Best in Show

Roger and I don’t have children.  We have dogs.  We have chickens.  We have projects. We have different activities.  We have fun.  Never before have we taken the dogs to a dog show, but when our friend Ann came to visit from Taiwan with her six-year old daughter Luna, the local village dog show seemed a fun way to spend an afternoon.

“Everyone’s a winner!” has got to be the theme.  It’s a village dog show, not Crufts.  It’s a fundraiser, so I’m feeling relaxed about Millie and Sam’s performance.  Still, to up our game, I give them both a little brushing before we head out for the afternoon.

Scanning the village green, we see some friends, a handful of dogs, and the day ahead looks relaxed.  There are several categories, and I start our day by entering Millie in “Best Dog Under 18 Months.”  Millie is friendly when greeting the judge who looks at her teeth, eyes and ears. Millie doesn’t jump up, but she doesn’t stand up either; instead, she snuggles into the judge for a little cuddle.  I feel my heart swell with love for our little dog and think, “Way to go Millie, that’s how to score points with the judge.”  But, when we go to do the required walk around the ring, Millie jumps up on me, tangles my legs and we are nothing less than a disaster.  I console myself: “It’s just a village dog show.”

There are several dog breeds and sizes competing. The people – known as handlers – also vary.  Some of these people hold the leads up straight and do a little trot with their dogs, just like they do at Westminster.  Who knew we were supposed to do that?  I notice a woman providing treats as she moves through the ring, which borders on treasonous cheating if you ask me.  A feeling of competition is seeping into my relaxed approach and I’m questioning our game plan, or lack of one.  Why did we go first?  I should have observed, taken notes, copied a few of the more seasoned competitors.  Should I have spent more time teaching Millie how to walk while attached to the lead?  Why are there suddenly so many dogs in this competition?  Still, Millie is cute and well behaved, so we’re surely in with a chance.

That is, until a butterfly makes itself known.

The judge has now met all the dogs, she looks around at each of the competitors.  Several are sitting up straight, looking directly at the judge.   One handler, adjusts her dog’s front legs and tail.  I’m trusting our honest, down-home approach will prevail and Millie will walk away with one of those ribbons.  Before making her final decision, the judge scans the ring giving each dog one last look.  When the judge considers Millie, she turns her head and looks AWAY to watch the butterfly.  What is she doing, trying to blow her chances?


Millie distracted by a butterfly.

Evidently yes.  Moments later, the first dog – a handsome and well behaved retriever – is called to receive his award.  Then the next dog, and another until all six places are awarded.  Mille, still watching the butterfly, is blissfully unaware of defeat.

All who meet Millie say she is beautiful and well behaved.  Such unsolicited endorsements have us believing she must be exceptional.  As Millie and I exit the ring with the other losers, I’m convinced this entire village dog show is rigged.  How could so many people who meet Millie be so wrong?  Still, it’s a fundraiser, and part of that word is FUN, so we press on.

Next up, Sam.  I enter him in the “Best Re-homed” category.  He’s clearly going to win something having had an unknown and difficult start before he landed on all four paws with us.  I look around, and there are just two or three rather average looking dogs in the ring.  My competitive nature in full swing, I tell his back story to the judge.  “He was scheduled to be put to sleep when we rescued him…. scar on his side body…took him a while to gain in confidence….”  Lilly well and truly gilded, I’m feeling quietly confident.


Sam doing his best to be excited.

But horror of horrors, what was a ring of four or five dogs, is now about fifteen!  Where did all these other dogs and their handlers come?  Can you enter the ring once the competition has started?  Isn’t there a cut off?  And what’s with this little dog wearing a sweater to cover up its skin condition from being in the pound?  Where was that three-legged dog hiding?  And the one with the missing eye?  Still, we were in with a fighting chance.

Sadly, not.  Sam didn’t win anything.  We have two dogs who haven’t claimed even 6th place.  Deep breath.  Notes to self:  It’s a fundraiser.  Bigger purpose.  It’s not about the winning, it’s participating that’s important.

Next category: “Best Dog Over 7 Years.”  Since Sam can’t walk well these days, we stay in place and pay another pound coin to enter this round.  No need to repeat anything to the judge as she has just heard it all.  Now gone are those other rescued dogs with harder-luck stories than Sam, replaced by a range of dogs over seven years old.  Unlike Sam, the other competitors easily walk and stand.   At this point, I too am watching a butterfly and resolved to having donated another pound to charity when Sam receives second place.  Second place!

Before I know it, there is someone asking me all sorts of questions about Sam.  What’s going on, am I being interviewed?  No, Sam takes another prize! “Oldest dog in the show.”  Well I’ll be damned, my old boy dog just jumped ahead in the medals table.


Oldest dog in the show!

Resting on our laurels and crafting a strategy to build on our successes, we sit out a few rounds:  best pedigreed sporting dog, best groomed, and best movement (This is about gait, not poop).  Up comes, “Cutest Eyes” and I enter Millie.  She takes second place!  We’re on a roll now, eh?  She next takes a respectable fifth in “Pedigreed Non-Sporting”.   I don’t even know what this category is about, but who cares, two dogs, four ribbons and I’m feeling proud, proud, proud!

I was wrong about everyone being a winner.   We tasted loss and it wasn’t as sweet as the rosettes we received which will soon find their way into a box.  With or without these ribbons, Roger and I know our dogs are best in show.  And in my hot pursuit to have our dogs reign supreme, we supported a local charity.


Hey, look at our ribbons!

A Murmur on the Moors

I can do without surprises that make me jump out of my skin.   Movie scenes where the baddie suddenly appears from nowhere or the shock of spotting a mouse quickly burrowing into the compost can easily send my heart into a brief race.  Happening upon a snake basking in the sun on a rock is guaranteed to provide a jolt, but doesn’t leave me in a terrible state.  Still, I’m content to give this one a miss.

I can also do without the surprise of litter and poo bags along our track, or, as happened more recently, spotting a bathtub next to the road in the middle of the moors.  Some surprises startle, others irritate.

Fly Tipping on Dartmoor

But, when I encounter some astonishing fact or make a new discovery, even in the course of a seemingly routine day, that’s the surprise party to which I want to be invited.   Let me dive into that gap between assumptions and something unexpected!  No more same old same old, I’m talking about the “rules of the world” not following, well, the established rules of the world.  Astonish me with the unexpected.

These moments occur in the way the dawn light plays differently every day on the hills, or on a clear night, observing the twinkling sparkle of countless stars that appear close enough to touch.  On Dartmoor, how a clear and warm day can suddenly disappear when a cold fog moves in, turning summer-like weather back to winter in under sixty minutes, never ceases to impress.

Unsurprisingly, with the warm weather of the past few weeks we have been busy outside.  In three days, we managed to repair the potholes on the track that developed from the relentless winter rains.  Three days may seem a lot, but we felt a sense of pride as last year this same maintenance work took us nearly ten days.  We also have the vegetable beds ready for spring and summer plantings.  Winter plants past their prime, along with newly showing weeds, have been cleared and fresh compost applied.  After two years, these tasks are establishing themselves as routine and making their shift into a sort of outdoor meditation from their original appearance on our Four-Page-Excel-Spreadsheet-To-Do-List for Crockern.

One recent day while I was outside shovelling, raking, digging, or hauling something I had just shovelled, raked or dug, I heard a sudden “sssshhhhwwwwapp, sssshhhhwwwapp, sssshhhhwwwapp” sound overhead.  I looked up and there was a dense black cloud comprised of hundreds and hundreds of starlings moving acrobatically across the sky.  I stopped and watched the duration of their spectacular aerial display.  These birds are fast, turning on a dime; wheeling and diving across the sky, to shape shift their formation as if Busby Berkeley choreographed the whole scene.

Starlings are short and stocky with a fat little triangular shape.  They aren’t exactly beauties.   Growing up in the States, I was taught to revile these little birds for their noise, their volume of group poop and the indictment (now known as false) as a major reason for the decline of the Eastern Bluebird.

That said, they may appear black, but up close, they shine an iridescent green and purple.  They are highly social birds, which may be code for noisy and chatty.  When in a large flock (or murmuration to give them the proper name), their sound is amplified through their sheer gregarious numbers.  Think teenagers at a party.  No, think teenagers imitating everyone and anyone at this party.  Starlings mimic other birds and have nearly twenty distinct impersonations, including some human-made sounds like cars.  They appear to exist solely for self-amusement.

In the late 1590s Shakespeare made note of the starling’s ability to mimic.  In Henry IV, Part 1 Hotspur contemplates driving King Henry around the bend because he refuses to aid the release of Mortimer, Hotspur’s brother-in-law.  The cunning plan is to have a Starling repeat the name Mortimer.  “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer,’” murmured Hotspur.

And it is for this reason – Shakespeare, not Mortimer – that the Starling made its appearance in the States.   In the late 19th century, the American Acclimatization Society, an organization dedicated to introducing European flora and fauna into North America for cultural and economic reasons, sought to introduce to the US every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s scripts, all 600-plus avian species.  To achieve their goal, the Acclimatization Society released some hundred Starlings in New York City’s Central Park in 1890 and 1891.  By 1950, Starlings were found across the continent, just like the first settlers to North America, who also exercised their belief in Manifest Destiny.

This winter, our bird feeders have had fewer visitors with only Chaffinches, Tits and Jackdaws.  Last winter, we had several species and remain curious as to why our bird numbers and diversity are lower.  Could it be the warmer winter?  The extensive flooding in The Somerset Levels?  Some other bird reason we will never know?  Happily, the other day we spotted a pair of Pied Wagtails on the roof and a pair of Greenfinches at the feeders.  We’ve once again heard the Green Woodpecker in the valley and spotted Nuthatches in the Ash tree.

Two days after catching the Starling air show, I opened the door to a deafening sound.  Whistle. Whirr.  Pzzt.  Click.  Repeat.  And, repeat again.  Again and again.  Raise the volume to eleven and repeat some more.  When hearing and seeing Starlings in such large numbers, it is hard to imagine breeding populations in Europe have been in decline since the mid-1960s, moving them from being among the most common of garden birds to being listed on the Red List with the RSPB.  I walked outside slowly and there were hundreds of Starlings partying in the trees.  Could it be that this murmuration will roost near Crockern?

Heading down to let the chickens out, I was surprised to see three molehills.  I spread the dirt evenly with my boot, let the chickens out for the day, and gave thought to the Starlings who were making their aerial way to feed on insects.  The chickens strutted and clucked past, and I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye.  A small volcano of dirt was erupting from the newly flattened molehill!  Who knew that moles would continue to dig tunnels once hearing noise or sensing vibration above them?  But dig they do, and the dirt mound grew before my – surprised I might add – eyes.

Back toward the house, I encountered another surprise.  The Starlings were not just taking flight; they were on the lam, making their escape, laughing with all their murmuration might.  Our previously black car, parked under the trees, had been transformed into something resembling a Dalmatian by a flock of Starlings.  Damn!

Results of a Starling Fly-by.

Results of a Starling Fly-by.

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I Heart Compost

In the cooler months, steam visibly rises off the heap.  Each day, the pile on the right grows with new additions, while the pile on the left seems to transform into a dark, rich, and crumbly material.  There’s no smell.  There are, however, bugs swarming about, the sight of which even in the cold depths of winter, provides an anticipation on a par with hearing the coffee grinder on an early Sunday morning, knowing that I do not need to get out of bed to walk Sam – Roger’s already done it.  This week’s clear blue skies, warm, soft breezes, and the determination of the snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils all announcing spring, my low level of anticipation is ramping up into something approaching giddiness.  Yes, it’s happened again and I am completely obsessed with our compost, my steaming pile of pride and joy.

I’m clearly not alone in this world with my affection for this decayed organic material as books could easily line several shelves on the topic:  Easy Composting; The Humanure Handbook; Compost This Book; and, Let It Rot! are among the many.  I am curious about the Diary of a Compost Hotline Worker, but haven’t had the local bookshop order it for me.

When we moved to Crockern two years ago, we set about clearing an area of nettles and stones, building up some wind breaks and constructing seven raised beds.  We built our compost bins, erected a greenhouse and armed ourselves with determination to grow in an exposed, windy, cold, and wet environment.   Over the seasons, we have had successes and failures leading to a more focused list of what we intend to grow this summer.  Our winter beds are miraculously still providing lettuces, chard and spinach.  We are feeling proud and I affectionately know our lovely compost has something to do with it.

I suppose, making compost is considered to be complex and may cause a level of anxiety among some, but all you need to do is provide the right ingredients and let nature get busy.  Simply dump some green waste and then brown waste in equal amounts, give it air, moisture and time and voila, rich loamy stuff for the garden!

Where we live we don’t need to worry about adding water to our compost lasagna, but we do need to consider air.  Twice a month, I stir with a pitchfork the layers of mass, giving them a good mix then cover the pile with some old carpet and a tarp.  After a few months, the compost is beautifully decayed and I transfer it into bags to continue its transformation for a few more months.  All in all, I can create around half a ton of compost every six months.

I don’t know how my love affair began.  Unquestionably, composting is an act of frugality, which has some obvious appeal.   There is also the environmental feel-good factor of using organic material that would otherwise be entombed in a bio-indestructible plastic rubbish bag perched somewhere in a landfill.  Around 40 percent of the average dustbin contents are suitable for home composting.   But like all love affairs, there is something magical and enchanting at play.  To observe in a matter of months a pile of melon rinds, apple cores and other leftovers from our kitchen and garden, along with cardboard or waste from the chicken coop become a super rich decomposed material containing lots of humus, carbon and nitrogen is pure delight.  I’m busy making black gold and I love it!

Two of our hens are assisting with the composting efforts.

Two of our hens are assisting with the composting efforts.

While one pecks bugs and adds poop, the other is off to assess the progress and quality of the black gold in the left bin.

While one pecks bugs and adds poop, the other is off to assess the progress and quality of the black gold in the left bin.

There are little areas of chaos that characterize the circus we call our vegetable garden.  The chickens enjoy their role as supervisors, determining the right balance of worms in the bed.  “Cluck, too many, this one must be eaten!”  The rabbits visit but so far remain deterred by the netting over the beds.  The slugs and snails nibble.  And the rain hammers down on our plants, stripping the beds of vital nutrients and adding to the challenge we like to call “satisfying fun”.   At the base of it all, is our home grown compost.

Early spring is always a mad scramble with the garden.  This past week, I’ve turned our future fertilizer, bagged some of the well-rotted stuff for further decaying, and emptied tons of the fresh and ready material onto the garden beds awaiting our spring plantings.  We have started to chit out seed potatoes for planting mid to late April.  Tomato seedlings are now started.   I am excited to see the budding on the blueberry bushes and am anxiously awaiting the asparagus spears to show themselves.  The rhubarb is already about 4 inches above ground!

Despite the trouncing this watery-winter gave us, we know warmer days are around the corner.  Some mornings, as I pad out to my compost pile with the plastic kitchen pail chuck-full of potato peels, apple cores, and coffee grounds, I think about the bounty our veg garden will provide.    We are enjoying the longer days and the reverie of birdcall aware the return of our summer migrants like Swallows and House Martins is near.  As I tip the contents of the pail onto the heap, my heart swells knowing a rind is a terrible thing to waste.

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My Left Shoe

How does somebody lose a shoe and not notice?  The sensational difference between the padded or bare foot is hard to miss.  I understand blistered feet preferring to be free from the offending shoes and one accidentally dropped on route.  But wouldn’t it make a kerplunk sound prompting a pick up?  Or, maybe in a fit of frustration, the shoe is flung off, never to return with its partner discarded some 6 blocks away, puzzling another person passing by.

On more than one occasion when walking down a city street, I’ve spotted a single shoe leaving me to wonder, Where’s the other one?  Perhaps the shoe owner is too drunk to notice a missing item of footwear?

In cities, I’ve seen pairs of sneakers laced together and thrown over telephone and electric wires creating an odd decorative effect known as “Shoefetti” and it is not unique to cities as trees in the countryside might play host to the tossed shoes.  But, why?  There is the criminal element theory that dangling shoes maybe highlighting drug dens or gang-related murders.  Conversely (unavoidable pun) the knotted and flung footwear might signify the end of school, the death of a loved-one, an upcoming marriage, or to ward off ghosts!  It’s easy to imagine a bully or practical joker taking someone’s shoes, tying together the laces and giving them a good fling out of reach over a cable crossing the street.  In the end, only the person who knotted the laces together and threw the pair to hang on a wire really knows the reason.

And now, I have another wonder to report:  We recently found a single shoe, a hiking boot to be precise, balanced on the stone where lost and found items such as dog collars, glasses, keys, and water bottles are placed.  On this occasion, we both thought: “Who loses a shoe out here and doesn’t notice?”  Footwear in Dartmoor is essential for the land in some places is hard and unforgiving, or overly forgiving with soggy bogs.  I’m certain that if there ever were a prison break from Dartmoor Prison, the escapees would not get far in their prison issued sneakers!

Like the growing list of birds we’ve spotted, we can add this boot to the many things we’ve found since moving here:  A Union Flag and old Camp Coffee glass containers.  Ropes and strings are everywhere and recently the chickens were pecking at a belt buckle buried in the ground.  Daily there are new bits of glass, shards of pottery, and broken slate working their way out from their burial ground like a splinter from under the skin.  When we were putting the vegetable beds in, we found an assortment of plastic objects, including a Storm Trooper helmet and a Palm Tree from some unknown tropical island.  In an afternoon of clearing out one small outbuilding, I uncovered nearly a dozen horseshoes.  A ceramic figurine and a single dice were nestled next to one another in the field.

Found Items

Found Items

Found Items

Found Items

Found Items

Found Items

Found Items

Found Items

Found Items

When the roofers started removing the old slates at the beginning of their epic job, they found a horse-whip and a ring in the rafters.   What riches for rumination!  I’ve spent many an hour since on walks with Sam trying to determine exactly why these two items were consecrated into our roof.

Found Items

Found Items

Sadly, it is routine to pick up the found garbage left behind by visitors to the Park.  The biggest offender is the poo-bag, hung onto the stock proof fences (Poofetti?).  Livestock are roaming all over the place, pooping as they go, so dogs don’t cause a noticeable problem.  Just kick that poo off the footpath and let nature’s elements facilitate its decomposition.  Why pick it up, put it in a bag, and then leave it on the fence for someone else (Roger or me it seems) to remove?  Another good reason to be wearing shoes in Dartmoor:  There’s no end to the stuff that you can step on!

In December, while I was slowly chipping away at the old plaster rendering on the walls in the porch, someone knocked on the door.  With my safety glasses firmly on my face, my hair and clothing covered with dust and paint/plaster/concrete dust, I answered the door.  Standing outside in the light rain was a young man who announced that his father had just fallen and may have broken his leg.  So, I grabbed a blanket and a thermos of sweet tea, Roger called emergency services, and off we headed to help this man’s father.

The ground was very wet and not easily negotiated that day, even with the best of hiking boots.  When the ambulance team arrived, it was clear that it was not safe to carry the man to our track.  An hour later, with the darkness and heavy rains moving in, a helicopter landed to airlift the man to Exeter.

A week ago, I received this note confirming that all lost items do have stories:

I am the chap who broke his leg on Dartmoor and whose two sons came to your cottage to call the emergency services. And you are the person who so kindly came to see me with a pristine clean blanket and then came back again with a fleece and a thermos of warm sweet tea. The blanket, fleece and especially the tea were marvellous as I was beginning to feel VERY cold lying on that wet cold ground, and they did wonders for me.

I was taken to the Exeter hospital and they operated the next day….and fitted a steel ‘nail’ or pin from the knee to the ankle which is secured each end by two bolts….For the first couple of weeks after I came home, even with a cocktail of four different painkillers including liquid morphine, the pain was extreme and trying to find a position to sleep in was very difficult. However, I seem to be on the mend and now walk around the house, or half hobble around the house without my crutches…

So, a broken leg eh! I have been an outdoor man for many years and have done some amazing wilderness treks in Alaska…Colorado and also in S. E. Asia, but this is the first time I have ever had to be rescued by any emergency services. In a way it is quite humbling, but those guys who turned up were all superb as were the helicopter crew with a good dash of humour thrown in which helped also.

So, Catherine, thank you so very much for everything – I owe you a cleaning bill for the blanket and fleece which were no doubt draped in Dartmoor mud. When I get really mobile again I will drop by your place one day and settle up with you for that.

All best wishes and regards for a Happy and Healthy New Year for you and your husband.

I wrote back:

…  What a nasty injury you sustained.  Now, you’ll be able to set off metal detectors at all of the airports when you go off on your travels.  Both Roger and I are happy and relieved to hear that you are on the mend.

Please don’t worry about the blanket or the fleece.  Both are machine washable, have been machine washed, and show no evidence of ever helping you in your temporary immobile state of that day.  You must, however, stop by when you are out this way and recovered again as we have….wait for it…..your boot!  ….

My note was next followed up with:

You know, I have a superb pair of hiking boots in our garage and the old ones I wore that day were almost certainly a contributory factor for my having slipped. Those old worn out boots were in the back of the car just in case I ended up somewhere, which was wet and muddy, and I needed to change out of good shoes – in fact I was on the point of throwing them out as their soles were worn through. That day, we did not intend to go off any good paths on Dartmoor but when we went to Princetown to visit the information centre, we decided to try to get a look at Whistman’s Wood and I changed into those old worn boots at the quarry car park there- the rest as they say, is history.

Please throw it away, that is what I asked the hospital to do with the other one….

And before the other shoe dropped, I quickly wrote the only, albeit it obvious, response available:

It is hard to resist, and so I shall not:  We’ve given your footwear the boot!

Cheers, Catherine

The discovered shoe.

The discovered shoe.


Move over Elle McPhearson

Having spent three to four hours a day for the last week covered in plaster dust and chips of paint, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that I look a mess.  I’ve never been a slave to fashion, but occasionally I do try to make an effort.   What I’m coming to discover is that the act of trying is becoming increasingly elusive when constantly covered in dirt, mud, or debris.

I’ve taken on a project that can only be described as a labour of love, as it is nowhere on our list of main priorities for this house.  In fact, it is not to be found on our extensive itemization of projects to address over the next 5-10 years.  This task simply didn’t rate until I started to make it a daily obsession.  When we have heating systems to upgrade, flooring to refit, and rooms to renovate, the question as to why I am suddenly focused on chipping off the old paint, plaster and in places, cement which cover the stones in the porch is a good one to ask.  I have no answer.   All I know is I’ve become driven and recently have had to place restrictions as to how much time I spend hammering stone each day.   I am mindful that I have plenty of other things to do and if I do too much in a day, I won’t be able to lift my arms through fatigue.

Early stone mason

Early stone mason

When our roofer Paul, a kind and thoughtful man of few words, saw me working on my chipping project with a small hammer and chisel, he suggested I use a “channel hammer.”  “What in the world is this tool?” I wondered.  What it is, is simply brilliant!  With a pointed hammer tip on one end and a chisel nose on the other end, I can tap gently or swing with a mighty heft and the rendering covering the rocks flies.   I want one of these and have conducted a search.  No such thing as a “channel hammer” can I find, so it must be a regional name.  The closest I can find is something known as a rock pick, made of carbide steel.  A cool compromise to be sure.  Yes, very cool.

When I first began this project, using nothing but a simple scraper, I found, when done, I could lightly dust myself down in a jiffy before heading out the door.   With this new accessory item (Who needs a hand bag when you could have a channel hammer, I ask you?) I’m covered in dirt and dust in seconds and cleaning up takes so much longer.  I’ve had to add a hat and safety glasses to my ensemble.  Right out of the pages of Nature rather than Vogue!

The very cool Rock Pick

The very cool Rock Pick

I’ve always been on the margins of fashion.  Not in the ultra hip, fashion-forward way of urban fashionistas.  Nope, I’m right out of the “Did she just roll out of bed?” end of the spectrum.   And if you were to see me first thing in the morning when I’m feeding the chickens, walking Sam, uncovering the vegetable bed from its frost protecting fleece and filling the bird feeders, I do look just like that.  With my new cowboy-themed pajama legs tucked haphazardly into my wellies, and my upper body layered in a couple of fleeces and possibly a waterproof jacket, hat, gloves and scarf, I head outside to start my day.  Hair:  not combed.  Teeth:  not yet brushed.  Answer to question above is a definite “Yes”.

I recall as a teenager – and everyone knows that teenagers worry about their looks – that friends would point out the need for my socks to match my top.  This was the late 70’s and perhaps the height of fashion concern as the 60’s bell-bottoms gave way to the 80’s shoulder pads, but I was oblivious and merely happy that my socks matched one another.   Without intent, I must have tortured my close friends when they presented their deep concern that I did not carry a handbag to which I offered my dumb-struck response,  “But isn’t that what the back pocket of my jeans is about?”  No doubt, I was a disappointment and possible cause fellow teenage angst.

I suppose I should try a bit harder as you just never know who might stroll up our lane.  So, in a nod to vanity, I recently checked out some fashion resources for consideration.  Courtesy of Miranda Kerr, the Australian super-model who gained fame as a Victoria’s Secret Angel, I present her fashion golden rules and my considered responses:

1.  If you’ve got it flaunt it.  And I say, if you don’t have it, don’t.

2.  Be a proportion perfecterI will let you know that my feet are big and my new hiking boots fit really well. 

3.  Invest in accessories that go the distanceMy hat, gloves and scarves are interchangeable and have been for years. 

4.  Snap up a trophy coatOkay, I’m still working on this one.

5.  Make layered looks your winter style survivalBeen there, doin’ that!

Seeing the old render come off in large chunks with the introduction of the channel hammer is satisfying and indeed, motivating.   I think of the tedious hours spent by miners or prisoners toiling away at stone all day.  But when it is an optional chore with built in coffee and snack breaks, I find I can’t get enough.  It’s possible I may want one of these channel hammers more than Imelda Marcos wanted a new pair of shoes.

Our surrounding landscape regularly displays a bold sense of style as Nature spectacularly plays with subtle patterns and hues, and the occasional contrasting splash of colour.  Consider the golden tones as the sun rises in the morning to light the granite grey of the tors on top of the hills.  Or, the evolving collage of colours in the skies above as pink and orange clouds drift to meet their stormier grey, blue and puffy white colleagues.  There is the juxtaposition of a harsh granite landscape erupting from gentle buff-coloured reeds and wild grasses dancing in the wind.  Above is an enormous sky extending in all directions without buildings to interrupt the horizon.  While under foot, is a composition of fallen leaves in chestnut browns and golden yellows, accented with a shock of acid green.   The rocks and tree trunks are camouflaged with an assorted mix of textures and colours from lichen, mosses and fungi, including the amazing Yellow Brain Fungus (also known as Witches Butter) growing on the gorse bushes along our track.  It’s bright orange shade is reminiscent of Nacho flavoured Doritos.

Yellow Brain Fungus

Yellow Brain Fungus

Earlier this year in the Times, Stephen Spielberg said, “I have never before, in my long and eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty as I experienced filming War Horse on Dartmoor.”  I suppose he was not referring to my walking past in wet weather gear when he made his observation, but Stephen and I agree that nature is our guide to seeing beauty.

Living in a wet and windy part of the world provides me a sense of relief that I don’t have the overriding concerns which drive an industry where UK women spend, on average, £84,000 on clothing in a lifetime and over 90 hours a year applying make-up.  Despite this, some 60% report that they regularly “struggle to find something to wear”.  When I go to the hairdresser for a haircut, I am quick to offer my parameters:  no bangs (aka fringe), no middle-age-everyone-has-it-celebrity-cut-of-the-day, it must be wash and go and not rely on product, blow-drying, or regular brushing to maintain.  With those areas covered, “Have at it!” I say.

I assure you, dear reader, this isn't me

I assure you, dear reader, this isn’t me

It’s not that I lack complete interest; I just accept what I’m up against.  You try making a stylish look out of wellies, waterproof coats, and a splattering of mud.  Let me be more specific, mud in the shape of paw prints on my coats and jeans (or waterproof trousers).  You see, Sam loves his walks but his one area of neglected training on our part is that, at some point during the walk, he’ll suddenly turn on a dime, charge towards me and jump up to say, “Hey, thanks for taking me on this completely wonderful walk where my paws are not only wet and muddy, but they are covered with poop which I wish to share as a means of showing my unending gratitude for loving me so very, very much.”

Roger and I are lucky to be living and working in a place filled with natural beauty that distracts our attention from everyday concerns.  It distracts us from worries and stress.  It distracts me from wondering “What will someone think of me if they were to see me dressed like this?”  But conversely, it also draws our attention.  It draws our attention to light playing across the landscape, or to the sound of the river speeding along after a storm; the feel of the breeze when out on a walk or to the birds, with their gift of flight, floating high above on thermals.  It leaves us constantly amazed at the size of the sky with its stars at night, or the sense of being swallowed by a low hanging wet cloud as the fog and mist roll in.  With all of this, how can I possibly worry about running into someone when I’m wearing my new cowboy pajama’s, wellies, three fleeces, non-matching hat, gloves, scarf and of course, socks, all of which are covered in muddy paw prints from walking Sam in the morning?  With Nature as my guide, this feels like fashion freedom!

My Life is Crap

BM, crap, defecation, discharge, dung, excrement, excretion, fecal matter, feces, go to the bathroom, have a dump, manure, number two, poop, shit, stool or waste.  Call it what you will, thinking about it seems to occupy a major part of my day since moving to Crockern Farm.

Sheep and chickens

Early days with sheep in the garden.

First, there are the sheep.  They’ve found their way into our yard through every neglected bit of dry stone wall.  We lift the stones onto the wall, the sheep come back and knock them down.  We lift more stones into place, but the sheep return.  The thing about sheep is that they look so cute, and with their little lambs, they are indeed cute.  But, they poop everywhere.  They poop when you try to chase them out of the yard.  They poop while staring at you.  They poop while they are eating.  They poop while walking, milking their young, and yes, while climbing over the walls.  It must be an amazing thing to never be constipated.

And with that much poop, you just can’t help but step in it from time to time.

Birds of course can poop while they fly.  Flying would be a great skill to have, and I’ve often wondered if I were a super hero, would I want to be able to fly or to go through walls?  I think that being a shape shifter might be the most flexible super hero trait as I could become a bird (fly); ooze (go through walls); or a forklift (pick up the big stones and repair these walls more easily).

Many people believe being tagged by bird droppings is good luck. Although it is yucky, we take comfort in the fact that good luck or wealth is just around the corner.  We currently have some twenty-four nests of House Martins and Swallows.  They poop from their nests and it was a small learning curve knowing where to park the car to avoid their droppings.  Despite the proclaimed good luck, keeping the paint on the car is preferable.  The same learning curve taught us where to place things in the barn.

Sam poops and Roger and I discuss it.  We discuss the quantity, frequency and yes, quality.  It is a means to monitor Sam’s well-being.   This is certainly a common tendency as I have heard parents discuss their children’s fecal production, too.

When I lived in a city, having a dog meant that you necessarily had to become blasé about poop.  You had to scoop the poop or pay a fine.  Sometimes, caught short-handed by not having a poo-bag, the fine was a non-dog person spotting me as I rummaged around a garbage bin for some old newspaper or a bag to use.  Many years ago, I had a dog who would carry the newspaper in his mouth until he needed to relieve himself.  I would take the paper from him, he would assume his position, and then take aim on the photos of politicians who I was unhappy with in the news.  There was satisfaction with that daily political statement.

One of the worst poops is that of the fox.  I don’t think I could identify fox scat on a path, but I know that my boy-dog Sam can find it anywhere.  And when found, nothing brings him greater joy than dropping down shoulder first and rolling with all four legs up in the air.  The smell is not at all something you want in the house.  A quick jump in the river doesn’t get rid of that stench from any dog.  Soap, water, and a good scrub is the only solution.

Cows are similar to sheep since they too seem to chew and poop at the same time and can also walk and poop.  Horses do the same, even during the Olympic Equestrian competitions.  I hadn’t thought about this topic much until my garden became nature’s toilet.

Future vegetable garden

Location of future vegetable garden.

Future vegetable garden

Complete with Stinging Nettles

We’ve made some small progress on preventing the sheep coming into the garden.  We had two wooden farm gates made and hung them where iron gate hooks remained in the granite.  This has kept the sheep out of the garden area where we intend to put in raised vegetable beds.  We’ve pulled nettles, started to build a small wind barrier with stones, and have researched the best way to have a raised bed on highly acidic soil.  I found a site on the Internet where small holders write of their experiences.  I posted my question regarding gardening on such rocky and acidic soil.  A man in Wales posted back his suggestion:  Raised beds should be 3 feet high, the first third filled with, wait for it, well-rotted manure.  In other words, more poop!

Future vegetable garden

Some progress….mostly nettle free and the wind barrier coming along.


Glad this old hook was here….much easier than drilling into the granite.

Crockern Farm

One of the two spots for the new gates.

We don’t think we are going to build such high raised beds, but will be putting in some of that well-rotted manure.  Having spent weeks trying to get away from all of this poop, I am back into looking for some quality stuff.  How do you go about finding a poop dealer?  Maybe I will take the wheelbarrow out and start collecting locally as it is freely available.  That certainly trumps heading over to a local stable, paying for “well rotted manure” and then loading the stinking mess into the back of the car.

In anticipation of the vegetable garden, we’ve built our compost bins and read up on brown waste, green waste, turning the compost, watering it, keeping the rats out, and all the important bits of creating quality compost.  It turns out, one of the great things for compost is chicken poop which we have in abundance!

Crockern Farm

One of the new gates in place and doing its job.

Just yesterday I was looking for the chickens to see what they were up to and whether they had laid any eggs.  Two were missing and my heart sank, fearing that another fox had cheated and snatched them mid-day.  Suddenly, two heads popped up from the compost.  The hens were poking around, finding worms, and I’m hoping, pooping right on the spot.  I’d like to think I’ve trained them to do this.

When we bought Crockern Farm, there was a casual mention that the septic tank needed to be emptied.  We had been warned to not use the previous septic tank cleaner.   We called around and found our “honey dipper”.  For many, a honey dipper is a wooden tool used for taking honey from the jar and putting it into a cup of tea.  In the US, someone who empties a septic tank is also known as a honey dipper.  There is no mistaking our honey dipper as a serious woman.   She is strong and you just wouldn’t describer her as small.  As we sat around our kitchen table having a cup of tea, we learned that she was the first woman in the county during the 70’s to be part of the volunteer fire department.  This was in the day when you had to carry a person up a ladder as part of your training.  Looking at her arms, I have every confidence that she accomplished this with ease.

She emptied the tank quickly and without incident, the job was done and the price was fair.  When asked, “How did it look?”  She replied, “That tank was long over due for being emptied.”   We happily paid for her work.  As our honey dipper drove away, Roger and I looked at one another knowing that we had just paid for someone else’s crap.