Friday, 30 November 2012

A new craft habit: crochet

Whilst I've always dabbled with a range of crafts, my staple needle-based activity has always been knitting. No longer - not only am I about to be the proud owner of a Singer Tradition sewing machine, I've also - finally - mastered basic crochet (thanks to a quick tutorial from a crochet-master friend, and an evening class at the wonderful Make & Do).

My first project - a blanket for Izzy for when she's in the buggy - was officially finished this evening! Although now the problem is, of course, that I've even more potential future projects to consider...

The blanket dimensions are 600mmx700mm. The pattern is taken from First Crochet by Lesley Stanfield but I changed the colourway, the dimensions (from a full-size throw) and added extra edging to make a thicker border. The main yarn used is Scappa Aran, an exclusively hand-dyed Scottish wool, in scarlett, pillar box and cream. I picked up 2x100g balls on a break in Edinburgh a few years ago and they've been waiting for the right project ever since. The grey highlighter yarn came from my stash, left-over from the very cool Lotta Striped Bolero I knitted for Izzy from the Millamia Bright Young Things collection, using their own-brand extra fine merino yarn.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Green Christmas - Pinterest ideas

Just a quick one tonight as I've been ill today. My inbox is being inundated at the moment with Christmas-related emails from the many eco companies I've purchased things from over the last few years. Some of the ideas for gifts and decorating are pretty cool - so I've started a pinterest board to share them all with you. First up - a range of items from Nigel's Eco Store - an excellent place to find quirky and unusual gifts for the greenies (light and dark) in your life. They've also got some quite different presents for children - we bought Izzy one of their cardboard toddler chairs last year, and she loves it (although we've yet to get round to decorating it yet - maybe next year!)

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

'Nanny watchdog'?! Oh good grief!

Not sure their Picture Editor is on the same page as the Sub Editor, though. The 'Families should even sell their car to end the 'bad habit' of using it for trips of less than a mile and walk instead' header is illustrated by a picture of a smiling, happy-looking family, all of whom look as if they're not only enjoying their 'enforced' walk, but that they may even be the healthier for it.

And of course, in true Mail fashion, they appear to have picked on the one contentious matter in the whole report, which is basically about how to get more of us walking and cycling, for our health, for the environment and for the economy. Go figure.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

What happens when you build on a floodplain?

You get flooded.
This is a picture of part of the railway line near Oxford, this morning, on my commute.

What we all tend to forget as the water rises, posing a risk to our homes, our possessions and our already fraught commutes, is that flooding is a natural occurrence. At the most basic level, floodplains provide somewhere for excess water to go after a period of heavy rains. River waters leave behind silt-rich soils which are excellent for agriculture, and which is why man began to build on the floodplain, despite the risks. 

The problem is that we've kept on building. According to a report by the Chartered Insurance Institute 'While new building in flood hazard areas has virtually ceased in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it has continued in England.' This means that English planning authorities are being especially short-sighted about the impacts of building on floodplains. Even flood defenses -  built to protect a town - can have an impact further up or down the river, causing flooding in areas previously unaffected, or making existing floods worse. It will, however, be the public that suffers from 1 July next year when the Government's agreement with the insurance industry for providing cover to properties at risk of flooding expires and is unlikely to be renewed. According to the Environment Agency 'Over 5 million people in England and Wales live and work in properties that are at risk of flooding from rivers or the sea' - that's a lot of people who are suddenly going to find it difficult to insure their homes against flood damage, at least without paying a premium that many won't be able to afford. 

And that's just the cost to humans. The problem with modern building materials - like tarmac and concrete - is that they don't allow for the slow draining away of flood waters into the water table, instead dumping the excess water straight into our overwhelmed sewer network, which then overflows into rivers and other water courses, creating new environmental problems such as the poisoning of fish and other creatures, or encouraging the build up of algae. 

We desperately need to find a way to build and live more in harmony with our environments, rather than trying to impose our presence at the cost of ecosystems and habitats, and ultimately, our homes and our own safety. Maybe we could start by banning any further development on floodplains?

Monday, 26 November 2012

All bark, no bite for the supermarket watchdog

About 10 years ago I read a book which had a big impact on how I thought about food, and particularly food shopping. Bad Food Britain: How a Nation Ruined its Appetite by Joanna Blythman really brought home to me the shocking state of our British food culture, and how we should all, ultimately, be responsible for thinking about what we eat, as well as how our food gets to us, and make choices which support sustainable and ethical practices both here and in the increasing number of developing countries which support our desire for, among other things, out-of-season salads.

Fueled by information from Blythman's Shopped, Felicity Lawrence's Not on the Label, and Paul Robert's The End of Food WH and I gradually moved to a situation where, whilst without giving up a supermarket shop entirely, we were purchasing (and continue to purchase) the majority of our food from a combination of local suppliers and an organic box scheme. As I've commented many times before, we've long been in the habit of making about 90% of our meals from scratch, we bake our own bread and we make an effort to grow and preserve our own.

However, for those of us juggling commutes, small children, demanding jobs, and time spent with friends and families, supermarkets do offer the convenience of picking up a range of essentials in one fell swoop. The Cooperative, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose consistently come out top in polls looking at ethical supermarkets, but sadly in a 2011 poll by The Grocer, a supermarket's ethics are the top driver for where we shop for only 6% of us, meaning that any sweeping change to how supermarkets operate still needs to be driven by regulation and government oversight.

Making it doubly disappointing that the government's promised Supermarkets Ombudsman has already been downgraded to an adjudicator - thus focusing on a reactive approach relying on complaints being brought, rather than a proactive curb on abuses relating to suppliers, food adulteration, price-fixing, etc, etc. Not to mention how such a watchdog might have been able to address the negative impact supermarkets have on jobs, average wages, animal welfare, and the environment (at the local, national and international level).

Another let down from this coalition government.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Eat me/Drink me

If there's only one area where I'm actually on schedule this year, its in the preparation for lovely Christmas comestibles. Today is Stir-up Sunday but in a break from the (recent) tradition of a No 27 Christmas Pudding, 2012 will see my first attempt at a Christmas cake and tonight it has had its second 'feed'.

Because I can never stick to an actual recipe, this cake has the potential to be wonderful or dreadful. I substituted a fair amount of the dried fruits, increased the amount of nuts, and rather than sticking to the more traditional brandy or whisky for the spirituous ingredient I've mixed it up with some of our homemade raspberry gin from last year.

Watch this space towards the middle of December as there's bound to be a post about the trials of attempting to decorate the cake (hubby has already demanded a complicated Christmas scene featuring a range of characters and cake furniture - all to be handmade, whilst I was thinking more along the lines of a nice snow scene, with maybe a touch of 'frost').

Saturday, 24 November 2012

What did you buy today?

Or did you leave your purse at home in support of Buy Nothing Day? The event (or should that be 'non-event') has been running since the '90s, when it was first thought up by Adbusters - a Canadian, not-for-profit magazine looking at the impact our consumerist society is having on our physical and cultural environment.

It seems like a great idea - everyone can stop shopping for just a day, right? However, if the idea is to start people off with baby steps towards a more environmentally- and socially-conscious purchasing life, then why stage the event:

a) on the last weekend in November, just as the Christmas shopping mania is kicking off?
b) on a Saturday, when the majority of people 'need' to do some kind of shopping - for food, for example?
c) with almost no real promotion?

And I think it is the latter that is the most confusing. It feels like the green movement has always been a little slow on the uptake - they started out by vilifying the computer age as a wasteful succession of gadgets, rather than embracing the communications opportunities these technologies afford us. Similarly, advertising still seems to be seen as the poison of the Big Bad Corporates, and as such can't possibly be applied to anti-consumerist campaigns and activities.

But perhaps if more people knew about Buy Nothing Day, then more people would have taken part. The green movement has had some great successes in recent years as more charities and organisations have woken up to the idea that the majority of people, when presented with an option, won't make the 'greener' choice unless it is explained to them why they should. I'm all for less consumption - the 20% of us in the developed world are consuming more than 80% of the planet's resources after all. Surely 'Buy Nothing Day' should be something that is in the public consciousness and not a hidden sidebar in a couple of niche publications aimed at those who're already sold on the green lifestyle.

A social media campaign seems like a no-brainer, but neither I, nor my far more social-media-dependent husband were aware of anything. As it happens, I didn't buy anything today, but that's just a reflection of the fact that Saturday mornings the other half takes our daughter into town and I get a lie-in, coupled with the fact that we had visitors this afternoon and I'm still in the planning phases for my Christmas purchases. Still, maybe next year I'll consciously choose to support 'Buy Nothing Day'. I might even help them spread the word a bit more...

Friday, 23 November 2012

National Tree Week

Every week seems to be 'National  Week', but 24 November to 2 December in the UK is the week of the tree. 

National Tree Week is run, predominantly, by The Tree Council who organise events around the country in support of their campaign to get us all thinking about, and planting, trees. The idea has been around for almost 40 years, since the government introduced the idea of the National Tree Planting Year in 1973 to encourage the public to help replace the millions of trees killed by Dutch Elm Disease.

With pests and diseases threatening some of our most iconically British trees in recent years, such as oak, horsechestnut and ash, our woodlands and forests need our attention and protection more than ever. If you don't have the outdoor space to plant a tree, you could consider getting involved with the Woodland Trust's initiative to encourage community planting: find a piece of land in your local area that would benefit from trees, ask the permission of the landowner and get other local people involved, and then apply to the Trust for a free tree pack. The packs are worth up to £420 and are 'themed' around the type of situation, resource or habit you are trying to create from bee-friendly groupings to the provision of community firewood. The offer is also open to schools.

Another excellent option as the festive season approaches is to gift the planting of a tree in existing forest or woodland to a friend or relative. There are a number of schemes around the country to help you achieve this; I've been both a recipient and a giver via the National Forest's plant a tree scheme. I'm still yet to take them up on actually seeing my tree planted (and may have missed the window for this, sadly), but we'd love to take Izzy in the next year, to plant the tree we 'gifted' to mark her birth. I can see this being something of an anniversary activity, where each year we visit the National Forest to see how 'her' tree is getting on - certainly better from an environmental standpoint than some joyless party in a stuffy, overheated eatery or over-merchandised kiddy theme park.

I was sceptical to start with, but maybe National Tree Week has its place after all - even if it is just to act as a reminder to me to dig out the information about our respective tree-planting gifts. It certainly makes more sense to me than National Engineers Week (17-23 Feb) or National Careers Week (4-8 Mar)Farmhouse Breakfast Week (20-26 Jan) on the other hand ...

Thursday, 22 November 2012

I love reading

I love reading. This has always been true, although if I'd been writing this book a few years ago, I would probably have - mistakenly - phrased it as 'I love books'.

It might not be in the best interests of the traditional publishing industry, but ebooks and ebook readers are here to stay. I was very much in two minds about getting a Kindle - I was concerned that I wouldn't enjoy the experience of reading from a screen in the same way as I enjoyed turning the pages of an actual book, but my 'early-ish adopter' husband persuaded me to give it a go, and after another week of lugging my library books to and from work in order to be able to read on the train, I succumbed.

And I've never looked back, supporting my main Kindle with a download of the Kindle reader software on my laptop and to my work iPad, so that I'm not even limited to reading on the initial device, but can access my library on whatever machine is closest to hand or most appropriate for the circumstances.

And library is really the only way to describe it. In the two years I've had my Kindle, I've purchased in excess of 150 ebooks. I'm not sure if it is the lower price point, the ease of the one-click payment system, the speed at which I can access the next book (I tend to be drawn to trilogies at best, series at worst) or just the joy of discovering new authors (and rediscovering old friends), but my already voracious appetite for books (which used to have to be supplemented by regular library visits in order to protect my bank account) continues to be met. Best of all, my Kindle weighs less than your average paperback book and takes up less space in my bag. Indeed, this device was the only thing that kept me sane during the 4 months I managed to breastfeed our daughter as it meant the hour she spent feeding was also a time I could look forward to relaxing with a good book, without having to worry about how both to hold the book and turn the page with only one hand.

The even better news is that, by significantly reducing the number of printed books I buy (I've still bought a handful over the two-year period) I'm also helping the environment. According to a report from the Cleantech Group an average book has a carbon footprint of 7.5 kilograms of CO2 over its lifetime. Surprisingly, there are also fewer toxic chemicals used to manufacture an ebook reader than in the ink required to print a book. Who knew?

Happy reading!

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

BLW - one year on

Last September I spent some considerable time sharing our adventures in baby-led weaning (see here). Slightly more than one year on, and it feels like a good time to revisit the issue to relate what impact this style of weaning had on our family, and in particular, on our daughter's eating habits.

Izzy is now 22 months old and is hitting the toddler stage that every parent loves to hate (terrible twos). From everything I've read (and heard from friends and peers), many toddlers express their budding independence through eating, and refusing to eat. Our experience has been that, by following BLW, we've encouraged our child to feel in control of her eating right from the start. She has been encouraged to handle a wide variety of different foods, and experience a range of tastes and textures - we didn't spoon-feed anything, or puree anything, and she always ate exactly what we did. Izzy was able to choose what to eat, how much of something to eat, and when to finish and I think that this has resulted in a toddler who, whilst pushing at other boundaries all over the place, is relatively relaxed around meals and continues to eat a wide range of foods (most days!). She will occasionally be 'picky' and refuse an item that has previously been acceptable, but this seems only to last for a couple of months at most, before the food will be eaten again without comment - I've often wondered if this is more to do with developments in her tastebuds that change the way certain foods taste or feel in her mouth.

I think that following BLW has also helped us as parents to be more relaxed about eating. From what I have gleaned from my fellow mummies, the puree/spoon-fed approach seems to go hand-in-hand with a concern for measurement and quantities-consumed, which is continuing into the toddler years. With BLW, most of the meal is on the floor, or baby's face, so it is almost impossible to tell how much has been consumed, meaning you may as well not worry about it! Now, if Izzy refuses to eat a meal (a rare occurrence) we tend to accept it as a 'not hungry' day and move on (although keeping her at the table whilst we finish can be a bit of a challenge!)

If anything, now that we're in that terrible, dichotomous stage where toddlers at once feel they must be independent, but also long for reassurance, Izzy is 'choosing' to be 'babied' at mealtimes. She regularly demands that we "hulp!", pushing the spoon/fork into our hands. This does tend to wear off as the meal progresses and she'll often be happily spooning/forking/picking up her own food by the time we're all finishing. Still, an interesting outcome and one that just goes to show that, regardless what weaning method you choose, your toddler will still be the one calling the shots at the end of the day. Perhaps the most important thing I've taken away from the experience is the security of knowing exactly what my baby has eaten during a crucial stage of her development - yes, I won't be able to keep her away from junk food indefinitely, but she's had an excellent grounding in 'real' food, prepared from fresh ingredients, and it has made it easier to strike that balance between 'normal' foods and 'treats' that is likely to serve us well in the years ahead. Here's hoping, anyway!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

A little more conversation, a little more action please!

What is this picture doing here? Read on!
I will begin this break in my blogging hiatus with an interesting picture and a lyrical paraphrase. I shall descend into mangled cliche - How time flies when you've got a little one - before getting to the meat of the message, which is that I can't quite believe I've not posted anything since July and it is now November!

However, a conversation with a friend at work this morning touched on the subject of blogging and what a useful discipline it can be for just forcing one to write something - anything - every day. I've spent a lot of time over the last 5 months thinking of subjects to blog about, without ever putting virtual pen to paper, but have managed to miss this fairly crucial point.

So here is my late-autumnal resolution for you - to blog, at least a little bit, every day for the rest of the month of November to see whether this is enough to get me back into the habit of posting content on a regular basis.

Carrying on with my thought for the day on 'a little more action', here's something that should be of interest to all my fellow greenies out there on funding for a new research project at Oxford which could have a massive impact on the development of our solar energy industry by exploring the development of biomimetic (using technology to mimic a natural system - keep up!) solar cells. According to Oxford's Press Office "Amongst the many photovoltaic technologies currently being developed biomimetic solar cells are especially appealing as they offer the promise of converting sunlight into energy without relying on scarce, often toxic, materials." In the words of the lead researcher (Dr Feliciano Giustino) "'I would like to ... fill the gap between the fundamental science and the technological applications of bio-inspired photovoltaics. Given its far-reaching societal implications, solar energy research calls for a multifaceted approach where we ask ourselves two questions at once: what are the fundamental mechanisms of biomimetic light harvesting, and how can we use them to harness energy..." (Full story)

Although in tandem with this news release we also have a story about "oil and gas giant" BP funding scholarships at some of the UK's top universities (including Oxford). One step forward, two steps back - is this the equivalent of the energy Foxtrot, Strictly fans?!! *This is where the picture comes in and I've even given you a little link so you can watch 'The Riley' strut her stuff)