Green Tomato Chutney

‘A leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars’/Song of  Myself/Walt Whitman

Seeds of hope

ON 30 APRIL 2020, I planted some tomato seeds. Gardener’s Delight – an easy-to-grow, heavily cropping variety. I had been waiting for these seeds to arrive by post for four weary weeks. This was the beginning of lockdown in the UK. Suddenly everyone was re-discovering the green, and ordering seeds and plants and compost, desperate to make something grow in a time of death and dislocation. I joined the queue for online ordering, and then: silence. Just as I was beginning to despair, through the disinfected letter box they plopped. I got busy with some little pots along my kitchen windowsill: never more aware of the power of these little seeds to inject new growth into a moribund situation – and a simple kind of happiness and hope.

I was right up against the deadline – Sow from January to April, the back of the packet instructed – and wasn’t at all sure the seeds would take hold. But they did. Little leaves sprouted from each pot, with their jagged, jaunty outlines, and that familiar hot tomato smell. 

Tomato seedlings in tomato cans. The circle of life.

Potting On

I potted them on, and the astonishing spring warmth and sunshine strengthened their sense of purpose – and mine, too. I cleared out my old shed in the back garden. I remembered the wild allotment I had tended for seven years after my husband died, and which had re-purposed my life, digging me back into my own resilience and resolve; and I started to re-create some of that fruitful wilderness again, on a miniature scale. I hardly left house and garden in those early weeks, was rooted to the spot, feeling the pull of place – the soil beneath my feet – to help keep me standing and steady.

The tomato plants kept growing. In June I planted them in big pots by the back door: underneath the notice that read “Dear Delivery People, thank you for your help! Please leave parcels on the table by the back door” – subtext, “And don’t come any closer!” The contrast of this plague-type declaration, with the green, growing loveliness of the tomatoes, was not lost on me. I hoped the sight of them gave those poor harried postmen a second of uplift. It certainly did me.

 

The plants have been denuded of most of their crop now, but still they stand guard!

Rain, rain, rain

Tiny yellow flowers appeared, then the hint of a little green fruit. The leaves sprawled across the red doorway. Profligate growth, that made me greedy for more. the fruits appeared and they started to swell. Then came the rains. And the early spring heat turned to biblical soakings, day after day after day. By August the sun was still reluctant to appear.  Like the weather, I sickened, and a serious tooth infection, then a brutal, bloody extraction laid me low, in body and mind. In the outside world, the early promise of the pandemic – of bringing everyone together, in solidarity and kindness – had ruptured like my wretched tooth, with mad recriminations and a running amok on beaches, in pubs, at airports and borders. Anger replaced the warmth of fellow feeling, of staying put and staying well.

Nature’s jewels

Yet still my little tomatoes grew. They swelled and shone and dropped gracefully from their stems, like small green jewels. It was a gift just to look at them – which I did, early every morning, flinging open the back door just to check they were still there. Still standing. They always were.

 

Green tomatoes on a white plate on a green cloth in the garden room. Perfect.

Of course, they never had a chance to ripen properly and turn red. Too much rain on our northern hills, from June, through July and August too, and not enough heat or sun. But still they existed: and they felt like a lucky charm. A sweet silent companion through those tense and haunting lockdown days. Their very greenness a rebuke against despair.

Green tomato chutney

Yesterday, on 5 September, I harvested my tomatoes. With a certain amount of ceremony and satisfaction, I cut the the branches of fruit and brought them inside, to the kitchen where they started their little lockdown journey. I made green tomato chutney.

 

This is the pan and these are the fruits. Let’s cook!

To be honest, the haul wasn’t exactly huge. Enough for just three modest jars full. And I’m not sure that the chutney itself is the finest in the land. But I really don’t care. The pathway those tomatoes took me on, from April to September, from seed to fruit to harvest, was a lovely lesson in persistence and resilience. This is what takes us forward: never our grand designs, but small things, quietly savoured. Nature’s bounty. Back to the garden.

 

Silence is Golden

IMG_1859(Back Garden at Reiki in Leeds)

“Silence is golden

But my eyes still see”

The Tremeloes

Early in the morning

THIS MORNING I took my wake-up cup of tea out into the back garden with me, and sat, with just the birds for company, in the quiet of the new day. I live on an urban estate in North Leeds, so in the summer, things are rarely completely quiet. There are small children all over the neighbourhood, just raring to kick their footballs into my raspberry bushes at the front. And adolescent boys keen to intimidate, chugging about the roads on their motorised trikes, and revving their souped-up tin-can cars. But peace can always be found somewhere. It settles, in silky meditative layers, in my Reiki Room at the back of the house. And if I sneak out early enough in the day, before everyone is awake, then the entire garden is an oasis of calm. Silence for the ears. Rich colours for the eyes. Just me on my chair – and the birds, flying from tree to tree, unbothered by the somnabulant human, perched in the corner, and dreaming, dreaming, dreaming.

The spaces in-between

Absolute silence, nonetheless, is a rare and precious commodity. Even when alone and tranquil, as I was this morning at 6.30, there were layers of sound all around me – birdsong, the wind, the distant clatter of a kitchen pan; and sounds inside me too – the constant internal narrative of my chattering thoughts, and the high-frequency tones of my pesky tinnitus! But we can, nevertheless, move towards the spaces in between these sounds; and remove ourselves, now and again, from the relentless layers of noise in our high octane contemporary lives. The relief, when we do so, is palpable, and profoundly rejuvenating.

Just like stillness (The Art of Stillness) and solitude ( The Uses of Solitude ), silence is a beautiful resource. A deep well of energy can spring up from within its contours.

IMG_1853(Listening to Penny Greenland speak at #WildConference. Photo Malcolm Johnson)

Alone in a crowd

I have just returned from a wonderful open air Wild Conference organised by the mighty Slung Low theatre company here in Leeds, West Yorkshire. Set in the rolling hills and woodland of the Temple Newsam Estate, the gathering of 450 people – artists, public policy makers, theatre creators and political activists – met, to discuss ideas, to dream of a better future, and to vow to help that happen, to implement change: with the maxim “be useful, be kind” at its root. Everyone wore headphones and moved from tent to tent, gathering inspiration from the many fine speakers. With the headphones switched on, you could tune in to any of the speakers at any given moment, by switching channels as you wished. You were also free to move – away from the crowds, to sit under a distant tree, maybe, or to lie on a cushion and gaze at the sky. All the while listening to a stream of lovely, intelligent talk. Easily overwhelmed by crowds, this was a perfect set up for me. Even better: I got to feel the wind on my face and the sun on my head. Outside, unchained.

img_1857.jpg(T’ai Chi in the wind at #WildConference. Photo Malcolm Johnson)

Moving together – in silence

There was much to put fire in my belly from this fine endeavour – like a mini Glastonbury, without the music (although there was that, too, at the evening cabaret.) Perhaps closest to my heart was the energy of Penny Greenland, founder of JABADEO , speaking passionately about living an embodied life (rather than retreating, as adults so often do, into our minds and our armchairs, or locking ourselves away behind desks.)

But one of my favourite moments, was away from the campfire hubbub, up on a green hill, where I led a morning T’ai Chi session ( See also Classes with Barney ) for anyone who was willing to abandon their croissant, and come up under the trees, to move with me. I suspected no one would come at all. But they did. And the wind blew cool. But we stood firm, performing the ancient Taoist movements – Wild Goose Flying, Separate the Clouds, Pushing the Wave – in exactly the kind of setting from where those movements’ inspiration came: on the green grass, under a blue sky, in nature. Moving silently together. In peace.

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The Silent Eloquence of Touch

T’ai Chi and Chi Kung gain their greatest power when performed in silence – when the instructor’s voice drops away, and it is just a body of people, moving quietly together, in a stream of flowing energy.

Reiki – the other body-based practice I love – seems quite a different activity from T’ai Chi, to the outside eye: one person lying, perfectly still, on the practise table; with the practitioner laying  hands upon her at various places along the body – head, heart, solar plexus, knees, feet – and simply leaving them there, as if planted, for what can seem like an eternity. Time stops still in the Reiki Room. But all the time, an energetic flow is being released – between hands and bodies, between bodies and minds. It is a quiet summons to life itself. A tuning in, to the hum and pulse of our living, breathing bodies. With stillness, movement. An embodied moment.

All of this takes place in silence. Although music may play softly in the background – though often people elect for none – words are rarely exchanged, once the Reiki session has begun. And this time of silence is curiously intimate, touching and profound.

How badly we need to communicate with each other more openly and optimistically, as patterned by the Wild Conference. How crucially important it is – for  our brain health, as well as our whole being – to live Penny Greenland’s “embodied life” of movement. And how golden it is, to be silent from time to time, whether alone or together; whether in the flow of a T’ai chi class, or the deep rest of a Reiki session… Or maybe, just sitting quietly outside – or in a church – or in your own room. Just being. And leaving the world to its own devices, just a for a little while. To quote another fine sixties pop group, The Hollies: “Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe.”  The sound of silence is calling to you now – listen in.

If you would like to book a Reiki session or T’ai Chi/Chi Kung session with me, take a look at Reiki in Leeds  and Classes with Barney for more details. Or drop me a line at barney.bardsley@icloud.com.

The pictures of the Slung Low Wild Conference were taken by Malcom Johnson. Take a look at his website here: https://www.malcijphotography.co.uk

 

 

Wild Wednesdays 4:Walking the Hill Road

IT IS a bright, sunny morning in early May, and I am walking the hill road, alone. The place is Knockroe West, on the wild Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Ireland. I am staying with two dear friends, who live in a converted farmhouse,perched high up on a slope, and surrounded by fields, overlooking an almighty blue ocean.It is about as different from my own home, in a suburb of Leeds, in the North of England, as you could get: although the surrounding countryside in Yorkshire – with its craggy, reckless coastline – bears more than a passing resemblance. Which might explain why I have lived in Leeds so long. Echoes, repeating echoes, in a constantly shifting inner landscape.

Neither friend is with me now. In fact, there is no one around at all. The air is still, as if the sky itself is holding its breath. The livestock in the nearby fields are quiet. I pass not a single soul – in car, or on foot – until I reach the main road into Allihies Village down below, forty minutes later.The only sound is that of a far-away bird, up overhead, and the steady, striking rhythm of my boots, on the grass-infested tarmac beneath. It is a solid and comforting thing – both the silence and the beat of those boots. Proof that I am back on my feet, after two years of problems with my health (where fatigue, for a long time, would have prohibited a walk like this.) And proof that I am back, too, in a terrain that has, through the years, been an inspiring, consoling, and essential component in my life.

The hill road curves, high and narrow, above the house where I am staying: rough hedgerows to either side marking edges and boundaries, filled with grasses, gorse and careless weeds. Here is no soft-centred beauty. This is a landscape carved, down the centuries, by wind and rain, and born of bare, simple necessity. Beara can be brutal, when the weather closes in: the people who work its waters and its land have a difficult time of it, with frequent sudden deaths on road and sea, and lives foreshortened by hard, hard graft.But the grandeur of it all: the heart-stopping magnificence of cliff edge and boulder-strewn waterline – the heights and vertiginous swoops of its topography – holds anyone who has ever been here in its permanent thrall. Like Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’: it is a place of pure,rough magic, to infect the soul.

As the road winds down towards Cahermore Strand, cars begin to hurtle past me on the main coast road, and the silence is broken. There is a cheerful mother, marching her two children towards the village, pressing them protectively against the hedges as the cars go past, backpacks firmly fastened in place. We are all smiles – at the unpredictable sunshine – and are making use of it now, since who knows when the curtain of mist will fall again, dropping the fields and mountains back into mystery? I cross the road and scramble over the grassy rubble, onto the little pebble beach itself, passing tufts of sea pinks coming into full bloom, and peering into rock pools; gazing at the slate-sharp masses that rise like black stone monsters from the ebbing tide. The suck of the waves sweetens my ears, enters my bloodstream, settles my brain. Beara is drawing me back once more.

There are some people who like to stay at home. Others crave adventure, pastures new: a place they have never been before. Others still – and I am one – are always looking to return. The places that resonate with me are few and precious in my life, so that – wherever I may be in reality – I am always looking for them in my mind. The Beara Peninsula is one such place. I first came upon it in my twenties: staggering off the back of a motorbike after an epic journey from Brixton, South London, to find a landscape unlike anything I had ever before encountered, in my town-and-city, urban-hectic, self-obsessive, books-and-writing, room-based life. Beara blew my head off. Left me speechless, shaken,at the majesty of it. It changed my life in an elemental way. On the day before we left, I walked to the edge of a cliff, and lay down on my belly in the moss, feeling the ground strong beneath my body – with my head left dangling over the edge, gazing at the waves, smashing against the rocks, far below. For years afterwards, back in the chaos of London life, whenever I felt lost and alone, I would summon that cliff in my mind’s eye. And it spurred me onwards. Gave me strength. In 2002, when my husband Tim was very ill with cancer, he wanted to take a road trip – somewhere that he had never been before.I took him to Beara. And he loved it, too. In 2004, after he died, my daughter and I scattered some of his ashes into the water, over a rock. Some places – even though you may leave and neglect them, they never leave you. The ghostly imprint always sticks.

Last week, I was walking through the centre of Leeds, back from my Irish journey – and hollow with fatigue, as I went from one appointment to the next, willing my legs to get me there on time,oppressed by the noise of the traffic and the press of people, hurrying along. Then I looked down at my boots, tuned into their rhythm, was slowed by their sound. And for a moment, I was walking the hill road again, in solitude and quiet, sustained by blue sky above, and solid ground beneath; held by a deep well of memory; nourished by experience – and strengthened by the knowledge of return. So, till the next time, lovely Beara, adieu…

*’A Handful of Earth’ by Barney Bardsley (John Murray), on the power of the land – and the making of a garden – is available here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Handful-Earth-Year-Healing-Growing/dp/0719596106

* Thankyou to Liz Mellon and Fiana Reid for being such magnificent hosts, as always….x

Walking Back Home 2

I love trains. In particular, steam trains. So atmospheric. So ponderous and noisy and smelly – so labour intensive and gloriously pointless – going nowhere, slowly. Full of days-gone-by. Of dreamy ‘what if’s’ and ‘maybes’. The ghost of “Brief Encounter”, wafting poignantly into the twenty first century. They remind me of my childhood – most of which, as the only girl to two older,  railway-obsessed brothers, I spent, cold and wet, waiting on some god forsaken station for a magical train (with a coveted number plate) to finally arrive, so we could all, mercifully, go back home again. Nostalgia makes me dewy eyed. What bored me rigid then, enchants me now.

So my latest walk, last weekend, was a particular treat. It was preceded by a ride – with my friend Geoff, who likes a dreamy little, going-nowhere adventure quite as much as I do – on a tiny heritage railway, from Bolton Abbey, in the Yorkshire Dales, to Embsay. The journey was all of four miles. Then, after a twenty minute wait on Embsay station, whilst the little engine chuntered back and forth, to the click click clicking of the points and the busy, coal-faced scurryings of the volunteer drivers and guards… we went all the way back again, through the bluebell and primrose banks, to where we began. Into the station cafe for a cup of tea and a cake. Then, finally, off for a walk down the lane and into the hedgerows towards Bolton Abbey itself, a 12th century ruin now developed into a vast and glorious estate.

Everywhere the birds were singing fit to bust. And the lambs were picture book plump and curious, coming up close to peer at us through the brambles, occasionally breaking into a little skip and jump, but mostly lolling about by their mums, or snoozing in the impossibly juicy, grassy – quintessentially English – heartbreakingly beautiful, countryside green.

The combination of a very slow train and a very quiet walk to follow, was both mesmerising and reviving, all at the same time. Reverie is an essential tool in anyone’s life, and particularly that of a writer. We do need to dream. To enter a protected space in our heads. To let some kind of alchemy take place. And nature always helps that happen. Miraculously. Without fail. If you want something to change, to transform – get outside, take a journey, and walk.

The memory of  trains has stayed with me since I’ve come back to my city house and daily routine. I remember iconic railway journeys I took long ago – like the train I rode from Budapest back through Europe on my honeymoon in 1996, seeing everything through a miasma of heat and happiness and a huge, pálinka induced hangover.

And before that, when I was a student of Russian, in 1976 – there I was, setting off, on a Soviet boat, with a huge hammer and sickle on the top, from Tilbury docks for Leningrad (now St Petersburg), navigating the choppy North Sea, via most of Scandinavia: only to find that the boat was overbooked, so a few of us were dumped in Finland, and had to go the rest of the way by train. I got the top bunk, with about three inches to spare between me and the ceiling. When we reached the border in the middle of the night, and a Soviet guard came bursting through the door demanding passports and visas and shouting “Stand Up!” like the rattle of a machine gun in full, merciless fire, I sat up so fast and banged my head so hard, I don’t think I’ve ever been in my right mind since. Which explains everything  really. But doesn’t make me love trains – whether big and foreign and slightly scary, or little and local and charming – any the less.