains reduce and it is the aspect which, unfortunately, the one to which we pay less attention. I can understand this, as it can quite easy to enjoy the other two instructions. There is indeed pleasure to be had from finding a new use for something you thought past its days. Recycling and reuse can save us money and certainly help us have a feeling of smugness, that we have done our bit, without any real cost to ourselves. In contrast “reducing” consumption has little fun associated with it, and any smugness is probably obliterated by a feeling of missing out on what other are having.

We are, in fact, exhorted to do the exact opposite of reducing our consumption. Although we all know that, if we want to reverse the damage we are doing to our environment, we must start to consume less and more wisely. But every day adverts tell us our lives are not complete without this, or that, product or service. Every day we are informed we will be happier if we just have something else; a new car, a foreign holiday, this year’s fashion in clothing or music. Increasingly advertisers try to urge us to become better people buy buying their products, suggesting that people who buy car X are obviously those who go against the herd, thinking individuals who understand the social and environmental threats we must tackle. The “greenwashing” that we see in the luxury market is particularly galling when we are urged to buy something new, because it is more efficient or green, while the much better option would be to not buy something and make our car, or washing machine, or fridge, or whatever, last that bit longer. The calculations to work out the better environmental option in these situations can be quite difficult to work out but it is generally safe to presume that not consuming something is the greenest option open to you.

At the social level this situation gets even worse. The mantra enthrals that all politicians is that “growth is good”. We are told that economic growth is the best marker for the health of our societies. It is suggested that if growth slackens then our future is grim, only ever increasing production and consumption can save us. While it is true that the spectacular growth we have seen has lifted most of the world’s population out of poverty but the problem is no longer inadequacy of wealth (there is more than enough for all) the problems are waste and faulty distribution. The wealth we have is not fairly spread and the creating of this wealth is at the expense of our future safety. It might be much better to be aiming, in the developed world, for what Adam Smith described as “stationarity” or the “steady-state economy” described by the ecological economist Herman Daly. Those of us living in the post-scarcity economies of the developed world need to try and find ways to alter our living and let us reflect on our problems.

This problem was brought home to me this week, on Tuesday to be precise. This week included Shrove Tuesday but most of our press and media were keen to remind me it was Pancake Day. It is clear that this is another ritual or celebration which is going through a metamorphosis to become more useful for our current times. Shrove Tuesday is so called because of the word shrive which means to absolve. This day marked the end of the period before lent. A day to use up, and so not waste, the foodstuff that would no be eaten during the fast to come. (Mardi Gras has the same origin, its meaning being Fat Tuesday). It was time to start reflecting on our failures and begin the period of Lent during which we would be expected to give up some of the pleasures of life and, instead, pay attention to our failings.

This aspect of the celebration does not fit with a modern consumer culture. A ritual that encourages reduced consumption and thoughtful introspection really doesn’t fit with our current world view. The last thing a consumer society wishes is for consumers to doubt or reduce their consumption. So as Breugel (See Picture) anticipated we have converted it into another excuse to consume, to carouse, to eat and drink to excess. Just as Easter has become the celebration of eating chocolate, Christmas the celebration of general excess, the remnants of Lent have become the celebration of eating sweet carbohydrate treats. They all join the new celebrations of consumption such as Black Friday and Amazon Prime Day.

At a time when the last thing in the world we need is encouragement to consume more it is sad to see a tradition promoting moderation and self-reflection dying. If anything we need to try and revive Lent and to encourage people that we need to think about our consumption and behaviour. We may think that we no longer need to think on our sins nor repent as we are modern and above such primitive things. However, greed, gluttony, lust and envy are factors that drive our overconsumption and promote the unequal distribution of our wealth and we need to think about these. If we do not, and we continue as we are, then the inequalities we see will worsen and we will fail to stop the global warming which we clearly know is starting to threaten our future as a species. At a time when our behaviour is such that it threatens our very survival it might be a wise time to salvage a period of reflection and repentance, and the exhortation from Ash Wednesday would seem a very good place to start :-

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return