Monday, 1 April 2013

Workshops - From Sheds and Swarfega to Hot Beds and Gemütlichkeit

When I was growing up workshop meant the shed out the back where my Dad repaired wind instruments and fashioned our kitchen cupboards from scrap wood and old insulator crates from the railway. Where the tools were well-kept and tidy and there was a smell of swarfega.

I wasn't terribly interested in kitchen cupboards or wind instruments. That was just what Dad did in the shed. This was the 70s and a whole generation of us were 'learning' that what you think you can do with your mind is far superior to what you might actually do with your hands. The theoretical had begun lording it over the practical big time. Of course I wouldn't have put it like that then.

There are consequences. I wouldn't know where to begin to fashion any cupboard, kitchen or otherwise, though the ones my Dad made remain firm in my memory. The strange thing is, that I was probably in my thirties before I realised I was actually pretty practical. Had I paid some more attention I could have learned a few very useful tricks from my Dad. But the world was young and so was I and though we were by no means wealthy by UK standards, there was OIL, and CHEAP TRANSPORT and you could GET A GRANT and go to study languages. So I did.

In the concept I have of workshops today the shed has given way to a room in a civic centre or hotel, the tools are far more abstract and you wash your hands with soap. In time the shed is years, the room is a weekend.

And how many workshops now have anything to do with work? Mainstream culture is so focused on leisure and entertainment, we could really call a lot of them leisureshops.

Yet there is much to be said for the weekend, day or even half-day 'workshop', where people teach and learn skills which could prove invaluable as the party really starts to be over and meeting up with one another may be more to do with necessity than entertainment. And this is something transition really encourages and makes space for. We learn to value the skills we have and how to share them with others, whether they be foodgrowing, repairing, communications, minute-taking, organising meetings or the ability to work with all sorts of different people.

Throughout my five-year involvement in transition, I've attended workshops and classes and joined in with all sorts of things I'd never have imagined before, from Sustainable Bungay's Introduction to Permaculture (weekend) course with Graham Burnett, to the Transition Town Anywhere group process at the 2012 Transition conference.

I also do my share of teaching. My departure point is constant: learning to pay attention to and connect with the living systems of the earth. This I do by introducing people to the wild, native and other plants that grow in the local area and considering them in terms of food, medicine, pollination and as co-habitants of the planet along with ourselves.

Throughout the whole of 2012 I organised a series of monthly talks, walks and yes, workshops on the theme of plants as medicine with Sustainable Bungay, as well as curating a plant medicine bed at our library community garden. We learned from guest speakers, authors, growers and herbalists about everything from biodynamic and organic herb growing to how to make (medicinal!) fruit wines.

At the end of the year I handed the baton over to Lesley Hartley. An experienced and keen grower, Lesley's focus for the Library Courtyard garden throughout 2013 will be Edible Plants. She is also organising regular workshops from 'Hot Beds and Leafy Greens' (who could resist that?) to Edible Bouquets.

At a recent Common Room event in Norwich, I taught a Trade School class on resilient herbs. It was winter, it was cold, many people had been down with the flu or colds which were taking ages to clear up, and spring seemed a very long way off. We needed something heartwarming to cheer our spirits and keep the circulation going. I would teach the 45 minute workshop/class on rosemary.

I also wanted everyone to take at least one thing away from the session they didn't know before they came. Something they would remember about the plant (not too difficult with rosemary as it helps improve memory)! You can read more about the class itself and what Rosemary did here.

First though, a pot of rosemary, lavender and thyme tea. What we first needed to establish on that cold day was what in Germany is called Gemütlichkeit, a general sense of calm, social belonging and 'well-being'.

I don't know if it's possible to teach that explicitly in a workshop. But the innate value of such a collective 'mood' or 'temper' seems just as important as the more obviously practical teachings, especially in times where there is less of everything and we need to work together, shop less and share more.

Times that are not the 70s, where cheap oil is no longer plentiful, and education no longer free.

Images: Shed Made with 100% recovered materials in 2008 by Richard Watson (my Dad); Planting Medicine with Transition Belsize, May 2012 (MW); Hot Beds and Leafy Greens poster by Lesley Hartley; Rosemary tea for Gemütlichkeit on such a winter's day, February 2013 (CDC)

This post first appeared on the the Social Reporting project on the Transition Network site on Friday 29th March 2013

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