Venture into the world of sustainable living, and you’ll quickly hit upon the idea of seasonal and local food. There is much that can be good about low-impact food. A confidence about how it has been produced. Freshness. Investing in smaller businesses and a food system that works for people and planet. We don’t have an exclusively plant-based diet, but our food ethos attempts to be, in the beautiful words of Yasmin Khan, ‘seasonal, abundant, plant-focused, and communal’*. And so a weekly vegetable box delivery forms the backbone of our meal planning.
Despite three years of a biology degree, everything I know about bird identification I learned from my husband. There was a time when birdsong came and went with ignorant appreciation. I enjoyed the symphony without being able to name a single instrument. That’s ok; there’s beauty enough in the simple wonder. But over the past few years – and particularly those with the vernacular of ‘lockdown’ unexpectedly inserted – I have been slowly, accidentally, picking up some of the nuances to be able to name the visitors to my view as I tap away on the keys.
To the point where this year, it was me who pointed to the sky and said: “Is that the first swifts?”
Two sets of eyes scanned the skyline.
Black arrows cut back and forth across blue. They’d likely travelled from the African continent to be here, and signalled this happy news: warmer weather was here.
A reflection from late autumn finally posted in the chill of early January. Call it late, call it a symptom of these new year days and pandemic years, when time seems to slip and slide and leave you grasping.
I’m not sure if this moment is full on autumn, or the first bite of winter. We left town for the hills one Sunday. Clocks claimed it was mid-afternoon but the oncoming dark made it hard to place, hard to shake the sense of enclosing night. Given the hour, I say ‘hills’ but really it was ‘hill’. One hill. Height enough to let go every sigh and find the corners of ourselves that the countryside seems to guard in our absence. Our feet found one hill, but maybe it really was ‘hills’. One folds into another, a ridge that you could follow on your way to the Cotswolds, or turn the other way to skirt the edge of London. We stay where we are. On one hill. Eyes resting on another, and finding the pocketed fields below.
We left. Left the warmth, encased ourselves in winter coats (should have been washed before this first wearing?), scarves, hats that didn’t quite keep out the gnaw of the wind on one side. An ear bore the brunt of this foray. Pass indifferent flocks, turn right at the trees and enjoy their shelter before heading up again. A slope that felt gentle but, on turning round, had opened up the sunset sky. Stop. Breathe. Exchange humble notes on this messy and beautiful world.
The hour was golden. The deer, dappled bambi types, stood unperturbed by the water. The swifts, closer than ever before, banqueting in the sky surrounding us. Not a single other human around.
Because, it turned out, the park had shut thirty minutes earlier.
We would learn this in ten minutes’ time, as we ambled between two lines of trees in the general direction of home. The park ranger was kind as he pulled up, said he’d meet us at the gate to set us – accidental rebels and interlopers – free.
Well, these have been some months. An uncharted and unsettling world, experienced from the enduring familiarity of home. In June last year we finally left the flat. Walked down the street. Saw the hand-drawn declarations of support for the NHS with our own eyes. Learned to stick together and keep our distance. We have been fortune to see the sea; spring-cleaning for the soul. We have been able to spend time with our families without the glare of screens.
Still, a year on, most of life has remained within these walls. I thought I would turn to our bookshelves to travel, explore. I tried Robert MacFarlane’s ‘Mountains of the Mind’. Wonderful, sweeping, but too vast and distant for my current reality. I started novels of heartbreak, but found myself reluctant to pick them up after a day of work and news overload. I have learned that in this current life, I seek to stay safe, cocooned. I return to favourites (Tolkien, Atwood, Barbery). And I read about food.
My garden is falling apart. The bike basket – the one with a broken attachment which I removed before planting flowering heather in it – is now more absence than wicker. There are old speakers, which a house move consigned to obsolescence so I spent a happy half an hour removing the electronics and planting the box with nasturtiums, and then with sprawling water hyssop. Well, the side has fallen off, now propped back up as a pretence to civilised living. This has been our garden for a few years, and time is taking its toll.
Lockdown life might be shifting a bit in the UK, but many people will still be doing most or all of life at home. We have been reflecting on how to differentiate between work and home life when it all takes place in one place. This builds on the thinking we’ve been doing in recent years about what healthier life rhythms look like. It comes after long periods of being too busy, filling evenings and weekends and running ourselves into the ground until a holiday, which would take us up to neutral but never quite into the positive. We have come to believe strongly in the notion of a day off. Not just a day without undertaking paid employment. A proper day off from all forms of work, including emails, messages, tasks around the house and errands to run outside, It will come as no surprise that often those days involved: good food, coffee shops, gardening, and of course, escape from the city to the coast.
Some of these elements are not possible now in lockdown life; others take place differently. But with work and home all occupying the same four walls, it feels more important than ever to have a proper day off. And these principles – which will apply beyond lockdown life – are helping us to do so. Many of them we learned from other people. Some of them we do pretty well, others remain more of a challenge. We are, as always, a work in progress.
I last left my home six weeks ago. I have been outside. To the bins a couple of times, though now my husband has that joy to himself (following a text from the National Health Service saying I shouldn’t stray beyond our front doorstep. It is strange to live in days when the NHS sends me regular life advice). To the garden. Daily. Twice daily. As many times as the weather and work will allow. But this is all in the vicinity of home.
I am grateful that this season of life has coincided with a shift from dispiritingly soggy February to brightness, and warmth; sometimes the promise of summer and sometimes a proper preview. We’ve sowed a lot of seeds, preparing for the long haul at home. Chard that survived the winter and lettuce newly planted are already gracing out salads. Mint is beginning its proliferation (in terracotta pots, lest it rampage through the whole garden). We have had two barbecues already. And both involved eating in actual daylight; a feat only managed with the easing of time that lockdown has brought (we are optimistic people, so run late normally).
It’s the scent, I think, that draws me to real trees. It reaches you the moment you open the front door. The lights might not yet be on, but Christmas hangs in the air and leads you in from the cold.
We would always have leaned towards getting real Christmas trees. Perhaps because we both grew up with them. And fake trees have always struck me as just a little sad; somehow managing to be both a shadow of and a more brash version of the original. But that is just my perception, formed from the sense that our lifelong habit must be the right one.
And there is an annual debate about that is the ‘right one’, environmentally speaking. It seems the answers are similar to others in this debate: try to keep the one you have in use as long as possible; if buying new, buy quality and organic. So potted trees are the eventual way forward.
If you can keep them alive that is. Since we got our first garden, we have been trying. And this year, we’re celebrating the fact that we will finally welcoming one back into the house for its second Christmas season. A miracle, of sorts!
I say for summer, but maybe they’re for anytime. It’s just now, when the long light evenings prefer books to screens, and the veg harvest is beginning to peak, that I’ve pulled them from the kitchen shelf again. And keep them by my side of the bed. Dreaming of burrata salad. Waking to the idea of freshly baked Maslen bread.
Why these three books? I love them equally. And read them for slightly different reasons.