Loyal to the soil

The other day my friend Ann and I were discussing the fact that if she wants to become a British citizen, she will be obliged to swear  or affirm (the former involves God and the latter doesn’t – you get to choose which) an oath of allegiance to the Queen. Strangely, because I was born here, I can choose not to ally myself with the Queen and even, I suppose, to plot her downfall (in a democratic way!) but if Ann wants to be British, she can’t.

At a citizenship ceremony you affirm your allegiance by saying the following:

I (your full name) do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that on becoming a British Citizen I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her heirs and successors according to law.

I’ve quoted the non-religious version, but you can swear to God if you wish. In the ceremony, this is followed by the “Pledge of commitment”:

I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfill my duties and obligations as a British citizen.

Whilst I don’t have a problem with the pledge, I would certainly have to think carefully about the affirmation. I’m not a big fan of the royal family – they are after all just people who, by accident of birth, are able to lead a very privileged life. Although our monarch is the head of state, she doesn’t actually run the country… and anyway she has no skills to do so apart from having ancestors who were the biggest bullies in their time. And this got me to thinking about what I would feel happy affirming my allegiance to…

These ones were planted a bit later

Celebrating to bounty of the soil

I’m not at all nationalistic – I prefer to see myself as a citizen of the world and to celebrate my links to all other people, not just those who happen to occupy an arbitrary area. Don’t get me wrong – I am very grateful to have been born in a country where I can speak freely – including telling you I’m not keen on the monarchy – without fear of retribution, and where I experience no severe repression because of my gender, lack of religion, skin colour or sexual orientation. The question is, given a choice, what would I affirm my commitment to? I think the answer is not to my country or monarch, but to the land… and air and water; to the earth around me and all it’s wonderful diversity.

So, as a citizen of the earth, this is my affirmation and pledge

I do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that, as a member of the human race, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the earth beneath my feet, the air that I breathe and the water that sustains me.
I will give my loyalty to the natural world and respect its rights and bounty. I will value the world’s ecosystems and work to enhance the land that sustains me – leaving it richer than when I found it. I will observe nature and be inspired by what I see, fulfilling my role as a part of the diversity life on this amazing planet.

How about you? What sort of pledge would you make?

More stealth plastic

After Mr Snail’s recent discovery of plastic in the ‘plastic-free’ Easter egg he was given, I have been thinking about ‘hidden’ plastics… you know the sort of thing – plastic coatings on the inside of cans and jar lids, plastics in your clothes and plastics in your toiletries. Yes, you read that right “in your toiletries” – I don’t mean around your toiletries in the form of plastic containers, I mean toothpaste and body washes that contain plastics. Specifically tiny plastic beads, otherwise known as microbeads.

Left: Nilgiri; Right: Yunnan

Plastic-free tea

Now, as you know, I was rather upset to discover a while ago that there was plastic IN my teabags and, as a result, I have converted to using loose tea and buying it unpackaged, using my own containers. So, the last thing I wanted to hear was that there might be secret plastics in my toiletries too. When I started investigating further, I discovered that all sorts of plastics – polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polymethlyl methacrylate (PMMA) and  nylon – are put into all sorts of products – face soaps, body washes, toothpastes, lip gloss and nail polish. There are even plastic microbeads in some anti-aging makeup… you can fill the creases on your face with gunge containing plastic – nice!

Because these fragments of plastic are so small, they are easy for us to ignore and we might consider that this means they are not a problem, but in fact there are real issues. Microbeads don’t get filtered out of waste water in treatment plants, so they get right into the environment where they absorb toxins and are then consumed by aquatic life… some of which gets eaten by humans (poisoned plastic sashimi anyone?):

Plastic microbeads absorb persistent organic pollutants (long-lasting toxic chemicals like pesticides, flame retardants, motor oil and more) and other industrial chemicals that move up the food chain when the toxic-coated beads are consumed by fish and other marine organisms. A single microbead can be up to a million times more toxic than the water around it. (Plastic Microbeads 101)

And it’s all unnecessary! The plastic beads are used because they are slightly abrasive, but there are natural products that are suitable too – like good, old-fashioned pumice, or fully biodegradable apricot shells. Sadly, microbeads are cheap and not too abrasive, so you can be use products with them in every day (thus, potentially increasing consumption).

No microbeads in my locally made soap, or my homemade cotton wash cloth

No microbeads in my locally made soap, or my homemade cotton wash cloth

When I investigated my toiletries, however, I was able to breathe easy… my organic toothpaste was free of microbeads, as was my soap (it’s made by a local artisan, so I know exactly what’s in it, including a complete absence of palm oil). I don’t wear any makeup and I don’t have specific face wash (exfoliating or otherwise), so no worries there either. I’m certainly glad that I haven’t found another part of my life that I need to change because of stealth plastic!

If you want to make your concerns about these hidden plastics known, I encourage you to sign the petition on The Story of Stuff web site… just click here.


There is sound scientific research demonstrating the problems, including:

D. Barnes, F. Galgani, R. Thompson, M. Barlaz, Accumulation and fragmentation of plastic debris in global environments. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 364, 1985-1998 (2009). In 2012, scientists found micro-beads numbering more than 450,000 per square kilometer in parts of the Great Lakes (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X13006097)

Yukie Mato, Tomohiko Isobe, Hideshige Takada, Haruyuki Kanehiro, Chiyoko Ohtake, and Tsuguchika Kaminuma, Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium for Toxic Chemicals in the Marine Environment, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2001, 35 (2), pp 318–324 (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es0010498?journalCode=esthag)

Chelsea M. Rochman, Eunha Hoh, Tomofumi Kurobe & Swee J. Teh, Ingested plastic transfers hazardous chemicals to fish and induces hepatic stress, Scientific Reports 3, Article number: 3263 (http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/131121/srep03263/full/srep03263.html)

It looks worse before it looks better

The plans for the orangery, as our builder has decided to call it, are agreed. Work will start in three weeks time and will involve the construction of a patio and a raised bed as well as the glass room itself. Before the builders arrive, however, we have to clear the area of all sorts of things: water butts, a bench, lots of pots (with and without plants), bags of compost… you know the sort of thing that accumulates around and inside a greenhouse.

And so, after a fairly lazy day yesterday, today we were out in the cool but very sunny garden. Weed-infested pots were transferred to chicken-ville to provide great entertainment for four happy hens; broken plant pots were thrown away and in tact plant pots moved into the shed or a big tea chest that acts as useful storage; water butts were disconnected; I collected old plant labels and picked up lots of bits of plastic that seem to have accumulated around the garden (more on that in a forthcoming post); Mr Snail dismantled the staging in the greenhouse and removed the  “ladder allotment” from the fence near where the building work will be happening and attached it to the fence in the waste of space area (he even used a spirit level to make sure it wasn’t wonky):

The general result looks like chaos, but I think that is always the way when major clearing work is in progress. We are left with a dilapidated greenhouse that needs the last of its contents removing, plus a whole pile of things that need a temporary home while the building work happens. I’m rather looking forward to it being all over… and the joy that will come with a robust indoor growing space.



After three full-on days teaching a diploma course, I am left feeling wiped out. Don’t get me wrong, the learners were great, the field trip turned out really well and the whole experience was both positive and stimulating, but it has left  me feeling drained and unable to do very much.

Some days should be about relaxing... Max and Mr Snail demonstrate one approach

Some days should be about relaxing… Max and Mr Snail demonstrate one approach

However, trying to lead a more sustainable life means finding the balance and knowing when it’s necessary to relax and regain your energy. As a result, today I have been gentle on myself – a stroll with the dogs and Mr Snail this morning after a trip to the post office, charity shop (two more bags of “stuff” gone) and newspaper shop. Then coffee and the newspaper (I don’t read the news bit) before some blog reading and posting a few pictures on Ravelry of my latest projects.

It’s a chilly day today, so Mr Snail suggested making lasagne – with the dual purpose of providing a delicious hot meal and warming the house whilst the oven is on. I always like to maximise oven use, so I have also made charcoal biscuits for the dogs and those are cooking along with dinner. In addition, I’ve made a start on a new scarf – this one a Welsh dragon, so the main colour is red.

Even on days when I don’t do much I always try to be creative… how about you?

The good bits

Whilst marking is the worst part of teaching, there are some good bits. Today, on our Habitat Creation and Restoration course, we spent most of our time at Cwmsymlog, an old metal mine. The sun shone, we saw rare species of fern and discussed natural habitat development and dealing with contaminated land. Every time I run a course I am inspired by my learners and I gain new perspectives on my subject, plus I get to spend happy days in the field.

And what course would be complete without cake?

Blackberry and white chocolate muffins for the last day

Blackberry and white chocolate muffins ready for tomorrow (by request!)

It’s a cover-up

I’ve been teaching all day today, so I’m out of words. However, to relax this evening I finished off the last of the covers for phase 1 of the crochet sofa. What do you think?

Up to the mark?

Lots of marking... and that's not really my crochet in the top left... honest!

Lots of marking… and that’s not really my crochet in the top left… honest!

My least favourite thing about teaching is… marking. I’m supposed to be doing some now, but I keep finding other things to occupy me. In fact, I’m only managing to do any by rewarding myself with some other activities after every two of three scripts. I love interacting with learners on courses, but the impersonal act of judging their written work is quite unappealing to me.

Unfortunately, public funding for the sort of courses for adults that I teach generally relies on written assessment, as this is considered to provide proof of learning. When setting assessments, I always choose “formative” rather than “summative” ones, i.e, activities during which my learners will learn more as a result of doing them, rather than ones where they just regurgitate facts or demonstrate skills already acquired. Even so, I still end up with piles of marking… and it all has to be looked at.

I do teach a few courses that are not publicly funded, and in these there is no assessment… just the opportunity for learners to explore the subject as we go along and for them to find out whether they understand. In my teaching, there is no ban on asking questions, so once we’ve explored any given subject, everyone will have had the chance to find out everything they want to know about it… even me!

A soon as the marking was out of the tray, Max was in there... this may be a sign of things to come.

A soon as the marking was out of the tray, Max was in there… this may be a sign of things to come.

My days of marking, however, may be numbered. Not because our government has had decided it’s no longer necessary (quite the reverse is, in fact, the case), but because I am considering my future as a teacher within the university system. An unsatisfactory re-grading and a change to the calculation of travelling expenses has resulted in me not signing a new contract… yet. And on a sunny day like today, I’m thinking that working in the garden might provide me a with a better return; editing certainly would… and with much less stress.

I still love teaching… indeed, that’s what I will be doing for the next three days… but a cost-benefit analysis seems to be revealing more negatives than positives… we’ll see.

Fly, my pretty!

Sometimes, you write a comment on someone’s blog post and it leads you down a very interesting path… for example, I never expected that my comment on The Contented Crafter’s blog would result in me owning the picture that the post related to. I simply said, of her lovely creation,  that ‘I would have it on my wall in a heartbeat!’ In no time at all the picture was offered to me in exchange for a dragon. Inspired by the one that went to Narf in Tasmania to guard her plants:

A dragon for Tasmania

A dragon for Narf in Tasmania

this one, however, was to be a water dragon…

And so I started the hunt for appropriate wool… none to be had locally, but plenty of choice on the internet. I chose “aqua” as the main colour, with support from “oxygen”(lighter) and “peacock” (darker).

Colours for a water dragon

Colours for a water dragon

Originally, I had a vision of an undulating dragon, but somehow as I worked on it, I couldn’t create the shape I had envisaged and after some frogging I made a much straighter body. I then decided to make the spines down the back sinuous by creating two intertwined rows in different colours… like a meandering river. As a water dragon, he could not have feet like a terrestrial dragon, so I made him webs for improved swimming ability!

Adding the spines

Adding the spines

I made the wings in “oxygen” and edged them and then remembered that I had a few freshwater pearls that would provide some appropriate embellishment. In the same box as the pearls, however, I came across an old film canister containing pearlescent beads. As soon as I saw them, I knew that they, not the half-dozen pearls, were just the thing.

Working on the wings

Working on the wings

But what about the eyes…? I tried mother-of-pearl, but the poor creature looked dead. I tried black , like the Tasmanian dragon, but they were too stark, I went to every shop in the area that sells buttons and couldn’t find anything that spoke to me so I resorted to e-bay – the world’s biggest haberdashery shop. There I was tempted by all sorts of glass buttons and I ended up ordering a selection because I simply couldn’t decide which would look best. In the end, I used vintage Czechoslovakian turquoise glass buttons, but now I have quite a few other buttons that will make great eyes on dragons to come!

Blue glass eyes

Blue glass eyes

I decorated the wings and spines with the pearlescent beads, and added some darker beads to the edges of the wings. Had this dragon been going somewhere in the UK, I would have wired the wings to give them extra support to counter the weight of the beads and make them poseable, but I was concerned that an x-ray at customs revealing a network of fine wires might result in the untimely destruction of the dragon in a controlled explosion (and it is, after all, a water dragon not a fire dragon). The final touches involved some needle sculpting and silver tufts on ears and chin.

And then the dragon was flying off to New Zealand and a new life…

It turns out that bartering for art is very satisfying!

Spring flowers

My front garden is lovely in the spring. The remnant of an old wildflower meadow, it still contains beautiful flowers. We only cut it a couple of times a year to maintain the native species. This year, I’ve added three soft fruit bushes to make it a little more productive. Plus, when I was feeling blue, my friend Ann gave me some of the Viola known as heart’s-ease and I’m planting those too.

And, inspired by Wild Daffodil, a spring flower haiku

Vibrant celandines
contrast with purple heart’s-ease
making spirits rise

Farewell rubbish bed

We now have a date for the builders to arrive to start construction of the conservatory. This means that there are some jobs to be completed… one of which we tackled this morning, namely the emptying of the “rubbish bed”.

I have written several times in the past about the woeful lack of soil in our garden when we moved into our house. This was because the topsoil had been stripped away and sold off when the house was built. The only solution was for us to build raised beds and create our own soil. We did buy some topsoil in to get started, but we have also made tonnes of compost over the 15 years we have been here. Perhaps our greatest success was the rubbish bed – constructed from upended paving slabs and filled with all sorts of waste material: cardboard, shredded paper, wood-chip, moss raked out of a friend’s lawn, fallen leaves, spent potting compost, garden compost, grass clippings, wood ash, teabags, to rot down in situ and generate soil and a bit of heat for the plants too.

The 'four sisters' bed

The “rubbish bed” in all its glory in 2013

However, this bed now has to go to make way for the conservatory, properly drained patio and a new, block-built raised bed. So, in glorious sunshine this morning, we emptied out the most amazing compost/soil (all home-made) and transferred it onto other beds and into two dumpy bags that we then planted up with potatoes. The soil that we had created was packed full of earthworms and had the most fabulous texture. It’s a bitter-sweet activity – I am so proud of what we have created from “rubbish”, but very sad that this area of garden will no longer exist (it has been amazingly productive).

Most of the site of the rubbish bed is destined to become a patio, but part of the footprint will coincide with a much deeper raised bed… which, in its turn, will be filled with new compost all created from waste: we already have two of our neighbours trained to deliver their grass clippings, and a friend has some moss to contribute.

So, farewell “rubbish bed” and thank you. Here’s to much more in situ compost making and productivity.

Emptied out and waiting to be dismantled

Emptied out and waiting to be dismantled


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 617 other followers