On the pill

Note: I’m not trying to be pushy or didactic in this post, telling others how they should look after their body. It’s purely an account of my own experiences and how they have led to my own decisions.

The subject of women’s contraception has always been rather taboo, mainly because you have to say words like period in a hushed tone as if we still live in the 1950s. Ladies – keep these matters to yourselves, please. Men don’t want to hear about such things and their comfort should be top priority (for once).

I’ve been on the contraceptive pill for seven years, and today, after much thought and research, I have decided to stop taking it.

In October, the Guardian published an article about new research proving the contraceptive pill has a strong link to depression in women, particularly teenage girls. Before this, the side-effects of the pill have always formed a long and tiresome list: mood swings, breast pain, cystitis, migraines, nausea, stomach problems, irregular bleeding, acne, hair loss, weight gain, changes in blood pressure and a reduced libido, as well as a higher risk of breast cancer, thrombosis and blood clots. I have always resented pumping my body with unnatural levels of hormones in order to prevent pregnancy, and I don’t even suffer from depression or many of the above effects.

img_2142

Obviously the contraceptive pill has its brilliance. It’s in the name – I’ve gone seven years without a single pregnancy scare, and I’ve been able to control my menstrual cycle and fertility. The world would be a terrible place without the variety of contraceptives on offer, and I know if I’d fallen pregnant in my earlier years I would have had terrible decisions to make, one way or the other.

When I first started taking it I was on the mini-pill, also known as  progestogen-only or POP. This is the kind that you take every day and is generally very well known for making your periods practically disappear without too many hormones involved. Sounds perfect? Not for my ‘brilliant’ body. Not only did my periods not disappear, they lost all calculability and started popping up on random days with no warning. I managed to persist with this for four years before it drove me completely insane, and I switched to the combined pill. The combined pill (progestogen and oestrogen) made my periods wonderfully clockwork again, and for a while I felt great. I suffered no noticeable side-effects and my womb was under total control.

Then, after two years, I noticed my skin was developing more spots than usual. I’ve always had the odd one or two, but for the entirety of 2016 I have gained more and more until now – when I look about 12 years old. I’m writing a book, people! I want to look like an adult, not like I’m hanging out in parks drinking WKD. I went to see the doctor and consider my options, and she basically told me the following:

  1. No matter what happens, I have to come off the pill within 1-2 years to reduce my risk of getting breast cancer.
  2. The coil (a hormone-free option) won’t be suitable for me until after I’ve had children.
  3. My only option was to go back to mental POP pills and have more periods than breakfasts, or to simply go back to ‘the old-fashioned way’, as my Twitter pal Charlotte brilliantly phrased it.

So what’s a lady to do? I thought about it, and I realised that I’d rather take the risk of getting pregnant without the pill, than risk getting cancer with it. And now that I’ve digested my own decision, I feel over the moon.

I’ve always been very aware of what kind of crap I’m putting into my body. I don’t eat meat or processed foods (much) and I try to buy organic food wherever I can, because so many of the things available to buy in supermarkets are full of grim things that only just pass government safety regulations. Anyone who has read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson will share my opinions on pesticide use in food – so why should I willingly tamper so much with a very delicate hormonal system that my body has evolved over millions of years? Yes, it would have been terrible to get pregnant in the last seven years, but to be honest if I fell pregnant now, it really wouldn’t be the end of the world. In fact it would be quite a cool tree-loving baby.

Theoretically, my spots should go away and my body will return to its normal fertility. I’ll have to be super ‘careful’ and learn to be more vigilant again, but I’m feeling completely brilliant about my decision and can’t wait to have clear skin in 2017 – no more excessive Instagram filtering! My other half is fully supportive too and was the first to suggest I give it a rest, which makes it all the more positive! Love love love.

DSC02844.jpg

Oaken hall where the barn owl flies

This post was originally published in the Guardian Country Diary column.

At the highest and darkest point of the South Downs escarpment, an Anglo-Saxon hall stands beefy and lumbering under a black sky dusted with stars. Built with hand-hewn oak timbers and hazel spars, it is the latest addition to the educational farm on Butser Hill where I work as a creative developer, feeding goats and designing guide books.

The farm is an outdoor archaeological laboratory, and recreates ancient buildings from the neolithic period onwards. Inside the hall a log fire releases sparks like doves at a wedding, burning through the daylight hours to amuse wandering visitors searching for a taste of history.

DSC08752.jpg

This hall was built using archaeological footprints from a Saxon settlement in Chalton, a tiny village sleeping one mile away. It is warm and woody; in the centre lies a large feasting table laden with deer skins and tankards. Fourteen centuries ago such a table would have swayed with honey mead and platters of hot wild boar.

No man lives here now – yet it is inhabited. On winter nights a barn owl visits, to consume her own feast of mangled voles and frogs. The thatch provides shelter from iced winds, and in the morning we find a carpet of shining black pellets brimming with skulls and rubbery tails.

1869 (1).jpg

Barn owls were historically able to catch rats inside barns and outhouses, but the decline of such buildings has seen owl populations plummet, with many birds dying of starvation. An increase in manmade nest boxes since the 1990s has helped numbers recover, but, according to the Barn Owl Trust, in May 2013 there were fewer barn owls in Britain than at any time since records began.

Fortunately, our owl, thawed in her shawl of ivory feathers, has found shelter within the thick beams of this hall, as she would have done in its Saxon original before rat poison, habitat loss and motorcars began to threaten her species. She arrives and departs silently within this modern agricultural landscape of rapeseed and ammonium phosphate, and dissolves into the darkness before dawn can begin.

Why every child should watch Fantastic Beasts

The other day I went to fill myself with pizza and watch Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them at the local cinema. The pizza was a rich and tasty experience, full of flavour and salty joy. But the film was a true delight – an adventure into the dark roaring twenties, sparkling with magical creatures, well-dressed protagonists and tremendous special effects. Being a definitive ‘Harry Potter child’, I once knew every word to Stephen Fry’s story tapes, and while I’m not quite so attached as I was then, I love seeing today’s kids buying stickers and reading about quaffles. I’m delighted that the new Fantastic Beasts film will allow us all to delve into a different corner of what is clearly a growing magical universe. But while the original Harry Potter stories provided a magnificent framework in which to teach children about love, war and morality, Fantastic Beasts seems to have opened up a whole new can of delicious worms that I think can only be a positive influence on the minds of young people.

Fantastic-Beasts-and-where-to-find-them-banner.jpg

Once I’d accepted Ezra Miller was not Kevin Khatchadourian, and once I was again immersed in the fantasy of the wizarding world, I started seeing elements of the storyline that were refreshing in a film primarily targeted at children. I find this genre frequently patronising and simplistic, frightened to reveal too much of the adult world in which children will inevitably have to find their place. And for little girls, a female protagonist is often ridiculously beautiful or passive; even modern heroines like Elsa and Anna have bizarrely distorted faces, and Disney’s live action remake of Cinderella was picture perfect with the age old damsel-in-distress routine. That’s not to say that fairytale princesses don’t have a place in children’s fiction, but they certainly don’t have one in the wizarding world, because when push comes to shove, Voldemort doesn’t give a damn if you have nice eyes. Fantastic Beast‘s female protagonist Tina Goldstein is an auror with practical boots and choppy hair, intent on fighting dark forces with intelligence alone. She is everything I would want my children to admire: brave, clever, caring and flawed, just as real heroines should be.

Porpentina-Tina-Goldstein.jpg

Beyond this, there were undercurrents through the film of modern issues that wreak havoc on the minds of adults, let alone those of children. Newt Scamander remarks that the American wizarding community have distorted ideas on living in nomaj (muggle) New York, noting how terrible it is that Americans are forbidden from marrying non-magic people. You’d have to be fairly blind not to see parallels with racial prejudice in the western world, both historically and in the present. For Newt to highlight this flawed way of living is a brilliant way to expose the utter foolishness of racism, or simply fearing someone different to you. After all, children aren’t born hating others.

Ezra Miller’s character Credence epitomises a darkness in the film that allows a young audience to understand the importance of its message. Suppressing his wizarding powers in a cruel and superstitious household, his self-suffocation transforms him into an Obscurial, a parasitic force that will inevitably burst out in destructive fury. In many ways this is similar to Elsa in Frozen who, rather than harness and control her powers, allows her fear to take over. It’s a simple allegory aimed at all young people who are afraid of being who they are. You should always be yourself or you may never be happy. Or someone may die!

FB-JB-05776.jpg

Ultimately, the message that resonates most deeply in this story is that of ecological conscience. Many of the enchanting animals living within Newt’s suitcase sanctuary have been rescued from trafficking or misuse, and we soon discover that the American wizarding authority MACUSA have even banned the breeding of any magical creatures as they are deemed too dangerous. The titular fantastic beasts are constantly feared and persecuted, simply because they are not understood or needed for human use. How often do we hear the same rhetoric in our muggle world? Animals are either pests to be controlled or put on earth to create profit for humans, whether in agriculture, the fur trade, poaching, badger culling or horse racing. Many children now are not encouraged to watch Planet Earth or play outside, and they may grow up fearing the wild rather than endeavouring to protect it.

niffler fantastic beasts.jpg

I haven’t got an A Level in film so I have nothing to contribute to this review on the theme of photography or plot stamina. But as a Harry Potter child who longed for the Hogwarts acceptance letter that never came, this film filled me with glittering joy. JK Rowling has a history of making life brighter for so many kids, from founding a children’s charity to writing stories that have mesmerised millions of people across the globe. For me, Fantastic Beasts is a triumph in a world of darkness, a world that is currently in desperate need of a little light.

The Goldcrest Hop

It’s a writing day today, which means I’m cocooned in a large jumper, drinking coffee with Miss Marple on the telly (A Caribbean Mystery to help me dream of warmer climes). Writing days always start off with such great intentions. I settle into the cushions and compose my face into a most serious expression, ready to expose the world to my interesting verbs and pronouns – and then I glance at the window and my productivity simply melts away. My living room overlooks a large sycamore tree and hawthorn hedge, and at this time of year it is completely brimming with garden birds. Robins, blue tits, blackbirds, collared doves, magpies, long tailed tits, sparrows and pigeons transform the tree (rather scraggly at this point in the season) into a metropolis of avian activity, and it is way more entertaining than anything I can find on Netflix.

This morning I was delighted to find two tiny goldcrests hopping among the twigs, buttercup mohicans ablaze. The first time I saw a goldcrest was on a winter fungi walk at Sydenham Hill Wood with the London Wildlife Trust; they are so small that we all needed binoculars to spot them, particularly as they love gathering in the tops of coniferous trees. These two chubs seemed intent on scouring the entire sycamore for insects hidden in mosses and lichens, disturbed only by a great spotted woodpecker alighting nearby.

I’ve finished dillydallying now. Time for fresh coffee and the next section of my book… Milk thistle and hottentot figs!

IMG_3634.JPG

The Clean, Green Christmas Machine

Amidst the horrors of Black Friday and Cyber Monday (wtf), this is the time of year that big businesses love to fill our minds with commercialism and plastic crap and all things unsustainable. It’s easy to give into the bargains and slogans, but we should try and remember the best advice posted by Greenpeace this year: It’s not a good deal if you don’t need it. I’m an avid Christmas fan and have already made my sloe gin and slightly charcoaled Christmas cake. Not being religious, I mainly see Christmas as a time of cheese, prosecco and family love, but regardless of your associations with the season it should be a time of goodness and positivity. Contributing to landfill, funding unethical corporations and using unsustainable materials are a miserable way to celebrate Jesus’ birthday/loads of time off work, so here is my tiny guide to making the festive period ethical and SUPER FUN.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-13-45-48

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree

I actually grew up with a fake Christmas tree that is miraculously still going, despite the odd plastic needle falling off. This year is the first time I’ll not be waking up at my parents’ house (so adult) as I now live with my boyfriend Dave in our own flat, so this is the first year I’ll be sourcing my own Christmas tree. Rather than buying fake plastic trees or purchasing one in a car park with dodgy origins, this Saturday I’m going to Farnham Heath for their ‘Pull a Pine’ day! Farnham Heath is an RSPB reserve and a fantastic heathland habitat for wildlife. Pine trees tend to pop up and interfere with this habitat, so each year visitors are encouraged to cut their own pine tree down and take it home FREE as a Christmas tree. What better way to find a locally-sourced, sustainable Christmas tree and help wildlife at the same time? You can find your local ‘Pull a Pine’ day by visiting their website here.

IMG_1578.JPG

It’s Christmas, not Palm Sunday!

Ok, it’s undeniably hard to go into supermarkets in December and not want to buy all the Christmas-themed food covered in stars and glitter. Mince pies, stollen, mulled cider… They’re all amazing and I tend to just ignore calories for the whole of December. The problem with these items is that the majority of the time they will be made using palm oil, and the palm oil industry is slowly destroying the wild habitats of places like Malaysia and Indonesia. Rainforests are burnt down to make way for palm plantations, leaving native people and precious wildlife without homes and livelihoods. Even palm oil labelled as ‘sustainable’ is dubious, and like many other people I now try my best to avoid palm oil wherever possible. Fortunately, it mainly crops up in processed foods which I also try to avoid for health reasons. This Christmas, try and make the time to produce your own sweet treats in the kitchen – mince pies, fruit cake and biscuits ALL taste better when baked at home, and you will be reducing demand on the palm oil industry, which is a step closer to making it truly sustainable. For more information visit Say No to Palm Oil.

IMG_8010.jpg

Create & Reuse

I really love giving presents as Christmas (almost as much as receiving them but obviously not that much because who does that). While I do buy a few of my presents from shops and online, I also try my best to create homemade and unique presents that my friends and fam will love. This year I’ve been having fun with pyrography, using a hot metal pen to burn designs into wooden objects, but I’ve also been knitting and brewing alcohol which always brings delight. I used this recipe from the Beeb to make limoncello with vodka, lemon zest and sugar, and I found tiny gift bottles for £2 in a homeware shop. Last year my sister also gave me a second hand jumper from a Norwegian charity shop, which I loved! Charity shops are amazing places to find cool items – I’m currently on the look out for retro espresso cups…

img_8025

Gifts that Go Further

What do you buy for the person who has everything? Just use the occasion as an excuse to donate to a good cause! My favourite ethical gifts this year include:

– Buying a mound of marshmallows for rescued moon bears in China and Vietnam with Animals Asia
Offset some carbon by planting trees with the Woodland Trust
Support a refugee with Oxfam, many of whom have been forced to flee their home due to conflict
– Support women to care for their working horses and donkeys with the Brooke

The best thing is the recipient can’t complain as they’ll just look really mean.

ourwork-endbearbilefarming-sanctuarties-banner.cfc43686593cd03628122be418cfae13.jpg

What do Turkeys like for Christmas? Vegetarians!

Going vegetarian was one of the best things I’ve ever done, but I completely understand that it isn’t within everyone’s will power to do. I get it guys – chorizo is delicious and I pine for it every day. But how about having a vegetarian Christmas? I passed a turkey farm last weekend and, while it’s great that local farmers are providing free range meat for Christmas, I couldn’t escape the fact that all the turkeys I could see would have their little lives ended in just under a month. There’s no escaping the fact that eating meat is bad for the environment, and to many people, unethical. There are a million delicious recipes for a veggie alternative to roast meat – the Vegetarian Society has a great booklet. Or if you really can’t bear the idea of not eating meat, why not read Louise Gray’s book The Ethical Carnivore? She spent a year eating only animals she had killed herself, and discovered a lot of important stuff about where our food comes from.

maxresdefault (4).jpg

Merry Christmas all!

Blackbirds in Bergen

I’ve just returned from my favourite annual trip to Bergen, a Viking city in southern Norway with a history built on salted cod and North Sea oil. My sister moved there two or three years ago after meeting her own Viking called Haakon, and now we visit her every year to explore the mountains, colourful streets and majestic fjords.

Friday night found us drinking gin until 3am, and on Saturday we awoke with slight headaches to devour poached eggs and coffee. To remedy this we decided to climb Stoltzekleiven, a steep stairway carved into Sandvik mountain that rises 1,286ft high and consists of 908 stone steps. It was hellish, but the view from the top stretched out over Bergen and after a few deep inhales it was worth the climb. From here we walked to the next mountain Fløyen, passing cold, dark lakes and forests carpeted with moss. I was amazed at the number of blackbirds living in Bergen, possibly due to the rich harvest of rosehips that still lingered in the shrubs. At the top of the mountain the temperature dropped rapidly and ski gloves passed between pale hands, and by a lake I spotted my first ever dipper, white front blazing as it skimmed across the water like a black pebble.

We spent the rest of the weekend eating pickled herring and wandering through Bryggen, a series of Hanseatic buildings dating back to the 12th century when the city became a thriving trading port. The November air in Bergen is so cold it makes your brain ache, but we warmed ourselves with waffles and breathed in as much as we could to feed our organs with bright, clean oxygen. Bryggen’s walls are painted blood red and Indian yellow, and in the shadow of a doorway next to ‘Jack’s Country Saloon’, a fierce but rather forlorn stuffed polar bear stands with claws unfurled, a reminder of Norway’s Arctic history and the wild north beyond Bergen and Oslo.

IMG_1571.JPG
A lake on Sandvik
IMG_1549.JPG
Bergen forests
IMG_1562.JPG
The top of Stoltzekleiven  
IMG_1567.JPG
Sandvik
IMG_1565.JPG
Hollie & Dave
IMG_1579.JPG
Dipper lake
IMG_1566.JPG
Sandvik 
IMG_1584.JPG
Dave of the woods
IMG_1596.JPG
Hidden Bryggen
IMG_1605.JPG
Found in an abandoned shop window in Bryggen 

A Torrent of Darkness

Oof. Trump. A real kick in the teeth this morning. Is education a thing of the past or it just simpler to believe in fear rather than rational thinking? Either way, Brexit doesn’t seem quite so catastrophic today, but the outside world did seem to echo the election results as I stood at the window with a hot mug of tea. Peering out into the storm I was quietly reminded of The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes: ‘The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees. / The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.’ While it may seem the western world is writhing around at rock bottom, there are two things that ensure I stay positive. First, Dave noted rather wisely that ‘the night is darkest just before the dawn.’ This may be attributed to Batman but was actually first spoken by a seventeenth century theologian, and is a gentle reminder that once we reach the bottom of a cesspit, the only way is up. Secondly, my sister says that politics is all about action and reaction. Brexit, the election of Trump and the rise of right wing politics has been a hideous surprise, but it will be counteracted in equal measure by the people of my generation. For now, the autumn weather is vibrant and the landscape is full of energy; today is all about fresh air, fresh thinking and biscuits.

IMG_0859.JPG

Dark Nights

I love Halloween. What’s not to love about sexy skeletons and candlelit vegetables? We’ve been celebrating throughout October by watching all the horror films we can on Netflix: Child’s PlayHalloweenThe Witch, Friday 13thCabin in the Woods… I’m not really one for horrors but I’ve created a scare filter by knitting mittens through every film. The jumps aren’t as jumpy but sadly I may miss crucial plot points.

Last year we fed kitchen scraps to the massive pigs at the farm and they passed lots of vegetable seeds through, so that this year we’ve found several random pumpkin plants sprouting up in their old paddock. I used one to make a spiced pumpkin cake with cream cheese icing and ate four slices in a row. We also grew our first ever pumpkin on the allotment! It’s hardly the ‘gigantic’ variety promised on the packet, and it’s sort of completely anaemic, but it’s OURS (along with a stray beetroot, three marrows and two squashes I discovered while clearing the beds).

IMG_1058.JPG

By this time of year we are all expecting colder weather and frosts, but the temperature today will reach 16°C and it’s extremely pleasant outside. Last week the mornings were thick with mist and the pylons across the field were eradicated, drawing the farm back from modern chaos. Aside from Halloween, I always enjoy seeing photos and messages celebrating Diwali at this time of year. I remember being in primary school and learning all about the festival of lights – we were allowed full crayola access to design a vibrant greetings card, and each given a little candle to light at home.

I always wonder with big celebrations like Halloween and Diwali whether there is some historical connection or seasonal change that links them together. Halloween originates from the pagan festival of Samhain, when the veil between the worlds of living and dead was at its thinnest, and naughty ghosts slipped through. But beyond the spookiness, it also marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of darker days, a concept shared with Diwali. The Hindu festival traditionally dates back to ancient India, and takes place after the summer harvest in the Hindu calendar month of Kartika, on the darkest night barely lit by a new moon. Much like our harvest festival, everyone prepares a sumptuous feast and welcomes in the winter season; it is one of the happiest events in the Hindu year, and candles burn all over the world to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness.

IMG_1345.JPG

We light candles every evening in our extremely cosy flat to warm up our souls against the drizzle outside, but I love looking for colourful beacons in the countryside that refuse to give into the greyness of winter. While hunting around for fallen chestnuts the squirrels have missed, I found a purple toadflax (Linaria purpurea) with radiant mauve petals. Apparently it’s originally from Italy, so I imagine it’s a little disappointed with our mediocre climate. Soz.

DSC08737.JPG

But my favourite thing about this time of year is not spider-themed chocolates or zombie cocktails, although these are great triumphs of humanity. Each autumn we are subject to the barking opera of a stag attempting to woo his hareem. He wanders hither and thither trying to look as handsome as possible, and the other day I caught him trotting across a neighbouring field and managed to capture a blurry photo. Look at those antlers!

DSC08721.jpg

A Winter Anthology

Exciting news! I’ve been published in the nature anthology Winter, the last in a collection of four books celebrating the British seasons. My piece is about Sydenham Hill Wood, a nature reserve in south London where I used to volunteer. The wood was once home to a nineteenth century railway that carried wealthy visitors to the Crystal Palace, a glass building that housed the Great Exhibition in 1851. Over time the railway disintegrated and the wood has now been taken over by a range of wild and wonderful species.

Thanks to publishers Elliot & Thompson, the Wildlife Trusts and editor Melissa Harrison for selecting my piece! You can buy the Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter anthologies online here.

IMG_1052.JPG

On the Equinox

I’ve fallen behind a little on writing recently, mainly because I finished my Masters on the first of September and since then I’ve fallen into a slight siesta. I go to work every day as usual, but the evenings and weekends have been filled with all the things I wanted to do that were deprioritised by twelve thousand words on the novels of Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian writer who, despite his fascist tendencies, wrote some rather beautiful stories about man and nature. These activities have mainly consisted of making jam and reading Harry Potter, but I feel it’s finally time to crack back on with the true passion of my life: writing.

It’s six o’clock on a Thursday evening, and I’m staying late at work to co-ordinate one of the archaeological lectures I’ve been organising all year. This one is entitled ‘Who are the Britons?’, and will explore the history of British people throughout the last few thousand years. Today is also the Autumn Equinox, when the planet tips slightly and the nights begin to lengthen. To the ancient people of the world, these seasonal changes were hugely influential to their agricultural systems and spiritual beliefs. For me, it means the evening sky starts changing to muted apricot and those dangly flying spiders begin their annual invasion.

IMG_0902.JPG
Sheep friend

Autumn has always been my favourite season. Spring is a glorious second with its bright mornings and globules of dew, and winter is a time of cold walks and mince pies. I’ve never been too bothered by summer; the early warmth is great but I’m pale as a ghost and rapidly overheat if I can’t find shelter under a shrub. But autumn is the season for hot tea and elderberries, jumpers that aren’t yet Mitchelin-man thick, and the indescribable swathe of colour that transforms treetops into burning effigies to the gods.

The farm has been wriggling with creatures preparing for the long snooze over winter. The chubbiest robin I’ve ever known has made its territory by the feed shed, and every day I sprinkle a few pellets of cereal to fatten him more. There’s been a surge in green woodpeckers, wrens, buzzards and goldfinches over the last few weeks, the latter hastily consuming all the remaining teasel seeds they can find. On a sadder note, we’ve found eight rabbits in the last week suffering from myxomatosis, and have had to either drown them quickly in a very uncouth bucket, or watch as they hop off to become a fox’s breakfast. I mentioned this to the Mammal Society but they didn’t seem to have any other reports of local mass infections, so hopefully it will disappear quickly.

IMG_0895.JPG
Empty poppy heads

I’ll spend the next few days foraging anything that remains on the hedgerows and making more jams and alcoholic beverages to warm me through the frosty months. For now, there’s a buzzard on the fence and I want a closer look.