What's in a name?

“the heron has had more than 30 local names in Britain, including hegrie (Shetland), moll hern (Midlands), frank (from the bird’s call – Suffolk), longie crane (Pembroke). Dandelion has at least 50, including clocks and watches, conquer more, devil’s milk plant (from its white latex), four o’clock, golden suns, lion’s teeth, piss-a-bed (the leaves are a renowned diuretic), priest’s crown, wet-weed, wishes.”
Richard Mabey

There is a wonderful, poetic beauty in many folk names that our scientific or proper names miss.  Folk names also give us a glimpse into history, into how the people who named them saw the world.

“Common names are a kind of time capsule, a record of the powers of observation and literary inventiveness of ordinary people. They log resemblances, uses, sounds, mythic associations, smells, seasonal appearances, kids’ games, superstitions, habitats. They’re witty, concise, evocative, sometimes even satirical.”
– Mabey

There are in fact so many wonderful names that Michel Desfayes, in his A Thesaurus of Bird Names, lists more than 100,000 European folk names.  And that is for birds alone.  And taking my lead from Desfayes, today I will just be looking at birds.

The world we enter when we look back at names is one with a more intimate connection to the world, to other living beings and through those names, we can see respect, reverence and frustration.  Through names, we see species through the eyes of our ancestors.

Birds are often named for their song, their habitat or their appearance, both the colloquial name and the more official names.  The latter category also often includes birds which are named after a specific person, such as Montagu’s harrier.

To explore folk names, let’s start with the Stonechat.  They have a myriad of names, many include reference to where the bird is found, some to it’s voice, some to appearance, others to it’s behaviour.  The Stonechat is associated with gorse and we find this reflected in folk names such as gorse-bird, gorse-linnet, gorse-chat and gorse-jack.

If we look to the Willow Warbler, we find 31 names containing nest references eg grass wren, ground-oven, ground featherpoke.  In terms of names which refer to their song, we have sweet-billy with sweet suggesting their ‘soo-weet’ call.  Other names include diminutive terms such as the Irish name sally-wren with wren often used in species which are not wrens, but rather to indicate a small bird, in the same way that the suffix -ling is often used. 

“sally-wren is special in combining both a female name, a reference to the habitat or context of willow (as in the various references to Sally or Salley Gardens in Northern Ireland and Ireland, respectively, and of course Salix – the willow), and to sallying (a word from a French root), the behaviour of flaying out after and insect and returning to the same perch or a nearby one.”
– Andrew Gosler, British Wildlife, August 2019

We have seen the use of human names in sally-wren, and I’m sure you are familiar with jenny-wren, but other names for the Wren include kitty-wren, katie-wren, jenny-squit, joey-cutty and kitty-tope.  For the Dunnock, we have hedge-betty and billy hedge-sparrow.  For the Great Tit, we have tommy-tit and so on.  Gosler states that this is a ‘significant indicator of the nature of human relationships with these birds in the past’.  Pre 1950ish, calling someone by their first name was a sign of familiarity and would be used for close friends and family members, as well as children.  Using human names for birds makes them easier to remember as they are already familiar words and makes the birds seem like an extension of the family and thus part of the circle of those we care for.

As well as references to general habitat, some birds have folk names that refer to where they build their nests, information which would have been very helpful for egg collectors – something we have a lot less need to know these days.  Another wonderful example that illustrates the interconnection between human lives and birds comes from the Corn Bunting whose eggs have markings like a child’s scrawl and who has names such as scribble bunting, scribbling school master and writing master. 

Names matter, not only because they provide information, but also because they are not necessarily neutral.  For example, Dunnocks were once Hedge-sparrows but sparrows have been a bit of a pest over human history.  In 1951, Max Nicholson called for name changes for a few birds, including the Dunnock:

“Dunnocks do no harm to us, but haqve in return been exposed to the undeserved insult and injury of being miscalled hedge-sparrows by people too stupid to see the absurdity of such a name.”

We can also turn to names to think about changing human culture and technology.  For example, many folk names refer to the sound of a bird through onomatopoeia because you can often hear but not see a bird.  Additionally, specific features were harder to identify before telescopes and binoculars were readily available. 

Whilst some bird songs lend themselves well to onomatopoeic names, others have melodies that are more complicated and are harder to condense into a human word or two.  This is why we have the cuckoo and chiffchaff, but don’t for example refer to the nightingale onomatopoeically.

When it comes to appearance, over 130 official British bird names refer to colour, with red and black being the most prominent; redstart, red grouse, redwing, blackbird, blackcap…  This might sound a sensible way of naming but it doesn’t allow for sex differences… the female blackbird being brown is an obvious example of this but there are others.

Whilst this is all very interesting, you may be wondering whether it matters?  Well, apparently research suggests that children can learn about nature when it is culturally contextualised.  Gosler refers to teaching students about the folk name yaffle for the Green Woodpecker, named for its call, and the success that this has as it ‘can catch in the mind more readily’ that the official name.

None of this is to say that folk names are superior to official names, or vice versa, but to highlight that both that their own function and their own virtues.  Scientific names allow for precise communication, including that across language barriers and over different geographic areas, without confusion. 

“They are a universal currency across cultures and languages, providing consistent names for both familiar organisms and those organisms that neither have a common name nor ever will.  Without Latin names, chaos would rule the science of biology”
– John Wright

As a bit of an aside, if you happen to know Latin or Greek, you can take a stab at working out what species is being referred to by a scientific name.  For example, take Somateria mollissima aka the eider duck.  We have soma meaning body, erion for wool, mollis is soft and issima as a word ending means very.  So, it is the ‘thing with very soft body wool’!  Whilst translating scientific names can be a fun puzzle resulting in, sometimes, poetic descriptions, they aren’t easy to remember, recall or even spell…

Whilst referring to plants, this extract from an article highlights an important point about the closeness of folk names in comparison to scientific names:

“Scientific terms in Greek and Latin, often disconnected from a local environment, aren’t always informative to the average person. Poison oak, for example, is a name that asks you beware of a plant with oak-like leaves. These folk names may often contain valuable descriptive knowledge that, given the vast variety of plants not yet fully classified, may not be available anywhere else but from the local people who live in that environment.
How Language and Climate Change Connect

Of course, nothing in language is static, and we can create our own traditions, especially if doing so helps us connect with the world around us more intimately.  Knowing the ‘correct’ name is not always important.  For inspiration, you can turn to A. F. Harold’s poem ‘Among The Ornithologists’:

“This one I’ll call the Fifth Day of Christmas Bird for its eye’s gold ring,
Here’s the Nervous Bugger who’s always a step ahead, twittering…
… A Single Drop of Blood in the Darkest Night Bird paddles out of a dream…”

(I couldn’t find a link to the full poem, so you’ve just got an extract.  It’s found in Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, by Stephen Moss)


Poetry about paintings

On Saturday I attended a course about writing poetry based on paintings. It’s not something I’ve ever tried before but my poetry group was going and it looked interesting.

Most of my writing wasn’t great but then I was writing about very different subjects to normal. Throughout the day we wrote about being part of a painting, about moving into or out of a painting, about meeting the artist and being the person who was posing. It produced some fun experiments and got me outside of my normal thinking which is always beneficial.

For a couple of my exercises, I chose to think about a cave painting of a bison.

If I could paint like the cave woman…

…you would see animals dancing across the rock
…you would feel the beat of your heart
crash with each thrash of hoof

I would show you the creativity of nature
so you want to reach into the stone
and pull out your own magic
– personal, powerful, empowering

and then you, you
could create your own universe
with your own mystical imaginings

I want to be like the cave woman

I want to be like the cave woman
feeling the rock and knowing
that’s where the spirit of horse
or bear or bison lay
& knowing how to release them
from their prison of stone.

I want to be like the cave woman
who knows earth, and air,
and stone as kin
& the plants that crowd the forest floor
as well as she knows her child.

But I reach out in the dark
of my bedroom, not cave,
to the untamed sculpture
that is my bed
with its heap of books
and phone chargers
searching for the lamp switch.

I could never be without my sacred
night space, it’s coccoon of safety
edged with fleece and teddy bears
and the convienece of electricity
that the cave woman could never have dreamt of

I want to be like the cave woman.
I want to know my home and land
with the intimacy that comes from survival,
but with the comforts that turn survival
into certainty and in doing so,
render the relationship
between the land and me
nul and void.

The Wind

I tried to explain once, to a friend who turned out not to be a friend, that the wind feels like it’s attacking me, personally.  The friend who turned out not to be a friend mocked me.  I was feeling attacked all round.  It hurt. 

It’s a hard thing to tell someone you don’t like the wind.  And it’s more than not liking.  It’s deeper.  More instinctive.  I fear the wind.  And being mocked did nothing to alleviate that fear.

Wikipedia has an entry for ancraophobia, also known as anemophobia, which is an extreme fear of wind or drafts and can cause panic attacks and avoidant behaviour. This is not me.  

Perhaps I don’t fear the wind.  Perhaps my awful feeling is a natural response to feeling attacked.  I feel like I want to retreat.  I want to hide.  I want to escape.

It’s not all wind.  A slight breeze is fine.  It’s the heavy, pushy gusts that I don’t like.

That wiki page goes on to say:

Ancraophobia is never present at birth. The fear of wind most often arises as a result of a negative experience in the person’s past. This experience may or may not be recalled in the conscious mind of the person but this has been imprinted on the subconscious mind. Most often an ancraophobic person experienced a situation where the wind was blowing heavily and they found themselves afraid that the wind might destroy or kill them.

When I was little, I might have been about 8, there was a horrific storm.  It was Christmas Eve and the power cut out.  For some reason or other that I no longer recall, my dad had to go outside in this storm.  The wind was screeching, there was thunder and lightening.  I was scared for my dad.  He was out in this hell and surrounded by trees and who knows what was caught in the wind.  I had seen Wizard of Oz a few times.  I knew about hurricanes.  This was not far off.  He had been outside for what felt like years.  Hours at least.  I was scared.  Tentatively I raised my concerns with my mother. 

A mistake.  Looking back I can see she was scared.  But she snapped at me.  She told me off.  She made me feel more afraid.  I was already scared.  I didn’t need someone to yell at me and tell me not to be so stupid.  It had taken a lot for me to ask if she thought he was ok.  I was scared.  I had a hundred and one visions flashing through my child’s imagination.  Dad knocked unconscious.  Dad under a fallen tree. Dad under a fallen wall.  I needed to be told he hadn’t been gone very long.  I needed to be told he was ok.  I needed her to be the adult.  To act unafraid, even if she was.  I needed to know that in a fight between my dad and the wind, he would win.  Not to be shouted at to shut up.  I went quiet, silent with my imagination and my fears and that silence was filled with the screaming wind and the cracks of trees outside the window.

So when my friend mocked me, she mocked that little girl who was afraid that her dad had been killed by the wind and that her mother didn’t know how to be a mum.

But maybe it was more than a difficult experience.  As late as the 1900s in America, there was an idea that night air is poisonous.  That breathing it in would damage your health, to the extent that leaving the window open at night was a step too far.  Think about the word malaria, it comes from the words bad air.  Air is bad.  This belief may have travelled over from Europe where various types of winds were associated with illness and death.

Going back as far as the ancient Greeks, there was a belief that the type of winds that affected an area also affected the health of the residents.  For example, hot winds were linked with excessive menstruation and irritable bowels.  Hippocrates wrote about winds and health, saying:

“Those cities which are faced towards the sunrise are healthier than those which are faced towards the North and than those which are faced towards warm winds even if the distance between them is only one stadium”

There may have been some element of truth in what the Greeks believed, in that the winds do bring particular types of weather.  So whilst we know that north easterly winds don’t bring chills, croup, sore throats and so on, they may bring the conditions which allow said ailments to prosper.

In a more imaginative vein, a French scholar described the African samiel wind which was said to separate limbs from bodies.  Another horrific wind is the khamsin which leaves bodies warm, swollen and blue.  The harmattan was said to parch the skin but did actually have curative properties and finally the sirocco wind had a depressing effect, stopped digestion and killed overeaters.

Whilst I said these were more imaginative, there is again, an aspect of truth behind these fanciful sounding winds.  For example, the harmattan wind is dry, relatively cool and blows from the north east, bringing relief from the damp heat of the tropics and thus, likely provides an element of relief from certain conditions.

But this cannot explain my aversion to winds.  I am already ill, the winds do not seem to have an immediate effect on this.  Perhaps we need to return to my roots, going back further than 8 years old.  Back to when I was 8 months old.

It is 1987 and the UK is facing what will become known as The Great October Storm.  Most people are aware of it because of an infamous weather broadcast where Michael Fish joked about how a woman had called the BBC to ask if there was a Hurricane coming.

The most damaged areas were many miles away from where I was living but the sheer level of destruction sent shockwaves through the country.  My mother’s side of the family live in Kent, perhaps my reaction to this storm came, like the one when I was 8, through my mothers reaction.  I imagine it was a time of fear.  Ultimately, 18 people were killed by the storm, there was £2 billion of damage (in 1987 terms) and 15 million trees were lost, including ancient and beloved ones.  Whilst the significant destruction occurred in the South, I have found that where I was living was subject to winds of about 30mph and there was flooding in the north of England.  Perhaps, instead of the direct pain of the storm, I felt the pain of the land, of the trees, of the roots that were ripped from the soils.

But is this enough to explain my visceral reaction to gusty winds?  To the way I retreat inside myself when I have no choice but to face the wind?  I feel unsteady, unsteady of my feet but unsteady in myself, in who I am.  I feel unstable as if the person I am could blow away as easily as the autumn leaves that rush down the street. 

Watching a gale from the safety of my home, I still feel the need to withdraw from the window, to wrap myself up in a blanket, as if to hold myself together.  The wind, more so than any other weather, makes me vulnerable.  It is as if I can feel the terror of the trees that are violently buffeted back and forth, uncontrollably.  I feel exposed and as if the wind is whipping through me, as if I no longer am.

Perhaps I am not scared of the wind.  Perhaps I am afraid of disappearing.  Of being unable to hold onto myself.

Another historical reason to fear the wind comes from its link with malevolent spirits.  High winds and storms were often attributed to evil spirits or the actions of witches or the devil.  It was said that a witch could summon a storm by whistling which makes me wonder, does the whistling wind exacerbate the storm? Self summoning?

In many cultures, the wind was thought of as a god or goddess, or a collection of them, often with different gods/goddesses for the different compass directions.  For the Greeks, there were eight wind deities with four chief gods; Boreas for the north wind, Zephryos for the west, Notos for the south and Euros for the east.  Each of these chief gods were associated with a season as well.  In addition to bringing a new season, many of the wind deities were thought to bring change, both good and bad.  Perhaps this is what makes me uncomfortable, the threat of change?

Whatever the reason, the wind agitates both the land and me.  It aggravates me.  It whips under my skin and threatens the integrity of my being.  It is a monstrous, invisible threat, bringing with it cruel taunts of devastation and destruction.  The restless tempest howls, outside and inside.

As I write this, Storm Dennis is swirling in the street, hot on the heels of Storm Ciara. For someone who is not a fan of strong winds, it’s been an intense few weeks…

Listening to animals

“Some people talk to animals.  Not many listen though. That’s the problem.”
– A A Milne, Winnie the Pooh

“If a lion could talk, we could not understand him”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Until the lion has its own storyteller, tales of the lion hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Zimbabwean proverb

John Hollander once wrote that “we name animals, but if any of them name us – dolphins or gorrilas, perhaps – the system has yet to be represented”.  Well, wild elephants do have a word for human being, and it indicates danger.  However, his comment echoes a long thought, general assumption, that humans are the only animals which have a language, or at least that our language is vastly superior.

Language, more so than base communication, has been used as a marker of humanness but the nature of animal communication is so different to ours that we haven’t been able to understand or translate them and hence are unable to understand the complexity.  What we have long failed to accept or consider is that communication and language is going to be geared to life experiences –  for example, if you live in the sea, you need to communicate in a way that can be heard in water.

Whenever humans have tried to teach animals to speak, it has been trying to make them speak as we do.  Human language is seen as the gold standard and this approach has inevitably failed because we have different physiological systems and are not designed to make the same vocalisations. We also fail to think about non audible communications.  If we want to talk to animals, we should listen to the communication that they are sharing.  Animals are talking all around us, we just don’t hear them.

“The research, though still at an early stage, does show that animals communicate, that they do so in a more complex way than we previously believed and that certain characteristics in different species correspond to human language.”
– Eva Meijer

Prairie dog communication has been studied and translated in a way that many other animal languages haven’t been.  Their language is made up from verbs, nouns and adverbs and they can use their words in new combinations to reflect new threats.  It is highly sophisticated and is complemented by body language.  And of course, it’s not just us and prairie dogs who have complex languages.  Whales, octopuses, bees and many birds have a grammar system.

“Animal languages sometimes also have complex structures, can be symbolic and abstract, and can refer to situations in the past or the future, or beyond the reach of animals in some other way.”
– Eva Meijer

Chimps use numerous gestures and vocalisations to communicate – by 2015, 66 vocalisations and 88 gestures had been mapped to compile a dictionary.  For example, nibbling on a leaf is an invitation to flirt!

Elephants are thought to have an extensive language which can express information about emotions, intentions and physical characteristics.  A zoo born elephant called Batyr sadly never met another elephant and possibly driven by loneliness, he learnt to say over 20 sentences which included swearing and ‘Batyr is good’.  He could change the sound of his name depending on his mood and as well as mimicking humans, he could also mimic the sounds of dogs and mice.

But of course, communication is not just made through vocalisations.  Animals communicate through body language, behaviour, scent and chemicals.  Hyenas communicate by making use of scent signals from their anal glands.  Its well known that dogs communicate in the same way and for some animals, urine and excrement are a way of sharing information.  For example, wombat poo (which is cubed) provides details about the individual including sex and whether a female is in heat.

“Colour in fish is believed to be a complex language that humans still know little about… The mantis shrimp communicates using colours and has twelve colour channels, while humans have only three.”
– Meijer

Honeybees communicate through dance and chemical signals.  Whilst it’s fairly common knowledge that their dance passes on information about which direction the pollen is, it can also give details about distance, how much nectar there is and dance to decide where the best location is for a new nest.  The latter involves telling the rest of the hive how good a new spot is – the better the location, the longer the dance. 

Sharks make the water move in certain ways to communicate with other sharks, as well as using sound, scent and electrical signals. 

When it comes to bats, we know they make use of echolocation to navigate and that these high pitched squeaks are too high for us to hear.  In addition to those, they make other vocalisations that we cannot hear without the help of technology.  Now that equipment has improved, it has been discovered that their language is complicated.  It’s actually thought that bats are the mammals with the most complex vocal communicators, after humans.

It’s not just bats that have vocalisations out of our hearing range.  Mice, moths, grasshoppers and other insects all have their own communication which until recently, we were oblivious to.

“The more we learn about animal communication, the more complex it appears to be… Instead of defining whether non-human animal forms of communication fit into the frame of what humans define as ‘language’, we should instead pay attention to what they are saying and begin investigating what language is and could be from there.”
– Meijer

Further reading

Prairie Dogs

“Peace, harmony, and abundance don’t just happen by accident; they happen by design, one step at a time.  You have to know what to bring closer to you and what to keep away.”
– Animal Totem Tarot

Prairie dogs aren’t a species I’m familiar with but I’ve really enjoyed learning about them.  There are 5 species; black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison’s, Utah, and Mexican prairie dogs.  They live in grasslands and aren’t dogs, instead being closely related to ground squirrels.  They live in close knit family groups called coteries, which usually consist of an adult male, one or more adult female and their various children.  The coteries are grouped together, forming a ward, and wards come together to make a colony or town which can be home to thousands of individuals.

Family is important to prairie dogs and they are here to ask you about your relationship to family – literally, how is your relationship with your family and how do you feel about the concept?  Today, we are much more open to the idea of found family and that is fantastic!  Beyond family, prairie dogs are asking you to think about your place and role within the local environment and neighbourhood. 

Coteries have complex tunnel networks, with multiple entrances and different rooms for different activities; sleeping, storing food, getting rid of waste, raising young etc.  Living underground provides them with protection against the environment, protection from predators and space to carry out daily living in safety.

In many ways their set up is akin to ours, and like our species, they are sociable.  About half their live is spent underground in the burrows and when they aren’t there, they are nearby.  They stay close to home and, whilst they live mostly peaceful lives, they will defend their territory.  They are a reminder to us that we can, and should, protect our own boundaries, whether that is literal in the sense of gatekeeping who is allowed into our homes or more metaphorical by protecting our emotional boundaries.  Set your boundaries and maintain them.  Let in only what you want to let in.  And don’t forget to set boundaries around your dreams, your goals and your projects.  Not everything need always be open to comments.  If you have a work in progress and you aren’t ready to share, don’t.

In the morning, prairie dogs leave their burrows to harvest grass, but this is a risky job, so one will feed, while another keeps watch.  This is just one example of how they cooperate with each other for the greater good of the community.  They also groom each other, play fight and even ‘kiss’ upon meeting.  It’s thought that through kissing, oxytocin – a pleasure hormone – is released.  During these greet kisses, they open their mouths and touch tongues for a couple of seconds.  They do this a lot, but male-female kisses are rarer than female-female and female-pups so it’s thought that it helps to reinforce bonding.  It is also thought to be a way of communicating whether you are friend or foe. 

As they stay in the same area their whole life, they are vulnerable to predators – once the predator knows where they live, they know where to find a meal.  To protect themselves, prairie dogs have a large array of alarm calls.  They use different sounds for different dangers and can indicate whether the threat is coming from the air or from the ground.  Further they can describe the threat in detail; if a human is approaching the call includes information about the fact it is a human, what size they are, what colour clothes they are wearing and even if they are carrying a gun.  Their language is made up from verbs, nouns and adverbs and they can use their words in new combinations to reflect new threats.  This language is highly sophisticated and is complemented by body language.  For example, tail flagging – where they way their tails around – and their wonderful ‘jump-yips’ which seem to be an expression of joy, and which look like they are engaging in a full body prayer.

 “When a prairie dog sends out the alarm that a predator is coming she or he packs a lot of information into that call.  Prairie dogs say something like, “Hey! Watch out! Here comes Joe, that medium-sized, brownish coyote, over the ridge on the left, coming towards us at a steady pace.” While they may not use these “exact” words, they communicate pretty exacting information about a potential threat.”
– Jennifer L. Verdolin

Verdolin relates this to communication in human relationships, highlighting the value in being very exact and precise.  Her point is that whilst we think we have communicated a message we may have shared less than we think.  She gives the example of a person asking their partner to do the dishes, they say they will, then the first person gets annoyed because they haven’t been done ten minutes later.  The second person hasn’t meant to annoy them or lie about their intent because they are planning on doing the dishes, just in half an hour.  Learn from the prairie dogs and be precise about your communication, it will save you hassle in the long term.

These animals are also referred to as prairie rats as it was once thought they bred like rats, but this isn’t the case.  They breed only once a year and females are only receptive for about 5 hours a year.  This makes baby prairie dogs seem a bit of a miracle!  More so once you learn that half of pups don’t live long enough to breed themselves. Those that do make it show a tenacity that you don’t see if you just glance at them.

Prairie dogs have an important role to play in the environment around them.  Their tunnel systems create shelter for other animals including toads and rattlesnakes.  The bare patches of ground created by grazing attract insects which in turn are food for a number of bird species.  And of course, the prairie dogs themselves are food for animals such as coyotes and hawks…  Kristy Bly from the WWF claims that at least 136 other species are supported by the activities of the prairie dogs.  They even help to aerate and fertilise the soil, allowing for a diverse array of plants to grow.

In terms of symbolism, the Jicarilla Apache associated the prairie dog with water and thought that they could lead thirsty people to water in times of need.  This association is also found in Navajo culture.

A number of websites took the burrowing aspect of prairie dog life as a call to retreat:

“Prairie Dog…calls me when it’s time to rest, when it’s time to honor the internal quest. I go into retreat so I may see, a way to replenish the potential in me.”
— Jamie Sams & David Carson

Other messages from these animals are about the importance of community, treasuring the small things in life even in the face of strife and the importance of setting strong boundaries.  Given their incredible, complex language system, precise communication is also emphasised here.

I nearly didn’t include this, not wanting to end on a sad note, but unfortunately Prairie Dog populations have plummeted as they have become seen as pests. They have been subject to poison and other methods of extermination. They are shot for sport and, like so many animals around the world, are experiencing habitat loss and destruction.

As we’ve seen, these are highly valuable creatures which provide a huge service to their local area and are giving scientists a fantastic insight into non-human languages. Please share what you’ve learnt about their communication skills – it will help others to see prairie dogs in an intriguing light, as well as helping to break down the myth that only humans can talk.


Being environmentally friendly and disabled, the more positive post

This is the more positive half of being disabled and environmentally friendly and the suggestions will be applicable more broadly as well.  Again, I’m going to (mostly) use the framework from 2011 just because it does give a structure and I’m sure you’d rather have that than me rambling…

I apologise for any strange formatting, wordpress have changed their editor and it seems to have a mind of it’s own…

Eco-improving your home (retrofitting)

  • Insulating your home
  • Upgrading your heating and hot water systems
  • Fitting and using water saving devices
  • Generating own energy by installing renewables

Whether you rent or own your home will affect how well you can implement these suggestions but as a starting point, you can look at whether grants are available in your area.  I did a quick search for my area and found one for private home owners as well as one for private landlords.  Both were focused on improving the energy efficiency of the property and seemed to cover insulation as well as heating upgrades.

Simple Energy Advice also offers suggestions and can do so on personalised basis by asking you a few questions about your home.  As I am a council tenant, it wasn’t especially helpful for me but it might be more useful if you own your home.

There is something called the Renewable Heat Incentive which offers finance to help with the upfront costs of installing renewable energy sources.  I did try reading it to find out who would be eligible but I got bogged down in it and couldn’t face carrying on… Sorry.. But it does exist!

Using energy and water wisely

  • Managing temperature
  • Washing and drying laundry using minimum energy and water

There are all the usual tips of turn the heating down by 1 degree and put on a jumper but these are both common sense and talked about too much.  I get frustrated every time I see that turning down my heating by a degree won’t affect me because it does.  My flat does cold or hot and the degree in question moves us from one to the other.

I have my heating on a timer so that I’m trying to maximise the hotness at appropriate times and if I need it at other times I boost it…  But after a few years of trying, I have found no other way to comfortably live in my flat.  Even with having blankets all over the place, heated blankets, electric hot water bottles and so on. 

I have a combined washer dryer and this may seem an obvious way to save space in a small flat but I wanted to mention it as I was talking to someone recently who had her mind blown by the idea – she had never come across one.  I don’t get my clothes dirty so tend only to do 30min wash cycles at 30 degrees, with eco friendly washing powder, no softener and I throw everything in together.  Admittedly, I don’t own much that’s white but I have never bothered with delicate washes, cotton washes and so on.  This helps me to cut down on the number of wash cycles I’d be doing over the course of a week.  Occasionally we will use the dryer function –mainly for towels – but we don’t use it to entirely dry them, we get a lot of the water out so that they dry quicker on my radiators and clothes airer.

Essentially, I think my advice here is to think about how you’re using your washing machine and/or dryer.  As humans, we get into habits and washing machines have improved considerably and so you might be able to change those habits and utilise their technology in a more efficient way.

Yorkshire Water also have a free water saving kit and other areas may have similar schemes.

Extending the life of things (to minimise waste)

  • Maintaining and repairing (instead of replacing)
  • Giving new life to unwanted items eg furniture
  • Making the most of kerbside and local recycling services
Look into repair cafes to see if you can get help maintaining and repairing your existing items.  To find second hand options instead of brand new can take a bit longer so isn’t always an option but there’s an array of places to check out: • FreecycleEbay (you can set your search to bring back second hand items) • Facebook • Car boot fairs • GumtreePreloved • Charity shops • Reuse network And don’t forget to donate as well. In terms of recycling… despite what I said in the first post, see if your local council can help you.  If you have friendly neighbours, they might also be willing to lend a hand once a week to pop the recycling out. Also, think beyond the regular recycling.  A lot of councils don’t recycle the lids from plastic bottles but you can collect them and take them into Lush. Batteries can be recycled in a lot of supermarkets – we pop them into the bags we take shopping otherwise I know we’d forget them.  Plastic bags, bubble wrap and other plastic film can be recycled at some supermarkets. You can even recycle your vibrator!

Cooking and managing a sustainable and healthier diet

  • Choosing foods grown in season (in country of origin)
  • Increasing proportion of vegetables, fruit, and grains in diet (eating a balanced diet)
  • Cooking sustainable and healthier food
  • Wasting less food
  • Growing your own food

Veg boxes are a way of buying local food and some include things like eggs and meat.  Some online supermarkets offer “green” slots meaning they are already in your area at that point so you can reduce the fuel they use by choosing one of those.  Meal planning can help to reduce waste and buying frozen vegetables is one way of reducing the prep involved and also reducing waste.

Choosing eco-products and services

  • Using labelling to choose most energy and water efficient products
  • Choosing fairly traded, eco-labelled and independently certified food, clothing etc
  • Borrowing, hiring or sourcing second-hand or recycled
  • Buying ethically when travelling

If you can, financially, think about purchases as investment and buy things to last and which will be more cost effective over time.  For example an A+++ rated fridge will use less energy and hence money.

As a result of my numerous allergies, I often buy eco-friendly products.  This might mean using hankies instead of tissues, using eco cleaning products for you and your house and thinking about whether you need fabric softener, air fresheners etc.

Using and future proofing outdoor spaces

  • Gardening for biodiversity and environment
  • Enjoying the outdoors
If growing plants interests you but you don’t have much space, think about pot plants, window boxes and even herbs in your kitchen.  The latter even saves you buying herbs, means less packaging and might inspire you later to garden if you find yourself with one.  There are also community gardening schemes cropping up which often have herbs, fruit and veg so has the benefit of free food too! If you find somewhere outdoors that is accessible for you, share the information on Euan’s Guide to help other disabled people find it. Please share your own ideas and tips in the comments below!

Being environmentally friendly and disabled

In one of the papers I read about disability and the environment, I came across a Defra sustainable lifestyles framework from 2011 which I thought would be interesting to look at through a disability lens.  

The following is likely to sound a bit defeatist, like it’s virtually impossible for disabled people to have a sustainable lifestyle.  That is not my intention.  Every disability is different and impacts on lifestyle in different ways.  I am playing devil’s advocate a bit here but what I want to show is that measuring disabled people’s sustainable lifestyle against able bodied people’s doesn’t take into account a different starting point.  I also want to highlight how important it is to engage with disabled people when it comes to solutions.

Eco-improving your home (retrofitting)

  • Insulating your home
  • Upgrading your heating and hot water systems
  • Fitting and using water saving devices
  • Generating own energy by installing renewables

A lot of disabled people I know live in council housing, or privately rent.  Very few people I know actually own a home, let alone the disabled people I know.  This means that we have very little control over the insulation, the ability to fit solar panels, the type of heating and so on.  I strongly believe that there should be a landlord minimum standard around eco-improvement because they are the ones who can make the changes needed.  And I believe that this should be a stronger standard when it comes to council housing.  Why don’t council houses have solar panels on?  Why aren’t they all appropriately insulated?  Why aren’t all the windows double glazed?

One note on a kind of rental agreement which includes all bills – based on my experience, this tends to result in excessive use of heating because there is no financial incentive to be careful.  It’s also most common in shared housing and so you end up with no one taking overall responsibility. 

Using energy and water wisely

  • Managing temperature
  • Washing and drying laundry using minimum energy and water

Managing the temperature of your home when you are disabled can have different consequences.  You may not move around or might use a wheelchair and it gets a lot colder when you aren’t moving.  You may be home all day and thus needs to use more heating.  You may at risk of illness if temperature is not managed appropriately.

However, as disabled people tend to be poorer, you may end up using less heating because it is literally a choice of heating or eating.  An environmental benefit as a result of living in poverty…

When it comes to laundry, some disabled people need to do more loads of laundry and often space is a premium in rented properties, so there may not be a practical place to dry laundry.  If you have a wheelchair user, you need more clear floor space and that can mean having to use a dryer.  You might also be using your spare room – an obvious place to dry laundry – for your carers to stay in, or for all the random bits of equipment which tend to come with being disabled.

Extending the life of things (to minimise waste)

  • Maintaining and repairing (instead of replacing)
  • Giving new life to unwanted items eg furniture
  • Making the most of kerbside and local recycling services

This isn’t too badly hindered by disability, of course depending on the nature of the disability.  When it comes to maintaining and repairing, I physically can’t do this most of the time but I do get friends and carers to help.

I prefer second hand things, which have stories and aren’t run of the mill, so giving new life to unwanted items is actually something I would do regardless of the environmental benefit.  It is often a cheaper option – I got a bedside table for £3 because it was second hand and it has worked fine for me for maybe ten years now.  York has a few charity shops which focus on furniture and the wonderful Community Furniture Store which offers reduced rates for people on means tested benefits.

When it comes to recycling, I feel this is an area where the council could do more to make it easier for disabled people.  When I moved into my flat I was asked if I needed help getting my recycling to the kerb and I said yes.  Nothing ever happened.  I was ok as I just asked friends and carers to help but I wonder how many people aren’t recycling because of difficulties getting it to the kerb.

On a slight aside, it really winds me up when the refuse workers abandon bins and recycling boxes in the middle of the pavement… I can’t just hop off and walk round… Infuriating…

Cooking and managing a sustainable and healthier diet

  • Choosing foods grown in season (in country of origin)
  • Increasing proportion of vegetables, fruit, and grains in diet (eating a balanced diet)
  • Cooking sustainable and healthier food
  • Wasting less food
  • Growing your own food

Choosing foods grown in season often means being able to get to local shops – often not accessible – or receive a (heavy) veg box.  It also means being able to prepare fruits and veg which can be a nightmare for many of us.  Growing your own food is also difficult and many people don’t have space, disabled or not.

Choosing eco-products and services

  • Using labelling to choose most energy and water efficient products
  • Choosing fairly traded, eco-labelled and independently certified food, clothing etc
  • Borrowing, hiring or sourcing second-hand or recycled
  • Buying ethically when travelling

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, disabled people are more likely to be living in poverty and the first two suggestions often end up costing more initially.  Yes they might be long term more cost effective, but that assumes someone has the money at hand when they need to make the purchase.

Travelling sustainably

  • Making the most of cycling, walking, public transport and car sharing for short journeys
  • When buying or replacing a vehicle, take advantage of lower-emission models available
  • Making the most of alternatives to travel, eg video conference
  • Making the most of lower-carbon alternatives to flying, eg trains
  • Driving more efficiently

Oh how wonderful it would be to have public transport as a realistic option… But buses don’t turn up, they turn up but with no space for a wheelchair, they don’t always go where you need.  Trains are a nightmare as your booked assistance may not turn up so you miss your train, or you get on the train but no one turns up to get you off… The stress that these unpredictable factors add to a journey is awful but it also means you have to plan for things to go wrong.  You also have to arrive 20 minutes early for a train if you need assistance, so a half hour trip suddenly takes nearly an hour, one way.  Instead of spending an hour traveling somewhere and back, you’ve doubled that.  Assuming nothing goes wrong.

Cycling and walking are clearly not options available for everyone.

When it comes to vehicles, finding a vehicle that works for the disability is likely to be a priority, otherwise what is the point.  If you are able to get a Motability vehicle, then you are limited to their options and I might be wrong but the end of the price range I was looking at didn’t have any eco options that would work with my wheelchair.

Setting up and using resources in your community

  • Setting up car share and using car clubs
  • Installing community micro-gen
  • Sharing knowledge, skills etc

Car share schemes and car clubs seem to be gaining popularity and I see more of them parked around York meaning they are more accessible and there’s more likely to be one near you.  But I’m yet to see one you can get an electric wheelchair in.  And they won’t be much use for people who can drive but require adaptations to do so. 

Community micro-gen assumes you have the authority to make that sort of decision about the home you live in. I’ve not checked, but I’m going to assume it’s not that straightforward if you’re renting. My old landlord wouldn’t even let me change energy providers…

Using and future proofing outdoor spaces

  • Gardening for biodiversity and environment
  • Enjoying the outdoors

Again, this requires space for a garden and the physical ability to access that garden, and to actually be physically able to garden.

Enjoying the outdoors is more accessible but isn’t problem free… Think steps, lack of suitable paths etc…

Being part of improving the environment

  • Volunteering
  • Getting involved in local decisions

These are more achievable than many of the other sections in the framework.

As I said at the beginning, this isn’t meant to be a list of reasons why it’s impossible to be an environmentally friendly disabled person but to highlight some of the barriers that exist.  Many of these barriers are easily overcome but require societal level change, not individual level change.  Further, if disabled people weren’t automatically at increased risk of poverty, a number of these suggestions would be easier to enact. 

I’m thinking about doing a follow up post which looks at the ways disabled people can follow some suggestions, despite and acknowledging, the barriers that exist.  For example, when it comes to outdoor spaces, I’ve already written about engaging with nature when you’re disabled.  If you have any suggestions or tips, I’d love to hear.