Oak and Ash and Thorn, by Peter Fiennes

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
Oh let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wildness yet.
–Gerard Manley Hopkins, INVERSNAID

Quoted in the book Oak and Ash and Thorn (OAT) by Peter Fiennes, the above poem largely sums up the message of this work. At its most basic, OAT is a love letter to British woodlands and an obituary to the ancient forests we’ve lost. More than that, though, it can serve as a roadmap to where we could should be going, if we want to make things better.

The book is structured in such a way that we follow Fiennes on a tour of different woodlands – from scraps of forest near large London airports, to slivers of wood abutting Sheffield. Along the way he explores our national relationship to the forests and concludes that whilst Britain loves trees, we’re afraid of the woods. By citing beautiful classic literature and contemporary studies, Fiennes holds up a very telling mirror through which we’re invited to examine the changes that have been made and those we’re making.

It sounds, from what I’m saying, like something of a bleak book – but it really isn’t. The last chapter in particular is a wonderfully hopeful end to an otherwise sometimes often heartbreaking tale. Yes, in places, it feels like an extended edition of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, but that’s down to the truth that we are exploitative and take our woodlands for granted. The prose and mood – by contrast – are optimistic and focus on the restorative power of the woods. I think this is the overall message we’re supposed to take from the book – forests are healing places. 

There are many chapters in which Fiennes begins by entering the woods in a dark mood. Whether discussing hunting, macarbre fairy tales, or impotent rage against impending service stations and runway expansions, his time in the trees is always grounding, always mending. 

This book took me far longer to read than many of the others I’ve reviewed. Written in proper prose, rather than the bullet points of ‘how to’ guides, the format accounts for some of this – but not all. I think, primarily, it was a desire to actually digest fully the information I’d been fed. It isn’t that the prose is heavy, or difficult to read – the difference is that there’s nutrition in it. A meal, instead of a snack – nourishing and wholesome and a little bitter. And like a proper meal, the things I’ve gained from reading it will help build me – shape me – and become a part of me. This book is one of those rare tomes which I’ll keep with me, long after I’ve closed it.

Now, more than ever, I’m determined to make a change.

The Woodland Trust is mentioned often in the book. If you’re interested in discovering more about thier invaluable work, you can find out about what they do here.

Have you read Oak and Ash and Thorn? I would love to hear what you thought of it. You can get in touch either here, or on Twitter.

Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler

Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler was one of the library books I was lucky enough to get trapped with whilst on lockdown. I ended up reading it last, though – after Jen Gale’s Sustainable(ish) Living Guide, and a wonderful bit of literary criticism which explores why everyone seems to love Mr Darcy (I still don’t get it, by the way!)

I sort of wish I’d read this first though, as it’s definitely relevant to the quarantine situation we’re in.

In short, the book is about the hidden nature we find within our cities, but also within ourselves. It chronicles Fowler’s exploration of the Birmingham canal network, and her own sexuality.

The love story Fowler tells is elegant and honest – a tale of romance which  features both the canals and her new partner. She does an artful job of centring her own experience in the breakdown of her marriage, whilst somehow managing not to sound self-centred. What struck me most was how she quietly respected the privacy of both her former husband and her lover, without losing a sense of intimacy in the prose.

I said that this book is relevant to the lockdown we find ourselves in, by which I mean: – lockdown is shifting our proverbial lens to focus on enjoying nature in unexpected places. So many people who live within cities and who might normally drive out to a country park or National Trust property, are now forced to seek out green spaces closer to home. Those who might not have previously made the effort to enjoy the natural world around them may now have a greater appreciation of what is on thier doorstep – I know I certainly do, and I walked the lanes around me daily even prior to the pandemic (followed by a very springy dog).

What I found most interesting – aside from the incredible chapter which detailed the impossible-sounding life cycle of eels* – was the inversion of accepted wisdom regarding wild spaces. The book was a wonderful reminder that the neat, tended fields of farmland are anything but wild, whilst the abandoned banks of an industrial canal …? They belong entirely to Mother Nature – reclaimed from man by plants and creatures. If we wish to see feral things, perhaps we need to stop searching in the manicured countryside and look to our city scapes instead.

It’s an interesting thought, and something that I will definitely keep in mind going forwards. It’s also a fascinating prism through which to view the rewilding process – perhaps all we need to do in order for the earth to reclaim spaces we’ve used is to trust that she will, and let her get on with it.

Have you read Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler? Or have you read any of her other books, or Guardian column? I would love to hear what you think, if you have. As ever, feel free to contact me here, or on Twitter.

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*Please – if you know of any easily digestable eel-related non-fiction, I would absolutely love a recommendation. I honestly spent a hefty chunk of the book with my mouth open in astonishment at the lives of these mind-blowing creatures.

The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide by Jen Gale

Before I start reviewing this book, I’ve got to confess that I’m already a massive fan of Jen’s. I’ve been following her work since she began blogging about buying nothing new for a year, and while I was still on Facebook, hers was one of my absolute favourite groups.

Sustainable(ish) Living Guide: Everything you need to know ...

This book was exactly as good as I’d hoped it would be. It was full of Jen’s humour, and her gentle acknowledgement that we’re all trying our best and that no one is perfect.

At the beginning, she does say that if you’re already doing the usual, basic things to limit your waste production ( i.e. the ‘buyerarchy of needs‘, ‘refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot’ etc.) then you’re probably not going to get a great deal from the book… but I would debate that. I’ve read a lot of books in this area over the past ten years and I didn’t get bored reading this. On the contrary – the tone was lovely and warm, and even though a lot of the information wasn’t new, I just enjoyed the prose.

I managed to pick up some tips on mending – I feel like I’m late to the Sugru party! – and a few other things beside. To my shame, even though I’ve been hankering for a wormery to help dispose of my dog’s poop for years, it never occurred to me to investigate a DIY wormery!  I will be looking into that as soon as I possibly can.

And I thought I was doing really well on the kitchen and bathroom, but I found myself sticking post-it notes in every second page in the chapters which covered these rooms.  I also find it so reassuring to see – in black and white from someone who’s been paid to write about this sort of thing – that Jen still buys plastic wrapped crisps and yogurt. Like, I know we shouldn’t be celebrating the fact that we still need to do this, if we want to eat these things, but I am all over celebrating the fact that someone is being honest when talking about it.

Another thing I really like about this book is that it doesn’t focus solely on plastic. The last few reviews I’ve done have felt very plastic heavy, when actually, that’s been one of the easiest elements of my life to change. What I’d love to hear more about is fuel efficiency, cheaper ways of insulating my home, how to keep microplastics out of my wash… there are so many other things to be tackled which are so often forgotten about when people start talking plastic.

And as discussed before, I’ve got a real Thing about good citations and this book has lots of them, which is lovely. It’s nice to have an idea as to what I can go on to read next (beyond my gardening books which are quickly looking very worse for wear as I get to grips with my outdoor space!).

All in all, this book really does have something for everyone in it. I’m really glad that this is one of the books I’ve got with me at the moment because I can take my time to look at the various links which are offered up, and I can properly look through the publications it draws from.

If you’re interested in Jen’s work, why not check her out on Twitter, or on her website?

Less Stuff by Lindsay Miles

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Less Stuff by Lindsay Miles describes itself as ‘Simple zero-waste steps to a joyful and clutter free life’.

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More of a lifestyle book than a waste reduction handbook, it reads rather like Marie Kondo’s famous ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up’. In fact, I would go so far as to call it a waste-conscious appendix to other anti-clutter books, rather than something specifically advocating zero-waste.

Whilst it’s a great book, and a fabulous resource, I don’t feel that it goes far beyond saying ‘dispose of your clutter responsibly’. The later part of the book does go into detail about how to do so, but this is only around a third of the page-count and in terms of proportions, I would far rather have read something where the possible means of discarding objects made up the main body of work. As it is, the process of deciding what to let go occupies two thirds of the book.

That said, not everyone is at the same point as we are – when we moved to Scotland, I purged many, many unnecessary items so that we were able to transport our belongings north in two transit vans and a Polo. I did this with the Marie Kondo book. This being the case, there isn’t nearly as much clutter as in many homes. As a companion guide for someone looking to undertake the KonMarie method, or as a complete work for someone who wants to try a different approach to decluttering, this book is absolutely ideal.

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The artwork is lovely – simple line drawings and bright colours. The spacious layout and magazine-column style texts make it a really easy, quick read.

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I especially like the sections at the start of each chapter. These are a brief description of what’s coming, which makes the book easier to navigate as a workbook when you’re undertaking the clearing out itself.

My copy of this book isn’t actually due back to the library for a good long while yet, so I’m going to actually try and follow the outlined method of clearing out to see what happens. I’ll compare it to the previous attempt to declutter and let you know how I get on. I don’t think there’s much to get rid of (we’re not big shoppers and it’s only been five years since we moved) but as I need to make space for a second-hand piano that my husband has bought, something really has to give and this is as good a way as any to go about that.

Have you tried decluttering with a handbook as a guide? Has your house ever got to the point where you need to declutter, or do you feel as though living simply has saved you from Too Many Things? As always, I would really love to hear your thoughts – here, or on Twitter.

How To Give Up Plastic by Will McCallum

How To Give Up Plastic by Will McCallum is another little environmental gem of a book.

Broken down into short, easily digestible sections of text, this book offers solid reasons on why we should give up plastic, followed by a comprehensive way to go about that.

Natalie Fee’s book, How to Save The World for Free, and Lucy Siegle’s Turning The Tide on Plastic both do similar things, but are somewhat… meatier. This isn’t a criticism of any of the books – McCallum’s, or the others – but it’s worth keeping in mind as some people have time constraints.

I think the main points of difference in this book are the calls to action, and the interviews – I found the one with Jamie Szymkowiak from One in Five regarding plastic straws particularly enlightening

Whilst I’m not likely to set up any protests, the practical help for setting up a beach clean is very much appreciated, as is the letter writing advice.

As pictured above, there are lts of easily quotable statistics, but a favourite bold printy bit is;

There isn’t a single path to giving up plastic and the routes will vary across countries and communities, but there is a single message: that we need to stop producing so much of it.

And honestly, that’s one of the truest things I’ve read that’s been written on the subject.

Have you read this book? If you have, did you fill in any of the plans? I didn’t, because I borrowed this copy from the library, but I would love to see what others out there have come up with! As ever, get in touch here, or on Twitter.

The Garden

I touched on our plans for the garden a long while back, whilst chatting about my kitchen. Since then, we’ve been busy scheming, and now that the new year is on us, it’s time to get to work.

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Using Allotment Month by Month, by Alan Buckingham as our main source of information, I sat down one night and tried to make a month by month plan of what we could realistically achieve within a year as total novices.

Hardback cover of Allotment Month by Month

Then yesterday, with help from our absolutely amazing neighbours at the farm, work began.

Firstly, the conifer hedge at the back of the property came out. I’m not normally one for removing trees, but I’m going to call this one a win – the maintainence of this border was getting increasingly difficult given the trees’ height, it was interfering with the farm’s electric fencing, and now it’s gone, I can plant a variety of native trees and bushes which will flower and provide food for us and various wildlife.

The plan so far is to purchase a ‘Scottish Mix’ of trees from the Woodland Trust.  This includes a holly, a rowan, a silver birch and a juniper. I had also hopes to plant a yew, however it’s potentially unsafe for grazing animals on account of the apparently toxic alkaloids in the foliage and seed-coats (if anyone knows more about this, I would love to hear from you – I’m just reading things online!) so for now, the yew will have to go on hold.

Without the constant maintainence of the hedge to worry about, we can devote our time outdoors to raised beds, which is precisely what we intend to do. Husband planned and built the containers from a mixture of scrap wood and new, treated timber, and we have – so far – filled them with a mixture of shredded branches and rotted manure from the farm up the track.

The next stage – roll on pay day! – will be buying some (peat free) compost as the top layer and planting all manner of exciting things. Because of the chippings and the manure, I shouldn’t need to bring in an awful lot of compost. Eventually, I hope we’ll be able to keep topping this up with our own from the compost bins we’ve managed to source but for now, I’ll be prioritising large sacks and recyclable plastic.

In addition to the compost bins, I hope to purchase a wormery so that the cooked food waste and dog poop can also be processed here – less to transport off site on bin-day. Obviously, you can’t use the resulting soil on food beds (because dog poop), but I’m sure this new earth would be welcome beneath the little bee-buffet I’m trying to cultivate around our deck.

At some point, we absolutely want to get a greenhouse, but as with so many other things, money is a (huge) factor. I think, to begin with, we’ll see how we go with the raised beds and assess the greenhouse situation after that, but given the climate in the north east of Scotland, in all liklihood, we’ll need glass to grow anything beyond potatoes…

I will keep you updated on our progress over the coming months. I would also like to take this opportunity to point out that what I’m doing here is far from a tutorial – we have absolutely no idea what we are doing! – so please don’t copy me! In fact, feel free to comment with ways we can up our gardening game to avoid complete failure!

As ever, please feel free to get in touch below, or on Twitter, with ANY suggestions!

 

 

How to Break Up with Fast Fashion by Lauren Bravo

Back in 2012, I read Lucy Seigle’s ‘To Die For; Is Fashion Wearing Out the World’ and swore off buying new clothes by the time I’d finished the first chapter.

And whilst I absolutely would recommend Seigle’s book – because it’s an excellent, well-written, wonderfully cited, non-fiction tome – I would probably be more likely to recommend Lauren Bravo’s work to people who genuinely love clothes.

The thing is, this book is half environmental activism and half love-letter to style (not fashion – important to note), and by the time I’d finished reading it, I cared about the way I looked in a way I haven’t done since I was at school. Which, I suppose, could be percieved as a negative statement but it really isn’t. I’d given up on having beautiful clothes some time between my first and third year of university – it wasn’t that I didn’t want to look nice… more like I wanted to eat fancy foods more*.

So far from making me feel like I was ‘breaking up’ with anything, reading this book was like being given permission to fall in love with clothes again – a narrative that I feel is often lacking from environmental literature. I found myself examining the garments in my care with a new, appreciative eye and things which I’d been self-consciously saving ‘for best’ have been been rediscovered with great gusto. The passion and enthusiasm for feeling good in what we’re wearing is so infectious, but by focussing on how we can do so without creating waste and misery, Bravo sheds new light on the subject.

For those more concerned with the ‘whys’ of ditching fast fashion, Seigle’s book is probably the one you want to reach for (first, in any case – reach for both eventually). Whilst Bravo does touch on the horrible cost to human life and damage to the environment, it isn’t done in nearly as much depth.

That’s not a bad thing, mind you. The ‘lightness’ and humour of this book is part of it’s charm. A favourite quote is;

An Outfit should at least have 20 percent space for pasta.

Why, yes! Yes it should.

Have you read Bravo’s book? Or Seigle’s? Which did you prefer?

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*To be absolutely crystal clear, when I say, ‘I wanted to eat food more than I wanted to look nice’, I am in no way referring to weight – it is absolutely possible to be heavy and look awesome.

Looking Nice ≠ Thin.

In this case, I am referring to the fact that I had to choose between buying fancy ingredients and maintaining the purchase of new clothes. Buying fancy food won. Because food. Nom.

Stop Staring at Screens by Tanya Goodin

Digital Detox Book | Tanya Goodin | Digital Detox Expert ...

Stop Staring at Screens by Tanya Goodin isn’t technically an environmental book, nor is it what I thought it was when I ordered it from the library, but it still gets an honourary mention.

To be honest, I checked this out with a view to learning why my youngest child is so absolutely smitten by anything with flashing lights. This book definitely doesn’t do that, but it does provide a quick, easy read, and champions getting out into the world so I’ve included it here.

The slim volume is divided into small sections, each advocating a different approach to reducing the amount of time a family spends online, using thier phones. It’s a really pretty book – the photography is glorious – and whilst I don’t feel it’s applicable to me (given that I use a Nokia…) it’s definitely worth a mention for anyone who is looking to replace screen-time with more family connection.

So, how does that factor into the whole ‘environment’ thing that I’m aiming for here? Well, lots of ways. The more we engage with the natural world, the more we come to care about it. The more time we spend on our phones, the more power we use, the more we’re exposed to advertising, the more we feel dissatisfied with what we have, the more we want to use resources that the world can ill-afford. It’s better for our mental health, our physical health and our planetary health to unplug.

Have you read this book? Do you have any tips for reducing the amount of time you spend online? I would love to hear your ideas, here or on Twitter.

A Life Less Throwaway by Tara Button

Whilst I’ve really enjoyed books like Natalie Fee’s ‘How to Save The World for Free’ and Lucy Siegle’s ‘Turning the Tide on Plastic’, I’ve been after something a bit different for a while now. It’s not that these aren’t valuable titles – they absolutely are – but they can be a little… samey if you read a lot about the environment.

A Life Less Throwaway by Tara Button looks at the problem of overconsumption from a different perspective –  by examining how marketers manage to get us to buy things we don’t need. As someone who used to work in the advertising industry, Button sheds light on the tricks that are used and how we can combat them.

Having decided that the ad industry wasn’t for her, Button then went on to create BuyMeOnce – an amazing resource for people looking to buy items which will last. Again, drawing on this expertise, she speaks about the sorts of questions we should be asking manufacturers and retailers when making a purchase, as well as the sorts of questions we should be asking ourselves.

In fact, there are whole sections of exercises for discovering what your ‘true’ tastes might be. Despite the fact that I grew up in charity-shop clothes and hand-me-downs, and have actively been trying not to aquire anything new for the last five years (and trying to reduce my general environmental damage for the last decade), I still found theses really useful – particularly the one concerning interiors.

Visiting friends and family in Denmark has often left me feeling as though I should decorate in a more… Scandinavian fashion. Home-decor there is a lot more homogonous and as a result, there’s a certain sense of visual peace to the country that I feel as though I should try and emulate. The exercisefrom Button’s book definitely helped me to realise that just because it is prevalent, that doesn’t mean I like it. I’m much more ecclectic and chaotic at my core. 😉

Though I did borrow this from my library, it’s a book I will be purchasing in the future. I’m on a deadline to return it, but I’d actually like to take the opportunity to work through all of the exercises slowly and carefully. I think they’ll be a total game-changer in the coming years – especially as my eldest enters their teen years. Being able to know which questions to ask to get my child thinking will be invaluable.

Have you read A Life Less Throwaway? What did you think? Did any of iwhat you learned come as a surprise? I’d love to hear your thoughts, here or on twitter.

How To Save The World For Free by Natalie Fee

How to Save the World for Free by Natalie Fee is exactly what it sounds like – a book full of no/low cost ways in which we can change our lifestyle in order to have a smaller impact on the environment.

The style of prose in the book is accessible and friendly, and the layout is really inviting. There was a lot of really great information – many things I hadn’t thought of before, as well as al the usual about reusable bottles etc.

My main qualm with the book was when the author said the Danes don’t have a word for draught. They do. Two, in fact – træk, and gennemtræk. You don’t need an overpriced degree in Danish Language to find this out, either. You can check on Google Translate… But that said, as my main issue with the book, it’s not a huge deal (though it does make me question the credibility of some parts…)

One of the things I liked most about this book, and which I had the biggest problem with in the XR book, was the citations. Instead of printing all the citations out and increasing the book size/hindering its accessibility, the references are available online. I really think this is a great and very simple compromise. It also means that anyone has access to the reference material, so even if you borrow this as a library book, for example, you can still check facts later and delve further into the topic.

I think, of all the books I’ve read so far, this is my top choice for anyone just starting out in trying to live a more eco-conscious life. It covers the obvious stuff, but also explores the less obvious.

Have you read How To Save The World For Free? What did you think?