Thursday, 11 December 2014

Christmas trees

My favourite day of the year is, in our family, known as "tree day". This is the day in December when we would put up our Christmas tree and would be considered the beginning of Christmas in our home. Since Ian and I bought a home of our own this tradition has evolved to include a trip out in the morning to choose and buy a tree. We also go for a walk in a local wood to collect greenery, although not necessarily on "tree day" itself.

After buying our tree we come home and put on the Christmas music - usually Andy Williams and Michael Buble and then begin to decorate the tree whist eating mince pies and chocolates. I adore the transformation that takes place, when the house becomes filled with fairy lights, candles and greenery.

As a child my best friend and I often discussed the ethics of having a "real tree" at Christmas. This year I've decided to investigate the subject a little more and also to find out a bit more about artificial Christmas trees.


Around 8 million real Christmas trees are sold in Great Britain during the Christmas season. In Europe (including the UK) the demand is approximately 50 million trees, with a further 35-40 million sold in the US each year. I haven't been able to find any figures for other parts of the world, but I'm guessing that live trees are not as popular in warmer and/or poorer parts of the world.

As with any other farmed crop, Christmas trees are only planted with harvesting in mind, so if everyone were to stop buying live Christmas trees (whether they replaced them with artificial ones or not), fewer trees would be grown. It's difficult to understand the impacts of this as whilst most of the places that Christmas trees are grown would originally have been forested, the forests would not necessarily have consisted of the same species or even of conifers. The trees would also have existed in a balance with other plants and animals which are largely absent from the intensively farmed Christmas tree farms.


If real trees were no longer sold then I suspect it's unlikely that Christmas tree farms would be replaced with other trees, so less carbon would be removed from the atmosphere. Estimates are that there are 3.8 billion trees in Great Britain and 400 billion trees worldwide. The following numbers are just my estimate and are probably wildly out due to a lack of information, but I'm guessing that to satisfy demand in Great Britain (assuming that none of our Christmas trees were imported) would require a minimum of 64 million Christmas trees to be planted at any one time (trees being harvested, on average, at an age of 8 years). This would be around 1.7 % of our total trees. However, I've also read that each tree harvested is replaced by three more so this may be a significant underestimate.

The majority of Christmas trees are sprayed with chemicals. Unfortunately I can't find much information on this on the web, but I assume that whatever they're sprayed with is detrimental for the soil and local water systems as well as for wildlife.

Without knowing more about the chemicals used on Christmas tree farms it's hard to weigh up the impacts of the farms, but it is entirely possible that whatever would replace the tree farms (farming of shorter-lived crops, industry, housing...) would be even worse for the environment.

Personally my feeling is that fewer trees in Britain would be a 'bad thing'.


Christmas trees are grown from seed, but I hadn't anticipated the problems that begin with this very first step - seed collection. From the Guardian website:

"According to the Fair Tree project, founded by Danish tree producer Marianne Bols and Teresa Owen of, 90% of seeds from the Nordmann Fir (5m are sold in the UK each year) hail from Georgia's natural forest, as its seeds cannot be farmed. Each spring 20 tonnes of these seeds are planted by European nurseries, especially in Britain. But danger and corruption are endemic to the supply chain. Cone pickers in Georgia are paid so little that they cannot support their families. They scale 30m trees to retrieve the cones, without insurance or safety equipment. Death and serious injury are common.

Bols has fought to secure a licence from the Georgian government to source her own seeds. Her project pays pickers a fair wage, trains them and uses safety equipment. They're insured and a proportion of the tree sales goes into community projects."

I haven't been able to find much information on the source of seeds for other species of Christmas tree, but both the noble and fraser firs are native to the US, so they might be a more ethical species of tree to buy. Norway Spruce, are of course native to Norway, but also to Eastern Europe so may have similar issues to the Nordmann fir.

Buying locally grown trees will reduce your carbon footprint. Our options for buying a live Christmas tree include buying from the nearest garden centre (Otter Nurseries), B&Q, Haldon Forest Christmas Tree Centre or Exe Valley Christmas trees. The latter both sell locally grown trees, but I'm not sure where the others get theirs. Haldon Forest Christmas Tree Centre get all their trees from Dartmoor Christmas Tree Farm and of our local suppliers they provide the most information. They have about 80,000 to 90,000 Christmas trees on their 20 acre farm and for every tree they harvest they plant at least one more tree. Unfortunately they don't grow organic trees. In fact, according to the Soil Association website our nearest supplier of organic Christmas trees is 174 miles away (by road) in Lampeter, Wales.

We've never had a potted Christmas tree and have always been concerned that it wouldn't like being indoors for a month every year. We also don't have much space for a potted tree in the garden as they're bound to get big quite quickly.


In Britain, the trend is moving away from buying real trees to artificial ones. Artificial trees are often seen as a more eco-friendly alternative, but most are produced in China and, even ignoring issues relating to working conditions, will have travelled a very long way. The old artificial trees had foliage very similar to tinsel, but the modern ones are remarkably realistic and made from a different type of plastic. I've only enquired about one source of these trees and to my disappointment they were neither made from recycled plastic nor produced in the EU.

An artificial tree is supposed to last many years and we have family members who've had their trees for decades, but apparently most are discarded after only a few years and soon end up in landfill. Perhaps the more realistic ones, being ten times the price, will be less likely to be discarded so soon.

In the future we would love to grow our own real Christmas trees (organically of course) and either cut them down or bring them indoors in a pot for the festive period. Until then I suspect we'll be sticking with a locally grown real tree, although I'd much prefer to find a source of organic trees.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Rain water harvesting


Our new allotment is completely off-grid, there are no amenities provided on site. For people who dream of being self-sufficient in the future, and took on the allotment to hone our self-sufficiency skills, this is really great news.

One of the key issues we will face is ensuring that we have water. It's difficult to know in advance how much water we will need since the amount will vary depending on the number of raised beds, type of crops and the conditions each summer.


Exeter receives about 1,000 mm of rainfall each year, anywhere between 30 and 130 mm per month.

Annual Rainfall / Precipication Exeter at Airport (EXT): 972 mm

If we collect 1,000 mm (1m) of rain per year from a area that is 1metre by 1 metre then we will have collected one cubic metre of water (1,000 litres)

So, initially that is exactly what we intend to do.

Intermediate bulk containers

Conveniently, Intermediate bulk container (IBC) are designed to hold 1,000 litres.  An IBC is a "reusable industrial containers designed for the transport and storage of bulk liquid". A suitable food-grade IBC may have been used to transport fruit juice for packing and sale in the destination country.


Even though we're only intending to store water on the allotment for garden use (and not for a home grey water system), we'll still be following BS8515:2009.  In practice this will mean collecting water from a greater area to ensure that we regularly flush out the tank and ensuring that the tank is insulated so that the temperature does not rise too high since this would increase the risk of bacteria growth.

  • It may be worth reading the FAO's Introduction to irrigation
  • More to understand on Annual Rainwater Yield (ARY), Annual Rainwater Demand (ARD) and risks like Legionnaires Disease

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Unethical by default

We know that there are problems in the world, but what if we are driving those problems more than we realise by perpetuating the status quo and failing to make necessary changes?

In the information age it's much easier to be well informed and to discover that our trust in some institutions is being grossly abused. rates HSBC's honesty, ethics etc at 18/100 and Barclays' at a staggering 4/100.

"HSBC holds the record for the largest ever fine levied against a single bank and engages in practices including knowingly laundering money for drug cartels and terrorist groups. HSBC is also one of the world’s biggest investors in illegal deforestation and tar sands extraction."

"Barclays' portfolio shows a complete disregard for the environment, human rights and arms proliferation, giving the bank the lowest possible mark for ethics."

In sharp contrast there are amazing institutions out there that are worthy of our trust and support, e.g. Ecology Building Society (rated 100/100), who only give mortgages where environmental improvements are being made.  Instead of growing irresponsibly they currently have to have a waiting list for people depositing savings (imagine one of the main banks refusing your money because they currently did not have enough projects to make use of it ethically).

We're now subscribed to Ethical Consumer Magazine - a publication that has been running for over 20 years that offers a similar service to Which Magazine, but rates products and services on their ethical and environmental qualities.

We've been very happy customers of Good Energy for several years, so we're trying to make other positive changes including moving our mortgage.

Zero food miles

Being vegan, our meals are generally composed of vegetables, grains and either nuts/seeds or pulses. Since we're trying to cut down on grains we're eating even more vegetables and fruit than we used to. As a result, we buy a lot of veg, some of which we buy organic from Abel & Cole and the rest of which we buy at the supermarket. We used to get locally grown veg delivered, but the quality was very poor and we got sick of throwing half of it away.

We've always wanted to grow our own food, but have struggled with vegetables due to a lack of space in the garden. Not that our garden is small, but it's full of perennials and I've always been loathe to give up my flowers to make space for veg. We've been on the allotment waiting list since Ian moved to Exeter and last Friday we got one. It's on Hospital Lane - just across the main road from our house and only a three minute walk away.

It's the perfect time of year to get an allotment, especially one that needs a lot of clearing as ours does. Currently it's full of grass and brambles (we cleared most of the ragwort, teasels, nettles and dock last weekend) and the ground is extremely uneven, but the soil is beautiful. At home we have heavy clay soil and that is indeed the underlying soil at the allotment (we can tell because Hospital Lane is much lower down than the allotments and the 3 m banks on each side of the lane are clay), but there's a lovely thick layer of crumbly brown soil on top. I'm not sure if it's simply from repeated use of the allotment or from decaying leaves from the nearby trees, but whatever the reason we're not complaining. It's so much easier to get a spade in than our garden it's going to make it much easier to clear than we had originally anticipated.

We've seen lots of wildlife at the allotments already. It makes us feel rather guilty for clearing ours, but we'll have to come up with a plan to provide shelter for things. At least the edges of all the allotments provide a refuge for wildlife and there are quite a few long grassy areas about too. So far we've seen two species of dragonfly, several species of butterfly, grasshoppers, a frog, several slow worms and on Monday Ian unearthed a huge toad. I couldn't resist picking him up.

According to our neighbour the foxes that we see on Hospital Lane also come up to the allotments (and keep them free of rabbits). 

We're really looking forward to growing lots of fruit, herbs and especially vegetables on our plot. It'll be great experience for us (we've always dreamed of growing our own food) and good for the environment too.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Wheat-free Wednesdays

At Frog End we have initiated "wheat-free Wednesday's". Like dairy products, wheat contains addictive opioid peptides that make you want to eat more and more and indeed that does seem to be the case with me. I love bread and could happily eat it with every meal. I am a bread addict - there I said it!

Unfortunately wheat isn't all that good for you for a number of reasons:

1) Firstly, wheat isn't colourful - generally the less colourful a food is the less nutritious it is (see What Colour Is Your Diet). Unfortunately most staple foods around the world lack colour (the only exception that I know of is sweet potatoes in Okinawa - one of the reasons that Okinawans are known for their incredible longevity and exceptional health in old age). There's a growing body of evidence that it's much healthier to get most of your calories from vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds than from grains and other sugary foods.
2) Wheat causes inflammation throughout the body. If you think of any of the medical conditions ending in the suffix "itis" then these are all related to inflammation of a particular organ - appendicitis, arthritis, dermatitis, meningitis, tonsillitis etc and wheat causes inflammation! It doesn't take a genius to realise that a diet full of wheat (even wholewheat) is going to cause a multitude of problems.
3) A substance contained in wheat called "phytic acid" can bind minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc, thereby preventing them from being absorbed by the body.
4) Wheat consumption is associated with several brain diseases including autism, epilepsy and schizophrenia.
5) Gluten intolerance can lead to coeliac disease - a result of the body seeing gluten in the digestive tract as a foreign invader and attacking not only the gluten, but also the digestive tract itself.
6) Modern wheat is completely different to the wheat that we used to grow. Even ignoring all the chemicals used during the production process we have to take into account that modern wheat is genetically modified, less nutritious (lower in protein and in many essential minerals than it was only 100 years ago) and prepared in a completely different manner (i.e. no longer soaked and sprouted or baked with slow-rising yeast). I'll hopefully write another blog post on sprouting grains in the near future.

There are probably many more good reasons for reducing our wheat consumption, but grains are an area that I'm very much still researching. In fact whilst finding information for this blog I've just read that it's best to cut out wheat altogether rather than reducing the amount that you eat because of the withdrawal symptoms. All I can say is that I will think about it. I do love my bread!

Sunday, 27 April 2014

20th Donation

The NHS have recently updated their blood donation website.

For some reason some of the earlier donation records are no longer shown, but the site does show the date that I first joined (7th October 2006) and records my total number of donations.

The records also show my brief attendances at the platelet donation centre in Bristol.  I'd like to have another go at platelet donation, but the centres are quite a long distance away and therefore it's not ideal for frequent donations every couple of weeks.

On 1st August 2014 I'll reach my 20th blood donation.

What's my target for total number of donations? Let's just say that I have a number in mind and I haven't hit it yet.


Helen and I have been volunteer litter pickers since early February.  We're registered as Frog End Litter Action (FELA) at

We generally go out litter picking on Sunday mornings. There's always plenty to do.  As of today we've just reached 20.5 bin sacks (rubbish and recycling) and contributed 15 hours and 30 minutes of community service.

Friday, 4 April 2014

So much to say

Some time ago, Helen asked me to write a blog on Buddhism. I've been unsure where to start because it's a large topic.  These days I feel comfortable declaring that I am Buddhist,  I certainly spend more time practicing Buddhism than anyone I know who subscribes to a theistic religion spends pursuing their beliefs.

I don't know when I finally became Buddhist, but for quite some time I have been following the five precepts:

1. Refrain from harming living creatures
2. Refrain from taking that which is not freely given (stealing)
3. Refrain from sexual misconduct
4. Refrain from speaking mistruths
5. Refrain from taking intoxicants

I've experienced that following the precepts leads to a clearer mind and reduces mental suffering. My early experimentations with being a vegan stemmed from the first precept (although I have many other reasons for being a vegan), and the move from occasionally drinking alcohol to completely abstaining also emerged from following the precepts.

Although I feel that my following of the precepts in general is going well,  I find the fourth precept to be the most difficult, and I doubt a day goes by when I don't break it.  It is sometimes written:

4. Refrain from lying, harsh speech, idle speech and slander

I believe that the best route to achieving the fourth precept is through cultivating Loving Kindness (mettā)

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Not just a diet

I've been on a strict vegan diet for two months now. I've got past the stage of wanting dairy and it's actually starting to disgust me, just as meat and fish already do.

There's a lot more to being vegan than giving up dairy and eggs and we're slowly turning our household vegan. We've got rid of most of our leather goods, but Ian will need some new work shoes and I'll need a new jacket before it will all be gone. It'll take us a while to use up all the cleaning products and toiletries that contain animal-derived ingredients or that were made by companies that test on animals, but we hopefully won't be buying any more in the future.

I've been doing some research on toiletries recently and have been surprised to find that a few companies that I thought were vegan (Avon, The Body Shop, Clinique, Liz Earle, Lush etc) have a "cruelty-free" policy of no animal testing, but still use animal-derived products. Luckily I've been moving towards using more natural products for cleaning (both ourselves and the home). I love the idea of not using anything on your skin / hair that you wouldn't be willing to eat, but I'm not sure if I'll ever quite get there.

I'm thinking of trying soap nuts for washing our clothes. Has anyone tried them?

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Your Handwriting Can Change Your Life

For his birthday, Ian received a book on handwriting by Vimala Rodgers. While he was busy travelling and reading his other birthday books I pinched it from him and thoroughly enjoyed it. It has introduced me to both graphology and graphotherapy. It's also inspired me to change the way that I write. I've never really liked my handwriting (the writing of my parent's generation is so much prettier), but have been too lazy to change it in the past.

The book asks the reader to write a page of text on unlined paper and then you get to analyse what your writing says about your character and how you might want to make changes in the way that you write which in turn should slowly begin to allow you to change the way you think (and therefore act). For example, the left hand side of the page corresponds to the past and the right hand side the future, so if you're the kind of person who lives in the past you probably don't leave much space on the left hand side. If you're always dreaming about the future rather than living for today then you probably write very close to the right-hand side of the page. The distance you leave at the top of a page corresponds to your feelings on authority - the less space the less you tolerate authority figures. Apparently Julius Caesar never left any space at the top of each page - go figure! Lots of other things reflect your character - the slope of your letters, the slope of each line of writing, spacing between words etc etc.

The second part of the book discusses the letters of our alphabet and how they relate to the way that we think. Some letters are associated with our ability to communicate, others relate to how we analyse things, others to creativity and how we express ourselves etc etc. It teaches an 'ideal' alphabet, which is supposed to aid the reader in getting over various problems, so at the ripe old age of 33 I have begun relearning to write. Oddly enough it's the 'easy' changes that are the most difficult to make. For example it suggest that one should write an o in a clockwise direction (thus ending towards the right which is supposed to be more positive than pointing backwards to the left). It's so easy to do a clockwise o, but I've found that I often accidentally revert to the anti-clockwise o when I'm not thinking about my writing. The capital H she suggests seemed odd to me, but having been doing some family history research today I just found the same H written on the 1881 census. They knew what they were doing back then!

Monday, 24 February 2014

Frog and Toad

After several weeks of terrible weather Spring seems to be arriving in Exeter. The only insects I've seen so far have been a few caterpillars and a red admiral butterfly, but the amphibians are out in large numbers. As usual we've had around 50 to 100 frogs in the larger of our two ponds. We've also been lucky to see some toads on our daily walks, although we've yet to have one at Frog End. Toads have a lot of trouble on roads at this time of year when they migrate to ponds to spawn. There are volunteer toad patrols across the country to help carry them across safely, but our local toads don't appear to be crossing any of the main roads.

Tonight I spotted a newt with a (presumably) broken leg on the opposite side of the road from our house. It's now safely in the mud by our pond and seems to be much more responsive than it was on the pavement.

Frog End frogs (is it just me or is the last one smiling?):

I visited our newts down at the pond yesterday evening - they come to the surface more at night. They're still hard to photograph because they're underwater and swim quite fast, but at least you can see that it's a newt:

Common toad on Hart's Lane:

Friday, 7 February 2014

The wombles of Exeter

I have always been concerned about man's impact on the environment and to an extent it has determined my career and interests, but I openly admit that I have not done as much as I would like for our local environment.

A couple of weeks ago I watched a video. It was simply a link from someone's facebook page or twitter account. I can't even remember whose. It made me cry. Not just a little tear in the corner of my eye, but properly cry. It also made me want to do something. I asked Ian to watch it last week and he instantly felt the same way.

Most days in the winter we go for a 45 minute walk. Usually we follow the same route, leaving the city of Exeter via a walk along the railway line, going through the village of Pinhoe and returning via the leafy Hart's Lane (which no longer has deer, but still has plenty of other wildlife including mice, rabbits, foxes, owls, toads, crickets, butterflies and dragonflies). In the summer we may do up to three walks in one day, depending on the weather and how busy we are with other things. This video has prompted us to join Litter Action. We have bought a litter picker and as soon as the weather has improved a little we shall begin taking it (and several bags) on our walks with us. We shall start by clearing Hart's Lane and then will probably move on to the area by the railway line (which being like most such areas could take some time to clear).

Speaking of the weather, in case you're wondering if we're flooded, the answer is no. Unfortunately that doesn't mean that we haven't suffered any damage. Nine weeks of rain and storms culminated in an horrific storm last Tuesday night. We woke up to find that most of the fence between us and one of our neighbours had disintegrated, there was a lake on the field just behind our back fence and, most disturbingly, water had come through the wall into the study. We now have a huge damp patch right above my desk. I can only assume that a combination of the gutter not being able to cope with all the rain and possibly problems with our pointing? are to blame. We're going to get the gutters cleaned asap, but will have to seek advice as to whether we need any other work done on the outside.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

I'm going to cook a meal

It's no secret that Helen does most of the cooking and baking. Now that we don't eat processed meals I rarely take the lead and instead I tend to focus on fulfilling the unskilled role of a skivvy.

However, this year I'm aiming to start to learn the art of survival cooking.

My plan is to prepare a meal around midsummer time without the support of modern conveniences such as water, food and energy from the house. This will require distilling rainwater,  cooking over a fire and washing up using a suitable water source.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Helen's most treasured possessions

Having fewer things makes it easier to see what it is that we do value. I've been having a think and have come up with my top ten most treasured possessions (excluding photographs).

1) Our wedding rings - I saw a picture of a wedding ring with flowers engraved around the band and wondered if it would be possible to have my favourite animal - the dragonfly on ours. Smooch rings were very obliging and the result was better than we could have hoped for.

2) The 'moose tin' - this isn't really a tin, so I'm not sure why that name has stuck, but it has. Ian and I were close friends for several years before we started dating. In 2005 he travelled one third of the way across the world, most of it on the Trans-Siberian railway. Before he left he asked if there was anything he could bring back for me. Jokingly I replied 'two moose and a bear'. Whilst in Russia he saw many little lacquered boxes in the shops and dutifully searched for one with a moose and bear on. Amazingly he found one on a side-street in Moscow and brought it back for me.

3) Wooden birds - These were carved by my grandfather Morris Edwards. I have many fond memories of looking at these on the fireplace while visiting my grandparents.

4) Mandolin - This belonged to my great grandmother (my father's mother's mother). It's a beautiful instrument in itself and especially so as I adore stringed instruments. In addition to the mandolin we also have 4 guitars, a harp and a violin in the house. I'm looking forward to having more time to learn to play them all (I even tuned the mandolin for the first time a few weeks ago).

5) The Animals of Farthing Wood - This was my favourite book when I was young. I could just as easily have chosen one of William Horwood's Duncton books, but there are six of those and I have more than one copy of several of them (so much for becoming a minimalist). If I could only keep one book this would have to be it.

As an aside, does anyone else have more than one copy of a book? I used to have several (e.g., one paperback of the wind in the willows and another big hardback with lots of illustrations), but have been quite ruthless of late and got rid of most of my duplicates. The problem with the Duncton books is that I first read and owned them as paperbacks. In general I prefer hardbacks, but the hardbacks that I have of the Duncton books are second-hand and don't have as pretty covers as the paperbacks.

6) Pastel drawing - This one was a very difficult decision. I wanted to include some art by my father, but was torn between this pastel drawing and a little ceramic pot which he painted with butterflies and flowers.

7) Similarly I wanted to include something that I had created on the list. I briefly considered my PhD thesis, but to be honest if the house was burning down it wouldn't be something that I'd go for! Instead I chose a drawing that I copied from a print on a T-shirt whilst at University. Although I'm pleased with it I'd like to replace this entry on my list in the near future. I haven't drawn or painted anything in years, but for the last couple of years have fallen for (but not bought) many different paintings of hares. I would really like to do one myself, but suspect that it will take a lot of practice and many attempts before I come up with something I'm happy with.

8) Wooden turtle - Although carved in Indonesia, this was bought from the island of Baros in the Maldives whilst we were on our honeymoon. We gazed at in the gift shop for several days before buying it on my birthday. We saw many beautiful creatures whilst snorkeling on the coral reefs off Baros and on our last day were rewarded with the sight of two turtles.

9) Glass snail - We saw this in the window of a shop right next to the Rialto Bridge in Venice. Unfortunately the shop wasn't open and we were only in Venice for one more night, but on our final morning Ian ran across Venice to buy it for me before we were due to catch our bus to the airport.

10) Pottery - Made by native American Indian artists. We bought these at Furnace Creek in the heart of Death Valley, California during what was probably my favourite holiday of all time - a road trip through California, Arizona and Nevada with Ian in 2007. From a purely aesthetic point of view they're my favourite ornaments.

I'd be very interested to know what your most treasured possessions are and why?


We were a little worried that if I wrote this blog post you would think that we feel the need to justify our choices or worse that we are trying to proselytise. This is not the case. My aim here is simply to explain our choices so that you will hopefully understand better and support the decisions that we have made.

Four years ago we gave up eating meat. Last year we gave up eating fish and replaced cow's milk with non-dairy milk. From New Years Day 2014 we tried going on a vegan diet. That is to say I tried and Ian succeeded, so Ian is now following a vegan diet and I am in a transitional phase of 'not-quite vegan', but hoping to get there sometime soon. For three weeks I managed to give up all dairy and eggs, but then fell into a deep moroseness due to a lack of cheese. I feel guilty that I succumbed to buying cheese, but pleased that I have not brought it back into my cooking / our meals. This should make it a lot easier to phase it out again.

The main difficulty I had was with lunch and supper. I'm more of a savoury than a sweet person and there's nothing I like more than some bread and cheese or maybe a baked potato with cheese or a cracker or two with cheese sliced on top. None of these foods are the things that I want to be eating - I should really be having vegetables instead of bread, sweet potatoes instead of ordinary baking potatoes (if baked sweet potatoes could only have crispy skin, sigh) and crackers are probably just a load of white flour and salt. So my sincere hope is that I will be able to phase out these foods (and therefore cheese too) over the next few weeks by incorporating more healthy things into my suppers and lunches.

So why become vegan in the first place you ask? There is no one reason, but there is abundant scientific evidence that it is both good for us and good for our planet. Since this is a blog I shall spare you the academic references, but one day I hope to write a fully-researched and referenced summary of our reasons. For now you'll have to make do with the following:

1) Becoming vegan is a natural progression in the changes to our diets that we've been making over the last few years. We've both become very interested in nutrition as a preventative measure for disease (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, MS etc) and are moving towards a diet of predominately vegetables, pulses, whole grains, fruits, nuts and seeds. We both agree that eating none of something is (at least for us) easier than eating a small amount of something, so cutting out dairy and eggs entirely seems to be the best way forward. I guess we have what GB calls 'addictive personalities'.
2) It's been an incredible way of cutting out most processed foods. I was never a fan of microwave meals, but until this month it has been all too easy to go to the supermarket and buy a pizza or a vegetable lasagne or a pack of quorn and jar of chilli sauce. Okay the last three probably don't sound that bad, but if you actually read the list of ingredients you'll find that even vegetarian (but non-vegan) processed foods contains a huge amount of junk. Of course not all processed foods contain dairy, eggs, honey etc but wr have found that they sneak into a surprising number of the things we used to buy.
3) You may think that our diets would be less varied than they used to be, when in fact the opposite has occurred. I used to keep a spreadsheet of new foods that I've tried each year, but there have been so many in the last year that I've given up.
4) The less junk we eat, the more we can actually taste other foods - I read that somewhere (can't for the life of me remember where, but I will endeavor to find the reference) and it does indeed seem to be the case. Everything literally has more flavour. Only a few months ago I was still struggling to 'eat my greens', but now I'd class kale as one of my top five favourite foods.
5) People often use food as a means of comfort and I'm not just talking about chocolate cake and ice cream. Have you ever been in a boring or difficult job or family-situation and felt like meal-times were the best part of the day? I know we both have. By cutting out the junk that we were addicted to and eating more natural foods we're regulating our bodies and becoming less emotionally-reliant on food. I've just read that cheese actually has an opiate effect on the brain - so I literally need to get over my addiction.

6) Okay when you eat an egg you're not actually killing the chicken, but have you ever heard of a male chicken laying an egg? Egg laying varieties of chicken (as opposed to the ones that you eat) are sexed shortly after birth and then the males are killed. This is known as 'chick culling'and whilst none of the methods of killing are particularly pleasant I find 'maceration' the most inhumane - basically the chicks are thrown (alive) into a high-speed grinder. Is this any better than killing people in a gas chamber? Personally I don't think so (and if you're thinking that these are only chickens and not people, please remember that they are sentient beings and try to have a little empathy). Similarly, male dairy calves are usually killed when only a few months old.
7) The food that all these animals eat has to come from somewhere. When I was doing my Masters degree I did a research project on North Sea sandeels. These poor fish are being harvested on a massive scale for the animal-feed industry. Not only is this destroying the sandeel population, it is also destroying the food-chain with impacts on fish, seabirds and mammals to name only a few. As if that isn't enough, dredging for sandeels is also damaging the seafloor itself, with devastating consequences for plant and animal life.
In Argentina, huge swathes of forest are being taken from the locals, cut down and replaced with soya bean plantations. The pesticides and herbicides used to make sure that soya beans are the only thing that can grow on the land are not only decimating local wildlife, but they are leaching into the water supplies of the locals, causing unprecedented rates of deformities and cancers. This is all so that the world can have cheap soya for animal feed. Ugh.
8) It takes ten times as much water to produce 1kg of animal protein than it does to produce the equivalent amount of vegetable protein. Then there's the massive amount of land, animal feed and energy required, the impacts on the environment of cattle slurry lagoons etc etc . With the current global population, none of these are things that our planet can afford.

People often ask vegetarians and vegans if they have cravings for things that they're not allowed to eat. My answer would be that after only a few weeks it's quite the opposite. It's been so long since I ate meat or fish that the idea of putting dead animal on my plate or in my mouth absolutely revolts me. I still can't really believe that I did it for so long. It's only been a month since I gave up eggs and already I feel like there's no place for them in my life. I've already baked two vegan cakes - a blueberry and chocolate cake and a lemon cake with lemon drizzle. Both were delicious and if I hadn't baked them myself I'd never have been able to tell that they had olive oil and not egg/butter in. My problems with cheese come from a lack of interesting alternatives to eat as snacks / suppers. If I can conquer that then it should take a lot less effort to get to the 'I don't want to eat cheese' stage.

I know that the concerned among you may think that as vegans we will not get the right quantity and proportions of nutrients that our bodies require. I can assure you that we are both a lot healthier than we used to be and that the vegan diet requires so much more planning, attention and cooking from scratch than the average western diet that we are learning a great deal about nutrition.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Decluttering Our Home

We've been becoming more and more minimalist over the last few years. Not that we're not consumers - that's something that we'd still like to cut back on, but rather than adopting a simple 'one in, one out' policy for things like books, clothes and even furniture we've been going more for a 'one in, ten out' approach. We've also become a lot more choosy about the things that we buy. We're now amazed when we see someone go into a shop and buy something straight away (these days we only do this with food). I spend hours shopping around, not just for the best deal financially, but also to get the exact thing that we want, rather than just the things that are available to us in our local shops. Of course there's the disadvantage that each item we buy is likely to have travelled further than those we've bought in the past, but if we're buying fewer things and choosing things that will last a lot longer then I feel that it's worth it.

One thing we've realised is that the process of sorting through and getting rid of possessions is an ongoing one. Of course everything takes time, but what we've also found is that if you sort through something one month then you can do it again a few months later and find that you're less attached to things that you wouldn't have dreamed of getting rid of only a few months before. I can't quite explain it, but it's some kind of reduction in emotional attachment that seems to occur, not only with time, but as we realise that we've been doing perfectly well without the things that we got rid of in the past.

I've also made some decisions aimed at reducing clutter and complications regarding possessions in the future. For example, I've always loved patterned crockery and tableware and only a couple of years ago was dreaming of getting a full set in some form of wildflower pattern, but the few patterned pieces that we have don't match and I think that would always be the case. There's also the issue of seasonality. Whilst these beautiful buttercup plates from Corelle would look perfect on our table in summer they would hardly be appropriate for Christmas dinner.

This little sandpiper jug is adorable, but would look lost on a table without matching pieces.

So we've decided to collect only plain white crockery and tableware and to use napkins, flowers and food presentation to dress up our table. Of course if anyone wants to buy that little jug so that I can visit it at someone else's table that would be just fine!

We're finding that having fewer possessions makes us happier people for a number of reasons. Firstly we can realistically achieve our aspiration of  'a place for everything and everything in its place'. I rarely lose anything anymore because there are simply fewer places to put things and fewer things in drawers and cupboards when I do have to search for something.

Secondly, the fewer things we own the less worried I am. I'm not sure if worry is exactly the right word, but I did use to 'worry' about all the books on my shelves that I hadn't read, for example. Now I genuinely only have books that I've read (and will read again) or intend to read soon. I know exactly what is on my shelves and can look forward to reading those books that I have decided to keep. Similarly I've got rid of the journal articles that I'd kept to use as references and which every day seemed to almost accuse me from their place on the shelves of not having written up various thesis chapters etc for publication. I have now accepted that I will never write those articles and am happy with the decision.

Thirdly I find that having fewer things makes it easier to plan our time. There are far fewer half-finished projects about the house. Also, when we decide to do something like have a carpet fitted or wallpaper a room it's much easier knowing that there's less to move about in order to make it happen.

A new blog

With all the many methods of communication available to us these days it's hardly surprising that my family each prefer different ways. Some family members are 'phone people', others prefer email, others facebook or twitter and some prefer simply to catch up in person whenever the opportunity presents itself. What I've found in the last couple of years is that the preferred type of communication has determined which aspects of our lives our family are familiar with.

The aim of this blog is not to provide another photo diary, as all my other blogs that have fizzled out have done, but to highlight aspects of our lives that we would like to share with people, whether they are things that are happening or simply our thoughts on different subjects.

I assume that it's normal for a person to undergo a period of significant change whilst in their teens or possibly when leaving home for the first time. I'm not sure if it's as normal for it to happen when you're in your early thirties, but Ian and I are both evaluating our opinions on a great deal of things at the moment. The changes in our beliefs and interests have been quite rapid and sometimes I feel that family members do not really know us. That is something that I would like to change with this blog.