Last year, you may remember, I spent two days at the Artisan Bakery School in Devon. They taught, we baked, we ate. And I left armed with the more confidence in the yeast and leaven department. Soon after this, I volunteered to look after a friend’s sourdough starter (which goes by ‘Alfonzo’, naturally) while they were holidaying for three weeks. I took this responsibility seriously; listened earnestly while my friend told me about Alfonzo’s needs (starter-organic flour-water in ratios of 1:1:1) and habits (awake in the evening if fed in the morning). And, if I’m honest, I felt the pressure. This was something that he had nurtured from nothing, and I could, with neglect, kill it.
I have a story to share. A sustainability fail. It went like this: we needed to buy new brush heads for our electric toothbrush. We decided to put in a bulk order, reckoning that this would mean that less packaging would be used overall (it would also be kinder on the purse in the long run). Good sustainability logic. Total fail in practice. The parcel arrived, and we opened it to find tens of packets containing just a few brush heads each.
When I think back on 2017, I remind myself that this is the year that we carved out a new life in a bigger, bolder city than before. A place where our community means more travel time with strangers on trains than with friends in their homes. A city that is not, in truth, a natural fit. That shades out the stars and puts miles between us and the sea. But we have learned how to do life here; how to not just make it work but embrace the opportunity and privilege that, as well as being all those other things, it truly is. It seems unlikely (though who knows) that it is forever, so we want to make the most of it while we can.
This blog post arrives as a seasonal coincidence. This day, the Solstice, is apparently the true start of Winter. But in truth it’s felt pretty frosty for a while. We’ve been buried. Inside and under blankets, with a hot drink in hand. Outside and under woolly hats, with a hot drink in hand (in reusable cups picked up from Oxfam).
Despite my annual trepidation as summer fades, I’ve become better at finding joy in the nature of each season. I attribute much of this to gardening giving me a greater appreciation of the year’s rhythms. For the first year, we’ve made considered efforts to winterise the garden, rather than just letting it slide into neglect until Spring. We’ve planted winter jasmine and hellebore, and still taken our morning coffee on the bench – fortified for the cold with a blanket and an extra woolly jumper.
I’ve done it. Finally. I wrote a while ago about my desire to make my own advent calendar – something that was unique to our family, and reusable for years to come. I came up with a plan that I was satisfied – but not thrilled – with. I embroidered 25 numbers. I started assembly. And by mid-December recognised that this was not the year I was going to finish my advent calendar. Maybe next festive season though. That was four years ago.
A couple of weeks ago I learned that one in three people in the UK think that this winter they will have to make a choice: warm their food or their home. I heard this as I sat in a chilly room and looked at three tins that I had no way of warming for my dinner. It was an effort to make real, for a little while at least, this terrible dilemma. And it’s one I’ve continued to think about.
The setting was Fuel by Jack Monroe, a pop up restaurant organised as part of the launch of Jack’s new partnership with the npower Foundation to expand their fuel bank network. Jack introduced the night by telling us something of the food and fuel poverty that affect one million people in the UK today. We were then presented with covered dishes for our dinner. Lifting the lid, this was the view before us.
“To those who are enthralled by mountains, their wonder is beyond all dispute.
To those who are not, their allure is a kind of madness.
What is this strange force that draws us upwards,
This siren song of the summit?”
– Robert MacFarlane, Mountain
I’ve been spending time with mountains. It started with the British Film Institute’s London Film Festival for a showing of ‘Mountain’. The film is a collaboration between director Jennifer Peedom, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and writer, Robert MacFarlane; an experiment in stomach-soaring cinematography, sparse narration by Willem Dafoe, and a soundtrack of original and classical music. The collaborators explore our changing relationship with the peaks over the last few hundred years. They note, but don’t push, concerns about the destruction that can accompany our quest for the summit, or a high-speed descent down it. They hint at the inequality of relationships – those touristing to the top and the sherpas who get them there (“those that have the least, risk most”). There is admiration and terror of the heights – and the drops – to be found across this world.