10 January 2017

Barefoot walking three years on

A bit over three years ago I embarked on a year of walking, and I'm pleased to say I've never stopped. (In fact I walked a lot before then, anyway.) When it's not winter, I wear these shoes to walk:

Vibram FiveFingers, well used.

Ugly to look at, but so beautiful to feel - like bare feet, but with no risk of bee stings or a stone in the foot. In winter I wear socks and leather boots with a vivobarefoot sole, which is definitely second best in terms of sensitivity, but warm and dry. The vibrams aren't at all waterproof, which is a pity. I also dislike the colours - I'm not a neon kind of person.

This was one of my most memorable recent walks, up Mount Maunganui:

More on that in my next post, because walking in a beautiful place is as important as what's on your feet!

A local track.

What I've learnt in three years of (nearly) barefoot walking

After three years of removing propped-up-at-the heel, stiff and separate-from-the-earth conventional shoes, what have I noticed?

1. 'Normal' shoes feel like barges under my feet. I hate the feeling and never wear them.

I use the boot as a doorstop. Literally.

2. Barefoot shoes are much safer. When scrambling up or down a bank, conventional shoes feel like skis in comparison. The barefooters allow instant, sensitive, subconscious feedback of what's underfoot. Which would be safer, climbing a slippery bank with bare hands or in hands with thick leather gloves?

A barefoot shoe line up: vibram FiveFingers flanked by vivobarefoot shoes.

3. The feet change when unconstrained, as do their messages to the brain, and the brain's ability to 'hear' them. When scrambling up or down that bank, the strong, flexible feet that develop over months and years make instant adjustments to compensate for what's underfoot. They can mold, flex and grip to the surface. No thinking required.

3. The interplay of nerves between the brain and the feet takes months or years to re-develop. I'm not sure if I've got full feedback yet, but I think it took at least two years to really sense little undulations, textures and hardness of the ground. I thought it happened very fast, but only after more than two years did I realise how much had continued to change. The big realisation came when I found I could walk on completely flat paved surfaces quite happily in my vibrams (although I still prefer softer, undulating surfaces). My feet naturally take on a lightness of step to compensate for the flat, hard ground. To be honest, I don't really know what compensations they're making - my feet and the pertinent part of my brain team up to do it without any conscious oversight from me. I can merely peer at the adjustments from the outside.

4. Something I've learned from watching others walk in built-up shoes: If the feet and ankles can't mold and flex to encompass undulations, the legs and body wobble instead. It looks like teetering. What does that do to knee joints?

5. Who decided that it was 'better' to improve on hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and prop our heels up above the toes? This is a fundamental change to how our feet have evolved to stand and walk, and requires compensation by other parts of the body. Even running shoes have elevated heels.

My husband's newish shoes. How many blokes have toes
arranged in this shape? His toes are distorted inwards
in these. It's a very mild version of Chinese foot binding.
From Wikipedia
6. We don't notice. That's the maddest thing: until we experience the opposite, we don't notice that we are propping our heels up where they're not meant to be, squeezing our toes together so that the exterior shape of our shoes is fashionable, and putting a big fat layer of stuff between what is meant to be an area of sensitive interaction between soles and the ground they traverse.

7. Modern technology is fantastic. Now it can allow that sensitive interaction while still providing some protection. And yet I am almost always the only person around with weird shoes. Most people haven't got there yet. Give it 10 years.

I love these, but they only made them big enough for my daughter, not me!

8. Barefoot shoes don't last as long - only about two years. But they are much cheaper than the orthotics I used to have to wear to avoid pain, or the physiotherapist/osteopath/surgeon fees. Of course this early expiry date is an bad thing environmentally.

Split vivobarefoot boots after two winters of solid wear.

Split vibram five-fingers after a year - but I did buy them second-hand.

9. It goes like this: once we didn't realise the importance of eating food that's as close to 'natural' as possible. Now there is overwhelming evidence to support that, and everybody's doin' it (or not, sadly, which is expensive for the health system). It's increasingly becoming apparent that there's not a lot you can interfere with in nature without some unpleasant side effects. My feet are revelling in that realisation, and triumphantly and comfortably shouting that footwear is one of those things.

20 December 2016

Biochar, our new trick in the garden

As is usual for us at this time of year, we're spending a bit of time cultivating our future food. Often I think about how much we get from our garden for the time we put into it. For days or sometimes weeks we'll do nothing but harvesting - these days we are gathering lettuce, zucchini, herbs, kale, peas, some carrots and a disappointing few, but delicious, strawberries. (Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower will come in next week.) Then we have spurts of energy in there, and work hard for an hour, or two or three, sometimes day after day.

Biochar: it's for real

I'm always on the lookout for promising new ways to make the garden easier/better/more productive. One idea that's intriguing me and my fire-loving husband is biochar. Biochar is this: chunks of charcoal, preferably pea-sized, that have sat around in compost for a while before being incorporated into the soil.

The magic of the stuff is this that it locks up carbon in the soil (in the form of burnt wood), and is an excellent storehouse for two vital soil elements, microbes (sourced from the compost) and water. These goodies are housed in the charcoal's hollow channels that were originally the vascular structures in the tree that was burnt.

I keep reading about it in slightly alternative magazines, but please don't make the mistake of putting it in the same category as aerated compost tea or burying stuff in cattle horns (my apologies if I'm mistakenly putting those in the loopy category). This is a real thing - Massey University even has a research centre looking into it. Here's an 11-minute interview with one of the researchers.

How to make it

Note that this is a very down-home method. If you've listened to the interview in the link above, you'll realise that this method is very crude! For example, there are optimal temperatures at which to make the charcoal, and we have no idea how hot our fire gets.

1. Burn some wood incompletely to make charcoal (my husband does this as we sit around a fire that makes an ugly bald patch in our lawn - but it's worth it and is always a social occasion). Burning prunings is a good way to use them up. We put the chopped-up prunings in old milo tins with holes bashed in the lid. Another way to do it would just be to turn the hose on the fire while the burnt wood is still in lumps, before it burns away into ash.

Us with neighbours around a fire.

Milo tins, collected from a workplace tearoom

2. Once the charcoal is cool, it's ideal to crush it up into pea-sized chunks. We haven't done a lot of that because it's probably a horribly dusty process. We might sort out that side of it out one day, though. It tends to break up quite small during the composting process, anyway.

3. Chuck it in the compost heap or bin.

4. Distribute the compost in the garden once it's ready. The biochar chunks will be strewn throughout the soil.

I saw a weed growing out of a piece of biochar in the garden today. I'm not sure what that proves, but it seemed proper! There is good stuff in that there biochar!

Splashes of colour

Our garden's doing really well so far this year. It's the tomatoes, beans and cucumbers I'm looking forward to most.

(Plenty of garden photos here - scroll down if you just want more words!)

Climbing beans
Rampant tomato plants with NZ spinach in the foreground

Little carrot seedlings

A cabbage awaits harvest

The tomato garden from the other side

Most of our tomatoes are black - although they're supposed to be
yellow underneath and dark red on top. They're  'Eclipse Fireball'. 

Will the broccoli be ready before Christmas?

A zucchini plant happily feeding from the compost bin next to it

In the meantime, we have plenty to eat, and I'm loving the splashes of red in either corner of the garden: red alstroemerias flowering in one corner, and chickens with red combs in another. One fills the vase, the other fills our bellies in the form of eggs, and they both fill my eyes with beauty and my soul with happiness.

Ironically, I nearly lost one to the other shortly after I brought the baby alstroemeria plant home from a church fair. Chickens love alstroemeria leaves!

10 December 2016

On milking cows and international holidays

A part of me has a huge desire to take my children to Europe - to visit friends, to experience some of my favourite places, and to discover some new ones. My husband won't go again - he's sworn off international travel unless it's vital for work reasons, because of the greenhouse gases it releases. I worry about that too, but reckon the amount of meat we DON'T eat these days more than makes up for it. (Fortunately I've discovered some awesome bean and lentil recipes, which I'll share here one day.)

At my friend's cheerful doorstep

I've learned that what people choose to do depends very much on what the people around them do. So if your neighbours all suddenly start recycling, you're more likely to recycle, too. In that vein, my desire for an international trip is probably subconsciously fed by Facebook photos of my friends with their children in exotic locations.

So it was refreshing  recently when I went to visit my dear friend Veronica. She's not on Facebook, her house is full of children and animals (sometimes including lambs and pet rats), and I don't think her family's travelled more than two hours from home since I met her about nine years ago.

I can't keep my hands off this dog's soft, soft coat.

This is what I find there: smart, resilient hard-working children. Children who can speak three languages, change a nappy, make a meal, crochet, excel at their musical instruments. The barely-a-teenager does voluntary work, knows exactly which high-flying career she wants and is already working towards it, and can't wait to milk their new calf when it matures and make cheese with the milk. Children who can make do with what they have, but know how to get what they want.

The family's vege garden has old carpet between the beds.
Delicious peas, and waist-high grass in the background.
They are seeking more stock to eat it! The sheep can't keep up with it.

Their house is not going to be in Home and Garden anytime soon. But I love that the artwork was all done by the children (who are lucky enough to have private art classes), that the family allows their heart to be repeatedly broken when they hand over the dogs they train as mobility assistance dogs (you've never met such well-behaved dogs), and that much of what they have has been built, knit or sewn themselves (including their very house, which they virtually rebuilt after it was moved onto its site).

Veronica herself is kind, beautiful, even more likely that me to be in clothes scavenged from a dump shop, and fiercely intelligent.

So when a little whisper comes to me that the travel would be good for my children and they will better off for it, I just remember her family. Comparing children is probably not fair, but I do find myself spotting quite a few that spend a lot of time in front of screens and are learning more about gaming and social media than what I consider are basic life skills: growing food, managing money, cooking a meal, cleaning a bathroom, reading widely, working hard.

I still don't know whether we'll divert funds and energy into an international trip, but if we don't, Veronica's family is my reminder that my children will be perfectly okay without it.

19 October 2016

The space that books make in your head

Last week I went to a lecture by New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox. She spoke of the space that books make in our head, and of the exercise that reading gives our brain cells.

It does feel like that, doesn't it? I have 35 years of novels and non-fiction behind me, and must have hundreds or thousands of these spaces in my head, with the biggest ones formed by the books I've loved the most. I suppose they are not in fact spaces, but networks or clumps of neurones in my brain. Isn't the brain the most incredible hunk of flesh?

Sharing this love of reading for learning and for pure joy with our children has been one of the best parts of parenting. Last night I cuddled down in bed with Anna, and embarked upon one of the books that still occupies a whopping big space or network in my brain, formed when I was about her age, and reinforced by a big dose of pleasure: The Magician's Nephew, by C.S. Lewis. Polly. Digory. Rings. Tree. Wardrobe. Bliss! (Although in truth I can remember little of the story, except for how it made me feel.) Last night was the first delectable one of many, with the wonderful The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to look forward to next. We're reading my original copies**, made tatty by re-reading.

Knox spoke of how as a child she played imaginary games with her sister, lying in bed and inventing stories across the darkness of their shared bedroom, Bronte-like. Incredibly, although Knox must be over 50, the sisters still do it! Except now they do it via Skype. Knox's sister is also an author. Those little girls grew themselves big fat loops of imagination neurones - and Knox is renowned for her imaginative writing. (I think the goodness may have overflowed to Knox's magnificent hair follicles, too. I wanted to pat her like a cat, then make some interesting hairstyles with it.)

She spoke of her inability to write at primary school, and of how she had to therefore hold ideas in her head, and constantly searched for connections between ideas until they made sense.

The literati in the esteemed halls of Waikato Uni's S-block on Wednesday. Knox in the centre, and Eleanor Catton far right. Oh, and my friend Anne, the shortest one! Not a literati member, but she is a 'Librarianne'. 

Also quietly in the audience was Booker-prize winner Eleanor Catton, whose husband is a writer-in-residence at the University of Waikato, where the lecture was held. I've read that she grew up without a TV, surrounded by books.

These early influences grow our brains so powerfully. What will happen to all those children who don't read? Who saw the Harry Potter movies but never read the books? Or, as I heard from a gaming-addicted mother about her son recently, those who can't even concentrate for long enough to watch a movie?

Time will tell. Maybe they'll be fine. But they'll certainly be different.

* Thanks to my mother, who, although we couldn't afford many new books, often stopped at a Book Exchange shop on the way home from work and bought me very cheap second-hand books, which had a strange smell. I didn't care.
** Bought new about 35 years ago, most likely from the Scholastic Book Club at school (it had a different name then, I think, but I can't remember it).

14 September 2016

The teenage season

As of the end of last month, we have a teenager in the family! Just quite how our little boy turned into a young man is beyond us, but like every twist and turn of life, we just have to accept and enjoy it. And there's nothing not to enjoy - apart from the guitar amp, that is.

I snuck in a bit of eco-style with pure beeswax
candles. They smelt like honey and glowed like gold.
Although I admit the cake and icing were pure junk
food, and the ribbon came from the $2 shop. Eeek.


Earlier this year, just as we were wondering how to keep him from falling into the irresistible well of screens and gaming, along came music and swept him away. He'd been listening to his own music for a long time, and making it on the violin until about a year ago. The violin, however, was limited to practices and lessons. It sounded good, but was never played for sheer joy.

Then a dear friend, at the end of a hot mosquito-ridden barbeque evening last autumn, brought out her ukulele and began to play and sing. The floodgates opened, the very point of music was offered up on a deliciously greasy platter, and in the days and weeks following we suddenly had a young maestro on the previously dusty ukulele, and shortly afterwards on his dad's guitar.

Being middle class suckers for beautiful blue eyes and a good voice, we bought him his own guitar and in May started forking out for lessons. Tomorrow night he is even playing a couple of songs at a pub with his teacher! This honour comes after many, many hours of practice, of course - none of which actually felt like what violin practice used to, I'm sure. It was pure pleasure.

But it's at home that the point of it all, and the joy of it all, comes together. Almost every night (no TV, you see), father and son play together, choosing songs and practicing, perfecting. To us that feels exactly how a harmonious home with a 13-year-old should.

The pile on the coffee table is not the focal point of this photo.


The flash new guitar can be plugged into an amp, and the longed-for amp arrived here as a present from Grandma, Uncle and Aunt on the thirteenth birthday. We have an old electric guitar, too, that now gets a daily workout.

The electric guitar in a case replete with 1970's mustard lining:
 Oh for a power cut.

Oh dear. It became immediately clear that I am an 'unplugged', acoustic guitar kind of person. I admit to banning the amp from the lounge (I know, what happened to family harmony), so he shuts himself and all that distortion up in his bedroom. And with that noise, both us and the neighbours REALLY know we have a teenager in the house.

The never-to-be repeated season

I often write on this blog about seasons: the garden, the flowers, the frosts, the cold, the heat. I enjoy the good bits of them, but there's always a little part of me looking forward to going back. In winter I look forward to the return of warmer days, sunshine and blossom, and in sweaty February I am pleased that cooler autumn days will be back soon.

The phases of our children's lives are like seasons. But unlike the outdoor seasons, the darling baby, the blue-eyed kindy boy overflowing with delight at the discovery of dinosaurs, won't ever return. I can't have him back. If I could swing a little time travel, that is exactly where I'd go for a visit, but I can't.

The only way out of the sadness of that truth is to love and enjoy him now as much as possible.

15 August 2016

Dutter the autumn fairy

We're half way through August now, in a land of bare branches, weedy gardens and mud. Last week we awoke to winter scenes as fairy-tale like as they get around here.

Frosted roof tiles.

Frosted cavolo nero kale. Good green stuff.

For our family, August is a time of children's birthdays, and this year feels momentous, with our first baby turning 13. We're realising that indeed this nearly-teenager of ours - who is turning rapidly into a young man - will leave us one day for new adventures. It is pretty sad to think about, because from the moment he was born he's been such a lovely, easy person to live with, and we don't quite know what we did to deserve him.

Maybe it was the unplanned pregnancy, the daily gin I drank until weeks later when I found out why I was feeling so strange, or the electric shock I got about half way through the pregnancy. It certainly wasn't prenatal vitamins and meditation. There were, however, a lot of peaceful, lush bushwalks, which helped me, if not him.

Fortunately we'll have our darling, fascinating and spirited girl a bit longer, as she's only turning 10. For a week or so she's been passionate about decorating cupcakes to take to school to be sold in order to raise money for the SPCA. Yesterday was the day, and she did a fine job, with just a bit of help from me. She even swept the mess off the floor afterwards!

This girl can write (so can our boy, but he won't let me share or show much about him anymore). So,
if you've been noticing that autumn feels like it's a Very Long Way Away now, here is her story of Dutter to explain why.

In autumn her class had to make a creature from leaves, and name it (hers, you may have guessed, is called Dutter). Last week they were asked to write a story about their leaf creature, and this is what she wrote:


Sliding on ice,
Flying through air,
Padding slowly to his lair,
Dropping leaves as he goes,
amber, golden past his foes.
Curling, waddling, flying around the world, and every where he goes, autumn comes and leaves. Through in and out the days, as he flys, he sometimes would like a rest, at home or anywhere throughout the golden west.
Autumn comes and goes, but only when Dutter is here.
When he misses home you will see him coming back. For sometimes he needs to see his family and friends, and his cosy bed. Dutter, lovely and warm. Never gets called names and always is respected. He loves his family very much, but sometimes needs a rest. So, he is away for three months traveling the world, then coming back to his bed, home and warmth of his house.
Dutter loves to run, play and hunt while he drops his leaves, as he goes about his ways.
For, Dutter is A third penguin, a third cat and a third peacock.

(Errors repeated exactly as she wrote them. I couldn't figure out how to turn most of the dots on the 'i's into love hearts, though!)

19 July 2016

Suspicious of convenience

The things that humans have invented to make life more convenient are truly mind-boggling. Paper and pencils, mattresses, electric lights, taps and ovens... I love them. My favourite appliances are the washing machine and dishwasher for the hours of time they free up each week. (Written, I suppose, from the point of view of someone who's never lugged water from a well.)

The latest invention: a laundry folder. Available from www.foldimate.com
to the truly lazy and spendy.

The laundry folder: a step too far

At some point, however - and I think we are at that point - trading money and the earth's resources for convenience must stop. We have to draw the line somewhere! People are welcome to mortgage their financial futures for playstations, heated car seats and this laundry folder, but with a few billion of us around now, they are not welcome to create demand for more and more stuff to satisfy humans' inbuilt desire for convenience.

After all, it's to be our great grandchildren's planet, too.

Yes, it might be available, and it might even be cheap. However, it will almost certainly be polluting, and it will certainly fill your house with yet more 'stuff'. Boo to both of those.

Stealing skills

It will also erode your ability to look after yourself. Packaged food means you don't need to be able to cook, a heatpump means you never learn to chop wood and light a fire, a laundry folder means that the deftness required to fold laundry fast need never develop, or if it has it will fade away.

Stealing movement

Automated blinds? Ah, no need to use those thighs and buttock muscles to raise yourself from your comfortable armchair. No need to use arm muscles and fine motor to control to pull a chain. You, too, can be relieved of this burden. 

Wireless technology for easy installation
Automated blinds. Sedentary, couch-shaped people can
 enhance their current shape by purchasing these from Luxaflex.

Just remember, your body reflects and adapts to what you do with it. Move it!

The solution

The solution, of course, is to actively be satisfied with what you have, even if it means doing a bit of work, and honing skills that couch potatoes don't have. It means acknowledging that people who lived before these things were invented were every bit as happy as we are, if not happier. Because 'stuff'' never makes us happy.

Gratitude is a big help here. When I focus on being grateful for an oven that heats up at the touch of a button, sparing me the woodchopping and firelighting that cooks had to do for thousands of years, I am grateful!

When we take modern conveniences for granted, and let our mind rest on what could be easier and faster, our thoughts turn to what we haven't got, rather than what we have. A gap is created that we crave to fill. It's a normal human desire, but it's a route to the equally normal human feelings of dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

Advertising, of course, steers our minds in the dissatisfied direction, as does every television programme that shows people in flash houses and cars. They subtly reveal to us a gap between what we have got, and what 'other people' have. The result is dissatisfaction - unless we actively choose the opposite.

Self control

It all comes down to the marshmallows, really. As I was reminded recently by the first part of a documentary on the Dunedin study, so much of success in life comes down to self-control. Preschoolers' success at not eating the single marshmallow on their plate in order to wait 15 minutes for two marshmallows predicts a large number of facets of their future, from graduating from university to having a successful marriage.

Not buying stuff that is expensive and polluting, but just might save us some effort, is much like refusing to eat that delicious, tempting first marshmallow. Of course we all want to gobble it immediately*! The secret is to look away from it, which is what the successful preschoolers did, and remind ourselves of why we are saying no.

The delayed gratification of two marshmallows in 15 minutes is equivalent to the healthier body and planet, the more satisfied and therefore happier mind, and the more secure financial future that not buying brings about.

From a purely financial point of view, the US$800 or so that the laundry folder costs will turn into $1200 or so in 15 years at a 3% interest rate. That's not a lot, but if you apply the self control consistently, it would be quite achievable to avoid spending $5000 on convenience products in a year. That would turn into nearly $8000 in your bank account 15 years later. (Low interest rates are pretty hard on savers, that's for sure. In times of more normal interest rates the increase would be much greater.)

The convenience pyramid

If convenience items were arranged like a food pyramid, I'd put weatherproof housing, running water, pre-woven cloth, and needles and thread at the bottom. At the top would be the clothes folder and automated blinds, and the contents of some children's lunchboxes.

But we get to behead the pyramid above the washing machine and dishwasher, right?

*The funniest bit in the documentary was the little girl bursting into tears as she lost control and ate the first marshmallow!
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