The Longest Winter

snow piJust when daffodils seemed to promise winter was over, along came the snow. I was in Italy on business when it came and for a while I was unsure if I would be able to get home. The snow was bad enough to see sleepy little Sidmouth cut off, and staff unable to get to work, so my fashion boutique did not open. Roads were unusable and in the end, we all just had to give in and have snow days. Adults became children once again with sledging and snowball fights, and I made it home just before it was too late to make an icy snowman in the communal garden at my Exeter flat. A group of people made an igloo in Belmont Park. The blue white of fresh snow and skies blanketed in thick snow clouds made for beautiful vistas, but it was also a critical time for flora and fauna. Disastrous even. Friends told me when the snow melted they found several dead frogs in their garden.

Before I left for Italy, my small courtyard garden at the rear of my flat in Exeter had a robin nesting in thick ivy that covers my garden wall. When I returned, several inches of snow had covered the nest site and I fear her eggs were lost. She’s been out collecting nesting materials again since; although the cold has played havoc with my fashion trade, with spring flowers and frogspawn, we all just have to start again, like that wee robin. It means I’ve been busy working to promote business, taking clients overseas to help them with importing and not spending time at Pi Acres at all. I’m desperate to be there, but Spring will eventually come, and so too the weather than means we can achieve some of our plans for Pi Acres.

Last time we visited, we started tidying the land – clearing old corrugated iron sheets, picking up rubbish and have started the process of removing vast amounts of barbed wire. The previous owners had kept horses a long time ago, so the boundaries around the first third of the land used to be fenced. Most of the fences are now down, so the barbed wire is mostly just a trip hazard, and needs to go. A lovely man called John who lives just up the road is going to bring his tractor down and remove all the brambles and mow the tangled weeds back to what will look like meadow soon, but we have to remove the rest of the barbed wire first. It will be great to see the space properly once it’s been mowed. Of course, as soon as lime green shoots appear on the trees, so too will the weeds and the brambles return, and our job this summer will be to just keep removing it until we have a real meadow again. We are adopting a philosophy of cutting back, and then seeing what reappears. Then, and only then deciding what should stay and what should go – I’m more than happy to let nature do half the landscaping! It means it’s near on impossible to draw up plans because the land will lend itself only to what works, and that might be different to what I have in mind! Some areas are so wet and boggy, I may dig two or three smaller ponds rather than have one big one down the far end like I had first envisaged.

But ponds and orchards will have to wait as there’s not much more we are going to do to the land this year other than try to establish the meadow and create living hedgerow boundaries by replanting the saplings that have sprung up where we don’t want them, and winding in coppiced branches. There are lots of overhanging trees and dead branches leaning over from the DWT bridle pathway which will have to quite brutally be cut back to allow light on the new meadow space and allow the grass and meadow flowers to grow. The lovely people at Devon Wildlife Trust may even come and help us with that. Everyone seems keen to see us restore the land to a thing of beauty, and shares our enthusiasm to re-establish the meadow, dig ponds and plant fruit trees. I’ve been blown away by how supportive and lovely our new neighbours at Pi Acres are; it’s in stark contrast to joyless city folk we share space with here in Exeter. The level of peace I feel just being at Pi Acres means we’ve started plotting a way to move nearer the land so that we can spend more time there. I’ve worked out that if I rent my flat out, the revenue would not only pay the mortgage and bills on the flat, but pay for the rent on a cottage near Pi Acres. But that can’t happen yet – it probably won’t happen until next year, when my son has gone to university and I have sold my business. This summer, we will camp occasionally on the land, but I’m a fair weather camper, and not hardy enough to go without a flushing toilet and hot running water for more than one or two nights.

It takes an hour to get to Pi Acres from Exeter, and try as I might, finding time to get there for a couple of hours here and there isn’t possible. But as soon as it’s warm enough to spend whole days outside, we will be there alternating between working our butts off to make it lovely and lazing about on picnic blankets and enjoying it; hopefully finding the rest balance between work and play.

I have always tried to do the right thing, whether that’s by people, by the planet or by animals. I have a large conscience that keeps me from telling lies, or stealing, or being mean. I believe you reap what you sew. I believe in karma, so to this end, I have been dutifully carrying my travel shopping bag in my handbag (to avoid buying plastic bags), and before becoming a vegan, I always bought free-range eggs (happy eggs I called them), and I tried to buy free-range organic veg and meat. I opposed fox hunting and I refused to wear fur. I did my bit…or so I thought.

Last summer my son read a book called ‘How not to Die’ by Michael Greger and then followed me around reading excerpts that bestowed all the many health benefits of a plant based diet. I was a vegetarian for many years in my youth, so when he said a vegan diet could help me sidestep the hereditary pre-disposition I may have for early onset Alzheimers, I decided to give it a go. So many of our modern diseases are because of our diet, so it made sense to start changing things and avoid some of those as I hurtle towards old age. I joined Exeter Vegans and Vegetarians on Facebook, and as I was no longer wracked by guilt that I was part of the meat industry, I finally felt able to open my eyes and see what was really involved in order for us to eat meat.

I know many of you just don’t want to know what really happens  – it’s so much easier to enjoy a medium rare steak if you don’t think about the process that led to that piece of meat being on your plate. Perhaps you’re at the stage of your journey where you think organic free-range meat is kinder? I’m not going to argue all the points right here and right now, other than to encourage you – when you’re ready, to open your eyes. To read about what happens in slaughter houses, and even in the organic milk industry – did you know there’s actual machinery called ‘rape machines’ to impregnate cows so they produce milk. Did you also know, that even in free-range organic chicken farms, the male chicks are macerated live at a day old. They are trundled down a conveyor belt and scooped into a macerator and the RSPCA consider this a humane way to kill them as it’s quick. The mulched up dead chicks are then turned into food for other livestock. There’s no such thing as a happy egg there. Once you start looking – watching the videos and knowing exactly what goes on, I can only say you would have to be a sociopath or starving to continue eating meat or dairy once you know the truth. There’s simply no need to eat meat when we can get a full balanced diet that our bodies will be much healthier on. And the planet will love you for it too – did you know you need 5 times as many acres to feed a meat eater than a vegan and eating meat uses 219,000 gallons per year per person MORE than a vegan. It’s environmentally disastrous for our planet how much meat we feel we need to eat. And that’s aside from the practices that would shock you if you only knew.

The idea that I was supporting such barbaric practices with the food I was eating meant the more educated I became, the easier it was to be vegan. There’s so many vegan options out there now and it’s delicious food. But then I discovered I wasn’t vegan at all, because it isn’t just about what you eat. It’s also about what you wear, what you put on your skin, and what you do that exploits animals. It’s like the rabbit hole of conscientious living just got a whole lot deeper, and weirder and harder.

I run a fashion company and import clothing from Italy and France, so now that I am several months into eating a vegan diet and buying only cruelty free products, I thought: ‘I know! I’ll make my boutique vegan’. Except it’s not that easy – animal cruelty is endemic in my industry. I have stopped buying leather handbags and mohair jumpers (I never bought fur), but scratch the surface and to my horror, I now know that the vast majority of garments have been dyed with products tested on animals.

I thought perhaps I will start stocking PETA approved vegan clothing and bags. They may well contain no animal products, but when I asked for provenance of the dyes and whether they are tested on animals, only one company out of several could provide this. Surely to get vegan approved status from PETA would mean they check everything, but this seems to have been overlooked. I could get my factories right now to produce a viscose garment (did you know viscose is a 100% natural plant based fabric – mostly bamboo as it grows so quickly) and get vegan approval from PETA knowing full well the dyes are tested on animals… they don’t seem to check the dyes at all other than looking at the ingredients. That vegan ready-meal that Tesco’s have produced? The dyes on the packaging may well not be vegan. Let’s see the provenance if you claim something is vegan! We need more transparency – and in this age of social media it’s there if you want to know the truth. Google KFC chicken farm abuse and you’ll never eat KFC again. Google what happens to male chicks, google the impact meat eating has on the planet and you’ll soon fall down the same rabbit hole I did.

It’s a journey made harder by industries fooling us into thinking the products we buy are cruelty free, but I’m not going to stop trying. I’m on a journey and whilst I plan to be fully vegan in all areas of my life, I currently still wear my beloved leather DMs because the damage was done when I bought them and I can’t change that now. I won’t stop trying to source vegan products for my fashion boutique, and I will campaign for more transparency with dyes (forgive the pun). I won’t stop trying to live a life of greater integrity because it matters. It matters more than ever now – have you seen what’s going on in the world?

Until recently, my vegan journey has felt like a separate issue to the eco-project at Pi Acres but they are linked. Everything is linked and the rabbit hole I seem to have fallen down now extends to how I work the land with the least amount of cruelty to animals and the lowest impact on the planet. I want to remove vast areas of brambles and restore the meadow, but I’ve been told no matter how many times you pull it up, brambles will return unless you use weed-killers. I’d like to run around on the grass barefoot this summer – but will I have to use week-killers to enable that? That just doesn’t sit right with me at all. There’s ‘spot on’ weed-killers so that I can literally just target the thorny brambles and nothing else, but it would be naïve to think those deadly chemicals will not damage the surroundings in some way.

Pi Acres is entirely off grid so I’ve bought petrol mowers and strimmers and chain saws, ready to clear and tame but even that comes at a cost. Petrol isn’t environmentally kind is it? How far does one go? You can’t harvest or mow anything without there being a cost to life, but that doesn’t mean I will not consider the implications of every solution we find to tame the land. If a tree gets felled, the wood will be used to make something – perhaps it will become benches around a campfire? There’s a flow of water whenever it rains that comes down the hill, across the DWT nature reserve car park and under my gate. It needs channelling in some kind of gully towards the river so that the land isn’t entirely bog, so we have to investigate what materials I can use that are eco-friendly and of course consider the environmental impact of what I use – how far will I have to ship it from? Is clay piping better than concrete? I’d like to get some hardcore delivered to the entrance inside the gate so that we can park on our land and not use any of the spaces dog walkers use next to Halsdon Nature Reserve, but it will take a while for grass to grow over this and might look ugly for a while. Will people think I’m not being green if they see piles of old bricks being delivered and dumped inside our gate? There’s so very much to consider, and the rabbit hole of conscientious living seems so much, I almost want to warn you of the dangers, but instead I’m going to encourage you to jump in here with me. Even if you only give up meat twice a week, or decide not to use slug pellets in your garden, it all helps and like I said about Karma – for every good thing you do, there will be a reward, even if it’s only a peaceful smugness that you’re moving in the right direction. Every small step is good even if you fall down in other areas. I’m telling myself that too, because I might end up using weed-killer on those pesky brambles.

frost pi 2

Why Pi?

The journey begins…

land1Because I just bought 3.14 acres of land. That’s Pi that is.

I’d been looking at buying woodland, and had even gotten into a bidding war last summer on woodland near Exeter, Devon. My bid didn’t win, but just a couple of months later, I found my Pi nestled between Halsdon Nature Reserve and Dolton Village in mid Devon. It’s a long skinny stretch of land that runs along the edge of a stream that joins the River Torridge and a Devon Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve.

Halsdon Nature Reserve is made up of over 57 hectares of stunning woodland and countryside and is home to a vast array of wildlife including otters and kingfishers. At the moment the forest is covered in snowdrops, and just like my wee slice of Pi will soon give way to wild daffodils and then before you know it, my favourite: bluebells. I am hoping that by the time the forest floor is carpeted with purple hues that I will have tamed my overgrown slither of land and made it a place to be. To just Be.

I realised about 18 months ago that I had become a slave to the system and had somehow been ensnared into the belief that I had to grow my business and pay VAT and corporation tax and set up pension funds for my employees and pay National Insurance and income tax and bills, so many bills and for what? To secure my future. But then shortly after moving into my property refurbishment nightmare, I injured my back. I couldn’t move, couldn’t leave my new flat, and couldn’t function properly at all, even after my back improved. Whether it was fatigue, stress burnout, (or as a member of my staff said: ‘I’d clearly had a nervous  breakdown’) I realised I couldn’t carry on the way I had been going.

The stress of divorcing a sociopath, (I’ve written a novel about that so no need to elaborate further), moving house twice within a few months, dealing with a rogue builder, acting as a witness in court against my alcoholic insomniac neighbour in a case against him breaching his ASBO, running a business growing so fast I had to run to keep up with it, at the same time as dealing with a teenage son, a breast cancer scare and attempting to date in a hook up culture I didn’t belong in all took it’s toll. I had reached a point of giving up. I have no real family (apart from my son of course) so there were times the loneliness was crippling; especially when it seemed like everything was going wrong. I took to hiding beneath my duvet and facing only the urgent tasks. I delegated everything I possibly could at work and gave in to it. Gave up. But there’s something very beautiful about giving up; about surrender. Erkhart Tolle says that suffering is only necessary to discover it isn’t necessary (or words to that effect) and there was an element of that in my burnout/breakdown/sleepfest. It was in my surrender I found acceptance not just of the hell I was living in, but in a deep knowing that the darkest hour is just before dawn. That all of this would pass, and I just had to get through it.

I also realised many of my problems were of my own doing; if you can’t handle the stress of collapsed drains and rogue builders, you shouldn’t be a property developer. Even though I now live in a beautiful flat that’s doubled in value with the work I’ve done, I will never take on a property development project like that again that’s for sure. And if you can’t handle the stress of being a Managing Director, you should do something else. So last year I put my fashion business up for sale and very quickly had a buyer ( I actually had two, but I chose the local couple who wanted to be more hands-on than the other buyer) and that was when I started looking for land to buy. The buyers I chose seemed to be decent people (he was a semi-retired Christian minister and she was an ex head-teacher with a grown up daughter who had studied fashion). There were delays to completing on the sale of the business because the solicitor acting for my landlord took months to release a draft lease, but the buyers feigned a continued commitment long enough to run up thousands of pounds worth of legal fees (made considerably higher by them challenging things like buying new carpets at the warehouse should they destroy them while in their care) only to drop out after eight months. Long enough for me to believe I’d sold my business. Long enough to find the land and plan the dream project.

Despite the immoral way they handled backing out of our deal (they had their solicitor drop a one line email to my solicitor), I couldn’t let the opportunity to buy the land slip away, so I took out a loan and bought it anyway. I’m now so utterly broke, I can’t afford to pay anyone to do anything on my land, but it hardly matters now because I feel victorious in making the leap. Of doing it anyway.

I found the land just before I found Paul. His arrival into my life felt like an alignment of the planets; perhaps even a celestial reward for being so good. You see I’ve been very good for so very long, even when things kept going wrong. I kept my integrity, and despite all the challenges (some I still face daily) was brave enough to be authentic. So now it feels like it’s time for things to start going right for me. Karmic balance if you will.

Finding land was not all joyful; I was surprised to discover it was laced with sadness when I thought I would have to make my dream project come to life on my own. I’d always imagined skipping through the meadow hand in hand with the one I love while the sepia tones of summer evenings made everything look hazy and warm and stress free.

Paul came along just a few days after I found Pi acres (I’m wondering whether to call it that?) and it feels as though my soul must have cried out to him ‘Oi, divvy where are you? I’ve found the land so you need to get here quick!’. There’s a saying ‘Build it and They Will Come’… I think I did a version of this in that I bought it and he along he came. So now, instead of the project seeming so daunting it keeps me awake, I’m excited about our working the land together. You see, it’s his dream too. Long before he met me, he was dreaming about a project like this one, in a place like this. I’m his answered prayer as much as he is mine.

I’m inviting you to join us on this adventure, and as I write, I will share all our plans and drawings and keep you updated on my quest to lead a life of integrity. It’s not easy in our brainwashed Western culture; we are addicted to our phones, to soap operas, to booze, to believing material gain is the route to happiness. We have been fooled by industries that keep us sick so we buy their pharmaceuticals, by governments who encourage debt, by barbaric murderers feeding us sentient beings and normalising hunting and war. We have been desensitised by the horror and gore on our screens everyday and forgotten how important it is to just stop. To be present. To connect with nature; with each other. To feed our souls and not just our bellies and our addictions and our anger with each other. We are kept so busy we don’t have time to consider the consequences of our choices. We choose convenience over integrity, tastebuds over honouring our fellow creatures and bury our heads in the sand when it’s clear that the entire planet is run by narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths.

But I will try to not to rant too much about the state of the planet or rue the day I moved into a city, but instead focus on the dream; on positive mental attitudes. On being present. On being happy because I have really started to think you manifest good things with the power of positivity. Negative thought seems to attract negative things, so it’s time to stop worrying and start creating. I hope my documenting this journey will inspire you to chase your dreams. To believe. To make things happen. To do what’s right even when the world tells you otherwise.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton