from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 18 October 2015

a little fall from grace and a long long ranty blog

As an ex-Catholic, I’m sure I have more-than-the-usual burden of guilt (not to mention a burden of envy of those who don’t lie awake at night listing their sins and failings).

My father brought the zeal of the convert to our immersion in the Catholic faith when I was 10. In those days the Church was really quite hardline – even more than now (and who knows whether Pope Francis will turn things around), and a sharp wake-up to a dreamy idealistic young girl. 

I remember my horror at being told that animals don’t have souls and that, along with the planet as a whole, they were put here for our use, for example. 

I remember even at that age being aware that, if their husbands converted, it wasn’t right that women should have to adopt the Catholic faith, not use any form of contraception (not that I knew that word then, but I knew the Church said that women were supposed to have as many children as God ordained, no matter what their own feelings and needs were – those of course weren’t important), and bring their children up as Catholics. 

And as for the injustice of girls having to wear mantillas to cover their hair so that men weren’t tempted to sin… (Yes. This was still how it was in the late 1960s.)

I hadn’t intended that little gallop, above, about Catholicism. I didn’t realise I still have outrage in me at all that. Where I was going was towards something about sustainable living. I guess, though, that the campaigner in me might have been radicalised to challenge such injustices by such an early induction into the Ways of Men and the (patriarchal, hierarchical anti-nature) Roman Church.

When I was 16-17, five significant things happened. One was that I left the Catholic Church; the second, connected to the first, was that I discovered Zen Buddhism; the third, that I became vegetarian. Then I founded a college magazine that focused on poetry and the arts, the counter-culture (to which I was just being introduced), resistance politics, and things metaphysical. Alongside this I acquired a boyfriend whose parents, influenced by Schumacher and smallholding guru John Seymour, worked a smallholding on Exmoor. 

These things have determined, I suppose, the life I’ve lived since. 

In my twenties I was an eco-activist, dragging my young daughter with me on anti-nuclear and environmental marches, protests and demos. I’ve continued to some extent with all this, though minus my (now-grown-up) daughter, and more often the last few years my protests have been cyber-campaigns and through some of my writings, notably in relation to the badger cull which has been rolled out, as they say, again in the Southwest of England, despite the fact that we know it’s inhumane, costly and ineffective. (In my novel The Burning Ground I document the mishandling of the crisis that was foot-and-mouth, as I witnessed it on Dartmoor.)

In my professional life my increasing concern and passion is how we might use creativity and the expressive arts to raise awareness urgently of the imperative and relevance of deep ecology, and putting earth and other species at the heart of everything we do – in other words, making the rights of the more-than-human and other-than-human as essential as our own.

For me, congruence means that this has to be a lived truth, not just a nice aspiration. As humans it’s easy to put our own convenience, appetites and desires at the top of the tree, and I’m always dismayed at how many people seem to be unaware of the costs to other humans and/or species of their choices. Mostly I keep my mouth shut, but I can’t always. 

We all draw the line in different places, naturally enough. I’m a bit of a hardliner, I think, and I know some people find my attitudes hard to take and hard to live up to.

They’re hard for me to live up to, too – I remember a winter living in a campervan with my then-husband and toddler on the coasts of Charente Maritime in France in one of the coldest winters on record, sometimes as low as 13 below zero in the daytime, breaking ice on buckets of cold water to wash out my daughter’s cloth nappies, which then festooned the van as I attempted to dry them, rather than succumb to disposable nappies. (The good aspect was that for at least two months that late autumn and early winter we were able to live almost entirely on foraged food from the coastline and in the forests.)

I know how difficult it is to try and follow through on beliefs, especially when it’s ‘inconvenient’ to do so, and/or personally uncomfortable because others find it challenging or offensive. 

Be aware that I might be about to sound self-righteous. TM tells me I can be sanctimonious. I want to apologise (is that another Catholic legacy?), but I’m going to resist and desist. So be it if I do. And you don’t have to read on.

We have a planet to look after. Living as sustainably and ethically as possible seems essential to me, small drop in the ocean though it be.

About ten years ago the local surgery asked me to put together a list that they might pin to their wall of ‘ten things you can do to save the planet’. I was impressed by their commitment. 

I have decided that I need to speak more of these things on this blog, even though I may well lose a few readers. This too is about congruence. Bit by bit I’ll be addressing some of the points on that list (assuming I can find the original list). 

Right now, this is a kind of summary of my own position, living on a low income, growing a lot of my own veg – organically of course, and foraging for some, and making choices that seem to be healthful for me and also for other species/the planet – partly to make the point that it needn’t cost more; so it is in effect a win-win situation. (As I type this I remember one of the big supermarkets reporting that, as an experiment in organic food sales a few years ago, they priced organic and chemically-treated (that is, the usual) produce identically for a promotion, for a week; most people still bought the non-organic, which suggests to me that many people still don’t understand the point of the former and provenance of the latter, and don’t understand the implications of all those ingested chemicals – for themselves or the ecosystem.)

So I live a fairly frugal lifestyle by most of our Western standards – and very rich by those of many other less fortunate nations.

My big driving motivation is to avoid buying foods or products that involve serious depletion or pollution of the ecosphere, and animal suffering. This means, for me:
  • being mainly vegan, though I do eat some eggs, free range only. For many years I relied heavily on dairy, as a veggie; but a) it’s not actually terribly good for us – something like 80% of adults don’t have the enzyme properly to digest cow’s milk – and b) eating cheese, for instance, even when it’s Soil Association accredited to guarantee organic status and, importantly, a reasonable degree of animal welfare, and even if it uses non-animal rennet rather than calf-stomach-extract rennet, still means that calves are taken from their mothers too early, and a high proportion of them slaughtered sooner or later. I also:
  • don’t buy convenience or processed foods 
  • or disposable anythings, including kitchen paper and tissues (except loo-paper – recycled, naturally) - that is except very rarely some tin foil, and sponges for washing up, and I’m about to revert to good old-fashioned washable cloths for the latter
  • don’t use any kind of chemical product in the house or garden
  • keep driving to a minimum; and almost never fly
  • almost never shop in supermarkets or multinationals generally
  • try not to buy anything that’s prepackaged or comes from another continent/is out of season (except tea)
  • and especially try to avoid plastics and petrochemical products generally if at all possible. 

Right now, though, it’s good old guilt driving this particular post.

There’s something about coming to France that means I have a sudden craving to dive into a French supermarket and throw my principles to the winds (well, some of them anyway). Here my shadow self slips out and somehow I can let myself buy things I’d never buy in England. In a SUPERMARKET. Having a holiday from principles is very freeing – for about ten minutes! That's the trouble with being over-committed, over-attached to certain ideas, I guess.

Yesterday I indulged that craving with some delight.

So I have grabbed self – after such an excursion – by the scruff and from now on I vow to be mindful again. Mostly. And shop in the market and local wholefood store. Mostly. And forage a bit more – after all it’s nut and mushroom season, and a walk yesterday produced a few good-sized sweet chestnuts here in the forest.

And for penance I’m offering you two snippets I found in the English-language newspaper Connexion, bought in said supermarket.

They had a whole section on environmental stuff, including a French cancer charity’s launch of a campaign for a Europe-wide ban on Roundup, Monsanto’s glyphosate weedkiller, linked with cancers in animals, poisoning of watercourses, and potentially carcinogenic damage to human cells, at least in vitro

On the same page was a piece about lesions found in the brain of a farmer who collapsed after inhaling the pesticide chlorobenzene he sprayed on his maize, and who has successfully sued Monsanto, the makers of the product also, after a ten-year-battle.

I imagine that anyone reading this blog will already be aware of the dangers of herbicides and pesticides. 

You may not be aware, though, as I wasn’t, that an alternative weedkiller for domestic use is hot vinegar, preferably spirit vinegar. You can, but don’t have to, add salt to it, or liquid soap; and it will kill your weeds. Supposing you consider any plants weeds, that is, in the first place. Better still, perhaps, is to reframe your attitudes to so-called weeds, and see them as plants that need no extra tending from you? No? 

And another piece reminded me that once upon a time I used to make my own non-detergent laundry liquid (OK for septic tanks, non-toxic and degradable). My adaptation of Connexion’s version is this:

Take 75 gms of Savon de Marseille, those big square blocks of olive oil soap
1 tsp of bicarb
1 tsp of soda crystals
25 drops of an essential oil (I like orange, tangerine, lemon, bergamot, rosemary, lavender; you could also use geranium and/or cedarwood)
(Optional: 1 tbsp of lemon juice; if you want to use this for washing dishes you’ll need extra lemon juice)
1.75 litres of hot water.

Grate the soap into a large bowl, mix with the two sodas, add the essential oils, add the hot water, pour into old laundry liquid containers, and shake well.

Suds ahoy.


  1. Interesting. My mum comes from a long line of catholics, including an archbishop, nuns, priests. She was no longer one when I was born so I only had to deal with the religion when I was in contact with the relatives and most of them didn't make a big deal of it, and none of them were horrible about it. Still, guilt runs deep.

    And that is something I have particularly had to deal with regards to leading a more sustainable life. I can't cycle places any more, I can't spend more energy on going to better shops, etc, because being ill, I don't have the energy. So I accept that I do what I can do.

    I also am married to someone who has a different life view in this area, and so there is lots of compromise. I try, shall we say, to limit the damages :)

    Does your dog have a vegetarian diet? I tried with Bobby, much to hubby's amusement/ annoyance, and the brands I gave him just gave him a really upset tummy so I gave up. As it is I now eat fish myself, for health reasons, though if I ever get my digestive issues resolved, I want to try to go back to a mainly veggie diet.

    In the end I have accepted I am human, and I get suckered into doing and buying things that are contrary to some of my beliefs. I was making myself even more ill with all the guilt and worry, and the shoulds, must nots, etc. So I am doing it gently, with compassion, and still wishing that I had the energy and willpower to do more.

  2. Hi Alison - great to read your comments, thank you. It isn't easy, is it, and it sounds challenging when you're ill already.

    I'm lucky enough as to live with another veggie who, like me, is also a member of the Green Party, and actually does more work in our organic garden than I do. But yes we still do argue over what compromises each of us is willing to make, nonetheless.

    The dog is a difficult question. I did at one stage buy veggie kibble, which she simply refused to eat. I'm a nightmare if and when I go to buy dog food. What I've settled for, knowing that dogs are omnivores, unlike cats, but do need some meat/fish/eggs, is making the basic staple food myself (rice, potatoes, veg, herbs) and adding a little raw organic meat - I can't buy any animal bigger than chicken, and that's really difficult for me to do anyway - or fish, about which I feel marginally better (though that brings the whole 'which fish are sustainable?' q to the surface). Sometimes it;'s tinned sardines or mackerel. I also buy Arden Grange potato and fish kibble - top of the ethical list, along with Burns moist organic egg rice and carrot, fish rice and carrot, or chicken rice and carrot sachets. I give her raw eggs.

    It's not perfect. My daughter's dog is in training to hunt his own rabbits. If we keep predator animals we inevitably compromise, and I can do it more easily for another than for myself.

    Meantime, I'm trying to learn to be gentler on myself and less judgemental of the world!


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