Foraged Greens Soup on the West Highland Way (and Terror in the Night)

Foraged Greens Soup on the West Highland Way (and Terror in the Night)

The West Highland Way is a 96 mile route that leads from the edge of Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish highlands.  It’s a novice-friendly walk with stunning scenery ranging from lush woodlands on the east bank of Loch Lomond to eerily, beautifully bleak Rannoch Moor to  the awe-inspiring heights of the Devil’s Staircase with its views of mountains stretching as far as you can see in all directions.

I  had done most of it before, but this time would be more of a challenge:  I had been sick in bed for most of the preceeding month, and was still weak.  My friend, Anete, was coming from Latvia just for the walk – time off booked, flights booked, so it was now or never.  Fortunately, we had never planned on trying to do the whole thing in a week, and she was happy to take it slow and do what we could.  I wasn’t sure how it would go (and was reliably informed that I was mad for doing it) but I was looking forward to getting outdoors after so long inside!

We set off in the aftenoon, as soon as Anete arrived in Glasgow, and got to Balmaha (via train and bus) by 5:30pm – giving us two and a half hours to walk five miles to the campsite in time to check in (wild camping is not permitted on this stretch of Lomondside due to people from the city making a mess of the woods).  Should be no problem.  We found the trail, but it was not obvious which way to go.  I have to admit, no one has ever accused me of having a good sense of direction, and we had arrived at a bend in the trail.  The bus driver had said we’d be walking over Conic Hill – which I didn’t remember doing before, but I put that down to my seive-like memory, and, having asked some dog-walkers which way it was, we set off.

We soon emerged from woodland onto the slope of the hill, and had been making steady progress for some time when we met some walkers coming down… and discovered that we were going the wrong way!  And the World’s Worst Trail Guide award goes to…  Thank God for forgiving friends!  A quick about-face and decent, and we were on the right track, if somewhat behind schedule.  Taking the road north (this time) from Balmaha, we passed fields of new lambs – one of natures cutest creatures!  A couple of miles on, it was clear that we wouldn’t make it in time to check in, but I figured we could pay in the morning, and there was still a good chance we’d make it before full dark.  Then a couple of rangers in a van spotted us and gave us a lift, and there we were, bang on eight!

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Sallochy Campsite  Photo: Anete

 

Feeling pleased with ourselves (we figured we had done five miles, even if it wasn’t the right five miles), we pitched the tent and heated up the veg curry and rice I had brought.  By then it was dark and cold, so we burrowed into our sleeping bags and crashed.

Day Two

One advantage of taking it slow is the luxury of having a lie in, and we did – not emerging from our downy coccoons until the sun was well up and the day starting to feel warm.  I had been worried about how I would feel after my first day of excercise in so long, but I felt fine!  In fact, I felt fantastic.  Waking up to a sunny day (in Scotland, in early April – what were the chances?!) on the shore of Loch Lomond and being well…  I was a very happy camper indeed.

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Anete, looking intrepid

From Sallochy campsite the trail rises through the woods for some distance.  Uphill with packs was slow going, but the air was fresh and cool, the birds were singing, and I was rewarded with intermittant exclamations of ‘whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa!’  Scotland in springtime really is incredibly beautiful, and I love to see it fresh through someone elses eyes.  Even better, I knew this was just the beginning.

The trail soon levels out and continues at an elevation through the woods.  April is a fantasic time for the WHW – the trees are just budding, everything else is green and you can still see through the trees.  The trail frequently passes miniature waterfalls – burns ranging in size from a tiny trickle to a fordable stream – all tumbling musically out of the hillside.

burn

Photo: Anete

We couldn’t resist stopping by, erm,  a number of these for a drink, a rest, some lembas and other refreshments, and just to soak up the beauty.

Late in the afternoon we came across these beautiful creatures:

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Sadly out of focus, but I think you can just about see that they’re deer.

Not long after that, we reached our destination for the night: Rowchoish Bothy.  Despite its inaccessible location (reached only by foot or boat), Rowchoish was a settlement of nine families until 1759, and the the remaining ruined cottage was occupied until the thirties.  Now the old byre is a bothy, a shelter maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association for the free use of walkers.  It’s sparse but comfortable, with a fireplace and wooden sleeping platform.  Of course, we could have camped outside (and probably would have been warmer in the tent), but it was nice to be able to spread out a little and sit in front of the fire.

But first, we had foraging to do.  Ramsons, or wild garlic, grow rampant along sections of the WHW, and they are delicious.  I was counting on them for our soup, and had also hoped to find nettles, which are rare along the trail but often grow near human habitation.  We found both growing around the bothy.  Wood Sorrel is a plant that I often nibble, but never thought to cook with – until Anete suggested it.

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Rowchoish Cottage  Photo:Anete

The plan was to do a soup with rice noodles (a wheat/gluten free alternative to my usual instant ramen noodles) and miso (probiotics for my dodgy plumbing).  I had intended to add an egg to Anete’s and not mine, as I wasn’t sure how I was with eggs, but in the end I was too hungry to be sensible.

N.B. I imagine it goes without saying, but please don’t eat anything if you aren’t sure what it is!  Nettles and wood sorrel are pretty obvious but there are some ramson look-alikes which can make you ill- fortunately none of them smell like garlic.

Here’s the recipe for my super-easy gut-friendly camping soup:

Ingredients:

  • 2 nests of rice noodles (quick cooking)
  • 2tbsp miso paste
  • 1tbsp Swiss Vegetable Bullion (vegan/lactose free)
  • 1 bowlful of nettle tops
  • 2 handfuls of ramsons
  • as much wood sorrel as you can be bothered picking
  • 1 handful of dried seaweed
  •  2 eggs, beaten

Method:

  • Bring a pot of water to the boil and add noodles
  • When noodles start to loosen up (about 2 minutes) add nettles, seaweed and bullion
  • Add eggs slowly, stirring to create a feathery texture
  • Remove from heat and add ramsons and wood sorrel
  • Allow to cool slightly before adding miso*

*This (I hope) keeps the probiotic bacteria alive.  I find the easiest way to add it is to tip a little of the cooking liquid into a bowl and dissolve the paste in it, then add to soup.

Ramsons are also best added at the end, otherwise they lose their garlic flavour.

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While I was cooking, Anete kept me entertained by doing a bit of housekeeping:

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Sadly, it turned out not to be a magic broomstick.  Worth a try!

After tea we did some more foraging – this time for firewood.  Everything was damp, but we managed to get it lit.  I have to admit that it filled the bothy with a lot more smoke than heat, but it was still nice and cosy, and a welcome, if scant, source of light after nightfall.

Feeling replete and relaxed, I went out to answer a call of nature.  I walked away from the bothy a little ways to enjoy the view.  The clearing was flooded with the light of the full moon, the woods at the edge just visible as a shadowy silhouette and the effect was magical.  I was lingering to enjoy it (and drip dry) when suddenly a very loud and very strange barking noise came out of the woods!  In a flash I was scrambling for the door of the bothy – heart pounding, pants at half mast…  halfway there I realised I was running for my life… from a deer!  Still full of adrenaline but now laughing hysterically at my idiocy, I fumbled the door open and fell in, to the amusement of one erstwhile witch-wannabe.  Fortunately, she had heard it too, and didn’t just think I’d gone mad!

More to come from the WHW…

 

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Gut-Friendly Quinoa Bars and Other Tricky Trekking Food

Gut-Friendly Quinoa Bars and Other Tricky Trekking Food

I don’t know whether to call them breakfast bars, protein bars or flapjack, but whatever they are, they work!

In my last post I described the catastrophic failure of my insides.  Maybe that’s a little melodramatic, especially as it turned out to just be IBS, but I was really ill!  I spent most of March in bed, and lost 20% of my body weight.  Eventually, after a week of just simple smoothies and very careful eating after, my condition stabilised, but I was left feeling very weak.  At which point I started preparations for walking the West Highland Way.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to do anywhere near all of it, and wasn’t sure I would last more than one day, but I had a friend coming from Latvia to do it and I didn’t want to let her down.

I’ve done a lot of this kind of stuff before – backpacking, cycle touring and hillwalking – but never in this condition.  Food was the main  challenge.  I needed to pack food that wouldn’t make me ill, and I also needed to make sure I was getting good nutrition.  I was already clinically underweight and wanted to build myself up, not force my body to digest more of itself!

Shopping with IBS is a strange experience for me.  I am fairly health conscious and normally go for whole grains and maximum nutrition in my choices, but suddenly I found myself searching for the bland and – weirdest of all – starch without fibre.  I was also nervous about wheat; I didn’t know for sure that it was a problem, but I didn’t know that it wasn’t, and I was trying to avoid the most common trigger foods.

What I Packed

For the first night I brought a squash and sweet potato curry from the freezer and cooked rice.  I often bring a meal like this for first nights as its not getting carried far or kept long.

For the other nights, I brought rice noodles for soup (the kind that just need three minutes in hot water) with miso paste and Swiss Vegetable Bullion (the vegan one, without lactose) and instant mashed potato.

For breakfast I made up individual baggies of hemp protein powder and Supergreens powder to mix up with water.  That took care of half my protein needs and exhaustively covered vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.  Stupidly, I didn’t think to get some powdered juice mix, which would have added calories and made it taste better.

Incidentally, if you’re ever doing the WHW, don’t worry about water.  I don’t carry any water on it as you are never far from a clear mountain burn.  I carry a filter but rarely use it on the Way.

I also brought nuts, dried fruit and oatcakes, but my staple was these quinoa bars.  They are packed with energy and nutrition, and taste amazing (this has been verified by my friend).  We ate so much of them that we were calling them Lembas – the WHWaybread of the elves.

This recipe is an adaptation of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Peanut Butter Booster Bars. I owe a Huge thanks for this recipe, which I have been making for years, and which has seen me through university, cycle tours and every other activity which has required a good energy supply.  My only adaptation in the past has been the addition of dark chocolate on top.  I call them rocket fuel, and they are.  If you’ve ever wanted to be a hero, all you need to do is break out a packet of these on top of a mountain and share.

This time I did a lot of tinkering with them.  I was worried about oats, and originally planned to make them with half rice flakes (flattened rice) and half quinoa, but in the end I found that I could tolerate oats in moderation.  I used quinoa partly to cut down on the oats and partly to up the protein.  Quinoa is very gut friendly, so long as it is rinsed well – unrinsed quinoa contains saponins which can be irratant.

I had found nuts in general to be fine, but peanuts were a problem, so I substituted almond butter for the peanut butter.  Almond butter is high in protein (like peanut butter) and very high in vitamin E – a potent antioxidant and essential for maintaining normal gut function.  Vitamin E deficiency is very rare, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to load up as I hadn’t been digesting fats well for a while.

For the same reason, I substituted coconut oil for most of the butter.  Coconut oil seems to be the miracle food of the moment, and as such its benefits are being vastly overstated.  I started while I was concerned about gall bladder disease – I read an article saying that coconut oil is digested differently than other fats, and a good way to get enough fat in your diet without triggering gall bladder symptoms.  The same article also recomended small amounts of other fats to keep the GB ticking over, which is why I used butter as well.  I have to admit, much of what I’ve done to manage the IBS has been largely superstion rather than science, but when you’re ill, you try anything.  In any case, I did find it much easier to digest.

Walnuts are a superfood in themselves, and apricots happen to be my favourite dried fruit, as well as being good for you.  Ditto pumpkin seeds.  Here’s the recipe:

Gut-Friendly Quinoa Bars

Ingredients:

  • 100g quinoa
  • 25g butter (or coconut oil for vegan bars)
  • 50g coconut oil
  • 150g light brown sugar
  • 75g honey
  • 150g almond butter
  • 100g oats
  • 100g walnuts, chopped
  • 50g pumpkin seeds
  • 150g dried apricots, chopped

Method:

Rinse the quinoa well and cook (like rice).  Drain and put in a warm oven (~125C) to dry out a bit.

Melt the butter, coconut oil, sugar, honey and almond butter in a saucepan on low heat, stirring to combine.

Measure the other ingredients into a mixing bowl.  The apricots tend to stick together – crumbling them through your fingers with the other ingredients breaks them up.

Grease a 10″x 10″ baking tin.  Don’t worry if you tin is a different size, but it will take more time in a smaller one and less in a bigger one.  I use a silicon one, which is brilliant, so long as it has a tray underneath to keep it in shape.

Add quinoa to dry ingredients and mix.  It will still be moist but shouldn’t be too wet.  Turn the oven up to 160C.

Add the contents of the saucepan, mix and tip into the baking tin.  Press down and smooth out the top.

Bake at 165C for approximately 30 minutes.  It should be starting to brown on top when it is ready.  If it starts to brown too soon it can be loosely covered with foil or baking paper.

You MUST let it cool completely before turning it out and cutting.  Believe me, I know how hard this is, but it’ll fall apart otherwise!

These keep really well at room temperature and even better in the fridge or freezer (and travel better when chilled).

Please let me know if you try them!

More on tricky trekking food to come…

 

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Fear and Loathing in My Belly

I love March. I love the smell of spring rain and the feel of the air on my face when it first loses its bitter chill. I love the flush of new green on the ground. I missed March this year because I was ill. I’m going to assume that the vast majority of people have no interest in my gastrointestinal goings on, but I’m also going to assume that somebody out there is in the same boat that I was – sick, scared, and feeling let down by their body – and hope they stumble across this while they’re trying to figure out what’s going on. If you’re there, there is a light at the end of the tunnel!

Early March

My guts are not working so well. I’m uncomfortable, but not too worried as I’ve suspected for years that I might have a touch of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (since I found out that it can cause constipation as well as the rest). I’ve tried eating super-healthy, drinking loads of water, taking various things, but nothing seems to sort it out. Still, I assume it will pass.

Mid-March

Things have gotten worse. I’m now alternating between no action and needing the toilet… urgently. I’m sleeping all the time and have started getting headaches. Food makes me feel nauseous and I’ve been sick a couple of times. I make an appointment with the doctor. I manage to go out to the shop for food, but by the time I get back I’m too tired to eat.

Three days till I see the doctor. I’m trying not to panic, but I feel really ill now and I’m scared. I’m in constant discomfort and sharp pains are roaming around my belly. The lower right quadrant has developed a weird burning sensation. Holding a hot water bottle on my belly helps. The headache is now constant and my skin is itchy all over. Apologies for being gross, but what I’m producing is not normal.

I go on the internet (despite knowing it’s a good way to scare myself silly) and become convinced that I have some kind of gall bladder disease. I have all the symptoms except for jaundice. If it is my gall bladder I will have to have it removed. I don’t want surgery, and I don’t want to lose an organ. I’m trying to be strong and not let this get me down, but I’m not managing very well – I’m really upset.

The Doctor

I weigh myself before my appointment and discover that I’ve lost over five pounds – this is 20% of my body weight and I am now clinically underweight. My legs shake as I walk down the stairs, and I am nodding off in the waiting room.

I tell the doctor all my symptoms and she agrees that some of them suggest gall bladder disease – she isn’t convinced because I’m not jaundiced but she orders an ultrasound just in case. She also orders bloods and urine analysis, which I get done while I’m there. She gives me a vial for a stool sample but says to hold off on it unless the diarrhoea continues. I’m to come back in ten days.

I’m pleased that she didn’t fob me off with the standard IBS diagnoses without doing any investigations, but also concerned that she didn’t seem to understand how ill I am. Or am I just being hysterical? I’m losing perspective on the whole thing, but I feel really awful and ten days seems like a terrifyingly long time.

I speak to a friend of mine who has Crohn’s Disease. Crohn’s has already crossed my mind as a possibility, but I discounted it because I’m not passing blood. My friend says she doesn’t want to scare me but my symptoms sound a lot like hers. She urges me to take the stool sample in to rule it out.

The day after the doctor’s is spent shuffling between the bed and the toilet – twelve times. I know I should eat but can’t face the inevitable nausea and pain. Halfway through the day my hot water bottle needs to be refilled but I don’t have the energy and put up with the pain instead.

The next day I make a smoothie with just banana, apple juice and plain greek yogurt. This seems to go down okay and I’m relieved that I won’t actually starve to death – I wouldn’t try to live on it alone long term, but in the short term it will provide all macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fat) as well as the main electrolytes (potassium, calcium and magnesium) and probiotic bacteria. I probably should have added a tiny pinch of salt, but didn’t think of it. Cucumber would have been another thing to add, as it helps combat dehydration, but I didn’t think of that either. I find over the next few days that between smoothies and juice I have a little bit more energy and my symptoms are greatly reduced. I try adding greens and other fruit, but that sets me off again. On one of my better days, I go to the health food shop and buy hemp protein powder and powdered greens and fruit for smoothies, and I start to feel even better.

By the way, dairy is a no-no for me in general, as I am lactose intolerant, but I have always been okay with yogurt. I assume it is because the cultures have already broken down the lactose.

Meanwhile I go back to the doctor’s office for my results and to drop off the stool sample (it feels a bit weird walking around with that in my pocket btw!). The receptionist tells me that my blood and urine were normal, but isn’t able to tell me exactly what that excludes. I don’t know whether to feel relieved or disappointed – I guess it’s good to eliminate things, but I know something is wrong with me and I want to know what! Plus, I know that if it is Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis these may not show up in blood and urine, but would in stool – and I really, really don’t want either of them. My reaction to the ‘good news’ seems to baffle the receptionist. Hey ho.

Late March

I have had nearly a week of feeling better on my smoothie-only diet. There are still some strange goings on in my tummy, but I am pain free and going to the toilet between two and four times a day, which is more reasonable. My headache resurfaces for a couple of days, and I suspect too much potassium and cut back to one banana a day and add half a magnesium tablet. It may be pure coincidence, but my headache goes away again.

I am now up and about, and starting to feel hungry again, which is a good sign, but presents the question of what I can eat. I decide to try congee, a rice porridge which is a staple of children and invalids in China and other parts of Asia. It is bland and low residue so I think there’s a good chance I can tolerate it. I boil rice for a long time, until it has the consistency of porridge, and add a white fish fillet from the freezer and a sprinkle of dried seaweed. I add a teaspoonful of coconut oil as I have read that it has a unique structure and may be digested more easily than other fats (and fat digestion has been a definite problem). To the slightly cooled congee I add miso paste for flavour and another boost of probiotics – I’m sure I need them after all the diarrhoea. Be aware that miso is a soy product, and a possible allergen. I decided to try it anyway as it seemed like the benefit outweighed the possible risk.

By this time, I’m really hungry, but also nervous about eating. I try half a bowl and wait. All good so I eat more, and still no adverse reaction. I’ve added another meal to the menu! And this one also contains all macronutrients. I’m not worried about vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients as the powders I’m putting in my smoothies are packed with an astonishing range of them.

Two days later the congee is still working well for me, but I’m craving more real food. Having been mostly symptom-free for a while, I give in to temptation and eat some tortilla chips and salsa. This brings back the cramps and some pain. The really dumb thing is that I have no idea what exactly caused them because I have eaten four new ingredients at once, and all of them are potential trigger foods. Fortunately, the symptoms go away the next day, and I determine not to add multiple suspect foods in the future – I will try one at a time and wait a day or two to see what happens.

All this time I have been caffeine and alcohol free because it was apparent earlier on that they weren’t helping. In another moment of weakness, I try small whisky. The result is a burning sensation and not feeling great the next day. Add another one to the stupid list. But hey, I’m only human.

Second Doctor’s Appointment

I go back to the doctor and report that my symptoms initially worsened, then improved when I went onto smoothies, and that I haven’t lost any more weight. She tells me that the urine and blood tests showed normal liver function and no signs of general inflammation, and that the stool analysis was negative for calprotectin – a marker usually found in people with active Crohn’s or colitis. On that basis she is diagnosing me with IBS, and prescribes peppermint oil capsules. She tells me that normal liver function makes gall bladder disease unlikely, but that it’s worth going for the ultrasound just in case. I tell her that I’m concerned about my nutrition and ask if I should be on a dietary supplement – a juice or shake – and she says she’s not keen on them and advises me to eat some of whatever I fancy. This seems like slightly daft advice but I don’t say anything – I can stick to my current regime.

I start the peppermint oil capsules immediately, and they do help. They are supposed to be coated so that they dissolve in my intestines rather than my stomach, but if fact give me a minty sensation in my throat and taste in my mouth. I read online that this is more common with the brand I was given – Apercap – but they are helping anyway, so I don’t bother going back to ask for another brand.

Dilemma

At about this time I have a decision to make. A Latvian friend of mine asked me months ago if I would walk some of the West Highland Way with her, and I agreed. She got time off and booked flights. She was due to arrive in a few days. If you haven’t heard of it, the West Highland Way is a long distance walking route from near Glasgow to Fort William in the Highlands. I’ve done most of it before, but of course I wasn’t ill, and hadn’t been sick in bed for weeks. My legs are still weak and I am still sleeping a lot. I have to admit that the idea of doing it in my current state seems ludicrous.

I know she would understand if I can’t do it, and she loves travelling around Scotland so I’m sure she would still have a good time, but I hate to disappoint her. I consider that we probably weren’t going to do very many miles a day anyway as she isn’t particularly fit and hasn’t done this kind of trip before. I decide to tell her that I’ll give it a try; if I’m way too slow she can go on alone or do something else. Worst case scenario is that I can’t do it at all, and she will still have the same options.

At this point my friends declare me totally insane, but that’s nothing new. If you want to know how it went (and what I did for food) see my next posts.

I assume that if you’ve read this far you are going through something similar yourself. Feel free to ask me anything, and to share your own experience. Do go to the doctor – although in my case it didn’t turn out to be anything too sinister, these things need to be ruled out, and the doctor can help with management.

See you on the West Highland Way!

 

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Apologia for an Obsession

 

apologia
ˌapəˈləʊdʒɪə/
noun
  1. a formal written defence of one’s opinions or conduct.

sprout

 

Gardening turns people funny. I started a new garden project last year, and when I discovered that there was unlimited horse manure on site, it was like all my birthdays and Christmases come at once. Yet it wasn’t so long ago that I was amazed to listen to a friend – a fun, world travelling, motorcycle building friend – talk at length about gardening with another woman. I always thought that gardening was the exclusive province of the retired, or the dull. Little did I realise that, ten years on, I would be a full-on garden obsessive.

The other day I discovered a trug which I had filled with weeds last autumn and forgotten. It had become filled with rainwater and the contents had turned into a sort of compost soup. I wet my hand putting some more weeds in, and smelled it; it smelled just like the liquid manure farmers spray on the fields, and I said, “Oh, beautiful!” Out loud. Then looked around sheepishly to see if anybody heard. But I knew by the smell that the soil and plants would love it.

That was when I realised that gardening has completely changed the way I see the world. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

I just came across a book ,Soil · Soul · Society: A New Trinity for Our Time by Satish Kumar, and I haven’t read it yet (my book budget has been way overspent this month) but I downloaded the sample and I’m really intrigued. He proposes a new trinity – soil as the body, soul as the inner being, and society as our relation to each other and the world. “Therefore the trinity of Soil, soul, Society is a way of saying in three words that we are all related, interconnected and interdependent. This is a trinity of wholeness and unity of life in its myriad forms.” That’s a philosophy I can get behind. In the foreword he says,

“Soil is the source of all life, literally and metaphorically. All life comes from the mother soil and returns to her. I love soil as my mother and take care of her. Soil contains earth, air, fire and water. She is nature herself.
If my outer body is soil, than my inner being is the soul. As I cultivate the soil to grow food for the body, I take care of the soul and cultivate love, compassion, beauty and unity to realise the harmony within and without.”

When I look at soil I feel something like what Satish Kumar describes. I see potential for life and growth. I see food for humans and for insects and birds. I see a thriving microcosm of soil-tending worms, bugs (helpful and not so helpful to my efforts) and the bacteria and microscopic fungi essential for plant growth. I see the foundation for the mini-ecosystem which is my garden. And I love it with all my heart.

When I finished weeding, I called a quick staff meeting. To the worms I said ,”Well done; keep up the good work!” To the pair of robins waiting on the wall to snatch up what I had unearthed I said, “Fill your boots with the woodlice, but go easy on the worms if you don’t mind.” To the spiders I suggested some Barry White and a night in… one can’t have too many spiders in the garden after all! I didn’t speak to the soil, but I like to think I went in with its blessing, and I went in feeling very happy indeed.

 

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Eco-Build: Books and Dreams

It’s a dream of mine to build my own eco-home. I’d love to live in a beautiful, guilt-free house that’s cosy in winter, cool in the summer, and super energy efficient.  I chafe at having to make do with the conventional when I could design something that’s perfect for the way I want to live.  Plus, it would be amazing to look around my home and think, ‘I made this’.  Or helped, at least.

I’m nowhere near being able to start a project like this, but I’ve been reading up, and I now know what I’d like to build, and why.  I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned so far, and review the books I have.

Here are some of the key points for me:

  • The denser the material, the more thermal mass – therefore the better it is at absorbing and slowly releasing heat.  Thermal mass is key when building in a climate with extreme daily temperature variations.
  • The more air in a material, the better its insulation value.
  • For a given thickness of wall, you get more of one property at the expense of the other.
  • Of the materials I’ve been looking at, cob has the most thermal mass, straw the best insulation, and cordwood is in between.

 

  • Passive solar design includes the strategic sizing and placement of windows and the use of materials and colours which either absorb or reflect heat.

 

  • Cob is the most flexible material – you can literally build any shape you want with it.  It is also the most time-intensive by far.
  • Strawbale and cordwood are less flexible, but you can still build curved walls and make doors and windows in any shape.
  • All can be finished with earth plaster, giving the same beautiful look as cob.

 

Let me tell you about the house I have in my head.  I live in Scotland, with long winters and below freezing temperatures, and warm, often rainy summers, so insulation is top priority.  My imaginary house is earth-sheltered, built into a southwest-facing hill, with a longer exposed wall to the southwest.  The southwest wall is cordwood, which is relatively quick to build and has a good balance of insulation and thermal mass.

There is a greenhouse built against it – the greenhouse helps insulate the house, and the house helps regulate the temperature in the greenhouse.  And it is full of beautiful growing things.

I’m still debating about the roof, but I think it has a slightly conical green roof, accessible from the earth-sheltered back, and with solar panels facing the sun at the front.  The center (right now) is a load-bearing oval skylight – big enough for two people to sit on and watch the world.  Not sure if that is entirely practical, but it would be amazing.

 

My books:

Building Green: A Complete How-to Guide to Alternative Building Methods by Clarke Snell and Tim Callahan

I got this after a lot of browsing.  It’s a phone book-sized tome which proved to be surprisingly readable – my partner and I have both read it cover to cover.  It’s written by two men: a master craftsman and former conventional building contractor, and an experienced eco-builder.  One of my favourite things about this book is it’s honesty.  They don’t sugar coat it -they’re open about the down-sides, not afraid to tell you which bits were a pain in the arse, and willing to be objective regarding the merits of alternative vs. conventional methods.

They actually built a tiny house for the book, using different materials for each wall, and with a green roof.  It covers everything from theory to leveling the site and laying foundations to putting up shelves, and lots of nice aesthetic touches too.  It has pictures of every stage of the build, and talks you through the whole process – including how long everything really took.  At the end, they tested each wall separately for heat-loss to compare performance. Best of all, they tell you exactly how to do it yourself.

There is a lot more in the book, but it would take an entire blog post to mention it all.

Bottom line: I now know more than enough to create an intelligent, functional design to suit my climate and needs.  If I had to, I could probably build a house using this book alone, although in reality I plan to read more and go to relevant workshops, and would consult an architect before starting a build.

 

Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter by Lloyd Kahn, and Cabin Porn: Inspiration for Your Quiet Place Somewhere by Zach Klein

These aren’t how-to books, they are daydream fodder.  They are both collections of pictures of tiny houses and cabins with short descriptions.  They were a bit of an indulgence, but I love them and I hope that I’ll be able to justify them someday when I’m needing inspiration for real.

 

Cabins: A Guide to Building Your Own Nature Retreat by David Stiles

I obtained this one by chance.  It isn’t about alternative building, it’s a manual of conventional building techniques including log cabin construction and a variety of timber frame options.  If I could only have one book, it definitely wouldn’t be this one, but it’s interesting to get a conventional perspective on cabin building, and I think some of the techniques will come in handy if I ever do get a chance to build.

 

Please share if you’ve read anything on this subject – I’m always looking for more books, and there’s a baffling range of them out there!

 

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Winter Blahs, Yoga and Squee

 

There’s a lot to love about winter – crisp, clear days, howling storms – I even like ordinary rain.  The trouble is, short, cold days and grey skies make me feel kinda like this:

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By the way, wouldn’t it be awesome to have a huge fluffy tail to wrap around yourself?!  Or is that just me?

Anyhoo.

How do you cope when you you’ve got that dormousey curl-into-a-ball-and-sleep-though-winter feeling, but your life is more hamster-on-a wheel?

 

One of my yoga teachers  does the same routine every week, with gradual variations as the seasons progress.  Her classes are dynamic, fast-paced and leave you sweating and exhilarated.   In winter, she dials it back, and she focuses more on asanas that that are introspective and draw energy downwards and inwards – asanas that are more in tune with the energy of winter – in other words, more yin.  It feels great to be in harmony with the season, and the best part is that I come out feeling more energised than if I’d spent the hour fighting against winter’s tranquilizing effects.

It works, and I’ve started making my home practice more yin too.  Here’s a short sequence of some of my favourite winter poses (I normally start with a breathing exercise and a couple of sun salutations, and always finish with savasana, which I now do prone rather than supine in the winter) :

N.B. I am not an instructor, and this is not meant as a tutorial.  If you are not familiar with any of these asanas, please learn them under qualified supervision – or, at the very least, find step-by-step instructions for doing them safely.

Also – apologies if the formatting goes kind of weird on mobile… I’m just learning

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Cow – Bitilasana

Cow and cat poses are warming and work core muscles as well as increasing spinal flexibility.  I do a few of each, always working with the breath.

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Cat – Marjaryasana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Child’s Pose – Bālāsana

 A restorative and very wintry forward bend.    I like to stay in it for a good few breaths

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Sphinx – Salamba Bhujangasana

I’m doing it wrong here – my elbows should be under my shoulders.

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Shoulder Stand – Sarvangasana 

In addition to the many physical benefits of this asana, it also focuses energy inwards and promotes relaxation while boosting energy

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Plow – Halasana

A highly introspective follow-on from shoulder stand

 

 

I would do another child’s pose at this point.

 

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Supine Spinal Twist – Supta Matsyendrasana

A deeply relaxing asana which mobilizes the spine and stretches the glutes.  I do a couple each side.

 

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Pigeon Pose – Kapotasana

One of my favourite asanas, pigeon is a powerful hip opener which also balances energy.  This is sometimes called half-pigeon, and I find it more grounding and better suited for winter than the upright full pose.

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Happy Baby – Ananda Balasana

Also known as Dead Bug, this is a good groin and lumbar stretch and great for relaxation and grounding before savasana

 

 

 

 

 

What are your favourite winter asanas?  Please share!

 

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Unbeginnings

New Year’s Eve (or Hogmanay, here in Scotland) is by far my favourite holiday.  I enjoy a little self-indulgence on my birthday, but for the rest – well, I’m not really into obligatory gifts, chocolates and greeting cards, and Christmas can be a little bit touch and go for me.

 

The new year means something to me.  It’s not just ‘out with the old, in with the new’, it marks the passage of time, the point where the cycle of the year ends and begins.  In the lead up to Hogmanay, I find myself reflecting on my life so far, celebrating and mourning what’s gone and revelling in the possibilities of a new year.  Then, on the night, I party like it’s 1999.  New Years day… that kinda depends on how hungover I am.  Ahem.

 

This year I found myself thinking about new beginnings, and that led me to wonder how many times in my life I’ve told myself, “this is it – this is where it really starts”.  I realised that there is a whole stream of self-criticism-disguised-as-optimism implicit in that thought.  “From now on I will do more, procrastinate less, get fitter, healthier, happier, more productive…”

 

I know, I know, those are exactly the things I want to happen.  What makes it critical are the words ‘from now on’.  They are also what make the whole concept false.  After all, what have I been doing for forty years?!  If you graphed the progress in these areas in my life so far (or yours), the graph most certainly won’t be linear, but it will show growth – otherwise we’d be very large infants!

 

It’s time to truly appreciate the fact that everything in my life so far – good, bad, ugly and random – have brought me to this moment and made me what I am.  And the future will be shaped in just the same way.

 

There are no magic cut off points, after all.  There is no ‘out with the old, in with the new’ in life.  Time, and life, are not a sequence of discrete events – they are a continuous flow.  Indulge me in a metaphor.  Stand on a small bridge, near the water (or in the water), and watch for awhile.  The water approaches from upstream, flows beneath or around your feet, and carries on downstream, but the river is the same continuous stream – different molecules, different leaves floating past, but the river is the same.

 

That’s life: past, present and future merged in a continuous flow.  So if I have a resolution this year, it’s to never again deceive myself that my life is about to start.  Instead, I’ll celebrate each part of the whole; the past, which brought me here, the future, unknowable but certain to bring more triumphs and disappointments, joys and sorrows, and the present – the bridge which connects before and after – the only place we can feel, and do and be – the only place we can  touch the flow of our lives and make them better.

 

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