Friday, 29 May 2020

On May

 May entered early this year on a wave of warmth and sunshine. The heatwave of mid-April causing the May blossoms to bloom a little earlier than usual. By the time the first of the month came along our countryside is awash with greens and whites. The berry hues of the lilacs had reached their full potential by the end of April and already in that first week of May they are starting to turn brown and crisp.

But the cow parsley still lines the roads of Oxfordshire with it's lace-like flowers. The glorious white blooms of hawthorn frothing up behind along the hedgerow brightening up even the most mundane drive to the supermarket.

The bank along the road towards the woods in our village is been littered with wild flowers all month. Mostly white and green but every now and then you see a pop of purple, orange and yellow hidden amongst the long grass. A perfect paradise for busy bees and butterflies.

Further up the road and as the weeks turned from April to May, our local scrub of woodland becomes an enchanted faerie kingdom. The lacy heads of cow parsley seemed to be everywhere bobbing in the dappled sunlight through the trees. We are still able to spot a few leftover bluebells amongst the spray of white but they very soon retreat for the year.

In my own garden the rose bush comes into its own. A riot of cerise, like raspberry stains against the constant green of our garden. I found this bush last year, hidden away behind a stack of wild unruly bamboo. It looked dead, the dried out bark giving no sign of life. I had almost given up on it when I saw a small green shoot emerging. I cut back the bamboo, gave it light and air and water slowly tending to it and encouraging it back to life. This year my efforts have been rewarded with more blooms then I ever could have imagined. I cut a few of the roses and take them inside. Their heady scent fills my living room and takes me back to childhood, my Nana's house and soap that smelled sweetly of roses.

The rest of the shrubs and bushes in the garden beds are full and luscious. The perfect hiding spot for blue tits and robins, so deep within the leaves the only sign they were there were bobbing branches and the sound of fluttering wings. A bush that has remained dark and leafy most of the year suddenly comes into glorious bloom. The cream flowers seem to spill over the fence and into the corner of our garden. We struggle to determine what plant this is and so we simply enjoy the abundant flowers that have now become the only place to be for all local bees.

The first sight of a green bobbled raspberry emerges from the papery white flowers that have bloomed on its stem. And that is not the only sign of a summer glut yet to come, the gem lettuce are rearing their bright green heads towards the sun whilst runner beans flop around in the wind, their leaves like sails on a ship.

Tiny spiralled tendrils of the sweet-pea shoots begin to fold and curl around the bamboo cane pyramids, their leaves opening and pushing up towards the sunlight. A courgette plant from the garden centre has been planted in its pot and we sit in wait for the first flowers to appear.

The highlight of the garden in May must be the mixed salad leaves that have been ready to harvest. Each day a small patch is picked, taken inside to be added to cucumber, sweetcorn and slices of chicken before eaten on the patio. A truly exciting tease to all the food that is yet to come.

The days have become long and hot. Windows stay open and the sunshine is nearly always there to greet us in the mornings. The nights darken slowly. The skies turning from blue to pink to dusky grey and then black. Clear evenings have meant many sightings of the moon and stars and I start to look towards the summer equinox, the longest night of the year and all that June might bring. 
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Friday, 22 May 2020

Growing In The Time Of Corona

It’s midnight and I’m exhausted. The zoom calls that seem to have taken control of my life are endless. I am scheduling my work, play and relaxation around them. They are meant to give relief but sometimes this introvert is finding it all a bit too much.

I lift myself out of the too hot bath water when a thought occurs to me; 

'I think I’d like to see the chillies.'

Instead of the relaxing bath I’d been hoping for my mind is whirring with a sense of lost time. Am I doing enough? Am I using this time properly? Should I wait, as planned, till September and my masters or should I be pushing my writing career now? Is it enough to simply write my book during this time or should I be hustling? Forcing out a myriad of articles to sell and pitch to publications in a desperate attempt to make this time count.
My body aches with the never-ending pain of fibromyalgia but also something else tonight. The weariness of a millennial forever feeling like she should be doing more in a world that makes it too hard.
'The chillies' I think. 'I’ll go and see the chillies.'
I get dressed in pajama shorts and a vest, my body still reeling from the heat of the bath water and go into my spare room. It is still, quiet and cool. The hot afternoon sun turned to shade in the light evenings and then darkness falling over them.
My chilli plant is sitting on a book case by the window. Four thick stems are all that’s left of the thirty odd seedlings that grew out of the soil only a few weeks before. This is my first plant grown from seed. My baby.
Pulling up the smaller seedlings over the last few weeks had been painful. Reaching down to the base of the stem, wiggling gentle and trying to pull them up with roots intact. Each time I had to choose who would stay and who would be unceremoniously dumped in the garden waste. But the seedlings that were left grew thicker and stronger for having more space. This made it easier to be able to pick out the weakling and uproot him from his cosy compost bed.
I gently trace my hands along the leaves now growing. In just 6 weeks they had gone from seeds to over 20cms tall with multiple sharp pointed leaves. The promise of what I would find each day was intoxicating.
I had begun my growing journey back in March when my husband brought the chilli planting set home from a supermarket shop. The yellow sticker emblazoned on the side giving away its identity as “past it’s sell by”.
Although we didn’t know it, that would be our last normal shop for a while. The effect of Covid19 had already begun to show in that last shop. There was no toilet roll, no tins and no pasta. But there were plants. The panicked masses running around the supermarket in an anxiety induced bulk buying frenzy had passed my little pot of compost and seeds by. They were classed as unimportant and unessential at a time like this.
Within weeks our lives changed completely. I watched as friends lost jobs they had fought so hard for in a world that gives millennials little help. I saw the fear from loved ones as furloughing was introduced and a 20% cut would mean bills unpaid. My husband fought hard with management to be allowed to work from home. A week after the prime minister had announced the lock down he was still fighting. And my brother and Dad, a radiographer and a doctor, prepared for the onslaught of people fighting for their lives in the hospital like we were entering a war.
We did not go unaffected. Soon my husband’s salary was cut, a desperate attempt by his company to try and keep them all afloat through this. We sat at the table heads in hands, lines creased over our foreheads doing sums on the calculator to figure out if we’d make it out of this with bills paid.
And here I was. Desperately trying to cheer friends, offer financial support, cook meals for our NHS worker friends unable to find food in a post bulk buying country. It didn’t feel like enough. Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives. And we did.
But amongst it all the plants still grew. The chilli seeds all seemed to sprout at once. A myriad of tiny double leafed babies. Every week as corona became more and more serious, the death count rising and the restrictions becoming stricter my chilli plants grew up and grew strong. A small part of my world that was changing but in a good way.
Nature had been something I had counted on over the last few weeks. The steadfast changing of the seasons from the beginnings of spring in March right through to the full blossoming of April and now into May. It gave me comfort to know even though our world was at a strange standstill waiting and hoping for this virus to pass, nature was continuing.
Whilst friends found comfort in fitness challenges, learning a new language, getting through their to read list or simply slobbing out in front of Netflix I found comfort in the little green stems I was taking care of each day. Every morning I would walk into our spare room, see how much they had grown in just 24 hours, press my middle finger into the dark earthy soil checking the dampness. I had learnt that chillies are thirsty plants. They need plenty of water, sunlight and an even temperature. I relished being able to give them this. To give them all they needed to thrive and grow.
They had been planted the same weekend Covid19 had really hit this country and the worse things got the more they had grown. A steadfast quiet port in a storm that was alien and uncontrollable.
I look at them now in the dark. Tenderly stroke the leaves and smile. They haven’t fruited yet. It’s only been nine weeks and some varieties of chilli can take up to three and a half months to bear fruit.
Perhaps they are waiting to bloom just at the right moment. As this virus begins to pass, as the impersonal heart wrenching numbers in newspapers begin to descend, as we all begin to tentatively open up our doors and step out into the light to grieve and love and embrace and promise that this will change us, and we will live better. Perhaps then they will fruit. A celebration of growing through hard times and coming out the other side.
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Thursday, 7 May 2020

Slow and Simple Ideas for May Bank Holiday

Tomorrow is the first May Bank Holiday in England, a national holiday and day off for a lot of people. But for many of us it will be looking very different this year. To keep ourselves and others safe we need to be staying at home as much as possible during the three day weekend, only going out for essentials and one form of exercise a day. I know this has been very hard for a lot of us especially those unable to access green spaces so I decided to compiled a list of a few activities most of us will be able to do from our own homes. I hope it might help to inspire you this weekend to make the most of all we have and to try and celebrate the simple things even in difficult times. I hope you all have a lovely Bank Holiday weekend whatever you are doing. 

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Friday, 1 May 2020

A Slow and Seasonal Guide to May Day and Beltane

Today is the first of the month and its beginning is a little more special than your usual first of the month. The frothy and excitable white flowers we see crowning the hedgerows are emulated in the festivals of May day and the Celtic pagan festival of Beltane traditionally celebrated on the 1st of May so as to fit neatly between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. 

This was a time for frivolity and fun where you could truly shake off the trappings of winter and dance barefoot in the light warm evenings and on into the night. Traditionally in Scotland, Ireland and Wales where Beltane is celebrated, pagan rituals were held to protect crops, people and to encourage growth and a good harvest. This would often be done by igniting a large bonfire to ward off evil spirits. Villagers would gather to celebrate the season and ask for blessings on their families. 

Beltane is also a time associated with spirits and faeries and not the sweet kind with wings that we conjure up today. Instead it was believed that these spirits were rather more evil in nature and were guilty of stealing children or swopping a baby with a changeling child. Primroses were said to ward off spirits an faeries, where a primrose lay a faerie could not cross, and so on the 30th of April each year primrose flowers would be picked and a line scattered across the threshold in the hope of keeping evil spirits and mischievous faeries at bay.  

In England and around many countries in Europe the 1st of May is more associated with the celebration of May Day, the ancient festival of spring. Similarly to Beltane this day is a chance to sing, dance, eat and be merry celebrating the growth that surrounds us and the beauty of the warmer weather. 

Not too long ago in this country we would see the crowning of the May Day Queen which caused much excitement and a fair bit of competition between local village girls. To be crowned May Day Queen was a great honour and would of course help in any quest to catch the eye of a local boy. Other English traditions include dancing around a May pole and the historical Morris dancing. 

In Oxford where I live May Day is a cause for great celebration. Swathes of people will dance the last night of April away before gathering below the tower at Magdalen Bridge to hear the choir sing at 6am. For many years it would end in participants jumping into the river but in recent years the bridge has been closed to prevent injuries. 

Of course this year May Day or Beltane will look rather different. There will be no festivals, no gatherings on bridges at 6am and no dancing round a village bonfire. But there are still many ways we could celebrate and enjoy May Day from our own homes; you could create a fire pit in your back garden and enjoy watching the mesmerising flames as the night darkens around you. Look at all the beautiful abundant nature around you from the green leaves that have filled the trees, to the white blooms in hedgerows and the cow parsley lining our roads, and give thanks for it all. Create your own May Day crown with flowers collected on your one walk a day and pick a few extra's to adorn your doorway and table tops. Cook up a feast of seasonal foods such as asparagus, new potatoes, salads, peas, lamb, rhubarb and wild garlic. Listen to the songbirds from your window or garden as we come into the best month for hearing their tunes.

These are just a few ideas for a little home celebration and if now isn't the perfect excuse to have a little frivolous fun I don't know when is. I hope whatever you're doing you have a wonderful first day of May. 

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