Three Things Thursday: 26 January 2017

Inspired by Emily of Nerd in the Brain (note her new self-hosted web site) here are my Three Things Thursday. As she says…

*three things that make me smile: an exercise in gratitude – feel free to steal this idea with wild abandon and fill your blog with the happy*

First – a silly film. My friend Derrick, who lives in California sent me a link to this and it certainly made me smile when I watched it this morning:

Second, a yarn selection box. One of the ladies in the 60 Million Trebles group put out a request for 4-ply sock yarn (especially the self-patterning variety). She asked if people could send her just 10g of yarn for a special charity blanket she’s involved in making. Having knitted so many pairs of socks over the years, I have loads of odds and ends. So I got out my tiny digital scales and had fun putting together this collection of sixteen different yarns:

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a colourful collection

 

Third, the start of the gardening year. I’m still holding on for a few days before I plant my first seeds, but I have got three varieties of potato chitting (sprouting) in the limery:

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and so it begins…

 

So, those are 3 things making me smile this week – what about you?

And still they come…

My diploma portfolio and the masterpiece

My diploma portfolio and the masterpiece

You will have noticed that I have been very remiss in keeping you updated about the masterpiece… it’s not been forgotten, I’ve just had to concentrate on completing the written portfolio for my Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design, which the masterpiece is a physical representation of. I’m pleased to report now, however, that the writing is nearly complete and, aside from some checking of details, my portfolio is nearly ready to submit – hurrah! There it is on the left, laid out on the masterpiece with some accompanying, as yet unincorporated, squares. I’ve made a cover for each design that features the square I created to represent it and I’m very happy with the result. You can also see my tree of life – made of words!

A new snail

A new snail

As you will notice, though, there is quite a pile of squares that haven’t yet made it into the blanket. Because of this delay, I have been able to continue accepting squares, which means, for example, that I was given a completely unexpected snail square on Saturday. In fact, this square was really destined for the community craft project I started at Denmark Farm (more details here), but I fell in love with it and Lindsay kindly gave it to me for the masterpiece. I really love the fact that she did free-form crochet, starting in the centre of the snail shell and working from there.

There are at least three more squares already made, but not yet with me, so if anyone is reading about this for the first time and feels like contributing, there is still time. Or anyone who thought they’d like to contribute, but missed getting a square to me by my original deadline. In fact, I’m going to need at least six more squares.  I’ll make them myself to finish things off, but contributions would be welcome to fill these gaps if you’d like to help me out.

I have to say, it will be a massive relief to send my portfolio off for marking next week and to be able to focus on making progress with the masterpiece. I still haven’t decided what edging to use for it, but the time is coming when I will have to make a decision… any suggestions gratefully received!

Six by nine

… that’s the size of the Masterpiece.

I have made a big eff0rt over the past few days to to get as many squares as possible incorporated before I have to go away for a couple of days. And here is the result:

Blanket on 11 March

Blanket on 11 March

It was a bit breezy and wouldn’t stay still, but you get the idea. I even managed to add a stem linking the big snail’s border to a leaf in Nia’s square (on the right):

That's one happy snail!

That’s one happy snail!

It really is a blanket now and I know there are quite a few more squares to come. Thank you, one and all!

Happiness and Doom

The worm of doubt (bottom right) and friend

The worm of doubt (bottom right) and friend

‘What a great name for a blog’, people will say to me. I even meet people at permaculture events who exclaim ‘So you’re the Snail of Happiness’ and I have to confess that I am. I realise, however, that many readers don’t know why I chose the name and that there is also a Snail of Doom (that’s the two of them up at the top of the page) as well as a Worm of Doubt (left).

I did blog about the choice of name when I first started out, but I think the story deserves repeating, just so you’re not totally bewildered nor assume that I have a mollusc fetish (although for the knitters amongst you, you might not be surprised to know that my Ravelry name is Mollusca).

At the beginning of 2012 I attended a permaculture course (known as the ToT: Teaching of Teachers) to improve my teaching skills. It was focused on teaching permaculture, but was based on ‘Accelerated Learning‘ techniques, which are widely applicable. I do some permaculture teaching, but I do much more on ecology and conservation – either way, I wanted to enhance all my courses. One of the activities was for each of the participants to teach a short session so that we could get feedback on our technique. I’ve been teaching for fifteen years or more, so wanted to do something new rather than simply delivering a session that I’d done before.

In order to challenge myself, I chose to address a topic that can be difficult because it leaves those involved feeling rather depressed: I decided to teach a session on ‘spirals of destruction’ i.e. how we get ourselves into a vicious circle of negativity by taking small steps in a negative direction. So as not to leave everybody too gloomy I decided, as well, to get the group to think about ‘spirals of abundance’… getting into a ‘virtuous circle’.

Accelerated learning is not a spectator sport – learners all contribute and are actively involved, collaborating with each other in a social setting and constructing their learning in a relevant context. Trying to accommodate all these features, I decided that I would run a group story-telling session. And that it would be good to have some form of ‘talking stick’ to pass round when it was each person’s turn to speak. And thus the idea of the two snails came to me… the snail of happiness for our positive spiral and the snail of doom for our negative spiral, supported by the worm of doubt, who got thrown over my shoulder at the end of the session.

Snail of Happiness and Snail of Doom

Snail of Happiness and Snail of Doom

To make the session relevant to the context, I started the story with there being two weeks to go before I had to do my teaching session on the course and not knowing what to do.  I passed the snail of doom on to the next person, who told the next (negative step) in the story. We worked our way round the group, moving from ‘I couldn’t think what to do, so I didn’t bother’ to ‘there was only a week to go, I still hadn’t done anything’ to ‘so I had a drink’ to ‘and another drink’ and eventually to ‘and here I am in the session and I still haven’t got any ideas, but I do have a hangover’!  We then started from the same origin, but using the snail of happiness and describing positive steps and ending with a successful session (in the story and in reality). It’s a simple way to illustrate a point – getting everyone to engage with a story – but it works.

Telling a story with the snail of doom...

Telling a story with the snail of doom…

In order to run this session, I had to make the snails (two snails that are tactile and mirror images of each other turned out to be impossible to source) and that was when I discovered the art of amigurumi (knitted or crocheted critters). Once made, the snails rather took on a life of their own and I loved the idea of the snail of happiness so much that I used the name for this blog… it seems to be strangely memorable and is, therefore, also the name I have chosen for my etsy shop (coming soon – promise).

So, there you are, that’s the story! And if you need a knitted snail, just let me know!

New snail on the block

The escargatoire (yes, believe it or not, that is the collective noun for snails*) has grown. I think our new recruit will, henceforth, be known as the Snail of Persistence, to acknowledge the decades that it has taken me to learn to crochet.

Introducing out latest addition: the Snail of Persistence

Introducing out latest addition: the Snail of Persistence

There is no stopping me after last week’s course: as well as my usual knitting (a cardigan at the moment), I have made the snail and a pair of fingerless mittens. Finally, I can have a bash at all those crocheted amigurumi that are out there.

Sam, helping me to model my fingerless mittens

Sam, helping me to model my fingerless mittens

As I’ve said, I love to learn a new skill.

-oOo-

* Actually, there are three collective nouns for snails – an ‘escatgotoire’, a ‘rout’ and, bizarrely considering their anatomy, a ‘walk’. I’m not sure which one I like best.

Knitted knickers

I am still occupied by the idea of homemade underwear. You may remember me mentioning my friend Seema, who makes her own knickers. She recycles old t-shirts and the suchlike as a way to avoid buying new items in order to reduce her environmental impact.

It turns out that Seema and I are not the only people interested in this subject. A number of courses have been brought to my attention at which I could learn to make my own (in some cases very fancy) knickers. But places like The Make Lounge and Emiliana Underwear are a long way from west Wales (although the latter does sell kits) and I simply can’t afford the time and travelling expense.

So, I turn to the internet for further inspiration and discover an abundance of patterns for knitting your own knickers… many from the 1940s. Fabulous forties fashions, for example, sell patterns for knitted knickers, vests and the marvelously named ‘pantie-vest’… a garment that seems to be designed to be impossible to extricate oneself from without disrobing completely! They even sell a pattern for crocheted bras!

I confess, however, that discussions with ladies who experienced such garments in their past reveals (not literally) their propensity (the underwear not the ladies) for bagginess and I suspect that, even using modern yarns containing lycra (or similar), they would still be saggy and almost certainly rather bulky… not to mention the likelihood of chafing! Several ladies have also described having knitted swim-wear when they were girls, including the horrors of emerging from the water in a progressively enlarging costume! Fortunately I am young enough never to have been exposed to such traumas and I’m not about to start now.

So, I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll give underwear making a miss for the time being and stick to knitting socks, cardigans and snails!

Searching high and low

One of the interesting features of WordPress is that, as an author, you can see the searches that people use to get to your blog. It’s a somewhat diverting activity and I have spent some time today examining the search engine terms that have brought people to investigate The Snail of Happiness.

I can certainly understand why you, dear reader, would arrive here as a result of searching for ‘knitted snail’ or even ‘chickens not eating slugs’, but I’m less sure of why you would be directed here as a result of typing in ‘homel things made by waste indian’ or ‘animals beginning with m’ (have I mentioned any animals beginning with m? oh, yes, there’s that post about a mouse eating my bean seeds). Or indeed that, having seen the Snail of Happiness blog in your list of search results for ‘sticky earthworm’, for example, why you would visit… although if that’s how you got here in the first place, then ‘welcome’ and apologies that the worms are rather more woolly than sticky.

I can only assume that the person who search for ‘food during rain in nitt’ arrived because there are mentions of  food, rain and Agnes Nitt (aka Perdita, a Terry Pratchett character that my chicken Perdy is named after) in various places. But, once again, if it’s you – welcome, and I’m glad you stayed!

Anyway, one way or another, folks are arriving. So, as a public service, I thought that I would try to address a selection of the questions and issues you have been seeking responses to…

can you drink worm wee tea?

Do you REALLY REALLY want to? Have you smelled it? Admittedly the dogs seem ridiculously interested in the stuff, but they eat dog food, so clearly have no taste!

gardening without mouse

Go for it! I always try to garden without mouse. I suspect the Beatrix Potter might have a different answer, though.

how does hugh fearnley whiitingstall stop slugs?

Actually, I don’t know the answer to this. I suggest that you ask Hugh – he seems like a nice chap, although I don’t know him either.

how much tomato can a slug eat?

How big is your slug? I’m guessing that if it’s one of those banana slugs, you’ll have to provide it with a really big tomato.

good explanation for cakes

Cakes are an essential part of the diet – they ensure happiness. Do not believe people who say they are bad for you.

i am a little earthworm

Congratulations, I am a Snail of Happiness.

can i keep chickens in a fruit cage?

Yes, but only if you don’t want any fruit.

growing snails in spare bedroom

I’m not sure whether you want to grow them in your spare bedroom… in which case I suggest a vivarium rather than having them free range… or whether you have them growing in your spare bedroom and want to get rid of them… in which case I have found chickens to be very effective (although they may make a bit of a mess).

amigurumi for happiness

Well, they make me happy… and if you make them with the ‘happiness yarn’ that someone else was searching for I don’t see how you can go wrong.

how to keep a pampered snail?

Is your snail pre-pampered? If so, it’s probably best to keep doing what you’ve been doing. If you are looking for new ways to pamper your snail, perhaps you could get together with the person who wants/has them in his spare bedroom and work something out between you.

And one final one, that has me stumped, perhaps other readers can help out:

the best potato you will ever see in your life because you probably won’t see very many potatoes because you have potatoes monia which means that you are afraid of potatoes which kind of cancelled this google search out because you have a retarded fear of potatoes………..freak

-oOo-

Honestly, these are all genuine search engine terms that people used to get to this blog… !

The nightly mollusc hunt

As previously reported our garden is relatively mollusc-free. The chickens see to this around most of the place and the fruit cage has some resident frogs and toads which do the job in there. Chickens are not allowed in the fruit cage because as well as eating slugs and snails, they also love soft fruit and, I’m sorry to say, frogs. Since we don’t want our predators eating our other predators, we keep them apart as much as possible.

So, why would we be conducting a mollusc hunt ourselves each night?

Well, with our new use of the area in front of the house, we now have a productive place without anything guarding against those pesky devourers of vegetables. So, I was unsurprised to discover potato tops eaten down to the stalks and lettuce seedlings disappearing every night. As I have mentioned before, we are trying to cut down on the feed brought in for the chickens and, to this end, it seems a waste simply to kill the snails and slugs and not make use of them. As they say in permaculture… “every problem is a solution”. So our molluscs are just a source of chicken food in the wrong place for use. The solution? Transport this food to the right place. This means that when it has gone dark, you can find us out the front of the house with our torches and an old plastic take-away container gathering a ‘harvest’.

I’m sure that any neighbours who look out of their windows at this time of night just have their suspicions confirmed that we are completely bonkers. After all, we are the people who ask them to give us their grass clippings, boil our water in a Kelly kettle, keep chickens (which have been known to escape and wander around out the front of the house) and now grow vegetables in containers and a dumpy bag in the drive. This cannot be considered normal behaviour, so the two of us rooting around in our drive with torches at 10pm is probably just par for the course. Don’t get me wrong… they are kind to us, but perhaps they see it as care in the community!

Then yesterday we found another unexpected source of food for hens. It’s now time for harvesting potatoes… last night for dinner we wanted salad with new potatoes straight out of the garden. So, one of the potato bags was taken round the back for harvesting. I wanted to collect the compost and put it into another container in which I’m going to experiment with pot-grown leeks. We started transferring the compost very carefully so as not to miss any of our harvest. The first harvest, however, was unexpected – slug eggs. These sticky white spheres are easy to spot and make a tasty snack for chickens… which clustered around us as we harvested. We started taking the eggs out in little clumps and putting them on a saucer for the hens, but we decided that we didn’t want to risk contaminating the new pot, so in the end the whole top layer of the compost was transferred onto a bare patch of bed (destined for planting up soon) for the chickens to scratch through and the lower layers of compost (where there were no signs of eggs) were placed in the pot. A very satisfying activity.

Results:

  • slugs and snails converted to hens eggs
  • slugs and snails eggs converted to hens eggs
  • reduced population of adult molluscs = more vegetables for us
  • fewer baby molluscs = smaller population = more vegetables for us
  • reduced feed bill

I think we’re on to a winner.

The time of gluts…

It’s normally around this time of year that we are starting to eat courgettes… every day. But not this year. The southerly placement of the jet stream is causing us to have a remarkably soggy and sunless summer here in the UK. Pretty much any UK gardening blog at the moment will include references to rain, slugs, snails, wind and a lack of vegetables.

Broadbead flowers – just need a few more pollinators

Well, I’m here to set the record straight – there are some plants growing in the UK. They may not be all the ones we expect at this time of year and some crops are certainly sluggish (if you’ll excuse the pun), but there are some things to be harvested. We are currently enjoying delicious potatoes straight out of the  planters, lettuce, rocket, mizuna and  Hungarian wax peppers. OK, so there’s not a sign of a courgette, the runner bean flowers seem to drop off before they are pollinated, I’ve brought one of the tomato plants into the house to try and encourage it not to rot and my onions have disappeared under a glorious swathe of Calendula, but there are things growing. The broadbeans are flowering abundantly if late and the bunching onions seem to be coming along nicely, as does the oca.

Breadseed poppy

As for dessert… we have raspberries and rhubarb along with a few strawberries and some red currants and blueberries just starting to ripen. On the herb front there’s mint, lemon balm, horseradish and rosemary. And the first flower of the bread seed poppies has opened.

And finally, our now well-integrated flock of hens is providing an abundance of eggs. Last night’s dinner comprised Spanish Omelette with a green salad… not quite all out of the garden , but not bad considering the dismal weather.

So the moral? Don’t rely on a single sort of crop… plant a variety of things and some will succeed. Oh, and have raised beds and containers so your plants don’t drown and can be moved indoors or into a more sheltered spot.

And have chickens so that all those vegetable-fed slugs don’t go to waste!

Hungarian Wax Peppers in the greenhouse

The ethics of knitting yarns

Right at the beginning of this blog I said that it was intended to be an account of my own small steps towards a sustainability… perhaps I should have said a more sustainable lifestyle. Many of my musings have been about my own food production… vegetables, eggs, fruit… slugs as chicken food, but I’m also interested in the other aspects of my life – clothing, entertainment, my home and earning a living. My approach with the latter is to practice ‘poly-employment’ – not putting all my eggs in one basket, but having several income sources. At present I have two main ways that I earn a living – scientific editing and teaching adults (I teach ecology, conservation, biological survey and permaculture) – but I want another string to my bow.

With this in mind I am in the process of setting up a small business to make and sell teaching aids for the subjects that I run courses on. Over the years I have developed lots of tools to use to help me when I’m teaching – games, props, aides-memoirs, simulations and so on. I take an accelerated learning approach, and a variety of was of delivering learning is very important (different people learn in different ways and my aim is to cater for all). The knitted snails (in all their glory at the top of my blog page) are examples of a teaching tool – I use them for a story-telling exercise to demonstrate that small steps can take you a long way in either a positive or a negative direction. I have used them a few times, once with a group of trainee and experienced permaculture teachers who gave me very good feedback and, indeed, requested their own snails.

So I set to knitting snails… I know how to do it and you would think that there would be few ethical dilemmas associated with snail-knitting. You would be wrong! The dilemma comes with the materials used. There are two main components – yarn and stuffing. I’ll start with the latter.

The most common soft toy filling is polyester wadding – it’s lightweight and washable. I had a little of this hanging around the house and so it was the obvious choice for the first snails that I knitted. But when it was used up I was reluctant to buy more… it’s a petroleum-based product and, as such, not exactly sustainable. So what else to use? I considered wool or silk, but I expect that some of my customers will be vegan and, therefore, not want to buy any animal products. Which meant I was looking for a plant fibre. At this point I realised that the toys we made as children were stuffed with kapok and, whilst not washable like polyester, it is widely available and has a proven track record. My snails only need to be surface washable, so kapok it is… I even managed to find someone selling organic kapok.

But my problems were not over… there is a much wider choice of yarn than stuffing and each fibre has different qualities. I need a slightly stretchy yarn for the snails. The originals were made from oddments that I had lying around – the dark purple is pure wool and the lilac is a wool-silk mix. These are great to knit with, but not suitable for vegan customers. I am trying to use up lots of yarn oddments that I have here at home and I suppose that this is a sound approach because I’m turning a waste product into a useful resource, but in the long-term it’s not sustainable because I do not have an unlimited amount of left-over yarn and, anyway, much of it is sheep’s wool. I wanted to make a start on the knitting, so the first non-animal yarn available to me was acrylic – this is readily available and it is cheap. But, like polyester, this is a product of the petrochemical industry. So, although I did make some snails from acrylic yarn, this is not my ideal raw material.

So, I hit the internet…

I started off by searching for recycled yarn. The most readily available seems to be recycled silk. There are several problems with this for me. First, it’s not vegan; second, it’s not stretchy; third, its gauge varies, which is not ideal for the snails; and finally it’s quite expensive. There’s some recycled cotton yarn available, but it’s generally combined with acrylic.

Cotton, itself seems like a good choice except for its lack of stretch. However, conventionally produced cotton relies on high applications of pesticides and is water-hungry. Indeed, one source I found states that “2.5% of all farmland worldwide is used to grow cotton, yet 10% of all chemical pesticides and 22% of insecticides are sprayed on cotton” – astonishing figures. New organic cotton is available and there are yarn manufacturers that help support small producers. I decided that I would give some of this a try even though I don’t think it is really the ideal yarn for my projects… and, of course, there are ‘yarn miles’ associated with it.

OK, so I searched for eco-yarns and environmentally friendly yarns and came up with a whole list. There are some great manufacturers who support small producers across the world, but many of these make use of fibres from animals – sheep and alpacas, in particular. I am happy to use such yarn and I intend to explore the qualities of the different ‘wools’, but I still need to find something that will satisfy my vegan customers. I know that twine or linen can be made out of flax, hemp and nettle fibres, but they have little stretch in them and after some consideration I have had to dismiss them. However, I also know that other plants are being used to make yarn – bamboo seems to be appearing frequently in eco-clothing ranges at the moment. As I searched the internet, I started to come across yarn from some unexpected sources – maize, for example, and soya. And most bizarre of all, milk – yes milk!

So, my quest began to discover how such yarns are produced. One great source was a blog post on milk fibre, that suggests that its production relies on some unpleasant chemicals and that you need a huge amount of milk to make a small amount of yarn.

Typing ‘how is bamboo yarn made?’ into Google returned about 6 million results, so I thought I’d start with the first one… I wasn’t filled with confidence when it started ‘Bamboo yarn is derived from the bamboo tree…’ As a botanist, I can assure you that bamboo is a grass – a great big grass, but nevertheless a grass not a tree. I persisted… but all I discovered is that the process involves grinding up the plant and treating with water and ‘chemicals’. A less than enlightening article. However, a bit more searching and I discovered that all fabrics made out of reconstituted plant fibres are actually forms of rayon… now, I’ve heard of that! Rayon fibres are made from cellulose that can come from all sorts of plants, but the description that I found of its production suggests that it involves the use of caustic soda and carbon disulphide, and “results in a great deal of environmental pollution”. Sigh. So, is bamboo yarn, for example, eco-friendly? The general conclusion seems to be that it’s not entirely, but that there are some positives – bamboo grows well without the use of pesticides, grows rapidly and regrows when it has been cut (like your lawn, if you have one). And modern manufacturing processes seek to minimise the loss of chemicals to the environment, so pollution should be less than it used to be… perhaps eventually it will be produced in a completely environmentally friendly way, but not yet.

So, are there any truly environmentally friendly yarns? My inclination, for my own use, is to rely on British wool: sheep need to be shorn for welfare reasons and their wool can be processed and dyed using relatively natural products. In future I will knit my socks out of wool from Blue-faced Leicester sheep if possible. But for my vegan customers, I don’t have an ideal answer. This morning a package of different yarns arrived: bamboo, soya and cotton for me to try out… none of them have the give I really want in a yarn, but all of them are soft and may be wonderful to knit with. So, needles at the ready to produce so  eco(ish) snails.

… oh, and I’m knitting worms too!

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