Friday, 7 October 2011

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

One change at a time: easy shower greywater reuse

After a very full-on fortnight learning about permaculture and activism at the Earth Activist Training 2011 course in August, I came away all fired up to make some changes at home. I would absolutely love to set up some kind of greywater reuse system, but given the 40 sq m of garden available in my central London terrace, it would be both a big practical challenge and a pretty poor use of our limited outside space.

However! There is a very straightforward way to reuse some of your greywater, which requires only a bucket. Put the bucket in the shower, where it can catch some of the water you use while you're showering. The next time you need to flush the loo, grab the bucket and pour it down there instead of hitting the flush. There you go: a bucket of water saved per day, with next to no effort.

I started doing this a couple of weeks ago, and can definitely recommend it: both easy to implement and personally satisfying (if you're the sort of person who gets satisfaction from saving water). Sure, it's not a huge amount; but it's more than nothing. Not only that, but I've found myself more aware of the water I'm using whilst showering (and have taken, for example, to turning the pressure down a bit), which is a neat secondary advantage.

Watch this space for more on my permaculture adventures; specifically the plans for the brand-new garden, and my solution to maintaining the allotment next year on what will be a very small amount of available time.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011


My parents currently have six fox-cubs (and a somewhat harrassed-looking mother fox) playing in their garden every evening. Even the presence of a visiting Sidney-dog the other weekend apparently hasn't put them off (maybe they realise just how soft she is). It's not that surprising, really – though I can't find a figure on their website, the London Wildlife Trust are quoted elsewhere (2006) as estimating the London fox population at 10,000, or about 16 per square mile. They've adapted well to urban life, although their average lifespan is still only a couple of years (around 60% of the fox population dies each year).

Mum and Dad have been able to watch these six cubs growing up, starting from when they were little grey cubs wobbling around the place, as in these photos (some are stills from video so a little blurry):
Small fox cub by plant pot
Close-up of small fox cub hiding under a plant

When I went down to see them, they were playful 6-week olds, charging round the garden, jumping on each other, and pouncing on bits of grass:
Four fox cubs playing chase in the garden

Foxes usually bring up their litters as a pair, so I'm not sure why there's been no sign of the dog fox (unless he's just spent more time out on the hunt – six cubs is a lot to provide for!). The vixen is definitely present and correct, keeping watch and hauling the cubs around when necessary:
Vixen with cub by scruff of neck, cub staring at camera
not to mention feeding the lot of them: Vixen feeding four cubs

Now, apparently, they're bigger, adolescent foxes who have started to take life seriously and are playing fewer fox-cub games.
Fox cub in garden
Adolescent foxes start exploring beyond the close vicinity of the den around this time of year, so Mum & Dad may see less of theirs soon. But that's also why there seem to be a lot more foxes around in early summer, as adolescent foxes are more likely to show up in places where older foxes are too wary to go. (Apparently teenager-hood is a cross-species experience.) The family group will gradually spread out over a wider area during the summer, but the cubs will broadly speaking stay with their siblings and parents until autumn, when they move off in search of their own territory. A fair few of them, sadly, won't make it through to next spring to have their own litter -- autumn is when the road death-toll is highest.

There's intermittently some concern (albeit from a minority) about urban fox populations. But, as is almost always the case with wild animals, any blame is misplaced. Foxes, like rats – those other urban scavengers par excellence – eat our rubbish. As long as we leave plenty of it lying around, there'll be plenty of them. Anyone concerned about fox numbers should address themselves first to the sheer scale of food waste scattered across urban streets; and perhaps check out these recommendations for deterrents.

Or, like my dad, you can sneak them out a bit of organic chicken, and enjoy the sight of urban wildlife thriving.
Two fox cubs stalking each other

All photos courtesy of Graham Kemp.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Keeping track

This year, for the first time, I actually bothered to harden off my tomatoes before migrating them full-time from the windowsill into their final home on the balcony[0]. In theory, this should mean that they don't get a nasty shock from their first night outside, and therefore that they fruit a little earlier. In practice, the fact that I forgot to take any notes on the timing and performance of last year's tomatoes means that I won't know either way. (I suppose I could have left one or two un-hardened to compare, but I was far too proud of myself for remembering to do it at all this year to risk one of them.)

In a similar manner, I found myself having to water the incredibly dry allotment from the last couple of weeks in April. It seemed ridiculously early to be doing that; but whilst I think I remember similarly hot Aprils and Mays in the last couple of years, I haven't actually got anything written down on how the allotment was doing.

The obvious solution is an allotment/balcony journal. In fact, I have one of these already; I just never remember to write in it. And I have no idea how to fix this problem.

I could just put more effort into telling myself to remember, but the evidence to date is that as a strategy, that's a failure. Apparently, something about the "allotment journal" structure doesn't lend itself to my remembering it. So instead of trying to fix my brain, I want to fix the structure, and create something that does support my remembering.

So far, I have no ideas, other than a vague belief that if it were more fun and less of a chore, it might be more likely to happen. Do any of you have any suggestions as to a method of keeping track that might work better?

[0] 'Hardening off' is when you move your baby plants from inside to outside gradually, leaving them outside for a couple of hours longer each day before you leave them out overnight for the first time.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Hellebore & Rue: now out in paperback!

This morning I got a parcel in the post: my author copy of the paperback version of Hellebore & Rue, the fabulous queer-women-and-magic anthology in which I have a story. It's been published by Lethe Press, who seem like a pretty cool bunch, and seeing my name on the front cover was of course the Most Exciting Thing Ever.

The paperback is available now from Amazon UK or Amazon US; the ebook is still available direct from Drollerie Press, or for Kindle from Amazon UK or Amazon US.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

how late it was, how late

On Sunday I planted half of this year's potatoes in the allotment. The gardeners amongst you will be aware that this is at least a week late (the traditional time for planting potatoes being Easter); given that in fact I only bought them this week and thus that they've barely been chitted, in practise it's even later than that.

For the rest of the day, I've been pondering, off and on, on lateness. I remember, some time ago, someone (possibly my father) telling me that there are two sorts of people in the world: people who think that five minutes late is late, and people who think that half an hour late is on time. Historically, I was always been one of the former. I once turning up at an airport before check-in had even opened for my flight (this back in the day when 2 hours was considered 'early' for check-in, and one could still take such dangerous items as knitting needles and shoes on a plane). In theory, I still do consider five minutes late to be late; it's just that these days I always am, by that measure, late.

One reason for the shift is that these days I cycle everywhere. When you're on a bike, you acquire a firm belief in your control over your own travel. You don't need to arrange your voyaging around timetables, or allow for delays. You don't need to consider the traffic, because bikes can sail merrily past traffic jams (a deep and lasting joy). The problem is my consistent underestimation of how long it takes me to do get from A to B; and the fact that even traffic jams you sail past have a distinctly slowing effect.

There's the Dog Effect, as well. When we first acquired Sidney, she absolutely had to be taken out into the square to pee before being left alone, and there was a fighting chance that as you opened the front door, she would dive out to cavort around the grass, necessitating a protracted chase scene and subsequent twenty-minutes-plus of lateness. These days she'll inform you in plenty of time if she needs to pee, and only rarely zooms out of the door on her own recognizance; but the Dog Check for edible or otherwise chewable substances left within nose-reach takes non-zero time. Apparently it takes me more than a year to get used to something like this.

Then there's the fact that I've spent a fair amount of time over the last couple of years hanging out with anarchist/activist types, for whom half an hour late is actually fairly early. It's a choice between showing up on time and hanging around on your own for half an hour; or showing up half an hour late and accepting the tacit agreement that That's Just How It Is. I fear the necessary adjustment to this particular cultural expectation has had a knock-on effect on the rest of my life.

I find myself wondering if it's (another?) sign that I'm trying to fit too much in to the available space. That if I had more spaciousness in my life, I would be able to allow more travelling time and thus arrive on time; rather than squeezing just-one-more-thing into the space and then belting up the road at top speed to compensate. But then... there are just so many things to do, and so little time to do them in. Which am I to abandon?

Perhaps I should make a new promise, turn over a new leaf, and reinsert myself into the ranks of the five-minutes-early brigade. Or perhaps I should just learn to cycle faster. Better late than never?

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Creativity and coloured pens

A few weeks back, I encountered Maryann's Society of the Secret Play Date. Instead of sitting down with a list and a laptop and a serious expression, you spend some time just playing with your current project. Or even with something unrelated.

Of course, play can be serious, in the sense of 'important'. But it's also non-serious. It's joyous. It's even indulgent -- settling down on the floor with a five-quid packet of felt tips and a notebook had me feeling more pleasantly self-indulgent than I have in ages. That alone would have been worth the time; but it turned out that spending half an hour with coloured felt-tips, drawing pictures and mind-maps, threw up a huge stack of inspiring ideas for several things that I'm working on right now.

After I put the pens away, I grabbed the laptop and had a look for what science there might be behind felt tips and creativity. One study found that playing before making a collage enhanced creativity in children -- so perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise if it does the same for adults. Another study found that bright colours can support creativity, which may explain why I find doodling in primary colours quite so freeing. Although that study also suggests that complicated visual detail can help, something which is sadly lacking from my doodles. For strongly analytic types, a little doodling may also help balance up the involvement of the left and right sides of the brain in what you're doing — perhaps also helping to get past the inner critic that can sabotage your efforts?

For me, as well as the bright colours and doodling, some of the positive effect is from doing different things in small blocks. Ten minutes of knitting and thinking can be a great precursor to fifteen minutes of writing. The busy part of my brain occupies itself with my hands, while the calmer part works out what I want to say, getting me past straight the Blank Page Problem once I start writing.

It's also another way of trying my offline experiments. If I'm doing the playdate thing, I can be down there on the floor with paper and pens and no. damn. internet. Don't get me wrong; I love the internet. But — as Leonie pointed out just recently — it can also keep you away from your own best work. There's always something else out there to read, and it's always easier, safer, and a quicker dopamine hit, compared with settling down to create something of your own.

What I need? More play dates; more felt-tip pens; more fun.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Permaculture principles: working with what's there

I've been thinking recently about the design of a potential new permaculture garden project. It suddenly occurred to me that one of the underlying principles of permaculture, awareness of the limits and resources of your site and what you have to hand, also implies the consideration of your own limits, resources, and reality.

Like many people, I have a tendency to make decisions (in life in general as much as in gardening) based on what I would like to be true about me, or what I believe is true, rather than on reality. I would like to be the sort of person who is very efficient in the mornings; so I make plans that assume that, then get irritated at myself when things don't pan out as I envisaged. I would like to be the sort of person who can tend carefully to brassicas to nurse them through to harvesting, so I put them in, then kick myself when I don't net them in time and they disappear to the voracious appetites of caterpillars.

So in the context of this potential new project, I'm asking myself: what do we actually use in our existing spaces? What would we actually want from this new space (and, indeed, the existing ones)? And why?

For example, currently I have a variety of herbs out on the balcony, which even at this time of year are largely doing pretty well. However, they don't get used for cooking nearly as often as I'd like; instead the dried herbs in the cupboard tend to be used instead. Why is that? I think there are two main reasons:

  1. Convenience. The dried herbs are right there; no need to walk through the house to get them.
  2. Concern for the plant. Mostly it's someone else (the non-gardener in the household) who does the cooking, and he is nervous about accidentally killing the plants.

So, how can I solve these problems in the current space, or in a new space? There's a few possibilities:

  • I can make sure that the herbs are as close to the kitchen door as possible (convenience).
  • I can consider whether they'd be better off on a suitable (again, nearby) windowsill rather than outside.
  • I can grow larger plants, so they're more obviously healthy and can have large quantities taken from them. That would also solving the problem that there's just not enough to cook with regularly.
  • I can grow more or large plants, dry them myself, and fill up the containers in the kitchen.
  • I can grow more plants; perhaps some on the windowsill and some larger ones outside.
  • I can be a bit more discerning, ask which plants we need most, and grow more of those and fewer of the others (to balance out the space taken up by larger plants).
Some of these ideas might work alongside each other; some are alternatives. There might be more possibilities, too. (Ideas welcome!)

In the immediate term, thinking about this has led me to decide that I'm going to upgrade the rosemary, thyme, and oregano to larger containers, and plant lots and lots of basil seedlings to get as big a crop as possible this year. Those are probably the most useful of the herbs, so it's worth focussing on them.

In the longer possible-project term, I'm going to take all of these ideas into account when planning, and see if I can come up with any more clever ideas to make the herbs easier to use.

And in general, I'm going to keep thinking about the gap between belief and reality, and look for ways to bridge that gap and make it easy to do what I want myself to do.

Friday, 25 February 2011

The allotment waking up

It's still pretty cold around here – though it reached 14deg on Wednesday – but the signs of spring are already upon us. The crocuses are out in the local park, and the chives on my balcony have started growing again. The annual allotment-holder turn-over has also arrived (February is fees month at my allotment, which is when people who don't want their allotments any more bow out, and the newbies arrive), and I've met several new and enthusiastic allotment-holders.

Our allotment is also showing signs of spring. The broad beans and early peas (planted in November) are clambering upwards, and the onion sets I also planted in November are doing well. I finally dug up the last of last year's parsnips, and got a couple of real whoppers.

The 'winter' tidying-up is also gaining a new urgency. On Sunday I finally got rid of the big pile of bramble cuttings taking up the end of one of the beds. The hope was that it would rot down in place, but it was way too woody. The wood definitely is rotting – it was very easy to break up to put into the council green waste bags[0] – but not fast enough for my purposes.

I've seen it suggested recently that one can use wood cuttings as a swale, to soak up water. You dig a big trench -- several feet deep -- and chuck the wood in, then cover it back up again and plant as normal on top. I decided against doing that on this occasion, as I didn't want to disturb the soil structure that much, but I'll bear it in mind for the future -- it might be an idea to use when digging out the potatoes next season since I'll be disturbing the soil then anyway.

It's also nearly time to start the spring planting; which is always exciting; although would be more so if I didn't have a fair amount of weeding to do first. But mostly I'm just enjoying the signs that spring is on its way.

[0] It will then be taken away and composted in huge industrial-type composters; then in a year or so I can buy it back at £3.50 for 40 litres.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Overdoing it? Burnout, and Offline Sundays

Over the last few weeks I've become uncomfortably aware that I might, possibly, be overdoing it a bit. There were subtle signs, such as a deep desire to hide under the duvet every time I even thought about my to-do list; and less subtle ones, like bursting into tears on the phone for no apparent reason.

Then there were the helpful hints from the serendipitous universe. A work training day where I realised that I'm not actually the thriving-on-being-super-busy person I was (or believed I was) when I was 20. A friend sending links about Burned-out Activists and Avoiding Activist Burnout to the mailing list of the awesome A Collective for Better Collectives.

(At this point, I want to say "of course, most of my own stress/borderline burnout isn't actually activism related". Because, in my head, real activists put more time than I do into their activism. And it's true that the two big things on my mind right now aren't activism-related. But recently I counted up the number of broadly 'activist' projects that I'm involved with, and came up with eight. Hm.)

So, I accepted the subtle signs from my own mind and the helpful prodding from the universe, and I considered what I should do about it. Kristenking gives a helpful list of Things to Bear In Mind, several of which I'd already come to of my own accord. Here's my list:

  1. Take a long hard look at my commitments. Drop some of them.
  2. Remind myself that I have some big stuff coming up in the next few weeks (finishing my book, and supporting a friend in giving birth, being the big-ticket items), and look at 1. again.
  3. Go climbing. It's good for the brain.
  4. The internet, whilst shiny in many regards, is not always helpful. Try taking an offline day (prompted in part by this post from Sarah Wilson).

I'm still working on them. I've been climbing a couple of times (it really is good for my brain), and I've bowed out of a couple of things (it probably needs to be more). Last Sunday was my first attempt at an offline day in a year or so, and it was complicated by the fact that I spent the day largely in bed with a cold, snoozing and reading. But it was a book, not the internet. And it felt like a release of some sort. I'll report back in a couple of weeks on how the next few weekends go.

Thursday, 17 February 2011


On a slight tangent from my normal topics on this blog: I have my first published story out in this anthology, now out in ebook & at 15% off! I've been reading the other stories as well, now that I've got my contributor's copy, and can whole-heartedly recommend the whole book. "Magic that detects crime, magic that heals, magic that destroys: all this and more and in hands of queer women who use their powers to shape their worlds and their destinies."

Friday, 11 February 2011

Snowboarding by train: how does it compare to flying?

For the second time in a year, I travelled to France by train last week. This time we didn't stop at Paris, but crossed town to the Gare du Lyon (a pretty well-joined-up journey, requiring only 2 stops on the RER) to go down to Bourg St Maurice for some snowboarding.

On the way back, I found myself wondering how the costs — in carbon, time, and money — stack up in comparison to making the same journey by air. I compared London St Pancras – Bourg St-Maurice by train (the journey we did); London City – Chambery by plane (then bus transfer to Bourg St-Maurice); and London Gatwick – Geneva by plane (then bus again to Bourg St-Maurice). I included the journey from my house at the London end, but excluded the journey from Bourg St-Maurice up the mountain since it's the same with all three routes (the funicular then a shuttle-bus service).


Helpfully, Eurostar have conducted some specific research to accurately measure CO2 generated by their trains. The ski train as of 2010 measurements was 9.4kg per passenger single trip (18.8kg return).

London to Chambery or Geneva by air is about 1,000 km (620mi). At 0.2897 kg/mile for a short-haul flight, that's 180kg of carbon per passenger return. The Eurostar research quoted above gives 102.8kg per passenger each way (205.6kg total) for London City-Geneva (the discrepancy is due to the specific load factor which is low for that route, so the per-passenger output is higher). Even using the lower value, rail still has a tenth of the carbon cost of air. (And that doesn't account for the transfer bus carbon, although buses are low-carbon travel.)

The winner: train, at 90% less carbon.


Train: 30min Tube, 45 min check-in, total time London - Bourg St Maurice, 7h15. Total 8h30.

Plane, London City-Chambery: 30 min Tube, 2 hr checkin, 1h35 flight, 1 hr transfer to coach, 2 hrs on coach (estimated from this page which gives 1h45 for a minibus; coaches can be assumed to be a little slower). Total 7hr.

Plane, London Gatwick-Geneva: 20 min Tube, 40 min train, 2 hr checkin, 1h35 flight, 1 hr transfer to coach, 3.5 hrs on coach. Total 9 hrs.

The winner: plane, at 20% quicker (but only if you take the right route).


Our tickets on the Eurostar from London St Pancras to Bourg St Maurice cost £119 each (return); plus £3.80 each in Tube fares. £123 per person, return.

The cheapest airfare I could find to Chambery, the nearest airport, is £60 each way. That's from London City, so same Tube fare; but then you need to take a transfer coach at 70 EUR (£60) return. £183 per person, return.

The next closest airport is Geneva, for which I found a £46 return fare with Easyjet; plus £18 each way baggage fare to take any hold baggage. That's from Gatwick, so £4 Tube fare to London Bridge, then £16 (ish) return to Gatwick. Then there's the transfer at the other end: 126 EUR (£107) return. £191 per person, return.

The winner: the train, at 50% cheaper.


The overall winner: train, cheaper, lower-carbon, and only slightly slower.

The train comes out better not only on environmental impact (by a long way, and unsurprisingly), but also on cost (by a significant margin, and more surprisingly). It even beats the 'super-cheap' flights (actually the most expensive option all-in) in time taken. The plane is slightly quicker for the London City-Chambery route, but 7 hours compared to 8.5 hours isn't that big of a deal; especially when you think about what you're saving in cost and carbon.

Plus there's the fact that it's simply more pleasant to sit in a train and watch the countryside go past than it is to sit in an airplane and look at clouds (pretty though clouds are). The food available is better; the booze is better (French trains do quite well on this front!); there's more space per seat; and you're much freer to move around when you want to. Even without the cost savings!

The details are of course affected by where you're going. Snowboarding holidays mean mountains, which means airports some distance away. The calculation if going to, say, Geneva or Lyon would be different for time and money. (Although not very different for carbon, of course.) Nor does this address the environmental cost of the holiday itself. What's the effect of thousands of skiiers and snowboarders on the mountains they're careering down? But that's a subject for another post.