Being Literal

march13
Water levels quite high at Pi Acres when we last made it there..

Being literal, as most Autistic people are, I mean what I say, and I (foolishly it would seem) expect people to mean what they say back to me. So, when a builder says that something isn’t a problem and will be done in a certain time frame, (given no extenuating circumstances of course), I have a tendency to believe him. When a mortgage advisor (who has taken exams and is strictly monitored by Ombudsmen) works out all the sums based on my earnings and equity and then tells me that I can afford the teeny tiny house down the road, I am likely to believe him. And when a seemingly lovely couple offer to help us refurbish our horse-box lorry at a cut price deal because we are their guinea pigs on their first conversion, being lovely people ourselves, we are prone to believe that people do good deeds. Like we do. We are good deed people.

However, to my utter dismay, I keep discovering that many people aren’t good deed people, and they just don’t do what they say they will. Either they never intended to, or they are so incompetent that they mess up and expect the customer to pay, which given my heightened sense of justice (another Autistic trait), doesn’t work for me. So, as you may well have guessed, I have been entrenched in a few battles to get what I am paying for and it’s been tough few weeks. Thankfully with the builder, I have a full  paper trail of what was agreed, and have photographed, videoed and even catalogued what an utter bodge job these guys did and then demanded more money to continue when it went way over time. They broke a water pipe and refused to fix it unless I paid another £1000 instalment (they actually asked for payment in full and were most aggressive when I refused). They tried blackmailing the money out of me by threatening to walk, but my gut instinct told me that if I paid them a penny more, they would walk anyway. It’s what a rogue builder did to me a couple of years ago, (followed by legal battles that went on for two years) so I was unlikely to make that mistake again. So the builder walked – or got sacked depending on how you look at it after six painful days of us tolerating an incompetent labourer who freely admitted he was hired for our job at the last minute and didn’t have a clue what he was doing.

We’d gone with the cheapest quote because of the mortgage advisor making a right royal mess of my mortgage. The plan was always to do an equity release on my flat and end up with enough money to buy our dream home in the countryside later this year. However, mortgage man Richard was out on his sums by £106,000 and it wasn’t discovered until AFTER we had exchanged contracts. That’s a lot of money! For a few hairy scary days, it looked like we were going to default on the purchase and potentially lose £23,500 which was the 10% deposit. Thankfully buying the teeny tiny house down the road didn’t use up my full borrowing potential and so after frantically trying to find solutions and having to agree in writing that I was happy to continue working until I am 73 years old, the funding was somehow bungled together. BUT. There’s now no equity to put forward to the next house and our new mortgage payments are £300 a month dearer, so we might not be able to help Oliver like we planned. To say the whole thing has been a farce is an understatement, and the cause and effect of this has been doubly stressful as I no longer have the money to consolidate my debts and pay a builder to fix everything. My credit rating is excellent thankfully, so I’ve just borrowed more money as part of the solution. It makes me feel really quite sick with anxiety and I have never liked debt. I firmly believe this is how they enslave you; borrow money and then work yourself into an early grave to pay it off. Obviously I have no intention of working until I am 73, and plan to be debt free with a source of income inside the next few years, but as I approach 50, I can’t help looking at where I am at and how I got here, and despite the rat-race nightmares of hiring builders and being misadvised by financial ‘experts’, I’m pretty darn chuffed at where I am.

It would have been wonderful to have the finances to pay professionals to do everything, but instead we have been forced into refurbishing much of the house ourselves. Apart from the fact that my bones are seizing up and I’ve discovered muscles I didn’t know I had by doing so much hard graft, it’s been quite amazing to do this project together with Paul.

march2
Creating chaos and enjoying it!

It’s felt like we are young honeymooners doing up our first home together. It’s a complete do-over, only this time we are both with the partners we are supposed to be with. The difference is astonishing, and it makes me want to run around telling couples who are miserable that it doesn’t have to be that way. I look around and see so many people settling for less because they are too busy focussing on goals that don’t matter, and forgetting all about joy. Our main goal should be to find joy in everyday things. And silver linings from stormy horizons. I’m learning that mistakes are also gifts. Would I have bought a light fitting from the charity shop for a pound if I had the money to buy everything new? Would it have felt like such a hidden treasure had it not been so welcome? We couldn’t afford a new kitchen, so I painted the old one and have transformed it. I think it’s better than a new kitchen! Why have I always moved house and put a new kitchen in? I’ve had to break this conditioned notion that new is best. It isn’t! Upcycling and mending what we already have should be our priority if we want to save the planet. I am always going to try and source what I need second hand from now on and only buy something brand new when I really can’t find a greener option. If I have to buy new, I’m also going to try and buy local and support a local trade. 

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We jiggled the sink unit and plate rack round and hey presto! What magic can be achieved with a lick of paint and a bit of vinyl.

Dare I say it (and do I mean it?) but I think I’m looking forward to entering my sixth decade of living and can look at my life and be pleased with where I am at. It has sod all to do with money or equity or property or any measure of success by Western standards, but more to do with who I am, and who I have become.march6.jpg I like the me I have matured into, and the self loathing I had grown accustomed to living with has shrunk into the background like a bad dream.  I am starting to see myself the way that Paul sees me, and to acknowledge that whilst I am disadvantaged in many areas of life because my brain is not typical, I am also very gifted, creative, articulate and so capable in some areas, I can be like Wonder Woman. Fierce and brilliant. And strangely unpopular despite my kind heart. Why is it that society shuns people like me? Is it because I don’t know how to schmooze at parties? Being literal and honest can made for very cringeworthy interactions and I know I sometimes make people feel uncomfortable. It’s not my aim, but I can’t help point out things that are wrong or make no sense. It’s like tourettes, but instead of swearing I blurt out my feedback on the uneven positioning of a display or I will wonder out loud why there are no vegan options in a meal deal. Partly, it’s curiosity as I want to understand things. Like why tradition is so important, or why someone has made certain choices. Sadly, this often comes across as judgemental, rude and is often completely unwelcome. I often don’t realise this at the time however, and agonise over every word I said at home later when I can clearly sense I have said the wrong thing, but don’t know what. I find it sad that people don’t seem to want the truth; not even truthful enthusiasm for something that is good. I can be embarrassingly happy about awesome things. Paul loves that about me; I haven’t lost my childish awe and joy when I encounter something good. But people are more likely to remember the negative stuff like when I tell someone pigs are more intelligent than dogs when they just want to enjoy their bacon sandwich. I’m the girl that told the other girls at sing club it was heading towards becoming bitch club and was ousted for it (it was genuinely like being back at school they were so unkind about other women not there to defend themselves).

march4
I think this should be more gender neutral and say ‘To the people who are awkward…’ but the sentiment stands.

 

But I am glad of this part of me. I fight for justice and fairness and above all, kindness. People who know me know I have no malice or hidden agenda and know I am never intentionally mean, but that I will always say it as it is. I’m the one to ask if we can discuss the elephant in the room because I just can’t pretend everything is fine when it very clearly isn’t.

Up until recently, I would attend events I didn’t want to go to, to make small talk with neuro-typical people I have very little in common with, and pretend I was having a great time because I was just grateful to have been invited.  But I am now aware of what a liability I am socially; I get why I don’t fit in and have gone through stages of grieving my lack of friends and family, to accepting I am not wanted by most, and finally now realising I don’t want to be around anyone I have to mask my real self from to get them to like me. I’m excellent company to people who have nothing to hide and who want to be around people like me. And that’s the key isn’t it? Choosing to be where you are wanted. That is fine when choosing who you want to spend time with, but not so fine when it’s people you have to live alongside and they aren’t quite so friendly or reasonable.

march1
A fellow Aspie

Society currently doesn’t want people like me, but as I live in this society and am not quite ready yet to go and dig a hole in the mound at Pi Acres and live in it like a crazy lady, I have to do something to help change it. But I also have to at least try and pick my battles carefully as it’s exhausting. I have more battles going on right now than I need, so I will not be going to Shirley’s all women shindig because it’s my idea of hell (sorry Shirley, this is no reflection on you) and I do not feel guilty that I have said no. My attendance is not required and I just don’t need to put myself through the anguish of parties anymore. I will however, be putting myself quite squarely in the firing line and standing up for my rights when I feel passionately that they have been ignored.  Or I have been ripped off or bullied. There’s been some strongly worded and much edited correspondence coming from this laptop the last few weeks including an email to Step-heavy upstairs telling her that she and the entire management committee are ableist and guilty of discrimination. They told me that I was not allowed to have Paul with me at management company meetings despite my admission that I need support to attend these things, but that I could request that a proxy attend on my behalf. So I had to send Paul to a meeting upstairs that I wasn’t allowed to go to despite being a director of the management company. That’s madness! I was also told that despite being a director of the management company I was not allowed to draft a letter for Step-heavy (my remortgage application required some simple questions answering) for her to sign. They are the most awkward, unpleasant, unsympathetic lot I’ve ever had to live alongside (and I’m from London originally!) so I no longer care if they think I’m highly strung/crazy/too sensitive. In fact, I care so little now what they think of me that I’ve rented out the flat (subject to references) but have kept my parking space at the rear. I’m going to put a caravan on it.

So, that brings me to the horse-box lorry and what has happened that has made us ditch the project and buy a caravan. I sold my cute little red Fiat 500 last year and the money was put aside to refurbish the horse-box lorry into ‘tiny house’ living. We planned to stay in it on the land when we could this summer and then sell it. It didn’t cost us much and we have been sitting on the cash from my Fiat patiently waiting for months and months for work to start on it. I had drawn plans, written lists and sourced all secondhand and free bits for it, and I made sure I liaised thoroughly with the people due to work on it. Everything in writing. However, they turned out to be as sneaky as the damn builders and it’s destroyed any trust I have in them. I shan’t bore you with too many details, except to say that without checking with us first, they spent 15 days stripping off all the metal panels (so Fern is just a naked frame now) and asked us for £1800 for doing so.

march14
Stripped bare!

It’s brought us to a rather unpleasant stalemate situation because we haven’t got £1800 to effectively pay to make our lorry worse than when we gave it to them. Doing this has made it a project not worth continuing with – financially at the very least. Despite the fact that it was always a budget conversion on an old lorry, and we had sourced all second hand/free cookers, showers, windows etc they are now claiming they thought we wanted a bespoke, top range conversion and money wasn’t an object! How do you deal with that? Apart from that, their timing couldn’t have been worse, what with the builder, the mortgage advisor and the management committee all being either incompetent or shifty. I just don’t have the tolerance anymore to be taken advantage of, and although Paul is warning me I have started to sound like I don’t care, I have to toughen up. Being a kind person doesn’t mean you allow people to take advantage of you and in fact, it is unkind to future empaths like myself not to try and protect them from the same experience from the same sharks.  So, the money that was put aside for the first fix on the horse-box lorry has now gone on a caravan. It’s not a fancy one, but I will work my Shelley magic on it and we will stay on the land in it this summer. The shed at Pi Acres had an attempted break in last time we went, so I shan’t be leaving the caravan there when we aren’t there too. We’ve been planting willow (Andrew has more for us apparently so I am most happy about that) and will be planting up hawthorn and holly next time we go. Sadly we had to cancel a couple of events like path making (Paul has started cutting a path up to the top of the mound) as we will soon be moving into our new home. We have to leave the flat immaculate for the new tenants so there’s that to do as well. I feel guilty that we aren’t at Pi Acres right now, fixing the broken geodome or sorting out the area for the caravan but it is what it is, and the land will still be there when we are free to come and love it properly again. We’ve invited the local scouts to share the space with us so I’m excited about that too. So long as they respect our compost loo, all is well. I don’t want to have to deal with any more unnecessary shit. Literally.

 

 

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Lemon Curd and Christmas

Now that the shortest day of the year is behind us, and days are stretching out before us once more, I feel an intense excitement that is almost an anxiety it’s so powerful. There’s been a chain of events that has set us on a different course and now it looks like things are finally coming together. In trying to work out how best to help Oliver get through university, we thought about downsizing when we moved and how best we could help him financially.  blog8I got letting agents in to value the flat for when we rent it out and one of them suggested I see a financial advisor to consider a buy-to-let mortgage. Well I did just that and discovered that despite my low earnings, I have considerable equity in the flat and that has opened up a world of possibilities. As popular as the flat has been with Airbnb, it was never something I could have considered long term. After our first nightmare Airbnb guests (just before Christmas), and the option to move out very soon, I’m pleased to say that January will be our last month being Airbnb hosts. It’s been an experience and we have met some amazing people, but I’m more keen than ever for Paul and I to have our own wee space that we don’t share so we can create our own private haven. We more or less live in our bedroom these days so tiny house living would suit us perfectly. The more possessions I part with (or realise I am happy to leave behind) the freer I feel. Stuff is just stuff.

With that in mind, I went on a crusade to find our haven but alas, tiny houses on sizeable plots just don’t seem to exist. Or we can’t afford them. Or they’re too far away from Pi Acres. We’ve been asking ourselves in all the chaos of the many options open to us what it is we really need to be happy. What do we want? Oliver still needs financial support, so moving out and downsizing will help us to help him, so that means the next two and half years we have to keep earning, but then after that, we can go anywhere in the world, live anywhere and do anything we fancy. When you find yourself with that kind of freedom, you have to think wild, think outside the box, think big! But also think about going small, think simple. Break it down and ask yourself: “What really makes me happy?” Too many of us work to afford things that we just don’t need. The latest iPhone perhaps, or a new car. We’ve been conditioned to think we need a house made of bricks, and that it must be decorated in up to date trends. blog10.JPGWe are bombarded with imagery and advertising devised to make us feel bad about how we look or smell without the product they are selling so we buy it. It’s a trick to keep us enslaved. I catch myself thinking things like ‘Well, I haven’t bought any new boots this winter, so why not?’ when I have perfectly good boots. I find myself caught in a loop of spending and then having to earn to feed my addiction to spending when actually, I don’t need half of this stuff. When you break it down, what do you need? I mean really need?

I’m a great list writer, so I did indeed break it all down into what we really want and need and then had to find acceptance that we can’t have that yet. Not all of it just yet. But, with one more canny move before we make our dreams happen, we could set ourselves up financially and ensure we get everything on our list. The mortgage advisor called it ‘gearing’ and basically what I am now doing is releasing the equity on the flat to buy another property here in Exeter (at the end of our road funnily enough) where we will port my small personal mortgage. It’s a small end of terrace house, so while we do it up we will be free from Step-heavy upstairs and have our own space. Hurray!! Then, when it’s had my special interior design magic makeover, we will do another buy-to-let mortgage, release more equity and then hopefully move to somewhere small but with enough land to have a big cottage garden, maybe a couple of acres if it isn’t near Pi Acres.

We shall have to wait and see, as I’ve now started a Facebook page for Pi Acres (Pi Acres) and have started meeting people online who want to come and help us with our projects, but who also want to set up communities. I’ve found myself having to explain that whilst Pi Acres will be great for us all getting together for weekends and camp outs, it isn’t the right space for communal living – for many reasons ranging from it being in a flood plane, to the likelihood of planning permission, to the fact that it’s mostly shaded and in a valley a couple of degrees colder than surrounding countryside. Winters are grim, and access to the land would be tricky without a 4 x 4. For us, it’s a conservation project and a chance to create a space that we can share with others who see themselves as custodians of nature as we do. Sadly, I can’t see it even working to grow vegetables there, although I am now meeting people who know a thing or two about permaculture so we shall see. I’ve started planning the next steps at Pi Acres and even putting events in diaries and inviting people, so regardless of what our long term plans are likely to be, we are going to press ahead with making Pi Acres a haven and in the process, spend more time there this summer. I am still in favour applying to make it an outdoor education centre and sharing it with schools, colleges and of course the scouts. I have now offered the space to the local scouts, so as soon as Karen and I can get together, we can work out how to share the space. They currently only have the football field to do their outdoor badges and can’t have fires there, so I am excited for them being able to come and use Pi Acres and get some of their bushcraft and outdoorsy badges. I used to be a scout leader for many years (Cubs and Beavers) and do love a bit of singing around a campfire. I have to say, apart from dealing with parents, it is probably one of the few times that my Autism made me a perfect leader. My science and nature ‘special interests’ coupled with a no nonsense bossy tendency meant those boys always had an interesting meeting (and always clean fingernails too as I used to do inspections!).

I’m excited about the coming summer at Pi Acres. We will be around a whole lot more than we managed this past year. I’ve wondered if our handfasting last June and the way Paul’s family abused both us and our sanctuary put me off sharing it for the remainder of last summer? Maybe commuting to the land from Exeter will continue to be a problem, or perhaps it just takes a bit more determination to choose to opt out of the rat race and just go be in nature? Obviously the ideal scenario would be to live in a rural haven, so there’s a chance we may have to sell Pi Acres if it transpires we really want to live next to or on the land we work. Perhaps we need a bigger plot, maybe even pool our finances with others and buy a farm. Maybe we could create out own small community by choosing who our neighbours are. It seems more appealing to the current set up at Pi Acres where we have a neighbour who don’t want us there and apparently disapproves of all the good things we want to do there. And that’s just the conservation projects and current use of the space. How would they feel if I plonked poly tunnels or solar panels on the only sunny patch which is right in front of their house? What if I applied to put a classroom cabin on the only sunny bit (so we can have solar panels and electricity) – wouldn’t they hate us even more? I’m a sensitive empath and just not thick skinned enough to deal with the false smiles of people who are weirdly polite to me only to then tell everyone else how much they hate everything we are doing. I can’t bear the dishonesty more than anything else, but it also tarnishes the enjoyment of everything I do just incase they disapprove. It makes me cross how daft people are though – I am by far the best option to have owning that land and they should be encouraging us to stay by supporting our ventures. If they drive us away, we might sell to someone far less desirable! It just makes me want to find our dream house and land and get there as soon as we can!

I have considered whether Pi Acres could ever be that place for us, but it just isn’t, not just because it is unlikely to ever get planning permission for a dwelling to be built, but because I don’t want to live there full time. Sadly, there is no easy or affordable way to get mains electricity, mains water or sewage to Pi Acres, so it will only ever be an off grid haven. I can do off grid for a day or two here and there, but I’m just not ready for full hippy status just yet. Unless the apocalypse occurs in my lifetime, I would rather live somewhere with a bathroom. I know what a princess that makes me sound, and that if I were to truly live like a eco-warrior I would just live in the horse-box lorry (when it’s finished) and stop washing my clothes or bathing, but I just can’t. Proper bathing facilities makes me happy. I don’t need jewellery or holidays or fancy cars, but I am autistic and my daily routine starts with a poop and a bath. And I’m not so good at sharing my bathroom as I discovered when we had Airbnb guests. I can’t relax in the bath at all, so my morning routine became very hurried incase someone else needed the bathroom. It often set me up to feel stressed before the day even got going. And we often had a lot to do when there was a constant stream of guests. But we have still found time to go for glorious walks on sunny days and dare I admit it, I have enjoyed the way having guests has made me plan our day to accommodate guests. Routine suits me. But I’d like a routine that included nature every day. Proper nature,not just the local park to walk the dog.

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Exeter to Countess Weir canal walk December 2018

The most ideal situation would be if one of the cottages that overlooks Pi Acres or something else close by came up for sale at the end of Summer. We could live off the rent we receive from our Exeter property and really devote our time to conservation and creative projects. I’m trying to take a more Buddhist approach of acceptance, as we could be equally if not more happy buying a plot of land with a house on it in North Devon and being near surfing waves. So I’m trying to detach myself from where and how the next move will be after this imminent one. Maybe we will move to France? Or Canada? I’d like to live somewhere with a sense of community.

I would like to be surrounded by people who love us and make us feel welcome. I yearn to feel a sense of belonging somewhere. We don’t have that in Exeter. Despite knowing lots of people, I have very few friends and neither of us have any family we see any more. Oliver spent Christmas with his father and has now gone skiing, so it was always going to be a quiet one, but I hadn’t expected to feel so orphaned this Christmas.blog3 In fact, I’ll be straight up honest and tell you I would have cancelled Christmas entirely had it not been for our dog Tuki, who gets the whole concept of opening presents and so for her, we opened a small number of gifts – nearly all for her, and for ten minutes it actually felt like a celebration.

My manageress Claire gave me some Christmas gifts including some homemade vegan lemon curd that she made herself. I love homemade gifts and I was deeply touched. It’s somehow tragic that the most thoughtful person in my life outside Paul is someone I pay. When I looked at the faces of people frantically shopping last week I couldn’t help thinking that Christmas has become a marketing tool and the holiness has all gone. It doesn’t feel spiritual anymore and I find the level of consumerism and waste quite ugly. I think from now on, I would rather opt out for ethical reasons. Like the Quakers believe: everyday should be as holy as the next.

This has been the third or fourth Christmas in a row with zero contact from anyone in my family, and many years longer than that with others like my sister Julia. I think the court case from earlier this year has drawn a line under any chance of reconciliation. The more I walk with integrity and the less I tolerate sociopathic behaviour from anyone, even family, the less I want to have them in my lives. When I look back over the course of my life, I’m not sure what it is I think I miss. How can I miss something I never had? My very beautiful (on the outside) sister Julia has always been a it of a narcissist and only ever been nice to me when I am useful or she needs something. My stepfather has always been mean. I shan’t go on, as I am sure you get the idea. To expect anything different from any of them now is delusional so I am closing the door. I’ve had a full EMDR session on trying to reprogram my brain to let go of them, and whilst it probably helped to make moving on more achievable in everyday life, it didn’t help me Christmas Day morning when I felt that yearning for a family so strongly it made me cry. But thankfully, Paul was an angel and made Christmas Day a beautiful, romantic, fun, gorgeous day and I’m utterly blessed to have him as my husband. Apart from his daughters, Paul had no contact from his family either this Christmas, and so we find ourselves now really quite isolated. It would appear the rift in Paul’s family continues in the aftermath of our wedding where his family were like something out of the Shameless cast. To resolve it would mean talking about it, and no-one seems willing to do that. It mirrors my own family issues and I feel bad that it’s so often the way that when you decide to live with integrity and travel the road less travelled, how resentful the people you leave behind can become. It’s as though the more conscientious you become, the more self aware, the more the haters hate you. I had hoped that Paul’s family would become my family but they’re just as selfish and unkind as the ones I’m blood related to and have finally got away from, so I’m certainly not going to tolerate their negativity. Life is too short to battle with toxic people. I hope that before I’m fifty (my next birthday so its not far off) that I figure out the whole forgiveness with boundaries thing. I can forgive, but that doesn’t mean I have to keep that person in my life. I was reading how ‘door slamming’ to people and toxic relationships is a very INFJ thing to do (Myers Briggs personality types) and also a very autistic thing to do. When I can master not experiencing intense loss when I slam the doors, perhaps then I will have mastered Buddhist detachment but I’m not there yet.

We are all on this journey and learning what we are supposed to learn at just the right time, but I wish people would hurry up and wake up and stop being twats. I want to meet people less messed up than me. I want to learn from people that have figured it out. How can I be one of the wisest person I know when I am so aware of how stupid and naive I am? Where are my elders to guide me to becoming one of them?

Paul and I have been campaigning with Extinction Rebellion to try to do our bit to encourage change where it matters. Extinction Rebellion are all about lobbying, campaigning and organising peaceful protests to change things at government level. We sang in the Extinction Rebellion choir all over Exeter just before Christmas to try to reach people and help change attitudes, and I watched with interest who our allies were and who clearly hated us just by looking at us. I wrote a pledge, as I believe the change needs to happen in our hearts as well as in our governments. The more I learn about how disastrous the meat and dairy is for our planet, the more I think we should all be vegan. So, here’s my pledge:

I pledge to be kind and live with compassion and empathy for all life.

The pledge to be kind and live with compassion and empathy for the all life is akin to swearing an oath of allegiance to your planet and your fellow beings. You are pledging to become a custodian of them instead of their destroyer. Making the pledge is a promise to become a better person and to join the revolution by being the change. It is no longer any use blaming society. We are society.

To pledge this isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. It’s the proverbial rabbit hole and once you fall down it, you become Alice as you fall deeper and deeper into the abyss of veganism and what that actually means. Being kind isn’t just a fluffy sentiment however. To have empathy and to live conscientiously, the full pledge needs to expand to this:

I pledge to consider what implications ALL my actions have on the planet, my fellow beings and myself, and to always try to pick the action that has the least negative impact on all.

I pledge to hear my conscience, whether it tells me to pick the vegan option on a menu, or to not buy that plastic bag, or to say something constructive rather than be unkind.

I pledge to be inclusive to all around me, and treat everyone as my equal regardless of race, colour, religion, age, gender and neuro-diversity.

I pledge that whenever it is possible to boycott food, products and industries that harm animals or the planet, I will make that choice. I will choose kindness over convenience and integrity over taste-buds from now on.

I pledge to slow down, get off my phone, spend more time in nature and contemplate my purpose.

I pledge to give more time to do good deeds, whether that’s helping someone vulnerable, volunteering or campaigning for change.

I pledge to stop convincing myself that happiness lies in capitalist ventures, consumerist products, or selfish ambitions and instead do more to help others. I will stop buying into the illusion.

I pledge to speak out when I see injustice or cruelty whether that’s from our leaders or my friends, colleagues and family, but I will also try not to judge people too harshly and remember everyone is on their own journey. I will not be unkind in my anger at the injustice or cruelty I witness or experience.

I pledge to consider my carbon footprint when I travel and when I shop. I will buy local produce where possible, to buy handmade or second hand, to buy from small ethical independent businesses and to make, mend, borrow or share whenever I can.

I pledge to own up to my mistakes and be held accountable for my actions.

I pledge to forgive myself for making mistakes, and to self-parent so that I am kind to myself but that I also never give up trying to be a better person.

I pledge to educate myself, whether that’s learning a new skill or opening my eyes to what is really happening around the world; ignorance is no longer an excuse when all the information is out there and available to anyone prepared to wake up.

I pledge to wake up.

I pledge to try to wake everyone else up too by sharing this pledge and encouraging everyone to make it.

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‘Hope’ by Laurie Maitland (my art name)

Phew! That’s all quite weighty and full on, and I feel the need to lighten the mood as I end this blog, and end this year as I can see it is almost midnight. So I shall sign off with a picture of my latest paintings. The colours feel happy, and the butterflies symbolic of the chrysalis I feel 2018 has been for me. Either I’m about to burst forth, spread my wings and fly, or maybe, just maybe, we as a species are. People are waking up, and if you’re reading this I hope you are one of them. Let’s all be the best that we can be this coming year and make the changes we all need to make to evolve into better versions of ourselves. And save the planet into the bargain.

 

Sticky Willy on the Rocks

We visited Pi Acres a couple of times this week, the second time to finally move the horsebox lorry to its new home. Now work will finally begin on converting it.

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Fern’s new home for the winter

We have called her ‘Fern’ which will make far more sense when I have repainted her green, and then painted on ferns and silver birch trees. But there’s along way to go before I can start on that as Stuart and Lorie from Winkleigh will be working alongside Paul to start the conversion and help get it ready for us to have some adventures in her next summer. We might even go on a British touring adventure in her before we sell her and plough the profits into conservation projects at Pi Acres.

fern plansThe drawings are just preliminary but it gives an idea of how we want it laid out. As we will be looking for second hand, recycled and scrapped materials to fit it out, the drawings will have to be redone according to what we can find. We will have to buy the insulation for the first fix and in a bid have as low an impact on the environment as possible, we plan to buy insulation made from recycled bottles.fern plans 2

While I wondered round Pi Acres this week, I was struck by how bare it looks now, and also how messy it looks after a summer of projects and camp fires with no lush foliage to hide it anymore. But it’s still exquisitely beautiful, and although I say it every time, I wish I could get there more often. The colours even on a drizzly day were exquisite and the water level has risen considerably, making the water busy and exciting.

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I wonder if it will flood this winter? The work we did this summer to direct the water coming down the hill through a colvert pipe and to the stream seems to be working, and what with the bank we built, it looks like the route in is no longer a bog like it was last year.

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The underpinning work the rivers authority and the council did on the bridge and stream bed is helping the flow of the water nicely, and has literally bedded in. Nature is softening the edges and helping disguise the work that has been done. They left me some sandbags that I plan to open up and spread over the newly created bank opposite the stream. I realise of course if it floods it will just get washed away, but until then, there will be a small beach for us to marvel over.

There’s much to do and I’m keen to get back as soon as I can and tidy it all up, but we have started to do Airbnb from our apartment in Exeter to raise funds and it’s suddenly become an endless cycle of checking in new guests, checking them out, laundry, cooking and cleaning. We’ve had a guest the past two weeks who has been enjoying full board with us, so I have been home every night cooking up delicious vegan feasts. We may have converted her to veganism as she’s loved it so much, so I’m delighted my cooking has been enjoyed so well. Last night’s guests in the smaller of the two rooms we are letting had seconds and thirds they loved my curry and home made bhajis so much.

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Mushroom, spinach and sweet potato curry with pilau rice, samosa and bhaji

It’s made me feel very good to share food with grateful people. In fact, I would liken having Airbnb guests to having children at home again, except so far no-one has answered back, raided the fridge and drunk all my mango juice, refused to tidy their room or forgotten how to say thank you. I actually feel appreciated! We’ve had five reviews so far – all five star, so that’s a good start I feel. We have worked out that the money we raise doing Airbnb should pay for the conversion on Fern, and after that we plan to rent out our flat in Exeter and move nearer Pi Acres. It might be nice to stay in Fern on the land when it’s warmer and get lots of conservation work done, but I’m far too much of a princess to do more than two nights in a row before I start longing for a luxury soak in my bathtub. We’ve been avidly looking for somewhere to rent nearby, and I even found a couple of places we liked, but they were too far away, so I think we will stick it out with Airbnb until the Spring, and then hopefully by then a cute cottage somewhere nearby will turn up. Step-heavy upstairs is still making my life a misery, but now that all legal battles are behind me, I feel better equipped to deal with her clomping. Perhaps my EMDR treatment is working too; I feel calmer and less jumpy these days. I even managed to get through what must be over ten days of fireworks constantly going off in the city every night. Even the pooch has been less perturbed than usual – is that my calmness or just her getting used to it I wonder?

Perhaps my daily tipple of rosehip tincture is helping my mood, or the fact that my manager Claire is doing such a dandy job of managing Pobby & Blue for me, it has reduced my stress levels, but I noticed last week that I haven’t had a stutter for some time now. I’m not stimming as much as I used to, and leaving the house hasn’t been at all difficult. I had concerns that having strangers in my house would trigger lots of OCD traits that often go hand in hand with my autism, but instead, I seem to be thriving on the routine. Even Paul admitted he’s enjoying the housework as we strip beds and clean rooms between guests. I’m concerned I’ll start ironing the bedsheets soon and be sucked entirely into a world of domesticity, but this is only temporary, and by Spring we will be off on some adventures.

The Himalayan Balsam wood that was springing up everywhere all summer at Pi Acres has pretty much all died off now (until next spring of course), but rather than the ground starting to look barren, sticky weed, or sticky willy as some people call it has sprung up everywhere.

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‘Galium Aparine’ more commonly known as ‘Sticky Willy’.

It germinates in the cool wet weather of winter. ‘Galium Aparine’ has a multitude of other names including cleavers, clivers, bedstraw, goose-grass, robin-run-the-hedge, catchweed, grip-grass, velcro plant, and sticky bud (not the type you’d get offered at college of course). Sticky weed reminds me of walks with my son where he would sneakily attach it to my back, sometimes so much so that when we got home, I would be astonished at how much he had managed to attach to me without my knowledge.

It’s a great plant for herbalists and foragers and has a clean crisp taste when eaten raw. It is known to boost the immune system (which would help stave off those pesky winter colds) and cleanse the lymph system. It promotes weight loss, and if you cook it with beans, it can help reduce the flatulence that usually accompanies eating them. I suggest throwing a few sprigs in with your brussel sprouts this Christmas to help avoid Christmas Day afternoon parps. It’s also a good urinary astringent as it assists with inflammation.

It’s very easy to squeeze juice out of it, and makes a great refreshing cordial (I’d add lime and maple syrup to sweeten it). If you harvest some, scrunch a big handful of it up and seep it in vodka. Over the space of 4 to 6 weeks (give it a shake everyday) it will turn a lovely lime green. Like the cordial recipe, if you add lime and maple syrup it makes a delicious medicinal tipple, and who wouldn’t want to offer your guests visiting for Christmas a sticky willy on the rocks? As soon as I can get back to Pi Acres, I’m going to harvest some, and by the time my Rosehip tincture runs out, my sticky willy tincture should be ready. Just in time for Christmas. I have mixed feelings about this time of year; my only family being Paul and Oliver, who will be with his half siblings over Christmas and not with us. I’m even tempted to cancel it altogether at home. Being in retail makes it just another marketing tool, and the overt consumerism that takes place makes me feel bad for the planet when I consider the rubbish people buy that will just end up in landfill.

I watched the starlings congregate on telephone wires and in trees last week and felt a pang of sadness that they were leaving but now that the trees are getting stripped bare, it’s much easier it is to see the birds that have stayed. They’re hungry this time of year as they try to fatten up for winter, so I must remember to keep putting food out for them. The berries aren’t enough to sustain them. Mistle thrush particularly like holly berries, but at this time of year, they split up from hanging out together and go find themselves their own holly bush for the winter. They are fiercely territorial over their chosen bush and guard the berries so well, no other birds get a look in. If you have a holly bush that still has berries all over it by Christmas, chances are there’s a stroppy mistle thrush nearby watching over it. I hope it won’t be too upsetting for the mistle thrush in my garden when I pinch some of the holly to decorate the flat. If I decorate the flat of course, and not go full bah humbug. I suppose the Airbnb guests would like a festive place to stay next month, so perhaps I will do it for them.

ringPaul and I did a jewellery making workshop recently and made wedding rings for each other. We held our own wee ceremony and said our vows again; the ones we wrote for our handfasting ceremony in June. I cried. In many ways it was far more meaningful than the event that some of Paul’s family almost ruined this summer. We want to make more jewellery; in fact we loved it so much, perhaps we should do Christmas after all and make a wish list of jewellery making kit to buy for each other. However, chances are, our hard earned cash will more likely all go on ply wood panels and insulation for the van, but if that happens I could always cheer myself up with a sticky willy on the rocks 🙂

 

 

 

Nowt as Queer as Folk…

It’s been a busy August, what with our honeymoon, Folk Week and of course peak season at the shop in Sidmouth.

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We also prepped and ran an art tent at the Off-Grid festival this year. It was straight after we got back off honeymoon and I was still quite wobbly after my fall. I told the organisers how ‘special’ I was feeling, and they were so flipping lovely they made it easy for us. Beautiful souls running a beautiful event (although the food was disappointing and I tend to take that quite personally).

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We made things out of recycled material from the Scrapstore and twigs and branches from Pi Acres and it was fun. No nerves, just fun. I want to do more of that at Pi Acres.

Getting to the land has been almost impossible, so I was delighted to find us a beautiful thatched cottage to rent in Riddlecombe, just down the road from Pi Acres (from an ad on the Dolton Post Office noticeboard not online as I would have expected!). I spoke to the owner and she seemed happy with the idea of us moving in at the start of October. It would only have been a winter let, but I was more than happy to be told that we would not have to leave until the end of June, as the folks that own it as their personal holiday home wanted it back just for summer – “we only really need it for July, August and September” said poshy posh Lavinia from Chipping Norton. The viewing was arranged through an agent as they were so far away, but there were emails between myself and Lavinia. To say I was excited is somewhat of an understatement; I’d planned writing my next novel from there. Then the agents handling the letting said we could only have it until end of March. I was disappointed of course as May and June are my favourite months and the gardens at The Dell were stunning; I imagined being there when the bluebells came. The gardens even had a thatched folly, and it was such a lovely place, right on the doorstep of the most exquisite forest that I wanted it even if it was literally just for winter. It would have been perfect for us, as we are now waiting for Autumn to strip the bushes and trees and let us see where we can create a pathway to the top of the mound at Pi Acres. We wanted to be nearby to plant and prune and really get on making our plans a reality.

Thankfully, we own our place in Exeter, because if we had given our notice to leave where we were, we would have had nowhere to go, as the owners ‘changed their mind’. I sent Lavinia an email asking what had happened, as up until changing her mind, we had been in touch directly. No reply. No explanation to the letting agents

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Whaaaaat?

It reminds me of the Fishers who ran up £3k of legal bills ‘buying’ my business, only to drop out after eight months with just a couple of lines from their solicitor. Again, I’d been in direct communication with them; spent hours emailing, discussing terms and yet they didn’t have the decency to apologise or explain anything to me. I was particularly annoyed as they claimed to be Christians. What is wrong with people? I’m the sort of person who over shares it is true, but I didn’t need any deeply personal essays on why I was being let down; just some kind of acknowledgement that it would be disappointing for me and for that, they are sorry. Am I being unreasonable? Old fashioned? Too principled?

I sent a rather long email to the new buyer (and the agent) offering to buy my business explaining why I can’t accept an offer at the moment. I probably over-shared, but I think it’s important to be transparent about such things. I’m still at that crossroads of indecision; I have the dreaded court hearing on Monday and I’m pooping my pants – not that I will lose, as I believe I have righteousness on my side, but that I will fall apart under pressure in court. I’m super emotional at the moment and actually cried over the prospect of vegan chocolate cheesecake a few minutes ago, so how am I going to fare in court? I’m having anxiety attacks increasingly frequently and almost reached the end of my tether with my upstairs neighbours last night.

The guy in the room above my bedroom is back home with his Mum after his life has clearly fallen apart, so I’ve tried really hard to be sympathetic to his pacing on the floorboards, the wailing and crying but I think what makes me cross is his mother Step-Heavy (Stephanie). She ripped up all the carpets in her flat two years ago with a view to replacing them, but still hasn’t. footstepsThis is despite me telling her I have PTSD (I’m super jumpy with sudden noises; not just because I’m Autistic but because I briefly lived next door to an alcoholic insomniac psychopath who regularly beat up his mother and smashed up her home – I had to give evidence against him in court to put him back in prison) and because I’ve even offered to pay for the damn carpets I’m so fed up with never getting a full night’s sleep, or even being able to grab an afternoon nap. It’s intolerable and I’ve told her many many times and begged and pleaded she sort it out. I’ve offered rugs, bought her cushioned slippers, begged her to not start clomping until reasonable hours and of course now offered to PAY for it. Her response? “I’ll think about it” (with no apologies either).

I’m also annoyed that she told me she was thinking maybe her son could have her bedroom while he stayed and she sleep in the room above us, but no, she’d rather have a broken man hear EVERYTHING us newlyweds get up to, and have us hear him open can after can and cry. It got so that every time we laughed loudly, or sang or, well, you know, we were somehow torturing him. Why would a caring mother do that to her anguished son? But, thinking about it, she had zero empathy when I told her a couple of years ago that I was on beta blockers for stress related arrhythmia and her lack of carpets was making me ill, so why would she have empathy now? I feel sorry for her son, but it didn’t stop me getting so upset last night I shouted up through the ceiling at 2am that he needed to go to bed so I could sleep.

I don’t get people. We’ve had a bit of drama at the land as well, with John helping us move a tree out of the stream, only to have a neighbour get very upset about the resulting silt in the water potentially ruining mayfly larvae. And I only just noticed I have messages on this blog – I never saw them until now. Most are beautifully positive and supportive, but there’s always going to be someone unhappy at the sight of any change. There’s also been some rumblings of rumours that we are travellers – after seeing the horsebox lorry I suppose, so I’ve written an open letter in the Dolton Diary, just to put people’s mind to rest. I also wrote an article for the diary about nature this time of year as Andrew is too unwell to write his usual articles, but there’s no room for it as there’s a piece about the flower show. Maria who runs the diary said she could put it in next month, but it’s about things in bloom now and wouldn’t work for next month. I’m happy to write another for next month as I thoroughly loved writing it. I was the weird kid at school who liked homework though! Anyway, as I don’t want to waste a good article, I will publish it here imminently. And then I need to ground myself ready for Monday. Perhaps we will make it to Pi Acres on Sunday as I have always found it grounding? Or maybe I will just hide here, as Harry and his mother upstairs have now gone away for a few days and it’s made home a haven once more.

Summer of Love

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There’s nothing quite like a wedding to bring out the best and the worst in people. Or so has been our experience of holding our own hand-fasting ceremony and party at Pi Acres.

We worked tirelessly to tame the land, tackle brambles and make the land accessible to vehicles and for camping. We collected jam jars and recycled materials and made bunting. We wove, and tidied and strimmed. We even built a temporary composting loo! The hot weather made it easier of course to mow and cut (apart from when the heat was unbearable of course, but I shan’t whinge about sunshine), and besides, it wasn’t all work, work, work; we still found the time for some outdoor cooking, guitar playing and of course singing! It made up for all the times the strimmer cable broke, or the horseflies tried biting, or the brambles flicked us in the face (and on one occasion in my eye resulting in a trip to A&E!). I am grateful for the deadline the handfasting gave us as the land is now set up ready for us to enjoy it, and we have a whole summer stretching ahead of us.

However, the whole experience has left us so exhausted that the days off we have managed to put aside since then have found us too tired to make the journey to the land, let alone think about packing grub, organising our van for a spot of overnight camping or tackling any of the projects we have in mind. We’ve bought a second hand paratrooper parachute and I’m dying to drape it over the broomstick geodome we have made. sum1811I want to camp in it, but the effort to set it up would be too much for just one night, so instead, we will have to wait until we have a handful of days off, some more good weather and that I can make sure the shop is fully staffed.

The shop is doing very well at the moment – what with the good weather, it’s seaside location and the fabulous staff I currently have – I really can’t complain. Or shouldn’t complain….however I feel like owning this business is trapping me. It stops me coming to spend time on the land. My VAT return is due in shortly, and although all I do is gather up all my paperwork, scribble notes on my bank statements and print up sales reports to hand over to my bookkeeper, I find it soul destroying. I also have a civil legal battle going on at the moment with an absolute bully and it looks set to go to court and that’s even more stressful than business paperwork. sum18I feel like these things sit on me like a heavy weight, but after just five minutes in Pi Acres; our beautiful little patch of heaven, I am lighter. I am happy again and all the stresses of Western living just slip away with each bird that sings out from the treetops. Anxieties ebb away as I listen to the babbling brook, and my heart skips with joy when I see a wren or a brave robin come and grab a worm near my feet. The dappled summer light beneath the trees and the cool breeze that whisks through the valley kiss my soul back into wellness.

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It’s a space I was excited to share with family and friends on our hand-fasting, but sadly not everyone shared our hippy outlook about love, land and life and instead two worlds collided.  The beautiful souls turned up when they said they would, they made vegan cheesecakes, and foccaccia, bean dip and other things. They turned up early and helped build the firepit, position the haybales, tie string on jam jar lanterns and decorated the geodome so beautifully I cried.

The ceremony itself was utterly beautiful and nothing could detract from that, but if we do it again in a year and a day, we will only be inviting a very select few. I’m not one to name and shame, but I what I will say is that it’s the last big party we will ever have on our land again. And never, ever again will we invite people who disrespect our compost loo! It’s been an interesting experience because it’s focussed us on how we want to use our land. We want to share it with people who get our passion for conservation and who want to help us build something that will benefit people who want to come and connect with nature and each other.

I have finally come to terms with the fact that I have Aspergers and I am no longer ashamed to admit that things affect me differently to neuro-typicals. I think differently. I react differently, and the social constraints of being ‘civilised’ are a struggle for me. I’m an empath and literally soak up the vibe of people yet am disabled in my skills to deal with it should the energy be dark or confrontational or just not kind. I’ve started the process of getting an official diagnosis, although I don’t need a label to know what my challenges are. Aspergers affects men and women in startlingly different ways, and recent research highlights how many undiagnosed women there are that have slipped through the net, been misdiagnosed with mental health disorders, or just simply don’t understand why they don’t fit in. The more I learn about why I have been shunned and judged for being different all my life, the more certain I am that Pi Acres should be for people who need it. Connecting with nature and each other is good for your mental health, and I can think of nothing better than sharing our sanctuary with other gentle souls who understand that love and kindness is all that matters really.

I currently have two potential buyers for my business, but I’m trying not to get too excited because I’ve been here before. I’m finally learning that people don’t always mean what they say, or that they change their minds so until it gets to exchanging contracts, I will not be racing ahead with what will happen next. Should I find myself with a lump sum from the proceeds of the sale, it would be very tempting to press ahead quickly with setting Pi Acres up to be a sanctuary for people to come and find space. I’ve been running a million ideas around in my head from getting special needs kids there for outdoor days, to offering some art therapy days, to offering a hammock or two to forest bathers, and even how soon we can get diggers in to make some ponds before winter sets in, but whoa!! I forget sometimes how tiring everything has been recently and how I shouldn’t make decisions when I feel like I do. I’m nursing a broken heart from the realisation of how much family have let me down – not just for the hand-fasting, but all my life. Things have been brought to the surface, old wounds opened and at last I am dealing with things and finding forgiveness for the past.

At the risk of sounding like a total peace loving hippy, I’m finding out what forgiveness really means. It’s about letting go; not just of the thing you need to forgive, but of the expectation that the person you are forgiving will change. It’s a letting go of hope; but not in a negative way. It’s realising that people may not want to walk the same path as you and that letting them go is sometimes an act of kindness for their sake as well as your own. Some people aren’t ready to see the world the way we do. Some people just don’t get it and that’s okay. If the mirror we hold up to them shows them how ugly they have become deep in their souls, then who are we to force that mirror on them when they are not ready?

So, if you are reading this, and you have a kind soul and you would like to get involved in things like planting orchards, eating vegan supper round a campfire and singing, then make contact with us as we will be doing things here and there when we can and would love some beautiful souls to join us.

The imminent projects at hand are firstly trying to eradicate an interloper that has taken over big chunks of woodland where it was once full of ancient woodland plants and flowers. They’re all still there, but to help them continue to thrive, and of course to stop the spread of the Himalayan Balsalm Wood going further upstream, we need some help plucking it out!

It pops up satisfyingly easily and I’m going to try an experiment of drying them as the stalks are hollow and would make fabulous bee hotels for next spring. We need to do this before they go to seed!

Pi Acres is a very long skinny parcel of land and we’ve had to give up trying to tame large parts of it. We’ve noticed that the far end is still being used by dog walkers, but the paths people are treading down for us are crucial for biodiversity and until we do get planning permission and start digging ponds and the like, I’m very happy with this – but I would like to ask a favour of anyone who is currently walking their dogs on our land… well actually, three favours:

  1. If you fancy paying back the favour of enjoying our land and doing a good deed, can you please pull up some of the Himalayan Balsam Wood – either contact us to join us when we are there, or just find a patch up the far end and start plucking them out?! If you leave them in a pile where we can collect them, we will put them on drying racks if we find them. (Please don’t wander down beyond the wire fence where the geodome or our fire pit is just in case we are using our new haystack target wall and crossbow!)
  2. Keep your dog on the path as there are nesting birds.
  3. Pick up poop (your own or your dogs!)

The other project we are now planning is what to do with the horsebox we have just bought!

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One of the business ideas we had to make sure we didn’t just fritter away the proceeds of the sale of my shop was to do up Luton vans as campers/tiny houses and sell them. I’m very good at interior design and love this kind of project, so we had been keeping an eye out for decent vans, and how much we could spend on one when we had the money. There’s a workshop at the Off-Grid Festival this year (incidentally we are running a Nature in Art workshop there ourselves) specifically tailored to converting Lutons, so we were planning to attend that before buying anything. But then this little beauty popped up on Facebook Market Place and it belonged to my son’s old Maths teacher at Sidmouth college. It’s an MOT failure and needs a couple of thousand pounds spent on welding it, but that made it such a bargain we could afford to buy it now.

So, instead of coming to the land and gaining my fix of peace and stillness, I’ve been trapped here in the city, doing stock runs, ordering stock, doing staff rotas, preparing court paperwork, but also doing all sorts of drawings for the lorry! I’d like to make it an open space inside with lots of built in storage, a small kitchen and a wee log burner. I’m imagining a rest room/kitchen/classroom and then I’d love to keep it somewhere on the land but such things depend on selling my business and deciding we are ready to go the whole hog of running classes from the land (and getting change of use/planning permisson and all that serious stuff that requires thinking about properly). Chances are, we will do up the inside (by hand because we have no electricity at Pi Acres) and then take it away to weld it, get the new MOT and sell it. I’ll post pictures of plans and progress as it goes on, but as I think I need to hide in my cool basement flat here in Exeter just until the heatwave is over (and keep my veg patch watered!) nothing will be happening quickly. We’re off on our honeymoon soon, starting with a festival here in Devon called ‘All About Love’ where the organiser vetted everyone with an application process to get a ticket! I think Paul might try to dissuade me, but I’d love to do the same to anyone who wants to come onto our land. Would that be allowed? Shouldn’t we all do such a thing for anyone that comes into our lives, onto our property and into our psyches?

Food for thought? I shall try not to leave it so long until the next blog, but it is peak season at my seaside shop so I find I am still living between two worlds – the rat race city existence and the tranquility of my city garden and of course Pi Acres. I am thankful for my secret garden here in the city, but it does not compete with the sounds of being in the middle of nowhere. We will get there when we can, and hope that while we cannot be there as custodians of it that our lovely neighbours and fellow nature lovers will keep an eye on it. We’ve been meeting lovely local folk and want to thank everyone who is delighted with our plans and has shown real support. We may well call on you all when we are ready to plant the orchard!  In the meantime, we will be connecting with other beautiful souls and also hoping we will meet more like-minded people at the All About Love Festival. I only hope that they won’t think I’m too weird when I blurt out inappropriately that I have Aspergers as an explanation as to why I’ve just bossily told someone that you can’t claim to be an environmentalist if you’re not vegan. Please God, help me not to be too weird around normal people, or failing that, please surround me with beautiful weirdoes.

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Plans at last!

april land 1After the treacherous late snow in March comes our first Spring at Pi Acres! The snow made it impossible to get to the land, but I’m not moaning because it was harsher on the poor creatures that had to try to survive it. What I will whine about however was how hard it was on my pocket. There were days my shop couldn’t open and takings plummeted to less than a third of our usual achievable target turnover. This means I’m very poor because the VAT man still wants his money, the wages and bills all still need to be paid, and the cogs cannot stop turning in this capitalist wheel of slavery or the whole thing collapses. I lose my income completely if I don’t keep up this western economy juggling act. But….

My fiancé Paul (yes that’s right – we got engaged in February!) and I have been escaping to this, our haven and prepping the land for things to start happening. We brought family on one of the days we visited and I cooked vegan chilli over a camping stove (our bushcraft skills need honing somewhat yet so that we can make a roaring campfire quickly and efficiently!) We weeded and pruned, and carefully moved the saplings I wanted to save (that were soon to get mowed down when John did the brambles). My son Oliver replanted the trees in the border and I’m delighted to say that the next time we visited, they had all sprung into lush lime green leaves and seem most happy in their new spot! (I think they were Alder and Hazel but I didn’t have my tree ID book with me that day be to completely sure!)

There’s a lovely chap called John that Andrew (the gardener that lives opposite the land) introduced us to, who lives up the hill in Dowland. After deciding to wait until the snowdrops had finished – (but not too late because we didn’t want to destroy any ground nests), he came down with his tractor and mowed all the brambles and nettles.

Afterwards, we wandered around our land truly astonished at how big it looks now! It’s meant that we have finally been able to look at what we’ve actually got and start working out some plans. We will be putting together a planning application next year as a lot of what we would like to do like digging ponds and putting a cute bridge over the stream requires permission, but until we know where we want to dig and create, we will stick to only doing what won’t get us in any trouble! Eventually we will have to decide on where the ponds should go, and I’d quite like a greenhouse style geodome, but then also a tree house or deer/bird hide? I’ve yet to even think about the trees I want to plant and propagate – I’ve been saving Holm Oak acorns to try and grow them. It would be so lovely if I was around long enough to see a Holm oak acorn I planted grow into a full tree. Maybe my super healthy vegan lifestyle and fresh air will help me live until I’m really old so that I can see how this project matures. I’m seeing it as my legacy and have even started thinking about setting it up as a trust but my head starts to spin after a while with those chains of thoughts, so for now, I’m content to just mow the grass and weave some willow! My current dream (or perhaps obsession?!) is to buy a sit on mower but we have no money at the moment so it’s all just a dream. If we have a good bank holiday weekend at the shop, maybe a really old one could be considered!

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Ian Chadwick from the Devon Wildlife Trust came and looked at what trees on the nature reserve side of the boundary could be pruned or removed to allow daylight into the old pasture where horses used to be kept. We need to start trying the tame the land so that things like wild meadow flowers will grow there. The banks of primroses everywhere make the place magical, and now that bluebells have joined them in the woods, I realise how quickly the time has gone. I’ve always maintained that summer doesn’t really start until my birthday has been and gone and the bluebells have finished, but what happened to Spring? It feels like it’s only been here five minutes!

This is by far my favourite time of the year; when the bluebells carpet forests in deep purple hues and the sun is warm on your face, but a cardigan is still required, and a camp fire at the end of the day is welcome to warm yourself up.  I’ll be concocting my own midge repellent with citronella oil and coconut oil – so I’ll let you know if it works when we start having the odd campfire and staying until it falls dark. I’m usually quite delicious to biting insects but I really don’t want to use chemical repellents.

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So, here’s our first plan! I realised after doing half of it that it’s upside down if you want North to be at the top, but this isn’t how I see it in my head and the other way up was just far too confusing for me; I read from left to right so it makes sense that the plans go from left to right from the entrance! We are still getting to know the land so much of it at this stage is hypothetical; we are still working out where would be good locations for ponds (some of the land is so boggy it almost demands we dig it out and allow the giant boggy puddles to realise their full potential!) and where is dry enough (higher ground) to plant fruit and nut trees.

When I first saw the land, I envisaged a giant pond up the far end away from the entrance, and an area half way down where I would plant all the fruit and nut trees together in neat lines and make it a proper walk-through orchard, but now I’ve visited regularly through a wet Autumn and an elongated winter, I can’t see that working. There are too many boggy areas and the places that would be perfect for fruit and nut trees are dotted around on higher levels. Many of them will get planted in small clusters so it creates dividing copses to break up the long thinness of the land. I want to create small copses and idyllic openings with grassy meadows and the odd well placed bench and willow sculpture. Certain areas are already standing out as great places to erect a tent and have a go at camping on the land. I’m a bit of a princess I’ll be honest and the truth is, I’d rather sleep in our van, but at the moment that would mean sleeping in the car park as only a tractor can get in and out of our boggy marsh land!

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As you can see, it looks a lot more bare than the estate agent picture that was taken last Summer! It will be interesting to see how well things bush up when all the trees and shrubs have caught up to the idea that it’s nearly Summer. You can see from the latest picture that even a tractor struggled through the boggy part of the route in.

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Next time we visit, John is meeting us to help us work out a gully system to redirect the water that currently comes down the hill and straight through our gate. There’s already a ditch along our border and the road and I reckon it just needs some kind of stone gully put in it to send the water to the stream. Once we’ve done this and the land dries up a bit, we’ll have to think of a way to drive the van in. I’m all in favour of selling the van and getting a 4 x 4, but as we are going on a road trip round Brittany in our van for our honeymoon that plan will have to wait. A solution is to put some stone down just inside the gate and then we can park there. I have concerns that it will look ugly until it grasses over, but I have some super fast growing grass seed so it won’t take long until it looks nice again. In fact, I’m sure our battle will be stopping everything bursting into chaos as things grow rather than urging seeds to sprout!

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This is the view looking back at the mound – you can just see it through the opening. I love how the trees are already shaping separate areas, so that we just have to add to them rather than create them. The way time is dashing by, I can’t see us doing much more this summer than make a couple of log stores and keep mowing the meadow areas so that by next year they are good for spreading wild meadow flower hay everywhere. If anyone knows where I can get this, please send me a message because my only lead at the moment is Exeter City Council roadside gardens – I noticed they didn’t harvest the wild flower beds at all last year – what a waste!! I’ll happily go harvest them if they let me.

Soon we will go see Ian Chadwick at the Meeth Nature Reserve as they have ponds they created some years ago – I’m keen to see which plants just arrived without them actually planting them as I’m fascinated to see how things develop naturally and without too much landscaping on my part.

What we are planning to do this year that may set tongues wagging is get married on our land! Well, I say married – it’s obviously not a licenced wedding venue but we still plan to say our vows to each other in front of our family and friends in a small gathering followed by a campfire, guitars and singing. People might think we are weird cult members or pagan witches if they happen to be walking their dogs in the nature reserve on that day, but I can assure you we are not! I’m thinking of erecting a silk parachute covered geodome for the event, so some might think we’re a mini Eden project in the making which, you never know might just be the case in years to come! So, to dispel any myths or speculation about what we are up to, I’ve had a sign made to go on the gate:

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So if you’re reading this because you’ve walked past this sign, and spotted by blog address, welcome! I’ve been explaining to so many interested passing parties what we are up to that I thought I would post my blog address on the sign and you can follow what we are doing as we do it! If you would like to lend a hand, send me a message via this blog. The plan doesn’t show you all the nature art installations we are planning – most will be using natural materials we scavenge off the land – I can’t wait to see lichen and moss growing on some of the woven art I have planned. In fact, our first Nature Sculpture and Art Day is soon – we’ve planned it for May 19th, so if you love nature and art, follow this link to secure yourself a place: Nature Art & Sculpting Day – we’re limiting numbers because the last thing we want is to over trample the recovering pastures! Plus, parking is an issue, so if you want to come, please walk in from the village and keep our impact on the environment as low as possible. Let me know asap if you want to join in on this or any other things we have planned (2019 orchard planting for example!).

Whilst this is a space we will ultimately want to share with people on certain days, it’s not quite the same as making it a public space – we will be putting living hedges (and dead ones for those that don’t take!) right the way along the boundary as we will need to discourage dogs and dog walkers in favour of the ground nesting birds I want to attract. Please respect the boundaries and don’t trespass!

As an ex Scout leader, I’m quite keen to get the local scout group involved and eventually have an archery range that they come and share with us, but like so many things it’s a case of seeing how it evolves for now.

I’m concerned about the amount of cans and bottles that I found on the land – people just throwing it over the hedge from the bridle path. I also worry that some of the beautiful areas we create might get vandalised (locals have been regaling tales of vandals and thieves so much that I’m convinced our plot must be like the Brooklyn of Dolton!) but I can’t let that stop us! Soon, when I have more money, we will put live nature cam up everywhere and try to attract as much wildlife as possible so that we can capture on film the beauty of this magical place – and that in turn should prevent horrid things happening – from humans at least! There will be no hunting on my land. I’m a vegan, so I can’t bear exploiting or killing animals for sport or food. It’s astonishing how angry meat eaters and hunters get when I say I am not prepared to kill animals. What about crucial culling, they ask. If I find I have issues with, say too many deer for example, I will fence off or protect the trees they could ruin if given access to them, but generally I will be welcoming all the wild life I can.

If you’ve not read any of my posts before, there’s one about falling down the rabbit hole of veganism; if you wish to better understand the journey I am on (and trying to advocate) it’s worth reading! Or if you just want to be nosey about what we are doing with the land, there will be updates with each post even if I go off on my anti-capitalist, hippy rants about how we should all be communing with nature. We should! It’s good for your soul, your mental health; it grounds you (literally) and helps balance out the evil influences of the controllers of our sick nation.  I’m hoping I can tame parts of the land enough (pesky brambles will be the challenge) that walking around barefoot is relatively peril free, so if you see a bare foot, curly grey haired lady wandering round picking up sticks to make arty things with, that’ll be me 🙂

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And the handsome beardy weirdy is Paul. You’re more likely to see him up trees hanging the art we make. Feel free to say hello if you see us, but as we work long hours in the Exeter and Plymouth city rat races when we are not on the land, time is very precious so chatting about what we’re there to do might be a bit of a luxury. Please don’t think us rude if we crack on with it!

 

 

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.

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