To the Equinox and beyond

August was predictably a bit rubbish. It seemed tiresomely slow as it was happening because I spent a lot of it just laying on the sofa too tired to do anything.

But we did start the month with a joyous weekend with Jules. I was on my steroid high, the weather was glorious and the company was delightful. I thoroughly enjoyed it, making the most of feeling good whilst it lasted.

Happy high

After those sweet three energetic days, I had two weeks of low energy, low milk supply, Dave having to do all of the chores and spending time with Leona whilst I zombied on the sofa and we got nothing else done.

No sooner had I recovered from that and I was in the hospital getting my first rituximab infusion. Cue another 10 days of being too tired to do much.

Getting my first immunosuppressive treatment

For the first four weeks after that infusion I was warned by the nurse to take extreme caution to stay safe and healthy because my immune system took a big dip. I noticed that little cuts and grazes didn’t heal well and I did my best to keep away from everyone to avoid catching any bugs. I made some plantain salve for faster wound healing, which has worked a treat.

Thankfully after that, things improved a lot. I feel better now than I have for a long time! Hopefully that means the treatment is working and we can relax a little.

The House

Dave managed to make some progress on the mezzanine here and there when Leona was napping or I felt up to being sole carer for a few hours. All of the floor joists are in and all of the uprights for the stud walls are in place. It’s looking really good.

Then in late September once everything had calmed down a bit, we got some more time to work on it. I cleaned up an off-cut of chestnut to use as a banister rail. Dave put down some OSB panels for the central part of the floor.

Central area has a chipboard floor

The Land

Once I was feeling energetic again and we had a week of sunshine at the start of September, we enjoyed working in the field whilst Leona played in the grass. Scything, brambling, weeding and mulching have left some select areas in a much better state.

A year ago we were just finishing with the earthworks and the field was a bare, rocky desert. Now it’s almost completely greened up! The green manures and nitrogen fixers have been doing their thing. Some of the trees and bushes have been surviving, and a few are thriving. Starting plants from seed was a bit of a gamble but I’m happy with the outcome so far, especially considering how little effort I have put in.

Lower terrace
Forest Garden Successes

Some of the best plants I have grown from seed include four sea buckthorn bushes that we’ve put by the field boundary to make a wind break. They have put on loads of growth this year and are well of their way to making an impact on the landscape. Two wild cherry trees that I dug out of a forest path and put in the front garden have outgrown me this year, more than doubling their height this season. A couple of the honey locust trees I started from seed are looking really good too. One or two of the wild service trees are doing very well. The rhubarb and strawberry patch is enjoying Dave’s weeding and mulching and providing tasty treats. The physalis plants are out of control, littering the ground with berries. The raspberries are very happy and one of the Japanese wineberry plants is taking over the garden. The comfrey is absolutely wild. The buddleia is getting massive. And the cherry tree I bought two years ago and put in the garden is starting to look established.

Against the odds, my two liquorice shrubs have survived the cold winter and the dry summer in spite of almost complete neglect. Some rosemary bushes from seed and cuttings are slowly and steadily getting bigger. My black mulberry tree that I started from seed has come back with renewed vigour after a spring slug attack. The various currant bushes (red, white, black and golden) are doing well enough to propagate this winter. The Oregon grape bushes I sowed from seed are hanging on and looking like they might make it. The bay tree that Nik and Ellie rooted from cuttings is growing slowly but surely. The two fruit trees we bought are settling in well – Dave has been keeping the mulch rings nicely fed and weed-suppressed.

We are a long way from anything that feels like a forest garden, but I think it’s nice to see a few things working out well so far.

Leona standing next to a honey locust
Forest garden failures

The plethora of failures include cuttings I made of various figs (some are still hanging on, we will see what happens), elder cuttings, berry bushes we planted on the terraces that got waterlogged, and the struggling small-leafed lime tree that is optimistically planted in the hedge, which may or may not make it. And loads of things that I can’t even remember because they never even germinated!

The Garden

The garden has been suffering the same neglect as the field for many months. But it continues to provide loads of herbs, tonnes of physalis, plenty of courgettes, some kale, nasturtium, beetroot and raspberries. I rustled through the undergrowth to pluck a few kilos of onions from some overgrown beds. I collected and froze the sweetcorn. The giant sunflowers are huge and heavy with ripening seeds! And the pumpkins and beans are coming on nicely too.

The Equinox

Autumn has arrived. The days are shortening, the nights are cooler, the sun is lower and the ground is littered with the first of the fallen leaves. I love this time of year. In August we picked elderberries. In September the paths are littered with apples, blackberries and hazelnuts. I’ve picked my first pumpkins and the first of the beans are drying in the attic.

Since all our friends here are hippies, of course we had a solstice celebration. These ceremonious occasions have always had me feeling divided. Part of me thinks that it’s silly to do things like stand in a circle holding hands and breathing in the moment or contemplating your feelings. But part of me longs for these occasions that give the time and space to reflect in a way that I usually don’t make time for. And really I suspect that my dismissive feelings about any silliness are more a reflection of my own resistance to feeling my feelings. Mockery doesn’t need to self-reflect.

Anyway, on this occasion I went with Leona. Everyone in turn had written down something from the past they wanted to leave behind, burned the piece of paper and cut some of their hair as a sign of change that autumn marks. Then a few talented souls played music and sang songs about being one with the Earth and such. Leona was sleeping in the sling and I was stood back from the circle watching my friends sing and dance, filling my heart with joy and making me realise how happy I was in that moment. I felt well. I felt relieved that I’m finally on my medication. I wasn’t fatigued, I didn’t have a tummy ache, I wasn’t stressed, I didn’t have anywhere else to be. I started to feel some happy tears coming. I thought about how hard the last year or so has been. It was only now that I felt good and happy that I was able to reflect clearly on how stressful it’s been. And I realised that I haven’t cried for months. I’ve been in survival mode for such a long time that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel sad about it all. It was a cathartic moment and I’m very grateful to have such wonderful friends.

Equinox celebrations

The Kitchen

We were given the ugly but wonderful gift of a kombucha scoby, which I used to start my own batch of kombucha. And I’ve managed to give away two scobies to other neighbours – long live the ferments! I’ve also tried a new method for sauerkraut, which is ridiculously easy and has yielded the tastiest results so far – all tang and no sweaty socks!

I have spent almost two months on the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP). I track my nutrient intake to make sure we are getting what we need and have realised the value of eating big helpings of nettles, spinach, kale and chard. We both feel really good. I usually manage to get enough sleep these days too. It has been time-consuming sticking to the protocol but it has been worth it.

The Family

Leona has been brilliant lately, so fun to be around and changing so much. She has just turned 10 months. She loves waving to people. She wants to do everything herself. She has taken her first shaky solo steps. And she has started opening drawers and cupboards to systematically throw all of the items over her shoulder one by one.

We haven’t been out and about as much as I would usually like on account of my treatment and the recent surge in corona virus cases but we spend time with the neighbours, take trips to the river and little outings around the village and the nearby woods.

Learn & Grow

Go Barefoot

We hosted a cycle tourist called Hannes for a few days and he camped in our field during a spell of glorious weather. He went about barefoot most of the time – something I have longed to do for years but rarely prioritise. I felt inspired and I downloaded Whole Body Barefoot to get my transition to barefoot on the right track. With Leona starting to walk, it’s a great time to do it. It slows me down and stops me being impatient. Annoyingly though, her tiny feet are already tougher than mine!

Talk Differently

Dave and I have starting practicing “Non-violent Communication”. It has been a total game-changer for us! I first heard about NVC in relation to parenting, but after Signe lent us the book by Marshall Rosenberg, I realised that this skill has the power to work in every aspect of life. We used to go around in circles arguing about things (“You’re not listening”, “No, you’re not listening!”). Now we can start to think, feel and talk in a way that allows us to be understood, to empathise and to work together to find solutions.

My main take-away is that there is no objective right and wrong or good and bad. This took a long time to accept – that there isn’t the ‘best’ way of doing things. Our perception of something as good, bad, dangerous, ridiculous, organised, funny, meddling or helpful depends on our personal needs. And we can change the way we talk to reflect this realisation.

“Stop fussing Leona. We have to get in the car now – we’re going to be late!” becomes instead “If we don’t leave in the next few minutes, we’re going to be late. I like to arrive on time to let everyone to spend their time productively. How about we do one more lap of the car park then get in the car?” This might seem a cumbersome way to talk at first – and it does take some getting used to. But in the end it saves so much time. And it might be just the shift in my emotional state rather than the words, but it usually works a treat.

“Dave, what are you doing?” (Implying “That’s a ridiculous way to hang the laundry!”), becomes instead “Dave, when you hang the small items on the far line it takes me longer to bring them in because I struggle to reach it. Would you be willing to hang the few large items on the far line and the smaller ones on the closer line so that I can bring the laundry in more easily?” “Sure.” Side note: It turns out that Dave put the big items on the far line so that all of the items are in direct sunlight – not ridiculous at all.

Until we accept that our own ways of doing things are based on our own needs rather than what is ‘best’, we can’t look at other people’s ways of doing things as valid and we can’t communicate about them effectively.

Of course sometimes one feels too tired, hungry or frustrated to put the new skills into practice (it’s hard to change the habits of a lifetime), but overall discussions are much more productive. In the first two days after reading it, we cleared up a few relationship-long arguments. I am feeling very relieved and I feel like we can tackle anything right now.

The End

In summary, it’s been tough but things are going well right now. I do feel a bit wary of relaxing in case anything else goes wrong, but hopefully we have reached our new normal. Long may the good times last!

-Anna

Mixed July

As always when July rolls around, I can’t think where the first half of the year went!

It’s been a tired and stressful month for me. We feel like we were stretching ourselves thin between the house, the garden, looking after Leona and worrying about my health and our precarious financial situation. After a bit of a crisis one day, we took stock, had a day off at the beach and regrouped. It was such a restorative day trip. Leona adored the sand and the sea and even Charlie went for a splash.

We decided on a routine of me spending the day with Leona whilst Dave works on the house. It took me a while to come to terms with this arrangement since it was never what I wanted before we had her. But whilst we’re breastfeeding it’s not very practical to share all types of work equally and we don’t want to give it up yet. My inner feminist was annoyed about this until a few people made me realise that ‘women’s work’ needs to be valued just as highly as ‘men’s work’ and that looking after Leona, cooking, shopping and clea- I was going to say cleaning but Dave does the cleaning! Still, what I mean to say is that the things I bring to the family are as important as building the house. And anyway, I’ve been enjoying myself enormously getting out and about with Leona. She is crawling, standing, starting to cruise, occasionally falling over, generally content exploring the world and loves interacting with other people. She’s been an absolute delight this month.

I’ve been meeting friends, taking short walks, chewing the fat with neighbours, enjoying watching Leona spend time with other people, and in my spare time I’ve been working on co-founding an unschooling playgroup with Signe and Noe. When things are good, they’re really good! I’ve also managed to finally convince Dave that we should have Sundays off! So that has been a lovely addition too.

We spent my birthday camping with friends, which was great! I was so excited to take Leona and Charlie on their first camping trip. It was a beautiful night, all went well and they loved it.

The garden is so overgrown but I haven’t been in except to pluck produce from the undergrowth. The courgettes have started and I’ve been collecting kale, herbs and nettles.

Up at the house, Dave has been busying away. He mounted the ledger on the opposite wall and has finished putting the joists on top which will support the bed. He spent his birthday getting the last joists in position and was very pleased with himself. Everything is of course perfectly level and beautifully finished. Very exciting progress – now the structure of the mezzanine floor is complete!

He has also been keeping the plant nursery watered and has scythed paths in the field and maintained the track up to the house, which is brilliant.

My parents were due to come out for four days at the end of the month and we were all so looking forward to seeing each other. But a stupid coronavirus resurge in the south of Spain led the British government to advise against all travel to the whole of mainland Spain and they cancelled at the last minute, which was very sad for all of us.

We haven’t been able to keep up our new routine all the time. I’ve been quite fatigued and my right eye started playing up intermittently. I finally decided I should go and see my neurologist, who of course wanted me to start another course of steroids right away. As much as I hate them, I’d hate to go blind more! So I’ve started them, knowing that the first half of August is going to be a write-off. We’ll be doing well if we manage to do nothing but the bare essentials for a few weeks, and even better if we don’t kill each other with frustration in the process.

The last few days of the month were busy. I got my steroids, I got a blocked duct for the first time and had to work pretty hard to prevent getting full blown mastitis. Leona entered her next developmental leap so she’s had a hard time sleeping and is more clingy. I finally got my paperwork though that puts me on the Spanish public health care system. I went to see the local GP, who referred me for an urgent neurologist appointment, which hopefully means once I’ve got over the steroids I can start on the immunosuppressants right away.

I feel like I’ve been putting on a brave face for the duration of this whole saga so far and now we’re (hopefully!) in the final stages, working towards our ‘new normal’ of life on immunosuppressants. But it’s tiring. I feel sad and worn out. We’re both stressed, which means we argue more than usual. It’s so exhausting, stressful and time-consuming being unhealthy. There are so many pending questions about the future and I feel like we’re in suspended animation. We don’t live in the house we want to live in, we don’t know when it will be ready enough to live in, we don’t know whether it will ever be sensible for us to have more kids, we don’t know whether my health is going to continue to deteriorate. I usually like to end on an upbeat note, even when there have been ups and downs throughout the month, but I’m afraid I don’t feel like it today. Although I have enjoyed reflecting for this month’s update that we have actually done a bit in spite of everything. I have two days coming of feeling good on the steroids, and we have our friend Jules coming to stay, so hopefully I can relax and enjoy myself before the lethargy kicks in, my milk supply runs out and all the stress begins anew.

Virtual hugs gratefully received.

-Anna

Stormy June

Garden

June was all go in the garden, although we didn’t actually do much work in it, it’s just been growing like mad. It has continues to be warm and wet and there are weeds galore, and a hailstorm came and toppled my pea trellis!

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Fallen peas

The first poppies came up at the start of the month. My ‘three sisters’ beds (corn, beans and squash) have been growing well. And I’m so pleased with my herb beds that are settling in well now. It’s two years since I sowed the seeds.

We’ve been eating peas, kale and herbs out the garden. The kitchen is full of dried thyme, rosemary, oregano, sage, tarragon and mint. And I’ve been collecting lots of wild plants too – the little wild plums are ripening, I’ve been making nettle pesto, elderflower cordial and herbal infusions with heal-all, lemon balm and mint.

I’ve taken an interest in herbal remedies too, and found out that there are plenty whose effectiveness is proven by double-blind trials. I’ve got a jar of oil infusing some St John’s Wort in the sun. The resulting oil can be used on sun damaged skin. I’ve got some comfrey leaves blended up and layed flat in the freezer to apply to burns or sprains as the need arises. And I’ve been treating a mild case of conjunctivitis with plantain. It’s very satisfying.

House

We were getting frustrated with the slow progress at the beginning of the month, so the last few weeks of June we focused more on the house. We ordered the wood for the mezannine and brought it up the hill one afternoon. It is starting to take shape now. Dave has bolted the beams together and glued the wood beams onto the metal ones (as a base to built off). We put a wooden ledger up on one side for the joists to hang off, and I nailed the joists onto it.

Family

Leona started crawling, then pulling herself up to standing and is now intent on trying to cruise / stand / climb on everything in sight. It’s nice watching her learn and concentrate so intently (good thing really, since you can’t take your eyes off her without her endangering life and limb!).

We have entered the ‘new normal’ in Spain so our travel and activities are unrestricted save for social distancing measures and use of masks indoors. It’s so nice to be able to meet friends again. We went to a solstice party with no restrictions on numbers, which was wonderful.

I got a possible diagnosis from my neurologist. It seems I have an autoimmune condition that is probably Neuromyelitis optica (NMO), although it could be MS. She says we’re going to do a preventative treatment assuming it’s NMO because it’s a more aggressive disease and you don’t recover in between attacks. I’m quite keen not to go blind in both eyes, lose the use of my legs, or lose control of my bladder and bowel, so I’m trying to get the paperwork sorted to get myself a Spanish healthcare card since my insurance doesn’t cover the cost of the medicine which is 2,000€ a year. I was expecting this news to get me down but honestly it just feels like more crap to deal with. It’s not a definitive diagnosis, autoimmune conditions are so individual so it’s not like there is any known prognosis, and it’s probable that stressing about it would only exacerbate the condition anyway. So just more research and hospital trips and blah blah blah for now. Maybe it will hit me at some point but so far I’m just getting on as usual.

The rheumatologist thinks I probably have Grave’s disease as well, an autoimmune condition that causes my thyroid to be overactive. Anyone who knows me well won’t be surprised that the list of symptoms includes being unable to tolerate heat, having an increased appetite, increased sweating and feeling nervous. It’s nice to find out why I’ve spent my life eating like a horse and getting evils from other commuters in scarves and coats whilst I’m stood in a t-shirt trying to open all the windows! Ha.

I found that there is a small amount of evidence that changes in diet and lifestyle can improve certain autoimmune conditions. Inflamatory bowel disease, arthritis and certain thyroid-related autoimmune conditions have been shown to improve or even go into remission when patients try the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP). The lifestyle involves low stress, moderate exercise, lots of sleep and a high-nutrient diet that aims to reduce inflammation. You eliminate everything except vegetables, fruit and meat for 6 weeks, then gradually add foods back to find out whether they make you feel worse. Seems like it’s worth a try! The meat aspect of it is less than appealing, especially since the recommendation is to have as much fat and offal as possible (trying not to puke as I write). And from an environmental and cost point of view, I want to source parts that would otherwise be discarded. So no jamon Iberico for me unforunately! Just fried liver and onions with a bone broth to wash it all down – just close my eyes and try and think of all the vitamins it contains. And if none of it makes a difference then I can go back to cheerily adding soy chunks to my stir-fry!

-Anna

Summer in May

The weather has been glorious this month! Hot and sunny with the occasional storm. The plants are growing like mad and the redstarts and blue tits that were nesting in our house have fledged.

We were supposed to spend a week in the Hebrides with my family at the start of the month and I am sad that it was corona-cancelled. I was so looking forward to some family time. The trip has been postponed until next year, when Leona will be running along the beach!

Lockdown is easing in our region and it’s very nice to be able to see the possibility of normality again. We met up with some friends for a walk around the reservoir one day and I went to the river with Leona to meet some friends when it was really hot. We sat in the shade and kept cool with our feet in the water.

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The garden

We’ve been weeding, sowing, planting out and harvesting – May is always a busy time in the garden. The weeding always feels like a thankless task at this time of year but if I can keep on top of it now then the summer is a lot easier.

Lots of grass has been scythed and added to the field or the compost heap. The comfrey got so tall that it’s all fallen over, but the bees keep on buzzing all the same.

There are berries popping up for the first time this spring, which is very exciting. The raspberry plants we put in last year are starting to set fruit. The Japanese wineberry that I grew from seed two years ago is putting on flowers. The few blueberries are busy swelling up and there are a few handfuls of strawberries every day. I am getting the first tastes of my dream of going around the forest garden in the morning to collect a bowlful of fruit for breakfast!

I’ve put out a mulberry tree and a small-leaved lime into the field. They’re both only about 10cm tall, so it will be a while before they’re contributing to the harvest basket. But some of the plants that were already out in the field are growing well. The sea buckthorns have put on half a meter of growth already this year. The black mulberry has come back from a slug attack with renewed vigour. The green manure crops have gone to seed and some of the cover crops have gone so mad that I need to go around rediscovering the little trees and bushes I’ve put out!

I’ve sowed my courgettes, pumpkins, sweetcorn, popcorn, sunflowers and beans, which have popped up quickly in the hot weather. Then I had to make a load more space to put them all in.

My elderflower champagne worked beautifully. We went through the first batch pretty quickly but the second and third batches were left longer and are more alcoholic, so we’re taking our time with them. It’s fizzy and refreshing and delicious, just as I had hoped.

The house

We have been working on the mezzanine floor and chimney. Dave fixed the joists for the central part of the mezzanine floor into the beams, thereby securing the beams in place without the need to weld them. We placed chipboard on top so that we can go up the ladder and stand in our bedroom, which is cool. There is a good amount of head room in the middle – I can only just reach the Velux windows to open and close them.

Dave dismantled the tiles and flashing around the chimney to adjust the height and make it straight before putting it all back together again in its rightful place.

We’ve been trying to plan how to build the remaining two parts of the floor, which need to be slightly higher than the central section. And the stairs, which need to be built without any margin for error because we’re short on head room on every level. It’s fiddly and there are lots of factors to consider, but we finally have come up with a plan. So then I spent a few afternoons pugging up the remaining holes in the pointing.

Dave has been getting a bit frustrated by the pace of progress with a baby in tow, but I think it’s been going quite well. There are days when we manage to inch our way towards our goal, discussing and working with Leona asleep in the sling, and other days where we seem to achieve nothing but the bare minimum of laundry, food and walking the dog. But such is life.

Family

Leona is six months old! They say the days are long and the years are short and that seems to be about right. I’ve enjoyed these six months more than I could have imagined.

We have spent a fair bit of time just hanging out together. Leona has more time awake these days and needs more stimulation, so it’s nice that we’ve been able to see people again – she’s always happy to see a new face. We’re back to taking walks through the village and chatting over garden gates. We had a visit from Kasper and Elise one day – they were Workaway volunteers with us last year and have bought their own piece of paradise 20 minutes from us.

We’ve had a few more hospital trips and I had a week or two out of action after a high dose steroid treatment. We still don’t seem any closer to a diagnosis for me. I’m getting a bit fed up of the hassle but hopefully we’re getting somewhere.

It really feels like summer already. The long grass sends clouds of pollen into the air as you walk through it, Dave has stocked up on hay fever medicine, the days are long and warm and the garden is growing.

Taken six months apart…

Feeding my curiosity

In the years since I quit my job, I’ve had the beautiful freedom of time to learn what I want. The last six months in particular have allowed me time to read and learn whilst breastfeeding and contact napping. I’m not talking about learning facts, like “pandas are born smaller than a mouse”, which is just interesting. I’m talking about learning things that change how you see the world. Like when you realise how much extra land, water and other resources are required to make 1kg of beef compared to 1kg of beans and your eyes widen, give way to a deflated sigh and you start googling ‘can tofu ever be delicious?’ whilst thinking how blissful ignorance was.

Dave often jokes that the only consistent thing about me is that I’m always changing. This is a source of pride to me now. But I remember the first major unravelling of all I knew to be true happened in my early teens and there was no pride or joy about it. It was over the course of my confirmation bible study classes, when I finally realised that I had to call myself an atheist. It was a years-long and painful process making the shift from seeing the Church as a beacon of hope, righteousness and truth to seeing the systematic indoctrination, abuse of power, perpetuation of the patriarchy and the web of lies required to keep the institution alive at all costs. I came to despise something that had previously seemed so vital, and that unravelling made my teenage years all the more turbulent. But that fundamental change in how I saw the world opened up more possibilities than I ever dreamed possible. Once I could accept that everything is up for debate, that the tenacity of an idea does not make it true, and that I have the power to change my mind upon learning new information, there was no stopping me. The pain in realising that my reality had crumbled gave way to a craving for learning and paved the way for my mind to be open to change. I realised in my late teens that I was an environmentalist. In my early 20s that I was a feminist. I craved knowledge and adventure. Once I had seen all the pain and possibility in the world, those things could not be unseen or forgotten. Thinking in this way means a life of uncertainty, opening your eyes to the unnecessary injustice and suffering in the world, constantly admitting that you were wrong, and forever changing not just what you think but also what you do and say. It requires being seen as radical and weird. By now I’m pretty used to people thinking I’m weird, so I figured I may as well carry on learning.

Over the past year, my thinking about my body and about having children has changed dramatically. It pains me to say this now, but I used to see pregnancy and breastfeeding as a kind of parasitic relationship – the mother giving her body, her nutrients, her love and care, the child receiving those things. Now I see my relationship with Leona as symbiotic, each of us getting what we need from each other.

I used to be terrified of pregnancy and childbirth, thinking they would wreck havoc on my body. But Ina May Gaskin taught me that the experience of birth can be joyful, empowering and beautiful. I used to think of babies as pretty boring, but now I know what parents everywhere knew all along – that they are small humans with needs, feelings and personalities and the ability to communicate these surprisingly effectively. I’ve gone from thinking that babies should sleep in cots to realising that there was a time before cots when every baby slept with their mother. I’ve learned the benefits of safe co-sleeping and am absolutely loving my bedtime cuddles and the extra sleep I get not having to get up in the night. I’ve gone from thinking unquestioningly that it’s normal for all babies to wear nappies, to realising that there are millions of babies around the world who never wear a nappy. I’ve gone from having a vague idea about unschooling, thinking that it sounds interesting but being unsure how kids can really learn without school, to thinking that radical unschooling and mixed-age interaction are the best ways to learn. I’ve gone from wondering how to get my baby to do what I want when I want, to learning the importance of timing things to perfection so that everyone’s needs are met with as few tears as possible. I’ve gone from wondering how to raise a polite and happy child whilst respecting their autonomy, to making the dreadful realisation that Dave and I are going to have to be polite and respectful to each other in order to lead by example. Oh the sacrifices we parents make!

I’m ever grateful to my own parents for nurturing my inquisitive nature and allowing me substantial freedoms from a young age. Questioning everything has led me to some interesting places – cycle touring, off-grid living, learning how to communicate more effectively, and apparently now parenting like a god-damn hippy!

The hardest thing about constantly learning new things is having to change your behaviour accordingly, but that’s also the best thing about it. Over the last few years I’ve become so much more content. And since Leona arrived I have been more at peace than ever. I worry less – actually I hardly worry at all. I sleep better because I’m worrying less (although sometimes I can’t sleep because I’m too busy processing all the new stuff I’ve been learning!). I don’t tend to get angry or stressed as often or as easily. I understand my feelings better. I care less about trivial things. I tend to enjoy whatever is happening in that moment, even if it isn’t what I had hoped or planned for.

I keep thinking about an article I read by a writer who returned from the UK to her native Kenya to have her baby, who had this realisation, which applies in fact not just to babies but to life in general: “I suddenly learned the not-so-difficult secret as to the joyful silence of African babies. It was a simple needs-met symbiosis that required a total suspension of ideas of ‘what should be happening’ and an embracing of what was actually going on in that moment.”

I guess we all know that life would be more enjoyable if we could just enjoy it more, but it takes time to learn what that means and how to do it. I think the key is aligning your lifestyle with your values – and that is serious work. So although there is little visible progress on the house this month, I feel I’ve made a step forward on the never-ending path towards living according to my ideology.

-Anna

April showers

It’s a lovely spring. The flowers are out, the grass is growing, the forest has almost completely greened up. We have a pair of redstarts raising a brood in our house. The lizards, slow worms and myriad of insects having been making their presence known – two male Iberian Emerald Lizards had a fight right at my feet as I was raking grass clippings! Lockdown continues.

We’ve spent much of our time on the land – planting, sowing, weeding, doing minor earthworks. Dave has been working on his drains. We want to channel the water to prevent giant puddles but have places where it is stored and can be used to water the land. So he’s been putting ditches in along the terraces and adjusting them after the rains. I’ve been planting water-loving plants like comfrey, mint and hyssop alongside them.

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One of the channels in the making

We have done a fair bit of weeding, although there is always more where that came from! We went around the field taking out brambles and nettles. Having done this once or twice a year since we arrived, it only took a half day this time. Progress indeed. The other areas around the garden and stone walls are a bit more tricky but still nothing like they have been in the past. I’ve been picking away at the weeding in the vegetable garden. Dave scythed around some of the beds.

Lots of mulch has gone onto the barren field. Piles of branches and cut grass have been spread across the terraces and banks to provide shade, moisture, shelter and nutrients. It makes such a difference – the cover crops come up better, there are loads more insects about and the idea is that the twigs will rot down and start to make some soil too. In the places that were sowed in September, the mustards and oil seed rape are head hight and the nitrogen fixers are making a beautiful carpet underneath them. They are all buzzing and scurrying with lovely insects. There is hope for the forest garden!

I’ve been planting out more of my nursery plants; shrubs, trees, nitrogen fixers and berry bushes have made it out into the field to fend for themselves. There is honey locust (nitrogen fixing firewood tree), wild service trees (fruit tree), black mulberry, white mulberry, sea buckthorn (berry bush and wind break), Oregon grape (berry), golden currant, Japanese wineberry, rhubarb and asparagus, to name a few of the plants I have managed to start from seed over the last few years. And this year my small leaved limes have just started to come up, 20 months after sowing!

The herb beds I sowed two summers ago are filling out really nicely. We’ve had our first strawberries of the year and the pea shoots are going mad. There are a few spring onions but other than that, it’s a bit sparse in the ‘hungry gap’ at the moment. We have been making our way through the array of home made sauces, chutneys, relishes and jams that I made last year. I’ve been making batches of sauerkraut and we just put on our first elderflower champagne of the year to ferment. I hope it works! Nothing says spring like sipping elderflower champagne amongst the wildflowers.

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Two-tone sauerkraut

We went out one day to forage some little plants from the free nursery of the woodland caminos. By the late summer they have all been cut back to clear the paths, so rather than stealing from the woods, we have been rescuing plants from the strimmer! We found wild cherry, willow, sloe, oak, sweet chestnut, small leaved lime, elderflower, broom, wild rose, lemon balm and hazel. We are very pleased with our bucket of refugees and have added them to our borders and hedges for windbreaks, future food and wildlife habitat. I also found a honeysuckle growing on one of our stone walls, which was a nice surprise since the ones I sowed failed to germinate.

The nursery has filled up again. Never takes long! I’m starting lots of stuff for the veggie garden as well as some herbs for the field. My peas have gone out into the beds but most are waiting for better weather. The slugs are quite prolific at the moment with all the rain!

Leona has been growing like a weed too. She’s five months old now and it’s amazing how much she changed over the course of the month. She’s holding herself up quite well, so we have started baby-led weaning, which mostly involves her smearing various fruits all over herself in between licks, which she is delighted by. And we’re learning to carry her on our backs, which is a great development because we can get more stuff done that way.

We have also started Elimination Communication (EC) – reading her cues and putting her on the potty to reduce cloth nappy washes. I’d heard of it a while ago and was curious about it, but we only got around to it when she was 4 months old. And now we wish we’d started sooner! I can only describe it with an analogy – imagine growing up in a place where it was normal to formula feed babies on a standard schedule. Then you heard about people in a far-away land who breastfeed on demand and you think… Hmm… That sounds like a lot of work. And how do they know when their babies are hungry? But maybe if I learn how to do it and it works out well for us, it could be less expensive, less time consuming and involve less washing. Maybe I’ll give it a try. So we did and now we’re hooked, so that’s another thing that I’m so thankful to our lovely neighbours for letting us know it existed.

We have had to make a few more trips to the hospital this month. I noticed that the vision in my bad eye was significantly worse and emailed my neurologist to ask if she was concerned about it, since it didn’t fit my diagnosis. She must have been lacking patients due to lockdown because she was very keen to get me in immediately for a barrage of further testing. I got admitted for a morning and about ten people stood around the bed whilst she performed a lumbar puncture, a nurse took loads of vials of blood and I spent an hour an a half in the MRI machine! Between each test I had to pop out of the hospital to feed Leona in the carpark where Dave was trying to keep the wolf from the door. It was a pretty stressful day for everyone. Then I got a five day headache from the lumbar puncture, which was annoying. We still haven’t got a diagnosis but I think the options are being narrowed down. She has ruled out Lyme’s disease, MS, tumours and a whole host of conditions I’ve never heard of. It is looking like an auto immune condition but since we don’t know which one, I don’t know whether it will be treatable, manageable, curable or not. I haven’t been thinking about it too much, surprisingly, since there’s not much point in speculating. But it has made us think a bit more pressingly about our priorities and we would both love to hurry up and live in our house at some point… So we’ve been doing some thinking on that front. Watch this space (but don’t hold your breath!)

Overall I feel life is treating us exceptionally well at the moment. The lockdown is taking its toll on a lot of people, so there’s a tinge of guilt to us enjoying it, but I think it’s important to count our blessings. Neither of us are working, we’re just busy on our land with our lovely Leona and Charlie for company, living the dream. Or as Dan would say “Living in a dream, more like!”. It sure does feel like it right now.

-Anna

Life on Lockdown

These certainly are testing times we’re living in. And it’s all a bit surreal spending this time in our middle-of-nowhere village.

When we got back home, we had two weeks of normality. Dave wasn’t back at work yet. We hadn’t started on the house yet. We were just enjoying being back, spending time with Leona, planting the food forest and taking walks in the sunshine. It was glorious.

Then the corona virus shit really hit the fan in Spain. We’d actually just spent the day out with friends, having decided we’d been back long enough to be sure we hadn’t brought the virus with us! It was a beautiful sunny day and we sat out enjoying the weather and each other’s company. When we got home that evening and put the telly on, the president was making an address about the State of Emergency and what it meant. That brought the reality of the situation home and we started lockdown along with everyone else.

The oil price tanked and Dave hasn’t had any work come his way yet, but we can manage for the time being so at the moment the enforced break is nice.

Life in the village has not been drastically dissimilar than normal. People go out to check on the animals, tend their veggie gardens, feed their chickens, collect firewood. But nobody is taking strolls through the village any more, there are no casual chats in the street. And if you go down into the valley for supplies, there are police patrolling to make sure everyone is playing by the rules. To buy food, you have to wait in line to go in the small shop one at a time. The bars are shut and nobody is walking around like usual.  Precautions have to be taken seriously here. The population is quite elderly and a lot of people have worked in the mines and have lung conditions.

We are feeling even luckier than usual to live out here rather than in a city. Going out to sow vegetable seeds, water the garden and walk the dog have been sanity-saving activities for me.

The veggie garden and food forest seem more important than ever. I’m on a desperate mission to get something to grow in the field before summer. The clay goes from waterlogged to hard-packed without a hospitable middle ground for seeds to germinate and survive, so I’ve been sowing seeds and covering them with whatever mulch I can find in a bid to provide them with vaguely suitable habitat. Some are starting to come up now but I know there’s a seriously long way to go from baked clay to spongy forest floor. Still, got to start somewhere!

We have planted out a load of my little trees and bushes that I grew from seed almost two years ago. They look so small and insignificant in the field, so exposed to the burning sun and cold wind. It seems impossible at the moment that they could ever make an impact, but we’ll just see what works out. I have sowed another batch of seeds for trees, bushes and herbs that will be ready next year.

As the month comes to an end and we face probably the whole of April on lockdown too, I’m relieved that things are feeling good right now in our little corner of the world. We are very lucky to be able to enjoy making the most of the lockdown. Leona and Charlie keep us entertained and we’ve enjoyed lots of reading, cooking and chilling out.

-Anna

The travelling four

I can barely believe we spent the whole of February in the UK! We spent time in London catching up with friends, went to CentreParcs with Dave’s side of the family for his Mum’s 70th, spent a long weekend in Edinburgh for Faye and Iain’s wedding, had a few days in Aberdeen with my parents and stayed at a few stop-offs in between with various family members. It was a fantastic trip and even more special spending time with the family now that we have an additional member for everyone to meet.

This whole trip was planned around my sister’s wedding, so really we have her and Iain to thank for our holiday! It was a beautiful occasion and one of those rare days when you get to catch up with all kinds of wonderful people you don’t get to see often enough.

We had originally planned to go to Berlin at the start of March for me to get a treatment that might improve the blindness in my left eye. But mid February we decided we would save that for another time. Time, money and energy are all at a premium and we’d rather be spending it at the house and on Leona. So we booked our ferry home on the last day of February.

The crossing back was worse than the journey out. Poor Charlie was exhausted having stood up scared on her bed the entire way and braved one wee in almost 30 hours! But we all survived and made it home.

It feels so good to be back. I was a smidge worried before we left that my need to be around family since having Leona would be stronger than my need to be in this beautiful place where we have decided to build our lives. But as much as I’d love for us to be able to see each other more often, I’m very pleased to say that Asturias and the lifestyle we can afford here still have their pull. I am excited to get back to our project and try to inch our way towards a completed house.

-Anna

January travels

We set off on the 19th to catch the ferry from Santander. It was a rough start to the crossing – Charlie was terrified, Dave and I were throwing up and Leona slept better than ever!

Since arriving on Terra firma in the UK, we’ve been to see my cousin and her baby, I’ve attended my sister’s hen do between feeds, we have visited my aunt and uncle, and we’ve met all of Dave’s side of the family. It’s been great so far. Travelling with Charlie and Leona has been easier than I expected. Dave has been keeping on top of the laundry like a champ in all the different places we’re staying. And so far everything has gone relatively smoothly. We did have one trip to A&E but thankfully it was for me, not Leona!

We went to the skate park with nephew Casey. I was very keen to have a go on a bmx. I’d never tried it before and it seemed a bit scary, but I hate it that it always seems to be that Mum ends up standing on the sidelines with the kids whilst Dad gets to try all the fun activities. So I fed Leona, handed her to Dave and got out there. An 8 year old kid took me under her wing and showed me how to ride in and out of the bowl, which I did successfully and was very proud of myself! Then I did a very successful faceplant and got myself glued back together in A&E. I suppose I’m a little bit proud of it.

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Now it’s the first of February and we’re in brexit Britain! I hope they will let us leave again at the end of our trip.

-Anna

Happy new year

The first few weeks as new parents was a haze of laundry, feeds, nappy changes and little walks in the woods. It wasn’t stressful because we had no other responsibilities, so we just enjoyed getting into the rhythm of it and spending time with our little munchkin.

Over Christmas we spent two weeks at an airbnb with my family. Friends JC and Neal came over for a few days too. It was lovely to spend time together and the weather was glorious.

The year is at its end and it’s time to reflect on 2019. At the start of the year we were taking out the old wooden floor beams. We put in a whole new floor, did loads of pointing, grew a load of food, had the drain put in around the house, terraced the field, framed out the front wall, finished the new window, added front doors and brought a new little person into our family. Dave has worked a fair bit but now he’s on unpaid leave until March, which is great. We’re going to be taking a trip around the UK to spend the cold, wet and snowy winter months with family and friends before heading back to carry on with the house in spring.

Happy new year everyone!

-Anna

Balcony doors and a baby

It’s been a mixed month, full of milestones and emotion!

Balcony doors

Our doors arrived at 10 o’clock at night at the end of October, having left the UK the day before. It had been raining and the driver wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it up the hill, which was a worry. We didn’t fancy carrying them all the way from the car park! But after a good run-up, he skidded his way up there and we unloaded them under the stars by the side of the field. Having been told by someone at the factory that one person could carry a door on their own, we were disappointed to learn they weigh 80kg each! Even Dave and Omar between them were having a hard time lifting them. But my little trolley came to the rescue and they rode them in over the muddy field one at a time and we finished at midnight.

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Bringing them in on the trolley

November arrived in good autumnal fashion. I went out with Charlie just before sunrise. The trees were boasting their end of season colours and the warm breeze was casting joyous bursts of leaves into the sky like confetti.

Over the next few weekends we set about installing the new doors. It took us a few hours just to get them from the downstairs of the house to the upstairs since they wouldn’t fit up the indoor steps and our outdoor steps have yet to be rebuilt since the earthworks. We took out a few panels of chipboard flooring and hoisted them up through the gap.

We got the top and bottom tracks installed nice and straight and level then mounted the doors in place. We had a few little hiccups here and there but went slow and steady and they’re getting there now. The house is starting to feel more house-like by the month!

Difficult diagnosis

My peaceful plans for November went out of the window at the start of the month when I got some less than ideal news about my health. Back in August I started getting a visual disturbance in my left eye. I thought it would be some pregnancy-related fluid build-up on the retina, but the ophthalmologist said my eyeball was fine. After being passed to a neurologist and having various tests in September and October, I finally got my diagnosis this month. It’s an unusual condition with the acronym NAIOM where the anatomical weakness of having a tightly packed optic nerve combines with some event causing a temporary lack of oxygen to the nerve and part of it dies, leading to blind spots in the field of vision (or complete blindness in some cases). People who have it in one eye are also at risk of getting it in the other eye. There is no known treatment or prevention. In my case they don’t know why it happened.

Whilst the neurologist was telling me this, I managed to keep it together and try and concentrate on what she was saying (nothing like hearing bad news from a medical professional in your third language). Once outside, I mourned the loss of my left eye and started feeling anxious about the right one. I had a few really bad days where I was obsessing about my good eye going wrong, and didn’t eat or sleep much. Then of course I started worrying about the baby being flooded with cortisol and deprived of nutrients! It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster.

What I can see with my left eye is relatively normal peripheral vision but with a mostly blind spot in the centre. So if I am reading for example and close my right eye, I can see the outline of the book or screen but the page appears blank. I can see my surroundings but anything I actually try to look at disappears – objects, faces, scenery. If the other eye developed the same problem, I’d be able to walk around with a stick but would be unable to read, drive, see people’s facial expressions or do intricate tasks that couldn’t be done by touch alone. If I met someone like that, I would assume that they could still live a happy, independent life, and I’m sure that I would under the circumstances. But nobody wants to lose capability and make their lives more difficult.

If we assume that I maintain my good eye as is and I can let the fear and anxiety subside, I can live a normal life as I am now. The blurring and distortion are annoying and my eyes get really tired, especially now that the days are shorter and I spend more time indoors with artificial lights, but I can generally get about just fine. So I’m working on shedding the anxiety that sits in the pit of my stomach and trying to get enough sleep.

Dave has been a great support, I really can’t fault how he’s dealing with this. I’ve been so lucky to have him be there for me whenever I’ve needed him (which has been a lot!). My Mum has been a blessing as always too and I think between us now we’re basically world NAION experts!

I had a week long treatment of steroids in week 37 of my pregnancy. The doctor was doubtful they would have any effect but thought it was worth a try. By the end of the week I was totally exhausted and had terrible fluid retention. I spent about a week recovery from that and as far as I can tell my eye remains the same.

Everything else

There were so many nice jobs I wanted to get done this month – rebuilding the retaining wall and steps up to the balcony, planting out the food forest, tending to the garden. But between the relentless rain, countless hospital visits and the last of the baby preparations, everything landscaping-related has pretty much ground to a halt. One night of extremely high winds finally saw an end of the greenhouse plastic. Every time there’s a storm it gets a bit more battered and it finally gave out by getting a great big tear along the front of the roof. We took the plastic off and the frame will just spend the winter as a skeleton.

We spent one afternoon trying to get the water off the terraces. The constant rain had filled up the dips, making a rather large pool on each terrace, creating its own spillways down the banks and in two places leaving land slumps where parts of the bank started to come down. Of course now it seems like this was a total inevitability and we should have had the digger driver put drainage channels in the back of each terrace – as was the original plan! But hey ho, now we have to manage it as best we can.

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Baby

With a few weeks to go until my due date, I did get some time to just relax and recover after all the chaos of hospital visits. Some friends threw a surprise happy baby party, which was wonderful. And I spent time cooking, walking Charlie and taking naps.

Six days before my due date I woke up with my first contraction at 6am. I was very excited! When Dave woke up at 8 we went for a walk together before breakfast. He then spent the day tying up loose ends at work whilst I cooked and napped my way through early labour. By 6pm the contractions were still pretty mild but coming every four minutes so we packed up and headed to hospital. It was nice and quiet arriving at 8pm and we had the maternity ward to ourselves. The midwife was wonderful and we had an uncomplicated and empowering birth, bringing Leona into the world at 11.15pm on November 27th.

I spent a few days high on adrenaline, marvelling at our little girl and not sleeping a wink. Dave was immediately adorably besotted. Then on the 30th November we went home to start the first day of the rest of our lives as a proper little family.

-Anna