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Lifelong Learning

As a Home Educator I have many times been waxing lyrical (banging on about!) how learning is not confined to a classroom, a curriculum, a specific time or period of your life. In the last 3 years I have probably learned more than in the previous 23 years. Loads of it practical stuff – about our chosen life – rearing animals, growing food, alternative energy, island life… it’s been a very steep learning curve indeed.

I have also learnt a lot of new ideas though, new approaches to life, new ways to think about things, to frame stuff and methods in which to deal with challenges.

We had this dream of self sufficiency and about not doing tedious soul sucking jobs to earn money to pay for someone else to do the things which we could do ourselves and would probably rather be spending our time doing. It’s a sound philosophy and has served us well. Just yesterday Ady and I sat out, in a brief window between rain showers, and surveyed the croft laid out below us. Three years of our lives spread out infront of us like a picture book. A victory here, a mistake there, a failed experiment over to the left, a crazy idea which panned out just fine on the right, behind us the caravan – a symbol of the triumph of naivety over common sense, of community, reliance on others and teamwork over independence. We concluded that despite disappointments, challenges and tricky bits our current life here on Rum offers about 80% of everything we could ever want or wish for. That’s pretty good I reckon.

Somewhere in the last three years though we have managed to get a little bit too single minded and fierce in our quest for self sufficiency and this week we realised that it’s fine to not want to do every single thing ourselves. It’s fine to delegate some stuff, either to volunteers or even paying someone else to do it and earning the money to pay them to do the stuff we don’t enjoy and want to do but finding something we do love doing. I can’t believe I have not listened to the same career advice I happily dish out to others including my own children.

Do what you love, love what you do. If you don’t enjoy it don’t do it and either accept it won’t happen at all or find another way of making it happen other than doing it yourself. So simple, yet so easy to lose sight of.

Having volunteers work on the digging out of the cob project has been fantastic. A task which loomed over Ady and I during the winter, one which we struggled to do a few hours of most days but felt bleak, dismal and endless. Suddenly it is nearly done. The next phase in the project is equally gutty and physical – neither of us are desperate to do it ourselves, looking yearningly towards animal related stuff elsewhere on the croft, wanting to spend time with Davies and Scarlett, to plant seeds or weed the raised beds, to get stuck into a different task. We’ve been berating ourselves for that, feeling guilty, having that Sunday night home work not done back to school type feeling. Then being resentful that we have to do something we don’t really want to do and it’s not fair because we live in a caravan and it’s all too hard.

So back to the mantra, do what you love, love what you do. Accept it won’t happen at all or find another way, use your skills to their best application. A plan is forming…

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Come what May

We’re still waiting for spring here on Rum. We had the odd day of sunshine but we are less than a week away from June and still to see midges. This is our fourth May here and frankly had it been our first we’d have probably already headed off on the ferry back to the mainland, assuming it was running at all! We are still wearing coats, lighting the fire of a morning and fretting about the various hatchlings struggling with the cold.

The lack of polytunnel has obviously hampered us hugely crops-wise although Ady has constructed the frame of a mini polytunnel for us to start seedlings off in it has not been still or warm enough to stretch the plastic over it yet. We have a few things in under plastic sheets but it’s a very slow start indeed to the year.

We are still muddling through with hatchlings – the duck still has three ducklings outside with her, growing well. We have two indoors with us who after an initial blip of not doing well due to the wrong diet have perked up and are doing ok, utterly imprinted on Scarlett but that’s fine – she will after all always be around to ‘mother’ them. The goose still has four of her five goslings and is doing ok with them too.

We had friends visit which was lovely and our volunteer has been making great progress with the cob project while we get on with other things around the croft.

It would be nice to take my coat off though!

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On mediocrity

One of the toughest areas of adjustment for me in our new life here has been accepting ‘good enough’. It doesn’t come naturally. I have always been an all or nothing sort of woman, do it and do it to your utmost, get it spot on. I’ve also always moved on pretty quick. In my pre kids career I was a serial job hopped with a CV spanning several pages. I thrived on conquering a job, putting things right, setting up systems, assembling a team and then moving on. I never really stuck with anything.

I’m pretty loyal and the relationships which matter to me are incredibly important and I have always given them my everything – hence close friends of many years, huge family ties, a rock solid marriage and an excellent relationship with Davies and Scarlett – if something is worth doing then I want to do it right. 100%. I really struggle with not being a reliable dependable sister, aunt, sister in law, friend, daughter these days. I am not there, not physically there and often by virtue of poor communication or a focus elsewhere I am not even very good at being at the other end of a phone or email. I find that hard. I would never have anticipated not being around to celebrate birthdays, share tough times, offer a celebratory kiss or comforting hug. The distance of 600 miles from my family is magnified by the distance between the life I live now and the lives they remain in.

Yet here on Rum mediocrity is often the name of the game. ‘Good enough’, ‘best we can do’, ‘all we can manage’ ‘that’ll do’. It’s an easy bubble to get sucked in to, a mantra that can quickly become your own unless you resist. There are always excuses, justifications, reasons, explanations for why Rum is not the very best possible version of itself it could be. Just now I am looking at the areas in which I have accepted mediocrity in my efforts knowing full well that I could do better, or if I couldn’t then I owe it to myself and to others to step away and do nothing rather than not doing it to my very best. Tough choices, hard lines, the right decision for me anyway.

I’m choosing the really important things this week and committing only to doing them and doing them properly, to the best of my ability, making myself proud. That is better than covering all bases with a skimmed layer of little substance. It means accepting some things won’t happen at all but that is fine.

Mediocrity. Not for me, thank you.

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Distractions

A slow week on the cob project due to 101 other things happening around the croft and here on Rum. Meetings, work, newsletters, emails, off-croft responsibilities. Our flushing compost loo is still proving tricky and requiring rather a lot more maintenance than we’d first hoped. We have been drawing up plans of Base Camp for volunteers which is now on this years to-do list. Our current volunteer managed to have an accident while off walking in the hills last weekend and his injuries, while not serious have prevented him from working for us too. Set backs, always set backs.

When we moved here we decided that we would only accept the compromises and challenges that our life sometimes requires of us if we could offset them against freedom to relax, enjoy life here and make the most of Rum. One of the ways we ensure we do that during the summer months is the weekly Sheerwater boat trip every Thursday. It often means the whole of Thursday gets utterly disrupted as it is four hours away from the croft right in the middle of the day but it is the sort of trip we used to travel miles and miles and spend a fortune to do in our old lives and here it is right on our doorstep. The wildlife encounters we have had on those weekly trips have been highlights of our time here on Rum and our lives generally and now into our fourth year of heading out to the Isle of Soay this year is already proving no exception. This week we saw dolphins, porpoise, a minke whale and loads of sea birds. It is very therapeutic to be out on the ocean, leaving Rum to get the perspective of our island, looming and large as it is against the other Small Isles but still just an island, in the middle of an ocean. All of the joy of time off Rum without any of the stress of needing to arrive anywhere else other than back on Rum again two hours later! The visibility yesterday was stunning, the sea was like a mirror, we could see the outer Hebrides with South Uist to the west and the snow capped tip of Ben Nevis to the east, many miles away from each other.

On Wednesday it was Ady’s birthday – his fourth here on Rum. We drove across to Harris and had a barbecue on the beach, gathering driftwood to make a fire, cooking sausages and onions, having a beer in the sunshine. Last year we went and forgot to take the sausages – this year we remembered them but I forgot to pack the bag of marshmallows I had earmarked to toast over the fire. Ah well. The waves were crashing on the rocks and Davies and Scarlett enjoyed playing chicken with them, getting utterly drenched in the process. No one ever wins against the sea! We did some beachcombing and returned as we always do from Harris with a car full of washed up ‘treasure’. This time it was some black pipe which we plan to construct a mini polytunnel with, some fish boxes to grow seeds in, some buoys, some rope. The beach gets a little bit less litter and we get some useful bits and pieces for the croft.
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Later we took a huge chocolate cake down to the shop to share – pretty much all of Rum came out for a beer or two, some cake and singing. It was a lovely evening.
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Progress so far….

Back in 2010 we wrote an Ultimate Goal statement as a family:

To live a more sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle. To have all four of us working together towards providing for ourselves whilst having as many elements of our shared, and indivdual ambitions met. To be living our passions full time rather than indulging them in small ways around the rest of life. To be doing things for ourselves wherever possible and putting our own food on the table (bloody tables!) rather than going out to work to earn money to pay for food (or tables). To have our life be our work, our work be our life and everything rolled in together in providing for ourselves, realising our dreams and spending our days in tasks taking us towards where we want to be. No pointlessness.

Do you know, I rather think we are doing that. At the time it seemed pie in the sky, out there and crazy. There is every chance that the reality we live in to make it so is all of those things but I am mightily proud that we set out to achieve something and have done so.

We also had an individual wish list each, I’ve bolded each of the things on our lists which I consider we are ticking off.

Ady’s list:
learn more about butchering, possibly slaughtering.
Growing fruit & veg
Spending more time with N & children
Fishing
Cooking
Practical skills

Davies’s list:
Bushcraft / survival skills
Working with wood
Driving tractors and understanding how they work
lifestock – particularly sheep and chickens
fishing

a lake with a row boat
a treehouse

Scarlett’s list:
wants dogs and cats!
animal breeding – ducks, chickens, maybe small animals
keeping pigs
and sheep

My list (note it does seem rather longer!):
Keeping livestock – pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, bees (for meat, eggs, honey)
Having a cow for milk & making other dairy – butter, cheese, yoghurt
Growing food for us and livestock
Bartering / skill exchange / education
cooking / baking / preserving / brewing
crafts – sewing, knitting,
basket weaving, woodcraft – making clothes, tools, household objects.
composting
renewable and sustainable energy – a green way of life -= solar, wind, water power, biomass fuels, woodburning
building from sustainable sources – strawbale builds, compost loos, solar showers, rainwater harvesting

Back when we wrote that list almost all of it was utterly out of our reach. We didn’t have the necessary skills, knowledge, resources or abilities to even think about ticking them off. We were a couple of nearly 40 and nearly 50, used to working in clean, indoors environments, overweight, unfit and used to our home comforts along with two children aged under 10. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to write off our dreams, take solace in spending money on something meaningless, comfort ourselves with some crap TV watched from our cosy sofa, bury those dreams and carry on with life as we knew it.

Five years is a really long time and we have come a really long way. I’m looking forward to looking back in five years time and seeing just what happened next.

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Realists and Dreamers

“There are dreamers and there are realists in this world. You would think the dreamers would find the dreamers and the realists would find the realists but… more often than not, the opposite is true. You see the dreamers need the realists to keep them from soaring too close to the sun. And the realists… well, without the dreamers, they might not ever get off the ground.” — Modern Family

Yep, it is a quote from a US TV sitcom. But it’s one of the funniest I’ve seen and quite aside from being devoured by all four of us when the next disc arrives from LoveFilm and having us all laugh out loud several times each episode it has also had me welling up more than once as something very profound is said by one of the glossy gorgeous characters. The above had me asking Ady ‘what are you then?’ and him replying ‘realist, obviously’ before saying ‘and before you ask what you are…. just look out of the window!’

I used to consider myself a realist. Definitely optimistic and utterly glass brimming over rather than even half full (air counts right?! Even an empty glass is filled with possibility). In recent years as my ideas have gotten crazier even I have had to accede to dreamer rather than realist. The trouble is that without ridiculously high levels of ‘it’ll be fine’ and blind optimism so many of the most amazing adventures we have had would have folded at planning stages and never made it to reality. So I’m going to continue with my dreaming and trying to sell my dreams to my co-adventurers. With the disclaimer in the small print that sometimes things might not work out quite how I planned them but we’ll have a lot of fun along the way. And we can adjust and take a different route if one crops up and that might mean an even better journey than the one we started out on.

Last weekend I had one of those moments of crashing realisation that something was not going to work. Something I had planned and sold to people and stated with certainty and confidence would be the case was actually not going to happen. Ady actually watched the penny drop as I stood, spade in hand in the middle of a really big hole while people dug around me and I did some mental calculations, realised how much work was still ahead, what the date was and what the true limitations of the project are.

Our project timeline was always ambitious and we knew that we had to account for the Rum Factor – midges, weather, logistics of living on a remote island. We still vastly overestimated the amount of headway that Ady and I would make during the winter on the project. The weather was dreadful, there are only six hours of daylight each day, we were spending time surviving and gathering firewood, dealing with leaks in the caravan, coping with the challenges that life here chucks at you every single day. Despite all of that it was our best winter yet in terms of how well we coped with things but the area that was compromised was working on the cob project. I hoped that once we hit the spring we would catch up, volunteers would arrive and things would move forward. Cue spring really not arriving! March was still positively wintery, April still brought frost and snow, we’re into double figures of May and ferries are still being cancelled due to high winds. The midges will be here any day and we have not stopped wearing coats yet!

There is no point in bemoaning what we have not done but there is massive mileage in learning from it, planning better and investing time in doing things properly taking into account the challenges that have shown themselves. So we have readjusted our expectations and ambitions for this year, still optimistic and not without challenges, still requiring plenty of help and a hefty dose of luck. Our first three volunteers this year have shown us that we can make massive leaps forward in small amounts of time with many hands. They have also demonstrated to us that we need to be better organised and set up for hosting volunteers on a larger scale. The caravan hosted a team of 10 plus people coming in for tea, coffee, bringing wet coats and muddy boots and decimating the cookie supplies a couple of weeks ago. It was great fun, we loved the company, the banter and having people here. It also made us realise that the caravan is not set up for such hospitality and we need to establish a volunteer Base Camp. An investment of time and a bit of cash which takes us away from the cob project but will pay long term dividends in happier, better looked after volunteers, less impact on our home. So plans are afoot to make that happen this year.

Cob cannot happen while it is wet, windy or cold so even if we had been on schedule we would be unable to be actually cobbing just now, the weather would prevent it. So we’ll make full use of the less weather dependant aspects of the project and hope to have the groundworks all done this year with the low wall built, the landscaping and site prep all completed, maybe even the materials gathered to get started with by the time the weather is warm enough next year. With nearly a whole year, plenty of willing volunteers and lots of support that is definitely achievable.

There you go, me getting back to my realist roots. Let’s skim over the fact that my dreamer side is still here planning to build a mud house on an off grid croft on a remote island and let me keep that realist label just for tonight…

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Sunshine

Some pictures to go with the words of the past week or so.

Our fabulous volunteers who have really helped us move the cob project on in the last couple of weeks. We are close to completing the digging. That is just step one of a project with many steps but it feels good to have such a visual example of the whole thing. I have been working on gathering the excavated stones into one area and spreading out the top soil that has been dug out. The footprint is almost all down to subsoil level now and is draining well and fairly firm to walk on.

stones

cob

jen volunteer

bonnie stone

digging

We have our first seeds planted too – no idea whether they will do ok or not but they are in, some direct into raised beds, some in seed trays, all still covered with plastic. An eclectic mix of the packets which got wet which included peas, carrots, parsnips, leeks, cabbages, chard, a variety of salad leaves, radishes, cucumbers….

crops

I planted a couple of fruit trees (cherry and pear) which we had been bought as a gift and was very chuffed to see signs of life, buds and blossom on every single fruit tree in the fruit cage – that’s 4 cherry, 3 pear, 2 plum, 8 apples – an orchard in the making!

leaves

blossom

Ady trimmed the grass in the fruit cage to ensure the soft fruit bushes are not fighting for light, space or water with the grass. All of the bushes in there are also doing well, particularly the currants – we have red, white and blackcurrants, gooseberries, honeyberry, loganberry, tayberry, loads of raspberries, cranberry and blueberry. All looking good and healthy.

fruit bush

We’re not doing as much growing this year as I’d usually attempt, partially due to the loss of the polytunnel and partially due to focussing our time as much as possible on the cob build. But 3 years in it does make me really proud to look at the walled garden of raised beds, the fruit cage and the herb spiral all thriving and standing where there used to be a bare, overgrown field.

What we do seem to be getting better at each year is helping our animals to breed and keep their young safe. We have pens around a broody duck and her five ducklings and another around a goose and her five goslings. We have two more broody geese who we expect to start hatching their clutch of eggs sometime in the next 2 weeks so will construct a pen around them too.

goosehouse

goose
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We have two ducklings in the house too – Lily and Gunther. They have imprinted most on Scarlett and are very cute and funny to watch as they join in with her life. Here they are playing lego!

lily

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They were sitting on her lap this evening while she was playing a game on her tablet pecking at the touchscreen with their beaks because like all good ducklings they want to be just like their mama! 🙂

She has been teaching them to swim
first swim

Finally the weather has perked up – just in time for Ady’s birthday, house guests and the likely return of the midges, all coming up in the week ahead.

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Together

The craziness of the weather has given us a fair few false starts to progress this year on Croft 3 but thanks to some incredibly hardy volunteers we are now making good inroads into things.

We had two volunteers here with us for the last week of April and one has stayed on to be joined by another. I had forgotten how volunteers change the dynamic here and mean that Ady and I are so much more productive too. It’s great to share stories, tell people about our journey and adventure, our plans and hopes for the croft, see our lives through the eyes of others. It’s also fabulous to meet new people, learn about them and from them. Our first volunteer of the year was a regular blog reader rather than a WWOOFer and having spent a week in her company is now a real life friend too. We’re looking forward to her coming back again soon and having less distractions during her next visit to enable us to spend more time and get to know each other better.

Our current two volunteers are both WWOOFers, an organisation so close to our hearts having been the catalyst for our current life path. One is French, a young man travelling the UK improving his English, learning new life skills and having a fantastic adventure – the like of which I hope both Davies and Scarlett experience once they are ready to spread their wings. The second is a Brit, from our own original neck of the woods, with relevant building skills and a desire to learn more about our sort of lifestyle. With each volunteer and visitor who comes a form new relationships, realise the massive value in this way of sharing labour, skills, ideas, stories, space and food.

We participated in a workshop this weekend from a visiting artist. It was interesting but the shared collaboration element to the project felt false, contrived, unnatural. Such a direct contrast to the sharing that is happening here on the croft where we have opened our homes, our family time and space, our precious food resources and some of the control of the various projects here on the croft. The difference is this feels natural, easy, liberating and not something we want to resist. An interesting comparison.

I managed to leave my box of seeds outside last week and the box proved not waterproof in heavy rain 0 my entire stash of seeds, sodden. Some are in waterproof packs, some have foil packets within so I spent time this morning sorting them out and drying out the packaging. Some were past saving though so I have now planted up four of the raised beds with carrots, parsnips, leeks and salad, along with several seed trays of radishes, celeriac, cabbages and broccoli. To protect from weather and chickens I have covered the beds with some of the rescued plastic from the polytunnel. Not how I planned to sow but better than letting the seeds go to waste. I have some peas and various other things to do the same with tomorrow.

Meanwhile the cob project digging continues apace with so much volunteer assistance. With some of the donations we have invested in more tools which should arrive soon, so rest assured if you have helped out with a paypal contribution your touch is just as felt as those who are here in person – thankyou!

The piglets are growing steadily and remain at 6 – they are now all running about, experimenting with solid food and full of mischief. Our previous failsafe method of sexing them proved wrong this time so some hasty renaming has been in order! It turns out we have two boys and four girls. We will be keeping one of the little girls if we can get her to a good weight to take through the first winter and she settles in well with Tom and Barbara once she is fully grown but that will be a consideration to ponder on later in the year.

The hatching has finally started for this season. The broody duck who was sitting on a huge clutch of eggs started hatching them bang on time yesterday morning. We had built a pen around her so she is safe and secure from hoodies and ravens. She has so far hatched 10 eggs – two were dead, not hatched fully or deformed, one sadly drowned. Two of them were looking as though they may struggle so we have brought them into the caravan and Davies and Scarlett are doing a fine job of surrogate parenting them, to be honest Scarlett has been desperate to do just that since we moved here so fingers crossed they cope without a brooder lamp or warm mother duck. The first goose to go broody has at least three hatched goslings under her, she is too feisty to get closer to check for more. We will construct a pen around her too now she has hatched them. There are two more broody geese who are a bit behind her so hopefully more to come in the next few weeks. We are definitely missing a few of the chickens too so are fully expecting them to reappear with a row of chicks following them. When they free range as our birds do you are always lucky to work out just where they are nesting.