life


No time for this, no time for that. Time spent, time valued. Time flies, then it is time for change; time for spring.  It’s fair to say that the three little ones are my time now. Time playing lego, time feeding, time talking and answering questions. Time holding hands and learning to walk.

 

I took a little time out to order up some raspberry plants with the intention of investing some time in summer and autumn raspberries.  Ideally they should be planted, according to the literature, in November.  There was a day that I set aside for just such a task.  Then I was sick on that day and the window passed. The raspberry canes have been stored in damp soil in the greenhouse and I intend to plant them out soon.  Yet things happen. Fences get blown down in storms, chicken coop roofs get blown off and scattered around the garden.  These things need mended and fixed.

 

The first signs of spring are here and this is inspiring me to make time for growth. The snowdrops are out and the daffodils are beginning to flower.  One hive of bees is all that has survived from last year.  Their stores are desperately low.  They seem to be breaking their winter huddle every so often to feed on the fondant I left them.  If they hang on then the willow and dandelion will be out soon.  Hang on.

 
It’s at times like these that I turn to Monty.  I’m re-watching Monty Don’s Fork to Fork and getting inspired. No; I’m getting reminded that summer does actually happen if we choose to believe that it will. So, I will plant out those raspberries.  I will turn over the soil, and I will get those potatoes ready for chitting. I will make time for these things. Why?…  The littlest man may be only learning to walk now, but in time, I hope he will be walking through the garden eating all the raspberries with his brother and sister, and me only half-heartedly complaining that they are spending more time eating than picking.

They have names now; these storms.  Maybe it will help.  If we personify them maybe then we can blame them, increase the distance between them and us. These storms are hitting us, it’s them; we didn’t make them.  We don’t make them.  Storms have been around in wilder and more powerful forms for far longer than we have been around.  The weather is like stone and the mountains; indifferent to us. Yet, we may have encouraged them somehow.  Climate change; can we deny it anymore.  It’s nothing new.  Five hundred generations ago we were plunged into the sudden climate change of the Younger Dryas. This is the climate change that has been occupying my thoughts at the moment, how it must have been, how we coped, how we did not.  It wasn’t our making then, but the echoes of it still hang about in our oldest stories.

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Storm Frank is slamming into the cottage tonight. Calm down Frank, please calm down.  I didn’t go near the chickens tonight.  We lifted the eggs earlier, when all was calm, and I know they have enough food and water from last night.  I suspect that if I had tried to check in on them their door would have been ripped off it’s hinges as that side of the cottage is a bit of a wind tunnel when the wind blows from the south. One benefit that Frank is bringing us is the effect on the wood stove.  Strong wind means that there is a good draw on the fire that seems to make it easier to regulate.  Although the air vents have to be closed down to nearly air tight to stop the fire getting too hot.  Like many people this Christmas; I am reading ‘Norwegian wood’.  Tonight I read the stove and fire chapters and experimented with the top down burn.  I am converted. Now every other way to light a wood stove is just wrong.  The stove is glowing, and Frank is making lots of noise outside; it’s time to sit down with a good book.

A last minute present was delivered by the postman this morning; fondant laced with pollen.  Under a full moon I slipped this package onto the bees tonight and whispered that they are not to eat it until tomorrow morning.  It’s said that you must always tell the bees the news.  The news is that we have made it past the solstice.  A few sleeps ago sunrise caught me after  I woke up. I have an image of it in my head, a vague echo; a memory imperfect yet feeling like perfection. I hadn’t seen the sunrise for weeks even though it had been hanging around on the edges of my mind. At this time of year there is always the thoughts of the local standing stones lining up with the winter sun, and thoughts of chambers like Maes Howe.  Why?  Why did they do it, and why does it haunt my winter thoughts.  Maybe it’s obvious when the nights are so long and the days are so short.  Maybe it’s obvious when I am dragged from my warm bed on a cold winter morning with the little lady screaming, “Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet! Daddy, I want to go to the toilet!” The pancakes still need made and I am groggy with winter dreams.  It seems routine until I am walking the little lady down the stairs and I look out the window.  The hills, the sleeping bare trees, the stone grey sky, and then the sun creeping over the forest reminds me there is nothing routine in any of this.  The epiphany charges me with enthusiasm; time for solstice pancakes.  
There is no point reminding the bees about the solstice as they are far more tuned in to these things than I.  Instead, the news is that the house is bursting with excitement.  The little lady and the little man are dreaming of santa.  They are full of the hope of presents under the tree.  The littlest man is too small for such things and a bowl full of breakfast and the sight of the lovely Sharon will probably fill him with equal delight. Happy solstice. Merry Christmas.

My old friend autumn has returned to me.  I felt it a few weeks ago as the air began to cool and the horse chestnuts began to put on their yellow and rust.  There are many things that mark out this season here. The tomatoes are harvested from the greenhouse as often as we can, before the exhausted golden plants drop them wearily.  Tomato soup, beetroot soup, tomato and beetroot soup. Then the bees need fed again, and some of their honey sits in the corner still to be extracted and destined for porridge on dark mornings.

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There are many things that add to the feeling of autumn, but tonight it felt closer than ever.  The darkening evenings and the ritualistic closing of the gate are two things that synchronized tonight.  As I walked down the lane the quarter moon hung low in the south west.  Earlier that evening we added the ‘see the moon’ game to the little people’s night time routine.  Bath time, milk, clean the teeth, hang out the window in the roof and find the moon, stories, prayers, then bed…..then IT’S TOO DARK!…then THAT WARDROBE LOOKS SCARY…..then the torrent of random questions that flow from a five year old mind unfolding: “Why do flies die in winter?”  “Is it possible to go to sleep and still count all the stars?”  “Who will look after all the baby flies in winter?”  Tonight the little man found the moon quickly and declared that he could see the hare in the moon; “just the beginning of it”.
With the little people filled with stories, I rumbled a bin down the lane and closed the gate.  The clouds left big holes for the moon and hints of autumn constellations to shine through. Sygnus migrating. The air was cool and the fields were filling with the thin fog that clings to everything gently and begins to make the moon and stars really feel like they are up there and you are down here; grounded.  The sights and smells of the night filled me and I could not shake the autumnal feeling and the thought of halloween not being far away.  To be honest that was probably because the lane runs beside a few acres of turnips.

The sudden need to harvest and make jams and jelly puts us under a certain strain this time of year…

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We noticed the redcurrants were ripe and needed picking.  I dragged out the our huge fruit net and tried to throw it over the redcurrants to give us time. I mistakenly tried to unfold it all in front of the little people who found the net to be a wonderful game.  The net gave us a few more days in the game we play with the birds.  Eventually we threw ourselves into the fruit plants with colanders and buckets in hand.

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The redcurrants surprised us as they seem to have taken over from the blackcurrants.  This must have happened over the autumn and spring by some sort of plant stealth.  Last year we harvested three kilograms of redcurrants; this year we have at least ten. Lots of redcurrant jelly and a bit of redcurrant wine is on the menu.

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Then there is the bees…. I marked the unproductive queen for death and waited for her replacement to arrive by post from a local breeder in Belfast. When he told me he was ready to post her it was the trigger for me to go in and kill the old queen. It is said that sometimes a hive roars when the queen is killed.  I had never noticed this and often put the queen aside in an empty box during inspections without any sign of loss or concern from the bees.  Yet, whenever I lifted her with the intention of killing her the hive roared. The sound of it caught me off guard and startled me.  It was as if I was under the bonnet of an engine and the driver dropped down a gear and floored it to overtake. The queen was dropped in some vodka (to become swarm lure) and the new queen arrived in the post, but the roar would come back to haunt me.

 

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The better queen, the good hive, filled two super boxes with honey. When the Mayflower (Hawthorn) was in full ‘flow’ I made a habit of going out to the hive in the evening.  From a few feet away the smell would hit me and then I could stand beside the hive and listen to the hum, like standing beside an unusually fragrant air conditioning system.  Then, as the tide of summer carried on, the good hive showed signs of swarming. I carried out the standard artificial swarm, yet took it a step too far. There was once wise advice that I heard and I try to live by with respect to beekeeping; If there is no decision or action to take based on a hive inspection then don’t do the inspection. Leave them alone. If is just about satisfying my curiosity and there is nothing actionable, then leave them alone.  I don’t know why I ignored this but I did.  I wanted to see that the queen was doing well and I carried out an inspection on her hive after the artificial swarm.  I also don’t think I was in a good state of mind during the inspection and rushed things, and got clumsy.  They roared. I heard the queenless roar that I had recently discovered.  I gently closed them up and naively hoped for the best.  A week later I went in to check the honey and they were very grumpy; flying off the comb and pinging my veil.  All this behaviour from a normally gentle hive just confirmed what I already knew; they were queenless. A few weeks ago I deliberately killed a queen and gone to great effort to achieve it, then I accidentally killed another queen in a fumbled moment. Now I really will follow the wisdom and leave them alone in the hope that they raise an emergency queen.

I lifted two super boxes (they are actually called supers) of honey. The only problem was that they were not fully capped. Capping is the bee’s way of sealing the honey for storage and it is a sign that the honey is ‘ripe’.  If a beekeeper just harvested the liquid in the combs there is a large risk that it is nectar that the bees have not removed the water from yet.  If nectar if put in jars it eventually ferments. From my regular evening visits I knew that the bees had stopped their ripening of the late spring flow.  My instinct was that the honey was ripe.  Geeky bit:  Using a refractometer confirmed my suspicions and I extracted 18 out of the 20 frames (two frames passed the ‘shake it does it drip test’ but failed the geeky refractometer test).

Last year we got no honey at all and I missed it. I can buy honey, I can even buy local honey. I missed the extraction. I missed the magic of it.  Previously I shared the experience with the little man as a two year old.  Now he is two years wiser and bursting with questions. How do they make the honey?  How does the extractor work? Why did you squash that dead bee?  And that one? And this year there was the addition of the two year old little lady perched near the honey tap and demanding that everyone feed her honey.  This year I had the little why man and the little diva lady and it was a celebration of spring, summer, boiling jelly, nectar and the harvest.

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(more…)

The details were sketchy.  In spite of  reading  and re-reading emails and attachments, I could not find the details; the time and the place.  It seemed that they were assumed to be known to everyone but me; the new member of this secretive group.  I gave up and sent an email explaining that I was at a loss, then I waited.

On the morning of the meeting I received a reply that included directions. This named road, then that named road, before turning down another country lane before finding a track beside a neatly cut hedge.  When I read these I was skeptical that such a hedge could be distinguishable after half an hour’s driving along country lanes. Then I turned a corner and spotted an unusually neat hedge with a lane that took me to the meeting hut beside an old stone castle.  I half expected to find someone wearing a red carnation who would hand me a briefcase with the clue to the next part of my adventure.

As soon as I arrived I was welcomed warmly.  Slowly, more and more people arrived and mugs of tea and biscuits were distributed.  When they stood in small groups the conversation always started with the bees; “How are your bees?”  From there the conversations went off along different paths, but one thing was constant; the bees. At one point I veered away from the details of apiculture and opened up a little. In a conversation with one gentleman I revealed that in the winter I forgot all about the bees until, in Spring, I felt the bee fever and they began to occupy my dreams.  The man’s face seemed confused and a little shocked.  I suspected I had shared too much emotion and he must think me a dreamer and a dolt.  Then he stopped me and declared fervently, “No, No, I never forget them in Winter.  I can’t stop thinking  and dreaming about them all year.” The conversational paths would often come back to one serious point; winter losses.  When someone shared news of a lost colony the others would hang their heads in experienced sympathy. A story circulated about someone who knew someone who lost seven colonies. Faces winced along with a sharp intake of breath through teeth, as if they had been revealed the gruesome details of an industrial accident.

When we were all certain that anybody that needed a cup of tea or a biscuit was provided for, we all settled into our seats for a presentation about the rare flora and fauna of the Causeway Coast.  It was about then that I realised that these people weren’t obsessed with bees.  These people were obsessed with life and the world around them and I felt welcome in such company.

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It’s the beginning of Summer on the old Irish calendar.  It’s said that we should be lighting bonfires, driving our cattle between the fires and jumping over the flames.  The most I could possibly manage would be jumping over a Bunsen Burner. I seemed too busy today to manage this, and it would have probably failed the risk assessment anyway.  It is also said that the fire in the house should be put out and then relit with the embers from the Beltane bonfires.  I assume this echos back to when we believed that the fire was a kind of life of it’s own and it never went out all year.  There is something in that, something deep and ancient.  Are we not separated by animals by fire, Prometheus, and a digestive system adapted for cooked food.  Our brains are power hungry and demand food sacrificed to the chemical alteration by heat.  I will admit that it is so much more relaxing to have the fire lit in the living room; to hear it crackle slowly and to smell the woodsmoke as the wood stove door is opened to feed it.  Yet, it has lost it’s mystical life.  When I see the yellow I see incandescent soot and I ponder the heat of the fumes before I decide if it needs another log.

Should I plant the potatoes before St Patrick’s day or after? Should they go in the ground under a waxing moon or a waning moon? It’s also said that they should be planted when there is no more risk of frost; which is impossible. There is an Irish saying that potatoes should be planted when the weather is such that a man can stand naked (translated to shirtless) in the potato bed.  The lovely Sharon says we had weather close to that last week…under her wisdom I decided to prepare the ground for the potatoes.  I decided this on a windy rainy day wearing my shirt, fleece and buffalo jacket.

In the past we planted a few potatoes and enjoyed new potatoes which had only a few minutes between the earth and the pot.  They were a novelty and and a welcome treat.  Now they have become a staple food, a necessary item for the dinner table; for the little people.

Last year I thought I was over-reacting by buying three bags of seed potatoes.  I thought wrong.  We consumed all the products of those potatoes before it was really necessary to store the surplus under clamps.  There was no surplus.

This year we have four bags of seed potatoes. Once we got them home the little man and I took great care in placing them in egg boxes on the window ledges.  We learnt what chitting potatoes involves, and that potatoes have eyes.

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As a result of so many seed potatoes, and the added need to rotate where we plant them, I have decided to experiment with digging in some potato beds in the grassy lawn under the young apple trees.  On good Friday I woke to a cold north wind and a drizzly rain.  I put on old clothes and grabbed my spade, fork and hoe.  The soil was muddy, saturated and thick with cold sleepy worms.  I cleared enough for one bed of potatoes then, after trying to heft a full wheelbarrow then slipping and falling in the mud, decided to move on and leave the new potato beds for the day.

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Covered in mud and back in the familiar vegetable patch and raised beds. I started to prepare the ground. About a year ago I must have collected a few buckets of chicken manure and thought to keep them for a rainy day.  This was the rainy day.  I pulled apart one of the compost bins that no longer smelt of chicken poo.  After a year of fermentation and microbial action, if was black, earthy, and smelt damp and fruity.  It was shoveled out onto the raised beds and will soon be folded in.  I had to stop.  I have no time to stand naked in a potato patch, or look to the moon’s phases.  All I can do is grab some moments when they arrive. We might need to feed and teach the little people how to chit, but our timetable is not dictated by the weather or the moon.  The little people control the tide in our lives and they soon called me in from the garden, away from the rain and wind and into the warmth of the wood stove and laughter and stories from books.

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They say that having children brings life to a house. They never said they would bring a film crew. Just a week after the littlest man was born, a children’s television film crew descended upon the cottage to film the little man and the little lady either cleaning their teeth or looking at the stars, depending on the weather. For weeks now I have worried about this as usually teeth cleaning would end up with lots of crying and the little lady and I falling out over our different viewpoints on dental hygiene.

They arrived in the early evening and began unpacking their things. The cottage was suddenly filled with people, kit bags, cameras and sound equipment. The little man was excited and talkative, showing the crew his Lego. The little lady sat with a fever of thirty nine degrees, she curled up beside her granny and would not be the star of the show. The littlest man lay oblivious in his Moses basket. The crew cooed and smiled at him, but he just slept, indifferent to the prospect of fame.

They kept us, and the little man, away as they decorated the bathroom and his bedroom. During this they constantly stepped into the freezing winter air to check the twilight sky. Coming from London, they were astounded by the lack of light pollution and remoteness of the cottage. Eventually the teeth cleaning was abandoned as the stars began to come out. We started filming in the little man’s bedroom which was now covered in stars; glow in the dark stars, star lights on a string, star duvet, star covered pillow and star pyjamas. Then we headed out into the night. This phase of filming required a parent to be on film. It was always the intention that the lovely Sharon would do this as I hate the concept of being in front of an audience, never mind television. However, she refused and played the ‘I’ve just given birth’ card. How could I argue, childbirth trumps…….everything. We looked up at the stars, at the plough and the moon. We talked about how they twinkle and tried to count them. Then back to the bedroom to talk about the stars in his room.  Some voice over recording was called for after the footage was reviewed by the crew, then talking about stars while going to bed. Filming for little people is a long process as the regulations are strict regarding film time and breaks. The breaks were filled with Lego, and tv, and fish fingers, and chips. By the time the bedtime filming was done, he really did want to go to bed. The film crew withdrew and packed up with professional silence as I read stories before he drifted off to dream of stars and stardom.

In between the midwinter madness of tiny ice snowmen, chickens tricked into laying eggs by car batteries, and sleeping hives of honey bees…….I paid for my chickenfeed and received the docket to take to the feed yard.  Then the man behind the counter passed me a thick brown envelope.  I looked confused, I must have.  I asked incredulously, “what’s this?”  Then the man looked humbly confused and questioned, “Sir?”  Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a lady accept a similar envelope by reflex with gratefulness.  Then in an instant I put it all together, the time of year, the local farm supply business, the lady, the man behind the counter, my inexperience of it all.  I replied, “of course, yes! Thank you very much.”  That was it, that was the moment.  I the townie had just received a token towards my transformation into culchie. I had just been given the farm supplier calender.  We now have the tractors, the chickens, the balers, and the snow covered sheep to mark the march of time.

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It sometimes feels like we skirt around the edges of the winter days. We wake up in the dark and cling to the cold light of the stars and maybe the moon, before driving off to work.  Then we work.  On the way home I hate the light, the light of cars.  The density of city traffic is something I feel glad to leave, into the dark.  It’s with irony that I found myself working in daylight today; on the shortest day.  In between shovelling the sludge of fallen leaves and the foul fowl bedding in the chicken house, I would find myself looking up at the sky, the novelty of it; daylight.

 

The chickens also had their shortest day today as the car battery feeding them their false daylight was flat.  The electrickery of the LED lights seems to be working to some degree.  The two young hens still lay continuously; they lack wisdom and know no better.   From the older hens we have just received two eggs this week, something unknown until late February.

 

We used the eggs to bake a cheesecake.  The little man and I smashed biscuits into crumbs and mixed things in bowls.  This is a present for his teachers.  Baked things are the best of presents for teachers.  I received a gingerbread me this year from my A level class.  It’s nice to receive something that someone has put a lot of effort into, more importantly; took delight in making it.

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Overcharged with daylight and exhausted from baking, the little man, the little lady and myself lay on the sofa and watched the 1970 classic, ‘Santa Claus is coming to Town.’  Then I kept the light to a deliberate solstice low as we played lego by the woodstove.

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Later on I fell into my solstice tradition.  I opened up Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Darkness and Light.’  The lovely sharon looked at me with a little confusion and asked if I read that every year.  I ask her how could I not:


Mid-December, the still point of the turning year…………

I wonder if the most efficient gardening is done in the rain.  Under a steal grey autumn sky I put my head down and dug out the weeds of the raised beds.  I don’t remember ever doing this kind of digging at this time of year.  I would usually dig out the weeds sometime in the middle of winter.  This year I am trying the experiment of Hungarian Rye Grass.  In the main vegetable patch it was sown a week or two ago and seems to be getting itself settled in.


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The sowing for this kind of grass ends in a few days, hence the weeding in the rain.  A couple of espressos and the colour of the beech trees keeps me warm in the drizzle. Being in the garden lets me see all the jobs that need done.  I classify many of the jobs as just dreams and I try and add them to my blind areas.  Then there are jobs that I need to create time for; the crab apples need transformed into jelly with cloves and rose hips.

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One of the hives needs its block of winter insulation under the roof.  Both the hives need mouse guards fitted; too late in many beekeeper’s eyes.

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Books.  We guiltily took the little people to their nursery school and had a day for ourselves.  Over the course of the day I watched the lovely Sharon relax a little and un-knot her neck and shoulders.  She is a mother, a full time teacher, and a carrier, incubator, of a little soul.  As part of our day off we visited the big city and were drawn like magnets to the old second hand book shop.  We spent ages in the narrow passages with books pilled at awkward angles feet above our heads. We browsed shelves of books two books deep.  We filled a couple of bags with our foraging.  I carried the bags.  The lovely Sharon is quite independent with such things and protested on several occasions.  I stood my ground.  I would love to think that chivalry is not dead, but in truth, it is not out of chivalry that I carried the bags.  It was just so I could say, “you have enough to carry.”  Those were heavy bags and it was a long day but it was worth it to deliver a cheesy line and see her roll her eyes and hold back a smile.

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Fifteen minutes of digging here, twenty minutes of weeding there.  A wee bit done on one day, then the next, then the next. All this time builds up and seems to get some sort of a job done.  The main vegetable patch has been cleared and a compost bin squeezed to capacity with buttercup, chickweed and nettles.  Sometimes my hands were stung all over from the nettles. Sometimes flurries of yellow and gold leaves would burst from the old beech tree.  Sometimes my back would ache and burn.  Sometimes hundreds of rooks would spiral and twist on the wind over my head.

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The postman brought a little bag of manure in the mail today.  This manure will take time to prepare itself and the soil it will live in.  This was Monty Don’s idea, not mine.  I cast the seeds according to the instructions.  It said that protection from mice and birds may be required.  I looked the cats and gave them a stern look; earn your keep.

The rain, wind, seeds, soil and cat were all left to sort themselves out.  All but the raised beds; they are thick with green weeds and another packet of seeds is waiting.

The beech nuts cracked under my feet and I walked on.  I tried the radio again, “calling all radios.” Silence, but for rain on falling leaves, birds, and beechnuts.  I carried on, spying the path ahead rising slightly to marginally higher ground.  Maybe up there I will make contact. More silence.  I continued on through the coppice and marvelled at the amount of hazel nuts fallen everywhere.  I cut a walking stick here once; a full staff now snapped to a normal length.  In my hand on this day was a light rowan stick.  They say the rowan can keep away witches.  I don’t know any witches.  Maybe it works.

I gave up on radio contact and reverted to a single bar of signal on the phone.  I walked back past a waterfall and pool carpeted with autumn leaves, yellow, red, brown and washed out green.  Back through the coppice pondering how I want to walk here at night, or sleep here.  I want to see this place bathed in silver moonlight and dark shadows.  I stopped at an ancient burial mound to take off my rucksack and eat my lunch, take in the air, sounds, and the rain.  I thought about the three thousand year old bones beneath my feet and wondered what they wondered when they walked here.

A blackthorn was returned to on the way back.  Spied on the walk out and thick with sloes as big and plump as ripe grapes, deep purple and glaucous with wax bloom.  They say that making sloe gin is slow but not laborious.  One year at least, seven is better for complex almond flavours.  I don’t drink gin, so seven years of waiting does not seem so unattainable.  I might have some seven year old fig and vanilla gin in the corner of some cupboard somewhere.  A damp hat was filled, then a lunch bag.  This made me feel better, less guilty, for leaving all the hazelnuts behind.

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I held the little lady up to see the nearly full moon rising.  I taught her the name of the moon.  She made a close approximation of the word and seemed pleased with herself.  The voice of the little man broke through the cold autumn air, “the moon is very far away.”  The little lady echoed a reply, “muun, muun, muun.”

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In class we encourage our students to make word lists as science seems like another language.  Find the words you don’t know, list them, then find out their meaning.  I feel ashamed that I don’t do this often enough myself and decide to sit down with a poem after the little people are filled with stories and tucked up in bed.

vellum

ceresin

chrism

codling

fetor

hallooing

purblind

dolt

sumac

blear

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One more TV then we all play outside.  Welly boots are put on, we are wrapped up in fleeces.  The lovely Sharon has taken to wearing my fleece now.  The shoulders hang over her slim frame.  Apparently it is more comfortable as it is big enough to keep her warm, her and the new soul unfolding itself inside her.

Above a clear sky the air cools and tightens in the gloaming light. It is still and locks itself around us changing the sound.  The little people laugh and scream and play.  The sound they make in this air is an echo of memories, winter, autumn, playing, laughing, childhood.

The  wood-smoke pours off the roof of the cottage and smells rich and scented.  Old piano smoke.  We were given that piano years ago, rescued from a trip to the dump.  It was a semi-tone out when the piano tuner eventually fought with it to be in tune with itself.  The lovely Sharon played for years until it was time for it to move on.  The lovely Sharon’s sister said no, to keep it for her.  We would keep it until it she was ready to take it.  It filled a corner of the cottage.  We would often look at that piano and think how much space it took up and how we wished she would take it.  We wished it for four years until we gave up.  I cut it up and ripped out the old iron harp, taking it for scrap.  A piano makes such strange sad sounds when it is being taken apart.  The lovely Sharon’s sister visited the other day and remarked at how much space had been freed up by getting rid of it. Now it warms our feet and mixes in the air with shouts and laughter. 

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We collected apples from the apple trees and stacked the tubs in the utility room.  The little people keep stealing them and feeding them to the donkey in the back field.  They grab them and run as I shout, “No more apples to the donkey! No more apples to the donkey!”   They run and giggle and laugh with disobedience.

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The billhook is sharpened until it is as how I imagine a samurai blade should be.  The field in front of the cottage  has been cleared of sheep so I take the opportunity to climb over the fence and trim the hawthorn hedge, the bits too high for the sheep.  Speed is what is needed with the billhook.  The moon rises slowly with its waning edge just showing, red in the blue sky.  After the trimming I take the little lady away from her toys by the woodstove.  I wrap her up in fleece and welly boots.  In the autumn air she turns and notices as I hoped she would, “muun, muun muun!”

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As the little people played with their train sets, I sat beside them and de-stoned plums. As they watched Old Jack’s Boat, I watched and de-stoned plums. As they splashed and played at bathtime, I sat on the bathroom floor, and de-stoned plums. Once they were filled with stories and fast asleep in bed, the lovely Sharon and I cooked up some jam and mashed up a must for plum wine. In total we used up twelve kilograms of plums that night, and we were weary. All because grandparents, cousins, a sister and brother called to the cottage on Sunday and the lovely Sharon decided to put them to work picking plums. Step ladders were propped up the sides of trees and baskets and colanders were filled. At one point I thought I was clever and I climbed up into the branches of the oldest plum tree. I heaved and contorted myself into position only to find that I was still far from the high harvest and had only five more plums to show for my efforts. Those five plums will taste the best. Once the unplanned harvest was over I was glad I had made a cake that morning. We filled our cups with coffee and tea and devoured the cake; spiced plum cake of course.

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Making jam and wine seems to be all about killing and sterility. Boil away the water, sterilise the jars. Pour the thick hot mixture into jars and seal them with burning hands. Then pray they set, take the calculated chance. Plum jam is familiar territory, however the plum wine; there be dragons. Our research tells us that plum wine can be difficult. The problem seems to be the bacteria and wild yeasts living all over the plums. Special ‘Campden Tablets’ are often used to wipe out these unwanted passengers, at a dose of one tablet per gallon of wine. John Wright, of River Cottage fame, suggests trying to avoid using and campden tablets if possible. However, for plum wine he recommends using two per gallon. The huge fermenting bucket was sterilised and filled with nine kilograms of mashed plums, then an unhealthy dose of tablets. Only a few feet away in the kitchen another smaller bucket sits trying to do the opposite. It sits trying to catch wild yeasts and bacteria for sourdough bread. It is a strange joy to smell as it is always different; fruity chocolaty earth scents.

On the evening of the plum processing we stopped working late and exhausted. My hands were stained a light brown like I had badly applied fake tan. The full moon hung in the dark outside, heralding autumn in the sharp cold air. I curled up in front of the woodstove with the River Cottage preserves book, but I stayed curled up and the book stayed shut. At least eight more kilograms of plums sat un-processed and complete with stones in baskets in the kitchen. I declared the rest of the night plum free. Sorry Hugh, don’t think bad of me; the plum chutney will have to wait.

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I threw my suit and a roll of duck tape in the back of my brother in law’s car, then we drove off in search of his new bees.  It must have been half five when we found the beekeeper and his bees, “Sure you’re too early. The girls will not be in for the night yet.”  A short stroll through a narrow wooden gate confirmed that the ‘girls’ had no intentions of resting yet.  As we squeezed back through the gate in the hedge the beekeeper told us he was showing his grandson the bees last week.  “After we went through the gate I old him to close the gate to keep the bees in.” His mischievous chuckling revealed this man’s character and we knew we were in for some stories.

The beekeeper dragged three old high backed chairs in front of the kitchen range and we settled in to wait for the bees to think about flying home for the evening.  Around us sat food buckets filled with freshly harvested honey and a neat tower of empty supers; boxes filled with the honeycomb that was just emptied of honey. A big kettle of water perched continuously ready for tea on the range and we settled down for some stories.  “My father gave me my first hive at the age of seven.”  This meant that this man was a beekeeper of more than eighty years experience.  Yet, with all this experience he admitted more than once that he was still learning.  He shared many stories as we waited for the evening to cool down.  My brother in law says I interrogated him with questions.  I couldn’t help myself; as he was keen to share, I was keen to learn.  I noted that some of his advice contradicted itself from time to time.  Maybe some of it he was certain as fact long ago but recently the bees changed his mind.  They say if you ask two beekeepers the same question you’ll get three different answers.  On the topic of hive inspections, he was convinced that it set the bees back a bit and wasn’t good at all.  I feel the same but do know of an alternative to prevent a swarm without a weekly inspection.  I pushed him further.  For the last five years he has settled on a technique that he feels is the right one.  He says that March is the toughest month for the bees, and if they make it through in good shape he takes out a couple of frames of bees, including the queen, and makes up a nucleus hive in April.  This nucleus if taken to another site at least three miles away and looked after with feeding.  Then the original hive is left to raise a new queen with little risk of swarming.

After the passing of an unknown amount of time we decided get the bees.  We took a drive to one of his sites down winding roads and past the run-down stones of old farms.  We found the first hive hidden in an old farm yard beside forlorn looking tractor machinery.  The hive was carefully sealed up, covered with an old bedsheet, then strapped down in the back of the car.

On the way back to the beekeeper’s cottage the stories kept coming.  Beekeeping, histories of old farm cottages, and the local history of the Six Mile Valley.  Driving around with bees brought back a story.  He told us not to worry if a few bees get out into the car while on the move as he believed they would not sting in such a predicament.  Once long ago, several hundred bees got out when he failed to seal the hive properly.  He kept driving with them all flying around the inside of the car.  Turning a corner he found a police checkpoint ahead of him and a policeman with his hand held high.  As he slowed down he saw the look on the policeman’s face quickly change and his arm suddenly wave him on franticly.

We arrived back at the beekeeper’s cottage to carefully seal up and wrap the second hive.  This time the back seats went down to accommodate the second hive.  We said our thanks, paid him for the hives* and listened to a few more stories before heading back home.  As we drove back we fell silent for a moment when some of the quiet buzzing in the back got louder and a single bee flew up beside us in the front seats.  We looked at the bee, we looked at each other, we laughed.

*The wisdom was free.

Thursday found me cutting down the stump of an old ash tree in the cold wind.  It was an eight foot tall remnant of the old tree that has had all its branches and grandeur pared away.  It disturbed me that it was in the garden in my childhood.  It’s not that it was being cut down, in fact it was a joy to collect a heavy trailer full of firewood.  It disturbed me that I could not remember that tree.  This was the garden of my earliest memories.  I remember  a brief hazy memory of leaving our old house and arriving at the new house; our house.  The memory of moving in and clearing the garden merge together as one day in my mind, even though it was practically impossible.  Memories of very early childhood all seem to have happened at once. I remember my parents laboriously ripping up the hedges and hydrangeas to create our lawn.  I remember the years spent playing with lego and action figures in the flowerbeds.  One memory, that is anchored in me, is just lying on my back in the middle of the garden on a layer of deep snow.  I remember my mother periodically checking me to make sure I was alright, she made sure I was warm but was unsure if I was sane.  I lay there and watched the snow fall on me and then cover me.  I felt the weight of it as it piled up on me and it was bliss.  I can’t recall if it lasted one minute or one hour, i just remember watching the snow.

I don’t remember the tree.  I have a near vivid recollection of the garden in brilliant detail, yet I have only a memory of a tree being there and no memory of any grand sort of canopy or coverage.  As my chainsaw cut through the two foot thick trunk I assured myself that I had a recollection of it being pruned back on a few occasions; maybe it never got a chance to be grand.  Then, as if the tree whispered it to me, I myself had been absent from the garden for over a decade.  The tree and me had grown in our own ways in that time.  If we had been whispering to each other I am sure that, as I filled the trailer, the tree would have reminded me that it still has its roots here, and I would have reminded it that I do too.

The first time I heard the scream something inside me knew it wasn’t human, and that it wasn’t human was a good thing. It screamed once, off in the distance, then went silent. A farm animal, maybe a dog. I wasn’t really listening enough at the time, but as I closed the gates I did it slowly and quietly, keeping an alert ear to the night air.

It screamed again, and I listened. Down the road under the tunnel of tall trees something was crying out in pain and desperation. It screamed again. The first option was maybe a raptor of some kind from the high pitch. An owl maybe? It screamed again, and the scream was following the road and getting closer. It screamed again. It was following the road and was down low on the ground. Not a dog or badger. A fox, definitely a fox. A fox’s mating call is quite chilling, but this was on another level. It was troubled, and pain, and fear. I assume it was the victim of being hit by a car. It screamed again. It was only fifty or so feet away, loud, and unsettling. I stood there in the dark with no torch and a half moon above me somewhere, hidden by stubborn clouds. I could see nothing and as silently as I could, I turned my back to it and headed for the cottage. Silence.

With my head torch in hand I opened an attic window and listened. Fearing that it would remain silent if it heard me approach, I intended to judge its position and then venture out. I lent out of the window and pondered how horror films probably start this way, “I wonder what that blood curdling noise is? let’s go see.” Silence. Maybe it gave up and curled into a knot of fear in a hedge. Crawled inside itself and waited. I wonder how often this tragic scene plays itself out unseen and forlorn.

“Don’t let them touch water!” exclaimed the gentleman behind the counter, insisting a little too enthusiastically. I was waiting for him to tell me not to expose them to bright light or feed them after midnight, before I realised that for a Ballymena man; potatoes are not a thing to be mocked. He carried on passionately about how, these ‘sunbeam’ potatoes, are grown locally and are best steamed. Then he took another opportunity to remind me, “STEAMED! They must NEVER be boiled.”

The first job when I arrive through the door is to light the wood stove. I leave it with fistfuls of wood chips and some junk the postman has left for us in the mailbox; it’s so nice for big businesses to send us a daily delivery of fat glossy kindling. I’m glad that I can arrive home in some daylight now the days are growing by minutes. Under the steel grey sky I check the chickens and lift the eggs. With the smell of woodsmoke dissolving in the drizzle, I grab the axe and start chopping this evening’s fuel.

Just as the lovely Sharon arrives home with the little people I am guiltily chopping the potatoes. Slicing them into careful half moon pieces I am preparing them for frying. The Ballymena man looms in my mind; he didn’t say anything about frying them.

As I fry, I chop finely. Peppers, mushrooms, chorizo, onions. I cry a little for the onions. Poor onions, they didn’t know what hit them. The lovely Sharon blurs herself around me, making tomorrow night’s pie. When the onions are frying, I make bread dough for tomorrow’s lunches. The little man and the little lady play. Occasionally there is a scream for help; “She’s eating my trains!” “She’s eating my train tracks!” “She’s eating my tractor!” The lovely Sharon tries to prepare the ground for dinner and distract the little man from the his sister’s transport themed eating disorder. “Daddy is making Tortilla.” There is a pause of contemplation. “I not want tort-ee-a. I not like it.” I slave on regardless.

I call dinner time and tell the little man he has a choice; for dinner he can have tortilla or furby. A smile briefly flickers in him before he declares that he wants furby on his plate. He becomes more animated and the smile breaks through his face when he runs in to find a furby already on his dinner plate. He changes his mind and declares he does not want furby. It is quickly replaced by a slice of tortilla, but he knows he has been tricked. The lovely Sharon is also a bit of a critic when it comes to my tortilla. She declares that it needs more vegetables. I know exactly what she means by this cloaked statement; she is not a fan of potatoes. Sometimes I have my suspicions about her. She claims that her maiden name is Irish, and she has jet black hair, and dark brown eyes I could fall into. But, she doesn’t like potatoes? If the Ballymena man and the locals knew, we would be chased out of this place with pitch forks and flaming torches. I keep my suspicions to myself and instead call her bluff, “More vegetables? Alright, next time i’ll add more potatoes.” She glares at me. I crumble before those beautiful Irish eyes, “…or mushrooms, or peppers? Yes, more peppers.”

After dinner I enjoy a rare moment in my life, a moment when I am glad to be short sighted. I hate wearing glasses and I hate the need to wear them. I am so short sighted that I have to wear them during all my waking hours. Sometimes, when I slip out of habit, I get up out of bed and take only a few steps before I realise that I can’t go much further before turning back and finding my glasses. This curse is a blessing when, after dinner, I take the little lady in my arms. I take off my glasses and hide them out of reach; she’ll only try to eat them. I tickle her and we share strange faces at each other. Without my glasses my myopia can see her in beautiful detail. She wears her curious face as she investigates my teeth. No matter how hard her tiny hands pull she cannot get them out. I am glad.

After dinner we sit around an ordnance survey map and try to plan a mini-break away. The little man points out mountains to me, and beaches by the sea to the lovely Sharon. The little lady tries to eat the map.

Thomas the tank engine is called for as we tidy and work around the little people. Dishes need to be done and bread needs to be baked. I despair at my work shirts. I always wash them all together and they always come out of the machine in one heavy lump of knotted sleeves. I marvel at how the machine does it as I sit down in front of Thomas with my bleached rat king.

Just before bedtime the little man decides to help the lovely Sharon dress the pie with pastry. He covers his fleecy Thomas pajamas in flour. We brush the little ghost clean and assure him that he will be fine as tomorrow is bath night, which means new pajamas.

After topping up the chicken’s feed and changing their water, I take a look at the vegetable patches. They look miserable in the cold rainy light of my head torch, but I have to think of summer. I think about growing more potatoes, maybe growing some sunbeams.

Actually I have written posts in the last couple of months, but the internet doesn’t like them. They are still black lead on bleached wood pulp, folded away in a notebook and far from the digital.

So, the solstice passed and the sun came back. Even the chickens are feeling the barely perceptive march of daylight over darkness.  During the darkest of days we were reduced to a single egg every other day, until the unexpected happened. One dark evening we found a tiny little orb. Boiled the next morning we confirmed it was an egg. As small as a banty hen’s egg, packed to the edges with orange yolk and a creamy flavour. This has to have been from the one vorwerk hen, apparently a rare breed; producing a rare treat.

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Now they are slowly building up the daily egg count.

We seem to have let the days of Christmas pass us by. I think we all forgot about keeping our eye on the sun and just assumed the days will get longer and the new world prophets, the scientists, would let us know if anything is wrong.  But they did.  We could easily ignore it, or find it interesting but important; the sun is going to sleep.

It seems that that it is getting more and more likely that the sun’s activity is diminishing. The pulse that is the regular eleven year cyclic pulse of the sun has not behaved as expected for a couple of decades now. The scientific prophets have been running their computer models and analysing their data from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the lonely spacecraft brave enough to hover too close to the sun for our comfort.  Confidence is growing that we are heading towards another Maunder Minimum; a period of solar slumber three hundred and fifty year ago that was called the little ice age. Ironically it is only likely to slow down global warming for us, but only for a while. This little news was quietly rolled up in the rest of the news.  I guess there is this earthly source of life, and then there is just getting on with life.

In the hope that the sun will be bright enough as we received our first packet of seeds for the coming spring. We even added a packet of fungal spores. It’s always fun to keep an experiment running.  In the freezer I have a few kilos of used coffee grinds from our friendly local cafe.  The intent is to sterilise them and attempt to cultivate oyster mushrooms.  I’m not confident it will work, but i am confident that it will be interesting attempting it.

The honey has nearly all gone.  One single precious jar remains for medicinal use. We have resorted to buying honey for the morning bowls of porridge and using the home honey for sore throats. The little man tries to convince us he needs more honey for his imaginary sore throat every few evenings.  This reminds me, I should feed the bees their spring candy soon.  I wonder if they have survived this far? A few weeks ago I dreamed that the hive with the older queen was just a pile of dead bees, while the hive with the younger queen had made it through and were busy being…. bees. If I believed wholeheartedly in logos, then I would shrug off the drew as utter nonsense.  If I think instead of the world of mythos and our spiritual connection with the earthly world, then I shrug it off as nonsense anyway; I’m sure I’m not that good a beekeeper to be in tune with the bees.

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the noisy one; the ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’

A death that I am certain has taken place is that of our rooster; the ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’, as the little man calls him.  I think we missed his sickness for a few days as we never seemed to arrive home in anything but darkness.  All we saw of the chickens was them perching in their house. Then he wasn’t perching anymore. Lifting him up revealed a weakness in his legs.  The days went by and he got progressively weaker.  Soon he could not even leave the hen house to get water.  We tried leaving him water of his own but He did not seem interested.  I could see no other sign of illness apart from lameness. I can only guess that some sort of injury had been sustained. Being quite a large and heavy bird it was proving too much for him to make a recovery.  He’s gone now.  We told the little man that he has gone away, as euthanasia is too big a word for a three year old.  It’s too big a word for any of us. The little vorwerk cockerel who usually stayed quiet and hid himself away is now finding his voice.  He rules the roost now, and boldly stands proud in his new domain.  In the mornings he sort of crows, ish.  He’s not there yet, but he’s getting there. He is the little man’s new Crakkkk-a-crakkkkk-a-aghhhhh.

149480_10150968886164488_958088999_nThere is a one in three chance that this chick is the little man’s ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ a few years ago.

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