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

Earthworks part 2

The tide of progress turned and we got a lot done this month, which I’m very glad about. The autumn weather we expect returned at the start of the month and it was glorious for a few weeks.

Permaculture Round-up

We had a group workday the first weekend of the month. Some friends bought a ruined mill that they want to restore, so we got together and everyone got in the river to dig out the silted channel. A few of us spent the day picking, washing and pressing apples for juice rather than digging. As always it was a delight to be at someone else’s project, in good company and eat good food. It took my mind off the stress of our house for the day and I felt much more relaxed afterwards, ready to tackle the earthworks once again.

Earthworks

Having allowed September to pass us by without finishing the earthworks, I knew it was vital we get finished in October. Last year it snowed before Halloween!

It was dry when we got back from the UK (obviously we missed a great weather window whilst we were away, but I won’t dwell on that) and although the forecast was slightly mixed, it was unlikely we were going to get more certainty by waiting any longer. So on the first Friday of the month I ordered the gravel for Monday. The owner of the neighbouring field, the digger owner, the digger driver, the tractor drivers and the gravel delivery company were all on board. Then the digger broke down and couldn’t get here for Monday. But after phoning around, we were all set for Tuesday morning instead. Phew.

The gravel got dropped off in the car park and all the drivers turned up in their machines to get to work. It was a glorious day and the ground was dry. Even though it was a bit slow for the tractors to reverse along the track and open the backs of the trailers to dump the gravel by the house, with three of them in convoy it was all done in three hours. What a relief!

The next job was to finish digging the trench around the problematic back corner of the house. The driver used the enormous jackhammer like before except this time we left a protective section of rock around the corner of the house, so things went a lot more smoothly. After four hours of hammering, scooping and checking the level, the trench was complete! Another big sigh of relief.

Once the trench was dug, there was preparation work to be done before the gravel could be poured – waterproof plastic had to be hung against the walls, boards had to be put in the trench to separate the gravel from the soil, and sheets of geotextile had to be cut to length and put in position to stop the soil from migrating into the gravel. It took all day to get finished – a lot more preparation work that we had imagined!

The next day we were all at the house at 8am getting started under a big LED work light. The pipe got laid in the trench and the first load of gravel went in! Once the level of the gravel came close to the height of the boards, soil got poured in the other side of the trench to the same level. Then the boards got pulled up and re-set and the whole thing repeated. It was pretty time consuming and by the end of the day we were all exhausted having filled about a third of the total trench.

We did two more long hard days of moving boards, pouring gravel and preparing the remaining sections of drain. After that, the house was safely back in the hill and we were all pleased to see two days of rain forecast so that we could have some time off to recover.

When the dry weather returned, things got moving again with the feeling like the end was in sight. The landscaping around the house got completed and I cut all the plastic and geotextile to ground level and we covered the textile in the remaining gravel. Drainage works completed!

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House back in the hill

Then all that remained were two long days for the digger driver doing finishing work in the field. We trenched in the communal water pipe and a ventilation pipe for our house. We moved the three big tree trunks to be chopped for firewood. And we placed the biggest of the rocks strategically around the field. Our favourite feature is the seating area by the natural swimming pool.

By the end we were very happy with everything. Of course now there is an enormous list of things to do! But we’ve got loads done with the digger and we are pleased with how it all turned out. The landscape around the house and across the whole field has been transformed. When the groundcover grows back it will be a thing of beauty upon which to grow our forest garden.

Finishing jobs

The night after the digger finished it started raining and barely stopped for a week straight! Good timing to have got it all done. We had a weekend off and got caught up on household chores and made some good food.

When we went up to the house, we were delighted to find that the downstairs was still dry! That amount of rain before the drainage works would have led to a very wet floor. We never made it down as far as the bottom of the footings with the outside drain, so didn’t necessarily expect the downstairs to stay dry. We’ll see how it holds up against the more serious rains over the winter.

Some of the paths needed a bit of tweaking to get the water to run down in the right place. Lots of rocks, firewood and debris needed tidying up. And the gravel around the house needed some rearranging. We also did a good tidy-up in the house and got rid of a load of rubbish. I sowed some cover crop seeds in the field but it remains to be seen whether it’s too late in the season for them to succeed.

I hope that we can get some trees planted next month.

Sleeping loft

We finally mounted the metal bracket for the last of the sleeping loft beams. It was a tricky, time-sensitive operation because we put quick-drying resin in the holes to hold the bar in place. But thankfully all went well and it seems good and sturdy. Now we’re ready for the blacksmith to come and weld the beams in place, but we need to seek out a generator to borrow first – the welding machine can draw a lot more power than our inverter can give out!

Patio Doors

Getting our glass doors for the front of the house has been stressful. Just putting the order together was a months-long process. In July we made sure the opening was correctly prepared and measured. Over August and September we were liaising with the manufacturer to find out everything we need to know, make decisions and get the order correct. And I found a company willing to transport them from the UK factory to us.

At the beginning of this month we finally got our order sent to the factory for production. They were collected for transport the other day and are on their way here right now! The driver is due to get here tonight, so we’ll be bringing them across the field in the dark. Fingers crossed that they arrive correct and in tact.

Harvests and preserves

I’ve been enjoying harvesting and preserving again this month whenever I’ve had time. The store of drying hazelnuts has become quite substantial. We’ve got lots of crumble-ready apple chunks in the freezer. There are crates of pickle, relish, gherkins, tinned tomatoes, chutney and jam in the attic. I’ve even tried my hand at some batches of apple cider vinegar as well as sauerkraut. Dave has been baking lovely bread every few days.

The last of the courgettes have been picked out the garden. The dried beans have been gathered and shelled for seed and food. The tomato harvest has continued gloriously even as the plants are dying down for the winter. The pumpkins ripened nicely in the sunshine and as the weather turned cold and the vines died down, I collected them under cover to finish curing. We have started eating the first of them and they are delicious.

As the nights draw in at the end of the month and the weather has been mixed. We’ve been lighting the fire, eating pumpkin soup and baking apple crumble. I’m very glad we have got the grunt work for the year done now that winter is closing in and I’m into my last month of pregnancy. On the whole I’ve felt great and have been fine to get on with life mostly as usual. But it will be nice to have a calmer November and enjoy the last of our quiet time alone. I’m looking forward to putting the garden to bed for the winter and getting as much of the post-digger works done as possible before we take a few months off the house project and make the terrifying, exciting, life-changing transition into life as parents.

-Anna

Waiting for a weather window

The dry weather forecast changed its mind and the rain started. The gravel had to be cancelled at the last minute. Autumn has arrived. The weeks went by with dodgy forecasts, thunderstorms, wind and rain. The blackberries are ripe and the woodland paths are littered with hazelnuts. We certainly haven’t done as much as we would have liked on the house this month.

We started getting on with the sleeping loft beams one weekend but amidst the madness of last month, I’d completely forgotten to get the hammer drill fixed and so when we went to use it, we got stopped in our tracks, which was frustrating and disappointing. Dave finished cementing the last hole in the back wall instead. I took the drill to the workshop and it was fixed and ready to go again by the end of the month.

I have definitely started finding manual work more taxing now that I’m 7 months pregnant, so I’ve slowed down considerably. There have been some admin tasks to do like chasing up our glass door order and doing research on the few baby items we need. So although I’ve been getting useful stuff done, it’s been pretty tedious.

We did spend a nice weekend on the top terrace of the future food forest. Sowed more cover crops and topped the ground with light mulch. The seeds are sprouting well with this mix of sun and rain. Dave also dug a huge trench that we filled with rotting logs, compost, soil and rhubarb crowns that I grew from seed this year. They’ve been offered a good chance, I hope they make it!

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Topping cover crop seeds with light mulch

The garden, although largely neglected, has been cropping away in the background. I harvested the most delicious sweetcorn either of us has ever tasted. I’d heard about being able to eat it raw but had never had the opportunity to try it before. Wonderful! And after three years of trying to get a crop, it was hard-earned. Tomatoes, cucumbers, courgettes and physalis are ever present in the kitchen. I sorted my small annual batch of amaranth grains, which are beautiful. And I harvested my first coriander seeds for the spice cupboard. The pumpkins and beans in the garden are ripening well.

We’ve been out foraging and have now got stacks of hazelnuts drying in the attic. I used some windfall apples from the paths to start a batch of apple cider vinegar. I also spent some time making and preserving chutney, pickle and ketchup. This time of year is gloriously abundant.

At the end of September we went to the UK for Dan’s wedding, which was a happy occasion. The trip was a lovely break from everything here; we got to spend time with the rest of his family, my Mum and a few friends. The next time we go to the UK, there will be three of us!

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Dave and I with nephew Casey

Apart from the trip to Britain, the harvests and a few useful things here and there, I have to say it’s been a slightly depressing month. This is the first time since we’ve lived here that I’ve felt like I need a holiday. I think it’s because there’s no way to be around the house and feel chilled out right now. The field is like the surface of the moon, the house is precariously dug out, we’re helpless against the weather forecast and I’m just so tired – everything feels like hard work. But we’ve been doing this for long enough that I know these things come in waves. And after this ebb, we will have a swell of progress! Here’s hoping.

-Anna