Reduce energy use

This week’s permaculture assignment neatly coincided with a 7 February New Scientist article, I’d just read – I’m a bit behind on my weekly reading The truth behind how to reduce your energy use and still live well’.   

Our assignment is to ‘Calculate your ecological footprint. Fill in the detail as well to get a more accurate reading. Next, come up and follow through on a few actions that you can take to reduce your footprint.’  We’re told, ‘On this site you can also find more information on how the footprint is calculated. And information on the obvious limitations on calculating our ecological footprint.  These cards might or might not be of help to you.’

Although the assignment is about ecological footprint, I was intrigued by the New Scientist article.  It assures us that, ‘In theory, it’s possible to live well while using energy at a rate of just 2000 watts– a quarter of the average for people in the US.’ 

Since I didn’t know what my ecological footprint is nor what my wattage use is, I decided to calculate both.  Differently, I wondered whether if I was above the 2000 watt count – which I assumed I would be –  in acting to reduce my watts expenditure would I reduce my footprint (as we were asked to do in the assignment) and vice versa.   Let me know if you know the answer to that question.

I started with the watt calculator.  How close was I to 2000 watts.  But first, I had to find out what time period the 2000 watts refers to – it’s not very obvious in the article.  Is it an hour, a day, a month, a year?

However, on a closer look, I found the article appends some info which I don’t understand (yet):  ‘The 2000-watt target – which can also be seen as 48 kilowatt-hours per day – refers not just to electricity, but to your total average primary energy consumption. In other words, it includes all sources of energy (things like gas, wind and wood), any energy used to produce those sources and the energy lost due to inefficiencies of conversion and transmission. To meet the challenge, this must not exceed an average of 2 kilowatts.’ 

How many watts per day do I consume?  Am I anywhere close to the target of 2000?  I have no idea. I clicked the link to the on-line calculator given in the article.  It’s all in German – but undaunted I put every question into Google translate and then entered my answers.  I was pleased to find, at the end the accolade:  ‘Bravo!’ The rest was in German, which I don’t speak: ‘Als Typ C mischen Sie ganz oben mit: Weiter so! Die Stadt Zürich dankt Ihnen für Ihr grosses Engagement für die 2000-Watt-Gesellschaft.’  Google took over and translated it as:  ‘Bravo! As a type C, you’re at the top of the game: Keep it up! The City of Zurich would like to thank you for your great commitment to the 2000-watt society.’  

But type C is not good really, I’m using 5,100 watts per day.  I have to reduce by 3,100.  As I don’t own a car, or a dishwasher, or a TV, sound system, or many other appliances or electronic devices. I don’t have much to turn off.  But I did find out that,  ‘The average UK household spends £65 a year powering appliances left on standby (40kgCO2e).

‘Standby is the energy used by certain appliances when not in use and not switched off at the plug. As well as standby power, other new additions to the average household’s collection of electrical goods, such as broadband modems, broadband routers, smart speakers, digi-boxes and telephones, use low levels of electricity when not in use. We tend not to think to switch these off, but as they’re often on for 24 hours a day, these appliances gradually consume a great deal of electricity.’

I also read the 2000 watt small print and discovered that my ‘5,100 watt energy label provides information about your personal lifestyle in and around Zurich. Your emissions of climate-damaging greenhouse gases (CO₂) are not calculated using the 2000-watt calculator.’ I don’t live in Zurich, but what this statement suggested to me was that maybe I needed to calculate my CO2 emissions?  

I think about that.  It could be that my ecological footprint is similar to my emissions of climate-damaging greenhouse gases. But not so fast, ‘the Ecological Footprint adds up all the biologically productive areas for which a population, a person or a product competes. It measures the ecological assets that a given population or product requires to produce the natural resources it consumes (including plant-based food and fibre products, livestock and fish products, timber and other forest products, space for urban infrastructure) and to absorb its waste, especially carbon emissions.’

 And our carbon footprint is ‘the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions.  This is all very confusing. It appears that as well as my 2000 watt rating, I have two different footprints:  ecological and carbon.   I started to calculate my  carbon one but didn’t have all the information I needed to hand – it’s very detailed.  I’ll finish it later in the week.  I’m guessing that it tell me my carbon emissions are too high (for my liking).

Even so, with info I got from the three calculators (although I still don’t know whether they are measuring things in common) I see I need to reduce on all three.   What is realistic?  There are three actions I can take immediately.

  •  Avoid leaving appliances on standby – ‘The average UK household spends £65 a year powering appliances left on standby (40kgCO2e).
  • Insulate my loft space with a better insulation material
  • Grow more fruit and veg for my own consumption  (Carrots and radishes sown!)

Beyond these three, I’ll look at other possibilities. There’s a good list of ideas for reduction here  some of which I am already doing, or have done. There’s also an interesting read on the Ecological Footprint site on the limitations of the calculation methods and the difficulties.  They comment on the reduction to a single number of a person’s footprint, saying.  ‘While sustainability can’t and shouldn’t be defined by a single number, it is still necessary that human demand be within the regenerative capacity of the planet if we do not want to jeopardize humanity’s future.’

I completely agree, no calculation is perfect.  It just raises awareness of the issues and possibilities.  Repeating what I said in a previous blog I wrote,  Produce no waste , maybe it is not too pie in the sky to hope that by 2030 there’ll be a global mandate to bring into everyone’s daily living The Seventh Generation Principle,  “The decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.”

Hanging basket herb garden

A hanging basket sounds like a small thing to design to permaculture principles.  Physically, the hanging basket I chose is small.  The task of designing it is big.  It took more than one long day of  research, mining gardening books, permaculture information, the permaculture course material, and on-line sites to think through the various aspects to consider.   But that’s what doing a permaculture assignment involves. (I’m taking a permaculture course).

Permaculture practice, suggests mimicking the layers of a natural forest when designing and planting a site.  But, how many of us know, or notice, when we’re walking through a forest that there are seven layers, comprising:

  • Canopy/Overstory – Tall trees
  • Understory – Smaller trees
  • Shrub/Brush – Hard-stemmed bushes
  • Herbaceous – Soft-stemmed bushier herbs, flowers, and vegetables
  • Groundcover – Low-level plants to insulate and protect the soil
  • Rhizome/Root – plants with underground storage, including bulbs
  • Vine/Creeper – Vertical layer climbers and creepers

Is this an idealised forest and not today’s typical forest?   There’s what’s called a ‘forest’  near  me in London,  but there are definitely not those seven layers.  There are tall trees, and some smaller tress and a few rather scrubby bushes. There’s little in the way of herbaceous,  or rhizome/root, and only ivy qualifies as a vine/creeper.  Ground cover typically comprises litter, cigarette butts, nitrous oxide cartridges, dog poo, plastic bags and other discarded stuff.   The volunteer group ‘Friends of the Forest’, run a monthly litter pick and does some restoration work.  They are doing their best to foster an environment that might encourage forest bathing.

What I’m trying, within a hanging basket, is to create an idealised 7-layer forest on a miniature scale.   Thus I need to have the 7 layers.  Beyond that, the basket has to conform to the design principle ‘Every element performs multiple functions.’  I struggled with that concept but found a useful example explaining: 

‘If we look at a fruit tree and call it an element in our garden, we can quickly see that the fruit tree does more than just provide fruit. It gives us a nice shady place to rest, it serves as the habitat for many creatures, turns carbon dioxide into oxygen, and reduces the effects of climate change. With its roots it holds the soil and prevents erosion. It cycles nutrients, turning them into foliage which in turn drops down in autumn to again provide food for life in the soil. Thus, the fruit tree performs multiple functions.’

Also the plants chosen have to be, as far as possible, mutually beneficial.  In permaculture terms they have to form a ‘guild’.    That is, ‘ plants grown in sympathetic relationships, to encourage best use of space, protect the soil, and enhance productivity.’  I didn’t know (but do now) that,  ‘The classic guild is known as the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. The corn provides sturdy stalks for the beans to climb up, while the beans help the corn and squash to access nitrogen in the soil. The squash sprawls along the ground, protecting the soil from erosion and reducing evaporation.’

To form a guild the chosen plants must have similar growing requirements (soil, sun, water, etc) and offer one or more of several attributes.  I’d written a list of the attributes when we were told about them in one of the classes.  Unfortunately,  the list was almost utterly meaningless to me 6 weeks later!  What was a ‘dynamic accumulator’  or a ‘miner’  or ‘primary and secondary yield’?  The only thing on the list of nine I could grasp without needing to look up was ‘insect attractor or repellent’.

So, more revision of the course material. I now know about dynamic accumulation – ‘that is they are plants that gather certain micro nutrients, macro nutrients, or minerals from the soil through their roots, and store these in their leaves.  When the leaves fall in autumn and winter and are broken down, those stored nutrients are then incorporated into the upper layers of the soil where other plants will benefit from their deposition.’

Here I am then, aiming to create a miniature 7-layer herb forest, with herbs that are mutually beneficial and have the similar requirements to thrive.  Oh, and they have to be perennial – very little in a natural forest is annual (or so I’ve learned).  And it would be good if there was year-round visual interest.  This assignment is definitely not a case of thinking what herbs do I like and just planting them hugger-mugger.

Fortunately, I found an excellent online guide ‘Planting Permaculture Guilds – Your Comprehensive Guide’  that supplements my course material well, and is more or less a ‘How To’, with 9 easy to follow steps.  The first two are: 

Step 1.  Choose your anchor.  This is tall tree equivalent – there aren’t many herbs that equate to tall trees but the bay is one and it’s now on order.  I’ll plant it in the centre of the basket and it will provide the canopy under which its ‘companions’  will – I hope – grow.  (Yes, for the moment it is only 6” high but the principle is correct).   

Step 2.  Know your location.  This is the hanging basket when it is hanging in place.  There aren’t many places to choose – to the left or right of the door to my balcony.  It’s northwest facing, and doesn’t get much full sun so I need to choose plants that are shade tolerant.

Right – next thing to choose the plants:  7 layers, forming a guild, each plant (element) having at least three functions, be perennial, provide year round interest, work for my location.  Hmm – more scanning of possible herbs helped by Wikipedia’s table of companion herbs, which lists out by herb which other plants it helps, which it is helped by, what it attracts and what it repels.  So, for example,  basil helps tomatoes, is helped by chamomile, attracts butterflies and repels thrips and flies.

Finally, I’ve arrived at a list that I think meets the criteria.  I’ve ordered bay, chamomile, chives, Vietnamese mint, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, winter savory and yarrow.  I got an email today saying, ‘We have today dispatched you order.’  And next sentence, I guess to make things absolutely clear,  ‘Your order is on the way, and can no longer be changed.’    They’ll arrive later this week, I’ll plant them up, take the photos and submit the assignment.  Before long, all being well, I’ll have a thriving miniature herb garden, and be eating herb enriched meals.


School gardening

Last week I ventured into new territory – literal and metaphorical.  I became a volunteer with the school gardening club at the local primary school.   I’d never been to their garden – the literal new territory for me.  It wasn’t quite what I imagined. It’s in the embryonic stages, currently comprising a ring of double stacked tyres and one oblong wooden planter, none with any soil, well rotted organic matter, plants, weeds, or anything else in them.  There is a garden bench, that the children proudly showed me.

It is a bit of a way from being a garden, but we’ll see what it becomes in the course of the weeks to July, when the school breaks up for the summer holidays. The new metaphorical territory is working with a school garden.  I’ve never done that before.  It was unnerving to be introduced to the 12 or so children as a gardening ‘expert’ .  Imposter syndrome felt close by.

What we did that first 45 minutes was start to randomly fill the tyres with soil, from a huge builder’s bag of it on the other side of a football pitch.  Each child had a small bucket and spade.  I felt this exercise would take the whole term – when would we get to garden?   I went home and had a think!

Step one was to search for info on school gardening.  There’s lots out there.  Food Growing Schools, London has brilliant resources and information.   Its aim is to ‘bring together the very best of London’s food growing expertise, information and support, with the ambition to inspire and equip every school in London to grow their own food’. I loved the idea of growing our own picnic, with full instructions in a downloadable pdf.  Though, sadly, when I tried,  it wasn’t downloadable, and I’ve asked the organisation to send it to me. 

Following the links to their partner organisations: Garden Organic, Capital Growth, the Soil Association’s Food For Life project, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Campaign for School Gardening, School Food Matters and Trees for Cities, yielded so much info I didn’t know where to start.  So I started by subscribing to their email newsletters.  (Is this a good idea, I wonder?)

Step two was to try and organise the info into something usable, just random picking (as the grow your own picnic) and newsletter subscriptions didn’t seem the way to go.   I searched again – this time under school gardening term calendar.  I got a great result (from the RHS campaign) a year planner by term.  This gives me week by week activities.  So this week we’ll divide into four groups and chit potatoes, sow peas in pots, and sow carrots and radishes in seed trays.  Yes, those are four weeks of activities, but if we do all those four this week, then we’ll be in sync with the calendar.

Step three is to get everything I need for the activities and take them in with me. I think a trip to the garden centre tomorrow  morning is on the cards as although I have some of the stuff I need, I don’t have all e.g. seed potatoes. 

Step four is to make what I am doing mesh with the permaculture assignment that I must get done in the next couple of weeks to satisfy the course requirements for award of a certificate.  I did ask the instructor last week if a school gardening project would be suitable. Answer, yes.  Just to recap, permaculture is ‘an ecological design process – we are learning from nature. Design methods are used in conjunction with permaculture principles to create an overall pattern or plan of action.’  It is based in three ethical principles – earth care, fair shares, people care – without these, a project or system cannot be called permaculture.

So is permaculture school gardening different from other school gardening?  Yes, there are many considerations that we’ve covered in our programme, and these I’ll have to include in the assignment.  I can’t just submit the RHS term calendar.  I’ve just found a perfect template for my assignment in Designing a School Garden that Emphasises Permaculture Principles.   It’s very detailed and too heavy duty for the tiny tyre garden I am working with, but it provides a structure I can adapt to suit my school’s garden. 

Petworth Community Garden has a garden education coordinator who has  created permaculture designs for Petworth Primary Eco garden.  They say ‘She now runs a weekly gardening club there, and it is used by all classes for learning across the curriculum.’  Again a bit out of my league at the moment, but reassuringly, further down the page they say,  ‘Any area in a school can be transformed just by the addition of tubs or raised beds, even window boxes, and children love to grow food and flowers and be engaged in wildlife and eco activities.

Each design will be unique to the school, its available area and needs; however the theme running through most is likely to be low maintenance, as staff are often extremely busy and stretched for time. It is better to start small and be able to manage the area well and safely, than become overwhelmed.’  Good – I definitely don’t want to be over-ambitious or overwhelmed.

This Petworth site has also answered my question – what about the school holidays?  They say, ‘The other major consideration is the term time schedule. School gardens are likely to be left from the end of July until September, when many fruit and vegetables are ready to pick. The trick here is to choose your crops and varieties carefully. It is also a great idea to have a rota of parents and pupils to keep an eye on the garden through holiday times, and many permaculture design and organic gardening techniques such as good mulching, can greatly help reduce weeding and watering needs.’ 

This info gives me some more to go on. Now I can look at the RHS school garden year calendar and through the lens of permaculture methods develop the assignment, and start to apply permaculture principles into the school garden that I’m working with.  

It also gives me ideas on how to plan for the coming school year(s) – choice of crops and planting times are important, and so are other considerations.  In my mind I’ve focused on crops, but we could also be looking at a wildlife/insect area ‘however small, planted with native wildflowers or insect attractant shrubs and plants such as butterfly bush (Buddleja), honeysuckle, wild rose species etc.’  or a pond.  We also need to recognise health and safety aspects of school gardening. On this Petworth has a useful list of ‘Rules of the Tools’. 

Step five, now, with all this information in mind, my task is to apply it to the school garden and to the assignment.

Urban Trees

A few months ago, I saw a brilliant play, Tree, at the Alphabetti Theatre in Newcastle.  There are only two characters in it and one of them is a hazel tree.   The script was on sale at the bar, but I didn’t buy one at the time.  However, the play stuck with me – something about the relationship between the tree and a woman struggling with her difficult childhood and things going on in her life and a penchant for lying about her achievements – and the tree’s responses to her fascinated me.  When I went back, a good while later, and asked, the theatre no longer had any scripts available.  Eventually I tracked one down, direct from the author – thank you Gary Kitching – so now I can re-read the dialogue. It’s very simple, and very powerful. Here’s a tiny extract:

Rowan (person): Oh, hello. I didn’t see you there.

Hazel (tree): I’m always here.

Rowan: Beautiful day.

Hazel: It will rain later.

Rowan: I thought that too.

Hazel: I like it when it rains.

The tree has a clear voice – that of a of a calming, (literally) grounded friend. 

As a I got the script, this concept of a tree as a friend, coincidentally jumped into my inbox via a Maria Popova piece. How to Be Less Harsh with Yourself (and Others): Ram Dass on the Spiritual Lessons of Trees . Ram Dass drew on the human-tree analogy in a soulful invitation to treat ourselves — and each other — with the same non-judgmental spaciousness with which we regard trees. Answering a question about how we can judge ourselves less harshly, he writes:

Part of it is observing oneself more impersonally… When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, “You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

I think that’s a wonderful practice to adopt.  I’m imagining that as I practice turning people into trees, I will be thinking of them as a particular species of tree.   In The Lost Spells, book, there’s a magical spell ‘oak’, that give trees human-type attributes.  It starts:

 Out on the hill, old Oak still stands:

stag-headed, fire-struck, bare-crowned,

stubbornly holding its ground

Each tree mentioned in the subsequent verses and chorus has a specific attribute:

  • Poplar – the whispering tree
  • Rowan – the sheltering tree
  • Willow – the weeping tree
  • Oak – the waiting tree
  • Birch – the watching tree
  • Cherry – the giving tree
  • Ash– the burning tree
  • Holly – the witching tree
  • Beech – the writing tree
  • Elder– the quickening tree

Reading the spell aloud or listening to someone else reading it unlocks the power of the words.  The spell reverberates and you feel the connectedness and rootedness of the trees and visualise their characters and characteristics.

At much the same time that I saw the play, Tree, mentioned above, I was reading Elif Shafak’s novel, Island of Missing Trees.  In this, as one reviewer notes,  the fig tree’s voice is a delight’.  ‘[It] claims the third narrative, [as] a mouthpiece for Cypriot history, illuminating human carelessness and hypocrisy.’  Additionally, the tree ‘reports of the mischief made between carob and fig; the subterranean world of roots; the gorgeous diversity of bees; the constant noise, textures and vulnerability of a perpetual ecosystem’.  With this character, the tree is an arboreal teacher as much as an observer of, and commentator on, the human character narratives.  

It isn’t only voiced trees in fiction that have come my way recently.   Real trees were front of mind when, this week, I ordered 50 (free) for the local school, from ‘I dig trees’, part of The Conservation Volunteers,  tree planting programme.   They’re a mixed bag, comprising:  10 x Silver Birch, 10 x Beech (common/green), 10 x Common Alder, 10 x Hornbeam, 2 x English Oak, 2 x Common Willow, 2 x Dogwood, 2 x Hawthorn, 2 x Common Buckthorn.  They’ll arrive towards the end of March, so next step is to organise a planting party.   

But prior to that we may work with the schoolchildren, encouraging them to think about the characteristics and value of trees.  Accompanying the Lost Spells book, is the Lost Spells Spring Explorer’s Guide, a free workbook with several thoughtful activities per spell.  The oak spell activities include: ‘Decide which trees you are going to investigate in more detail.  Choose one or more of the trees you have researched and create a fable for it.’  (Note:  there is an Explorer’s Guide for each season).

Now, I’ve discovered that Urban tree festival organisers are inviting written submissions for a competition they are running. The competition will be open for submissions of (flash) stories or poems of 250 words and under and will run until midnight on Monday 13 March 2023.  The topic is Secrets of The Trees.  The info runs: “Our urban trees have stood central to the story of urban development and urban living for centuries. What human stories have they witnessed? Time to give the urban trees a voice!”  

I’m wondering if I can pick up with the schoolchildren, and their teachers, some of the questions put in the Urban Tree Festival competition info:   ‘How has the urban population relied upon them [the urban trees] both practically and spiritually? What do these trees represent to a variety of cultures? What can our trees reveal about global connections and histories? How do our trees help us find a sense of belonging in our urban environment? What personal stories feature your urban trees?” 

I looked out my books – London is a Forest, and Great Trees of London –  to find out something more about each of the species and their representation in London, where I live.   Both are goldmines of information on urban trees.  Maybe as part of our exploration of the trees we will be planting in the school grounds, we could pick one of the great trees local to us and write a 250 word fable, or we could do part of one of the forest trail walks from the book ‘London is a Forest’ noting the various species of trees along the route, and write about one of them.  Or we could …   There are so many possibilities.

Meanwhile, I am working on my own entry for the competition.  I have the germ of an idea and a closing sentence!  I now have to work these into an engaging piece, by the deadline.

Image:  Trees for Streets

Parents’ gifts: into the future

What could be nicer than sitting on the London Underground reading a delightful poem about activist old age?   My Northern Line trip last week felt joyous, rather than a noisy must do, as I read George Square, one in the series Poems on the Underground, by Jackie Kay.

My seventy-seven-year-old father
put his reading glasses on
to help my mother do the buttons
on the back of her dress.
‘What a pair the two of us are!’
my mother said, ‘Me with my sore wrist,
you with your bad eyes, your soft thumbs!’

And off they went, my two parents
to march against the war in Iraq,
him with his plastic hips. Her with her arthritis,
to congregate at George Square, where the banners
waved at each other like old friends, flapping,
where they’d met for so many marches over their years,
for peace on earth, for pity’s sake, for peace, for peace.

My indomitable mother was in that category.  One of my early childhood memories, from about 1958, is she and my father taking the three of us (my sister in her pushchair) on an Aldermaston march for nuclear disarmament. She many times protested at Campsfield, stood in weekly vigils for peace during the Iraq war, was a regular at Levellers Day, in Oxford, and joined the solidarity with refugees march being pushed in her wheelchair.  (See photo above). She spent her long lifetime advocating for social justice in all its manifestations.   

As I read the poem vivid memories of her flashed by.  How at aged 85 she announced she wanted to do a leg of the Tall Ships race, and did.  (One of her childhood dreams was to be a cabin boy – she loved sailing).  How at the age of 90 she gave up riding her beloved bike, but till her death hankered for another one.   How at Christmas, well into her 90s, she would go as a volunteer to serve Christmas lunches ‘to the old people’.  (One of several volunteering roles she had).

My father was of a similar ilk.  Maybe that’s why my parents were initially attracted to each other – though the attraction failed after a few years and they divorced.  He was one of the early activist environmentalists, initiating an ambitious project to build a sustainable city with a fully circular economy, recovering and reusing resources.  That got, not very far, but undaunted he continued to develop his passion for preserving and protecting native wildflowers, which was more successful and gained much support.  He died, in his 80s, before he could complete an academic essay, on wildflowers, that he was writing for publication.  It was open on his computer when we came to find him.

I’m often amused by the way that once I start to think about something, I notice related info streaming toward the thought – rather as a magnet attracts iron filings.  In this instance, Bertrand Russell’s thoughts on aging headed in consciousness, via an email subscription to something I have.  He says:   “Psychologically there are two dangers to be guarded against in old age. One of these is undue absorption in the past. It does not do to live in memories, in regrets for the good old days, or in sadness about friends who are dead. One’s thoughts must be directed to the future, and to things about which there is something to be done.”

I particularly like Russell’s belief that as one ages, ‘One’s thoughts must be directed to the future, and to things about which there is something to be done.’   I’ve got the example of both my parents, and, this week, Russell’s reminder.  So, what am I doing, or going to do, that is directed to the future and which I can do something about?

That’s a challenging question to myself.  Oddly, to me anyway, I’ve picked up some of the horticulture interest my father was so passionate about, having paid almost no attention to it the first 70 years of my life.   In fact, I remember the dread I felt as a child when my father said he was going to take us to Kew Gardens or Wisley.  Kew, I recall as agonising hours in the steaming glasshouses, and Wisley as a bafflingly lessons on botany given at a level which bore no relationship to my level of understanding.  I wonder if he’d be pleased to know that I am now studying permaculture – whose three principles are directed to the future, and have found my copy of his project on resource recovery, with a view to implementing some of his ideas, on a local scale.  

Looking around, there’s no shortage of other things that look to the future that I could do something about.  But, I think, they have to be meaningful, purposeful and actionable in the day to day, and not be just one-off contributions or donations to specific events (though those are necessary and important too).   They also must play to my interests, capacity to act, willingness to commit to the actions on an ongoing basis  and be associated with helping me age healthily. 

On this last, much research suggests that having strong social networks, and supportive communities helps with healthy aging. For example, Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies  found ‘that people with strong social connections tend to have better health behaviors, like eating healthy foods and being physically active.’

So how will I follow Russell’s suggestion to direct myself to the future and do things that serve it well?  My leanings towards social justice are the same as my mother’s, but I’m less vocal.  I have more discretionary time now, (because I’m less driven by paid employment demands) which means I can become more vocal.   My developing interests, and skills, in growing plants and practicing permaculture principles follow in the steps of my father.   Perhaps in helping form my attitudes my parents were future directed – I’ll take that as their legacy to me and invest it further for the betterment of future generations.  

Immediately, I am heading towards community gardening and supporting neighbourhood environmental improvements.  More generally, what I’d like is to take Russell’s next suggestion to ‘make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.’  (From his essay How to Grow Old, in Portraits from Memory).

Measuring time

During the past week I read this para. ‘For me, a poem is a way of measuring time. Often there is an instant that starts it: a feeling in the gut, an image, a connection, a certain kind of music of language that makes me feel slightly lightheaded. But then time happens: editing, reflecting, asking questions.’ Padraig O’Tuama

The phrase ‘a poem is a way of measuring time’, has stuck with me, along with the idea that ‘time happens’.  Time measurement is standardised in units – days, hours, minutes, seconds, for example – but it is also individual, not at all standardised.   

A poem’s development to being ‘in print’, is not a standardised way of measuring time, but I enjoyed playing with the idea – how do I measure time?  How do other people measure time, beyond the standard units?   

Sometimes I measure time in specific end points.  For example, next week I am re-sitting an exam.  It’s been in my days since early September when I got the ‘fail’ result.   I’ve been measuring time in the amount of revision I’ve made myself do.  In standardised time units of hours/minutes, I don’t think it’s enough.  Measured in time capacity to fit revision in amongst everything else.  I think I’ve achieved a reasonable time balance.  I haven’t dropped other necessary commitments and I have done a certain amount of revision.  

When I’ve left the exam room, I’ll stop measuring time in revision.  Other specific end points will heave into view then.  I’m running a 10k race in July and want to complete in a good-for-age time (I’m aiming for 85% age graded).  With the exam over, I’ll have two simultaneous ways of measuring time to get to good-for-age.   First, in the number of training sessions I am able to do before the race, and second in my running pace per kilometre.  The training sessions and pace/distance measurements will become emmeshed, as the theory is that the more training – without over-training – that I do the more my pace per kilometre will increase.

Specific end points are one way I measure time.   Specific events are another way.  Time is measured for individuals from some life event – a birth, marriage or death.  Or for society from a collective event.  In the UK 23 March 2020 was start of ‘lockdown’.  It’s lodged as time point from which to measure – I now hear people talking of ‘before Covid’ as a distant time, and ‘since Covid’ is also in common communication.   Similarly in the UK ‘Brexit’ vote date, 23 June 2016, people recognise it as the date when things changed and time is measured from the Brexit vote.

I also measure time, rather like light is measured, in waves and particles.  (I found out about this way of measuring light not in a physics lesson, but in the title of a book of short stories by Ellen Gilchrist.)

When I think of measuring time as a wave:  a careers wave, for example, where the wave’s continuous movements follow smoothly from one career to the next – the wave is carrying me now into my fifth career around growing plants.   Or a relationships wave – with the ebbs and flows of interactions with family, friends, colleagues form the waves crests and fall and the tidal incoming and outgoing patterns. 

Measuring time as a particle is a different idea.  I looked today at the marks on the wall indicating the height of my grandchildren at different points in calendar time.  That and the photos of them taken at different points give a record of individual moments that collectively form a story across time.  Other particles that measure time for me are the weekly blogs, the number of gym visits per month.  The particles are a bit like beads threaded onto a necklace, the individual beads contributing to the overall necklace – which then resembles a wave.

During January, at the end of each day I noted down my answer to the question ‘What have I wasted time on today?’  I see, now, that wasted time is another way I measure time.  Mainly I was wasting it on standing at bus stops, displacement activity (instead of revising for the exam), looking for items I’ve lost around the house – I haven’t yet mastered ‘don’t put it down, put it away’ and angsting about stuff I cannot influence and have no control over.  It was an interesting exercise to experiment with.  I’m not sure it changed my use of time though.

What just flashed into my mind as I’ve written this far is a line from a poem  I studied years ago, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,  T.S. Eliot.  In it is the line,  ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;’   which has now taken me off in a T. S. Eliot direction, specifically his Four Quartets – magnificently recited by Ralph Fiennes, that I listened to a bit ago and will now listen to again.  Eliot is a brilliant commentator on time. 

He opens Four Quartets with the lines: 

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.

This theme of time past, present, and future, and how we come to terms with it repeats through all four movements of the poem.  His suggestion, in my interpretation, is that time is not measurable, ‘The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree are of equal duration’, and we exist in ‘timeless moments’. 

It’s an intriguing notion to play with.  Observing my grandchildren, they seem to live in ‘timeless moments’.  Try explaining to a 3-year-old what ‘being late’ (for school) means, and then getting them to act on the information.   As we are socialised we lose the ability to live in timeless moments and are bound by clock time that we start to measure things by.  I laughed today at this exchange between my grandson and me:

Me to child:  Would you like a chicken skewer?

Child to me:  What day is it today? 

Me to child:  It’s Monday. 

Child to me:  I only eat chicken skewers on Sundays.

There I saw the start of concept of days, and that they hold specific related activities.  Is this grandchild going to measure time in terms of days when he eats chicken skewers?  Maybe, maybe not. 

How do other people measure time, beyond clock time and standardised units? When is it useful to measure it, by what units and why?  Do we need to measure time at all or could we live in ‘timeless moments’?  I’ll ask around. 

Image: Jon Foreman

Tsundoku and Lost Words

On Saturday, we visited The Sill, on Hadrian’s Wall.  We went to look at the Lost Spells exhibition.  It’s mesmerising in the incantations, word weaving, and illustration.  Who couldn’t be drawn into the delight of the Jackdaw?

… Always with the comeback,

coal-black crackerjack,

joker of the haystack,

ready with the wisecrack

giving it the backchat!

Someone gave me a set of the Lost Words postcards (also by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris) as a gift.  They’re a reminder of the many, many things about the lives of other – flora and fauna – that I know next to nothing about.  I’m didn’t buy the book Lost Words at the exhibition, although it was there, as I know my daughter has it and I’m going to borrow it from her.

I bought the book of lost spells to give to someone as a birthday present.  Then started reading it myself.  I may keep it as a self-gift.  The thing is, will I read it again, once I’ve read it once?  Do I want it on my bookshelf, or is it better handed on for someone else to enjoy? I rather think I will read this one again and again to my grandchildren.  I think they will love to know, for example, that the oak is the waiting tree.  But I don’t know that they will – I will read it to them and see.  For myself I rarely re-read books, but often reread poetry (and maybe I will find and use the lost spells).  But I like having physical books around.  Read, unread and re-read. 

Digital copies don’t have at all the same standing and allure as a physical book with pages to turn.  And audio ones have to have really good readers to capture my attention.  (One I’m currently listening to The Marriage Portrait, has an excellent reader, Genevieve Gaunt, who is helped by Maggie O’Farrell’s equally excellent writing style). 

I have many hundreds of books – including my secondary school, hymnbook, some of my favourite childhood stories, Teddy’s Year with the Fairies, is one – why I liked it baffles me now, books from my various courses of study over the years, novels I have and haven’t read, books people have given me, and shelves of poetry books.   

I’m attracted to bookshops and have to steel myself not to buy something on impulse in case I never read it.  I pick things on impulse from the library and return them if they don’t work for me.   One of my friends took the opposite tack to me and made a resolution one year never to leave a bookshop without buying a book.   

Sometimes I wonder whether to give away the read books that I’m unlikely to read again.  Sometimes I do that in an effort to free up bookshelf space.  I don’t give away the unread books, in case I am moved to read them sometime.   Recent ones in that category include:  Sapiens, Humankind, and Entangled Life.  (Is it that I don’t read non-fiction unrelated to courses I am taking?).

Then this week I came across the Japanese word ‘tsundoku’.   It’s not a lost word or a lost spell, but a word found and appropriated into English usage.  Apparently, it means ‘leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books.’  Whether this is true or not, I don’t know.  It seems to have some credibility, but maybe it follows a longish list of Japanese words that ‘have been repurposed to lend an aura of ancient wisdom—and exoticism—to banal ideas.’ (Another Japanese import is Miyawaki – a method of forest growing named after a Japanese botanist, and who hasn’t heard of Japanese consultant Marie Kondo and her Life Changing Magic of Tidying – not as far as I remember – involving spells).

Kevin Dickinson, of The Big Think, begins his piece on tsundoku, saying  ‘according to statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, these unread volumes represent what he calls an “antilibrary,” and he believes our antilibraries aren’t signs of intellectual failings. Quite the opposite.  …  These shelves of unexplored ideas propel us to continue reading, continue learning, and never be comfortable that we know enough. Jessica Stillman calls this realization intellectual humility.’  (That is the willingness to accept that you might be wrong and to not get defensive when arguments or information that’s unfavourable to your position comes to light.)

I read Stillman’s piece.  She is of the view that an ‘antilibrary is a powerful reminder of your limitations — the vast quantity of things you don’t know, half-know, or will one day realize you’re wrong about. By living with that reminder daily you can nudge yourself toward the kind of intellectual humility that improves decision-making and drives learning.  

The word ‘antilibrary’ sounds a little harsh to me it’s too binary – library or antilibrary.  Tsundoku sounds a kinder word.  Dickinson tells us, ‘Its morphology combines tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dokusho (reading books).’  I wonder if it covers the skimming or dipping into books?   The unread books on shelves are rarely completely unread – they’ve got there because you’ve read the title, maybe flicked through a few pages, and got enough information to make a decision on whether to buy it.  (If it’s a gift, you still are likely to read the cover and blurb and decide whether or not to read it).

Is there a word – Japanese or other – for sampling books before deciding whether or not to buy/read them?  Or will tsundoku cover that?  I’d like to think that tsundoku does cover it. In which case I can also use it in relation to another stash of books I have.   It’s on my Kindle, except the books there are not the full books.  They are all sample chapters of books I think I would like to read sometime, or that people have recommended, or that I have read a review of.  I like the sample chapters because they are short enough to read on the bus.  They give me a quick flavour of the book.  I can decide whether I want to buy the physical copy of the whole thing.  I’ve found I do tend to read the sample chapters but rarely then go on to buy the full book.  Thus, they are sampled but unread in full. 

Another way of thinking about sampled, barely skimmed, and unread books, is as lost words – we don’t know what knowledge or insights they might give us, because we haven’t found and explored them.  They are there as possibilities and serve to remind me, at least,  that the more books I have the less I know. Or, perhaps, like the jackdaw dipping down to ‘ransack a knick-knack or snatch up a gimcrack’ we are stashing books just to have the stash?

Stones: gemstones, beachstones and worry-stones

A while ago I wrote about Gravel.  This week stones have been on my mind.  One day during the week my grandson (5) rushed out of school and excitedly told me he had something to show me.  He fished in his trouser pocket and pulled out a perfectly round, small, warm stone.  ‘It’s for you,’ he said.  It was warm from having been held against his leg all afternoon.  He was thrilled with it.  ‘Do you know?’, he asked, ‘When I found it, it was covered in sand, and now it’s clean.’ I felt it to be the most lovely gift and it’s on my table now, as I write.

At another point this week, I was with a friend, and she had her hands in her hoodie pocket and seemed to be rubbing her stomach as we walked. I asked her if she had a stomach ache.  ‘No,’ she said, ‘I’m turning over my stone’.  In her pocket she had a lovely, egg-shaped beach stone– it nestled in the palm of her hand, looking ready to hatch.  ‘It’s my worry stone’, she said. 

I’d heard of worry beads – indeed, I have a set myself – but not of worry stones, but then I looked them up when I got home.  I find there’s a whole body of info and commerciality around them.

The info partly comes from the mind/spirituality community e.g. ‘Worry stones have been around for centuries—and for good reason. [They] couldn’t be easier to keep on hand, ready to grab whenever worry should strike. They’re wonderful when you’re feeling stressed, soothing to the touch, and an excellent addition to your self-care routine.’

The info on the benefit of worry stones also (perhaps) comes from the cognitive behavioural therapy community.  I couldn’t find real evidence of this, though a couple of articles made passing reference to them e.g. A clinician’s perspective in the management of functional seizures  and Treatment Engagement: Building Therapeutic Alliance in Home-Based Treatment with Adolescents and their Families

And this one, Enhancing Therapy Process With Movement Strategies proposed a clinical trial of the use of worry stone.  The study aimed “to investigate exercise during a therapy session as a potential intervention for enhancing therapeutic learning, particularly ability to better cope with emotional topics and experiencing intense emotions. In this study, patient participants will complete a therapy session while using an exercise machine and a separate therapy session while using a worry stone (control). Both patient participants and therapist participants will make ratings of a variety of items, including ability to discuss emotional topics and comfort in experiencing emotions.” Unfortunately, it never got off the ground.  (“Terminated:  Feasibility – unable to recruit therapists to enter the study”).

Not put off by the lack of empirical research on the efficacy of worry stones, as an experiment I chose a biggish roundish, egg sized stone, from the garden, that fitted into the palm of my hand and put it in my coat pocket.  I walked off to get the bus and found that I was absentmindedly turning it around and around.  It did feel beneficial in some way.  It gradually got warmer – I imagined that if I carried it in my coat pocket for the next 20 years, it would get a lovely polished patina.  (Would that take 20 years?), and absorb any stress I felt at the times of turning it.

I remembered several years ago, when I was extremely strung out about my aging mother, someone told me about black onyx – “Black onyx has a calming quality, which can be beneficial in working with challenging emotions such as grief and anxiety. Black onyx also helps to balance yin and yang. It helps us to feel centered, make wise decisions, and get to the root cause of issues.”

For that reason and at that time, I bought a ring with black onyx stones set it in as a talisman, wanting to believe the notion that ‘By carrying or wearing the onyx daily, you will be able to shield your aura and prevent negative energies from attaching themselves to you.’   I hadn’t worn it for years, and I’ve no idea if it helped me with my mother. I am a gemstone properties sceptic, although curious about their possible placebo effects.  But I have the ring on again now, as I work through the ripples and impacts of difficult times.

The worry stones described in Wikipedia, are of this purchasable gemstone type, not the free beach stone type: ‘Worry stones are smooth, polished gemstones, usually in the shape of an oval with a thumb-sized indentation, used for relaxation or anxiety relief. Worry stones are typically around 3 centimetres in size. They are used by holding the stone between the index finger and thumb and gently moving one’s thumb back and forth across the stone. This action of moving one’s thumb back and forth across the stone is thought to reduce stress.’  I noted that Wikipedia is a bit of a sceptic too, warning that ‘Some of this article’s listed sources may not be reliable.’ And ‘This article needs additional citations for verification.’

The market for gemstone worry stones seems large, or at least, a lot are on sale.  There’s an alarming (worrying?)  amount of choice – although most conform to the thumb size indentation and the 3 cm size.  Which gemstone to choose as a worry stone depends on …  what?  I’m not sure, there is no standardisation of the supposed spiritual properties of each gemstone or the type of worry the gemstone is supposed to assuage.    Then there’s an additional worry of where the gemstones are coming from, as one report notes,  “many are mined in deadly conditions in one of the world’s poorest countries.”  I am not going to get a gemstone worry stone. 

Unfortunately, I don’t know the provenance of my black onyx ring, or even if it is truly black onyx, though that’s what the sales receipt said.  However, for the moment I am going to continue wearing it, for either its real but non-provable effect or for its placebo effect and because I like the look of it.  I’m also going to continue my experiment of carrying the egg- shaped beach-stone to turn around in my pocket.   I like the feeling of it.  It just is.  It’s not quarried, polished, or incised or by human hand. It feels strong, undaunted, calm.  The poem Stone, by David Whyte,  captures some of this essence.  Here’s an excerpt:

“you have never looked into the immovability
of stone like this, the way it holds you, gives you
not a way forward but a doorway in, staunches
your need to leave, becomes faithful by going nowhere”


P.S. Someone just asked me if I thought stones were animate. The question reminded me of a scene in the film ‘What we did on our holidays’, where the child named her stones Eric and Norman. See the lovely clip of that sequence.

Generative solidarity, shoulding, and self-care

“There are times in life when the firmament of our being seems to collapse, taking all the light with it, swallowing all colour and sound into a silent scream of darkness. It rarely looks that way from the inside, but these are always times of profound transformation and recalibration — the darkness is not terminal but primordial; in it, a new self is being born, not with a Big Bang but with a whisper. Our task, then, is only to listen. What we hear becomes new light.”  (Maria Popova)

Several people in my life have had grievous losses and tragic experiences in the past month or so.  Each of us is grappling with the ongoing psychological ripples and, at points, crashing waves, that these events have brought.  It’s like a sudden emotional hurricane tearing through the fragile fabric of one’s being, what’s left is a trail of devastation and the anguish of bringing a different post-hurricane, order and sense of being to one’s life.

I’ve been scrambling around looking for pointers, support, information and resources that might be helpful in my interactions with these people, and for myself experiencing some of the impacts of their situations.    Beyond the standard organisations and agencies that support, I’ve come across three things which offer different, useful ways of thinking.

Generative solidarity:  an email newsletter from the On Being project caught my eye.  It talks about solidarity – mutual aid, natural kinship, pleasurable sociality, moral feeling, swarm intelligence, communal mourning, entanglement with other beings.  Solidarity is one of the chapters in James Bridle’s book Ways of Being and Krista Tippet, quotes from the chapter:  “Solidarity is a product of imagination as well as action, because a practice of care for one another in the present consists in resisting the desire to plan, produce and solve. Those are the imperatives of corporate and technological thinking, which bind us to oppositional world views and binary choices. Active, practical care resists certitude and conclusions … It is the result of encounters, not assumptions (p. 280).”

Practicing care for people in deep emotional distress is hard.  The (my) temptation is to offer them advice or to make assumptions/draw conclusions about either the situation or how they are feeling.  It’s another temptation to reassure them, to discount what they are saying, or respond in platitudes.

This is where I like the concept of ‘generative solidarity’ – something that enables being with others in companionship, listening attentively to their perspectives and together generating new insights and welcomed outcomes that help work with the events and experiences. 

Shoulding:   Listening to a person repeatedly saying, “I should have …” as they urge the clock to rewind and in a Sliding Doors world enable them to rework a different outcome, is a common characteristic of grief, self-blame, guilt and the other feelings people have when they are reliving and reviewing death, losses and tragedies that they have been involved in.   

My feeling is that the ‘should haves’ are the product of hindsight. They’re no use now.  It’s not possible to rewind time and start over.    But maybe listening and responding with empathy to the ‘should haves’ is something to learn how to do.   As I was wondering about ‘should haves’ a poem, Self-Care, popped into my inbox via Poetry Unbound.  It’s got the wonderful lines in it:

‘Have you finally stopped
shoulding all over yourself?’

which I think I will pin to my fridge door.  I am certainly not immune to ‘shoulding’ myself and the poem offers questions around the value of ‘should’.  I explored this a bit further and came across an article “What could’ve, would’ve, might’ve been: Understanding regret and why we cannot avoid it”. 

The article talks of the shoulding as a form of regret: “One of the worst manifestations of regret is when it is relentless — forcing people to replay and rehash details of what happened in the past over and over again, which can cause chronic stress and symptoms of anxiety and clinical depression. Amy Summerville, a professor of psychology at the Miami University of Ohio, United States, refers to this as rumination — a bovine digestion term for chewing cud. Rumination is having thoughts spring unwanted to mind and we’re chewing them over without actually getting anything new out of them, they’re just repeatedly, intrusively, becoming part of our mental landscape.”  I turned to the transcript of this NPR talk.

Discussed in the talk, in relation to regrets, was the suggestion that in ‘should have, could have’, situation people may be ‘taking on more responsibility than was actually warranted…  Talking about a specific case, Summerville made the point that “[in this example, the person] was probably imagining that there’s more that could have happened differently. It’s certainly the case as well that people often tend to focus a lot on their own actions about negative events. And it’s important to think about the fact that you’re just one agent in a much bigger framework …  that there are lots of other pieces with the potential to play out differently.”

Self-care:  The hurricane/maelstrom/collapse of the firmament of our being requires (demands?) self-care, though this is sometime hard for the person in grief to recognise. My meanderings led me to a wonderful Self Care for the Exhausted and Overwhelmed  with resources and observations from people – Sharon Salzberg, Jason Reynolds, John O’Donahue and others  – on their experiences of life.  They talked of what they have learned through these experiences and what has brought them understanding and meaning through difficult and traumatic times.   None of these people are offering a ‘how to’, simply telling of how it was for them, but all bring insights of value to others. 

The second self-care package is on Self-Care for the Care Givers.  The people, I mentioned at the start, have each been care-givers in their grievous losses and tragic experiences.  Some have sought help in their paths through, while others have been determined to find their way unaided.  Thinking of people in grief and tragedy, the desire is to ‘make things better’ for them.  This is not possible.  One of the telling suggestions made by Dr Rachel Naomi Ramen is that for people in turmoil, the most useful approach is “to find them where they have become lost in the dark, and sit with them; and to know that just by sitting with them, eventually they will find what they need in order to move forward.”  She goes on to say, “Sometimes what appears to be a catastrophe, over time, becomes a strong foundation from which to live a good life.”

Maybe generative solidarity is just sitting alongside someone, acknowledging the ‘shoulding’ but not condoning it, and being there for them in silent, companionable ways without offering advice or solutions, as a form of self-care for them and for the carer. 


Twelve. It’s been popping up

Suddenly the number twelve keeps popping up.  It was Twelfth Night earlier in the week.  I’ve been following the Wildlife Trusts Twelve Days Wild.   My running calendar for the year now contains 12 10k races – one per month.  There’s a fun article, I just read, about the 12 days of Christmas carol in the New Scientist.  The Veg in one Bed book that I got as a Christmas present tells me ‘how to grow an abundance of food in one raised bed, month by month’.  I’ve just got to the point in The Marriage Portrait, our book club book, when the main character, Lucrezia, is twelve years’ old.  

And now I’m wondering what’s special about 12?  Jogging my memory of twelve, I remembered the Grimms Fairy Tales I loved as a child.  Several of them featured 12 – 12 brothers, 12 huntsmen, 12 dancing princesses. (Though they didn’t meet up in one story).   And, of course, the 12 apostles.  We had a tradition in our family of making an Easter Simnel Cake decorated with 11 marzipan balls.  Judas – the 12th apostle not being represented.   

Some other questions about twelve.  Why is it called a dozen?  Why is a baker’s dozen 13 items?  Why are there 12 months in a year? Why are eggs packed in boxes of 12 (a dozen)?   If I can find the answers to twelve questions about twelve, then I’ll be able to field questions about the number from my grandchildren – though they’ll probably come up with a question I haven’t thought of.   Maybe I will find another seven questions and then I’ll have twelve questions about twelve.   Meanwhile, I’ve now – thank you Google – got some answers to the five questions I’ve asked myself.

What’s special about 12? The encyclopaedia Britannica says, “The number 12 is strongly associated with the heavens—the 12 months, the 12 signs of the zodiac, and the 12 stations of the Moon and of the Sun. The ancients recognized 12 main northern stars and 12 main southern stars.”  Well, this info gives me more things to investigate as I don’t know about the 12 stations of the moon and sun, nor about the main northern and southern stars.  And it also raises the question why are there 12 signs of the Zodiac?

These aspects of twelve aren’t mentioned in the article Some fun facts about the number twelve which is written by a mathematician, Kevin Knudsen.  Sadly, I understand very little of what he says:

“[Twelve] is a highly composite number, which means that it has more factors than any smaller positive integer (it has six of them: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 12). The most famous such number is probably 5040, which Plato suggested as the ideal number of citizens in a city because of its large number of divisors. Twelve is a so-called sublime number, meaning it has a perfect number of divisors, the sum of which is also a perfect number. Recall that a perfect number is one that is the sum of its proper divisors. Six is such a number–6 = 1 + 2 + 3–and the sum of twelve’s divisors is 1+ 2 + 3 + 4 + 6 + 12 = 28, which is also a perfect number (28 = 1 + 2 + 4 + 7 + 14). We only know of two sublime numbers, 12 and 6086555670238378989670371734243169622657830773351885970528324860512791691264, so that makes 12 pretty special indeed.”

It’s fortunate I have registered to do a basic maths course but I don’t know if it will cover the terms that I am unfamiliar with in the para – ‘composite number’, ‘factors’, ‘positive integer’. 

As an aside, last week some friends and I were discussing maths and numeracy.  The discussion was sparked by one of us noting that there is confusion between the two and in their view, there is insufficient teaching of numeracy in English schools. National Numeracy notes “Numeracy is not always taught in the classroom: it means having the confidence and skills to use maths to solve problems in everyday life. Numeracy is as important as literacy – it’s sometimes called ‘mathematical literacy’ – and we need both to get on in life.”

Why is twelve called a dozen?  The online etymology dictionary has a detailed explanation of the origin of the word dozen.   A simple explanation is that it is from an old French word ‘dozeine’ (twelve) which was derived from the Latin word duodecim (meaning twelve)

Why is a baker’s dozen 13 items?  According to Britannica There are a few theories as to how a baker’s dozen became thirteen. But the most widely accepted is that bakers would throw an extra loaf into orders of a dozen to avoid a flogging.  In medieval England, there were strict laws controlling the price of bread. Bread had to be priced in relation to the price of the wheat used to bake it. If a baker was found to have cheated by shorting their loaves, things could go badly for them. … the big problem with these laws was that even careful bakers make mistakes. Variations in rising, baking, and air content could all change the size of a loaf and made it hard to be sure it was the planned weight. Afraid of accidentally coming up short, some bakers would just throw an extra loaf into lots of twelve. The extra made sure they were staying within the law–and avoiding a flogging.”

Why are eggs packed in boxes of 12?  Because twelve divides by two, three, four, and six, and a gross (144 or 12 x 12) divides by two, three, four, six, eight, nine, twelve, sixteen, eighteen, twenty-four, thirty-six, forty-eight and seventy-two, traders (some say originating with the Romans) used to count in multiples and factors of twelve.  Divisors and multiples of twelve are easier for packaging than packaging in divisors or multiples of 10s.

Why are there 12 months in a year?  The system we use in the UK is the Gregorian calendar introduced in 1582.  The introduction of the Gregorian calendar allowed for the realignment with events like the vernal equinox and winter solstice.  (It was introduced to the US, UK and Canada in 1752).  It is a solar calendar.  However, although it is used in the international standard for representation of dates and times:, it is not the only calendar in use.  An NY Times article gives info on multiple other calendars, noting “Each calendar reveals something about how the people who created it relate to the world around them while also preserving rich cultural identities and memories.”

Just for fun I looked up 12 in numerology (29 million hits) to see what the number represented there.  There’s very little consistency.  Among the attributes mentioned were:   completion, harmony, unbridled creativity(!), individualistic self-expression, independence, new beginnings, the power of the mind, rapid expansion, nurture, physical strength, knowledge, optimism, imagination, efficient communication, inspiration, cooperation, and explorationShall I take a baker’s dozen of them and find meaning in why I’ve noticed the number twelve crop up several times this week? 

Image: Twelve Drummers-drumming. The NariGunjan band of women drummers from a village in Bihar in Christmas themed sarees. Aparna Jain