May is by far my favourite month of the year, not least because all the blossom is out and the birds are nesting but also because my birthday falls in May. I love the lushness of dappled sunlight filtering through bright lime green leaves and birds chorusing while the brook babbles at Pi Acres. It’s the best time of year here in particular; bluebells and wild garlic scatter the forest floor and it’s before the midges come. I’m like a toddler stopping every few feet everywhere I go at the moment to examine a flower. The photo library on my phone is full to heaving of pictures of flowers and trees heavy with blossom. When you stop and look closely, and I mean really closely, it’s quite astonishing how exquisite even the tiniest curb-side weed is. Stop and look and see how exotic the flowers on a sweet chestnut tree really are, or how utterly perfect dandelion seeds are.
It’s this time of year I feel most inspired to take on a new special interest. The year I bought Pi Acres I was tree obsessed and barely looked down from looking up all summer such was my fixation. In case it isn’t rather obvious, this May it seems to be flowers. I’m learning all the time what plants are and also what they can do for us. I recently discovered that Himalayan Balsam Wood is edible!
The flowers are edible, but also the seeds which when toasted taste like hazelnuts apparently. Before the seed pods hit bursting stage (when they are still green) they can be harvested and cooked like mange-tout and are delicious in a curry – or so I’ve read. I also read wild garlic leaves make a great pesto, but to be honest without the capers, chilli and olives added to my foraged leaf pesto, it was very bland indeed. Still, it feels good to eat the plants from where we stand, as if I am somehow ingesting the land directly beneath my feet and it then connects me more strongly to it. If I’m not careful, I’ll start thinking I need to poop in the woods to help plant seeds! I’m foraging and growing more and more, choosing my planting according to what is useful as well as pretty.
I love a good cruelty free food experiment so any balsam left after our ‘Balsam Bash’ in July will be harvested. I’m organising a mass weeding of it to try to largely eradicate it and help restore the ancient woodland flora but we are unlikely to get it all. I might allow a small patch (as far away from the river as possible) to get to bursting stage and then harvest the seeds very carefully. You have to place a bag over the seed pod as the slightest touch will see it explode its seeds in quite spectacular fashion. I’m sure it’s why it’s spread so prolifically along the stream to River Torridge and I wish it wasn’t such an invasive bully because it’s so pretty.
The bees love it – so we are leaving the pull up until they’ve had a feasting and then we will swoop in on July 13th and remove it by hand – pop it in your diary and come and help! It pulls up satisfyingly easily with a just a little tug and seems to kiss the ground as it unplugs. No chemical weedkillers at Pi Acres, just graft. I’m looking forward to plucking this feisty yet pretty plant out the ground. Last year I tried drying the stalks to make bee hotels but they just went soggy. This year, I’m going to try drying them in the trees and see if that helps the hollow stalks go rigid. It will look so weird, I may go all out and do a Balsam wood art installation while they dry. We shall see – I have so many great plans and never seem to have the time to implement them all. We are growing veg this season (new raised beds in our secret garden here in Exeter). It’s another tie to the city, and the air isn’t as clean as Pi Acres, but if we want to practice self sustainability, it makes sense to do that where we live and not even try it at Pi Acres. We are simply not there enough.
For my 50th birthday celebrations, I decided not to people. Instead, Paul and I went on a camping trip in parts of Devon we hadn’t explored yet in our new caravan. We found wild rugged beaches and secluded forests. We had campfires, played the guitar and sang. Like the sweet chestnuts pregnant with exotic blooms, I also blossomed. I belong in places like this.
We found ourselves at an incredible wild campsite set in 60 acres of woodland in Rattery, Devon. The owners of Ashbourne Woods planted the entire forest themselves back in the nineties. It’s now a mix of fir and broadleaf that has matured into a well established eco-system full of wildlife. It was like being in the middle of nowhere and off grid, yet a short walk and there were hot showers, loos, a washing machine, a kitchen area with fridge freezers and a kettle.
The more time I spend with nature, with plants and away from people, the more equanimity I achieve. I’ve been getting into the habit of starting my day with yoga and some mindfulness recently and it really helps with city living, but ultimately I don’t want to live in a city anymore. We want to live where our conservation projects are, and after two years of trying to move to Dolton (or near Dolton), we are starting to wonder if this pretty part of England is where we are meant to be. The rest of Devon, the whole of Cornwall and Pembrokeshire are all places I would love to be. France is still an option. We are no longer tied here now Oliver has left home and we are free to go wherever we want. So how comes we are still here, trapped with DIY lists of what we need to achieve in order to leave? The bathroom isn’t finished. We need a shed. There’s decorating to do before we can rent out or sell this place and be free to move onto the next thing. But the boiler is tricky and there’s rising damp that needs sorting. It seems the more I strive to simplify my life, the more complex it needs to be first to get there.
I am fortunate enough to have an amazing manageress who runs my business, so we may yet disappear for the summer to play in someone else’s woods now we have the caravan. Because we can’t currently spend more than 28 days camping at Pi Acres (and that includes occasions we let other people wild camp), and because it’s entirely off grid (I’m a bit of a princess and have irrational compost loo fears that my autistic brain refuses to let go), we’ve found some amazing wild places with proper showers and loos but still off the beaten track and wild. It makes touring so much more appealing than fretting about neighbours or dog-walkers who probably don’t like seeing a caravan wherever we plonk it for our stays at Pi Acres. I get that caravans aren’t pretty – but ironically, if I painted silver birch trees all over it and worked my Shelley magic, there would be campsites that would refuse us entry because of how our caravan looks. We are still thinking about our planning application to make Pi Acres into an outdoor education centre, but without somewhere to live very close by, it seems less and less feasible. I’ve considered asking permission to stay longer in our caravan over Summers to be onsite to do our conservation work, and also thought about asking to build an eco house and live on the land, but I just don’t think it’s just the right place for what we want to do – not when there are so many other options. So many amazing things we could do. An overwhelming possibility of options if you strip it down to what really matters.
What does really matter? I’ve been considering this while also learning what flourishes where in the plant world. My city courtyard garden is blooming; everything is either fat with flowers or about to burst open – all except one plant that withered and died.
I’ve now moved the dying plant to a sunnier place in it’s own pot now and it’s beginning to recover but it got me thinking. So far in my life, I have felt a lot like that that withering plant, trying to flourish in a world in which I do not fit. When a plant does not grow, you look to the conditions you placed it in. Not for a second would you think the plant is to blame. You wouldn’t expect it to ‘try harder’ (as so many of my school reports said in secondary school) or to grow in an environment that is hostile to it. You’d change its environment. And that’s how it is with me. I wither in cities and thrive in nature. The problem with being autistic is not being autistic at all – it’s the world in which we live that’s the problem. We need a different environment to the one we are being offered. But let’s be honest here, no-one thrives in this set up really – it’s just that autists feel it more painfully than most. Neuro-typicals have a way of compartmentalising the misery of being enslaved in this capitalist, fascist state that has somehow managed to trick over half the nation into voting for rich elite and believing joy can be found in the latest iPhone. The world needs to become more autistic to help save it from the demise we are heading to. It’s time to get back to nature and each other and stop squabbling like children. It’s time to say it like it is and stop pussy footing around with niceties. We were never meant to live this way. Animals were never meant to live (and die) this way. I feel the grief of it all like losing family to Alzheimers. The connection is gone yet the person remains. If people would only just stop and smell the flowers – literally. Just. Stop. There’s something about connecting with nature that changes you. It creates gratitude, and as Thay (a wise Buddhist monk guy with all the answers if only the world would listen to him) would say, people are ignoring the destruction of the planet because they are not connected to it anymore. Happiness is not consumerism. He says only love can change the world and he’s right. Love is kindness, joy, gratitude and equanimity, and if we all practiced it the world would not be in this mess. Our needs would be met through serving others. It’s so simple. Self serving, selfie taking, selfish goals don’t work – not individually and certainly not globally.
I need my environment to be a certain way for me to thrive. It needs to have birdsong and peace. It needs to be away from people. When I have a routine, like starting my day with yoga and I eat good food at sensible times and get outside, I’m so much more together, sorted and happy. When you strip away what really matters, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. It’s ridiculously simple.
Just stopping and considering what matters is in itself an act of joy. Unless you are utterly brainwashed and still believe joy can be found in material possessions or slimmer thighs, you will know that being outside in the spring sunshine, closing your eyes, listening to birdsong and shallowing your breath is a joyful way to commune with nature. And you don’t necessarily need to be in the countryside – even in my city courtyard garden, bursting flowerbeds and chattering starlings speak straight into my soul. We discovered a firecrest nesting in the cabin garden up the road and every time one of the firecrest parents visited the nest, the sound of the squeaks the chicks made my heart want to explode with joy.
I’m continuing my quest to lower my carbon footprint and it’s shocking how easy it is to forget and just buy a plastic toothbrush. Veganism and conscientious living doesn’t just stop with diet and plastic though, it’s a constant questioning of what matters – down to who you bank with, how much packaging is on your food, whether your bought compost contains peat along with all the obvious stuff like not eating meat. For me, it’s reached a stage of also being careful who I spend time with, what I watch on TV, and who I can have in earshot. I am so much happier now I can’t hear the simpering tones of Step-Heavy upstairs. We went to look at another house in Dolton last week, but when I heard the neighbours’ chatting in the next garden I knew I couldn’t live there. I’d be fantasising about shouting out the window that meat was murder when they had a barbeque or something equally as unwelcome to those who think they’re having far too much of a lovely time to questions their actions. They’ve found their version of joy through cream leather sofas, stone washed jeans and a good Chablis. Except it’s not joy, it’s a dead cuttlefish in a budgie birdcage. It’s not freedom. It’s not even pretending to be.
We finished my 50th birthday adventure )which included zip wires, my son visiting, pottery classes and beach trips) at Pi Acres. People came. People who have woken up. These are people I can be around. We all need to find our tribe, even autistic introverts who talk too much like me.