West Cork winter: inhabiting the seasons

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I gradually emerge from midwinter’s emotional shroud and begin to enjoy getting out there a little.

Having fled down here in a state, with no heart and no plan, for a few months I’ve been feeling very lost and stuck. So then when I actually get the van stuck in the mud and have to wait twelve hours (at a very awkward angle) for a tractor, the stuckness slaps me in the face and prompts a meltdown.

I change locations and the change of scene helps. Although I’m feeling uncomfortable about being on others’ land no matter how kind they are, I enjoy the company of a different lively family and new lanes to walk. A thespian tells me about a singaround in a pub on the south coast and it is nice to be recognised by the host as I walk in, and waltzed by her at the end when an accordion plays a dance tune.

I meet a French WOOFA randomly in a pub – both of us females alone – and we are surprised to find that we both have family connections in the same remote part of Brittany. We go out together a couple of times.

After a while I go back to the family farm I initially fled to and am, again, warmly welcomed ‘home’.  There is a new lovely WOOFA, American, and we have great debates walking the lanes and going out to pubs.

The sow farrows a huge litter of piglets while I’m there. She is an enterprise that the youngest son, now a full time farmer, took on in his early teens, and the family’s source of pork.

(I never understood why the world goes crazy for pigs – I’ve never seen Babe – until one sunny autumnal day a few years ago when eight huge grown piglets joined me lying down in their field: they literally stretched their bodies along the length of mine to share warmth, and I laid my head on another. That was the first time we’d met. Amazing creatures.)

In a wholefood shop in town I natter with a self-taught perfumer from Carlow, Jo Browne, whose kitchen-table business has taken off like wildfire, here and abroad. I put my foot in it but she is tactful, forgiving, warm and inspiring and I am glad to have met her.

There’s a flurry of activity on the These Isles publicity front: first I’m invited to contribute some words to an article on tiny house living (‘Small Wonders’, by Carol Anne Strange, in the fifth issue of Breathe, a magazine by the Guild of Master Craftsmen). Then I’m asked out of the blue whether in a hurry I can get a spring green blanket to a photoshoot in a Welsh castle for the New York Times style magazine. Good people help me get into gear to make things happen in both cases (thank you Carol, Alice, Niall), and we’ll see what comes of it.

Then I go to the Killarney trad music Gathering. None of the campsites are open, so I will have to bite the bullet and do my first wildcamp in Ireland. I didn’t plan to do this in winter with her short days and early dark, and this winter’s twists and turns have left my confidence at an all-time low, but the line-up is so good that I go anyway – after all, what am I really in Ireland for?!

The first night, after delightful performances from musicians I’ve been wanting awhile to see (Bríd Harper, fiddle; Dermot Byrne, accordion; Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, singer), I make the cowardly choice to stay in the huge hotel car park. I am reassured by the presence of other festival-going motorhomers, but WiFried by the electromagnetic radiation of too many routers. During the next two days I enjoy superstars Dervish and younger genii I’d not come across: Goitse, Full Set, and husband and wife duo Caitlín Nic Gabhann (concertina, dance) and Ciarán Ó Maonaigh (fiddle). Mustering my nerves, I stay in the woods by the lough, where Murph and I have beautiful walks. Storm Doris brings snow here. When the festival is done I go into Killarney National Park proper, and after a weekend of blowaway music, I am blown away by the mountains too.

Back down in West Cork I negotiate a Donegal jumper or two to be made for my mother with our neighbour the woolshop owner, and buy some rich-coloured Donegal wool with which I plan to make a snug or three sometime.

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With Alpaca and Shetland wool I weave a run of springlike woves, and for once am ahead of the seasons. This makes photographing them in the right settings difficult as the greens in the landscape are not yet acidic enough. That might not sound like a problem, but it is! A problem of lifestyle, also, I realise: I have often moved on from the source of inspiration whilst still working on the weavings it inspired. And I am frequently one whole season behind in my colourways. (Hmm. Constantly dwelling in the previous season rather than the present? Or just getting good at slow? Ahem.) Being a whole year behind would work ok. The fashion industry probably mostly works one year ahead.

In fact, though it’s still wintry, I fail to photograph even the few wintrier woves in the right landscape: they are sea-inspired but the sea, weather, light and opportunities to go out with a camera don’t all line up. I take a day trying to find the right seascape, but the weather changes and the beaches I find here are just wrong for it, and I spend the whole day driving. (Oh well, at least I like driving – and have a good soundtrack, after buying great CDs from the amazing young Killarney performers. I put Caitlín Nic Gabhann’s haunting ‘Last Port of Call’ on repeat, and later learn it on the melodica.)

 

This winter I’ve expended an unhelpful amount of energy worrying about how to make life work.  Being on the road proper in winter doesn’t feel feasible – it’s lonely and less safe. Being on others’ territory is often uncomfortable, no matter how good the arrangement. To my disappointment, though there are parking up places, land is less accessible here than in Scotland, and although actual gypsies have just been granted official recognition in Ireland, beach car parks and the like tend to have height restriction barriers and ‘no camping’ signs. Landowners are more forgiving of walkers than they are in England, but less so of dogs, and there are far fewer actual footpaths/public rights of way. I get excited about the possibility of buying my own small plot of land, perhaps a derelict house, and even view an interesting place in a good location, but don’t feel ready to set up house alone.

For a month I’ve barely made music myself either, despite making more and more friends in the sweet West Cork folk scene, which offers lots of non-scary opportunities. I’ve had something hurting my throat and crouching on my chest for ages – damp and unvoiced worries. I have a little bout of bravery on the melodica (and getting that out in public *is* brave): a new friend hosts a fireside session in a tiny pub at the end of a long peninsula, and we share tunes. When there’s a song, all ten people in the pub listen and/or join in, and suddenly we are one family in the same conversation. The next time I return there through the fog, the locals recognise me and ask if I ‘have the music tonight’. Though I don’t that night, in an instant I glimpse a life exactly as it should be.

In another pub nearby, the landlady requests a reel and a jig of the accordionist, and dances some traditional steps; the young barman gets out guitar and harmonica and sings soulfully. Though I only visit the once, and am songless and subdued, sad that I’m about to leave the area, I am touched by the staff waving me off as my van pulls away.

Says Shetlander Malachy Tallack on his journey through Siberia in search of home: ‘the longing for home and the longing for love are so alike as to be almost inseparable. The desire to be held by a person, or by a place, and to be needed; the urge to belong to something, and for one’s need to be reciprocated’…

Welcomed by family I didn’t know were family; by neighbours, townspeople, new friends and friends of friends, I start to feel a sense of belonging in West Cork, and that, though not everything is here, still there are things that I would love to be a part of.

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A photoshoot, a following, an unfair expulsion and a good politician

I love being in the driver’s seat. To eat a meal, to admire the view, to take us to the next place, or to write. (It’s amazing how one can slip quietly but extremely uncomfortably into the passivity of the passenger seat. iNunca más! Not that there’s a passenger seat in my van – Murphy lives there instead.)

Many of you will have seen the beautiful Etsy piece that Julie Schneider wrote about me and which Alice Carfrae illustrated. Here’s the backstory (especially for makers and wanderers who could benefit themselves).

I pitched to Etsy about my ‘Inspiring Workspace’ (the name of their series of features on makers’ studios around the world). A key theme was the interplay between craft and place. Julie picked it up, offering the highest praise. She then interviewed me by phone from New York, quietly listening long and inviting me to go on and on spinning the yarns beyond our allocated time, with only the lightest prompts from her. She’d invited me to make a photographer recommendation, and by chance, pro colleague Alice, whom I hadn’t seen for years, was due to be back here from Asia for a few months. I asked Alice for some dawn and dusk shots, as well as daytime ones, and we became aware that photographing the van interior, and, especially, seeking to capture the interior and the spirit of the location in the same shots, would be a huge challenge (not to mention the vain weaver at work who needed flattering lighting and lengthy post-production to minimise the rings under her eyes). Alice kindly suggested staying with me overnight to get some night-time shots as well. Etsy paid for part of Alice’s time, and I paid for some more with weavings.

For reasons that I can’t broadcast, I seldom carry passengers. Nor has anyone else stayed in the van with me: it is a space designed for one woman, one loom and one large dog. (Although I will soon have two accordions. What on earth would I have done had I been a cellist? Obviously the piano had to find another home, though I did wonder.) It’s the biggest possible vehicle I can get up the smallest possible lanes. It’s for working and sleeping in, not socialising.

I collected Alice midmorning and after briefly exchanging ideas about the most beautiful spots on Dartmoor (of which there are millions) we nattered as I drove: daily life, environmental, social and gender politics in Delhi, Beijing, the Hebrides, England; loves past and present; old friends and workplaces in common. My van’s not easy to drive on these tiny, crowded roads, but with the professional challenge ahead we talked contracts and vignettes too as branches tore at our sides (Alice airbrushed out the dents afterwards).

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These Isles workshop on the move, by Alice Carfrae ©

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Among the Dartmoor tors, by Alice Carfrae©

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Another photobomb, by Alice Carfrae©

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Dartmoor ponies, by Alice Carfrae©

Choosing a photographic location was almost as tricky as choosing a night-pitch alone – every detail matters! We found a spot, but the bracken was too tall. We found another spot, but there were people there, and another, ditto. We found another spot, but the road was in shot. We found another spot with grass in front and a panorama of tors if we faced west as desired – though we would need to relocate for the sunset.

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Finding the right spot (for a few hours, at any rate), by Alice Carfrae©

We began photographing, though the overcast light that Alice would normally find perfect left us with insufficient light inside the van. She got some good outdoor shots, though I twitched when someone zoomed by leaning on their horn shouting an abusive ‘Pikey!’. (C’est comme ça at times; you have to be brave.)

In the sunset spot there was someone else overnighting, so we had to be really clever about photographing from angles that didn’t show his van – it’s just not as romantic, being parked up with neighbours, is it? (My natural instinct is to find the most remote spots, though sometimes I welcome the security.) We barely got a sunset, as, despite the forecast for Dartmoor’s typical changeability, the (even more typical) damp grey settled in. Hard as we tried, we were not quite ready for the three thirty second breaks of amazing light we got – although we snatched a few shots nonetheless.

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I call this ‘Irish light’, after first noticing it with my mum in County Cork as a child.               By Alice Carfrae©

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The light, by Alice Carfrae©

We worked until 10pm, when I cooked supper, and heroic Alice also went outside after that hoping to shoot the warmth of the 12V battery-powered interior lights of the van starlit against a turquoise sky. But the damp grey at night offered only a velvet black in too stark a contrast with our indoor lighting, so that shot was not to be.

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Darning the cloth. Photo by Alice Carfrae ©

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Darning skipped picks (stitches). Photo by Alice Carfrae ©

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Cooking in my fully-equipped kitchen, by Alice Carfrae©

Dear Alice slept (fitfully) on a mattress on the floor, and, exhausted and overstimulated, I didn’t sleep much better either – though it was nice to be in a beautiful spot with a friend.

Not an early riser, I nonetheless awoke early as usual, and at 6am the first hint of sunlight was showing over the hill, so I reluctantly roused Alice, who was straight outside again with her camera within seconds.

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We’d done three hours’ work before breakfast, getting some of our best shots in the soft, sweet morning light (though it certainly took a while for my face to wake up).

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The view from the workbench, Alice Carfrae©

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Yarns in the morning, Alice Carfrae©

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Tools in the morning, Alice Carfrae©

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Heather in the gorse, Alice Carfrae©

Murphy was ever-patient, as his walking routine was neglected – but he enjoys being out and about in different places meeting people.

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Finally the light was on our side and the camera rolled until after lunch, when, with almost all of Etsy’s shotlist covered and with some spontaneous shots besides, we finally packed it in, packed up and got back behind the wheel, seeking out an ice-cream reward on the way back to Alice’s house.

After much backing and forthing between Julie and I and Alice and I and Alice and Jen, the photographic manager for Etsy on this assignment, the article was published. I knew I needed to be prepared to make the most of the exposure, but I was completely unprepared for the overwhelming wonder of people’s enchantment: I certainly had not allowed time to spend most of the subsequent fortnight responding to people’s incredibly affirmative comments where they shared deep feelings and snippets of lovely stories, though it’s important to. It’s been amazing: I can’t thank you all enough.

My stats (views, favourites, likes, subscribers) spiked tenfold in some cases, and in a week my turnover exceded that of my best month yet in this two-year-old business. Phew. A lot of hard work, but it’s going places. (Obviously I’ve had to cut my living costs right down in this travelling life.)

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Even more special are the amazing contacts made as I catch a glimpse of your lives – in vans and RVs, on boats and crofts – and your projects that are visions of mine too – growing vegetables and dye plants; raising sheep and awareness; musicmaking, wordsmithing, spinning, weaving, knitting, dyeing, travelling, dreaming, remembering, wishing, working, working, working for change. I’m really glad to know you’re out there, and hope our paths will cross in the flesh sometime (I’d love to build an itinerary of parking-up spots, and though I can’t imagine bringing this old van to the US, the Americas are seemingly calling me, so maybe one year…) The number of you who have expressed thanks for my inspiration is the most heartening bit. A somewhat desperate bid for survival, I nonetheless felt selfish deserting the worthy cause of teaching in mainstream education, but if I can still inspire, then I’m still contributing.

Says Gayathri from India: ‘I just pinged to say that I loved the article … it’s by far the best post I’ve read on Etsy! I have never sent a convo to anyone other than my buyers. It was such a beautiful article and I couldn’t just sit here without appreciating you. It would be an understatement if I say that your wonderful journey gives me so much hope and happiness. Thanks a bunch for making me smile 🙂 keep living that beautiful life for all of us! Lots of love from across the oceans’

Says Nicole from Quebec : ‘Eloise, you are an inspiration. I think I could do this with my soapmaking! I would like to bring my horses along….. Thanks for sharing.’

Says Emm from Wales: ‘Your story and life style is inspiring. My dream but I am a lone parent of four. Feeling a bit trapped but you give hope for a one day change.’

Says Frances from North Carolina: ‘My daughter and I are just now starting to clean out our house and get it ready to sell. Sitting in the yard is a new 5th wheel camper and a truck. We are are embarking on a similar journey and I have been wondering if I should close our business or try to take it with us. After reading your story and seeing that it is possible, I feel so much happier now, knowing it can be done. Thank-you so much for sharing. You made my day! Keep on going. Live the life you love.’

Says Jenn from New Hampshire: ‘Love this feature! You are an inspiration and a fabulous weaver. I have often thought of doing what you are doing, but here in the US. Maybe we should start a small traveling colony of Etsy sellers:o) Wouldn’t that be grand!’

Says Lisa from the Treehouse: ‘This has moved me. On many levels. Thank you for sharing your spirit and work and words. You may have just started a movement.’

And this is just a few of the few hundred.

I haven’t started a movement, but there IS a movement. A ‘normal’ way of life is failing ever more people who, squeezed and wrought, must, like me, think outside the box in order to make do. Wellbeing is not a luxury: everything goes wrong without it.

(By the way, if you have questions about the small-but-dealbreaking pragmatics of a lifestyle like mine as you work out an alternative way forward for your own life, then please do post them in the comments below. I generally prefer holding this kind of discussion in the public domain so that more people can benefit by reading and/or joining in – plus then I don’t have to type the same things loads of times; I’ve done little weaving this month!)

Me, me, me. I’m extremely lucky – and pretty damn resourceful. Brought up with no money, no property, with state benefits and state education, I nonetheless had art, craft, culture, animals, wilderness, business and critical thinking capital (not to mention kind and talented friends and family). England voted to leave the EU, but I have dual citizenship and the right to a European passport, so I’m just fine. So many are so much less well off. And here I have to get back onto the soapbox, and cannot keep it out of my ‘weaving’ blog, because I think in systems, and the whole lot is connected, and there has been more drama that I want you to know about.

Fearing an even more unjust Tory-shaped independent Britain, I put my support behind democratic socialist Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (who, incidentally, happens to have been a prominent figure in a textiles union decades ago). Labourlist says ‘Corbyn’s status as frontrunner in the leadership election is secured today as a new poll finds he is on course for a 24-point victory’, but he is being attacked ever more viciously (as this satirist hilariously sums up – NB expletive torrent). Since I think he is a rare source of hope, I want to be among the voices speaking up for him, so I offer you my reasoning (forgive me some repetition of previous writings):

I don’t think that socialism holds all the answers, and, understandably, a socialist is having grave difficulty holding together a party that is half constituted of neoliberals, but he is the only person anywhere near the premiership whom I trust to recognise what are NOT the answers (inequality; austerity; neoliberalism; authoritarianism; war) and resist the kind of constant compromise that leaves a Labour government looking so very similar to a Conservative one. Corbyn, McDonnell and their young team are intelligent, sensitive, passionate, steadfast and dynamic. I think their minds are open to new solutions: I’m wondering whether inequality could be addressed by state control (as opposed to global, corporate bank control) of our monetary supply creating a non-debt-based economy. It seems to me that money creation as debt is basically the modern feudalism, whilst fairer distribution of currency would mean fairer access to markets so that they worked for the many – markets which kept well away from services (currency, health, education, welfare, infrastructure) that are at risk from distortion by commodification. Obviously this plays havoc with the international financial markets, and I’ve no idea how a transition could be made, let alone smoothed, but I do think that making survival a bit less hard for the masses would free us up to better look after each other and the environment. (And if overpopulation is a concern: we breed more under stress, don’t we?) Corbyn’s the only one who could do this, I think.

I think the UK Green Party offers some such answers, but they are so far off being elected that I joined the Labour Party instead. Ideally I’d like to see the parties of the left join together. Goes the old adage: ‘the reds ain’t green enough, and the greens ain’t red enough’. And the yellows (the Liberal Democrats) are committed to electoral reform so that we actually get democracy, probably in the form of Proportional Representation. In post-referendum hysteria during a week of intense passion nationwide, fearful news stories, keen motivation and seeking to support the emergence of a Progressive Alliance, I also briefly joined the Lib Dems. I shout my politics from the treetops: my personal Facebooking is largely campaign activity. Intelligence agents for the centrist neoliberals of the Labour Party who have been trying to unseat soft-but-firm-left Corbyn by purging the party of newly joined ‘Corbynistas’ have seen my hundred pro-Corbyn posts and they’ve also unearthed a pro-green-and-yellow remark of mine, and expelled me from the Labour Party, ostensibly for the latter reason. I am distressed to be disempowered by being denied a vote in the upcoming leadership election to renew Corbyn’s mandate, but on the other hand I am furiously empowered. I’ve replied to Labour’s secretary general, who seems to have been blocking democracy at every step as hundreds of thousands of us subscribed on the explicit understanding that we could vote, then had to pay an extra £25 for the privilege as the goalposts were moved to exclude us, then paid again, then had to be screened all over again, then went to court, then won the ruling, then lost the appeal, then got expelled as well. (And when a whole lot of people get blown up by a terrorist over there, it’s got a lot to do with this shit happening right here.) Yesterday a young journalist from the Guardian (Britain’s most major centre-left intelligent broadsheet newspaper, who’s been disappointingly cynical on Corbyn too at times) contacted me out of the blue on Facebook, asked to talk, and asked whether my page was covered in pro-Corbyn material. Oh yes, says I, how did you guess? Laughs, does he. And will I tell him my story? Oh yes, says I, for sure.

So we’ll see what happens. Stay tuned for the next instalment, and please comment and share, share, share, and meantime I’ll perhaps see some of you at Exeter Green Fair (Devon, UK) on Saturday as I show off my wares and meet some more good folk.

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