This summer (and this autumn) I have thought of small things. I’ve been looking at microcosms, at the little piece of ivory (I’m quoting Jane Austen) that is my life. I’ve been focused on my community and on my garden – most specifically on its plants and animals of all sizes. On birds and butterflies; insects; bees. Barry the hedgehog (more on him later), Gavin the bat and Wayne the pigeon or, rather Wayne’s descendants (Ditto.) And I’ve been minded to observe other places I know well – and really to look at them properly. That’s why I have a collection of Pembrokeshire sea glass on my window sill and a display of tiny crab, auger and razor shells on the bathroom shelf.
A little background.
I don’t know about you, but I have experienced the past year as relentless and deeply stressful. Actually, I do know lots of people have felt this way. That’s partly why I’ve just written a piece for the next Patrician Press anthology (My Europe) on how I felt, the day after the Brexit vote, at my youngest lad’s school sports’ day. Traumatised, that’s what. You don’t need me to tell you about Trump, but I’m married to an American and my mother in law cries on the phone about it. So. Were you to look at social media over the past year, you’d have seen many people lamenting the state of the world, writing about armageddon. We’d had three big bereavements and that’s just the tip of what’s been happening for us… So much – and by this summer, I felt I was also struggling with my writing – time, space, skill; meeting then no; full manuscript, long pause, then no. Now, I am not complaining as this is hardly unusual, but it became neccessary to address how I felt: that it had stopped being a joy and had become, instead, about defeat and stress and competition. It had become about working quickly in order to prove that I could catch up for starting late. Well that’s no good, because if it’s like this, it’s nothing. It’s based on false premises; on assumptions; on thinking that anyone’s actually looking. My teaching was going well, but I was unable to see it and I think you can see where this is heading.
By the end of July, I felt consumed by worry and permanently under the weather; I could not enjoy things other than distractedly. I realised I was becoming ill. I had a couple of dissociative episodes. (Read about those elsewhere. Like on the NHS page: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/dissociative-disorders/Pages/Introduction.aspx#Types-of-dissociative-disorder.) One was at the end of the morning school run. Top work. A distracted and unsafe-feeling walk in drizzle was its beginning. They are frightening, but I’ve met them before. Time to find a sympathetic ear and also, while being mindful of what’s going on in the world, and proactive, to understand that I don’t help anyone or any situation by reacting with anxiety. That prolonged stress, however much I call myself an ‘I can do this’ tiger, is a risk for this mind and in a predictable way. And I’ll not be so productive if I go mad again. So you see, I am writing about necessity as well as the choice or responsibility to regard and serve beauty and other living things.
So. Too much in my head, then.
Time, as I recover, to think small. Domestics. Things closer to home. Some of it was really there but not being given enough time and joy; some was new this summer. And I wonder if some of what I describe may sound twee. Can’t help that. But as I describe homespun happiness, let me tell you that, with my background, we are talking about necessity too. And also, with three boys, about calm and about their feeling love and health in their family home. I grew up in a beautiful place, but not once can I look back at my childhood without a feeling of deep discomfort. I’ve written about that widely, for trauma is closely connected with dissociation and, of course, other mental health problems. So I have a notion of how it can be. In the home. It truly helps to think about your immediate environment. Not with competition, but in order to nurture what is already there. And I need to.
So who’s about?
Chickens. Three, as you saw. They are rescue girls. They started coming to live with us when my youngest, now six, was one. He thought they were the funniest things. Now, there is nothing like helping tend something (or someone!) back to life and health. When I collected our first batch of rescue hens, it was a shock. They were half bald; their combs very pale and flopping to one side. That first night they stood still, unsure what to do as darkness fell because they’d been housed under striplights. I lost a few of these first girls quite quickly because they cannot always cope with the bacteria in the ground, owing to poor natural immunity. They have not had a natural life and their peck of dirt. I had a couple I reckon died simply of shock, but we’ve done our best with our girls – the current community (and I’ve plans for more, but no more boys and…probably…no more cats) – are called Cookie, Cocoa and Frostie. Along the way, we’ve also had Cupcake and Florence (where Grandma is from) and, once, a particularly pathetic arrival which my teenage son called, unaccountably, Stacey.
These girls are such a pleasure. They chuckle and crow and coo. It does not take long to nurse them to health and they eat well – scraps, pellets, bugs; mealworms as a treat. They do hilarious things like jump on two rigid little legs for a bunch of grapes bounced up and down on elastic. I’ve made them things – like the ‘pecky log’, the hollows of which I fill with peanut butter. Their bald bits grow back, their eyes brighten and their combs take colour and stand erect. And their eggs are beautiful, too. When I talk to them, they answer back and I pick them up and walk with them. Hens respond well to conversation and to human contact. Well, we all do. Occasionally they escape and I once came home and found all three, in a row, chuckling at the garden gate they could actually have flown over. Then, one of them told me that they were only going so far because they liked living with us. Their personalities are clearly different and my six year old would tell you that Frostie is grumpy, Cocoa is shy and Cookie is confident but has very good manners.
They make me happy. If you are interested in rehoming, here:
It is a scandal that these poor creatures live in such awful conditions – and don’t be fooled by the ‘enriched cages’ system that came into place as an improvement. It is still –must be – a miserable, compacted, humiliating life. But you can consider doing something about that, though give them space and time.
Insects. I ordered in our firewood early this year, and we set about making log piles here and there over the summer holiday. These make a haven for woodlice and all sorts of creepy crawlies, thereby helping to strengthen and diversify what you have going on in your garden. There’s a place and a need for all these beasties. We also made the decison, earlier in this year, to leave only part of the garden tidy. I don’t know why I didn’t do this before. In the scruffy area around the kids’ trampoline and next to the chicken run, I’ve seeded wildflowers and planted bee mats (which are a biodegradable garden weft that’s full of seeds for plants bees like). You can get these and the seed at any garen centre. Also, seed your own. Shake heads from poppies or whatever crops up there or elsewhere in your garden. So this Summer of Small Things, we’ve been able to peek at bugs and, also, to watch what popped up in scruffy garden. What we planted; what arrived. There’s campion, poppies, foxgloves, scabious; different types of grass; some wheat and even a head or two of barley have popped up too. It’s serendipitous, healthy and it makes me feel calm and productive. And there are are more bees and butterflies about, whereas before it just seemed to be the occasional cabbage white. Now, I see meadow blue. And took joy in a comma.
In addition to the scruffy patch, the youngest and I set about putting in extra lavender and thyme plants for the bees and two buddleia for the butterflies. I’ve fitted in a few small trees here and there (we don’t have a massive garden, but it is stuffed to the gills!) and attached extra bird feeders (NOT above your chicken run, though), ladybird and bee houses (pretty little turquoise ones – did I say how much colour is a boost to my mood?) and I’m making a hedgehog house because we are being visited regularly by a hedgehog we’ve named Barry. Just the other night, Barry turned up with a small hedgehog which the kids think is his very small hedgehog partner but looks more like a babe to me; hedgehogs have their litters (usually) in June and July in case you were wondering. And I was sure to watch the swifts, swallows and house martins. There were nests near by. And to sit outside or lie on the grass at twilight and watch the bats, especially the one (and I do know it’s not necessarily the same one!) the littlee has named Gavin.
I met a student of mine the other day. That is, someone I taught ten years ago. His warmest memory was not nailing A Streetcar Named Desire or UCAS applications or anything, but the fact that he’d remembered what I’d told him about birdsong in one of the digressions that are, I think, a key part of teaching; of life. It was the sound of a wood pigeon on a roof. ‘What is that?’ ‘Don’t you know?’ said I. ‘That’s a wood pigeon and he sang, “My toe bleeds Betty” three times and then an urgent, “Look!”‘
And it’s true. Listen out. We have an old house, tall with three floors and a broad attic. A deep pleasure of mine is to hear a pigeon do his call from the chimney stack and listen to how his call reverberates through the wide chimney and out into the broad fireplace in our sitting room – and I love it. And lest you think I’ve turned into, I don’t know, Kirstie Allsop with my wide chimney and, get me, broad inglenook, let me tell you that, once upon a time, I bought this place, semi-derelict, and it has been done up very slowly. It is quirky and unfinished and full of old rugs and thousands of books and therein is love. My in laws and much extended family think we are living in a house that’s too eccentric and too small and express dislike of it. But wherein did those criteria evolve? There’s warmth; soft beds; loads of stuff to do and cunning places to hang out and hide. Why don’t you come round? I’d love that, really.
If I have any dream about raising my family here, it’s that people come in and get comfortable and chuck their shoes off. If they feel sad, I’ve got lots of blankets and, like I said, places to hide in. And I want the boys to witness that: what you might construct a home of. There’s a cellar under the kitchen (this place used to be a pub), accessed by a dangerous ladder and on the rainy days, we play football in that cellar and I’ve let them, ferrals, graffiti the walls. Because you don’t need all the gubbins you think you do or someone told you you had to factor in because you were…I don’t know…successful…a parent…middle class…Oh – (apologies but I also love cursing) – slightly fuck off. We feel that this house, as it has evolved, looks after us. I used to be swayed by criticism of it. But not any more. Comfort and a feeling that a house welcomes you in are not small things. I was reflecting on that, this summer, too. About the feelings that are engendered in and by a place.
Oh yes – I mentioned Wayne the pigeon. He was a fellow with a bad wing and I nursed him back to health and off he flew. A bit wobbly but he nixed it. Please don’t tell he was thereafter beaten up by the other pigeons. But anyway, when I hear ‘My toe bleeds Betty’ on our chimney stack, I tell the kids that these are likely the descendants of Wayne. The older ones think I’m a mad old git person, but they love it anyway.
Cats. Three rescue. One was a dubious ‘return’ to the animal shelter; the other two car park kittens. Max; Ginger; Daisy. The first is a bit moody and known locally as the Chubmeister because he’s convinced some older residents here and there that he’d benefit from a snack and has become truly portly; the second can do tricks – like jump through a hoop to retrieve a pom pom – and she especially loves glitter pom poms. When you come down in the morning, she’s sitting waiting, with the glitter pom pom. Throw my pompom, person. I derive intense happiness from this silly, tiny thing. Oh and third cat: local teenagers refer to her as ‘Kitler’ because of her unfortunate marking. (No need to elaborate.) And did I say that we once hatched a load of ladybird larvae and, extraordinarily, there’s a crack in the plaster near where we set them free from their little hatchery and they come back and overwinter in that crack, just above my thirteen year old’s bed?
And the summer. Just down to my family in Pembrokeshire. Clifftops and shell collecting; going out on the boats and watching the shadows in the water (jellyfish); my telling them where the basking shark lie and about secret footpaths. Watching the comical puffins off skomer and the porpoises and dolphins in the bay. Waiting expectantly for the seals to come into pup. Bewhiskered old man seals. Rock pools. Telling them to shuffle their feet so as to avoid weever fish.
All these things. Pretty things and being lost in and awed by the natural world. Simultaneously, of course, imperfection and mess and stress. Confusion and moil and toil. Donald Trump on twitter and the profligate disregard he and his family appear to have for others; it makes me cry to see someone so arrogant with such an egregiously limited world view. You can do some things and I could never not petition or challenge, and I cannot ever be the sort of person who can decide not to look. I tried once. I – I’m sorry if this sounds judgemental – felt that I was cruel and vacuous to try to switch off and focus only on self care (as I had been several times advised to do), because why do we exist if not to make lives better for one another? And in looking out, there is purpose for you.
But there are the other things to think about too so that a line can, at some point, be drawn. Your health; the little piece of ivory; the wildlife and animals you can look at, nurse and encourage right beside you. You can be a steward of what’s around you and revel in its beauty too: that’s why there’s a pile of foraged quinces sitting in our fireplace. They are russet and lime green and they smell oriental, as old and time and deeply familar all in one rush.
So yes, The Summer of Small Things. Time to reflect and to move more slowly in a world that had been whirling. It’s a start. And, like I said, come round. Bring seeds. Or buns. Agapanthus seed heads I can hang up for decorations. ‘Please take’ pears from the box down the lane. And Frostie, Cookie and Cocoa are rolling in dust baths but would love it if you have some leftover spaghetti. They think it’s worms and run from each other to secrete their haul before devouring it. Come see.