Category Archives: Green Living

Birch tree insights

A Guest Blog from Ellen Evert Hopman

Birch Tree (Betula spp.)

Beneath you birch with silver bark

And boughs so pendulous and fair,

The brook falls scattered down the rock:

and all is mossy there.”

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Beltane fires in Scotland were ritually made of birch and oak, and a birch tree was often used as a, sometimes living, maypole. As birch is one of the first trees to come into leaf it would be an obvious choice as representation of the emergence of spring. Deities associated with birch are mostly love and fertility goddesses, such as the northern European Frigga and Freya. Eostre (from whom we derive the word Easter), the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring was celebrated around and through the birch tree between the spring equinox and Beltane. According to the medieval herbalist Culpepper, the birch is ruled over by Venus – both the planet and the goddess. According to Scottish Highland folklore, a barren cow herded with a birch stick would become fertile, or a pregnant cow bear a healthy calf.” 1

1 Trees for Life, Birch, https://treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythology-folklore/birch2/    

In many cultures, but not all, Birch is considered a feminine tree sacred to the Earth Mother and other Goddesses. Meditate in a grove of Birches to form a mystical bond with female deity.

Birch is protective when placed in the cradle, in the coffin, or planted in the graveyard.

Make your own set of Runes

Birch is a traditional wood to make runes for divination. Enter a Birch wood during the Waxing Moon. Place your left hand on a Birch tree and ask her if you may cut a branch (or even better, go out after a storm and find a branch on the ground). If the tree says “yes” then leave her a gift and saw your branch.

Dry the wood slowly, sealing the ends of the branch with wax, to hold in moisture as long as possible. On the next Waxing Moon, cut your branch into small round sections, sand them, and then carve or paint a rune on each piece.

Here is the Elder Futhark, the oldest Runic alphabet from Scandinavia and other Germanic areas.

Elder Futhark  2

2 Omniglot, the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages, Runic alphabet https://www.omniglot.com/writing/runic.htm

Herbal Uses

Birch sap wine was considered medicinal in Britain and Ireland and was taken to relieve rheumatism. 3

3 Allen, David E. and Gabrielle Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, P. 88

The sap is collected in the spring from mid-February to mid-March and I would suggest tapping a River Birch, Black Birch, Yellow Birch, or any Birch other than the White Birch, because the latter has no flavor.

A recipe for Birch sap wine from 1676:

To every Gallon whereof, add a pound of refined Sugar, and boil it about a quarter or half an hour; then set it to cool, and add a very little Yeast to it, and it will ferment, and thereby purge itself from that little dross the Liquor and Sugar can yield: then put it in a Barrel, and add thereto a small proportion of Cinnamon and Mace bruised, about half an ounce of both to ten Gallons; then stop it very close, and about a month after bottle it; and in a few days you will have a most delicate brisk Wine of a flavor like unto Rhenish. Its Spirits are so volatile, that they are apt to break the Bottles, unless placed in a Refrigeratory, and when poured out, it gives a white head in the Glass. This Liquor is not of long duration, unless preserved very cool. Ale brewed of this Juice or Sap, is esteem’d very wholesome.” 4

4 Worlidge, John, Vinetum Britannicum: Ora Treatise of Cider and Other Wines and Drinks … Fruits Growing in this Kingdom … Propagating All Sorts of Vinous Fruit-trees … Making Metheglin and Birch-wine. The Second Impression. To which is Added, a Discourse Teaching the Best Way of Improving Bees, Thomas Dring, London, 1678, PP. 175-176

Herbal Uses

The inner bark of White Birch (Betula alba) has no flavor but it is loaded with gamma linoleic acid and useful in cancer treatments. The wintergreen flavor of the bark is found in Black Birch (Betula Lenta), Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) and River Birch (Betula nigra) and other Birches with a yellow or brownish bark. Gather the inner bark in spring when the sap is flowing.

Birch bark tea is a great grease cutter and can even be used to clean your kitchen stove – I believe it probably will do the same for your blood when taken as a spring tonic.

Simmer the inner bark for 20 minutes and then steep Elderflowers (Sambucus spp.) in the brew for another 20 minutes, to make a spring tonic.

The inner bark of Birch is a mild sedative and very useful for insomnia.

Externally the bark tea is used as a soothing wash or bath for skin conditions and can be rubbed into the scalp to benefit thinning hair.

The spring-gathered leaves can also be made into a tea and rubbed into the scalp for thinning hair.

Cautions: avoid during pregnancy and breast feeding. Birch pollen could cause allergies in people who are sensitive to Wild Carrot, Mugwort, Apples, Soybeans, Hazelnuts, Peanuts and Celery. Birch leaves are high in sodium which could elevate blood pressure. 5

5 WebMD, Vitamins & Supplements BIRCH, Side Effects & Safety https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-352/birch

Method of Preparation

Leaf tea: steep 1 tsp. per ½ cup of freshly boiled water for 20 minutes

Bark tea: simmer 1 tbsp inner bark per ½ cup water for 20 minutes. Take ¼ cup, 4 times a day, not with meals.

https://www.innertraditions.com/books/the-sacred-herbs-of-spring


Green hearts show the love

Every year in February, the Climate Coalition runs an online campaign called Show The Love which is about creating a voice for change. Green hearts feature heavily, and it’s a chance to talk about what we love, and what we want to protect. I’ve been involved with this for some years now, in a small way.

I like soft campaigning. While there’s most assuredly a place for harder hitting stuff, I don’t have the emotional resilience to do it. I’m better deployed on awareness raising  and trying to draw people in. My contributions to fighting climate change are made in my personal life and in trying to engage and enthuse other people in gentle ways.

This year I am drawing green hearts and using them to talk about things I want to protect.

If you’d like to get involved, visit https://www.theclimatecoalition.org/show-the-love


Imperfect Allies, Flawed Leaders

This week, Jack Monroe was central to the push to get shoddy food packages for hungry children sorted out. Almost at once, Twitter was full of people who wanted to talk about how if Jack was serious about tackling child poverty, she would have supported Jeremy Corbyn.  It’s a typical story – someone does something well meaning and genuinely good and is shot down over something else.  It may be deliberate trolling, it may be a cultural problem, I suspect it’s both and I see it a lot.

There will never be a perfect leader, charity, organisation or ally who does absolutely everything you want in the totally perfect way all of the time. If you wait for that perfection, you’ll never do anything. If you decide that only your perfection will do, you’ll likely run into how imperfect other people find you. Lots of people trying to start their own revolution because no one else’s revolution is quite good enough does not get much done. We need to work together, and to do that we have to accept that none of us are perfect.

How imperfect can we cope with? It’s an important question. If someone is at odds with a key value, you might struggle to work with them no matter how good the work is. The questions of when, where and how to compromise are incredibly personal and specific, there’s no way to map a generalised answer for this.  My favourite strawman for this is the fictional group Nazis for Sustainable Farming. I would not work with them.  But what about the person who is doing amazing, frontline work on child safety but isn’t very good on some gender issues?  Or the person who is a brilliant champion against plastic use, but flies off on holiday? At what point does a flaw become an issue of hypocrisy? It can be hard to say.

It can be helpful to ask whether anyone else is doing the work – if there’s a selection of people/organisations tackling an issue you may be able to find the one that is the best match for you.  If the issue is important and the only person leading on it is problematic, you have to balance how important the work is against how problematic the person is. Also ask who they are – there’s a world of difference between a problematic person working for a cause they are dedicated to, and a high profile person making noise when you aren’t sure what their real motives are.

The movement to save wild otters in the UK had a great deal to do with otter hunting and it was otter hunters who first identified the population decline. This is a good example of a difficult scenario.  People may be allies over one issue but coming to it from such different angles as to have nothing else in common. Can you make that work? Should you? What’s the most important issue?

It would be hard to name an area of human activity that isn’t urgently in need of a rethink right now.  There is so much that needs doing, tripping up people trying to do the work because they aren’t as perfect as we want them to be, isn’t helping. We’re becoming polarised, and we need some degree of compromise and a spirit of co-operation. At the same time we need to think carefully about the issues we’re prepared to ignore for the sake of getting things done, and to consider carefully the balance between means and ends.


What If?

What if we planted trees

Our urban spaces aren’t places for people

We get sick and sad, we go mad

Sucking in polluted air from grey streets

We need to leave the cars, make room for leaves

Turn our urban jungle from grim to green

Make it live, make it breathe, be serene.

What if we planted trees?

Scientists in studies the world over

Show us with numbers we need to hear

We’re better people with trees.

We hurt less, suffer less, do less harm

We’re calmer, kinder, cooler in the shade

No need for the air conditioning

That ironically helps us heat the planet.

Safer in the shade, cut down the cancer

Grow more trees. Forest our minds

Towards better mental health.

We need nature to feel whole and well

But what we do to ourselves

Is build hell, deny what gives us life

We make our strife, unhappiness is rife

Pouring tarmac over everything, we wonder why

Our souls are hungry

For a softer way, a gentle route through our days

Walk slowly to your job, enjoy the view

Live a few minutes distance from everything

That makes a daily life for you

Amble there sweetly, saunter beneath trees.

What if we stopped telling stories

About the gadgets we hope will save us

Rescued ourselves from our mistakes

With orchards where car parks used to be

And playground groves for children

Cities where people can live peacefully.

What if we plant more trees?

(Rob Hopkins has been asking ‘What If?’ which led me to write this. More on his website https://www.robhopkins.net/ )


Embroidery and Upcycling

Carrying on with the craft theme, here are some images from the embroidery I’ve been working on. As you can see in the image below, I’m using the kind of hoop that is traditional in British embroidery. I can’t manage the denim without it, and the layers of fabric would make a sashiko needle impossible to manage, I think. So, nothing authentic about any of this, but, I’ve been really inspired by what I’ve learned about sashiko and boro.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Form follows need as the embroidery reinforces seams and helps me deal with the otherwise rough and vulnerable edges of the denim. Working with such a heavy fabric, folding the edges of each piece to make a hem isn’t feasible, but means the patchwork pieces are otherwise likely to unravel. I’ve learned by experiment how best to secure seams and edges of cloth.


Craft, culture and boro

Back in the winter, Pinterest lured me in with images of boro. At the time I had no real idea of what I was seeing only that I found it very attractive. If you get in there with a search engine, the internet will give you a lot of images of mostly denim patchwork, visible mending techniques and embroidery. As an enthusiastic needlecrafter and upcycler, this all had instant appeal. I dug in.

I like to have some idea of where things come from and what their significance is. Partly because I delight in such knowledge and partly because accidental cultural appropriation is not my idea of fun.  Here’s a brief synopsis of what I found out when I dug in. Boro means rags, and it is a tradition from Northern Japan, inspired by poverty and necessity, that takes what little fabric is available and keeps it in sound, wearable, protective condition. It fell out of favour after the second world war because of the poverty associations, but is having something of a renaissance. Of course traditionally it wasn’t done with denim but currently that seems to be the fabric of preference. There is also an embroidery tradition that goes with it, called sashiko.

We really need these kinds of traditions right now – we need the inspiration and to reclaim cultures of re-use. To take our throwaway culture towards something more sustainable we need to start valuing re-use, repairing, upcycling, and keeping whatever is usable in use. This of course is what poor people have always done, of necessity, and that’s part of the problem. While we see these techniques as being about poverty and insufficiency, many people will be actively put off them. Who wants to look poor? Who wants to do what poor people do? Affluence means discarding things whenever you like.  It means never looking shabby, or ragged, or even mended. We equate smartness with newness and wealth.

It will take a bit of a shift to see the value in what is old and repaired. But, there is a great deal of beauty and innovation in these traditions. Off the peg clothing is bland stuff that seldom lasts long. It means looking like everyone else and having limited scope for self expression. The upcycler on the other hand gets to play and make over, and has adventures in clothing unavailable to other people. There are plenty of things to find attractive here.

Over the coming few days I’m going to be writing a bit about my adventures with boro, so, watch this space. To be clear, I am not making boro – I’m using the wrong materials and the wrong tools. It’s not my cultural heritage, and my grasp of it at this point is fairly superficial. However, there’s a lot I’m excited about and inspired by, and there’s a world of difference between being inspired by something, and misrepresenting it by claiming to be doing it.


Life Without Cars

I admit I’m greatly enjoying the reduced traffic. I’m enjoying how much easier it is to hear the birdsong from inside my flat, and that the dawn chorus today did not have an accompaniment of vehicles. All of the roads round here are quieter, easier to cross, safer.

Yesterday I noticed that there is no longer a taste in the back on my mouth when I go out. It was so normal, that I hadn’t been aware of it before. Lorries and buses give me a brief round of it, but it is no longer intrinsic to breathing. It was an unpleasant flavour. I breathe a little more easily without it. The air is cleaner.

Of course cars have greatly advantaged people as we’ve moved towards lockdown. People in their own car are safer than those crushed into public transport. People with cars have had options of panic buying and stocking up. They also won’t need to top up shop that often. Those of us who carry our shopping home on our backs cannot buy so much in one go.  As usual, the people who have least and cause least harm are disadvantaged.

I have dreamed for a long time of seeing this kind of reduction in car use. I would not have chosen to do it this way. Those absent cars represent lives in chaos. Education disrupted and the massive stress of still not really knowing what will happen for GCSE and A Level students. Those cars belonged to self employed people who have been left totally exposed by callous political choices. They were the cars of people visiting their loved ones. We needed to learn how to do without them, but not like this.


Greener Eating

In recent weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make the household more environmentally friendly. The most obvious actions for us to take are around food – reducing the animal products in the diet (one omnivore, two vegetarians) and cutting back on plastic waste associated with food.

Limitations of both sourcing and budget mean that the only way we can do this, is to make more from scratch. Between us we do a fair amount of meals from scratch, but it’s the extras that need looking at especially. Snacks, puddings, biscuits, and bread.

There are in turn implications about comfort, wellness and energy levels. I make my least good food choices when I’m ill, exhausted, overworked and uninspired. At that point, making everything from scratch is a push too far. We walk for transport, shop on foot – there’s a lot of greener things going on that mean spare energy is not always available. I’ve also learned that it pays to eat with an eye to mental health, and that means carbs – often toast. Low blood sugar causes a lot of mood problems and if my mental health goes to the wall, nothing else is going to work out well.

So I’ve been experimenting a bit. There are issues around how and when I plan the food, and what breaks I get between food-making and other jobs. Tom is finding that having managed to bring work-related stress levels down, he has more energy resources for this sort of thing, too. It’s clearly possible to get into vicious cycles where a poor diet adds to body weariness and makes it harder to get on top of things and do better around food. There would be all sorts of benefits to getting this right. Mass produced food is always more bland and less nutritious than the stuff you can make for yourself.

But, convenience food exists in a culture that puts us under a lot of pressure to work. If you’re mentally exhausted, even thinking about what to cook can be overwhelming. Energy is required to be making bread and biscuits and whatnot. Having the kind of day jobs that requires massive amounts of concentration over long periods, Tom and I both tend to snack to keep going. There’s a complicated relationship already between how we work, how we shop and how we eat and it’s something I’ve had to think about carefully.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that making good changes depends on seeing the bigger picture. It means examining how we’re living to see what, overall, could shift us. This also requires time and energy. The key place to start is to ask why things are as they currently are, because without exploring that, any changes are likely to be brief and superficial, or counterproductive in some other way.


Stand By Tree: Protest Songs To Save The Trees

A guest blog by Steve Andrews

As a singer-songwriter who cares passionately about the natural world I use songs in my protests for environmental causes. I often change the lyrics of songs I cover, and so it was with Stand by Me, which became Stand by Tree!

Back in 2017, I joined the local demonstrators in the Cardiff suburb of Roath where trees along Roath Brook, which ran through some parkland, were under threat. The badly named Natural Resources Wales had approved the felling of trees along the stream as part of a flood defence plan, even though residents there had not had problems with flooding. Sadly by the time I got involved several of the trees were nothing more than stumps, and others marked for removal. Protestors had attached placards to some of the threatened trees calling for them to be spared. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the trees were being felled, Roath Brook is a haven for wildlife but Natural Resources Wales didn’t appear to care. Kingfishers were often seen there, the European Eel, a Critically Endangered species was known to live in the brook, and Water Voles were said to have been seen at the location. 

When I went along I took my guitar and sang some songs I thought were appropriate, including my own ditty entitled Kingfisher, and my amended Stand By Me cover.  Another well-known song I changed the lyrics for is Give Peace a Chance. My version goes: “All we are saying is give trees a chance.” One of my new verses has the lines: “Everybody’s talking about Jarvis Cocker, he’s a rocker, celebrities saving trees,” and then the chorus. The singer who came to fame fronting the band Pulp, had supported the campaign to save the trees in Sheffield, where thousands were felled. Even Michael Gove, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, spoke out at the time, and was reported in the Yorkshire Post to have called the felling of thousands of street trees, a ‘“travesty” that should never be allowed to happen again.’

To my mind it is clearly insane to destroy perfectly healthy mature trees, which besides helping to keep the air of cities free from pollution, are also the homes of many species of wildlife, including many insects and birds. Nevertheless urban trees have been cut down in very many cities and towns throughout the UK, and many more are still under threat. I commented on this in The Nightingale, a song which also features vocals by award-winning poet Mab Jones: “They’ve killed the trees in Sheffield and it’s happening across the UK, big business doesn’t care about nature, despite what they may say, businessmen and councillors don’t care about a ‘Green City,’ they care about making targets, they care about big money.”  

The chorus for this song is a question and answer which goes: “Who will stop the destruction of so many trees, who will save the birds, the butterflies and bees? It comes down to the protestors, to people like you and I, we cannot let them kill our world, we cannot let it die.”


Green-ish, but at what cost?

It would be better for the environment if more of us travelled by train. Does this mean that destroying pockets of ancient woodland for the sake of more trains is an environmental solution? HS2 offers us just that. Trains are better environmentally than cars, but trees are better environmentally than no trees and ancient woodland cannot be replaced.

I had similar arguments more than a decade ago with an MP who thought a Severn River barrage was a good idea. Save the planet with green energy! But at the price of destroying a unique habitat. She felt it was worth the trade-off. I didn’t.

Every time we get into one of these, what we’re really saying is that carrying on as normal is worth destroying something for. If we used less energy, we wouldn’t need to mess about with the Severn River. If we didn’t travel so much, there would be no justification for destroying woodland for the sake of trains. If we tell ourselves we’re making the more sustainable choice, it’s amazing what we can justify.

We need imagination. We need the willingness to make radical change. We need to recognise that we cannot keep consuming at our current rates. We have to use less. Sacrificing some aspect of the natural world so we can carry on as usual is not a sustainable choice.