Snug birds

I didn’t mention yesterday the other finished objects from the past few weeks. I have been sorting out my crochet pattern for bird roosts, and during the testing phase I made lots of the things. The final pattern will include versions in wool to felt and in various sorts of twine… every version I had to make at least once, and so there’s rather a collection…

I’m planning to publish the pattern in the autumn, before running a workshop on making them at Denmark Farm, here in Ceredigion on 27 November. I’m also running a beginners crochet course at the same venue on 30 October.

Fun with numbers

Although my main teaching is about ecology, conservation and sustainability, I do have a sideline: maths. Yes, maths!

It isn’t widely known, but ecologists tend to be mathematicians too. You see, when you start looking at natural systems – like forests or oceans – you discover that they are amazingly complex, with huge numbers of components, all of which interact with each other – either directly or indirectly. So, how can you possibly start to understand what’s gong on? Well, the answer includes the use of maths to examine things like amounts of energy transferred between organisms, numbers of individuals, numbers of species, growth of populations and individuals… I could go on.

In addition, anyone doing research in the sciences or social sciences needs to get to grips with mathematics in order to prove or disprove their hypotheses. There’s no point in conducting a brilliant experiment if you can’t analyse the data that you produce at the end. Does no-dig gardening really yield more produce? By conducting controlled experiments and analysing the data, we can come up with a definitive answer.

I was never great at pure maths, but I really enjoy statistics and analysing results. And so, with this in mind, I am teaching a course in the autumn entitled ‘Dealing with Data’ – it’s aimed at part-time learners studying for the Diploma in Field and Conservation Ecology in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at Aberystwyth University, but anyone interested in collecting information about yields and how to tease out the meaning from the results would find it useful.

The problem is that there are lots of folks out there who are simply terrified by numbers and who freeze when confronted with mathematics. I try to make the whole process as stress-free as possible, and demonstrate why being able to use numbers is really useful. We will be using some learning tools that might be more familiar to primary school teachers, but can help everyone get to grips with mathematics:

Let's play with some numbers

Let’s play with some numbers

With these, we can learn about everything from addition to logarithms, from bar charts to histograms. I’m even considering using crochet to demonstrate geometric series. Never let it be said that I’m not creative in my classes!


This post is dedicated to the memory of Dr David Causton, who taught me more about statistics than anyone else in my life and encouraged me to teach others. David died on Tuesday, but his legacy lives on in all his students.


Learning junkie

I hated school – I loathed the place. I was the clever skinny child with glasses who was rubbish at sports. I got picked on and I didn’t have many friends. On reflection, I think that I managed to learn in spite of school rather than because of it. That said, I did have four great years at middle school (aged 9 to 11) and I did have a couple of inspirational teachers at high school: Mr Hall, my geography teacher all the way through my five years there; and Miss Bray, my biology teacher for my final two years, the dear lady who persuaded me to apply to go to university, convincing me that it was nothing like school.

And so it is, perhaps, surprising how much I have enjoyed learning during my subsequent adult life. I’m a bit of a collector of qualifications  (a BSC, a PhD and an MEd). I’m a member of two professional bodies – one educational (HEA) and one environmental (CIEEM), both of which required me to produce substantial portfolios to be admitted. But my education does not end in academia, I have a Permaculture Design Certificate and am currently working towards my Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design, but I’ve also spent four years recently studying French, I have attended classes on felt making and basketry in the past couple of years, and I have  a crochet course lined up for later on in the summer.

IMGP0774And classes are not the end of it – the internet is great. YouTube has turned out to be an amazing resource, where I have learnt about all sorts of things. The latest video I watched, for example, taught me how to knit a magic loop and I have greatly expanded my range of knitting techniques through watching clips on YouTube. It seems that you can learn how to do almost anything via YouTube – from playing the guitar to building a chicken house!

Trial and error - learning as I go in the garden (with a little help from books)

Trial and error – learning as I go in the garden (with a little help from friends and books)

I’m also willing to give things a go and learn from my mistakes. My garden is a particularly good example of this approach, and it has certainly evolved over time as a result of trial and error. I expect that this will continue to be the case. Because many of the crops I grow are annuals, I can experiment one year and apply the lessons the next… hopefully gaining expertise as I go, but always with the opportunity to make improvements. The garden is also, one place where I apply lots of my book-learning and advice from other gardeners.

So, it has turned out that learning has enhanced my life and continues to do so. And I’m not alone – there is clear evidence that people who continue to participate in learning through their lives are healthier than those who don’t. In his paper Lifelong learning, welfare and mental well-being into older age: trends and policies in Europe, John Field (a well-known expert in lifelong learning) states

Increasingly, though, researchers have started to identify wider social and cultural benefits from participation in learning, and there is also growing evidence of small but important improvements in mental well-being for individuals. This suggests that older adults can experience significant improvements in quality of life as a result of participating in learning

So, I will continue to participate in learning, mainly because I enjoy it, but also in the hope that it will keep me healthy and mentally stimulated… how about you?


It’s the time of year again when small children find it very difficult to get to sleep… something about some jolly guy in red descending down their chimney in the middle of the night. Come to think of it, that’s something I might start to lose sleep over… especially since I’m guessing he’s likely to wreck our gas fire.

Actually, I need little excuse to lose sleep… anything that gets lodged in my mind seems to resurface in the middle of the night and refuses to go away until about 20 minutes before I need to get up, at which point my brain switches off and I fall deeply asleep. It’s not too bad when I am at home – there is always the option of getting up, making a cup of tea and spending some time working, knitting or thinking about my permaculture diploma.

In fact, I rarely get up these days, preferring to remain warm and in bed, listening to a talking book on my mp3 player via headphones so as not to disturb Mr Snail-of-happiness (who rarely has trouble sleeping). Currently I’m listening to Chocolat by Joanne Harris. In fact, it’s not my ideal book to doze off to because I’m never heard or read it before (it’s different to the film). The best books to fall asleep to are old favourites, particularly children’s books, which make me think of my parents reading to me in bed as a child… Roald Dahl is particularly good and I’m waiting for someone to make a recording of The Overland Launch by C. Walter Hodges, a book I clearly remember my mother reading to me and my sister when we were young. Mr S-o-h has kindly made me a recording of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull which I listen to when he is away, so that I get to hear his voice, although part of the story makes me cry, which isn’t necessarily a good thing!

Insomnia socks!

Insomnia socks!

My real insomnia problem arises when I’m away from home. I go on courses quite often and end up sharing a room with people that I don’t know… sometimes even in a dormitory. Earlier this year I had to try to sleep in a very squeaky bunk bed in a room with six other people. Tossing and turning was simply not an option, so I ended up in the dining area at about 5am each day. I certainly go a lot of knitting done (see left). More recently I had to share a hotel room with someone I did not know at all and where there was no safe communal space to retreat to, so no chance of getting up and being creative… well I suppose I could have sat in the bathroom, but I think my room-mate would probably have been rather worried by that! So I had one almost completely sleep-free night when I achieved nothing.

The current hexipuff collection

The current hexipuff collection

And really this is my issue: I can see the point of sleep. It allows me to function properly the next day. If I have to have insomnia I’d really like to be able to treat it as an opportunity – making something, reading something, producing a permaculture design. And so, before I book any more courses I’m going to make sure that the place I’m staying has either single rooms or somewhere I can sit and knit worms, socks, snails or hexipuffs without scaring my fellow learners!

Sowing the seeds of sustainability

The introductory permaculture course that I teach is called Sowing the seeds of sustainability – a great title that I cannot claim credit for. That honour goes to my friend Angie, who designed the course in the first place and has been kind enough to allow me, first, to help her teach it and then to run the course on my own. It’s a great course to teach and to attend (being a participant was how I originally found out about permaculture) and includes a trip to see an inspiring site. The actual visit depends on where the course is being taught, but over the years we’ve visited Station Road Permaculture, Brithdir Mawr, Lammas and Tir Penrhos, amongst others.

The next time I teach this course our visit will be to Angie’s place.It’s the first time I have taken a group there, but it will be really great for them to see some of the things an experienced permaculture teacher has done with her own home and land. And, as well as seeing the successes, it gives the opportunity to see what hasn’t worked, and how problems have been turned into solutions or designs have had to be tweaked.

This sort of sharing is an important part of learning, whatever the subject, but in permaculture the network that provides support, ideas and encouragement is particularly valued. The Permaculture Association in the UK organises a variety of events that allow people to connect (such as the recent convergence), but we tend to be technologically savvy too and so there are active groups on Facebook, for example.

One of the greatest ways to connect is during shared learning – and there are lots of courses available. However, almost all of them cost money and this makes them completely out of reach for many people. I was delighted, therefore, to hear from my friend Tracey that she is organising a permaculture course to draw people together from across Europe who would not otherwise be able to afford such a cultural exchange of ideas. In her own words:

What is my DREAM?

To raise enough money to offer TEN fully sponsored places on a full Permaculture Design Course to be held in Scotland in the summer of 2013. This would support people & communities in some of our neighbouring countries, who are facing huge financial challenges, namely Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece, to share the knowledge wider within their local communities.

She writes:

People have asked why bring people from other countries to Scotland to do a Permaculture Course when I could offer to fund them in their place of residence.

The answer is… Because I want to create a celebration of cultures, bring people together, share the knowledge, celebrate the diversity, have a party.

Permaculture is all about valuing diversity and I know if we can reach the target then it will create an opportunity for a real diverse mix of people to be united on one course. I plan to make it a super duper course, as you can imagine!!

The approach she is taking is ‘crowd funding’ – where lots of people give a small (or large) amount to finance a project that they feel has value. Although bringing people together who are from different regions is costly, the benefits are likely to be huge, and she is asking that participants ‘pay it forward’ and go off and spread the word about permaculture and sustainability. Sounds like a worthwhile cause to support to me (and there are perks if you donate!). If you are interested in reading more about the project or giving a donation you can visit the Sharing a Living in a Gift Economy page ( please note this web address changed on 30 September). I love the idea of crowd funding, because you can make a real difference to a project with just a small donation.

Well, I’m due for a busy few weeks now, with courses to teach and to attend… who knows what exciting ideas will come out of them and what interesting people it will meet…

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