Stoned

Purely by coincidence, we visited King Arthur’s fabled Avalon on the 19th and then Stonehenge on the 20th, the two days preceding the Summer Solstice, when already the druids were staking their campsites and dressed in full cape, long hair, wigs and hats, staffs, sparkles and whatever they believe will turn heads and beliefs. According to the van driver who shuttled us to Stonehenge, Avebury Stones, and the Cotswold villages, the two yearly solstices are the only days the government opens its gates free of charge to allow the druids and hippies to camp close up to, around, on, and within the stones of Stonehenge, Glastonbury, and any other stone circles around England. This wasn’t granted out of the goodness of their hearts, but as a result of enormous costs for a police presence and barricading, until they conceded the fight and simply allowed peaceful gatherings. We were quite relieved that we didn’t end up at one of these sites on the actual solstice, whose worshippers would definitely get in the way of our picture taking possibilities.  

June 19

The village of Glastonbury lies an hour’s drive southwest of Bath, two hours by bus, and is the most likely setting, based on textual evidence by historians, of a factual King Arthur’s home base. The Glastonbury ruins, a complex comprised of an Abbey, a chapel, a kitchen and other buildings now only marked by foundation, is now a protected, fee-required visitor park, whose grass is kept soft, green and manicured. Whether from the verdant surroundings, the peace from the busy village streets, or from the point of worship for so many for so long, the park created in both of us a sense of strength and calm. It could be that whatever we felt, the yoga teacher and her participants felt, secluded around an outcrop of bushes, practicing their pranayama, or the tai chi dancer, who moved to his recorded music beside an abbey wall; what two people felt who decided to lay down and face the sky at the place marked “high alter,” a cordoned area indicating such; what compelled two women to walk around the park, each separately, each with a yellow rose sticking out of their backpacks; or what initiated a circle of eight to hold hands and quietly worship. We walked through the park, complete with fish and lily pad ponds, large, old shade trees and flowering bushes, sat at a couple of benches and simply enjoyed the afternoon. 

We transferred buses back at Wells, where we had stopped earlier on the outward journey to visit the Wells Cathedral, which seems to just spring up from the ground as tall and as gothically as Chartres in France. Known for this, and it being called the smallest village in England, we thought it might offer something other small villages forgot to include, but we couldn’t find anything. In fact, we lucked upon an open air market whose aromas, tantalizing samples of cheeses, sausages, ingenious mixtures of foods in new ways kept us longer than we had intended. Not just food vendors offered their goods – there were jewelry, bags, leather, clothes, a fantasy author hawking his books, and a pet vendor all out there. We had lunch on a bench, and then walked to the bus after. Now once again in Wells, we decided to stop off here to eat supper, as Wells appeared to be more happening than Glastonbury. But when we returned, around 5 or thereafter because we missed the crucial bus stop and had to backtrack by foot, not only had the market folded up, (thereby opening up to view the old 1700s masonry and building facades) but nearly every store and business. 

A worker mopping up his store directed us to Fossi’s, one of the most eclectic restaurants in decor, menu, and clientele we’ve ever seen. The walls are lined with busy, paisley wall paper, over which hangs framed artwork of all and any genre and time period. Dogs, kids and families all gather as if they were at home in their own dining areas, menus offer something for everyone’s tastes and diets, self service water and newspapers beckon on a side buffet; couches, comfy chairs, regular tables, and not just mini votive, but large, lit candles were placed on each table. It was the place in town where everyone met, ate, and socialized. The waitress made sure she got us the right time for the last bus back to Bath after asking several employees. 

One particular cultural difference we’ve noticed across the English countryside is the early closing time of nearly everything, except for one or two pubs on either ends of the town and maybe one small hole-in-the wall convenience store. What was once a bustling market and tourist town will be a shuttered, ominous, hollow echo by five pm. And as a result of the sudden vacuum, the buses will respond in kind. We arrived at the bus station, determine there are three busses going to Bath, each taking a different route. The last one running is over an hour away, Despite wondering whether he will accept our return ticket which was for a different line, we were grateful the waitress took us under her wing. We have since learned to check the departure times before we leave the bus stop.

June 20

Every so often it sure feels good to do some good old passive travel, and taking a mini tour is one of those times. Without determining schedules, times at places, where to eat, and what might or might not be important is left to someone else to decide. Another benefit is that it can run you around the country side, checking off many attractions in one day, which would otherwise take several with public busses. We chose MadMax Tour company for an all day tour to Stonehenge, the Avebury Stones, and villages Lacock and Castle Comb.

The entry fee to Stonehenge is 20£, which includes entry into the museum and a shuttle bus from the visitor’s center to Stonehenge. With just under a two-hour visit there, I chose to walk to the stones, admire them for a while, and be back for the pick-up time. Straight ahead, out from the center, a neatly defined, bee-line footpath along the road is an easy walk. There’s also an option of taking the public footpaths through the fields. In under half an hour, I arrived at the stones, and immediately felt a beautiful power in their presence. Despite not being able to walk up as close to them as I would have had I payed the fee, I still felt immeasurable joy. It may have been derived from simply the knowledge of being there, of something so famous, of so well studied that surrounds so many theories, of something so precisely astronomically aligned, or that this place is along one of the intersecting paths of energy lay lines crisscrossing England, that I felt this way. It could have been simply the enormity of the stones, the massive feat of engineering without machinery, much less wheels that baffles the imagination and fortifies hopefulness as well as pride in the human race at having accomplished such an endeavor without giving up or conceding that it “would be too hard.” Stonehenge is only one of several stone circles around the UK, but its stones have been chiseled into the familiar rectangular shapes. (Getting them there, all the way from a Western England Wales area, just wasn’t enough labor.) We got there early and beat the crowds. I got a few pictures without the random tourist tainting the frame, as did L. who chose the shuttle, up close option, which also includes a 360 degree access.

Avebury, by contrast, was larger in circumference, with un-chiseled stones; the time the guide gave us there sufficed for a walk through, pictures and toilets. 

On the way to Lacock, a Cotswold village where we were to have lunch, the van blew a tire. Conveniently, we had just pulled over to view a site of England’s unique “white horses.” On select hillsides in Englands, is an imbedded impression of a significantly large horse created by people digging into the hillside to the white chalky earth, which is found naturally underneath the vegetation of certain locations. Started in the 17th century, these horses symbolize strength, power and wealth; they all look different, can be seen for miles away, and are cared for in terms of weed removal, etc to keep them pristine. Kevin, our guide, called dispatch for another van to take us on to Lacock village and our lunch destination, and after waiting twenty minutes or so, announced a change of plans. Three taxis were on their way to take us all to the nearest pub back a ways, as the van would take longer than anticipated. Within five minutes, the taxis arrived and hustled us all back to a pub called the “Wagon and Horses,” a wayside establishment for travelers. A fortuitous experience all round: not only paid for by the tour company for the inconvenience, but where Charles Dickens himself frequented, on his way to London from Bath and other destinations, and which he mentions in his book the Pickwick Papers.  We sat with two other solo travelers, and enjoyed drinks, pub food (L.’s chips were excellent) and travel conversation for a good hour and maybe more until the replacement van showed up to whisk us away to our next destinations. 

The Cotswolds are villages which have been “frozen in time” by the exit of the woolen industries, their main economic engine. As a result, they haven’t undergone any new modern additions of any kind and any regular maintenance, according to the National Trust, needs to replicate the original style with as closely similar materials as possible. As we meandered through, we learned a bit about the thatched roofs, which last about 25 years, are re-thatched  by professionals whose apprenticeship lasts eight years, and of which there are four or five varieties. Each professional thatcher has his own signature, which is a thatched animal (rabbit, bird, squirrel, etc) on top of the roof. It was understood, in those days, that if a thatched roof does not have an animal on top, the thatcher was not paid for his work.

Lacock and Castle Comb Villages are such villages, and for many film fans worth a stop over because of so much filming done here: scenes from Downton Abbey, Dr. Doolittle, and Harry Potter. St. Cyriac’s Church in Lacock hosted the royals when they came for the marriage of Camilla’s (wife of Prince Charles) daughter. A few ice cream shops, a restaurant or two and otherwise the locals have it to themselves; but not just anyone can buy property here: dibs are given to those who can prove ancestral lineage to the town they’ve got their eye on. 

We return to the closed up, echoed streets of Bath to pack and relax before the 2nd leg of our journey.

Tea for Two

A 6-mile nature walk around the city, into the hills and across fields beckoned me the second day of our four day stay, and geared with the Bath Skyline Walking Trail map, boots and rain gear I estimated a two-hour walk and a confirmed return time for L., who chose to catch up on jet deprived sleep and reset a biorhythm that went out of whack. 

The trail started over the North Parade Bridge, moving upward onto steps that lead to a canal, once providing transport to and from London and Bristol with barges pulled by horses on either side. Now it serves for houseboat living and rental accommodations, bars and restaurants. Over the canal, still further up, I turned left along C street, lined with sandstone manors, private gates and lush gardens. Each house has its own name carved into a pillar or wall, like the townhomes down below, which Is part of what makes England so identifiably adorable. Usually it’s the family name, followed by the word House, but it can really be any name or word. I wonder what happens to the carved names when houses are sold or transferred ownership, or if they are passed down into the family for as long as possible. At the end of this street, I turned right, and now the real ascent began, into one of the woods surrounding Bath. The trail proved more difficult than the trail suggested, and a lot of the first half was spent ascending the surrounding hills on slippery mud paths and emerging tree roots. For each quarter mile, a view of Bath opened up between the trees, a sandstone oasis amidst the scalloped green hills of fields and woods that surround it. Despite hearing the peace granted to these outlying areas, marked by song birds, and humming insects and stillness, the soft, muted sounds of city life pushed its din up and outward, until I got high enough to hear nothing but see everything of its presence. After the woods, came the fields, and I passed cows and sheep grazing gracefully. Luckily no encounters with raging bulls up here. 

The trail took me farther than I thought, yet still around the northern area of of Bath I wasn’t back before 2:30; and with the ascent and the frequent view stops, the actual distance was 8.5 miles.

In typical English fashion, we arrived at the Pump Room with wet umbrellas and a want for hot tea. A tuxedoed trio was on stage: a pianist, a violinist and a cellist, and together they created symphony-quality sounds of abridged pieces of period music. The crystal chandeliers hung low with soft, incandescent, yellow lighting; the draped, white tablecloths fell to cover the table’s legs; the large, yet narrow, floor to ceiling windows ensconced with woven fabric curtains emitted just enough light, and the gentle, echoing sounds of silverware and stoneware in a distant room enhanced the experience. We ordered a three-tiered high tea service, which arrived soon after the tea itself, served in individual pots from a chosen, familiar variety: Oolong, Black, Earl Grey, Darjeeling. Once the tray arrived, we knew we would have to “make it last” to not only get the total, sensual experience out of it, but to make it through the tray itself without leaving uncomfortably full. On the bottom plate rested the finger sandwiches and shot glasses of salmon and caviar mousse. The finger sandwiches, delicate slivers of white bread with the crusts removed, were comprised of cheese and tomatoes, cucumbers and cream cheese, chicken salad and egg salad. We each received one of the those. On the middle plate waiting in line were two scones for each of us, with serving side dishes of clotted cream and strawberry jam. Finally, topping the delectable temptress of culinary wizardry, challenged the dessert: a petit fours of coffee flavored mouse cake slice, a raspberry cream filled puff pastry, a shell of graham crust with lemon mouse and a raspberry on top, and a French macaron.

And then with typical English manners, we launched into a proper conversation, bringing each other up to date with events, family, circumstances, and gossip, all the while pausing to listen to the concert, sip on tea, pour some more, and decide on the next bite. In spite of our pacing ourselves, eating slower and slower, and delaying a bit while the trio took a break, by 5 pm we felt the hushed sounds of closing time, and when the musicians packed up and the waitress asked if we needed any more tea, were both silently contemplating to ourselves how to politely take the rest of the goods home. Having no extra baggie in my small day pack, I was left with a rather large heavy duty disposable napkin, which I thought would fit nicely around a few of the sandwiches and maybe the petite desserts, but what about the scone? And the clotted cream and strawberry jam? About this time, L. voiced her own thoughts about how we were going to get this lot home, and searched her bag for a baggie she remembered having packed. Alas, it was only a small wrapper of something or another, and we were left with the napkin trick.

“Maybe we could ask for more napkins,” L. suggested, looking around hopefully at other tables and side tables that may have self service. 

“Can you take stuff home, here?” I wondered more aloud than expected her to be familiar with. Looking around, most of the tables had been cleared of their settings and the one table left, a group of business men, were deeply involved in their folders and files and legal pads than wondering how to take a macaron home. 

“I don’t know. Is it proper? It seems like a waste though, if we leave it.”

“Plus, it’s too good. Well, this is what I’m going to do.” I decided I would eliminate the problem of how to transport the cream and jam by spreading the scone with it then and there. I sliced it in half length wise, and dolloped the gorgeous portion onto the scone, and neatly folded it back up. Leah did the same.

“I usually always have a baggie with me, I don’t know why I don’t this time,” I said. 

“We’ll ask for more napkins, and do it as discretely as possible.”

At that time the waitress came up, and ever so politely in proper English form asked, “Would you like me to put that in a box for you?”

“Oh yes, please,” we gushed, full of gratitude, and once the waitress had left with the tray, found our paranoia about protocol fully exaggerated. Why we refrained from just asking had us both stumped. We replayed our naive and silly pretense of keeping up appearances, and couldn’t help but laugh, and because we were still in polite company, stifled the laughter even further until tears were streaming down our faces. 

Now with eye makeup needing clearing and cleansing, we left with smeared faces and our two small boxes to the hall to find the restrooms. L. found the sign, I found a poster on the wall.

“Hey!” I exclaimed. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein right here on this spot!” Indeed, having refreshed our faces and found composure, we returned to the outside and the sharp contrast to a modern world, where it took several head rotations and orientations, and locating numbers on shop doors. Finally, not being able to find 5 Abbey Square (Shelley’s documented residence), a shop attendant ringing a school bell caught my attention which then diverted the same to a sign that another attendant was just putting up advertising half price on pasties and pastries. “Ooh!” I cooed, “half price! I’m getting one!” Fully aware of how fully satiated we just emerged from the Pump Room, we nevertheless bought two original pasties ( beef, potatoes and onions) and two chocolate croissants for tomorrow. I decided it would be a good idea to ask these girls if they could help us with finding 5 Abbey Square, seeing their shop was 7 Abbey Square. They could not! I found this extraordinary. “But isn’t this number 7?” I asked. They seemed to agree that it was, and then asked what exactly I was looking for. “Mary Shelley’s old place,” as if she was a local in the neighborhood who just moved away recently.  Neither of them seemed to recognize her name nor the title of her classic, and so we left the bakery somewhat bewildered by people who had no idea of where they even worked. But looking ahead across the cobblestoned pedway, and indeed, right next to the Pump Room from where we earlier emerged, was an unpretentious plaque that announced the place where Shelley wrote her novel, and because the building had since been torn down to make room for expanding the Pump Room, number 5 Abbey Square no longer existed as a postal address. Satisfied, we went on our way to promenade along the canal. 

Four miles later due to a mistaken direction on my part, we returned to the city in a much slower cadence, but with a rounded perspective, not only geographically but culturally as well, seeing a more seedier side of Bath and less attended to garden spaces. Still light out, we felt it would be a perfect occasion to find a bar for a drink. We decided on the oldest pub in Bath, and centrally located (that is, close to our apartment), Sarencens Head, where absolutely nothing at all was happening save for a few at a table and a singleton at the bar. Nice old decor, but to cap off the evening with some lively village chatter or an old English Bard or fiddler was not in the works that night. We finished our wimpy half pints, talked of places in the world still needing traveling to, and then left for the flat, pleased with the performing lock.

A Good Bath

We met in the kitchen around 1 am for midnight snack intermission and spoke briefly about the next day’s itinerary. We fleshed it out later that morning at 6:30 with the light of a day which will greet early as it does when approaching the solstice. We had a leisurely breakfast and firmed up the plans. 

Starting off with a hop on, hop off bus, we got our bearings and a quick introduction to the layout of Bath and some of its buildings, and became acquainted with the walkable city. We started at the Roman Baths first. Designated a UNESCO world heritage city, Bath first became popular with ancient people who happened upon its hot springs. The Romans arrived and built their pools, saunas, massage rooms, and therapy rooms all around the hot springs. When Rome fell, so did the architecture, and for many, many years, the collapsed roofs sunk into the earth and became indistinguishable, unknown, or unimportant by the then contemporary builders, who built houses right on top of these Roman made baths. One year, a homeowner discovered green water leaking into his basement, and city inspections and surveyors later, discovered a vast network of baths, pipes, drainage systems all preserved in archaeological ruins. By the 1700s, the houses over the baths came down, the digs began, and the treasures revealed. When Queen Victoria came to visit, the city of Bath became a renaissance city, with new Roman architecture going up where the original was, mimicking what it once looked like; by the 1800s, it seems nearly every notable figure in England and abroad at that time had visited or stayed in Bath for any length of time, reaping its therapeutic, warm, sulphuric healing benefits. Recognizing this summer’s particularly cold and wet weather, I understood its appeal. 

Once inside the Roman Baths, which operates now as an indoor/outdoor museum an audio guide and sign posts inform visitors of each room’s purpose and identification. The Roman Baths are a complex compound, and even as late as the 1960s admitted only a select few (aka famous people) into their baths. However, since then and the discovery of a linked meningitis case and other random bacteria, swimming or bathing in the pools is not allowed. Every few months the pools are drained and then slowly refilled, as the spring from the ground still emits its water as faithfully as it has millennia ago.

After drinking a complimentary cup of war, sulphuric, spring water, we left the warm, underground baths, testament to its still healing and still functioning system. It remains another Roman architectural wonder, a feat of engineering and health awareness. 

Walking next door to the Pump Room, where Jane Austen and notable society people came for tea and recognition, we made reservations for tomorrow at 3:45. We were hungry and needed to relax for a bit. With choices tantalizing along every street and a different ethnic place around every corner, along every alley, it was a tough choice. We settled on a Greek takeaway and found the closest seats available: back at the apartment. 

Newly fortified with hummus and falafel and eggplant wraps, we set off to hop on the bus to take us to the Jane Austin Center. Not her true residence, but a close-by lookalike, we chose not to do the costumed tour, and instead had tea and cake in the tea room, listening to a soft  Edwardian playlist of Austen movie scores. Following tea and pictures with a portrait of Mr. Darcy, we walked along stately streets, whose townhomes and houses are kept to UNESCO regulations, requiring that any remodeling must conform to the original design and sandstone material. We returned to the apartment after a stroll by the Circus (a circular row of townhomes), through Victoria Gardens, along the River Avon (one of several river avons in England, from the Celtic word which means, of all things “river”), and a visit to inside the Abbey, undergoing remodeling to pipe in heat from the underground springs, and then finally conceding to the enticement of fudge everywhere, a fudge shop (hands down the Welsh honey pecan fudge won). Returning once again to the apartment just five minutes north of the Abbey, we put our feet up on the extended sofa bed, picnicking in front of a Netflix show, and called it a day.

About Town

Workaway schedules are approximate at best, and are often in tune with the weather forecast rather than a calendar. Although the suggested 4 to 5 hour work day schedule seems to be in compliance, I left the determined days off up to the hosts. As it turned out, I was invited to take a day off the first week, and a random day the second week. I suppose some workawayers sit right down and iron out these schedules beforehand, but to ask for a Saturday and Sunday off on a farm while I stayed there and ate didn’t feel right, especially because they seemed to have so little to eat to begin with, by choice or not. If I had made overnight plans somewhere else in Wales for a weekend, I’m sure they would have been more than happy to comply. 

Not that rain ever deterred them from sending me out. Rain that was forecast for Thursday, and because the kids and M were busy, and P was out scything someone else’s field, they gave me the day to myself. I decided to take the bus to Cardigan, another village on the coast south of Aberporth for the first half of the day, and return to a Drefach in time to go through the Woolen Museum. I would have lunch in Cardigan and supper in Drefach at a little pub I had my eye on since I walked by it the first day.

On my way down the big, half-hour walk hill, from Penboyr (the town that they live closest to) to Drefach to catch the bus, the rain started, so I opened the little umbrella which shielded me sufficiently from the rain but did little for the wind, whipping into my ears. I had to leave my soft green hat back at the farm, still soaked by the rain of its scythe-eureka moment, on a rack inside. Just as I was thinking to myself to find a woolen hat in Cardigan – surely a town with that name would have its namesake for sale everywhere – a car slowed behind me and pulled up.

“Do you want a lift?” A kindly looking man about my age offered through a rolled down window. By this time, I took it for granted that people offer passersby rides all the time. This time, the wind in my face proved too uncomfortable. “Thanks!” And in I went. Short introductions were made: I told him where I was working; he said he knew the farm and attended one of their “Open Weekends” and has a few scythes of his own. I realize now that doesn’t mean you necessarily know how to use one. (A lot of participants who attend P’s scythe workshops, according to him, believe they are intermediate when they should be in a beginner’s course.) As for me, I was catching the bus to Cardigan, and have you been in that Pub we just passed and is it any good? He said he didn’t know, he doesn’t live here, he’s only the “local.” Not sure what that was, but now approaching the bus stop, he pointed to it and said, “You’ll catch your bus there.” I said my thanks and off I went. 

Because of the ride, I was half an hour early, and if there were any congenial cafes or tea houses within the area I would have gladly stepped into one; as it was, Drefach has four places where people meet: two pubs that open after 4, the snack shop which also serves as a post office and an ER (the sign under the post office says defibrillator) and a lunchroom inside the museum, which was a twenty minute walk from my bus stop. All other life in Drefach is shut away in tiny houses that line the streets, and like other small European villages whose main industry has been replaced by modern life, forcing little shops to close one by one, it is sadly quiet. 

A woman came by with her collie, a perfect conversational starter. This was a Welsh Collie, smaller than the standard, wider face and shorter muzzle, similar to the Border in size, yet with ginger and white markings. She was a real sweetie, a 16 year-old champ who was walking slower every day, but still liked her morning stroll to the store and back. It was then 10:20, the time for the bus, and indeed it came around the corner on the opposite side of the street. The bus driver looked at me, I looked at him, he slowed ever so slightly, and then drove off. It didn’t phase me, as my bus was supposed to stop on my side of the street, obviously. But five minutes turned to ten, and my bus didn’t show up.

But someone else did – the man who dropped me off suddenly came around the corner and pulled to a sudden stop. “Didn’t the bus come by?” He asked. “Not over here. A bus came by over there.” “Which way did it go?” he asked. I pointed up the hill. “That would have been your bus then.” He chuckled. “Get in!” I walked around to the passenger’s side again, and reiterated I was going to Cardigan, and isn’t that quite a ways? “I’m not in a hurry to get to work. I have to help my son’s uncle lay some floor.” Sympathetic to his day ahead of laying floor, I aided in his playing hookie and off we went, on the way to Cardigan, about a half hour drive. Like with a crash course, I gleaned a little bit more of Wales, but the speed with which we were going mirrored his speech, and while touring the small, winding roads in a speed I haven’t felt since motoring in France with A. (and with dance music blaring from the radio as well), I was more inclined to look at the scenery before it disappeared around a bend, than ask him to repeat himself. It was lovely to hear the Welsh accent, albeit through the beats of the 90s, as I listened to an homage of his years as a youth traveling to Crete and parts of Europe in those years when everyone went to Europe. I’m not sure who the everyone he mentioned are, but since he mentioned the hippies who once liked to hang out at Newcastle Emlyn, which is by the way a great place for fish and chips, I assumed he meant the 70s. I also learned that most chapels (so called to distinguish any other religion from the Church of England’s churches) were not being used any more and a lot of them are sold off. Most people do not like that Prince Charles is the Prince of Wales, and most Welsh are quite fiercely independent and do not like England’s hot shots running the show for them; unfortunately, Wales has very little governing power. We passed through small pretty villages, with flowered patios and and brightly painted pubs, ice cream shops and tea houses, a cascading, wide river, rolling green hills, forested areas and pastures. He pointed to a field. “That’s where they have boot sales once a month.” “You mean people can buy their Wellingtons there?” He laughed, and said, “no, I guess what you would call a trunk sale.” “People sell things out of the trunk of their cars?” Aka: flea market. 

We were nearing Cardigan by the time I had summed up an overall impression of my Welsh escort and just in time too, as he asked me what my dinner plans were. I told him I have dinner with the family, and they were expecting me. Grateful as I was for the rides, (I could have easily visited the museum in Drefach first and taken a subsequent bus to Cardigan) he neither appealed to me as a date for dinner, as a pal to get “getting knackered” with, nor as a date to attend rave parties. Maybe a bit disappointed, he nevertheless wrote down his phone number, should I change my mind, or if I needed a lift to the train station on Sunday, and to call him either way. I offered him 5£ for the ride, which he would not accept, and we shook hands. “I’m Alec, by the way.” I replied in kind, and said thanks for the ride.

One of the first things I wanted to do in Cardigan was have a coffee and a Welsh cake. In fact, because of the weather, I wanted nothing more than to go from establishment to establishment, eating and warming. After a brief preliminary scan of the first street with so many offerings, I decided on Coffee1, a warm, wooden-floored coffee shop with perfect incandescent lighting and small couches and little private areas, called in Welsh “cwsch” which can mean anything that makes you feel snug, either in terms of a hug or a cubby hole. Although I should have ordered an Americano, which would have given me more caffeine for the buck, I was pleased by the latte and its creaminess, which together with the Welsh cake, a glorified shortbread cookie, with crystallized sugar and raisins, gave me a burst of good cheer. I stayed there a while; again, because of the speedy car ride I arrived in Cardigan earlier than the lunch hour I anticipated, I got out my journal and did some writing. It was reassuring to see people out and about – old friends catching up over coffee and cakes, a woman on her laptop with coffee by her side; an old couple out for a sandwich – it appeared as though life was still carrying on just the way I had left it, and people still ate sugar and drank coffee. 

It was getting on 12 though and time for lunch. So I put on my coats (down feather ski jacket under North Face semi waterproof jacket) and headed out to find a pie. Sure enough – it didn’t take long – by 12:20 I went onto Greggs for a fully lard-charged mutton pie. Delicious, mushy, full of flavor, spices and tender meat. With the meat and the lard warming my middle, I decided now would be a good time to find my hat. What Cardigan seemed to be noted for, at least in terms of clothing stores, was that most of them were consignment shops, all non profits for charity organizations, indicated by the names of the shops. Some were called Veterans of Wales, some The Friends of Dog Society, or Cat Lovers of Cardigan. There were several regular clothes shops, but all were featuring sun hats and bikinis. Not one shop in all the three main shopping streets and indoor markets sold good old wool cardigans or wool hats. Quite disappointing. I came across a little antique store, and so I popped in there for good measure; always on the lookout for cowbells, I thought maybe I could bring one back from Wales. The lady had no idea what she had in there, but I was welcome to look around, and sure enough I found a small sheep bell, and when I got back to the counter, she had found a small elephant bell from India. I decided to purchase both, the Indian bell a unique round shape with a brightly painted decorative shell. Despite her wrapping them in bubble wrap, they still clanged as I put them away. I guess I’ll always be able to be found. Coming back out, and up a side street, I passed another second hand store to whose proprietor I directly asked for a warm hat, and she pulled out a few from a sack hidden behind her counter, and although it was not wool, but a synthetic crochet, it fit, was warm, and what I needed.

The next stop was either for a beer in a pub or for candy in a sweets shop; I remember passing a place called Yum Yum, which had large glass jars lining each wall from top to bottom. I entered and was immediately seen to by a tall, matronly woman in a pristine white lab coat whose demeanor and authority over her product reflected that of a doctor dispensing controlled substances. I scanned for what I was looking for, and pointed to it, asked for a bit of it. Unsure how much an ounce would give me, she decided for me, and scooped out the request onto a scale and handed over the sweets in a cone shaped, cellophane baggie only after I forked over the 1.35£ and the transaction was complete. It was all very business like and properly done, this candy business. The serving of the beer was done with much less protocol. I went in to the Side Arms, a small hole in the wall with two other customers in it: a regular at the bar rolling his cigarettes and a regular at a table probably wishing he still could. I ordered a Guinness and took it to a table, and slowly while I sipped on the beer and chewed on my candy, felt my feet warm by the radiator underneath, which were becoming the warmest they’ve been since arriving in Wales. It was a great moment. It was a day of hedonism.

Back in a Drefach, I walked to the museum which explored the history of wool making, from the sheering to the final garment. Inside, the old machines can still be still threaded and are able to run; every so often they crank them up and finish a little bit more of the fabric the machine is set to weave. The factory was in use up until the late 70s, when most mills suffered a decline in use due to cottons and synthetics creating a higher demand. There are still a few running mills in western Wales, which, according to my Welsh escort, is the most beautiful part of Wales.

Too pleasantly satisfied to eat another dinner at the pub, I walked back home, and continued reading a book I picked up from M’s bookcase called Riding down the Mountains, a 57-year-old woman’s biking trip through Pakistan, India and Nepal in the early 80s. She had quite a harrowing experience, as a sole western woman on a bike. It makes my travels sound like luxury tours. 

Friday and Saturday had me scything again and the first of the seasonal hay bailing. The onslaught of continuous rain has kept M. and P. from scything the huge hay field for next winter’s food stock. Soon though, they’ll need to scythe the 6 acre field and let it dry on the ground, bail it (put it in big mounds), and transport it to the barn for the winter, but I don’t know how they’ll do that without a tractor, trailer or wagon before the uncut grass is no longer viable.

Tomorrow morning after breakfast, a friend of M. and P. is giving me a ride to the train station, where I’ll be taking a train to a Bath, England, to meet up with my friend L. I got to say, I so look forward to the rental apartment she’s found with its indoor plumbing and hot water showers.

Muck and Yuck

Or, Everything you always wanted to know about composting toilets (but we’re too afraid to ask).

On a rare, partly sunny day when the winds were calm and the meadows spun off wildflowers in the morning sun, M. said it was a good day for composting. One of us would muck out the winter goat shed, one of us the toilets. She was kind enough to do the toilets. 

A composting toilet is something you’ll find at a dry campsite. After you use one, you take a handful or more of sawdust and cover the business up, and shut the lid. This prevents flies from accumulating and keeps the odors away. But eventually, someone has to empty the barrel. You aren’t just going into a big pit dug into the ground like in WWI. Besides the currently used barrel, next to each of the four composting toilets is a barrel at rest, on its side. This one is full, and has been “composting” for about four months. Together, because it’s a heavy, two man job, we rolled the barrel (isn’t there a song that’s kind of like that?) all the way to the enormous compost heap that’s a combination of cow, sheep, goat dung, and you guessed it, human dung as well. Now, you might think oh gross! And imagine that what comes out of the composted barrel looks like your toilet did the day it was clogged or a sewer pipe that broke and spilled your glory all over the lawn. But it doesn’t look like that at all. It looks like brown dirt and smells… well ok it smells pretty bad, but that’s what the composted goat dung is for, which covers the odor pretty well. While M. shoveled out the well, you know, the crap, and heaped it on the large compost pile, I retrieved muck from the goat shed, which was sitting all winter and already become semi soil. M. covered the human muck with the goat muck. The large compost heap, thus made from the variety of excrements will sit all year, and by next summer, will be ready to use, in a nicely homogenized, rare earth blend. 

So there you have it. Not as scary as you imagined. Maybe gross enough for you to thank your local plumber and sewage treatment plant. 

We pulled some weeds from a garden afterwards, enjoying the day of sun; had fried egg sandwiches soon after. I decided to take advantage of the sun and washed some clothes in a sink in the barn, and hung them to dry down by my caravan; after that I walked to town. Nothing happening down there except for the one grocery store in town, so I stopped in and spent a good 15 minutes casing the snack aisles for something salty and something sweet for an afternoon treat. Bagless, I left the store with my pockets bulging: a roll of cookies, a bag of salted, roasted peanuts, an apple, and a bag of potato chips. I devoured the apple first, walking slowly back past St. Barnabus Church and graveyard. The gates were open, so in I went to explore. Built in the mid 1800s for farmers and families when the sheep farmers and woolen weavers and spinners were in full force, it now stands relatively quiet. The museum, just a quarter mile behind me and open every day till 5, used to be a functioning woolen factory, which still operates some of its apparatus for visitors. I’ll be back for that before I leave. The church meanwhile, is outfitted in stone floor, wooden pews, a Welsh inscription up by the nave, and a few beautifully stained-glass windows behind the alter. 

Wales must have done really well for itself before industrialization snatched its livelihoods. Herring and seafood from the coast, sheep, cattle and their byproducts from the inlands, grain from the fertile soil, and the copious rain providing enough water to run the mills. 

Opening up the bag of chips, I walked on, slowly meandering back hence I came, now assured of the right way. With my nose and fingers in the bag of chips, I was offered a ride back by a couple who decided to stop a good 100 yards in front and shouted back whether I needed a ride. I was enjoying the walk and the chips too much to interrupt it, and shouted back a thank you nevertheless. Licking the salt and oil off my fingers, I began to think about the family. Why people make an effort to deny themselves of life’s little pleasures and conveniences amazes me still. Nowhere in the house is a roll of cookies or a goody or jar of Italian olives. They order sacks of grain from the southern coast: oats, rice, buckwheat, spiral pasta bits, and a cracked wheat flour mix. The fruit is preserved without sugar, and consists of berries, little plums and blackberry currants. The vegetables are stewed without salt, but tons of bay leaves and little else. There is a pantry off from the mud room in which they keep their jars of preserves, root vegetables and sacks of grain. There is no special treat cupboard, as far as I know, unless they ransack it when I leave. Well, not to worry, I thought; I’ve found the snack store down the road.

I thought about how M’s habits changed a bit when P was at the scythe festival for four days. She brought out some sugar for the egg sandwiches, put a bowl of raisins on the table for the porridge, and let us serve ourselves from the pot, and even added curry and chili pepper to the stewed vegetables. We went to the food festival, where the children and she scarfed down burgers and attacked the sweets (admittedly I did the same with my food), and that evening, even made pizza- albeit from the same bread dough, topped with scant cheddar cheese, a thin veil of tomato sauce from a jar – ( I think it was store bought) and a few red pepper slices and even a few kernels of corn, from a can she bought at the store on the way home. She seemed to be more open discussing topics, laughed a whole lot more, and was more loose with a schedule. 

The reaction or rather non reaction upon P’s return gave me more clues to this Quaker type of existence. He came in just as we were finishing supper, a casserole of macaroni, goats milk and a little cheese, and neither child looked up from what they were doing at the table. One of them asked, “What place did you make?” referring to a competition that was part of the festival. Not “Hi da!”, or a hug, or a smile, a gesture, or any sort of affection. There was none either given to or received from M, either. She simply said, “Oh there you are. Just in time for supper.” I found this uncomfortably odd. I decided to break the pall after a bit and asked him, “Well, did you have fun?” He paused for a moment, looked at me, smiled, and said, “Yes, I had fun,” as if it were a new revelation and no one ever asked him that before. My feeling is that they both decided to leave the demands of society behind, preferring the silence of the land; they gave it their best shot out here. 

I came back to the caravan, stashed my cache, and returned to the buckwheat and stewed vegetable supper. 

That evening I heard the drops of familiar rain land on the caravan’s top and I quickly retrieved my almost dry clothes from the iron frame of the poly tunnel. (I always wondered what that was. It’s not an actual tunnel. It’s a type of green house). I hung them up in the caravan around the windows so the light form tomorrow would finish the drying. But alas, tomorrow came and the rains had not yet let up. It was steady, hard, and meant business. I donned my waterproof gear – by this time I had borrowed and kept in the caravan a pair of Wellingtons, those famous plastic garden boots that’s a necessity for farms and heavy duty gardening – and complete with my favorite green hat, my green waterproof North Face jacket, and my all weather quick dry pants, I braced the trek up to the house for breakfast. 

There are few activities one can do with wet grass, and besides watch it grow from a warm inside window, you guessed it, it’s scything. For whatever reason, it’s easier to cut. So P. thought it would be a perfect morning for me to scythe the other access path down to my caravan – this one wider and longer – and also scythe around the caravan and up to the other little path. I braced for what was in store, and in my always agreeable nature, feigned complete indifference to the cold wet bath waiting outside. Besides, I had my waterproof stuff on. 

But within half an hour, my waterproof jacket must have only been “pleasant mist proof” because I was feeling the wet enter my shirt and seep onto my skin. The hat, which did its best to prevent wind, can not fend off water, and so the rain came through my newly washed hair and soaked my head.(Yes, that sunny day just yesterday, the day I washed clothes, I also quickly washed myself, under the one-pail shower.) Water drops were falling off the rim and into my eyes. The boots were taking on water from the wide gaps around my shins, and my pants, well, why should they hold out? But for some reason, I refused to let it bother me. Instead, I took to wild laughter again, at the image of me out there. It’s one of these once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I’ll never do again – and eventually, I’ll be dry and warm soon enough. The other reason I may have had a sophomoric grin on my face was that indeed, although wet grass is easier to cut, and I like to have a handicap as the next best guy out there, I chose to believe that I finally got the handle of it – literally. The grass came off quick, with one swoosh after another, short to the nub and smooth as a pro. Ah, the joy! Pour the heavens onto my wretched self, I’ve learned to scythe!

Three hours later, a wide path trimmed and fit enough for the Queen’s carriage, I returned to the barn a dripping, soaked yet victorious, where P. was hammering the kinks out of one of his many blades. I carefully wiped down the blade of my scythe, return it to its place, and without a mention of my wet state, inform P, “I think I’ll make a cup of tea.” I may have earned some points in his mind about my fortitude out there – and even though young F. came out and said I was doing great after I asked him what he thought, there wasn’t a comment from P. himself. Now that I think of it, I’ve never heard any one of them say please or thank you to each other. The only person saying thank you around here is me, like in “thank you for breakfast/lunch/supper” and there’s never a “you’re welcome” or what ever else one might say to appreciate your thanks. When I listen to them talking at the table, during any of the meals times, when often the kids are talking between themselves, and the adults are talking about scythes or harvests or goats or cows, there’s not a solitary, endearing comment like “That woolen vest sure looks good on you!” Or, “I really like what you did with your beard!”  Or “Can you bring in the goats today, P? I’m beat.” “Sure, honey.” “Thank you!”

I finished my tea, informed P. that I was now going to warm up, and went to my caravan, where I peeled off the wet clothes and replaced them with dry. I was so thankful to my ski jacket for being light enough to bring along and efficient enough to warm me quickly. I got under the bed clothes as well, and as I slowly warmed, listening to the rain outside pattering incessantly, I regretted not buying some whiskey at the convenience store the other day, as I surely could have used this occasion for a celebratory toast if not a tonic against the chill. I settled for a piece of chocolate.

I had to be summoned for lunch an hour later; as hungry as I was, going back out in the continuous rain was not something I ever felt I needed to prove to anyone ever again. Besides, my new clean socks would have to go into the not yet quite dried boots, and the thought of that just made me shudder. So I decided to wear my own boots, and made a dash for the house. During lunch, which was bread and cheese, I offered to do something under shelter for the last two hours of a five hour workday, and since the only thing they have that fits in that category is sawing wood, that’s what I did. But I refused to get my remaining warm clothes and especially my ski jacket wet, dashing from the branch pile, to the shed, and to the cut log pile, and asked if he had a rain poncho or something similar. He did! He pulled out a bright red poncho and since then I haven’t gone out without it on. The kids call me Little Red Riding Hood and we all have a big laugh – but I just call myself warm and dry.  

 The rain belted on into the night and the next morning as well, now for the second straight day. The children left for their Home Ed community get together, M. took orders, fulfilled orders, and boxed up about 8 scythes, and I pulled weeds and harvested a type of Swiss chard in my borrowed red cape and green Wellingtons. In the barn, P. hammered away, straightening his collection of scythe blades.  As I inspected each leaf as to its edibility, I listened closely to the sounds around me. The ducks, who are now down from three to two due to a cunning fox just the other day, were honking away at each other. The birds were quite expressive, and I’m not sure if mockingbirds fly though the area, but one of them sure sounded like he was mocking me – singing the old grade school taunt you’d hear on the playground, A sound of Jurassic Park came from the valley – for a while I was really trying to figure that one out – but for the sake of being rational, it must have been a badly injured donkey. At one point two men showed up with a chainsaw, and went down by the caravan to cut a few trees. P. and M. are hosting another workshop on how to build a roundhouse with paying participants who will be building their roundhouse. 

We had stewed Swiss chard on rice for supper, and thickened goat’s milk over bread/cake for pudding.  And check this out – tomorrow, which seems to be raining still – I have a free day. I’m going to town!

As the Rain Falls

Wrapped in a woolen blanket, I’m hunkered down in my caravan after a morning and a half afternoon of sawing and chopping wood. Because it’s been raining steadily all day, we agreed for me to do something sheltered, and that seems to have been it. Unfortunately, the propane is not installed, or else I could have a hot cup of tea next to me while the rain pounds on the tin roof above. Tea today simply isn’t enticing enough to put back on my waterproof stuff and walk to the barn to make some. So I’ll make do by listening to the rhythmic beats of the rain fall and ponder my recent activity and my Wales family. Seems lately like making do is really making enough, and enough is actually a lot.

Earlier that morning I selected 30 tall, straight willow branches from a pile laying on the ground by the yurt and fire pit which P. will use offer the bean stalks a vertical support. I stripped the bark a foot from the end to ensure the willow branch won’t sprout and root while supporting the beans. It’s a different type of willow from the weeping willow; apparently, there are many varieties and these produce sturdy rods. It was a pleasant, undemanding job which gave me a seat in the unexpected sun that now burst through the breaking clouds; the repetitive process of peeling back the bark with a sharp knife until the rod was smooth and white provided me the time to peel back and smooth out my thoughts.

The children are an interesting subject. Although initially I was given to believe that they were homeschooled, M. admits they are “unschooled” – a more familiar term nowadays. Unschooling allows a child complete freedom from a curriculum or structure; kids decide for themselves when and what they want to learn. E. is 12. She draws with attention to detail and shadow in pencil, paint, pens…her subjects are perfectly realistic and she has a wonderful talent for capturing the light and perspective. She also enjoys pressing wildflowers, and keeps them labeled in a book. She crochets and knits – she makes hats and sweaters that look like they come from a Land’s End catalogue. Often she will sit through dinner with pen in hand and practice her alphabet, and then practice it again with her left hand. Both children talk about X and Y chromosomes with their dad, and phases of the moon, and eventually slaughtering their kid goats, which they are truly fond of, without any emotional afterthoughts. F. is the nine year old boy, with a set of hair that rivals his sister’s in length and wave. With F.’s vivacious hair I mistook him at first for a girl: M. asked me when I first arrived if I had “passed the boys” on the way up here so I assumed they would be along shortly when I would meet the rest of her family that night at dinner. But only two of the alleged four children showed up for dinner, so it dawned on me after being introduced to him that he indeed was a boy and that by boys, M. must have meant him and his friend. His clothes reveal a romping good time out in the garden or muck, full of hay bits and smears of compost. The whole lot of them, parents and children, represent a unified unit, as they have to be, living in a tiny house and walking over each other’s handiwork, projects, scythes, legos, and embroidery yarns spilling from the container. I have another image for you: assemble what you remember of Captain America, Little House on the Prairie, The Swiss Family Robinson and Old Yeller. You’re getting closer now to my reality. A few things provide a sharp contrast to the 1800’s living, which is (no shock) modern technology. Underneath the mason jars full of… well, I thought they were spices, but after the absence of such in the food, came to conclude were seeds, underneath of which sits a lap top computer connected to WiFi no less, and from where M. will conduct the scythe business twice a week (and from where the children will access educational videos, lectures and the newest Minecraft). She’ll receive the orders, do some billing, and spend the rest of the day packing up the scythes in boxes, ready for pick up and delivery to booming scythe handlers all over England and Wales. Soon we’ll see men and women doing the scythe dance all over fields in the UK. P. talks about the increase in sales with such satisfaction, you’d think Wales is minting a new coin with a scythe on it at this very moment. The adults each have their own smart phones, but apart from needing them for business I never see them using them. This afternoon, M. is busy creating a flyer for a wind turbine workshop they’ll be hosting in October, which will conveniently allow the participants to learn while building the family a wind turbine for more electricity. Phillip conceded the other night during dinner that the extension they’re building onto their one room house will not only be a bathroom, but also a place for a washer and dryer. To me it seemed an abrupt departure from bare bones living, but they may have been waiting anxiously for this convenience for years now. An anachronistic image, for sure, in this house of dried cow jerky vying for space with drying clothes from roof beams. Part of our dinner that night was my first experience with that preserved meat, shriveled to half its original size. We had buckwheat again on the bottom of the bowl, topped with a stewed vegetable medley, topped with salted, shredded mutton. Taken in small bites, and mixed with the rest, it provided the salt that I craved, but it was a bit too salty, too muttony, too fatty and indeed, quite dry. I took my leave after pudding, and retreated to the stillness and the evening birds, watching the ducks and the magpies from my caravan windows.

The Scythe Dance

Now that the bull had been safely returned, scythe practice could start in earnest. After a delicious porridge – my taste buds are developing a keen sense of taste, and really getting to know a food’s true essence – I gathered my gloves, scythe, attached the whetting stone and pouch to my pant’s waste, and set off to mow the access road to the barn. I was psyched and determined to find the enthusiasm that drew scythe enthusiasts from far and wide to participate in P.’s workshops. There must be a joy that comes from slicing ultra thin blades of grass down to the quick with one fell swoop, and I intend to find it. 

I assumed the scythe position and took a deep breath. Remembering bent knees, thumbs down, lean right then left and follow through with a twist, I led the blade around. I was thrilled! A definite path of sorts of cut grass revealed itself. I went over it again, to see if it was truly possible I had just made this obvious indentation. This time I didn’t notice having picked up any more, so obviously my technique caught some serious grass. I stepped the requisite four inches forward first with right foot then lifting and placing left, and sliced through again. It really seemed to be working. I had to keep reminding myself to follow through, and then to press down with the thumbs. Only a slight variation of degree of the blade position will result in a failed flattening of the grass instead of a cut, and too much pressing down of the thumbs on the handles will force the blade to dig into the dirt, which happened quite often with my strokes. After several yards of scything, I looked behind me to see how it looked. Golf course quality it surely wasn’t, and I became disheartened by the little tufts of grass that refused to be cut, no matter the angle of the blade or my knee position or swinging motion or attacking them. At several obstinate grass tufts I forgot all about etiquette and protocol and swiped at them with indignant machete strokes, until I started laughing at myself out loud. I paused, conceded the win to the grass, remembered the obstinacy of the bull, and pulled back the scythe to rest and breathe. That’s it, I thought, I’m working too hard at this. I need to just breathe and let the blade do the work. Concentrate on the shifting of the feet, thumbs down, rhythmic movements and hang on loosely. Swoosh. That’s a very satisfying sound. Ok, I thought, I can do this. Visualize it. I thought maybe the blade needed sharpening. Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the reason and not that it’s my first twenty minutes of scything ever in my life. I take out the whetting stone, an 8-inch, diamond-shaped piece of metal, and carefully sharpened each side as instructed. Now I was ready to go. 

But not a whole lot happened. In fact, the more convinced I was to get it right, the worse I became. Since when had I become such a perfectionist? I felt a side of me emerge I never knew I had. It was grass against man out there, patience having fled the scene. This is ridiculous! I was having silent conversations with grass! Again I started laughing out loud, at how silly I was behaving, that whether I cut it correctly or not I was absolutely cutting some of it, and that in a week or less, it would all grow back anyway. Well then I thought, why am I taking this so seriously? 

Around that time, P. came around to see how I was doing, and I explained the situation to him, that either my blade isn’t sharp enough or I’m doing it all wrong. He looked closely at the blade, brought down the scythe and sliced through with precision, ease, swoosh and effect. “Hmm. I guess it’s me,” I said. 

“You know what this is like?” I continued. “This is like a dance. You have to find the right moves.” 

“That’s exactly what it is.” He handed me back the scythe and I wondered how long till lunch.

So I danced, not the waltz or the tango, but an archaic form of cave man dance with bent knees and twisting torso. If anything, I must have resembled a child’s wind up toy and the more I thought of looking at myself from a bird’s eye view, the more I kept laughing at myself, and then I forgave myself for not having mastered this in a morning, and maybe never mastering it at all. If I understood it correctly, I am helping them prepare for an upcoming workshop on scything. If I were to attend such a workshop and drove up to this bad hair cut, I would really be wondering about the qualifications that convinced me to sign up. 

But I had made progress, despite stiffness and soreness, unconditioned muscles, mismanaged rhythm, unsynchronized moves, tense hold, and holding my breath. There was evidence of an effort. There was evidence of a good struggle, and for that I felt redeemed. Soon M. came out to find me. I had an image of the both of them in their warm, dry kitchen, applying postage to boxes of scythes that will be picked up by UPS later today and sent to optimistic and ambitious farmers who are entertaining the romantic movement of returning to the earth without machinery, and discussing my potential in this endeavor. Maybe they were both in agreement that I should try something else in this organic permaculture living.

“So how are you doing?” M. asked in that ever so pleasant voice.

“Well, I’m fine, but the grass doesn’t look very good, does it? Is it the blade?” I couldn’t let it go.

“Let’s have a look then, shall we?” And without any sharpening or inspection of the blade, she swooshed through with such precision and ease and beauty, I almost bowed in deference. 

“I just can’t get it like that. Are you sure you want me to do this?”

“It just takes some getting used to. You’re doing fine!”

And off she went. 

I had been scything for three hours now, and my body, arms, and legs were so tense, they could no longer produce anything of value, my swings became erratic, and and yet I plodded on. Soon I have a wide range of area covered with strewn grass clippings. I had come at the grass at all sorts of different angles. Finally, towards 1 pm, Phillip came out.

“Are you alright?” He must have seen seen my furrowed brow, heard me laughing, or muttering under my breath, and witnessed machete actions. 

 “I think I need a rake. I have no idea whether the grass is cut, or just lying flat.”

He assured me that it just takes time; anyway, it was time for lunch. 

I was so relieved it was over. 

After lunch I rolled a wheelbarrow, a pitch fork, and a rake to an upper field where P.  had held a scythe workshop several weeks ago and the mounds of cut grass in piles needed to be composted. I felt much better suited for this job, and cleared half the mounds, one mound at a time in the wheelbarrow, back down to a large compost heap. 

Dinner that night was white rice, stewed vegetables and very thinly shaved bits of bacon. P does all the cooking, and I’m thinking maybe he needs to keep his diet very plain, for one reason or another. In any case, I’m finding my taste buds adapting, out of necessity probably, but still acquiescing nevertheless.

Phillip left for a scythe festival in Somerset, England the following day; I finished more scything around the yurt area, and when the rain started, it didn’t let up for another full day, so the following day I was under the shed once again sawing and cutting wood for their wood stove (the one that heats the house, not the stove top, which is electric). A few things I’ve noticed since P has left: a bowl of raisins was placed on the table for the breakfast porridge; a large pot was left on the table for self serve; and M made a delicious chili/cumin/red paper stewed vegetable topping for the rice. 

On Saturday, we trekked to town to catch the bus to Newcastle Emile, where a yearly food festival was underway. Oh the delights! It was like a farmer’s market, each local offering their own product: cheeses, chocolates, honey, fudge, savory pies both meat and vegetarian, pasties with sausages, hams, cheese, mead, beer, candies, roast pig, pizza, hamburgers, goat burgers, lamb burgers, a coffee wagon, ice cream, and oh my gosh – jam combinations I would have loved to bring home: blackberry jam with whiskey, a different fruit with rum… it was all tantalizing, especially after the week of grains and dairy. I chose to eat a ground cashew and mushroom pasty and a roast pig sandwich. The family each tried a burger variety and together in silent sensual delight wolfed down the once-a-year delights with a vengeance. I was reminded of a yearly pilgrimage to a fair, carnival, or trading post where exotic and faraway peoples and tastes got together for spice exchanges and betrothals.

Then it was time for dessert. I bought a little pack of honey pecan fudge that may not make it back to the states for anyone to confirm its savor and a mixed variety pack for E. and F, and a hunk of thistle cheese for M. There were so many samples out of every kind of sweet, we simply feasted on the samples, and with a satisfied, full-bellied, lazy cat syndrome, walked through town to the castle ruins, where as the story goes, the last dragon was slew. 

The more we talk, the more familiar we are becoming, and we laughed and discussed everything on the walk home – from education, to living, to farming, to Brexit, to families; how P and M met, their story which lead them here, to taking care of this land.

Back on the farm, we retreat to our places; there’s tomorrow’s pitchforking hay, more wood to chop and goats to milk, and scything the shortcut through the woods, which is really a perfect place to practice because there are no necessary aesthetics involved. After the intoxicating mingling of sweet and salty aromas and grilled fatty meats, after the measurable amount of people mingling and laughing and sharing quite normal, modern lives and stories, returning to the quiet wild was quite soothing, and I was surprised at how I welcomed the stillness, and it me. 

Blade and Bull

Still hunkered down, still wet, still writing. An hour before supper at 7, I decide getting a cuppa tea is worth it because I have to use the outhouse anyway. This tea is delicious. And do I taste a hint of sugar or is it my imagination? 

June 4th was my training day. Scythe training, that is. Long blades, bent knees and the one, two. 

After oat groats and preserves I meet P. out in the barn, where to my delight, I find a jar of instant coffee. Nescafé Gold has no idea how true their label is: I feel I have just struck it. I decide a good strong cup is just what I need before I handle blades. 

So the instruction begins, and with any enthusiast with anything, it must begin at the beginning. Identification. There is the blade, which has a “ toe” – the point, and a “head” the wider part, which is attached to the “snath” – the wooden pole. There are the upper and lower grips, one for each hand, upper for left, lower for right. I will not go over how P. measures the length of the bade or adjusts it according to a person’s height, how he checks the arc of the swing and the tilt of the blade, the proper way and how often to sharpen the blade with the proper whetting stone, but as P. explained and showed all of this, each new bit of information came with its own side story. If you recall Severus Snape’s character in Harry Potter, then you can imagine how long and drawn out and a little weirded out and antsy I became. Imagine listening to the physics of an ice skate blade before you feel like having a go at ice skating. 

Finally, we were ready to go outside and try it out. There are several positions to keep in mind that must happen either simultaneously or one after another. (And don’t forget to breathe.) First, bend the knees, and hold the snath across the right thigh, with the toe of the blade in a straight line with your own toes. Then lean into your right foot, put pressure on the thumbs to tilt the blade as close to the ground as possible, and as you arc the scythe around your front, control it all the way around to your left side, while shifting pressure from your right foot to your left, following through with the arms, and careful not to lift the blade from the ground. What should happen, if this is done successfully, is a neat, cut, semi circle arc of grass in front of you. Once you can do this, you are ready to do the one, two, which is what I came up with. To keep going, and to get any reasonably sized plot of land cut in less than a decade, once the pressure is on the left foot, you must lift the right foot and step just a tiny bit forward; in fact, only that small bit (about four inches) equal to the amount of cut grass in that arc. So imagine if you will, a person bent at the knees, rotating and swinging a full 180 at the waste, and incrementally shifting from left foot to right in a rhythmic forward motion. 

Suddenly, our instruction had been cut short – I had just completed my arc and wasn’t yet trying out the one, two dance when Michelle called for our help – the “young bull” had just jumped the fence into a neighbor’s field. Armed with a bucket of feed, a long wooden bar, equally long stick, and a rope with a noose at one end, we went up the field.

The two remaining cows still in their proper pasture were nevertheless accomplices in the whole matter and were shouting at the freedom fighter using full cow lungs. All sorts and timbres of sounds cascaded around the fields. They were either shouting at the escaped bull for encouragement or shouting at him with sympathy worry. Michelle found the sagging fence, and the reason behind the apparent ease of jumping over: the electric wire had come in contact with the barbed wire, and shorted it out. With the pail of food to use as enticement, she went towards the bull, who was a good distance away from the point of entry, nibbling on some forbidden foliage. The other cows were as close as they could come but still on the other side of the fence. To extrapolate the bull from his food find and the proximity of his mates would be harder than I thought, especially when I saw him Back away from the pail of goodies once he saw Michelle attempt to harness him. Soon, he knew the pail was only a trick and would have none of it. He went back to the delectables, so indulged in what a little fence jumping could offer,  that he failed to notice Michelle and Phillip approach from his blind spots and grab his collar. Suddenly, the docile, gentle cow I observed the other day became a raging bull. Woe to him who grabs my collar, I heard him say. He yanked and pulled and thrust his weight around, and Michelle and Phillip, thin and petite as they are, held on and were shoved and pulled this way and that. Michelle shouted, Keep his head down! Pin his head! And when they both lunged with all their weight, pushing down his head, he at once stopped moving, at least long enough for M and P to collect their breath. I grabbed the rope for them, and as advised, walked slowly and gave him a wide berth. No problem! I thought. Last thing I want to do is have him charge me. Warily, I approached all three of them, men and beast, ever so gradually passing M the rope. Then I retreated to watch part II. He either was unable to move, or didn’t know what just happened, because she fitted the rope around his horns and under his mouth. Once that was securely on, they both let go of their hold on his collar. Holy moly was he upset. Again he threw a raging fit, bucking up with his head, giving M a bloody lip, tackling and wrestling the two of them into center field. It was scary to watch, and I was surprised at how long either party was willing to keep this going. The bull clearly had the advantage in strength alone and not the one heading to the ER at any moment. Soon I was given the answer. Michelle lost strength first and with the bull’s swift flick tossed her to the side. The sole survivor was P, who received a good head butting, causing him to fall backwards; this issued a scream from M who yelled Let go, Phillip, you’ll hurt yourself! (Ya think?) It’s not worth it! But gallantry runs deep, and a bull runs fast, and P refused to let go, and from the ground was dragged at least twenty yards before rope burn must have set in or good old common sense. 

Back to square one. A riddle, if you will. There is a bull cow in the middle of a forbidden field. Three onlookers, dazed. A pail of feed, a bent fence, and two cows on the other side. How do you get the cow back over? In hindsight, simple. You put the pail of feed on the other side of the bent fence, in the proper field, where the remaining cows can eat it. The escapee thinks he’s missing out, and hops over all by himself. Did either one of us think of that then, in those moments of harness and capture and rodeo? Nope. But the bull must have, for right after he won the fight, he sauntered across the field like he owned it, right to the source of the trouble, and indeed hopped over like Rudolph himself on a Christmas morning.

Admittedly they were shaken by the whole ordeal, as there were talks on the way back of castrating him right away, come fall.

The bull episode put us half an hour behind schedule – not for scything, but for heading for the coast, a half day off for me to explore the coastal town Aberporth while the children attended their community group “Lighthouse”, which is a group of Home Educated kids in the area. It took about twenty minutes to get there by car, and there were about 15 children of various ages. I would meet the family here, outside the community center at 4, as entry was granted only to those who had had a national background check. 

An afternoon on the Welsh coast would not be complete without a good measure of rain, and I was impressed with the country’s hospitality in that regard. A small town, with a few main streets that were main only in the fact that there was a restaurant/ bar, a drugstore, a hardware store, a gift shop, and a snack and newspaper store on one of them, and the other transversed it. I decided to find lunch first, before I did the coastal walk, and chose a random street around the bay to see what was happening over on that side. A fancy restaurant and an ice cream shop were the options, so I moved on, circled back and up to the Main Street, at which point the rain was coming down harder now and I decided to take what I could get. Turns out I didn’t walk far before I came across a familial looking establishment with a few beers on tap and a chalkboard menu with a few specials. Perfect. I was in the craving for taste, and despite my being around pies and mushy peas and what must have been a Ladies Auxiliary meeting or the Knitters Society of Aberporth, I went for the curry and a Guinness.

The walk was beautiful, the ocean mesmerizing, the waves soothing and the rain turned to a spray mist. I and only two others were out there. It felt good to see the  ocean, the empty horizon, and from the information at the viewpoints learn a little bit about the shipping and herring industry here before the railroads changed all that. 

I was at the designated rendezvous point at 4, and had to wait for 15 minutes before they came out. I found myself far more conspicuous as a possible kidnapper standing in the cold and rain outside a children’s community center for 15 min rather than just go inside. And until M introduced us, the ladies who came and went did look at me suspiciously. But out they came, finally, and off we drove, forward to the 1800s.

Without a Pinch.

I slept soundly and deeply in my little cozy caravan, weighted by the cocoon of a comforter and two woolen blankets. The birds, singing new songs I have yet to identify, the light gray sky of an early morning, and the patter of rain drops on the tin roof I woke to surrounded me in peace. I slept the whole night through, without having to stumble back into clothes and find the outhouse in the middle of the night, and felt completely refreshed. Throwing the bed covers back, I felt the chill in the air, the damp moist coming in through the open window, and so quickly I jumped out, rifled through my backpack for the “warm” clothes, put on my rain jacket, winter beanie hat, and Timberland boots as if it were an average fall or winter day instead of mid summer.

I was to meet M. over by the goats in the shed for their milking, at 7, as agreed upon last night, and so with some time before that, I left the caravan in the rain and went to the barn for a morning coffee. I passed the goat shed along the way with no sighting of M, the goats just looking at me with a “Can I help you?” glare, and went over to the barn to check out the caffeine supplies. There seemed to be no coffee around, although copious amounts of all sorts of tea, and what do you know, a canister of very old looking sugar. Wondering whether I should return to the caravan to retrieve my bag of emergency, finely ground coffee to accommodate any machine, pan, or water source, I decided the rain, which was falling heavier now, was menacing enough to restrain me to a cup of black Welsh tea.

Sipping strong brew, I got a good look around the barn, kept far more tidier than the homestead. Pots, pans, dishes, cups, silverware all stacked neatly in cupboards and drawers; a table covered with oilcloth and four simple wooden chairs, a gas stove, a hot and cold water faucet, and a separate drinking water faucet. The space was large and void of clutter. An open throughway lead to the rest of the barn, an unfinished area with a dirt floor and ladders to the lofts on either side. From the looks of things propped up against the walls and tools along the bench, posters and flyers on the walls this was his scythe workshop, the chairs arranged in a semi circle fashion indicating the places for participants learning this ancient skill. The hay for the goats was off to one side, which M had just come for. After functional morning greetings, she dug her arms into the hay mound, grabbed a mound bigger than herself, and together with her, I left my tea, and walked to the goat shed, where she dumped it in to keep the two milking goats happy during milking.

I got a quick how-to from Michelle, who milked the more feisty goat first. Her adept fingers squeezed out the milk at a rate that would have modern milking machines crying. In less than two minutes, 2 liters of warm milk steamed from the pot and into the cool, damp air. Then it was my turn. Despite following instructions on proper hand placement and squeezing, there was very little to show for it; actually, a few drops only after several minutes of effort. By then Heather the goat was getting restless, so I deferred the task back to M. who continued relieving the goat of her full utter to deposit an additional 2 liters into the family pot, leaving enough milk in the utters to keep the three kids content (the goat kids, not her kids, although I suppose without pasteurization requirements you wouldn’t have to walk all the way back to the kitchen if you were out in the fields and were thirsty).

We walked back to the house, where P. was stirring the simmering morning porridge on the one electric hot plate stove. I turn to the corner the bookshelf and scan the encyclopedias on plants, harvesting, planting, animal husbandry, a few memoirs written by people who went off grid living, books on crafts and projects, scientific journals. A few catch my interest. A memoir of a woman my age bicycling through Pakistan and India. A woman giving up her job in London and buying a run-down fixer-upper on a Skye Island. M. says I’m welcome to take any of them back to the caravan.

E. is called to breakfast, the late sleeper and night owl, but F. has been up since the crack of dawn, occupying one of the other corners of the cottage, and avidly following an Australian family and their humdrum life in Australia on a Youtube video. We all sit down to a presentation of porridge (cooked to a refined consistency to resemble cream of wheat) with raspberry preserves and pear bits and another type of small, round, red berry, which must be the kind I see ripening outside my caravan door. “Do you like porridge?” F. asks me. “I love it!” I exclaim. “Good! Our last workawayer was gluten intolerant and we couldn’t have it for two weeks.” Everyone dug in to their wooden bowls with fervor, I included. Yet here again my tastebuds balked: without a pinch of salt, honey, raisins, bananas, left it rather … well, austere, save for the sporadic tartness of the berries. This lack of sugar this morning left an interesting wake in my stomach: I was neither hungry nor sated, yet neither satisfied nor still craving. Despite the generous portion, I felt as if I hadn’t really eaten. I can’t say this is an interesting mention, but rather a peculiar one: is it the salt and sugar we crave that drives an appetite? Have our conditioned tastebuds wreaked such havoc on our signals for food?

P. doles out what he believes are appropriate portions from the pot into wooden bowls, and one of these is placed in front of me. Surrounding my bowl are little jars of homemade dye, an old trophy of P.’s when he won 4th place in a 2017 scythe competition, tea cups from this morning, an empty milk liter, liquid craft adhesive, and Eva’s flower press. 

Because of the ongoing rain, I’ll be working under cover, and this had me in the wood cutting shelter off the barn. For several hours I sawed through tree branches to stockpile their winter store. I forgot what physical labor felt like. Lifting long, thick, heavy branches required some strength, and sawing through them, turning the branches when the saw became stuck at a certain depth, sawing again, and listening for that moment of ease, when a complete break has been reached, was gratifying. I carried the logs, stacked them by the duck shed, walked back to a different shed where the branches were stored, pulled another onto the sawing block. I was called in for lunch at 1 pm, where for the family of 5 (including me) a two duck-egg omelette with goat cheese was waiting, from which we all got a piece of. A slice of bread, made from a sourdough starter, ground whole wheat flour from a miller on the coast, a few nuts and fewer raisins. By this time, I expected no salt and was delivered its promise. I took my time in tasting every bite; I wouldn’t eat again until 7, and I wanted to give every solemn chew the recognition it deserved despite the absence of its ancient side-by-side, secret ingredient companion. The impact salt has made on humanity and civilization since humans have followed the animal routes to natural salt formations around the world shaped the very world we live in. The word salary is derived form the word salt, as is salad and salubrious. Discovering why this particular table chose to go without it except for the drying sausages strung up overhead might be my new mission.

Work away in Wales

I’m sitting in the guest caravan for workawayers with my feet up as if I were on holiday, but I’m definitely not. I’ve got a slice of Wales to contend with, right in front of me, out the splattered and dust covered windows. London will get its due mentions soon enough; it’s easy to let go of the chaos, the crowds, the traffic, and the unsuccessful attempts to find gluten free fish and chips. For this reason, once A. and I parted – she to Liverpool Station for a train to the airport, and I to Paddington Station for a train to Carmarthen – the silence of the train coach and the green hills and meadows we were rolling past were the perfect balm. Once the train passed the border, the station signs appeared in Welsh first then English from the top down. I soon saw this every where. On candy wrappers, lists of ingredients on wrappers and food, street signs, bill boards, and newspapers. The train reached Carmarthen in the mid day sunshine. Getting my bearings and the balance right for the backpack hoisted onto my back like onto Greek peasant’s donkey, I walked across the street to where I noticed a bus stop, and from where I was hoping I would catch the magical bus that would take me to the enchanted farm. I asked a man sitting and waiting for a bus when I could expect the bus to Drefach Felindre, my instructed stop. I was aware of the danger of phonetically pronouncing words as they would be pronounced in American English – not that I would be earmarked as a foreigner – but that in my totally mispronouncing them I would be directed to a different town, region, or country altogether. But alas, the kind man said he was waiting for the same, and that we just missed the 12:30, and the next one arrived only at 1:30. He said it’s the bus that goes to Cardigan, where he’s going, and the stop is along the way. Ah, perfect, I thought. It’s actually working, whatever needs working to get me to a destination with scant directions and unmapped coordinates. Then remembering my indoctrination with Seattle city busses, I asked him if he knew whether the bus needs exact change, and how much it might be. He thought maybe 2 or 3 pounds, but he didn’t know about exact change. I didn’t have that much in exact change, so with an hour to spare and still with home on back, went across the street again and on over to the little snack store in the train station, where I had a lovely chat with the store keeper. I think she was entranced by my huge backpack, and even more excited about learning I was from the states. I got the feeling she didn’t see too many of my kind out in these parts. After a careful, lengthy study of her snack rack and the bubbly drinks in her fridge, I finally selected a fruit and nut bar. “Ah, you found something, then!” She laughed, and in due course, I satisfied a sweet tooth and the correct change predicament. There was nothing left to do but taste a Welsh nut bar and stand in, finally, a warm sun, and observe the goings on around me. One young woman came up to me and asked me if the T1 bus came by here. “I’d love to help you,” I said, “but as you can probably tell, I’m a foreigner, and I’m the wrong person to ask. But there’s a really nice man in there (I nodded to the bus shelter) who would probably know.” She smiled and went to ask him. I was wondering how many people have trouble deciphering the bus schedules. A few minutes later, I had my answer: a lot of them. A woman who looked like she shouldn’t have been running came sprinting down the street to a taxi parked across the street and urgently asked him if he was free. Her mother, and she pointed down the way from which she had just exhausted her last breath, needed to get to the center of town. I couldn’t hear their exchange, but she returned to her mother, informing her and everyone else on the street that he’s not going that way and then veered left to ask some people who were just getting into their car. Still no luck. The taxi sped off with a couple who came out of the station in a daze – there must be a universal expression saved for the truly bewildered and for the “first-timers” the minute they open the doors to a new world beyond, as well as a universal attire for holidayers. It seems to be always a sunglasses/straw hat combo, heels and capris (for women) and sunglasses/pullover draped across the back, kakis and loafers (for men). Before long, the sprinter’s mother came slowly past me, and asked if this bus (Apparently the one I was waiting for) would take her into the center of the city. “I’m sorry, I really don’t know.” She looked at me a little strangely, and then I realized my accent must have really thrown her. “Huh,” She said, unperturbed nevertheless, “All I want is to get to the center. How hard can that be?” She hobbled further on, at which point another taxi pulled up, and she went over to him to ask about getting her to the city center. She called to her daughter, who was busy procuring a ride further up the street. “I’ve got one! He can take us to the center!” She yelled. Her daughter yelled back, “I’ve got one too! Which one should we take?” It was like a half time show for bus riders waiting in between busses. They finally settled on the taxi the mother secured, and in they went, sped off to the two-minute drive into the center. Carmarthen is truly a very small city, which became obvious when I was finally on the bus.

There were three of us boarding the 460 to Cardigan, and luckily a young man in front of me was going to Drefach Felindre as well, so I got to hear how it’s really pronounced and know how much it cost: 4.5 pounds. It was also reassuring to know that I would be getting off at the right place if I just followed him off the bus. The bus moved into gears, winding around little streets and up hills and past farms and fields and then to another little town, a little bus stop, no announcements, and then on around a roundabout, the Welsh names on the signs no help for an orientation. A quick aside: in most cities across the globe, city names will invariably look and sound the same, with slight variations. Not so in Welsh. For example, the Welsh city Newport is called Casnewydd; Bridgend is called Pen-y-bont. The small villages between towns were the only ones that didn’t have an English language equivalent beneath them. So on we went, and the first disorientation and slight cause for panic was that the bus went north from Carmarthen instead of south, which was what Google maps indicated for me before I left. Along the way I must have acknowledged that there were many Drefachs in Wales, and also many Penboyrs, the small rural community where the Farm is located. All I knew was that I was on the right bus, and heading to a town I knew I should be in. After about 45 minutes, though, I decided to ask the same man I had asked before whether we were anywhere near Drefach, and he said he really didn’t know, but that the other fellow was going there, and he was still on the bus. But maybe I should ask the driver? Yes, he thought I should.

I balanced my way forward to the driver. “Can you tell me when we will stop in Drefach Felindre?” “Whats that?” I reformulated the pronunciation in my mind that I overheard earlier from the other passenger whose intended stop was my own. And tried again. “Drayfach (sounding the ch like the soft, aspirated, light gargle greek letter X, or chee) Felindre” “Say that again?” I was hoping the engine of the bus was the cause of this man’s hearing, and not my accent, and so again, I said a little louder, for all the passengers to hear, “Drayfach Felindre!” “Drewfach Felundra? It’s right up here! It’s coming up.” We finally both agreed that what we had pronounced was indeed the same place. After I sat down again, another young man came up to me and made sure that I understood that it was the next stop. So I felt well enough taken care of. By the time we reached “the next one” at least three people pressed the bus stop buzzer form benefit, and I hoisted my backpack and disembarked, along with that other fellow, who wasn’t as loaded down as I was, but who nevertheless had a different accent of some sort. I asked him which way was south, and he pointed in the general direction; my google maps did the same, and so off I went, trailing him by about 50 yards and wondering if we were not heading to the same place. The walking was easy enough despite the 16 kilos on my back and I was glad that the sun was still high in the sky should this destination prove to be either longer than I anticipated or nonexistent altogether.

The afternoon sun and unpredicatably warm weather made the trek actually enjoyable. From the bus station to the farm is about a 1.8 miles walk, and every now and then I checked gps to confirm I was yet traceable. Soon though, the signal became weaker, so I could no longer rely on its accuracy nor on its lifeline to the world out there. I put the phone away and just kept walking. Eventually, I came across a gentle looking, silver- haired woman sitting on her porch of on one of the few cottages that lined the densely forested, paved road. She was handling yarn, probably weaving it into a rug or some such. “Hello!” I called. She returned the greeting. “I’m headed to the Permafrost Culture Farm. Do you know where that is?” “Oh yes, I do. But oh dear. You’ve come too far. You need to go back, past those bungalows down there, and make a right up a sharp hill. Then you’ll be right there. Or, you could keep going this way, and then around, either way. It’s behind, us, over a hill. Either way, it’s still aways off.” I decided to heed her former instructions; she seemed to believe in them more. Off I went, retracing my steps, now becoming a little bit frustrated at the casual directions I received from the hosts in their email. About ten minutes of walking later, a car pulled up, and a man asked where I was heading, as he’s seen me now twice going in two different directions. I said hopefully, “I’m going to the Permafrost Culture Farm.” He said shaking his head, “You’re going the wrong way. It’s back that way,” and pointed in the direction I had come from before I met the old lady. I looked forlornly down the road I had just come from. “Oh dear,” I said, starting to mimic the locals. He said, “Get in, I’ll take you there.” I put my stuff in the back, and got in. I was relieved that someone had a car and could actually get me to a place that actually exists, and who knew where they were going. “Why did you turn around?” He asked. “Well,” I said,  “I was going in that direction, but then I passed an old lady weaving on her porch and she told me to go back this way.” “Oh that was my wife spinning. Well, I’ll take you back this way. I love to make her mad.” So off we went, and passed his wife, who glanced up from her wheel, and soon enough, he dropped me off by the red phone box and gave me firm directions. Take this little dirt path all the way, straight up. There will be a driveway to your left. Don’t take that. That’s a neighbor’s place. Go all the way straight up, follow that path straight.” I kept the word “straight” in my head, as this seemed very important to him, that I find the place. “At the end, take a left. And then you’re right there.” Well, hallelujah. I climbed up the rocky path, justified in my decision not to have taken the roller suitcase. It was steep enough without the ruts and rocks and roots. The farm’s directions said to stay on this path for about 200 yards. I calculated 4 football fields, not that I had ever run any, and figured it would be another 15 minutes, give or take, in this grade. I still kept going on the promise that there would be an end point to this journey, and that this path, through these deciduous woods, was the way there. It curved around eventually, but despite it no longer being straight, kept on it, as there was no where else to go. Finally, I came to the end of straight, and a left and right option. I think he said left, but left lead to a gated pasture, so I went right, and there, around the bend, was the sign “Permafrostculture Farm. Leash your dogs.” I was relieved and utterly grateful to have made it. I followed around hedges, passed an old barn and around to a brick walk way, which I took to be the one to the main house.

Indeed there it was, a little shack surrounded by garden trenches, burgeoning vegetables, wildflowers, crates, pails, garden equipment, plastic tarps, and an old green caravan-turned-shed, full of boards, bricks, and anything imaginable. I walked up to the red front door, which had a small welcome sign on it telling me to enter through here and knock on the next door. I walked into the mud room where a wild assortment of wellingtons, coats, tools, boxes, gloves, solar transmitter power boxes, and all sorts of chaotic life welcomed me to the obstacle course that was to lead to the entry way. I knocked; foot steps approached. A young girl in long, braided hair and Icelandic knitted sweater looked through the window, and without smiling or saying hello retreated, calling to her mom. Soon M. came to open the door, and broadly smiled, “You’ve found us then!” As if hers was one of many options on a snack rack, and I chose correctly. She looked about mid thirties, with the same long brown hair that now succumbed to the slight graying of later middle age. She motioned me into the one main room that was on the right side of the cottage. I took in the whole of it together, as one might when assessing a place for the first time, without allowing myself to actually look, but as we were speaking I became aware of my surroundings. This one room is obviously where everything happened. They cooked, they ate, died wool, made crafts, played the piano, preserved fruits and vegetables, dried meat, read books, colored, painted, did accounts, discussed the universe, sharpen scythes, sell scythes … all of this became evident little by little. What amazed me though was that every cubic centimeter was occupied with something, and that everything had a space, whether that space was in a drawer or not. That space may have been on the counter or on the floor. It mattered not a wee bit to anyone. Then I thought, there is no more space, so wherever it lands is where it belongs, evidently. After some tea, and formalities, M. took me to the caravan, a model from the late 70s that was now seasoned with green brush strokes of mold along its aluminum siding. Inside was a bed, a table with a wrap-around cushioned bench, a fridge and a stove. “We haven’t got any electricity or water down here yet, but there is a faint Wifi signal.” I plopped by backpack down on the bench and she showed me around the farm, the four compost toilets, the big red barn where I could make tea, the goat shed, the vegetable garden and the hay, sheep and cow fields. Then she told me to come back for dinner at 7.

For a few hours I settled in, unpacked, noticed the silence, and was struck by its benevolence. The peace was so loud it couldn’t help but be noticed, the shades of green so varied I wondered if they each hue had a separate name. The garden in front of the caravan grew wild with weeds and flowers tall and proud; what seems at first to be a derelict plot of land, is actually an ecosystem allowed to function as one in the most harmonious way possible. 

I went over for dinner at 6:55, famished, where I met the rest of the family. The father, P., appears as a blend between Johnny Appleseed and John Muir – a total product of outdoor living without a hint of civilization. Long hair, long beard, clothing made from natural plant fibers that don’t mind the dirt. More accurately, he looks like a pioneer from the 1800s. He builds nearly everything around here – sheds, outhouses, even the small house they live in. Currently, he’s working on an extension to the house that will include – get this – a bathroom! Wow. They’re really catching up with the Jones’s down aways in the valley. Their son, F, is a nine-year-old long haired, barefoot, free-roaming “unschooled” boy whose outdoor good looks had me mistake him for a girl. Their daughter, E., who I glimpsed before she darted away from the door earlier, is 12 and spends time between bites from the scooped wooden spoonfuls from her wooden bowl to her sketch pad and dried flower scrap book. All four of them had sharp, brilliant blue eyes.Dinner was scooped into wooden bowls on the counter and served by P. Tonight’s consisted of rotini pasta with vegetables – I’m not sure which, but they were green, maybe a chard or collard of some sort, and an orange vegetable, probably a squash from  their winter store. The surprise, well, no, the disappointment (not that it should have been one as I knew next to nothing about the family in front of me, who knew even less of me yet welcomed me into their home) was that there was no salt at all in the prepared food nor on the table, and unaccustomed to this omission, found very little to enjoy about it, causing me to wonder whether food consumed here was simply energy for the body and not for the splendor of a foodie’s palette, or whether he may have forgotten to add the salt, but no one said a word while everybody perfunctorily scooped and deposited, all except for E., who continued intermittently with her sketching.  After dinner there was pudding, in this case a slice of loaf cake with custard. But where salt failed dinner, sugar failed dessert, so although it looked and had all the promise of a dessert, without the sugar and my untrained tongue, I might have been eating a kitchen sponge smothered in tumeric-spiced warm goat milk. Ahh! Welsh pudding! Missing those ingredients that that make you insane for one more slice, I said my thank you’s, good nights, and returning to my caravan, snuggled in deep under the Welsh woolen blankets.