On gratitude & impermanence

It’s the season of Thanksgiving in North America – with Canadians celebrating last month, and the US folks just mere days away. My thoughts have been dominated by the idea of gratitude lately. It all came to a head a couple of days ago, triggered by a conversation in a dimly-lit pub, with an intriguing lady – about the fleeting nature of people, places, and times in your life.

 

I am the type of person who easily falls in love with communities, places, specific times in my life. I have sometimes viewed this strong attachment as a negative thing, as I always feel terribly sad when it changes – whether that’s me leaving, or growing into a different person, or when others leave. For example, I move around a lot. First in Canada, from Ontario to British Columbia – then all over British Columbia – then to various places within England – now up to Scotland. This means that I have relationships all over the world with such wonderful people, that I am in love with so many landscapes and places, and that I have had the privilege to get to know a good few communities. This also means I have said many tear-filled goodbyes, and had many nights reflecting in sadness of all of the people, places, and communities that I dearly miss.

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There are times when I have been less than enthusiastic about this nomadic lifestyle – where the sadness of missing certain people, places, or times in my life has far outweighed the gains of being out of your comfort zone, experiencing new places. There were times where all I wanted was to be back in a certain community, or a particular place – yearning for familiarity. This is an understandable, but ultimately foolish way of thinking, as it ignores a truth in life that I am slowly coming to grips with – impermanence.

I still struggle with accepting impermanence – that things will change, whether you want them to or not. Slightly grim, but it’s the bitter-sweet reality of life – that everything moves on – that a community, a place, a time in your life cannot stay static forever, nor would you want it to. This is why gratitude is so important – realising that there are endless opportunities to appreciate what you have right now, what is happening this instant, before it morphs and changes into something different.

Recently I have moved to Scotland, upending my familiar life in Cumbria, where I lived with my partner, amongst little mountains and a community of lovely people for the last three years. From this move, I have gained a truly special job working on an innovative and ambitious project in line with my values and goals in life. I also am connecting with a dynamic and interesting community – people who I have learned a great deal from already, who view the world in the same way I do. This gain, of meaningful employment in a engaged community, has come at the cost of leaving the familiarity and comfort of my Cumbrian life.

I think that accepting the idea of impermanence, and embracing gratitude for what you have, has helped me through another nomadic change of moving up to Scotland and living away from my partner.

I do get sad that I don’t live in Cumbria now – I miss the rural landscapes, the access to little mountains, the laid-back recreation-focused life that me and Jack build together there. But I am so thankful that I got to experience Cumbria – all of the interests and passions that I gained from being there, the experiences and memories, the truly wonderful people I met that I really do love. I also miss my partner, Jack, every day – I miss waking up next to him every morning, I miss being able to touch him and see him, I miss having a life that was very  intertwined with one another. At the same time though, I am so grateful that I have found a person who I love so dearly, who shares my perspective on life, my values and interests, and who loves me completely for who I am.

It’s difficult, especially in relation to Jack, to not to get hung up on the negatives of missing what you did have, where you have been, and what you were doing. I’m not saying that I’m perfect at this process, of accepting change and being grateful, but I do recognise it’s importance. And as cliché as it is, the old saying of “it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all”, is very applicable. Although the sadness of missing certain people, places, communities, can be overwhelming at times, I would rather be in the fortunate position of missing loved places and people rather than never having found those places and people I connect with. I am very lucky to have so many loved people and places around the world.

 

Ride no. 66 – Bruised & beaten, welcome to a Shepherdess life

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Yes, it’s that time of year again, time to clip! The Chaplin-Brice clan, of Low Bridge End farm, welcomed this small Canadian lass to be nosy and inquisitive once more, with the ever patient sheep-farmer William showing me the ropes. I’m far too excited to be giving clipping another go this year and learn more about the entire process. I did try a bit of sheep shearing two years ago, but it was just a little try on a quite a beginner-friendly sheep! As you can maybe see from the photos below, my last attempt at clipping was made easier because the sheep in question was a) quite small and b) had very little wool to begin with (most had fallen off already)!

 

We began by ‘catching’ (rounding up) all the Hebrideans. They are a lovely rare breed sheep – quite a primitive breed originally from the islands off north west Scotland. Catching requires use of the resident sheep dog, Nell. I love this little dog and miss her a lot when I’m not on the farm – she is quite clever with a lot of personality. Maybe not the very best at sheep dog work, but she gets the job done! hehe.

After catching the sheep they were all in a wee fenced off area. From there you need to choose your sheep, and try to wrangle ’em out of the pen and over to the bench/area where you are clipping. There is a bit of an art to catching them, hoisting them onto their backside,  and then getting them and yourself onto the little clipping bench. I had a hard time with this part, so Will kindly did a lot of it for me (damn it though, I wanna be an independent woman!!).

I started off well enough – the actual clipping felt a lot easier and more natural than the last time I had a go at it all. But then came trouble – all the Hebrideans I tried to clip really just wanted to kick, and thrash, and kick some more. One of the more memorably trashing experiences ended with me getting kicked in the jaw with an errant, flailing sheepy hoof. Perhaps I don’t exude the necessary levels of calmness and confidence that other proper sheep farmers do when clipping, but for whatever reason all the sheep wanted to do was thrash about! 😦

After the hoof-meets-face incident, I was far more nervous and a bit disheartened at my abilities, so William had to help me to keep the unruly sheep legs in check for the rest of our time clipping. I left the farm feeling beat up (literally) and slightly downtrodden about my abilities as a future shepherdess. So many bruises all over my legs and arms form the horns and hooves, eep. I came away from the experience with several things in mind though…

1)  I need to be stronger! My goodness my arm strength is not up to handling 55kg worth of sheep! And these are small breeds, I have no idea how a relatively petite shepherdess can handle a monster breed like Texels or Lincon Long-wools (ewes can be over 250lbs, apparently!!). If/when I do have sheep, they will be of a size I can handle by myself!

2) I want to try again. I don’t want to be intimidated, I want to be confident – and this will just take time and practice. I know that this is a learning process and things that might come naturally to some (eg folks who grew up handling livestock), and it will take me some time to pick up.

3) There is an art-form and a technique to everything. Yes, even handling and clipping sheep! The particular art form of hand clipping (as opposed to clipping with electric shears) is a bit a of a dying skill, which is sad – I love the idea of more traditional practices.

So that was my day clipping sheep! I hopefully will have another try at it before heading back up to Scotland, but for now I am slightly worse for wear but have learned lots :). Oh, and if you’re wondering why there are no photos of yours truly clipping – by the time I was going to get the camera out and start snapping, I had gotten ‘hoofed’. After that I decided that it was better to receive help in keeping the sheep from thrashing me instead of taking photos! Maybe next time though :).

 

Off for a sheep + cycling holiday (and Wool Fest)!

I’ve travelled back down to Cumbria for two weeks for a little sheep-and-bike filled holiday, yippie! The plan: to spend some time in Cumbria with friends, doing lots of sheep/wool related things – then spend some time in Yorkshire, cycle-touring and watching the Tour de France.

To start my holidays, I made the mad dash after work to the train to Cumbria, arriving just in time for knit night at the farm. I’ve spoken fondly about our knit nights before (here … and also here!) but essentially it is when an eccentric collection of characters regularly meet to eat and knit. They are really lovely, eclectic people and I was really happy to be able to make it. I was shown round the farm at all the new arrivals – ducklings and wee baby chicks, and a brand new nanny (lady) goat named Ruby!  She is wonderful – goats are really curious and friendly creatures.

The next day I was off to Wool Fest, one of the biggest celebrations of sheep and wool and crafty things in the UK. Had some friends there as well, so good to catch up and have a chat. Main reason for going though was the rare breed sheep – they have a demonstration/talk about all the various breeds and their particular background.

They also had a hand shearing demonstration with the native breed to Cumbria – the Herdwick sheep – and that was really good! They make it look so easy. Some more snaps of Woolfest + the rare-breed sheep show that accompanied it….

Tomorrow will bring some sheep shearing of my own hopefully, or at least learning about it in an up-close-and-personal kind of way! I will report back a.s.a.p! Till then, night night!

 

Out-sheeping the sheep farmer (aka the Royal Highland Show)

p1140506  Just a little note to explain  my excitement at going to the Royal Highland Show this past weekend!  It was in Edinburgh and was an absolutely massive show.  My curious sheepy obsession was in full force today, as there were mountains of every kind of sheep there. I went with my sheep-farming friend, William.  Having never been to many agricultural shows myself, Will was good company for the day as he frequents these types of events much more often then I. He put up with hours (yes, hours) of incessant questions from myself – the ever curious Ashley.

p1140508Walked around almost all of the show -from cattle to the farriers (dudes who shoe horses) to ridiculously large tractors (and their implements!) to various big supermarkets vying for farmer loyalty. I find this slightly insular world of all things farmer related to be equal parts intriguing, fascinating, and worrying. The worrying part stems from my history, really. Being from an environmentalist background (not to label myself or anything … ), a lot of conventional farming practices (and their implements!) are actively encouraged and normalised in these environments. As, I suppose, they should be – it is a conventional agricultural show, after all.

And yet, although I know that conventional agricultural practices as we know them today (especially those modelled after North American practices) have to drastically change, I’m still in love with so much of the farming world. This is where the intrigue and the fascination comes in – I love the animals, the landscapes, the customs, the community. Even if it is a million miles away from contributing to the solutions of many of the ideas that keep me up at night (increasing resilience, climate change, sustainable food consumption) … I still am so very drawn to it all.

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My hope is to marry the best bits of this current farming community with the innovation of sustainable, regenerative agricultural practices. This way, we can practically grow and produce healthy, nourishing food that also supports thriving ecological and social systems. I’m learning so much these days, and there are so many people around the world who are great examples of how this can be done. That’s really another entire post, but one person who inspired me lately is a lady called Brittany Cole Bush, who has taken a sheep-obsession and turned it into conservation stewardship.

It’s a novel, innovative idea really – she takes her pack of sheep and goats to landscapes that would environmentally benefit from a nibble from some ruminants.  Located in California, the controlled grazing program could be for the purpose of reducing wildfire hazard, keeping down noxious weeds, or improving vegetation and wildlife habitat. Have a little gander at her website, and especially her video. It’s grand!

Anyways, I digress. The Show. Being at these shows always makes me want to be a farmer. Then I’m smacked in the face with reality of land ownership and government subsidy structures and all the other harsh truths of barriers to new entrant farmers. Especially those of which who are women. And who want to live in one of the most touristy and expensive areas of England… hrm. Either way, in some capacity I will have some sheep and I will find a way to do it sustainably, regeneratively. I don’t think this sheep obsession will subside until I do!

Oh, and regarding the title of this post. I think I out-sheeped my farmer friend today, too. I was going through each and every row of each and every type of sheep, while methinks poor Will was glazing over a bit, looking forward to the rest of the show. I could have happily gone through all the sheep, taking photos and internalising the differences between breeds, etc. Therefore I out-sheeped even the sheep farmer, hurrah!

 

Ride no. 65 – Oh, right, I’m a cycle-commuter now …

Well it’s been about a week in Stirling for myself!

I’ve secured a place to live and mostly sorted out all the bits and bobs of ‘real life’ stuff. I now have a few miles to cycle to work, thankfully along a cycle path instead of trying to compete for space with cars on the road. It presents me with a bit of a conundrum about whether to ‘count’ these commutes as rides … I have always ‘counted’ my ride to Low Bridge End farm in Cumbria as a ‘ride’ and it is a similar distance to my commute. Hrm. So in the spirit of fairness (ie I don’t think I should count every commute, but I don’t want to completely disregard them) I will count a week of commutes (there and back) as one ‘ride’ for my 100-rides project!

So, this Ride was a week of cycle-commutes. It’s been a good week too – getting settled in at work with the project. Also spending lots of time outside in our community garden, which is (amazingly) part of my job. Yippie! Took a few photos in the garden, dressed up in cliche-farmer clothes, for ‘promo’ material. I love it, couldn’t look more like a farmer, wouldn’t you say? Now all I need are some sheep to complete the look :).

 

Ride no. 64 – Negotiating Stirling city centre (and outlying villages)…

Wow, it’s been AGES since I’ve written in this wee blog. I’ve been very busy with my new job, new city (well, new country), and going on holidays (yay!!).

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Welcome to my second day of work at my new job, in a new city… well, in a new country technically. This ‘ride’ was a bit of a commute to work and around the surrounding area and back – nothing too exciting but a ride nonetheless!

A bit about my job and my ‘new life’ as it were. It’s working for the university of Stirling Students’ Union, as an Environmental Projects Assistant. Myself and another assistant are coordinating the FEAST project, which is an acronym for Food Education At STirling university. Three elements dominate the project – food education (teaching school kids, uni students, and the wider community about sustainable food, including environmental  theory as well as practical skills of cooking), a food co-operative (making sustainable food convenient, accessible and affordable as it will be bought in bulk and sold on campus), and the community garden (a place to showcase sustainable food growing methods while giving people a place to get hands-on experience with gardening).

It’s a bit of a mouthful to explain, so I usually just stick to ‘sustainable food education’ as a tagline of what I now do. It’s absolutely brilliant though, and to work within a setting that is very similar to my university experience (at University of Victoria, the Garden of Eden of Canada!) is amazing.  As I said in my last post, the physical location is also a bit of a bonus – Stirling is in between the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland and I really hope I will explore Scotland more now that I am up here.  I don’t think I would move out of Cumbria for many places, really – a big city would intimidate me (unless it’s Bristol, that’s a rad city), a really rural location might feel too isolated (unless there were sheep involved to keep me company/occupied), and somewhere really flat would just drive me bonkers. I need hills/mountains/fells in my life – I just feel more at ease knowing they are there to walk or bike up, or just to observe as the seasons pass.

Speaking of hills! My ride today also consisted of looking at a house in a village outside Stirling that is at the foot of the Ochil hills outside Stirling. Beautiful little ride too – on a cycle path that runs alongside the road, past sheep and cattle fields. No stone walls, but hey, this isn’t England :P. The Ochils are a really beautiful little set of hills though, with the grand Dumyat hill looming over the villages of the foothills.

But! That’s enough for now, have work in the morning and need to be getting off to sleep. Nighty night!

Ride no. 63 – the last Latrigg loop (for a while)

Ride no. 63 of the year consisted of a very bitter-sweet ride on my very well-worn local loop, Latrigg. It will be the last time I will ride this loop for a little while, as I am moving out of the Lake District very soon!

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Moi & Latrigg woodlands 🙂

It’s a shock to myself as much as those around me really, I didn’t really think I would leave the Lake District this soon. I have been here now three years – and (other than my formative childhood/teenage years), it’s the longest I’ve ever lived in continuous succession somewhere. I have moved all over British Columbia in Canada – from the middle of the province in Prince George, to the East in Invermere and Fernie, to the Island in Victoria, and to the West, in my beloved Whistler. But it’s always been a hopping tour really, moving a lot. Cumbria is the first time in a long time I feel like I’ve put down roots.

And I have put down more roots than even I realised – I was taken aback at the level of emotion I feel towards this county, when faced with the idea of leaving it. A little bit of background though… I applied for what I consider my dream job at this stage in my life, and much to my delight, I got an interview! I travelled north to Scotland, and in particular to Stirling.

The job is a year-long contract, helping to co-ordinate an amazing sustainable food growing and education project for the University of Stirling Student’s Union. It is exactly what I want to be doing: building a community surrounding sustainable food – which includes growing it (a garden!), sourcing it (a food co-operative!), and teaching people about it (food education!). It’s in a progressive, democratically & student-led environment of a student’s union at a university…. AND in a stunning location (between the Scottish highlands and lowlands) in a country I’ve always wanted to live in. So, when I got word that I was successful in my job application and interview, I was really thrilled and felt incredibly grateful to be given this amazing opportunity.

After the rush of excitement and flurry of activity though, I felt an immense sadness when faced with the prospect of leaving Cumbria. For a wee Canadian lass who has struggled to fully embrace this rainy isle, the weight of emotion really surprised me – have I really become that attached to this soggy corner of England?

The answer is a definite yes – yes, I have. I’m not entirely sure why at the point in time – there is no singular reason, but many reasons all together. The Cumbrian love, as it were, will be explored in depth – but not just here, right now. Right now I have lots of planning and arranging and moving and visiting to do – so please excuse the lack of 100-rides cycling news for the time being! I will be back though, and maybe next time the ride will be in bonny Scotland :).