During the Neolithic period the bones of the dead were buried inside their houses, beneath the floor, or close to them. There must have been a motivation to keep the physical memories of their loved ones so close.  Contrasting with this was the practice of keeping the bones of a few people interred inside passage tombs on the high places. Why? Were these people important? Chiefs? If they were important people then I would imagine their bones would have been kept close, like family.  This puzzle has never sat well with me. Of course I realise it is all a wild leaping of conjecture with so little evidence, but I like to let my imagination run.

Slieve Gullion passage tomb is the highest passage tomb in Ireland.  It sits in the Ring of Gullion; an area steeped in folklore. A few months ago a friend took me on my first trip to see the summit passage tomb.  I had wanted to see it, to sit inside it, for a long time. It did not disappoint.

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It is said that this passage tomb is aligned to the sunset on the winter solstice and could be up to 6000 years old. When I visited I was under the impression that it was the house of the dead; a pilgrimage place.  I imagined the long midwinter walk with the bones of lost family or friends.

Yet, there is a new possibility. The prehistoric tombs that may have been used as ‘telescopes’.

Sitting in the inner chamber allowed a better, darker, view of the small patch of sky down the narrow passage.  I imagine that most of the stargazing would have been done in the darker winter months.  Inside the dark stones on the high places; the coldest places. A fire would have been impractical to the astronomers dark-adjusted eyes. Presumably they spent long hours wrapped up and watching that one patch of sky to time or measure the stars movements.  When to plant a particular crop, when to slaughter the surplus animals before winter, when to carry out ceremonies. It would have been a strange and lonely place to spend your time, but maybe it was a kind of home.  Maybe it makes sense that these places were the resting place for the bones of ancient astronomers.

I think I can handle a little light drizzle or a bit of rain while I’m working in the garden. Yet today was a too much at times. At one stage, one of many, I retired to the cottage to watch the hail stones coat the grass. It cleared quite suddenly and I stepped back out into the cold air to hear the lovely Sharon shout behind me, “A rainbow! A rainbow!” It was a remarkable rainbow. It was remarkably colourful and remarkably close to the ground. Then the moment of realisation came; the rainbow ended right in the middle of the turnip field which was just a donkey field away from where I was standing.  There I was with a spade already in my hand and thinking that moments like this present themselves less than once in a lifetime, then real treasure presented itself. The little people picked up on the excitement and wowed at the rainbow.  The little man spotted the double rainbow and I pointed out how the colours are reversed (I excluded the mathematical reasons). The little lady recited all the colours she could see, and the littlest man yelped something indecipherable but encouraging; this was the true treasure at the end of the rainbow.

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The lovely Sharon took the little people out and about, and I spent the whole day in the bathroom; the smell was awful.  It all began with an ominous leak on the floor.  Over the space of just a couple of days a small puddle had escalated into a plumbing problem. It should have all been relatively straightforward; I purchased a few new washers and settled into the bathroom with a selection of spanners, wrenches, and towels.  A few hours later I was perplexed and close to throwing the towel….onto the wet bathroom floor.  Then it dawned on me; whoever had drilled the holes in the toilet bowl had bad eyesight, or just didn’t care. Once I realised this I tried a little creative thinking (and grinder to ensure a certain metal bracket actually fitted). The whole toilet and flush was working perfectly and not dripping.  Job done.

A few weeks later a little drip appeared.  Then the drip increased until we had to introduce the flush bucket. The flush bucket is a simple plumbing solution involving a bucket filled and kept in the bath, which is then used to flush the toilet. It was a temporary measure while I waited for the opportunity to tackle the problem properly.

It only took a few days before the worst happened.  It was so sudden and unexpected that it shocked me.  We were at a children’s party, everyone was having fun and there was no context at all to the lovely Sharon’s comment. She turned to me and said, “Do we need to get a plumber?”   In hindsight I genuinely think she was trying to be helpful.  I was gutted. My quiet inner voice held back from saying that I thought she looked big in that dress, even though she didn’t.  Instead I remained stoic and shrugged and said that I thought I should have another look at it first.

On Saint Patrick’s day I was off work and everyone else was at school.  I stepped out into the cool spring air and let my eyes rest on Slemish, the very mountain the Saint Patrick shepherded on.  Then, I went back into the cottage and ripped the toilet apart.  I put it all back together with generous amounts of silicone sealant and it hasn’t leaked yet.

I woke in the middle of the night, dragged sleepily to semi-consciousness by thousands of bees.  The dream was one of worry; will they survive? A few days later I peeked into the hive and found them dead.  They had no stores left.  They had plenty of fondant, but it simply was not enough for them.  They starved in the local county Antrim definition of the word; they got too cold due to lack of food.

Did I dream their death through some spiritual connection as a beekeeper? To be fair, I dream this dream every spring and this is my first year of winter loss. Of course I am sad and I will miss having bees about the home. That said, looking after them last summer was problematic.  I had less time for them, and I promised myself that if they did not make it through the winter; I would take a year off beekeeping. In a fight between the bees or the little people; the little people win. I told the little man about the bees and he knew I was upset. He gave me a hug and told me it was going to be ok, we could buy honey from ASDA.

I’m shrugging beelessness off and refocusing my efforts into the garden and growing things to eat. The old buckets and bricks are already on top of the early rhubarb shoots, the potatoes are chitting on the window ledge and the seed packets are all purchased. I have plans. In the autumn I bought eighteen more raspberry canes to fill a vegetable plot that we normally grow lettuces in.  For the last two years all we have seem to have done with this is feed the slugs. These raspberries were supposed to be planted in November. The sodden cold earth and the winter darkness put a stop to that.  They are in little pots and have been added to the list of things to do.

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Last night I sat down with netflix intending to start House of Cards.  Then I remembered that Gardener’s World had come back to TV and iPlayer. Monty Don won and Francis Underwood lost my vote.

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This morning I stole away some time as the little people sat eating breakfast and feasting on saturday morning cartoons. I made a dent in some of the items on the gardening list: mulched the redcurrants and blackcurrants, split and spread the snowdrop bulbs, cleaned out the chicken coop, and had a fight with an unruly cottoneaster. Ever since we lost the pear trees to canker I have been keeping a close eye on the apple trees and clipping and burning any little signs of disease.  The little man’s tree seemed to be infected on the main trunk at about shoulder height.  I was a bit hesitant about doing anything harsh as it is called the little man’s tree as it was a gift for his birth from some friends.  All the little people have a tree of their own now. I pondered trying to spray it and then thought WWMD (What Would Monty Do?)  I cut out the disease and this resulted in a dramatic pruning of it’s height.  It had to be done and it does still look alright.  It seems to have opened it up quite a bit. I just hope I won’t have to hug the little man and reassure him by telling him we can buy his apples in ASDA.

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.

As I poured in the sugar syrup and put the mouse guards on the hives tonight, I remembered the strange case of the mad mouse. It all began as I sat looking out the kitchen window and spotted something small running about on the roof of the wood shed. It was one of those strange moments when it is absurd enough to take a few seconds to sink in; a mouse running about on the roof in broad daylight.  Soon The little man and I were perched at the window with binoculars watching this mouse and its nonsense.  It ran over the roof as if looking for something, then ran to the apex and slipped under a bit of bent corrugated iron.  It might disappear for a few seconds only to reappear and carry on with its quest.  What this was, we were never sure. It never went into the gutter or near any moss, it just seemed to run about the roof.  The three seemingly overfed cats never put in an appearance as it ran about for a very long time. The little man asked mouse themed questions.  One of these was, “what do mouse bones look like? Are they like our bones?”  This might just prompt me to do a little experiment that I read about a long time ago.  Catch a mouse, kill it, then place it in a wire cage.  This can be left at the bottom of the garden.  As long as it is left long enough, and as long as the holes in the wire are small enough, no larger animals should steal the bones.  So, after a while the bones will be left and it ends up as a little mouse jigsaw puzzle of sorts. Is it bad that I think this is a fine father and son activity? At the very least we will have reduced the pest population by one.

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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…)

Tonight I walked around a corner and my eye caught the moon.  It pinned me to the spot, and for a moment I was startled and shocked.  The phase of it caught me off guard and shamed me.  Usually I keep a close eye on the moon and what it’s up to.  Yet it was nearly full and I didn’t remember how it got there.  Time had caught me and dragged me along for a week or two.  I had slipped out of the habit of moon watching and it feels like maybe spring has not been dragged along too.  The local beekeepers have noticed this; the paused spring.  They say, “ ...the spring plants are only starting to appear now hawthorn and sycamore as well as the horse chestnut are just starting so the spring flow will begin in earnest.”  Beekeepers talk in ‘flows’; nectar flow. The dandelion flow has stopped a couple of weeks ago and the bees do get noticeably sad, and a little grumpy.

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Today we took the little people for a walk in the woods.  While hunting for ogres I kept an eye out for the summer, and spotted the beginnings of foxgloves and willow herb.  They were only starting, but at least they knew the summer is around the corner

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A sense of the moon and plant watching are good habits if I can maintain them.  Another good habit I am trying to perfect is bread making.  Lately my experiments have settled on a recipe for the best bread I can make.  The key ingredient seems to be time.  If we need a loaf of bread we need to start at least twelve hours before we need it.  Before breakfast I add the yeast, water, butter, and half the flour.  Then much later in the day (usually ten hours later), I add the rest of the flour and the salt.  It is kneaded, allowed to rise for an hour, knocked back, then allowed to rise for another hour and a half.

 

A good habit that I am trying to begin is slug picking.  It takes a bit of self will, and I haven’t perfected it yet.  The idea is to put a head torch on and venture out into the garden in the late evening before bedtime.  When I have dragged myself towards doing this I collect about half a cup of slugs (assuming this is the accepted unit of volume of slugs).  I don’t want to put them in the bin as that would be too kind a fate, and I suspect they would escape and carry on eating.  Instead, I place them in an empty curry sauce container with a clip on lid.  Their fate is cruel.  I place the container in front of the coffee machine so that I do not forget their doom.  After breakfast I make the first espresso of the day and remember to take the curry pot out to the hungry chickens before heading off to work.  When I began this habit the lovely Sharon was shocked, “Leaving slugs in the kitchen is hardly hygienic?” I pointed out that if they were able to escape the curry sauce container then hygiene would be the least of our worries.  Logic and the unlikely prospect of supermollusc strength slugs moved her to acceptance.

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some more slug food to be planted

While out slug hunting my eye caught a dancing hair in the soil.  It looked other worldly and out of place.  I was mesmerised by its dance and wondered if that was the intention; to captivate and enchant some poor bird or small mammal.  I suspected it was a parasite.  I think I might have been wrong about the dancing, but my parasitic instincts were correct.

It is a horseshair worm; a parasite that people used to believe might be a horse’s hair coming to life.  Of course I kept this new found parasitic worm knowledge to myself and did not tell the lovely Sharon for fear that she might lay down the law on my new habit of keeping my slugs in the kitchen.

Tonight the cottage smelled of roasting chicken, prompting me to think about wheels again. I have been hunting for wheels for some time now. The chickens have a large run fenced in under the old beech tree, but this is not how we started. We started with a small coop given to us by the previous occupants of the cottage. It has served us well. We would drag it across the front garden every week or so to stop them destroying the grass. Their manure caused the grass to grow thick and darken. A careful and systematic movement of the coop would leave the whole lawn looking like a swatch of colours from sweet pea to vine green. The constant dragging took its toll on the coop, and occasionally my back. And this is where the wheels come in…

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The coop may be falling apart, but we still need it. We need it for the young chicks growing up, and we need it to keep them away from the main flock if the chicks turn out to be cockerels. The smaller run of the coop also helps them grow larger and less lean. The chicks are growing up fast and I need to prepare. It also seems that one of our hens has gone broody and we assume she is sitting on eggs. How many eggs? Are they fertile? We don’t know. All we do know is that there is truth in the saying; not to count our chickens until they have hatched. We need wheels on the coop, and a bit of repairing.

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For months now the idea of wheels has floated in the back of my mind. I have kept an eye out at market stalls and charity shops. I even thought that if I found a really cheap child’s bike I would salvage it for the wheels, but nothing was cheap enough. The fall back was the lowest priced trolley wheels off ebay. Today I was in the garden and the wheels started to turn in my mind again. I decided that time was marching on and I would have to buy them. Then I spotted the barbecue. It has wheels, and it hasn’t been moved in four years. These poor wheels have had such a purposeless existence and they have been under my nose all along.

A box of decking screws seemed to reinforce the coop and stopped its wobbling. The roof was re-felted, and…..it has wheels.

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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.

This spring feels all new and fresh.  It is strange to think that it is not actually new, but a renewal.  Looking back I can see now what I had forgotten; that for the last few years I have felt this way every spring.  Yet I can still remind myself that this is not every spring.  It is now.

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Over the last few days I threw myself into the jobs of spring; waking up the worms, turning over the earth. Two jobs loomed under a dark cloud in my mind.  Job number one was the planting of the new apple tree (usually a nice job).  Job number two sapped any joy out of job number one; the culling of the flock.  Two of our oldest hens needed to go. They don’t seem to lay many eggs now they are no spring chicks.  In addition to this, they seem to go broody in the early summer and yet, are unable to actually persist with their sitting long enough to produce chicks. It is a strange state of mind to be in when the welfare of the chickens, their quality of life, is so important. Yet pragmatism seeps into the picture. So, the new apple tree, and the two old hens were jobs that were tied to each other.  I dug a big hole then grabbed my fishing net. I haven’t gone fishing since I was a teenager, but it didn’t take long for me to learn that a fishing net is essential when keeping chickens. I detached myself as much as I could from the job.  Soon the earth was filled in and the apple tree was planted.

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As a distraction I unearthed our battery powered radio and turned it up while breaking earth for the last of the potatoes that need to be planted as soon as possible.  The task at hand soon distracted me from the horrible jobs.

The new apple tree was planted in the place of a quince tree I tried to move a year ago.  Two trees, the quince and an apple tree, were suffering badly in their original position.  No light and no water, as a thick fir hedge parched the earth around the trees.  They were out of place and struggling to hold, with no hope of flourishing. The quince tree was quite mature and flowered early in the spring, yet never produced any fruit before dropping its leaves around mid summer. It was a gamble to move them but I didn’t see an option.  The apple tree pulled through (sort of).  The quince tree had a brief flush of foliage before giving up.  The apple tree that seems to have pulled through was already stressed from its original home.  It seems to have been attacked by a canker.  After doing the research and now knowing what to look for, it seems one of the other apples and one of the pear trees are also infected.  So, I made up a dilute bleach solution to sterilize the cutting tools between trees.  Then a bit of disused flue lining was re-purposed as an incinerator to burn the prunings. I had to cut away a lot from the worst tree, but needed to be done.

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After all the destruction I needed to try to counter some of it, even just a little. I planted some seeds.  Basil and rocket are now slowly unfolding in the soil beside the beans and peas.

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I noticed the first of the peas are starting to creep up through the soil, and the first tomato plant is feeling the tide of the sun.

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Wheelbarrows of compost need to be shovelled from one area to another.  The soft fruits need mulched.  The apple/pear/plum trees need manured.  The strawberry bed needs weeded and fed.  It is the springing time and things must be done to prepare for the summer.  If we are to reap the rewards of a harvest we must put in the work now.  Over the years we have often missed opportunities.  We didn’t start our peas or beans in time.  We didn’t sow the tomato seeds properly, with warmth to germinate them.  We didn’t mulch the raspberries/blackcurrants/gooseberries. To be fair, a few years ago I didn’t know what mulching was.  Now I watch Gardener’s World.

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Can I feel less old if I watch Gardener’s World on iPlayer and flick through everything that isn’t Monty Don.  I’m not interested at all when the colourful flowers are on display, or when it is explaining the benefits of winter colours.  I want to know the tips and tricks that I need to apply right now.  I have five hungry mouths to feed (including my own) and I need to know that raspberry roots are shallow, that apples must not be pruned every year, and that I need to put buckets on my rhubarb to ensure sweet stalks in two or three weeks time.  Monty will tell me all these things.

So far this springing time:

  • Three bags of potatoes have been planted (one bag still to go).
  • Tomato seeds have been sown and are sitting on a sunny window ledge indoors.
  • Onions have been planted.
  • Peas and beans have been sown in trays in the greenhouse.
  • Some of the raspberries have been mulched.
  • Some of the apple trees have been fed.

And…

  • Wheelbarrows of compost have been shuffled about the garden.

 

So much has been ticked off the mental list.  This is the joy of Spring.  Things to do, things to be done.  I could list all the things that need to be done but I’m not really sure what they are.  Playing in the garden with the little people lets me notice more.  Watching Monty reveals even more.  It all sounds so busy.  And it is.  And it isn’t.  It does feel like a balancing act at times.  At other times I find myself with a minute or two to stand and ponder, then spy a bucket out of the corner of my eye; a bucket full of rotted collections from the guttering (collected on one of the finer days of winter). Then another bucket filled with rotted down weeds the lovely Sharon collected, before she forgot about it as she ran after one of the little people, then decided it was time to go inside.  These buckets added to the growing heap of matter piling up on the main vegetable patch. This was a bonus to the main thought when I spied the buckets.  The now empty buckets were turned upside down on the shooting rhubarb and weighed down with bricks from the other corners of the garden.  It didn’t feel like something that needed to be done; it felt like something that would make a fine rhubarb tart in a few weeks time; something Monty would want me to do.

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.

Over half way on the long commute from the country to the town I got the call, “Come back. I don’t want to be on my own.” When a pregnant woman commands, you obey by reflex. I spun the car around and rushed back.  Past experience (the little man) has taught me that these things can happen very slowly and rushing is futile.  Then another past experience(the little lady) has taught me not to drag my feet and dither, these things can happen fast and catch you out. Experience has taught me nothing.

Back at the cottage the lovely Sharon was convinced that things had begun and a new soul would arrive any time between soon to several days…….

We went for a walk.  It was a slow walk near shops, supermarkets, civilisation and the closeness of hospital care.  We walked and talked and waited. Later we picked up the little people and headed back home to try and pretend everything was normal.

In the morning nothing happened and we pretended again. The usual Saturday pancakes, the usual Saturday lunch.  We went walking again, this time beside the river to try and let it wash away our worry. I remember the water was high and chaotic: a torrent in full force after weeks of building volume saturating everything around it. I remember it that it felt like my anxiety. It didn’t sit with me like a metaphor. Too real. Too raw.

After the walk I dropped the lovely Sharon off at the hospital and drove off with the little people leaving her alone.  That was difficult.

Granny and Granda arrived to look after the little people and I returned to the hospital to join the waiting.  We waited and waited until I had to leave the ward.  They gave me a blanket to sleep in the waiting room.  The  room was full of light and noise, and cold.  Outside in the night was dark and much colder.  I choose my down sleeping bag in the frozen car, until the lovely Sharon’s fancy motion detector car alarm threw me out and back to the waiting room.  Another expectant father slept beside me with his portable radio and his snoring.   I few hours later I fell asleep for a half hour until my phone rang: the pain had begun.

So much pain.  Nobody can ever know someone else’s pain. We can pretend to sympathise and empathise but it is nothing and futile. I can’t begin to understand as I have never experienced it.

I cried when I heard his first cry. His was a reflex of breath and a gasp at the air, a grasp at the life around him. Mine was a reflex of my anxiety and joy bursting in an uncontrollable way. It caught me by surprise but was glad to feel it. I cut the cord and the cutting merged old memories with new ones.

Two days later we were all home and we were a family again; a bigger one. I honestly can’t remember what we did for those few days at home. I guess we reminded ourselves how to look after a tiny baby. We didn’t venture very far as it felt like our whole world was there at home with the little people and the new, littlest, man.

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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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