La Fringe

So I had this fringe cut
to hide the tramlines
on my forehead (because,
like Edinburgh’s, they are  
unsightly and regrettable
but too costly
to remove at this stage.)

The fringe, however, has a life
of its own, by which I do not
mean a kink, a cowlick,
a tendency to stick
up or out, but rather that
she has her own pursuits belonging
not to her roots – they are the same
as every other mousey brown
hair on my head – but to her tips,
snipped, at eye level.

First she demanded I tease
out and tweeze out
the No Parking zig zags
she deemed offensive not for
the white of them but for
their coarse, wiry waves.
An act of unprecedented vanity.

Next she required mascara to
separate my lashes from all
the other hair now there.
“I don’t wear make-up”, I said.
“Well, I do”, she said.
Which is true since
the wand in my shaky hands
magically turned everything charcoal.

“Mmm, black. Like my coffee.’
She approved. This
was news to me, having previously
favoured a decaf soya latte
with sugar-free hazelnut syrup.
“Non”, she said (did I mention
She was French?) “I cannot
hang over that. Black.”
I sipped tentatively at first,
no real thirst
for change, but I’ll admit
there was something in it.

And then came the chocolate.
Locked in a cupboard behind
the shelves of sweet and creamy kisses -
“Pour les enfants”, she dismisses
as she swishes around -
thick and brown:
one hundred percent cacao;
no milk, no sugar.
It was like finding god in the second floor
café of a department store.
“See?” she said, “See?”

Soon we were skipping
breakfast and lunch for tiny mouthfuls
of silky ink that opened up the sky like Christmas.
Then we wrote for hours:
she dictated; I typed.
In the evenings, after a three course dinner,
I would rest my head against my husband’s
chest and she would tickle my ear and whisper
“Whisky.”
One finger between us in a jar that used to hold
Nutella. I have never drunk whisky in my life.
“Is not you, is me” she giggles coquettishly.

And afterwards, of course,
she wants a Gauloise.
I draw the line
straight across from the far corner of one
made-up eye to the other.
She falls limply to my nose, knows
that she could be back in a ponytail
by next year if she pushes her luck,
running 5k for a kale smoothie.
She soothes me, “No smoking, cherie!
Only joking, mais oui!”
And I stroke her back,
grateful for small mercis.

Cardoomed


My arms are usually covered in bramble scratches, there are always suppurating splinters of plant material stuck in my knuckles and my fingernails are full of soil, but about this time of year I also acquire another gardener's malady: huge bruises.


The culprit has neon purple flowers and thorns like hypodermic needles. Every year I say I am going to pull them out but every year I can't bear to deprive the bumble bees who hang out there. This year I was only cutting back a few stalks across the path to prevent small children becoming impaled - I barely felt the tiny pinpricks that caused that bruise three days later. Another day I was scratching at what I thought was an insect bite on my thigh (I am available for hire as a midge trap for all your outdoor events) only to find an inch long cardoon thorn stuck in there which caused an impressive spurt of blood on removal and attractive green bruise which co-ordinates well with a summer wardrobe. Last year was the worst: I dropped a high, heavy stalk on top of me from a couple of feet above and the blood actually flowed down my arm and ran onto the grass. 
The bruises were BLACK. 
This is from a PLANT. 
RESPECT THE CARDOON.


This year THEY ARE GOING. I'll replace them with more globe artichokes, for flowering instead of eating.
Probably.

Be More Ferret

Now that Badger free ranges the house and garden, he doesn't go out for walks so much. He's getting on a bit and being lugged in my bag/hoody to the park or beach is a bit wearing, not to mention the dogs.


But we had a car for the weekend so we went out first thing and took him up Arthur's Seat.


There were no dog walkers, just rabbits and a handful of tourists who talked to him and took photos. 


He fell asleep in the footwell on the way home.

Orange Is Not the Only Nasturtium

A joyful resolution to the conflict between my loathing of orange-toned flowers and love of eating nasturtium leaves, flowers and 'capers':


Milkmaid!


My garden is steadily being overtaken


 by beautiful, creamy 


Milkmaids


that taste delicious.


Wait. What is that? Surely not A VIOLA?


Yes! After six years of struggling to grow them, they are now self-seeding amongst the rainbow chard. Extraordinary! I think the garden has finally found that balance whereby there are enough predators to control the pests. Maybe I should give cloudberries another go...?

Heart-shaped Tupperware

Day 1
Palms crossed red from the thin, string
handles of the mesh bag,
I carry home ten pounds of marrowbones.

Day 2
Roasted, then anointed with vinegar,
and herbs I grew from seed specks
that lodged in the farrows of my life line,
the marrowbones simmer for twelve hours -
bubbling babies in a soupy womb -
while my cats drink the thick, rich air.

Day 3
In the morning, the fat
is a full moon which lifts away
like ice from a pond,
leaving only the bones of the broth.
From this comes all life.
And stew.

I chop the Holy Trinity
of onions, carrots, celery
and sear the steak and kidney,
then baptise all in liquor.
Another three hours of
wet window pane and
she is born.

But you, my oldest, are not there.
You are at McDonald’s.

Day 4
The better for sitting
in its thickening juices on the fat-
flecked stove top,
the meat has given up -
given itself up -
and collapsed,
languidly, into the liquid.

You didn’t see it there.
You already ate.

Day 5
I spoon the tender beef and gravy
into a cracked china bowl,
stretch plastic across the top
and write your name in
purple marker pen
with a little kiss
like this:
‘x’.

Day 6
I reach inside my rib cage
and slide out the heart-
shaped Tupperware there;
pour my meat and my bones
into it.
Snaplock it shut.
Tuck it in your rucksack.
Perhaps there is a microwave at college?

Day 19
In search of mugs,
I find my heart,
my flesh,
my blood,
under a gently steaming pile of lycra
in your room.
It blooms
blue and white and green
like a Mother’s Day bouquet.
I made this.

All of this.

Not Available in Ikea

When I went to view the house we now own, the owner opened the bathroom door and said, 'You'll want to rip all this out', before revealing an original, peeling, 1950's pink and black suite, reminiscent of a seedier early days Suicide Girls shoot. Like hell was I ripping it out.


It is accessorised particularly well with seagulls. Whilst my devotion to herring gull grey has been well documented, this lesser black-backed does co-ordinate better.

Pseudo-Extrovert, 40, Seeks Peace and Quiet

Realising I was introverted was the biggest thing that's ever happened to me. And I speak as someone who had a baby on her twenty-first birthday. Realising I was introverted, realising what that actually meant, and realising it was ok has made sense of the previous four decades of confusion for the first time. Now I understand why so many women in their forties say they wouldn't go back to the Western shrine of their flawless, teenage skin for anything: because it took them this long to find out who they actually are.

The confusion arises from the fact that I am also really, really extrovert. Or so it appears. I am outgoing and loud, not shy and quiet. I can go up and talk to anyone, make my voice heard in the most rowdy debates, speak in front of an audience. I am just absolutely exhausted afterwards and I fantasise about living on an uninhabited Hebridean island with tame otters.

As a teenager trying to find my identity, I once floated the idea that I was actually quite shy. This was met with universal derision from my friends. Maybe shy wasn't the word but I didn't know a word for being a teenager who just didn't like being out all night for anything other than bat watching. So I used alcohol to numb the skin-crawling horror of small, sweaty rooms full of strangers. Then I had that baby on my twenty-first birthday and was relieved of all partying duties.

There were a lot of play dates though. Over the next two decades it seemed like I was always letting people down. No, I didn't want a sleepover. No, I didn't want to go to a festival with a pack of other families. No, I didn't want to move into a commune. I didn't know what was wrong with me. I was a terrible mother, a terrible friend, a terrible person. I absolutely loved spending time with my friends and their kids but I didn't want to be around them all day every day - which was the norm in our alternative parenting world - or even for more than a couple of hours. I got so tired and so bad-tempered and then I would hate myself even more.

It was only a couple of years ago as I walked through my kitchen that I caught Susan Cain on Radio 4 saying introverts weren't necessarily shy, they were just exhausted by people; it was at this moment that everything began to change. Nobody I have ever known - family nor friends - had ever suggested that I might be an introvert. My ex-husband used to say that nobody outside our home really knew me - that I acted differently in public - but he never understood why. Suddenly, my terrible, shameful inability to be as gregarious as everyone else had a name and wasn't even an illness. And other people were like it. And some of them were proud of it!

Gradually I started doing life differently. In the past I had used dogs and smoking ('Needs a walk'/'Need a cigarette')  to get precious moments of solitude, but I had given up smoking before my kids could pick it up and my beloved greyhound died just before her fifteenth birthday. This, and the revelation of introversion, led to me starting to tell friends that I adored them but, actually, I just needed some time on my own now please. As if it were a reasonable thing!

Some got it, some didn't, so I saw less of the latter. I also started - for the first time in my life - to notice whether I was enjoying a situation or not. It seems incredible but I think before then, I had spent my whole life doing what I thought I should enjoy regardless of how it actually felt. Unsurprisingly it turned out I enjoyed writing, long solitary walks, reading memoirs and poetry in the bath, forest gardening, wildlife rehabilitation, hanging out at home with my family and coffees or lunches with close friends. I stopped forcing myself to do the things I didn't enjoy.

I started hating myself a little less and gained confidence. I had just finished my degree, by distance learning, so I started volunteering as a community-based/home-learning ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) tutor, working one on one or with groups of two or three. I enjoyed this so much and met such great people that I decided to get my certificate so I could teach professionally. I had been preparing to do exactly that nearly twenty years ago before I had my son. This time I got as far as the selection interview at college which was in a small, airless, internal room on one of the few hot days of the year. As well as the interview and some written tasks, prospective students had to prepare and give a short lesson to everyone else. I had no problems delivering mine and was accepted. But I realised straight away that classroom teaching, all day, every day, just wasn't going to be for me. The enormous toll that an hour or two of passionate, engaged, lively teaching to a group takes on me means I need the rest of the day - possibly several days - to recover with less intense, solitary work. I just couldn't teach in a classroom all day. I have home-educated for fifteen years but that is one to one or in small groups and, even then, I have had to schedule in regular independent or less intense periods. I have taught baby massage to huge groups of thirty-five mothers and their infants, but I only did it once a week. I knew that the intensive, four week, full-time course even to get the teaching certificate would kill me. Walking back from college in the sunshine - thinking about maybe finding part-time work as a gardener - I felt relieved and disappointed in equal measure, but also glad to finally know myself again.

As a child, careers I wanted before becoming convinced only law or education were acceptable included: haulage driver (as inspired by Long Distance Clara from Pigeon Street), RSPCA inspector and poet. All largely solitary occupations, as opposed to barrister and teacher which are akin to being on a stage - although I find even that much easier than teamwork. I tried to force my introversion into university dorms but a national residential A-level French course broke me. Group activities with strangers were scheduled back to back right through until bedtime in shared rooms. After getting through that horrifying weekend, and despite my excellent grades, I simply walked right out of high school and never went back. The needs of introverts are so widely ignored the entire way through education and employment.

I realise now, that a lifetime of the stress that comes from being an introvert in an extrovert society is also what caused me to suffer periods of severe anxiety. A few weeks after declining the college place, I finally read Susan Cain's book, Quiet, the title of which had always been off-putting to me. Quietness aside, there were a lot of descriptions that I immediately recognised. Smoking and dog walking (and hiding in bathrooms) are 'recuperative niches'! Being able to act like an extrovert when you have to to get what you want is a 'free trait'! Everybody thinking you are an extrovert because you act like one, which perpetuates the expectation to act like one, is 'reputational confusion'! These last two were revolutionary for me because my confusion has always stemmed from my combination of extremely introverted and extroverted behaviours. I had thought that maybe I was an ambivert but the best-of-both-world's tagline was laughable and I identified so totally with Cain's description of Professor Little, who performs extroversion brilliantly in order to do what he loves, that I think 'pseudo-extrovert' is more likely. The genuine, loudly-expressed, excitement and exuberance I exhibit whenever I see friends is not fake but I do think that perhaps I developed an extrovert persona from a very early age in order to exert control in social situations that a very sensitive, introverted, only child of older parents couldn't have coped with otherwise. It has become so normal to me for so long that I don't recognise it as anything but natural. It's only the exhaustion that gives me away.

And I get so exhausted because I perform extroversion in the manner of an introvert: intensely with total commitment, diligence and engagement. I am concentrating as hard as I can the whole time; I am giving a hundred and ten percent - that's why I can't do it for more than a couple of hours. I love that couple of hours! I enjoy playing extrovert! But then I need to be on my own. I can't stay until the end of the party, I can't spend the night, I can't go on group holidays. One of the hardest things for me is having people to stay or staying with other people because, although I really like the increased intimacy of it, there is nowhere to be on my own. I always end up having some sort of meltdown from burnout. This year, for the first time, I just went off on my own as much as I needed to - which was a lot - and the difference was amazing. In the past I have always felt I couldn't do that because it was so rude and people would be offended - the same with telling dinner guests it's time for them to go, or leaving parties early. But it's been nearly forty years and I can't keep apologising for being introverted. Introversion isn't a flaw. I am not introverted because I am anxious - I get anxious from the stress of being an introvert forced into too much extroversion by societal expectations. Introversion doesn't need to be treated or overcome. I love being introverted. I love limited periods of full-on teaching and hardcore socialising. I love my friends. But I have to go.

Asparagus

Never give up. (Amaro Montina)

Beastiary


In addition to Susie Wright's bear and my corvidry, I have acquired this beautiful fox, also by Rona Innes, and lovely badger by Adrienne O' Loughlin. (Reindeer skin sold by the Cairgorm Reindeer Centre in support of the Sami people who use every part of their free-ranging herds.)

He's not a wildcat but this gorgeous tabby print by Stewart Bremner also helps support the Edinburgh Cat Protection League.

Le Scythe

The lawn - in the middle of which I have already stuck a fire pit and a tree - has been given a reprieve from total removal because I am trying to replace the grass with clover, which the bees love. This lessens the use of the mower which - despite being a fairly benign push-along -  is my least favourite garden tool.


And I have started to quite like some garden tools. First I got a billhook - because Roger Deakin kept mentioning them in Notes from Walnut Tree Farm -  and a sharpening stone.


And these turned out to be the gateway tools to a vintage scythe from The Secret Herb Garden...

J.

On a childhood walk, I found
the small blue wing feather
of a jay and took it home
to my shells and skulls, thinking
it so beautiful but losing it eventually,
not knowing I would never find
another like it again.

Climbers Part II: Japanese Wineberries

I have relatively little space for climbers as the garden walls are all taken up by fanned fruit trees, and there is a path all the way around the house, preventing planting next to it. I've led the hops over the path to the sunroom roof by running twine from the flowerbed, and there was one corner of paving stone up, revealing enough earth - I hope - for this Japanese wineberry.


Nigel Slater - a fellow cloudberry failure -  persuaded me to try them and he was right.



Climbers Part I: Hops

Over the past six years, I've concentrated on getting the slow-growing tree layer into my edible forest garden as fast as possible. Sometimes this has meant having to reverse hasty decisions.We've planted over a dozen fruit trees and another dozen bushes, as well as a hedgerow. This year I'm about to finish covering every inch of soil with year-round herbs and ground cover, and it's time to think vertically.


Inspired by the hops growing at 57°N in our friends' garden, I took a cutting last autumn.


I'm hoping to train them over the roof of the sunroom and my husband is keen to make beer.


I love it when tools are beautiful.


Hop screw and twine erected over winter,


I just have to wait.

First Date with Titan Arum

I wore a dress I’d bought especially
to meet you since you’d gone to such great lengths,
but in that steamy love shack, sweating bees,
we don't need clothes; we taste each other’s breaths.

Your fish head soup is not the best perfume,
a starter for the mains of well hung meat;
the side of boiled cabbage fills the room
but still you woo with promises to eat.

Six seven and two metres fifty-five –
not much between you both except for me –
two titans in the gardens in July:
a blind date and a flower, like a tree.

I ask you if you’re looking for someone;
You say: ‘I think I’ve found her’ and it’s done.


John Muir Way Coast to Coast: Balloch to Helensburgh

John Muir Way Coast to Coast: Strathblane to Balloch


This final leg felt like we were on holiday. Balloch is a gateway to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park and the Highlands. The Loch Lomond Shores development even has a Valvona & Crolla Foodhall for god's sake. If you're walking west to east and finishing your first day here, you could do some serious damage.


But we had only walked a mile so couldn't really justify stopping. Instead we continued up the Stoneymollan coffin road. Again, if you were walking west to east then you'd have a gentle climb into the hills followed by a steep descent here. How anyone ever slogged up that incline carrying a dead body in a wooden box is a mystery to me. I'd have been championing burial at sea (loch).


This is a lovely section of the first/last leg, across the heathery hills, and we even had (intermittent) blue skies.


The views of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs are fantastic. 


Unlike the West Highland Way, this section was almost entirely deserted on a Bank Holiday Monday. We only passed a few people all morning, and none at all on the hills. JM would have approved.


Eventually the path goes through pine forest


and possibly my favourite trail of the whole route (if we leave out John Muir Country Park's pine trees on sandy beaches on the first day):


a dark, pine-resin scented path winding up through moss-draped trees is the way to my heart.


Water strikes terror into it.


I have collected a lot of these signs en route. This was by far the most blunt.


After what seemed a very long slog through Helensburgh - admittedly down immaculately manicured cherry blossom avenues, but I was HUNGRY - we arrived at the overcast coast and the markers of the walk's terminus:


'The sun shines not on us but in us' is probably the best attitude to have about the weather on the west coast of Scotland.


Public art in homage to Dunadd.


Our route from Dunbar on a representation of Muir's cabin at his eponymous glacier. It feels good to know that on this crowded island you can still walk safely and easily from one coast to another. And, from points along this route, continue on the West Highland Way and Southern Upland Way north and south, and from there onward, and so on. Walking is important. It's as near as I have to a religion.


But more importantly: sustenance. I can recommend Lido's for fish and chips. Essentially I walked 134 miles to hear someone ask, 'Salt and vinegar?' like they do in London, rather than the abomination that is, 'Salt and sauce?' which they insist on in my adopted hometown of Edinburgh.


Dino's for ice-cream, because - as my son insists - you might be full in your savoury stomach but you still have a sweet stomach available. He has walked 27 miles this weekend so I'm willling to go along with it for once.


Dino's actually do ice-cream eating competitions but thankfully not the day we were there. Nevertheless, a Knickerbocker Glory and some sort of nougat sundae were consumed by the menfolk, who apparently revel  in all things pink.


Greetings from Helensburgh!