Saturday 31 July 2010

Hard Labour

When the first rains fell
we did what was necessary
we climbed down from our lofty thoughts
and began to work the fields

(from ‘Poor Memory’ by Alberto Blanco, trans. Mark Shafer)

Some weeks ago I met a woman on a bicycle just outside the village of Uggeshall, a few miles from where I live. She was born and raised there, has a garden orchard and sells her apples and jams outside her gate. She told me she remembered the moment when practical jobs and skills started to be looked down on in favour of adminstrative and office work, which was about the time she left school. We were roughly the same age. I am 48.

I was born in London, and grew up in High Wycombe on a council estate. My dad was a car mechanic and my mum cleaned offices and worked in shops. My dad also repaired wind instruments as a sideline, and built our kitchen cabinets himself from old railway sleepers. My maternal uncles, who like my mum had emigrated from Ireland in the 50s, spent their lives laying bricks on building estates in London.

I passed my ‘twelve plus’ exams and went to grammar school. The last thing I wanted to do was work with my hands. I didn’t know how to do it and I didn’t want to know. I couldn’t wait to grow up and move back to London, which I did, where I worked in television and then studied for a degree in languages.

Yesterday, eight of us from Sustainable Bungay turned up to shovel five tons of earth and compost into the new raised beds and borders at the Library Courtyard Garden. I met Paul ('Coley') the bricklayer for the first time. You can see his fine work in the photos.

In all we were there for about four hours. It was hard, physical work, made lighter by the fact we were doing it together, for something that the library courtyard group, led by Nick, has been planning and working on for over a year now. All the negotiations with the librarians, organising a permaculture weekend, a community consultation, the design meetings, sourcing the bricks, soil, manure, plants and trees and transporting them, finding a willing bricklayer. All this and more with the inevitable delays, frustrations and disappointments - WOULD THIS PROJECT EVER HAPPEN?

“Transition is a white, middle-class movement,” is a criticism I hear all the time. But like the famous “We’re all middle class now,” it appears to be saying something when really it acts as a conversation stopper or sends us running off to see how ‘we’ can change how we’re perceived.

The fact is whatever class we are from, when we float around with our ‘lofty thoughts’ and opinions and don’t get down to the actual work, others unseen, mostly somewhere else but sometimes in the same house or group, will be picking up the tab. Doing the hard graft, the cleaning, the mining, the building, the paperwork, the phone calls, the communicating, the organising, the donkey work.

For Transition to work we all have to pull our weight.

Pics: Sustainable Bungay Shifting and Tamping Down Soil at the Library Courtyard Garden; Wheeling Barrows and Raking

Friday 30 July 2010

Pausing for Reflection (Pattern 4.15)

The challenge of Pattern 4.15 Pausing for Reflection/'How Am I Doing?', Rob Hopkins writes, is to be aware of possible burnout due to being swept along from "exciting idea to exciting idea" and getting caught up in the great maelstrom of possibilities that Transition offers, whilst neglecting other areas of our lives. One solution he suggests is that once every six months or so, we stop to reflect on how life is going, and look at the balance between what we are contributing to Transition and the rest of our lives.

You go to meetings in the beginning and are thoroughly energised by the ideas and possibilities. This is definitely what I experienced. All the potential for coming to terms with finite planetary energy resources on a community level seemed infinite! The promise of us all getting together and getting on down to help restore some sanity and balance to ourselves, our world and the planet was very exciting indeed.

At the Transition East Regional Gathering in Downham Market in March 2009, I remember just how intensely impassioned I felt about it all. And I wasn't alone. But after that meeting I felt tired and drained in a way that didn't feel quite right. You can see what I mean by this photograph that Josiah took of me that day.

There’s a Spanish saying, "del dicho al hecho hay mucho trecho", which translates literally as 'from the said to the done there's a great gap.' My feeling now is that the talking about all the exciting possibilities is tiring in itself. That talking and theories often get in the way of what we actually need to be doing in this Transition time, all the practical things for preparing to live together with less available energy, a different climate and for many of us, less money.

So I find myself more and more drawn towards doing. Not in the sense of busy busy busy lovely to see you must have lunch can’t stop so many community projects on the go darling, but wholeheartedly engaging in what it means to be in transition in reality.

In the days of post-Unleashing Transition Norwich at the early Heart and Soul meetings, we would each bring something of meaning from our lives, a photograph say, or a poem, for the check-in at the beginning. Then we would speak from it. I've spent most of my adult life engaged in inner work and transformation, so I would bring Mexican tin butterflies of various sizes and speak about the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly and how the old immune system of the caterpillar in its death throes rises up and attacks the newly forming imago. Then something extraordinary happens as 'imaginal buds' start communicating with each other and the butterfly forms, eventually emerging as the comma, cabbage white, peacock or scarlet admiral that dances around the buddleia at this time of year.

So how am I doing now is really how are we doing now? Because the butterfly only happens when we need to join. And communication and working together is the only way I know about to help this happen.

So, shortly I shall upload this post to the blog from the studio our neighbours Philip and Irene let us use for all our Transition work. We have a conversation now, the two households, which has become deeper, more relaxed and more neighbourly since our involvement with Transition, even though we’d already been friendly for some years, and they wouldn't consider themselves transitioners in the slightest. Then I'll be off to help shift five tons of topsoil for the Bungay Community Garden at the library. I'll talk about that tomorrow.

Blogging in Philip's studio; At the first Transition East Regional Gathering, March 2009 (by Josiah Meldrum); Comma Butterfly on Buddleia in the Garden

Thursday 29 July 2010

Carbon News - Not On Holiday in France, but...

"Europe: 7 out of 91 banks considered too weak to face a crisis," was the headline that made me pick up Le Monde on Monday.

Inside, the reports included one on how the German economy is rallying to due to its strong export sector, and another about how the US senate as of 22 July has currently abandoned the attempt to come up with any legislation to cap US carbon emissions, dropping even the minimum agreed at the Copenhagen summit last December.

Last Wednesday was the final session of our six Carbon Conversations meetings, a course based on finding ways to reduce personal carbon emissions. Six of us sat together at Christine's place in St. Benedict's Street. Christine asked us how doing the course had changed our awareness of Climate Change and what actions we had made and would make in the future having taken part in the conversations. It was a warm, intimate meeting and we were open with one another about what we each felt we could or couldn't do to lower our carbon footprint further.

In the corridor afterwards I asked Erik if calling him a marine biologist was accurate - I was thinking of my recent post Wild In The Summer Garden. (In fact I called him a microbiologist there, what to do?). He said he would probably describe himself as a biological oceanographer.

I was reminded of this just now because I caught sight of a front page article in today's Daily Telegraph about the annual State Of The Climate report, based on the work of 100 scientists around the world and compiled with the help of the Met Office. This is the first report to include the temperature of the oceans as a variable in ascertaining the level of global warming. Not only does the report conclude that the evidence for global warming is 'unequivocal', but Dr. Peter Stott of the Met Office has stated that 'greenhouse gases are the glaringly obvious explanation' for it.

During my involvement with Transition over the past two years, I have focused my efforts largely on the 'social' side. This has come from a feeling that the better we are able to connect with each other and get on as human beings the more chance we'll have to effect positive change in the face of the enormous difficulties we and the planet are confronted by. Sometimes this is really difficult as we come up against barriers and differences which feel insuperable.

Then I read these articles in the papers and feel as if so much is out of my hands; which of course in many ways it is.

So this is why I really appreciate and enjoy things like Erik walking to the station with us after the meeting last Wednesday night, wheeling his bike along and showing us a more scenic back route than the normal one we take down Prince of Wales Road, whilst we spoke about preserving vegetables and cooking.

Tomorrow I'll be Pausing For Reflection (Pattern 4.15).

Reading 'Le Monde'; On the way down to Norwich Station after Carbon Conversations last Wednesday; the light in the middle of the picture is the moon; you can just make out Charlotte and Erik (with his bike)

Wednesday 28 July 2010

End to End Tour - Third Otesha Log

As we departed Exeter after a fun filled weekend, we headed towards our next destination, Beaford arts centre in Northwest Devon, a leisurely 40 mile ride with some cheeky free cream teas and biscuits for one lucky team along the way apparently. My group missed out on that little treat but I was content with a quick 10 minute snooze in the sunshine after lunch.

Arriving at Beaford, we were all delighted to find hot showers, dorm rooms with beds for all, in amongst beautiful grounds. Here we performed to our largest audience yet; 100 children from three local schools. We were blessed with sunshine so spirits were high and the whole day ran fantastically. In the morning we made tetra pack wallets in the ethical fashion workshop and planted seeds in the grow your own workshop. We felt the children really engaged throughout the day and came up with some fantastic ideas and questions. This has to be one of the most inspiring aspects to our trip for me, getting to talk to young people and being constantly surprised by their knowledge and enthusiasm for the issues we’re talking about.

Tiverton was next on the map, a slightly trickier route with rain from the moment we set off in the morning to about 7.30pm when we arrived, typical! It was a fairly dramatic journey from start to finish, with me skidding to a halt on the cycle path with the bob the trailer in tow. Ouch! Back on the bikes again, a little further down the track we found a hysterical (laughing) Ellie and Beth after rescuing Sarah and bike from a little dip in the canal, as if we hadn’t got wet enough with the rain throughout the day! Luckily only wet panniers and a soggy Sarah were the result of that escapade! As the day turned to night we had been well and truly fed by the cooking team we all crashed out in our hosts barn at Abbotsford farm. An early wake up call by the resident swallows, a bowl full of cold fruity porridge and we were ready for a day of conservation work exchange with BTCV. We shared our Banana chain game, along with a banana dance much to the volunteer group’s bemusement! Then we all got to work, clearing a footpath through woods on the edge of Tiverton, thank you to the BTCV volunteers for such a fun afternoon of lopping and chopping!

To Bristol next and epic 80 mile ride ahead of us….oh and guess what it’s raining!! (by Liz 28th July )

Tuesday 27 July 2010

End to End Tour - Second Otesha Log

It's time for the second journal entry and the Otesha LEJOG (Lands End to John O’Groats) tour is now in full swing. Yesterday we descended on our third school – the Maynard school for girls in Exeter – and we definitely made an impression on the girls there. And this is what this week’s journal entry is going to be about – the children that we have met so far. However, first we would like to send out a massive hug and well wishes to Olivia (a tour member) who took a nasty fall on Tuesday and fractured her collar bone, so has been unable to continue on tour with us. The team is very upset about losing one of our ‘family’, but there are rumours of an ‘Olivia doll’ that can join in on team photos and we are all very much looking forward to seeing her when we can hopefully rendezvous further up the country.

The last journal entry gave an update on our first in-school session and, despite the traumatic experience mentioned above, the second school day (in Coads Green, Cornwall) went remarkably well. The play kept the attention of a class of 4-6 year olds for its entire duration and the popularity of the Tupperware rap (an amazing song in the play) was well and truly established. With the little ones audience participation is the key, but trying to say your lines while 25 children continue to try and suggest sandwich fillings for you is quite a challenge!

Then commenced a lot of slightly disorganised running around games, a grow your own workshop where they planted broad beans and covered themselves in soil and an energy workshop where we were all impressed by their knowledge of what uses energy. As a whole we have been impressed with just how knowledgeable the children are and how quickly and easily they grasp the issues and embrace the actions they can take to help make a positive impact on the world.

Our school yesterday was quite different with much older children 10-13 years old. They had also already broken up for the summer so had come in especially to see us (so pressure to perform well!). Due to their age, it was really difficult to get much reaction from them during the play, but the transformation throughout the day when we had done some workshops with them was incredible. They really started to open up and join in and we had some fantastic conversations with them. It was lovely to see. We had just swapped play roles before the performance so it was fairly improvised at times, but it went down well and we had assurance that no-one noticed the ad-libbing!

The workshops we did with them were about Fair Trade (using bananas as the example – it is after all great fun to pretend to be a banana!) and ethical fashion where we spread the knowledge of how to make wallets out of Tetra-paks! Both of the workshops went brilliantly and it is an amazing feeling when you talk to some of the children afterwards and they tell you all of the things that they are going to change as a result of meeting you. I had one lass telling me that she was going to make sure that her parents only bought Fairtrade bananas. All of these little impacts put together are the Otesha way of changing the world. As we say in the play ‘together we are stronger’.

We have all loved working with the children so far and it really does give you hope for the future that they do all care and want to make a difference. That's it for this week folks, stay tuned for the next entry. (Kerry & the rest of the Land’s End to John O’Groat’s team)

Monday 26 July 2010

End to End Tour - the Otesha Project - First Log

During the months of July and August resilient TN blogger, Kerry Lane is cycling with the 17-strong Otesha crew from Land's End to John O'Groats. In our Bike Week last month she described how she came to be spending her summer cycling sustainably up and down the hills of Britain with 17 fellow volunteers. At the end of August she'll be posting a special Low Carbon Life report of her epic journey. Meanwhile here is her teammate Thalia writing for the Otesha website. . .

When thinking about what to write for the LeJog 2010 tour it was really hard to fit in all of the amazing things which Hanna, Jo and the team managed to fit into training week!

Our journey to Sancreed, Corwall and ‘Plan-it Earth’ (a small, sustainable farm and our home-away-from-home for training week) was up one very steep hill…. the first of many. One of the first things we had to accomplish was to get to know our new ‘family’ mainly through lots of games, which made us feel a bit like uninhibited little children. The ’serious’ endeavours of creating a ‘food mandate’ (a shared agreement on how the team would eat for the duration of the trip) and the community roles (the responsibilities that we would take on as a team) went smoothly and allowed us to form a common idea of how life will function over the next two months.

We decided through consensus decision making to eat a completely vegetarian (and largely vegan) diet, to buy local goods as often as possible, and when not possible, to buy Fairtrade imported products (especially chocolate). We decided on all of this as a reflection of our commitment to reduce our impact on the environment and promote social justice.

Other activities included learning vegan cooking from some amazing volunteer chefs (Rosie and Iona… thanks guys!), yoga and outdoor showers, lots of learning about environmental issues and group dynamics, and everything we could ever want to know about two wheels from the mad bike scientists Pete and Dave (who we are all in love with, the boys included).

We also did a lot of work on the Otesha Play. We re-worked the scripts, created new characters, voices and scenes to give us some ownership over the final performance, which we will be giving to schools and communities at stops throughout our tour. In a few days time, team members began to blossom into characters such as Jamie Oliver, Simon Cowell, a ’Banana Pirate’ and a rapper who sings about the wonders of Tupperware. After a week of practice and rehearsal we gave our very first performance to a small school tucked away in a little valley not far from Land’s End. We were rather nervous but everything went well and the kids’ lovely eco suggestions to us included such brilliance as ‘recycling flat hedgehogs’ and considering the ‘ethics of factory produced Fairtrade products’ (these were coming from students age 4 -6 six!! Pretty impressive huh?).

At last, to finish the long week of training, we had our first team cycle….. a trip out to the famous ‘Land’s End’ on a rocky prominence overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. After some photo opps, hugs and (of course) a bit of shenanigans, we set off again for Plan-it Earth and a team party before departing for the tour. 16 miles and 1 performance down… 1000 more miles, 18 performances, lots of adventure, and thousands of people to reach out to still to go…

We couldn’t be more excited!!

Thalia & rest of the Land’s End to John O’Groats team

Otesha team discussion; Kerry's bike resting before the big tour; spelling it out at Land's End

Sunday 25 July 2010

A quick report from the trenches

It is now a month from the summer solstice and the year moves on in the garden. So today it was out with the early potatoes

Then in with the compost - made from last year's waste

And tomorrow it will be plant out the leeks to feed us over the coming winter - the potato tops go into the compost and the cycle continues

Friday 23 July 2010


Books were relatively expensive when I was a child in the 50s and I had to satisfy my avid reading habit with frequent trips to the public library. Books can now be obtained cheaply from charity shops and online and I am easily tempted to buy them. I have to admit that I would like a library like the ones found in most stately homes. However, books now have to compete with magazines, ezines and floods of other sources of information and entertainment; so holidays are a rare opportunity for me to devote time to ‘proper reading’ of something in paper form that takes more than a few minutes to scan. I like to read books that both educate and entertain and that is the case with two recent holiday reads.

A book about scurvy may sound an unlikely subject for a holiday book but ‘Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail’ is a gripping story about how it took so long to overcome a terrible illness that could claim the lives of half the crew of a sailing ship. We learn that the problem could have been solved hundreds of years earlier had the medical establishment been more open to the evidence placed before them – a lesson that has been learnt more than once. An ideal book to take on your next cruise!

The End of Mr Y has attracted a lot of rave reviews - so does it live up to the hype? The answer for me was yes and it is some years since I have read a book that kept me glued to the page right to the end – do not be tempted to read the last page out of sequence! The book uses some concepts from particle physics and from modern philosophers such as Heidegger to come up with an adventure in which thought and matter are related in a way that is analogous to Einstein’s E=mc*2. The supposition that thinking about something can make it a reality is one that will appeal to many TN people. A well crafted story that leaves you thinking about it for days afterwards.

Thursday 22 July 2010

Summer days

I’ll be spending time with my grandchildren this summer, as usual, and we’ll be doing lots of traditional easy-going summery things … picnics in the countryside, paddling and crabbing at the seaside… The perfect companion for our excursions is What To Look For In Summer. It’s one of my own childhood favourites, a Ladybird book with delightful illustrations by CF Tunnicliffe and it’s beautifully written: “The rose is in full blossom and so, too, are the heavy branches of elder. The swallows are skimming the air and hawking the flies and meadow-brown butterflies are playing by the stone wall.” Just rereading it now takes me straight to summer fields and meadows.

My next companion is another perfect holiday read of a different kind: Love and War in the Apennines. It’s a tense thrilling story of escape, danger and romance; and it’s real. It’s the great travel writer Eric Newby’s homage to the courage and generosity of the Italian people who helped him – at great personal danger – when he escaped from the Nazis in the aftermath of the Italian surrender. There are some marvellous descriptions of life in remote villages and farms – there’s the shepherd who’s completely self-sufficient on the mountainside, the farm girls who are addicted to horoscopes and the elderly storyteller whose repertoire stretches back for centuries. And there’s a happy ending after some of the most stressful pages I’ve read in a long time. Very highly recommended.

My final choice is infinitely flexible. It’s up to you what you make of it. It’s my Moleskine notebook, in which I shall scribble notes of things that catch my attention and perhaps a sketch or two. There might be a dried flower, a ticket, memorable little scraps to remind me of happy summer days. There’ll be notes on places, people, the countryside – and food, of course. What’s great about keeping a little notebook to hand is that you capture the moment and store it up in a way that works just for you.

Happy holidays!

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Trees love bookcrossing

When Charlotte asked me if I could write about a book for the blog, immediately six books came to mind. When I thought about it some more, rather than narrowing down the choice, soon I ended up with at least twenty books that deserved to be written about. So some lateral thinking was required: let me tell you about bookcrossing.

Bookcrossing is a global library. It has both a virtual and a physical component. The virtual component is a website, where you can become a member for free, get a unique number for any book you care to register, and write about any books that have found their way into your hands. You can even do the latter anonymously without becoming a member. The physical component not only consists of all the books that each carry their unique number, but also any place where you can find such a book. A parkbench can be turned into a bookshelf by the simple act of releasing a book there. Thus, there are three R's in bookcrossing: read, register, release. Transitioners will see the similarity with the other three Rs, which are also based on thinking in the Round rather than the linear.

Though I mentioned the parkbench, which is what bookcrossing is famous for, my preferred method of releasing books is to give them to people, because I like to target my books, which I value, to somebody I think will value that particular book as well. Though some people I've spoken to said they could never let go of their books, I think there's only a subset of books you read that you will ever reread, and even those you can lend out and ask to be given back. Trees love bookcrossing, I love trees, I love bookcrossing.

In case you were wondering what the six books were that first came to mind:
God emperor of Dune
The Earth care manual
The one straw revolution
Beyond you and me
Ecovillage living
Small is beautiful

Picture of my physical bookshelf. My virtual bookshelf.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Travelling Light

I’m taking two books along with me this Summer as travelling companions. Although I’m not actually going anywhere.

First though, what do you do if you’ve got conjunctivitis in the summer and you want a natural eyewash to clear and soothe your eyes – and allow you to see properly to read!?! If you’ve got Agrimony growing anywhere near you on an unpolluted roadside, then you’ve found your plant. A golden-spired lemony-scented member of the rose family. Make a tea from the aerial parts, let it cool down and bathe your eyes with it regularly. I know because I’m doing it at the moment. And it works beautifully.

But if you don’t know agrimony, how do you recognise it? You need the classic guide Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe by Richard Fitter, Alastair Fitter and Rosemary Blamey. My 1996 Collins edition is the very first plant guide I ever bought and I still refer to it whenever I come across a plant I don’t recognise in my wanderings. Both illustrations and plant descriptions are clear and straightforward and the whole book, including the size, has a very friendly feel.

Getting into wild plants (and I was in my mid-thirties before I really got going, although that’s rather a long time ago now!) completely revolutionised my relationship with the places I was in. At that time I travelled a lot and so I’d buy a flower guide for wherever I was visiting. Now I rarely travel beyond Suffolk and Norfolk and one of my biggest delights is the discovery and rediscovery of the native wild plants right here at home. But wherever you are this summer have a look around at the native flora along the lanes, by the roadsides, in woods and waste places, outside your house (or tent, caravan or hotel). And don’t forget your guide.

Like Jon, I’m also taking a poetry book along with me down the lane this summer. Flora Poetica – The Chatto Book of Botanical Verse (2001) is full of treasures from all times and (English-speaking) places. All the poems are arranged according to plant family and Lignum Vitae by Edward Baugh from Jamaica is the final one in the book (the ‘lignum vitae’ is the creosote bush, Guaiacum officinale, classified in the Zygophyllaceae). It perhaps just beats Seamus Heaney’s The Haw Lantern as my favourite. I’ve tried to find a weblink to this poem to no avail, but Norfolk libraries do have two copies of Flora Poetica for rental.

In the poem this ‘wood of life’ speaks through Baugh about resilience in the face of the ‘final carry-down artist’ who’ll ‘lock down/ this town and scorch the earth till not/ even lizard don’t crawl’. The tree will survive and bloom, and even though

‘…Sometimes I feel my heart
Harden, … I not going nowhere, my root
sink too deep’

Wild Flowers cover; Flora Poetica cover; Wild Morning Glories and Marigolds in Mexico 2001 and Viper's Bugloss near Ely, Cambs 2002 by Mark Watson

Monday 19 July 2010

Transition Book Week

Summer is here!  The sun is shining, the holidays are coming, and whatever we've got lined up for the (hopefully) hot days ahead, here on the blog, we're all thinking about that favourite subject of the glossy magazines and sunday supplements - the ideal holiday read!

This week on the blog, we have a hand-picked selection of hot summer books - do let us know via the comments box if you've enjoyed any of the books we've chosen, or if you've got a favourite of your own you'd like to share.

I'll start our book week with three of my contenders.

I'm a restless reader and need to have a few books on the go at any one time - possibly because my children rarely let me have very long to really get into any single book.  But later in the summer we'll be going to Ireland to see the family and there will be enough aunts, uncles and cousins around to entertain the kids and I'm hoping to finish Molly Scott Cato's challenging Green Economics.  If that sounds like an unlikely holiday read, you have to remember that I'm a bit of a fact-geek and this will be ideal for me, especially in the first few days of the holiday when I haven't yet fully wound down from work.  I described the book as "challenging", not because it's difficult or academic - far from it - but because I'm hoping that she will convince me that a different kind of economics can and does exist.  If she does, I'll come back fired up and ready for action!

I'm also taking Mark Thomas' Belching out the Devil: Global Adventures with Coca-Cola, just the kind of funny-angry polemical ranting I really love.  The way of life we take for granted is often built on a kind of fairy tale, where everything we do is without consequence and we can do what we like for ever.  Scratch under the surface, and the truth behind what we take for granted can really shock us.  It's books like this that really shake us out of our complacency, and will probably be full of good stories for winning arguments too!

After a week on the west coast of Ireland though, I'll be totally chilled out, and that's when I'll be bringing out Seamus Heaney's Death of a Naturalist, or more specifically his poem "Lovers on Aran".  We were married in a tiny church in the wild Burren landscape of County Clare, one of the most beautiful places in the world.  This poem was read instead of a more traditional scripture reading, and as the title suggests is both about the geography of landscape and of human emotion.  Sometimes a book and a place together make up more than the sum of the parts, and for me, this is one such alignment.

So that's me packed and ready.  Now, where's that suncream gone...

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Back to School? We haven't had our holiday yet!

I had something else in mind to write about today, but on my way home from work yesterday I was shocked to pass the window of Debenhams in the City and see a display advertising "Back to School" discounts.

Hold on a sec!  Back to School?  It's not even mid-July!

We haven't been on holiday yet - in fact the schools haven't even broken up.  What on earth are they thinking?  When I was a kid, it was always a depressing sight to see the Back to School signs go up in the shops in mid- to end-August - you knew it wouldn't be long before the summer holidays were over and you were back at school for the long, long Christmas term.  But crikey, how would I feel if I was at school now and the signs go up before we've even broken up for the summer.

OK, I get that times are hard, econonomically, and that the shops have to try everything they can to persuade us to part with our cash, but come on...

Worse than that though is the feeling I have that it's messing somehow with a "natural" cycle of things.  Holidays are meant to be down-time.  Kids (and adults for that matter) spend so long at school and at work during the year, we all need the holiday time to unwind, to centre ourselves again.  I don't want to feel rushed, feel like I need to get my holiday over and done with so that I can go back to being economically productive again.

So, Debenhams - please do the decent thing and put your "Back to School" signs back into storage until the last week in August at the very least!

Tuesday 13 July 2010

How to start a war

I finally lost my patience.

"That's it!" I said.  "Something's gotta be done."

Since before the Seed Swap, I'd been nurturing this year's plants in the warmth of the conservatory.  They were doing so well that I figured it was time to start hardening them out for the summer.

That first night, the slugs came out in force and ate the lot.  They devastated the aubergine, munched through the squash, even climbed up the tomato stalks, chewing as they went.  Things were not looking good.  If they went on this way, I wouldn't have anything left growing.  There was only one thing to do.

One quick trip to Thorns hardware store in town later, I returned with a bottle of patented slug killer and liberally sprinkled it around the base of the plants.  The next morning I visited the scene of the crime and found lots of dead slugs.  I poked one with a stick, just to be sure.  G came out to see what I was up to.

"Daddy, what are you doing?" she said.

I explained about the chewed plants and the slugs.  "And look," I said, "the ants are eating up the dead slugs."

"Daddy, are you now going to kill all the ants?" G asked.

That stopped me in my tracks.  It had been so easy to just go and buy slug-killer that I hadn't even thought about it.  But with the slugs gone, the ants could just move in.  If I killed off all the ants, something else would take its place.  It would be a never-ending arms-race trying to protect a few plants.  And a small-scale arms-race with chemical weapons!  Isn't this what I'm trying to get away from?

A quick check-in with the "Introduction to Permaculture" handbook and now I'm experimenting with broken egg-shells (free-range and local), coffee-grounds (less so) and moving the marigolds next to the veggies (apparently the slugs will eat them in preference to the crops).  If that doesn't work, I'll try out the beer trap, though it seems wrong to use Adnams for that just to stay local!  My favourite suggestion was to employ chickens, but I'll have to wait a while before I can get them.

The pics below are of my lovely roses a week or so ago, and the little caterpillars that are now happily stripping the leaves.  But I'm not going to spray them with chemicals.  I'm hoping they'll make a nice meal for the birds...

Monday 12 July 2010

Sartre on the Tube

"What would Sartre make of this, then?"

The voice came from somewhere behind my left ear. I looked round and found myself face-to-face with a tall thin stranger.

We were on the London Underground, Saturday lunchtime, packed in the July heat with all the other travellers and tourists, en route with the girls to Hammersmith for a show. Their first time in London.

The stranger gestured around him at all the people sitting and standing, pressed up against each other, physically so close, trying so hard to be apart. "This, eh? What would Sartre make of it?"

"Yeah, crazy." I ventured. "And hot too."

"I think it's a shame people don't talk to each other on the tube," he went on.

"Er, me too."

And then I had a choice. I could revert back to the old me, the me who'd lived in London all those years, who'd carefully honed his defences to avoid having to make contact with the people around him, the me that would keep his eyes firmly fixed on the middle distance, and his mouth firmly shut. Or, the new me, the me I'm still growing into, the one finding different ways of looking at the world. The me in transition. I made my choice.

"So," I began, "where are you off to today?"

And we started to talk. He was on holiday and off to visit his parents in Devon; they owned a place there, he said, with some acres of mixed woodland. And there, in the heart of London, on a baking hot day, in the tube under Oxford Circus, the busiest shopping street in England, two complete strangers talked about trees, about nature, about biodiversity and forest management. About Europe's ancient woodlands, and about how much we loved trees.

Two stops later, we arrived at our station, said goodbye and we went our separate ways.

Sartre famously said "Hell is other people". I think he was wrong. And I think that community is not just about the people who live in the neighbourhood around your house. It's something you carry around inside you.

And you can take that anywhere.

Sunday 11 July 2010

Don't wait until you have a design, just start (a proposal for a new pattern).

Today I am celebrating growing all my vegetables and fruit for a full year.
That was one reason for reflection, the other one was that I attended the Introduction to Permaculture course yesterday that Brenna taught at Grow Our Own allotments.
It made me notice that in permaculture two things are used that I think are contradictory: on the one hand an attempt to emulate ecosystems, on the other hand a focus on teleological design.
Ecosystems don't get designed to a master plan, they take form as nature asks in each instance: does this new piece (organism, metabolite, etc.) fit?
(This last sentence is not quite agnostic enough to my liking, but I can't find a better way of expressing that I see no evidence for a teleological universe.)
I reflected on this, because I think a focus on a master plan can slow us down unacceptably.*
It presupposes that we have made all the relevant observations, reflected on them, and that this told us which choices to make.
Let me give you an example.
In 2001 I decided I wanted a sustainable ecological footprint.
I had no idea how I was going to achieve that, and in the meantime I've lived in 4 different countries, so if I had waited to get settled enough to buy a house with a quarter acre garden within cycling distance of work, I wouldn't have achieved this goal in 2009.
So I was very glad when Rob Hopkins suggested that the 12 steps of forming a transition town were too prescriptive, and that instead we can identify these patterns that form part of the language, the song, that allows us to sing our world into existence.
It fits.
Part of what I'm suggesting above is described in patterns 2.6 Visioning, and 2.5 Measurement.
But I would suggest that there is a missing pattern.
When I suggested in April that measuring quality of life could be a guide in decision making, I was criticised for the implication that quality of life could be measured.
I partly agree that, as Robert Pirsig pointed out, we immediately recognise quality (of any kind), and that we can only try to rationalise or quantify that after the fact, and sometimes we can't.
But I think even so it's useful to be very specific and so I will propose a new pattern: the Moral yardstick, and while recognizing the danger in this as noted above, I still think our need to choose between alternate visions is such that a specific yardstick is still desirable and that it is even possible to formulate one: will it take us towards a world in which the difference between the richest and the poorest human being is less than a factor 10?

* The world is changing fast.
We're changing slowly.

Green shoots in Hethersett

On Friday we had the first meeting of the Hethersett Circle. It was a beautiful evening and I biked first to Eileen and helped carry her amazing raspberry and chocolate fudge cake around the field to Erik’s house. We were joined by Gary and Rhoda who are both very aware of Peak Oil and Climate Change – in fact we all arrived by foot or bicycle. Gary has been active in the Hethersett Environmental Action Taskforce (HEAT) for some years and Rhoda is a keen cyclist and vegetable grower who has followed TN since the unleashing. Whilst it was good to have got a group of knowledgeable people together it was clear that our publicity had not attracted people who are new to Transition to come along and that we were not going to be following the original plan to have a series of meetings based on Carbon Conversations. So we talked about what our next move might be.

We all recognise that an import aspect of Transition is that it is a positive message – not all ‘Doom and Gloom’ as Eileen said. Eileen also compared the current economic system to the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes and how we need to expose the truth. However, several people made a point that I have heard before at TN meetings - that Transition is a difficult concept to pin down and to communicate to others.

Our next step will be to have a Carbon Conversations Corner at an environmental awareness day that HEAT is organizing. HEAT has access to good publicity in the village and it seems sensible to work together. Today was an Open Gardens day in Hethersett which I went to (and which is why this post is so late) – people are given a map and walk from one garden to another. We talked about doing a similar event based on energy saving devices and methods as people are much more likely to engage with something that they can see already working in their own village. An example could be Rhoda’s battery assisted bicycle which makes it much easier for her to commute to work without having to completely change clothes on arrival. She still provides the energy but the battery evens out the effort – it levels the hills in effect! Erik hopes to soon be generating electricity from a Photo Voltaic roof.

I was encouraged to see these vegetable patches being exhibited as part of the Open Gardens day – one is at the Junior School where the teachers are keen that the children should learn that food does not appear on supermarket shelves by magic. So a lot is already happening in Hethersett, our task is to build on those foundations. Please feel free to comment !

Saturday 10 July 2010

Becoming the Media - Pattern 4.3

“The problem is The Media,” said the man in the audience.
“But there are the articles if you look for them,” another responded. “You just have to search on the web.”

“The problem is not so much the media”, I added, “But the fact we give it attention and therefore power. You’re waiting for Them to change and notice you, instead of concentrating on the fact we are communicating right now.”

We were in the Chaucer Club in Bungay after Nick’s economics lecture, and in the Transition way were holding a free-form discussion between thirty people. It’s not the ordinary kind of thing that happens in the Chaucer Club on a Wednesday. And yet it felt like the most ordinary thing in the world.

For years, like a thousand other writers, I struggled to get published by The Media. We love how you write but we don’t love what you write about, was the general consensus. The market didn’t want to know about dreams or plants or neighbourhood food exchange, or East Anglia, or the fact that life is not quite how it is officially described. A stack of manuscripts grew under my bed. Still I kept writing. Because, well, when you’re a writer that’s what you do. And meanwhile wherever I found myself I helped out with communications: drafting letters, press releases, events programmes, website copy, posters, flyers, leaflets.

And then last year I discovered blogging. Suddenly I didn’t have to wait for publishers to read the synopsis, for editors to reply to my emails, for my agent to make that call. I could just type words into a box, upload any number of lovely photographs and press a button. Whoosh! There it was. For the whole world to see if it chose. And I wasn’t alone: I was in a community of communicators who wanted to express what they were experiencing, part of a crew on a joint creative project.

Writing needs publication. It’s an out there, read-all-about-it communication thing. One-way conversations, undelivered messages, songs sung in an empty room just don’t enter the fabric of the world.

Transition is about showing other ways of doing things in a world that is seemingly controlled by marketing and a highly manipulative press. This world is undergoing a radical process of change, however it’s officially “run” by a status quo determined to keep everything fixed (i.e. in its favour). Transition creates its own independent media because the conventional media that shapes our general perception of How Things Are is deliberately selective. It focuses on highly negative events that drain our emotions and induce powerlessness, whilst distracting us from reality with the comings and goings of “stars” and an illusory and oil-dependant life-style.

What you focus on expands, as the old adage goes.

So it’s important we make our own media because no one else is covering what we do or see. There may be local reports about Transition events or projects (covered by a separate pattern) but rarely people from the inside writing about Transition itself. People talking about what it is to go through this shift, people giving value to small ordinary things, sharing their storehouses of knowledge and experience, putting their attention, not on the rich or famous, or the disasters and dramas of history but the things that hold people together, the things that matter: like plants and dreams and neighbourhood food exchange and East Anglia.

Most of all when you make your own media you find all about you people with great gifts and talents, with vision and intelligence, who would never be noticed or published by The Media. These blogs give us our voices, and in turn we give those sounds and images back to the world. On This Low Carbon Life there are journalists, editors, designers, artists, scientists, people who are expert in computers, communication systems, sustainable food systems. That’s just one small community blog in Norwich. Imagine if you gave voice and value to the people in every community in the land what kind of world we would see . . .

Making our own media: bees busy at work last week in one of the Bungay Community Beehives; writing on the kitchen table, Arizona; Elena and John at the TN Seedling Swap, Andy's pots, Kerry's ragrug; Helen and Kerry reskilling; Mark and Josiah (and Iris) in the Transition kitchen.

Friday 9 July 2010

Deep Dive

1990 Skiathos, Greece. “Jump now!” Andy said “And open your eyes!” and we did. Out of a rickety boat in the bay, into the inky depths of the Aegean and it went all the shades of blue from indigo to ultramarine - complete, huge, unfathomable. “Deep blue!” he yelled “Deep blue!” navigating without fear amongst the rocks in the dark sea swell, caressing the horizon with his eyes, looking for dolphins.

1998 Byron Bay, Australia. We had been doing the dreaming practice all morning with Sarah. “Let’s go to the tea tree lake,” she said. “There’s something amazing that happens there.” So we walked down to a warm still pool where the roots of the tea tree go deep into the water and stain it red brown. We swam out to the middle. “Now,” said Sarah, “You have to dive down as deep as possible, then just let yourself float up. Keep your eyes open and look up. Whatever you do, remember the light!”

We all dived down together. I opened my eyes. It was almost completely dark-brown. Then I looked up and saw a dim golden colour above me. As I floated up from the dive it got stronger and stronger, until it burst into a shower of diamonds as I surfaced with my two companions at the same time and burst into laughter. We were all laughing and splashing water around us. Amazing we all agreed. And immediately dived down again.

Nothing really “happened” at the lake. It was an intense experience for a few moments but in those moments, naked, diving into the brown and golden water, bursting through the surface of the glittering sunlight, we had become different beings. It was as if our modern European histories no longer existed, our city biographies. We were suddenly just three human beings in the middle of their lives, enjoying the earth together, starting again at a certain point in time . . .

2010 Southwold, England. The sea is green and brown, wrinkled, flecked with afternoon light. I am swimming in the shallows with my eyes shut and my dolphin companions are no longer with me. It’s an old working sea, the North Sea and the place I am swimming, this East coast pleasure dome, is old too. It seemed for so many years, those years when I was travelling and writing that the world would change for the better, that people would come to love the Earth again, and now floating in these small waves, I am wondering whether it ever will. Sometimes I feel old and so very tired.

And yet I swim: abandoned to the wild water, immersed in all that light, everything dissolves in the ocean's vastness and fluidity. I stop creaking, the pettiness of the mind falls away. Time loses its hold and I stretch outwards to the horizon. I feel I belong to everything. To the whole world. All those difficulties we face - climate change, peak oil, economic meltdown - are because we forget this small thing, the relationship we come to experience, the cosmic embrace of the sea, the eternal avenue of sweet limes, the expansive month of July. How when we remember anything is possible.

This morning I awoke after drinking the golden limeflower tea. It was a perfect morning. Complete in a way only a summer's day can be. And so we took our breakfast down amongst the dunes and faced the sea that was calm and sparkling. There was no one on the beach. The larks sang overhead. A fishing boat ploughed through the golden water and then Beth appeared with Jessie her African lion-hunting dog and we talked neighbourhood apples trees and about a writing project she calls the Ladies of the Lane and I call Honouring the Elders. Then we all went into the sea together.

It's on mornings like these I know we live in amazing times. So long as we take the deep dive. Into the blue, into the sea change. Remembering to keep our eyes open.

Taking the plunge: submerging in the pool by Marko Modic, Ecuador 1991; showing Ollie how to face the waves, Southwold 2009 - the sequence of photos by Andy Croft that began this blog; Beth, Jessie and me by the sea by Mark Watson

Thursday 8 July 2010

Herbs for Resilience

"That’s very precise," said Erik. "The eighth of July."

"I know ," I said "But it’s true. Every year that’s the day when I start noticing them."

We were talking lime trees. Those extraordinary trees with sticky heart-shaped leaves which for most of the year appear inconspicous beside the showier oaks and horse chestnuts. But suddenly in early July they burst dramatically into flower. And every year I make a journey down the coast to an avenue of great limes and pick some of the flowers for tea.

Because if you want to go to heaven for five minutes drink a cup of fresh limeflower tea.

Fragrant, golden, tasting of honey.

Limeflower gathering is a very rewarding kind of foraging. The flowers are easy to pick and easy to dry. The trees are abundant, dripping, laden with flowers, so there’s no chance of reducing stocks. And what more lovely way to spend an hour: standing, paper bag in hand, beneath a lime tree, immersed in their awesome scent. You’re never alone when you do. Because every bee in the district is there with you foraging for its sweet nectar. Everywhere is humming.

There are three kinds of lime and all are good for flowers. The small and large leaved limes in the country, the common lime frequently planted in the city (several huge ones in St Benedict’s Street). The tea is one of the world’s great downtimers. You can mix it with other heart herbs (lemon balm, hawthorn flowers, rosehips) or have it straight before you go to sleep. It’s a flower that uncoils the springs inside and won’t weigh you down like valerian. Those relaxing flowers will put you on a different wavelength altogether. Out of the mind’s urgency and into the expansiveness of the heart.

I haven’t got a pic of limeflowers yet because it’s early (six o’clock - now added! ed.). But here is a downtime tea I’m drinking right now (rose, lavender and chamomile - divine!) and above some resilient herbs I picked from just outside my door. They are all stalwart members of my medicine cabinet. Elderflower and yarrow tea deal with any shivers in a chill. Marigold is a great anti-inflammatory and lymphatic cleanser (I’m using it right now as an eyewash for conjunctivitis). Rosemary, sage and horsetail, all excellent tonics.

The small daisy-looking flower is chamomile which I grew from seed (thank you Erik!). At the beginning of the year I decided I would put together a Herbs for Resilience Toolkit. Some simple wild and garden plant medicines that fellow Transitioners might like to know about. Plants I’ve used through the years that have been useful remedies or tonics. I’ll be writing about all these flowers and leaves in more depth later in the year.

Meanwhile here are one or two good tips about foraging. Rule one: Go for it! Walk out and tune in. Put a pair of scissors and a brown paper bag in your pocket, grab a flower guide and step into the green world of the neighbourhood. You’ll find the plants and trees everywhere once you decide to look. Rule Two: recognise what you need. Get a feeling for those plants appearing in front of you. Certain ones will grab your attention at different times. Those are the ones you need: for your body, for your mind, energetically.

The planet’s wild plants are stronger medicinally and nutritionally than anything cultivated. The native ones most of all. When I went on a wild plant walk at the Transition Conference the herbalist told us that wild greens contained ten times the minerals of commercially-grown plants and recommended putting a handful in with your stir-fries and salads through the year. Here she is talking about the daisy, a substitute for the rarer mountain-growing arnica, whose leaves can be mixed with chickweed and dandelion earlier in the year .

With the flowers of summer: take from the most abundant and least grimy places and only what you need. Shake out insects. Dry in the airing cupboard (in the paper bag or on a tray) and store in jars. You’ll find yarrow is on all the roadsides at the moment, horsetails in every damp patch and sun-loving rosemary and sage growing in neighbourhood gardens if not in your own (be bold, ask for a sprig if you don’t). Elderflower is almost at the end of its season (but keep an eye out for its marvellous berries later on).

And it’s the eight of July: so dear reader look upwards as you walk down the street today. You might find yourself in heaven very soon.

Photos: elderflowers, Greek mountain sage, marigold (calendula), common horsetail, chamomile, yarrow, rosemary; limeflower tea; rose, chamomile and lavender tea; pushing daisies at the Transition conference; walking down the lime avenue Suffolk.