Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Milk Maid and The Boy Who Cried For the Moon



And now for something completely different.

Several months ago I was intrigued to note a short story competition over at The Archdruid Report, the winners of which will be published in an anthology called After Oil. The entries must be published on a blog, hence today's post. The theme - imagine what life could be like one thousand years from now. After the planet has heated up, after our magical fossil fuels are all gone, well after the disruption and chaos that the next few hundred years will undoubtedly bring. What could those new societies look like? Well, here is my contribution. For what it's worth I think that wherever a society organises so that some of its members have power and privilege, then that elite will continue to indulge in all sorts of questionable activities, up to and including destroying their own society in order to keep that power at all costs..

It has taken months to write - most of that time being taken up with not-writing, and then some pull-yourself-together-girl hours and days of actual writing, and here we are at the moment where I can't stand looking at it any longer, so publish and be damned, I say.

Thanks to The Girl for her thoughtful suggestions, and to my very dear friend Karlin for her excellent editing.

I would love to have you add your comments and critiques as well, and expect you all to move to Tasmania very soon:)





The Milk Maid and the Boy Who Cried For the Moon



Una picked her way up the rocky path toward the headland. When she reached the top she paused a minute to catch her breath and turned and looked down at the roof of the farm house far below. She could see the farm hands going about their evening chores, weaving the centuries' old pattern from house to barn to chickens and pigs and wood pile. Turning back to the headland Una spied her granddaughter at the edge of the cliff, dark hair whipping in the breeze. She was watching entranced as a clipper ship, sails set, left the harbour and headed out to sea. Una had known she would find Gwenn here. For months now the girl had been slipping away to watch every ship as it left The Island. In two month's time Gwenn too would be leaving, sailing into just such a golden evening, a Wayfarer, leaving her island home for a life of study and adventure.

Gwenn had worked for many years for this. Only a very few had the opportunity to sign on to the clipper ships as Wayfarers. The ships' permanent skeleton crews were supplemented at every port by Wayfarers, volunteers who had trained for years in their own disciplines, then also endured gruelling training as ship's crew. They signed on and worked their passage wherever their hearts and minds took them. Every university and library the world over was open to them. They met with fellow students and eminent scholars, and travelled the world seeking knowledge and sharing it. Gwenn's passion was astronomy. The stars teased her with their far-off glittering music and would take her far from home.

“Oh, Grandmother, you shouldn't have come all this way for me. I'm sorry I missed the chores. I was just...” Gwenn looked out to sea where the ship was dwindling like a white bird into the distance.

“Dreaming. Of course you were. I know, darling.” Una stood at the edge of the cliff, facing the ocean. Tall, spare and weathered, her long grey hair pulled back into a knot, her grey eyes followed the white speck that was the departing ship until it disappeared into the golden sunset.

Una herself had been a Wayfarer once. Her discipline was bioalchemy, a study of the deep ways of the natural world. When she left The Island it was to the prospect of a brilliant future at any of the greatest universities of the world. “There's one who won't be back,” sighed her teachers and those who loved her. There were those on The Island who didn't approve of the Wayfarer lifestyle. “Just loses us our brightest young people,” they grumbled, “and most of them never come back.” And yet, The Island life did draw some back. Often many years would pass but then familiar faces would return, beaming at the top of the gangplank, often bringing wives, husbands and children with them. Sometimes single women would return, sheepishly or defiantly according to temperament, bearing what was known as 'a full cargo'. These also were enfolded back into the community, if not without comment, at least without censure, for such a small population needed two things that these returning immigrants brought with them – genetic diversity, and expertise.

For The Island was an anomaly. A jewel at the end of the world, it sat precariously at the base of the huge, mostly uninhabitable, ancient continent of Australia. During the Dark Age, when the atmosphere had heated, much of the population of Australia had fled to The Island. A combination of changing climate and over-population had nearly decimated its abundant forests, and The Island population looked like going the way of many other islands around the world at this chaotic time – into oblivion.

Then, at its darkest hour, the people of The Island began to stir out of their old ways of thinking. A movement arose among them, central to which was an absolute reverence for every material gift of the universe – every leaf, every breath of fresh air, every drop of water. They called this 'The Balance.'

Legions of the voluntarily childless formed communities based on the old monastery system, throwing their energy into preserving the good of the old ways and pursuing every avenue to create a new society where the needs of The Island's humans were constantly balanced against the needs of the very finite piece of land that they relied upon so desperately for survival. And while natural disasters and waves of disease ravaged The Island's population, the light that had been kindled burnt brighter over time.

Eventually the rest of the world began to rediscover this long-disregarded island at the bottom of a burning, uninhabitable continent. As the art of the sailing ship was slowly recovered in those parts of the world which had resources spare to devote to it, ships occasionally visited The Island with a view to plundering what was left of it. To their surprise they found neither a graveyard nor dysfunctional chaos, but a thriving, egalitarian community which had somehow discovered the key to living in the the new age.

The news trickled back to what was left of civilisation, and more ships arrived, full of emissaries eager to learn the secrets of The Island's success. Disciples of The Balance travelled all over the world preaching their message of balance, restraint and reverence. The new religion, for that is what it had become, swept across the world from port to port, sometimes replacing old religions, sometimes sitting side by side with already existing beliefs.

It was to this island community that Una had returned eight years after she had left it, bearing a full cargo of her own. She had settled down on her family's farm and brought up her daughter, refusing to reveal so much as a word about her child's father. She had also refused to practice bioalchemy at The Island's one university, but instead worked with her father to make the family farm exceptionally productive in a land of model farms. By the time of her father's death she had created a Garden of Eden on her seaside land, which had Wayfarers from all over the world beating a path to her door to discover her secret for producing such bounty from a dry, rocky hillside.

Una's daughter Star had loved the land as much as her mother and grandfather and had settled on the farm with her husband to bring up her own daughter. But on her death, when little Gwenn was just a toddler, her husband in his grief had found himself unable to stay on the farm. He took up work as a forester and lived away from the farm for weeks or months at a time. Gwenn loved to see her quiet, gentle father on his infrequent visits, but her grandmother was the sun at the centre of her universe.

Una brought out, like well-polished stones, her stock of stories of her adventures in the wide world. She taught Gwenn older stories too – Greek myths, ancient poetry, stories of The Island from the Dark Age and before, when this hot, dry island was a green and mysterious land of forests and streams and rushing brown rivers. But most of all, Una had taught Gwenn about the stars. Their names, their stories, their history. Gwenn ached to leave The Island and seek her own adventures, seize the stars and make them her own, but she didn't want to leave her grandmother.

She turned from the wide ocean to the quiet old woman next to her, “How can I live without you, Grandmother?” she asked, “I don't know why I want to leave. I don't want to leave you at all, but I must go.”

“I know you do, my honey. It is because you are young, and therefore it is what you must do.” Una sighed and tucked a strand of Gwenn's hair behind her ear.

“But not all the young leave,” Gwenn objected. “Mother never wanted to leave the farm.”

“Star was just like my father,” Una replied. “She was rooted in this land like a young sapling and would have wilted and struggled to survive had she been transplanted. You, though...” and Una turned to Gwenn and looked steadily into her dark eyes, “You, my dear one, are just like your grandfather.”

Gwenn stood stock still. She had never heard a single word about her grandfather from Una. No-one on The Island had ever heard a word about Gwenn's grandfather. And although Una told many stories about her time as a Wayfarer, none of them explained exactly what she had spent her time doing while she was away, or why she had returned. All anyone knew, from the reverent way in which visiting Wayfarers approached her, was that she had been a well-known and eminent scholar of bioalchemy, and that it had not been lack of success that brought her home to a life on the family farm.

Una sat down with her back to the sun-warmed boulder that served as a look-out on the headland, and patted the space next to her. “Come and sit down, Gwenn. It is time that I told you the story of where you come from. I wanted to tell your mother, but I lacked the courage, and then one day it was too late. I want to tell you this story now, before you leave to go and find your own path.”

And yet Una sat silent, gazing out to sea, and holding tightly onto Gwenn's hand with both of her own. Eventually Gwenn gave Una's hand a hesitant squeeze. “Where did you go when you left The Island, Grandmother?” she asked. Una gave Gwenn a quick, grateful smile, and began her tale.

She had travelled up the east coast of Australia, calling in at various settlements on the way. Gwenn had heard these stories before, of the hardy souls who eked out a precarious existence along the coast, mostly living in underground dug-outs to avoid the burning summer sun, growing their crops during the cooler winters.

Una had spent two years travelling and studying. She had endured sea sickness and violent storms and had travelled overland as assistant to a healer for a leg of her journey north, along the coast of Zhong Gua and into Russia, unwilling to face another sea passage. All these stories were familiar to Gwenn, having been the solace and excitement of many a winter evening around the fire.

“And then I met Leonid.” Una sighed and stared out at the horizon. “He had the most extraordinary mind. His star was in the ascendant – one of the brightest minds in one of the greatest universities in the world. Oh, I do hope you get to see it one day. Torn down and rebuilt time and again in the Great Wars between Russia and Zhong Gua to the south, the Eastern City shines like a beacon now, bringing scholars from all over the world. Born to one of the oldest and wealthiest local families, at thirty two Leonid was very young to be a Master of Bioalchemy. The uncharitable attributed this to the generous patronage of his family, but no-one who knew him or his work could doubt his brilliance. His particular passion was for the inner workings of the human mind, and it was as if he could indeed enter in to the labyrinthine chambers that he studied. Truly, the Spirit was great within him.

I was young and unknown, but ambitious and desperately thirsting after knowledge, and there was Leonid, brilliant, confident, sparkling with such compelling ideas. I knew that once in his ambit I could fly to the stars and back. I had only one card to play – I was from The Island. Wayfarers from The Island were always noticed. I played that card well.

Handsome?” asked Una, in reply to Gwenn's question, “No. Tall, gangly even. Pale, with jet black hair, like yours, like Star's. There was never any question of us marrying. His family belonged to a sect which hold themselves apart. They pride themselves on their pure Russian heritage and never marry outsiders. In a polyglot city in a polyglot nation they have kept themselves racially pure for a hundred generations or more. It is now almost the whole of their religion. It is also madness, for they rarely travel between the isolated outposts of their sect, and are almost terminally inbred.

From the first to the last Leonid's family completely ignored me. To them I was just the latest in a long line of racially impure women to whom they turned a blind eye. “One day I will have to marry a stupid woman of impeccable lineage and produce a brace of inbred brats for the honour of the family,” the dutiful son would spit furiously, “But you,” he would say with his face buried in my hair, “You are the wife of my mind and my heart, and this is our true life,” and he would gesture around his room at the university, our room, with its wealth of books and scientific instruments and the glorious light shining in through its large glass windows, “and all the rest is a mirage.”

Indeed, my whole past life felt like a mirage. I remembered our winters on The Island, shutters covering the windows, working by lamplight. To work in Leonid's room with the winter sunlight streaming in through the large glass windows and with the hypocaust heating the floors was like living in a fairytale. And yet, I was unsettled. There was just so much of everything. The precepts of The Balance were respected in the Eastern City as in most of the cities of the world, but here it did not seem as though they were particularly needed. The Eastern City is situated in a fertile valley surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland, much of it owned by Leonid's pompous family. The climate disruption that had followed the Dark Age had been kind to Russia; once a land covered in snow for much of the year, it is now temperate with a largely benevolent climate.

However, it didn't take me long to discover that although the city was wealthy, the countryside was not. The farms that spread out beyond the city as far as the eye could see were mostly owned by wealthy city-dwellers, and worked by a multitude of serfs who were ill-housed and ill-paid for their labour. Leonid's father and his friends had only one topic of conversation according to Leonid - complaining about the laziness, the incompetence and the insolence of the men and women who fed them and made them rich. Even Leonid himself regarded farming as a menial task for peasants.

“But to follow the Way of the Earth is to pursue the Noble Profession,” I reminded him.

Leonid looked at me thoughtfully. “Maybe more so on that Island of yours,” he said eventually.

If I was shocked at his views on farming, he was even more shocked by the revelation that I was actually a farmer, from a long line of farmers. That I grew up milking goats and doing farm chores.

“So everyone on your Island really participates in those bucolic pastimes for the sake of piety?” Leonid asked.

“Not for the sake of piety,” I retorted, “But so that there will always be something to eat.”

Leonid laughed briefly, promised I would never have cause to go near a goat again, and flicking my cheek lazily, remarked that he would call me his little milkmaid from now on.

Another shock occurred when I began to study at the library of the university in the Eastern City. All university libraries are the province of the monasteries. The monasteries of our age were born from necessity on our own Island, when the founders of The Balance adapted the monastery model from ancient times to address the problem of overpopulation. Choosing a communal, childless life devoted to study, preserving the past and searching for solutions for the future is an honourable calling. Indeed, it requires a vocation in the Way of the Spirit. However the monastery in the Eastern City had become a repository for maiden aunts and indigent relatives of wealthy patrons of the University.

Leonid took me to the library at the beginning of my studies at the university, and introduced me to Anna, whom he instructed to show me the intricacies of the library system, a series of vast and sprawling underground vaults which kept books and records at the ideal temperature and humidity, and required encyclopedic knowledge to navigate.

“My great aunt,” explained Leonid later, “A bit mad, but no-one knows their way better through the labyrinth.”

I didn't find Anna mad at all, but shrewd and immensely intelligent. “Ah yes, I have known Leonid since he was a little boy,” said Anna. “Always crying for the moon and aiming for the stars, that one.”

And she was right. He was still at it. While I spent my days studying bodily systems, following healers around the City hospitals and learning the secret arts of the herbalists, trying to find the keys to unlock the mystery of disease of the body, Leonid was closeted in his laboratory painstakingly piecing together the workings of the mind. Painstaking, but not patient. He would burst into our room, and tear books off the shelves, impatiently flinging them behind him as he hunted for an errant article or treatise, or he would bark out the name of a herb and expect a full and instant summary of all its properties.

When he wasn't burning white hot with impatience, he could talk for hours about his vision for humanity, his plan to heal minds and cure disease that impacted the brain. Even change the experience and reality of human beings altogether. “We are just a collection of sense organs,” he declared. “If it is possible to target sensory receptors, we could change the way that the mind experiences reality.”

When Leonid was in this mood I called him Icarus, and warned him not to fly too close to the sun. Leonid frowned. “I never did understand why that fable was thought to be about hubris,” he said. “Surely it is more of a warning against stupidity and technical incompetence.”

Years passed. I was admitted to the College of Bioalchemists and lectured, researched, experimented. On The Island, my mother died, and I mourned her but did not return. Leonid married the girl his family chose, and visited her once a month until she had produced a girl and twin boys. Family honour satisfied, from that point he was only seen with her on public occasions. We still lived in Leonid's university room. I now had an adjoining room of my own which merely meant that we had room to extend our private library. We didn't even add another work table, because Leonid did not work in his room any more, but only in his laboratories. He had stopped holding forth at length about his theories, and had become oddly secretive about his work, but we were both so busy that I hardly noticed.

There had been a great deal of political unrest around the Eastern City for some time; small rebellions in the countryside, quickly put down, but there was an on-going seething and bubbling under the surface of everyday life. Discontent fomented. The city's elite made a great noise about how the populace of the countryside were betraying the ideals of The Balance, and the traditions of Mother Russia, but it was clear that they did not imagine for a moment that they were in any danger from their downtrodden serfs. However I was far from convinced that they were right.

I still walked the wards of The Free Hospital every week. After all those years of study I continued to find much to learn from the healers, whose enormous practical knowledge often sent my research in a new and useful direction. The Free Hospital was run by the monastery for the people of the city and anyone from the countryside who could manage to get there. I heard many angry stories in the wards, of the brutality of the Eastern City Guard, both in the city and the country, and of the resentment against the tax system, and the uncertainty of land tenure.

I was uneasy about these developments, but even more uneasy about Leonid's reaction. Unlike his family and their rich friends, he saw very clearly the direction in which his city was headed, but just like them, he was furious at what he saw as the people's betrayal of a way of life that he felt was ordained by the gods for all time. The wealthy of the city may have substituted comfort for piety in their own lives, but they saw no reason not to invoke The Way of the Spirit insofar as it upheld their very considerable rights and privileges.

That was the beginning of a winter of many bitter arguments. I began to see that the man I had loved and revered had feet of clay. All this time I had been in love with his brilliant mind. I had worshipped the intelligence, the soaring, vaunting intellect of him. I hadn't noticed that while his head rejected the petty conventions of his appalling family, at heart, he was still one of them. To retain his power was paramount to him, and he could not imagine any other life. At this point I would have left him had it not been for one circumstance: I was pregnant.

Leonid desperately wanted to pass on his glorious gifts to a son of his heart and mind. His children by his wife were a disappointment to him, as he knew they would be. Dull, unstimulated, spoiled by their mother who had no-one but her children to fill her life, they were frightened by his rare, tumultuous appearances, and he longed for a child he could mould after his own heart. He was convinced I was carrying a son for him. Poor Leonid, he could not see that he was becoming more and more conventional the older he became. Power and privilege can make a man afraid like that. Afraid to lose what he has not earned. Afraid that without power and privilege he may be not quite a man.

I was bound to him because of the child, and yes, still I loved him. The gods forgive me, I thought I could change him. If only, I thought, I could get him to leave with me and come back to The Island, I could show him that real power consists of balance, reverence, a bending of the intellect to the deep truths of nature and its limits. But Leonid's scathing contempt of both my plans and my ideals formed the backbone of the winter's disagreements.

Again I managed to forget my private woes by plunging myself into my work. For months I had been working with the healers, researching a mysterious virus that had been affecting an increasing number of patients at the Free Hospital. For over a year there had been cases of patients on the mend from a variety of complaints who had suddenly developed a mysterious condition where it seemed that their minds had been completely wiped clean. Some of the earlier cases had slipped into insanity and had died horribly in convulsions; lately they had slowly improved over a matter of months, but none of them had ever regained their former intelligence or personality. Their grieving families would take them home, but the most any of them were capable of was performing simple tasks under close supervision. I was desperate to find the cause of this disease, but was no nearer to resolving the mystery than when I started.

Then one night, Leonid came to me, grave, and triumphant. He was holding a tiny vial of amber liquid. “I have done it,” he breathed, “I have the solution to our situation.”

“What situation?” I asked stupidly, blinking at his air of incandescence.

“This... this stupidity!” Leonid spat, “The uprisings in the countryside, the threat of revolution. It's taken hundreds of years to build this province up to what it is today. This University, the hospitals, the research, the Arts, the culture – all of it painstakingly built by the people of this city – my people – over hundreds of years. And now I am expected to just stand back and let it go up in flames because a mob of unruly peasants wants more bread?”

Leonid,” I said gently, “their children are going hungry. Not because of a hard winter or a lack of rain, but directly as a result of years of being bled dry by your people.I could see this discussion returning down the well-worn road of every argument we had ever had, so instead I turned my attention to the vial in his hand.

“So how have you solved the problem?” I asked, “What is that?”

“This,” he breathed, “is what I have been working on for the last three years.” And he launched into a technical discussion which I followed with increasing alarm. It was brilliant, there was no doubt about it. It was a serum which would depress the higher order functions of the brain. It was like a chemical equivalent of a frontal lobotomy, but more subtle in its effects. It was an exquisite instrument of control.

I was shocked to the core, and all I could think of to say was, “How do you mean to use it?”

Leonid drummed his fingers on the table. “I have not quite worked out the details. It will need to be re-administered every six months for maximum efficacy. There is no difficulty about manufacturing the serum in quantity – there is nothing rare in its formulation; it is the process which requires delicate handling – but then we have all the equipment needed for that at the University. We could have a dedicated staff for that. The simplest form of administration would be via the water supply, but of course, that won't work in the countryside where everyone has their own well. Possibly we could spread plague rumours then announce a medical breakthrough and have a public health campaign administering doses to the population periodically. Of course, after the first dose it wouldn't really matter, they will be docile and biddable enough to return whenever we want them to.”

You are going to drug the whole population?” I ask disbelievingly, “But how can you be talking about manufacture when it is not even tested yet? The Ethics Council will never let this near a human being.”

You don't think I am going through the Ethics Council with this? That doddering collective of white-beards block every promising avenue of research out of sheer spite. No, I went straight to the executive of the City Council with this, and of course they realised its potential and authorised its immediate release for testing.”

I had a sudden chilling realisation. “You have been testing this on patients at The Free Hospital!
I have spent more than a year desperately searching for a clue as to what has been happening in these cases. Some have died in agony. The remainder will spend the rest of their lives in a living death. And it was you all the time!I was absolutely furious that Leonid had been using me as a pawn in his deadly game.

Leonid chuckled. “Yes, I have been keeping an eye on your research. Didn't even get close, did you? I was almost sure it was undetectable, and you confirmed that. If you couldn't find it, no-one can.”

But Leonid, this is monstrous! You have ruined those minds forever.” I cast around for some kind of lever with which to appeal to his interests. “Don't you see that what you are proposing won't benefit the city at all? If you use that serum there will be no-one to farm or produce any of the goods you need for export. You haven't solved anything. These are intelligent people Leonid, who only want a secure future for their families. If you can find a fair solution for them and settle for less for the City, you can secure peace and enough for everyone into the future. You know that is the way of The Balance, and the only forward.”

Leonid sighed impatiently. “Unlike the inhabitants of your Island, Una, what we have here are peasants. They are not an extremist religious community dedicated to smug self-righteousness. They are grasping and violent, and out to bring down the City in any way they can. If I don't use the serum, our home, our culture, our lives will be destroyed. If I do use it, we can continue all of the good work we have been doing here at the University. Work and research that the world needs, Una.”

But they are farmers, Leonid. I know farmers,” I was fighting back panic, “They need to make a hundred decisions every day. The weather, the earth, seasons for planting, the phases of the moon, care of sick animals, breeding for ..”

Una, they are peasants, they farm by instinct, they are like animals. They feed pigs and plant wheat. None of it involves intellect. We just need them to keep doing what the gods designed them for instead of burning down the city.”

Now I had my arms wrapped around my chest and was rocking and gasping. Waves of nausea and homesickness crashed over me as I remembered my father with his weathered face and his big capable hands, helping a ewe with a difficult birth, calculating exactly the right day to bring in the wheat. This was the man, multiplied by the thousands, that Leonid wanted to destroy.

Leonid squatted down and awkwardly patted my back. “I just want to protect you and my son. I want to protect all of this,” he said, sweeping his hand at the lights of the city spread out before us, “protect our way of life. It is a good way of life, and I want to preserve it into the future.”

Leonid's long, sensitive hands cradled mine, his breath was on my cheek.

“I know,” I moaned, “but don't you see you want to preserve all of the wrong things?”

The next day I went to the University to see Anna. She found me crumpled over her table, head in hands.

“Told you then, has he?” she asked.

I was aghast. Leonid had assured me that apart from three men on the City Council, no-one else had any idea what he had been researching.

“Trouble with extremely clever people. They don't believe that us ordinary people have any intelligence at all. Leonid only ever makes book requests through me. Since he started getting secretive a few years ago I have read every book and research paper he has ordered. I have a pretty good idea what he is up to. Been doing some other research as well.”

She went away and returned with a stack of books and articles bristling with scraps of paper.

“Have a look at what I've marked.”

Anna, it appeared, had been making a meticulous study of every bioalchemist from the last two hundred years who had been researching along the same lines as Leonid. There were about a dozen in all who had made significant progress. But what was remarkable was that most of them had died during the course of their research.

Some by accident, some from natural causes. Two had died in horrible convulsions from a brain infection. Several had not died, but had been struck down by a mysterious malady which affected their memory and personality, and caused them to spend the rest of their lives in a near vegetative state.

I sat, stunned at that table for hours. I felt like my insides had been turned to stone.

“Gods weren't kind to them, were they?” asked Anna grimly, as she stacked up the books again, carefully removed all the bookmarks, and trotted back and forth returning the books unobtrusively to their various homes in the vaults.

For days and nights on end I paced restlessly in the University gardens, trying to come to terms with what the future held. I knew there was not much time. The gods had not allowed any of Leonid's predecessors to bring the serum to full fruition. No-one but Anna had ever seemed to notice that connection. And Leonid planned to use the serum soon. So little time. I lay at night listening to his breathing, as if waiting for it to stop. I memorised the planes of his face, the heaviness of his leg flung over mine in sleep, the long muscle of his forearm, the one tiny curl on the nape of his neck, that in all likelihood he didn't even know was there. This was the man I hated, loved. Despised, revered. The father of my child, the murderer of minds.

During one of my nights of pacing in the gardens Anna came to me, and gently led me to a bench surrounded by white flowers, impossibly sweet-smelling in the moonlight.

“Nothing you can do to change this future, Una,” she said roughly but kindly. “Gods will see it through, no doubt about it. Must just accept.”

I knew she was right, and made my preparations. I asked Anna to bring me one more set of records. She raised her eyebrows.

“This will take a little time,” she said. But eventually they were delivered to me, carefully hidden amongst a set of herbals, and returned the same way. I had done all I could, and now must prepare for the end. Of course I had told Leonid what I had discovered, hoping to divert his intent, and of course, he had just laughed. Leonid had no real belief in the power of the gods.

They found him dead at his desk at the university. Congenital heart failure, a common cause of death in his family. When his heart stopped, it felt like mine had as well. And yet, my limbs leapt into action as though I was being controlled like a puppet. Anna appeared as from nowhere as soon as the healers removed the body. She packed up his research papers and I went into the laboratories and replaced the whole stock of serum with a harmless copy I had manufactured. I made sure enough of his notes were missing that no more serum could be replicated, banking on the fact that Leonid's famously secretive nature would account for their disappearance.

As it happened, three members of the City Council did call on me the next day to question me closely about how much I knew about what Leonid was working on. All they seemed to know was that his plans were still in the testing phase. Apparently he had not yet revealed his triumph to them, which made my job much easier. I informed them dully that whatever it was that Leonid had been working on he had kept it from me, but that from his mood I had judged that it wasn't going well. The Council members left with grave faces.

Leonid's family ignored me in his death just as in his life, and I was not invited to his lavish funeral.
I booked a passage on the next ship heading South, and begged Anna to come back with me to The Island.

“Appreciate the gesture,” she said, “but home, you know,” and she waved her hand around the University buildings. “Someone has to try and persuade my foolish family to see sense. Failing that, I'll save the books. Have a plan.” She turned to leave, but then came back and touched her rough old hand to my face.

“Nothing can change the will of the gods, you know. The Balance will always be restored. So sorry, my dear.”

“And so I returned to The Island,” ended Una. “Heartsick and seasick, feeling barely alive. I curled up in a corner of my father's house like a wounded animal for months. It was the birth of your mother that brought me back to life. Star.” Una's eyes softened. “If he had lived, Leonid would not have understood a single thing about his daughter, starting from his disbelief that she was a girl.” Una laughed. “Can you imagine a community that values only its male children? I swear Leonid's family chose only the most perverse customs to cling to from the past. But I named her in honour of him and his glorious mind. Foolish to the end I was, for was ever a child more misnamed? Star was a child of the soil, first and last. She brought the light back into my father's life, and gave him a reason to go on living, to pass down his skill and knowledge of the earth.”

There was silence for a long time as the moon climbed into the sky, full-bellied and orange in the north-east.

“Grandmother,” Gwenn asked carefully, “Why did you not tell your family about Leonid when you returned home to The Island? Wouldn't it have helped?”

Another silence.

“Because we are not at the end of the story yet.” Una said fiercely. “Because it is all my fault. His death, Star's death. All my fault.”

“But Grandmother, how could it be your fault? The gods took Leonid, and The Balance was restored, just as Anna said. And Mother died twenty six years later. None of it could possibly be your fault.”

“No, Gwenn. The gods didn't take Leonid. I did.”

“But Leonid died of an inherited heart condition! You said that yourself!”

“Gwenn, I was one of the world's pre-eminent scholars of bioalchemy. It wouldn't have mattered what condition I needed to mimic; I had all the skill and equipment I needed, right there to hand. Those last records I requested from Anna? The medical history of Leonid's family. She knew exactly what I was doing. Knew, and approved. Also sorrowed. For Leonid, and for all that was to come. Yes, the gods sometimes work mysteriously in their own ways, but more often I find that they point us in the direction of a difficult path.”

Gwenn sat for a moment, stunned and silent, her mind in turmoil. Eventually she asked, “So all those bioalchemists in the past, did they also have someone like... like you, to protect the world from their discoveries?”

“I believe so, Gwenn. People like me who weighed up the balance and made the unthinkable decision.”

“Then,” Gwenn hesitated again, “What did Anna mean then, about The Balance? If she knew that you had... how Leonid had died?”

“Anna knew that there is always a price that must be paid for a death. That The Balance must always be restored, even if the price is exacted from the innocent. And it was. Your mother, my own darling Star. She died of an inherited heart condition. The heart condition that everyone thought killed your grandfather. It was unthinkably fast. There was nothing I could do to save her. She died out in the fields, under the sky that she loved. But she was taken from me and from you and your father. I took a life, and a life was taken from me. The Balance was restored.”

“Is that... Leonid.. why you never practised bioalchemy again?”

“Yes. I had been given a great gift of knowledge and had used it to take a life. I couldn't trust myself with that power, so I decided to forsake it entirely.”

“Grandmother, what happened to Anna? The Eastern City was never destroyed by the revolutionaries, was it?”

Una spoke slowly, “Anna... was the saviour of the city. Do you remember how the monastery was filled with the unwanted members of the families of the city's elite? Never underestimate the quiet power of the marginalised. Anna shared her vision for the city with her colleagues. And they organised. An army of the meek, against two powerful forces, those who wanted to destroy the city, and those who wanted to protect their own privilege. For months they collected information from the members of the City Council. For who would bother to guard their tongue in front of an old aunt, or an insignificant poor cousin on a visit from the monastery?

When they had amassed a comprehensive dossier on the Council plans they went to the revolutionaries with it. As a token of their good faith they presented evidence of Leonid's research, together with the information that he had been... murdered... on behalf of the people of Eastern City Province, at Anna's instigation.”

As Gwenn turned a startled face towards her, Una nodded sadly, “Yes, I had been like clay in her hands. Anna's love for her city had made her desperate. And I was from The Island, young, impressionable, idealistic. The perfect instrument. But all of Anna's actions stemmed from one desire – to preserve what was good in the City. Principally, for Anna, that meant her books.

Her terms to the revolutionaries were simple. If they would enter into a treaty, agreeing that
the City be put into the hands of emissaries of The Balance, she would hand over the dossier which would enable them to take the City with minimal losses. The revolutionaries were not happy at the idea of handing over the city but they had no choice. Anna had also outlined the Council's imminent plans to crush the countryside with an iron fist. They must prevent that at all costs. The treaty was signed, and a formal request made for The Island to send a delegation of spiritual emissaries to the Eastern City. I brought those documents back to The Island with me.

As you know, the Eastern City has continued to be a glorious seat of learning and research, and is now also a shining beacon for The Balance. Farming and working the earth are now valued and respected as they are here on The Island. Taxes are fair, and landlords now have responsibilities commensurate with their privilege. Many thousands of lives have been saved. Anna's legacy is no small thing...”

“And yet?” prompted Gwenn.

“Exactly, my dear. And yet. I have asked myself for many years – was it the gods, who are in all things, and who prompt all our ways who led me to do what I did, or was I merely the tool of a desperate woman? Is it even possible to divine an answer to that question? And yet, it haunts me. And Leonid and his extraordinary mind haunts me. So brilliant, and yet so blind. And here you are with your extraordinary mind, and a hunger in you just like Leonid.

But don't worry, dear one. You will not be blind. You have something that Leonid never had – roots that go down deep into the earth. You know the value of the tiny green shoot and every drop of rain.

And so here we are, at the end of the story. It doesn't feel like a moral tale that a grandmother should send with her beloved granddaughter into the wide world. But it is your story.”

Una was silent for some time, and then she smiled.

“Oh, and Gwenn, don't ever forget that you have something else that poor Leonid did not have.”

“What is that, Grandmother?”

“You can milk a goat.”

And laughing, then sighing, they walked together down the hill under the bright stars.








Monday, July 27, 2015

Airing the Dirty Laundry



Well now - Campbell's bed and Campbell's pyjamas...Tuesday's washday so they've had a week's use.
Dorothy L Sayers, Five Red Herrings 1931


When I was a little girl one day in every week I would come home from school to find the sheets on my bed changed and fresh with clean pyjamas under the pillow. I loved going to bed between clean sheets wearing clean pyjamas.

I was rather baffled as a new mother to discover that babies and toddlers can't go for a week between pyjama changes. I thought that new weekly pyjamas were a sort of rule of nature, like the seasons. But my toddlers tiresomely covered their pyjamas daily in pumpkin and weet-bix just to spite me. However, they eventually grew out of it around the age of seven or so, and now the universe has returned to its proper round of once-a-week pyjama washing, as noted above during the investigations of Lord Peter Wimsey.

The other things that get washed weekly like a religious ritual (you know, except if something else more interesting happens instead) are towels and sheets. Now that we are a family of four I wash the clothes twice a week, instead of the former three times a week when we were six. However I have been thinking that once a week would be sufficient, because except for gardening days, we really aren't that dirty.

Why am I spending so much thought on the washing? Because I have recently discovered that Other People wash a whole lot more than I do. I became acquainted with a family of five who cannot use their towels more than once without washing them. That is a load of towels a day, and thirty five towels in a week! My girls both wear adorable tartan school uniforms in winter. Some Mothers apparently wash these once a week (a very small minority I might add, because they are murder to iron, with all those pleats). I wash our girls' skirts once at the end of each winter. Also, apparently Some Children take all their clothes to the laundry basket after each wearing, and have clean pyjamas every day.

Clearly, some parents just love doing laundry. Which is fine, each to his own, BUT what is the cost in energy to wash all those clothes every day? And no doubt tumble dry them as well? What about the wear and tear on the clothes? Our clothes would all last so much longer if we didn't wash them so often, and tumble drying absolutely kills clothes - all that lint collected inside the drier? That is another layer of fabric skimmed off the clothes.

In the days of our great-grandmothers wash day was once a week and everything got done all on the one day. Monday morning the copper was fired up, and often the oldest girl was required to stay home from school and help. The white sheets and towels were boiled, then the sturdy white clothes, then the coloureds, and the delicate things were hand washed. All of the wash was fed through a mangle and hung out to dry on the line. Oh, they must have prayed for sunshine on Mondays, those grannies of ours. I must say I do rather love my marvellously reliable highly technical front-loader washing machine which does most of that hard work for me, and because I don't have to light a fire under the boiler to do the washing, it is very easy to throw a load on at sundry moments on various days - but I don't, because that is the way madness lies. I have tried that technique before, and it resulted in me never seeing the bottom of the laundry basket. For the past few years I have had two days devoted to sheets, one day to towels, and two to doing all the clothes in the laundry basket right down to the bottom, including the delicates and the odd things that end up in laundry baskets like library bags that the dog weed on. it is very satisfying to have nothing more to wash, I must say.

However the most significant thing I have learned from thinking about the washing techniques of my great-grandmothers is the Importance of Airing. There are often whole pages devoted to the subject in old housekeeping manuals. Airing is how you manage to go a whole week between laundry loads. The essentials of airing is hanging up clothes somewhere.. well, airy, when you take them off. If my clothes are clean when I get home from work, I hang them on a hanger from the handle of my wardrobe door. Then the next morning I put them away when I take out my next work outfit. This is reasonably easy as I have two skirts and two dresses which I wear all winter, which is very vintage of me:) Luckily I have various tops to go with the skirts, but even so there is not a lot of variety. This does not bother me at all, because it is extremely easy to decide what to wear, and also because I am very boring and don't like thinking about clothes much. Or washing, or ironing, so this system works very well for me:)

I generally work between two and four hours a day, and so if I change my clothes as soon as I get home and hang them up to air I can get several weeks' wear out of the dresses, and, confession time, I haven't washed the skirts all winter. One is a lovely fitted tweed from the op-shop, and the other is a circa 1965 tailored, lined skirt gifted by a friend. And honest, they smell fine, slight aroma of lavender from all the sachets my girls make to hang in the wardrobe! And if I had washed them every week they would probably be ruined and shapeless now. Excessive zeal for cleanliness is not always a good thing.

I try to chivvy the girls out of their school uniforms after school too, and sometimes I even succeed. In winter they get by on two or three school shirts a week, plus a couple of sets of casuals, and I wear my winter uniform of jeans, long sleeved top and polar fleece every single day when I am not at work, and that doesn't need changing every day either unless I get very dirty in the garden. So with all of the airing and rewearing I am thinking I can go to once a week laundry. Which will save all the energy - both the electrical kind, and my own.

Tell me about how often you wash. Are you appalled at my rewearing policies? Do you have teenage boys? Then ignore all of the above. How did our grannies wash for teenage boys once a week? Imagine the smell of the dirty laundry after seven days..


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Green and Thrifty

Confession time. I wrote this 'Green and Thrifty' post last week sometime, and it has been sitting here ever since waiting for photos. I am now reluctantly conceding that a post without photos is all that there is. You will just have to make the pictures in your head..

It is school holidays here at Chez Blueday which means... craft! All I have to do to drive my children to creativity is turn off the TV. Then wait for the whole house mess to begin. It doesn't take long. This holidays the girls have taken up woodworking. I have had to warn other children's parents that if their offspring are at my house they will inevitably end up in the shed, sawing pieces of wood into marvellous creations. Unsurprisingly there are parents who object to their ten year olds using saws, hammers and nails unsupervised, so on those days Posy has been going mad with papier mache. You have to be impressed at the frugality of a craft that requires only newspaper, glue and paint, but, oh, the glorious sticky mess..

I have spent the holidays in the garden, planning a chicken hotel, and reluctantly cleaning the laundry. Oh, and waging war on ants. All the ants in the world have decided to come and live at my house this winter. I was trying to strategically ignore them, because, you know, they are just ants, right? The Man, no lover of bugs and critters, was always launching offensives with ant poison, but I decided that now he is gone we will live in harmony with the ants and all the rest of creation, and possibly start singing 'Kumbaya' as well.. that lasted until the day I opened the pantry door and the wall of one whole shelf was black with ants. Still, I didn't resort to ant poison. I informed Posy that I was going to implement my secret anti-ant weapon. Eyes wide she watched me reach for... the dishcloth. I wiped those pesky ants out of existence, only to discover that they were the world's most incompetent ants and hadn't actually got inside any of the food containers in the pantry. Heaven knows what they were up to. Now I needed to know where they were getting in, and the answer was, through the millimetre-wide gap in the rubber window seal at the corners of the kitchen windows. So I solved that problem with another high-tech solution - blu-tack.

The next day however, more ants. Now I realised they were coming up from under the house through the internal walls, and out through the millimetre-wide gap between the tile splashback and the window sill. This time I had to get out the big guns - the caulking gun, that is. Believe me, if you have never played with gap sealer and a caulking gun, you haven't lived. It is just like piping icing on a cup-cake, and you can fill up all those annoying cracks and gaps around the house that are letting cold air and ants in. Because if an ant can get through a gap, so can frigid air, straight up from the Antarctic. At last, success! No more ants. For two days I had the unholy joy of watching small groups of straggler ants emerge from the pantry and cluster in pathetic huddles around the newly caulked window sills, trying to come up with Plan B, until I decimated them with a damp dishcloth.

This exercise gave me an idea, and last night I went around all the doors holding my hand to the edges and yes, there was (literally) freezing air getting in. The back door was splendidly air-tight from last year's weather-stripping, but cold air was coming in through the rather large key-hole. The front door is weather-stripped, but all along one side the gap is bigger than the weather strip. I will have to double it up there. The downstairs door has all the cold air blowing in around it, and I can also see daylight through it this morning, so clearly, just weather-stripping around some doors is not enough. I will have to put a couple more layers on there, and we will all be much toastier.

So the ants were a blessing in disguise, and clearly worth a rousing chorus of 'Kumbaya' at least. Their sacrifice was not in vain (for us), because now we will have a warmer house, with less expensive hot air leaking out. Speaking of which, I got our winter electricity bill yesterday - it was just over half the amount of last year's winter bill!! Oh, happy days:)

When not committing ant genocide or running around turning off lights and heaters I have been in the garden. My front garden is very small, and a positive jungle. I am actually quite enamoured of The Secret Garden look, but when four-foot high rose bushes are disappearing under neighbouring trees and swathes of lavender, it is time for a little judicious garden editing. For instance, when I finish taking out the five-foot high and wide lavender tree I will be able to do some more edible landscaping which will be fun. I have also removed a number of blueberry bushes which are suffering in our alkaline soil. I have popped three of them into wine barrels where I can keep their soil suitably acidic, and have given the rest away. Now I can replant a whole fence line where the struggling blueberries were languishing. I am leaning towards stone fruit, because they seem to be thriving in the front yard, and you can never have too many peaches and nectarines.. I also have plans to plant raspberries, so come back in a couple of years for the most spectacular fruit salad..


Friday, June 26, 2015

Winter...

The first day of Winter 2015

It is a cold, cold Winter here in Tasmania. The first day of Winter was decorated lavishly by Jack Frost, and the days following were even more artistic, but standing outside in pyjamas taking photos wasn't high on my morning agenda after the first day.

I am on the electricity war-path again this Winter, as our cold-weather electricity usage is disgracefully high, mostly due to our terribly inefficient electric heating system. Now, I have no intention of forcing the dear little petals to shiver in the cold all Winter, but I also have no intention to keep on heating the whole house. One of the more wonderful things about being a single parent is not having to negotiate with another adult about living conditions. When we were renovating The Man was quite keen that the whole house be evenly warm all winter. Granted, this is a fairly typical expectation in a cold climate, but not one I subscribe to. Quite apart from the electricity bill, I like living in a house that has cold parts and toasty warm parts. Part of the joy of warmth is the contrast with cold. If all of the house is an evenly warm 21C all winter where is the sheer gratitude of gathering in a warm room, enjoying cuddling around the fire or making the kitchen a warm cave of baking and glorious hot stew smells?

So this winter I have refused to turn on the underfloor heating in the bathroom. It is ridiculously expensive to use, and my reasoning is that in the bathroom you are either in a hot shower, which keeps you nice and warm, or you can keep your feet warm via an advanced technology popularly known as 'slippers'.

In the living room I have draped blankets over the back of the couch for snuggling under. One of them is a lovely pure wool picnic blanket, which I decided was not doing enough work, so now it is a couch blanket. Pure wool is amazing! You do not need space heating when snuggled under a wool blanket to read a book.


I am also powering along with my crocheted afghan rug. It may not be finished for some time yet, but it will definitely be ready for next Winter!

Getting a dog is also an excellent winter warmer. Brisk walking or reluctant jogging with the dog for forty minutes or so keeps us warm for at least an hour afterwards. I guess chopping wood has the same effect.. maybe next year? I do not have a good record with sharp things.. Anyway, the dog is also an excellent hot water bottle, and sleeps under the covers with the girls.. I have given up on trying to mandate where the dog sleeps. I figure graciously ceding control is more dignified than fighting a losing battle..

I am also perfecting the art of bed making for winter. One of my pet hates is heating in bedrooms. I love a cold, fresh bedroom, and am totally in favour of the nineteenth century passion for keeping a window open as much as possible in a bedroom.

However, again, the contrast is important - a wonderful warm and toasty bed is vital, because it is hard to sleep when you are cold. First, it is important to insulate the mattress, because a lot of cold air comes up under the bed and straight through a box spring mattress. Here in Tasmania I find it useful to have two quilts - a light summer one, and a warm wool one for winter. In winter I use the summer quilt for insulation. So the layers go like this - summer quilt, held in place by the mattress protector, then covered by a delicious flannelette sheet. Flannelette is one of the great inventions in my opinion. Nothing more cosy on a winter's night.. I know this is starting to sound like the princess and the pea story, but bear with me. Next is the top sheet (flannelette of course) then a thin cotton blanket, then the winter wool quilt. The reason for all the layers? Air gets trapped between them, and warmed by your body heat, so a number of layers is always good. THEN (did you think we had finished? Winter nights are really quite chilly, and the bedroom is COLD, remember), a wool blanket. These are always turning up at op shops, and are brilliantly warm. They are also gorgeous folded up on the end of the bed, and perfect for snuggling under when sneaking away to read in the bedroom during the day. Last of all, when it is really cold, we need to resort to 'the double doona'. Another quilt, this time from the spare bed, is folded up on the end of my bed at the moment for cold night emergencies.


Now, this may seem like a lot of bedding palaver, especially when multiplied by all the beds in the house, but it makes bedtime a sheer joy of toasty cosiness. When I was a little girl I used to love visiting my grandma in the winter because she possessed the secret of making up the cosiest winter beds - heavy with thick blankets and old fashioned bedspreads which felt so wonderfully safe and secure. I think I have now finally managed to replicate that feeling with my current bedding regime:)

So several boxes have been ticked so far this winter - using less electricity. Tick. Making the house more cosy. Tick. Increasing our capacity to live in a world that sometimes gets cold. Outrageous, I know, but in my opinion, so much more satisfying than living in a climate-controlled box. Tick.





Saturday, June 20, 2015

Living Better with.. Biochar and Complete Organic Fertiliser

I do feel sorry for the poor people we impose upon ask very nicely to come and talk to us at our Living Better With Less meetings. We all talk so much it must be difficult to get a word in edgewise sometimes (it's because we are so enthusiastic). Luckily, this month, one of our members David, bravely offered to discuss soil health with us (after we asked him very nicely). And he knows us well, so no doubt he came prepared, hopefully with a stiff drink beforehand. He also brought a bottle of his home brew for us to try, probably because he knew he would need a drink afterwards as well... David IS the Inspirations Garden Centre at Exeter, not only a garden centre, but a producer of cool climate seeds, all sorts of wonderful heirloom varieties especially suited for our climate as they are grown here.

So as you can imagine, David has spent a lot of years learning how to make his soil sing, and last month he shared some of his secrets with us. For many years now he has been using Steve Solomon's Complete Organic Fertiliser on his seed trial beds. Steve Solomon is a US garden writer who originally wrote about Gardening West of the Cascades, then moved to Tasmania, where he now gardens in very similar conditions to those west of the Cascades in the US, so that is very many decades of very detailed study and observation of what works in our area of very geologically old soils with high rainfall. Basically what happens is that the few nutrients make it into our old, tired soil get washed away every winter. Think about what happens when you put fertiliser with a lot of nitrogen and phosphorous around a native plant. It dies, or gets very ill. It has evolved over millenia to survive on trace amounts of nutrients, and an overload sends it into shock. This is an indication of how very unsuitable our soils are to grow vegetables, which have been bred to require unnaturally large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, and all sorts of other mineral goodies.

I have two of Steve Solomon's books on my shelf - Gardening South of Australia, a self-published volume with very detailed instructions on how to grow just about every vegetable in our climate, and The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Foods, which is the most fiendishly difficult gardening book I have ever read. It contains maths and formulas and hard words. Aargh! But luckily the first half is pretty straightforward. It tells the story of Solomon and his family, happily attempting hippy back-to-the-land self-sufficiency in Oregon. Which they did. Hurrah! BUT then the family's health started to deteriorate. Solomon started losing teeth.. what could be wrong? They were eating a completely healthy organic diet, but not thriving. Then they moved to Fiji, and ate conventionally grown and treated food at the local markets, and their health improved immediately. What was going on? Solomon traced the solution to their new-found health and vitality to the local soils - volcanic, highly mineralised basalt. And on returning to Oregon and turning a critical eye to the composition of the soil there, realised how impoverished it was. No amount of home-made compost and organic mulches were going to solve this problem, only the regular addition of minerals to supplement and replace what was missing.

It was then that Solomon started to develop the Complete Organic Fertiliser that thousands of gardeners now use to supplement their naturally sad soil. Now, when you think of Tasmania you think of lush green pastures and glorious gardens bursting with roses and beautiful vegetables. And yes, this happens. Tasmanian soils are quite high in potassium, which make our plants green and lush, but unfortunately, also quite nutrient deficient. One of the most well-known nutrient deficiencies in Tasmanian soils is iodine. Many older Tasmanians who lived self-sufficient lives on little properties out in the forests, suffered from thyroid problems and goitres. Well, apparently iodine is just the beginning. Our poor old soils can do with a whole lot more help, which is where Solomon's formula for healthy soil comes in.

To be honest, I have never made up any Complete Organic Fertiliser, because some of its ingredients aren't actually available at the local garden centre, and that has been a step too far for me.. I generally add all the ingredients that I do have on hand and hope for the best (yes, I am very scientific) but now I know that David makes it up and sells it, I will certainly be using it.

David also introduced us to biochar. Tasmanian local Frank Strie has introduced it to Tasmanian gardeners and farmers as a way to improve soil structure and sequester carbon. It is a form of charcoal which has been burned in a particular way, which was too highly technical for me to grasp - however it can also be made very simply, with very simple equipment, almost anywhere, which makes it an amendment easily available to anyone who can grasp the technique (clearly that does not include me). It was originally used to improve the fertility of the nutritionally poor soils of the Amazon basin thousands of years ago, and the technique has been recently revived and popularised.

The greatest benefit of biochar to the home gardener is its porous structure, which simultaneously helps to retain water and water soluble nutrients, which is why it is particularly useful in an area of high rainfall, such as ours, when often the nutrients we add to our gardens leach away as fast as we can replace them. Biochar also appears to provide an ideal habitat for beneficial soil micro-organisms and increases nutrient availability to plants.

David did some small field trials using biochar in 2013/2014, and if you scroll down to the bottom of this newsletter you can see the results - the plants grown using a bio-char amendment were bigger, brighter and heavier than their control cousins.

For an excellent summary of all of the above, as well as some excellent links, here is David's 2013 newsletter where he discusses soil health.

Taking advantage of a temporary lull as we were all happily quaffing David's very nice home brew, Michelle showed us a jar of lemon curd she had made - except it wasn't lemon curd, but an excellent lemon cleaner and degreaser which she had whipped up in her Thermomix. The recipe is here, and Michelle uses it to clean her kitchen benches and add to a sink of soapy water to clean particularly greasy dishes. Apparently it is just as useful in the bathroom. I am determined to work out a version for those of us who somehow manage to exist without a Thermomix, and I will of course share how that goes.. although if any of you were to give it a go before I get around to it (highly likely) I would love to hear how you did it:)

Again, a marvellous way to spend a cold Winter's evening, with good friends, excellent conversation and new ideas...

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Green and Thrifty



This week I have crocheted a row of the perfect shade of brown around thirty-something granny squares, only one hundred and twenty-something to go. I am so excited about this rug. I am on track to actually finish a craft project. This is momentous!

In other green and thrifty news, Posy has been whining relentlessly about needing a belt, because the one she has had since she was six doesn't fit any more. Fair enough, and today I stepped into an op-shop for five minutes and found her a belt. Which was unused. Which fits her. And which she likes. Wall to wall miracles this week:)

But the big project this week was my own $21 challenge frugal grocery week, where I spent only $21 on milk and vegies, and for the rest 'shopped the pantry' (thanks to Lucinda for that great phrase!). Although I did spend $31 on my original shop, I have not been back to the shops:)

Eating from pantry supplies hasn't been all joyful flitting around in a flowered apron with bluebirds singing though. For some reason I decided to make kidney bean, carrot and cumin burgers. The children warned me this was a very bad idea, but I never listen to them, because they are always moaning about dinner.. but here is the thing. I have never, ever made an edible or delicious pattie/burger or any other food squashed together into a round shape and then fried. So I don't know why I thought I was onto a winner with the kidney beans.. on the bright side, the dog likes them..

Apart from that truly hideous mistake, we have eaten pretty normally - roast chicken, curry, chilli, left-over roast vegie frittata, chicken soup.. tonight the girls have whipped up sushi and rice paper vegie rolls for dinner. But, I have had to think slightly harder - it took me most of one afternoon to work out that I could substitute plain yoghurt for the coconut milk I usually tip in the curry, and I had to protect the roast chicken for two days to have enough left to make sushi. We ran out of dried fruit halfway through the week, and as they are our only sweet treats, we got a bit testy. Nothing sweet in the house!! I have been eating a lot of crisp, sweet fujis straight off the apple tree. Tomorrow we are having friends over to celebrate the Queen's Birthday Holiday, so sweet treats then, we will break out the sugar jar and make something nice:) Apart from that we also ran out of crackers, so I made popcorn for school lunches and sent cheese and vegie sticks along instead. And I ran out of my organic rooibos tea bags. Arrgh! I was forced to pull the loose rooibos out of the back of the cupboard and use a tea ball. However, rooibos is much finer than tea, so it leaks through the holes. I am going to go and spend some money in an actual shop this week and see if I can find a very fine strainer, because truthfully, loose leaf rooibos is much cheaper than the same product in cute little bags.

So, our challenge didn't kill anyone. Which is good. And the challenge to think creatively about food was no doubt good for me. Also we used up a packet of prunes which has been in the back of the cupboard since 2010! My next challenge is to keep within budget this week as I re-stock. Also, wheat free. The Girl and I both have some health issues that may respond to a gluten-free diet. Sigh. We will try it for six weeks and see how we go. My plan is not to use gluten-free flours and expensive products from the gluten-free aisle, just real food, gluten-free. Lots of veg!

Now, did you notice that Bek is upping the $21 challenge week, and going for a $21 challenge month? Pop over and see how she is doing:)

Tomorrow I am planning such a fun day. It is the Queen's Birthday holiday, and I have invited some friends over, with some girls to entertain my girls, and we are going to sit around, eat macaroons, and knit and crochet all afternoon. I am hoping to really polish off a whole bunch of those granny squares..

What has been green and thrifty about your week?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

April and May Accounting


I do not know what I was thinking, embarking on year-long project that has reporting requirements. Who did I think was going to do the reporting? I clearly do not know myself at all. BUT, better late than never (I really hope there is some truth to this adage because it is the one constant in my life).

Here is my account of what I have bought and acquired in the months of April and May (then I will be caught up until July, right?). If you are new here you may be wondering what I am up to - here is a recap:

Why not buy new? In a word, externalities. All of us, my darlings, who can access the intenet on an electronic device, are more or less the 1% of the world's population who benefit unfairly from the sweat, habitat destruction, pollution, ill health, exploitation and death of the 99% whose lives are degraded in some way so that we can have machines to wash our clothes and make our toast, and have access to cheap t-shirts and chocolate.

One day I woke up and the invisible wake of destruction that trails behind my trips to Target suddenly became unbearable, so I have started on a different path to providing for my needs and wants, and those of my lovely children, dog, two cats and two budgies.

Here are my guidelines:

1 Make do with what I have.
2 Try to find what I need second hand - there is a world of stuff out there that needs to be rescued and used again.
3 Buy from a local craftsperson.
4 As a last resort, buy from a local, independent store, so that at least my money stays in my community.. 

How I fared in April and May:

Bought new: Three hot water bottles. Here is an example of impulse buying. I was in the hardware store looking for preserving jar lids because I had run out. They didn't have any in the size I wanted, but right next to them were a stack of adorable Easter-egg pastel coloured hot water bottles (why next to the preserving gear? I can only imagine I was in the designated nana aisle). It was nearly Easter. I wanted to Easter gifts for the girls that were not all about chocolate. So I succumbed, and yes, the hot water bottles are being well-used, but afterwards I realised that home made wheat bags heated in the microwave would have been a much more sustainable choice than rubber, which relies heavily on slave labour in developing countries, replacing food plants as a cash crop. Plus, I boil the kettle for hot water bottles, more electricity. Anyways, in five years' time when these wear out, wheat bags it is.

Various kitchen goodies from the kitchen shop in town, and gifts from the Oxfam shop. Two family members had birthdays, and you know, even though they have birthdays on the same day every year, it was still a surprise. What I bought was sturdy and practical and gorgeous, and mostly not even made in China, but it brought home to me that important thing about how to avoid buying new stuff. Forward planning. Yes, not my forte. 

A hockey skirt for Rosy. One of those unavoidable child-related purchases. Well, avoidable if your child doesn't happen to play hockey, I suppose. 

Tights and socks - after my Ethical Underwear post I ordered the world's most expensive sport socks from my local outdoor goods shop. They were Australian-made cotton and wool Humphrey Laws socks - the most wonderfully comfortable socks in the world. I bought one pair for each of us, and have to pry them off Posy to wash them, she loves them so much. But $17.95 each. Yikes. Still, my hope is they will last a long, long time, as wool socks tend to. Will do a product review in two years' time:) Rosy also needed more grey tights for school. It is very difficult to find a pair of ethically produced grey tights.. eventually I gave up on-line and went to the independent school uniform shop in town, where I was able to buy.. New Zealand-made grey school tights. Happy days:)

Now that Rosy's feet have finally stopped growing (I hope) I bought her a pair of Aussie ugg boots from a shop in town for her birthday. I also bought Rosy two pairs of jeans and a pair of boots from a well-known franchised high street shop in town. What can I say. While she is on board with the whole second-hand thing and has gamely accompanied me to op-shops and second-hand clothes markets this year, sometimes a teenager really just wants some new jeans and boots. This is perfectly ok of course, and I have no wish to impose my project on the children beyond the line at which they want to participate.

Wool - after much deliberation, my friend Jane and I chose the perfect skein of natural New Zealand sheep's wool to crochet all the squares together for my afghan rug project. Yes, it is done, all 160 squares of it, and now my next task is to crochet around each square in the perfect shade of brown, then sew it all together. The only problem was, it wasn't the perfect shade of brown, so we had to go back the next week and swap it. So now it is the perfect shade of brown, and I have crocheted around 26 squares already, many to go. But, the really great news is I visited the little wool shop in town for the first time ever. Usually I go to Spotlight, which is an abomination of a store. Why did I ever go there? Our local yarn shop is adorable, run by a knitting expert, with yarns to die for, and now I'm really inspired to knit socks with merino and possum wool. You can even buy locally knitted socks there - apparently the shop owner has a team of knitters ("mainly stressed executives") who whip up hand-knitted garments to sell. Now there is a truly local sock.

Bought second-hand: um, nothing? I haven't been inside a second hand shop for two months. This is good, because otherwise no doubt I would have bought several more darling jugs, because you can never have too many jugs, right? BUT, I could have done some second-hand birthday shopping if I had been more organised. I will definitely schedule some op-shop visits this month, as I need to organise, well, Christmas..

Gifts from the Universe: After reading my Ethical Undies post in which I mentioned that I don't buy second hand tights and socks, but do give and receive them among friends, my friend Katherine brought me a bag of black tights! She is such a sweetie. Her daughter's school uniform has changed this year, so the black tights are now redundant for her, but perfect for me. I wear black tights to work every day under dresses and skirts with my lovely warm long boots. Winter footwear - thick hiking socks over tights inside long boots = toasty warm feet even in a frosty school playground. This is excellent as my old tights were starting to fall down due to overuse. I was hunting for new ones on-line when Katherine brought me a bag full:)

Returned to the Universe With Thanks: A pile of Rosy's redundant ballet uniform to a friend. Sundry kitchen gear to The Man who is setting up an apartment in a new city. I also asked The Man to take the big flat screen TV away with him, as no-one here except Posy really watches TV much, and I had a hunch she would watch less if the TV experience wasn't quite so exciting. So The Man moved the small TV out of the bedroom into the living room for me, because you know, technology and unplugging things and plugging them back in again etc. I am particularly pleased about this, because I never watched the TV in the bedroom anyway, and it is tiny, and must surely be using less than half the electricity of the big one. Posy does indeed watch very much less telly, but that is possibly because The Man also gave her his old phone, minus the phone function, and she has discovered You Tube. Oh, the funny cats.

Reflections: Most of the real positives of these past two months have been the ways in which I am becoming more comfortable thinking outside the big-box store. One day I invited my friend Jane to come into town with me on errand day, because we both hate doing errands, and if we chat constantly we forget how tedious it is to stand in line at the bank. Anyway, we have been exploring little independent shops, such as the wool shop, and it is so much fun exploring town together instead of rushing straight to Target, which is surely the world's most boring shopping experience.

Plus, buying my way out of a problem has become less of an impulse. I had a day's notice to provide a white shirt for Posy for her flute ensemble performance (you know, as happens with children's announcements). Posy's suggestion was, "We could just go and buy a cheap shirt at Kmart." My response was to phone a friend, then another one until I found a shirt to borrow for the day. I am very proud of myself:)




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