Not that many summers ago, a friend was visiting with her two sons.  We enjoyed the warm summer evening in the hot tub, watching the sun’s light slipping lower in the sky and casting long shadows, briefly providing a filter of flattering egg-yolk lighting.  Laughing at our own dim-witted jokes, her youngest son put his hands up and said, “People, can we please stop talking and listen to the sounds of Dartmoor?”

That’s us told.

And he was right.  To pause.  To listen.  To hear the sounds that are all too often muffled by the busy buzz of our lives is a gift.

With this global shut down, the usual drone of cars and people chattering have all gone COVID Quiet.  Even in a remote location like Dartmoor, we are all once again hearing the “singing of the real world” as Virginia Woolf once wrote.    Energetic bird song pulsating the air as the gang claim territory, attract mates, and twitter the beginning, middle and end of each day.  The rustling sound of the breeze sifting its way through trees newly in bud .   Sheep and cattle calling in the distance.  Our chickens proudly announcing the laying of an egg.   And once, the puttering sound of a tractor engine across the valley.

Nature boosts my mood, possibly more so now in “lockdown times”.  There is a smell of spring in the air as the earth warms up.  Oh, if only we could bottle this scent!  After a long winter, the landscape is waking up and stirring the senses.

All of nature is having a different time of it.  Migrating toads enjoying their breeding season since they aren’t likely to be squashed by passing cars.  Birds, foxes, badgers, and the lovely hedgehog may all welcome a respite from the effects of human activity.  I recently read there is a precipitous drop in air pollution, noise pollution and even surface seismic activity from trains, cars and busses across the globe.   A big change.

I’m not certain if I am imagining it, but the sheep seem less on guard.  They know Millie and Brock, so barely give a glance from their grazing when we pass.  But unknown dogs are rightly viewed as potential predators.   To look out upon the hillside and down the valley is to see sheep keeping their distance from one another, enjoying a patch of spring grass, rather than being clustered together.  Safety in numbers.

Our COVID Quiet is giving rise to the sounds of a newly settled landscape.  We’re not hearing hundreds of people each day who noisily walk along the foot path near our house.  We’re not hearing cars rumble over the cattle grate a mile away.  No calls to misbehaving dogs.  No arguments between couples.  No crying children.  And a quieter Brock who is no longer barking at people walking past with their dogs.   All of this is the stuff of life, but not the natural sounds of Dartmoor.  With damping of our collective human noise, I am certain I heard a giant sigh as the moors relaxed themselves like a tight muscle easing.  No one walking across her land.

With the old noises gone and the new sounds resonating a new choral song, I am determined to learn more bird songs.  I know the chipper tittering of the sky lark when we are walking through the reedy grasses.  The outrageous squawk of the Grey Heron and the yaffle of the green woodpecker are familiar sounds.  And at some date in the future the well-known coo-coo, coo-coo of our most mischievous migrant birds will fill the air. But deciphering the calls of the Great Tit from a Chaffinch challenges me like remembering someone’s name at a crowded party.  I can hear it, commit it to memory, but when the time comes to introduce this new person to Roger, I’m at a loss if her name was Christine or Caroline.

With nothing more than birdsong and hearing Millie and Brock sniff the ground on our morning walks, I am beginning to tease out a few different sounds.   I now head out with the dogs and my binoculars.  I am working to hear a unique bird call and then locate the source.  If I can identify the bird, then I can link its call.  I can happily say that with greater confidence the Great Tit, the Chaffinch, the Skylark, the Black Bird and the Robin are almost easy for me since I set out with this project.  I, a complete novice, am growing in confidence and soon hope to decipher the sounds of some more recent returners to our garden:  The Green Finch and the Goldfinch.

This COVID Quiet is not the same for everyone and has underscored the inequalities of life across the globe.  I recently heard from a friend in New York City who wrote me, “We’re well and so far so is all our family.  We hear sirens constantly though.  All day and all night.

Here at Crockern, we’re grateful to have one another’s company, technology to connect with friends, the energy and happiness of Millie and Brock, fresh eggs from our hens and the unfolding secrets of Dartmoor.  And through our different experiences of this new sound scape across the globe, I am reminded we’re all in this leaky boat together.

Rub’a’dub in da Hot Tub!

Recently, I was away from Crockern for four out of five weeks, leaving Roger and Sam many tasks to contemplate.  However, several of the projects were caveated:  nothing that involved climbing  high up on ladders, using power tools in tricky locations, lifting heavy objects, or doing anything where a possible injury could happen with no one nearby to help.  As clever as Sam is, he isn’t exactly Lassie:  “Woof, woof, woof!”  “What is it Lassie?  Has Timmy fallen into the well?”

You might think that with such restrictions in place, Roger would have read all the great works of literature, but instead, spurred on by warm and sunny weather, he and Sam were busy.  When I returned, I was greeted with many happy surprises, including new fencing where we are planning to keep pigs and the vegetable garden fully planted.  We are trying a bit of everything in the garden this first year, to see what will work.  Here’s what we have:

Lettuces, beets, cabbages, spinach, leeks, potatoes, rocket, rainbow chard, onions, carrots, peas, broad beans, green beans, runner beans, celery, celeriac, cauliflower, romanesco, courgettes, tomatoes, pumpkins, artichokes, purple sprouting broccoli, swede, brussel sprouts, sweet corn, cucumbers, peppers, squash and asparagus.  We have herbs (sage, thyme, chives, rosemary, mint, parsley and marjoram) and fruits (rhubarb, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and an apple, pear and cherry tree).  Mostly, we have planted a deep belief that we’ll have successes.

Raised Vegetable Beds

Seven of the eight raised beds we have planted.


Things are growing inside the greenhouse.

So far, everything is establishing well in the vegetable beds and the greenhouse and we’ve gathered a few dozen strawberries, several salads and herbs for seasoning various meals.  We also have a very successful crop of Stinging Nettles.

Originally, this last plant was not intended for harvest and I hasten to add, we did not plant it.   Last year, the area where we put in our vegetable garden was covered in a stand of nettles.  These invasive and determined plants stood proudly, like a forest of sturdy pines, occupying the sunniest part of our yard.  Not to mention, this was also the one area we had successfully kept out the sheep!

Forest of Nettles

The forest of Nettles before the vegetable beds.

My first encounter with Nettles in England was when my old dog Al slipped down a steep Nettle covered riverbank and fell headfirst into the river.  He was not much of a swimmer and in his old age was growing deaf and increasingly senile.  As Al fell, I instinctively reached into the river, through a thick patch of stingers, and pulled him to safety.   While he shook river water from his coat, both my hand and arm immediately blistered as if from a strange science fiction movie.  The swelling lasted no more than ten minutes, but the stinging sensation remained for at least three days.

Last spring, Roger and I worked for days pulling up Nettles before building our raised bed vegetable garden.   While working free their tenacious root system, I reflected on one of the stranger things I heard about when first moving to England:  “Nettle Eating Contests”.  Never in my wildest dreams, did I ever contemplate eating these nasty, stinging, space-hogging plants.

Oh how things have changed!   Despite my strong reaction, Nettles aren’t all bad.  They make excellent companion plants in the garden attracting aphids and cabbage white butterflies away from our legumes and brassicas.   Rich in iron and vitamin C, Nettles have a history of filling the hunger gap and the young shoots of spring are the best to eat for their flavour and nutrition.    Nettles can be used in the same way as spinach.  Just boil, cool and chop, then throw into egg dishes, risotto, and pasta.   Hard core types eat them raw.  Not me.  I collect the leaves while wearing good gardening gloves and using scissors, and then I dutifully follow a recipe, most recently, for nettle ravioli!

So the few patches that are returning close to the vegetable beds are welcome and monitored!

But our pursuit of health and well being does not rest with our gardening and foraging efforts alone.   We’ve recently introduced a bit of life enhancing decadence.  Again, while I was away, Roger managed to source and install a wood fired hot tub.   It sounds medieval, but it is far from some torture cauldron for witches.  It is a sleek, round fiberglass tub that looks like a giant teacup.  There is a coiled loop that contains a basket for the fire and once lit, heats the water inside the coil feeding it back into the hot tub.  There is even a snug place for a wok, to cook food, on top of the burner.  On the other side is a holder for keeping wine chilled.    Eat, drink and simultaneously soak in the hot tub.  An inspired combination if ever there was one!

Dutchtub by Weltevree

Our wood-fired hot tub.

In 1983, Eddie Murphy depicted the funk soul legend James Brown in a fictional hot tub talk show sketch on Saturday Night Live.  Dressed in gold Speedos and a wig, Murphy shows the Godfather of Soul getting down with his bad self as he sticks his toe in the hot water, achieving a pitch-perfect “Whoa oa oa!”

This comedic sketch aside, there is something profound about the love of the hot tub.  Perhaps it goes back to the calming and soothing effects of being submerged in liquid.   Is it possible from our early days in the womb, with the outside world distant and yet unchartered, where we develop this early experience of serenity best recreated with a soak in a hot tub?   Ah, the water’s embrace as we drift into peaceful surrender is bliss defined.   Soaking in the hot tub is not just for pure pleasure, though, as there are health benefits too:  stress reduction, muscle relaxation, improved sleep, reduction of headaches, and lowering of blood pressure, to name a few.  The heat, the buoyancy of the water and, lets face it, the views surrounding us are a luxurious tonic and marvelous fun!

So now to our ongoing list of projects we can add two more to resolve:

1.  Where do we locate the mechanism to spontaneously refill the tumbler of gin and tonic?

2.  Where do we source a James Brown style call-and-response back up band?

A man on a hot tub mission.

A man on a hot tub mission.