Monday 30 April 2012

Fruitful Trees

Victoria Plum

This week on the blog we are sharing pictures of our favorite trees.

I'm anxiously watching the weather forecast to see if frost is going to threaten my fruit trees, as they make the transition from their barren winter state to the first signs of the harvest to come. Another couple of weeks without frost and all that devotion to the mysterious art of pruning should pay off!

Many of the trees are fan trained to make best use of space

Last year the pear suffered from Pear Blister Mite because of the dry conditions. I'm hoping that the mites have all swum away in the rain this April.

Damson - makes distinctive tasting puddings

These will be black, juicy grapes in August

Peaches are the first to ripen and should be ready in June - very juicy

Figs are my favorite but need a lot of sun - anyone seen it recently??

The monkey puzzle tree has flowered for the first time - apparently they don't set seeds for 30 years. The seeds are edible and a mature tree can produce a huge crop. I'm hoping that there is a male tree nearby to fertilize it.

A new apple tree - Peasgood Nonsuch - I hope the apples are as good as the name.

The Morello Cherry will grow where there is not much sun but it is for advanced pruners only! It only flowers on last year's growth which makes it tricky to keep getting a good crop but not letting the branches get longer and longer. This is year 9 and I get enough for 3 big cherry pies each year. Yum!

Saturday 28 April 2012

Lights Out for the Territory

My final cross-post this week is an article about Transition and its relationship with the natural world, commissioned by EarthLines, a new quarterly magazine dedicated to writing on nature, place and the environment. Focusing on the connection between people and nature, it is inspired by the work of philosophers, ecologists, psychologists and anthropologists, as well as by storytellers, mythographers and visual artists. EarthLines is published by the independent Two Ravens Press from a working croft on the far western coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

In 2001 I took a journey with two friends from Southern Arizona to the red rock country of Utah. On the way home we passed through Hopiland and gave a lift to an old woman who was walking back to her village on the first mesa. We were silent for a long time in the car together. Our heads full of Sedona vortexes, fossilised forests and medicine wheels, the presence of a real Native American was unnerving. ‘What you do call that bird?’ I finally asked, pointing to a red-tail hawk floating above us in the giant bare landscape.

‘Bird,’ she replied and looked toward her village where the coal mine blew out toxic dust into the atmosphere and she said her sister was losing her mind.

The desert is a place where you get real. Where the reality of growing crops in one of the toughest territories in the world comes home to you. This is years before the seeds of the Transition movement are sown on the coast of Ireland, where Rob Hopkins, a teacher of permaculture, designs an energy descent action plan with his students for the town of Kinsale. This is years before I come to the end of a walk along the East Anglian coast, and realise that to be any use to the place we call earth, I will have to look at the coal mine and the world that was driving everyone crazy.

The Hopi nation are famous for making a pledge to keep the world in balance by example. Harassed by the industrialised world to conform, they still grow maize and beans by hand and honour the cycles of the growing year in their kivas and ceremonial dances. Everything has meaning and significance in the life of the pueblo. But the one thing they do not order is the wilderness, represented by the form and spirit of the wild turkey.

You give a place for wild turkey to remind you what comes before the kivas, the village, the fields of corn. Our ancestral link to the earth and the living systems of ourselves, without which all life goes haywire.

Transition and the Big Frame

The Transition movement began in Totnes in 2005, with a series of documentaries about peak oil. These films made it clear that everything in our industrialised world, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat, is wholly dependent on cheap fossil fuels. For people whose lives are defined by the private ownership of cars and houses and technology, these facts were a shock. Hopkins called it The End of Surburbia moment. The moment you realise the mantra of economic growth won’t hold in the face of dwindling resources and ecosystems in a state of collapse.

In 2008 I watched a film called The 11th Hour in a market town in Suffolk and found myself in a group known as Sustainable Bungay, discussing the steps we could take to make ourselves resilient in the face of peak oil and climate change. For the last four years, we have been engaged, like the 876 Transition communities worldwide, in the business of relocalising everything we do: creating CSAs, co-operative bakeries, breweries, community kitchens, wind turbines, solar-power stations, alternative currencies, alternative media, planting trees, reducing waste, setting up exchange systems, seed swaps, tool libraries. In short, reshaping a culture that has become entirely divorced in its mind from the territory in which it sits. Rob Hopkins' new guide book The Transition Companion lists 82 ‘ingredients and tools’ that define initiatives. Based on the seminal work of ecological design, The Pattern Language, these represent ways in which communities can shift from individualism towards working together. How we might downshift to a lean-energy, low-carbon future, following the permaculture principles of fairshare, earthcare and peoplecare.

Our hardest task is to consider the price our fossil-fuelled everyday lives exacts from the earth and its atmosphere. We stand before the petrol pump aware of the tar sands of Alberta, in front of the stove and consider ‘fracking’for shale gas in Lancashire, turn on the light and see the plundering of the Appalachian mountains and the Amazon.

Walking the coast in 2008, I found I could no longer keep these geo-political realities at bay. I encountered activists on the Sizewell Nuclear power station, stood amongst protesters at Walberswick as the government withdrew funds for flood defences, along the Blyth, the Alde and the Ore. I looked out of my window, across the marshes, and where once only moonlight reflected on the sea, oil tankers floated in the darkness, waiting for the oil prices to rise, like giant neon sharks.

Reconnection with Nature

In Transition I find myself surrounded by lovers of the wild. By herbalists, foresters, birdwatchers, men who run Toadwatch schemes and study the ocean’s plankton at the UEA. ‘Reconnection with Nature’ is the most popular subject on our community blog. But it is hard to have a dialogue beyond our private passions, beyond our foraging for wild leaves and hedgerow fruit. People sit in ‘heart and soul’ circles and talk about their grief and anger as an expression of the earth’s rage and despair, quote the ‘deep ecology’ philosophies of the Buddhist, Joanna Macy and the Christian monk, Thomas Berry.

‘People are in a state of disconnect,’ a fellow Transitioner declares as we walk through Walberswick marsh.

‘Do you know the name of that plant?’ I ask her, as she hold a stalk of common reed (still used here for thatch).‘No,’ she says. And stares out toward the sea where second-house owners from the city go for their New Year walk along the beach.

How can we reconnect when we are so deracinated, out of synch with the natural world, when the countryside is parcelled into properties, when the wild things are only allowed on reserves, or else live perpetually on the run? Transition breaks you out of your bubble. And whether this bubble is a fantasy about the earth as spiritual paradise, a view, a pleasure dome, it challenges us to be real about the place we utterly depend on to be alive.

It's a hard bump with reality when that happens. We want to live on an enchanted earth, full of goddess and wizard and fairy. We want to play with animal totems and Celtic mythology, live like Romantic poets, in Narnia, in a festival tent. We want to flee to the hills and breathe fresh air, know the magical name of a hawk floating on the breeze. I wanted to stay in Arizona, to sleep in the straw bale house in the shade of a cottonwood tree. But destiny is not taking any of us that way. When the wild turkey appears he doesn’tbring redemption or escape, he takes you back into the fray.

As the novelist-turned-activist Arundhati Roy said: Once
you have seen it, you can’t unsee it.

Reconnection with Neighbourhood

Returning to England, I find myself in one of the most agricultural places on earth. Here I am in Richard Mabey's waterlands, in Mark Cocker's crow country, where Robert Macfarlane began his quest for the wild in a Cambridgeshire beech tree, Roger Deakin in the River Waveney. I can weave myself into the fabric of place, in the sanderling grove and marsh, and avoid the walkers on the path. I can, like Sebald,trace its history in my imagination, following the ancient tracks across heath and coastline. But still I am an outsider. To belong I will have find my place amongst the people.

‘Transition Towns’ now span the globe, principally in the UK and US. There are initiatives in the favelas of Rio and in the backcounty of Japan, in Moss Side and the Scottish Highlands. But no matter how diverse the bio-region or settlement, to be resilient you have make a connection with
your local community.

Loving red rock country is easy, loving the neighbourhood is hard. You feel enraged by industrialisation of the land: the pesticides in the the soil, the way suburban gardeners cut
down their ‘unsightly’ cherry trees and birch, call wild plants and creatures vermin, pest and weed. The ancient lane with its great oaks has become Route 31, a leisure lane for cheery
cyclists and people walking dogs. Sitting amongst retirees at a Suffolk wildlife talk, I feel I am in a morgue. How can you feel native in your own land? How can you not bear ill-will towards people who act with such hostility towards the non-human world, who see it only in terms of control or entertainment?

You have to change the paradigm in which all these things take place.

Engaging in Transition changes the paradigm, allows different connections to occur, brings the future into play. It's a conversation you have with your neighbours, the oral history, the skills you share, about growing beans, chopping firewood, scything grass, keeping bees – a conversation you never had before. It’s David Moyse who gives me green tomatoes in exchange for chutney, who tells me how to make wine out of rosehips and lends us his lawn mower. It is a thread that leads us back into community, if we let it.

You think living in seclusion amongst the dragonflies and damson trees is the radical move. But it’s not. Being amongst the people in another spirit is the new territory.

Field Beans

I am sitting with Mark and Josiah, after our monthly Green Drinks at the Green Dragon. We are sitting on twenty sacks of field beans in Josiah’s front room. Three years ago I would not have understood the significance of these beans. Unlike most pulses they can grow in the cold and damp of Britain. They need little inputs to flourish and little energy to cook. To live in harmony with the living systems means we have to downshift our diet, and these versatile protein-rich beans are a key staple for the future. Being wealthy in the new territory you discover has little to do with money: it is measured in sacks and log piles, stored apples, pickled cabbage, seeds, honey, hand tools, shared knowledge. It is measured in the generosity between people, in our informal exchange of goods and services. It bears the thrifty values of country folk, with the networked intelligence of the city, in knowing the territory inch by inch.

The fact is, unless we radically alter our social relationship with the land, our narrative about food and energy, the wild places – the rainforests, oceans, marshes, glaciers, peat bogs – cannot remain intact. They will keep being exploited by a mindset that only thinks in terms of financial profit, a corporate machine that devours the world, like a marauding caterpillar.

Ecological activism resists its advance, by saying NO. Stands up for indigenous people in the Mongolian coal fields, for the exploited worker on the seafood factory ships of Indonesia, for pristine forests everywhere cut down for biofuels, tar sands and palm oil. Transition puts its attention into saying YES, into creating a culture that respects the land and the people, rather than a consumer culture that makes everyone dependent on global corporates and destroys all ecosystems in its hunger for power and privilege. That ignores the vital relationship between
human communities and the earth which the Hopi on the mesas strive to keep intact.

Josiah and I have been having a conversation about the land for three years now: its East Anglian shapes of barley, flax and sugar beet, the arable fields that no-one notices as they speed by, about community orchards and allotments, river valleys that flood or grow perilously dry. We have discussed agro-forestry and wheat varieties that can withstand climate change and do not rely on pesticides (oil) or fertiliser (gas).

Around these fields of the future is interwoven a territory for the wild turkey, for plants and insects, lapwings and larks. In a project connecting farms around the town, known as The River of Flowers, the Transition group, Bungay Community Bees, sow wildflower seeds in a bare meadow in Flixton: bird's foot trefoil, white clover, musk mallow, viper's bugloss.

Everything happens at the edges, he says.

This the place where I now live. In a droughted land with a handful of beans and poppy seeds, at the eleventh hour. I am no longer an outsider. I am engaged, like thousands of Transitioners, thousands of communities, across the world, in an extraordinary work: reclaiming the fields, swapping seeds, making plant medicine, having the conversation where none existed before. This is not an interchange you might see in mainstream media, or hear in conventional circles, but it's happening nonetheless. Like Roy, we know when we meet up together another world is not only possible, she is on her way.

On a quiet day, we can hear her breathing.

Images: Broadland Winter Afternoon | Carry Akroyd; Mark and Great Tit, lead image in week on Deep Nature and First Cucumber (both photos from This Low Carbon Life)

For more information and to purchase a copy of EarthLines contact

Friday 27 April 2012

Ask the Fellows Who Grow the Beans

"Leaves are easy," Josiah tells me. "It's the staples we need to look at." I'm putting together a story on the Urban Food Landscape for the upcoming Transition Free Press. There are all manner of innovative veg growing enterprises in the cities: inner city and peri-urban farms (including Norwich FarmShare which he has helped set up), Abundance projects, collectives like Growing Communities in Hackney, Transition allotments and school gardens. We're growing chard and lettuce in cracks and crevices, burying potatoes in barrrels, filling salvaged basins and gutters with seedlings in our back yards. But what about the big stuff? Our daily bread.


6am. A lovely day outside and the jackdaws are already in the fields. The house is surrounded by ploughed and greening earth - barley, sugar beet, rape, potatoes and peas, the occasional flash of borage blue or flax, and the spears of asparagus in May. I've been having a conversation with Josiah about these arable fields for several years now. The vast "agri-desert" of East Anglia that most people do not even notice as they walk, cycle or drive by and Lord Deben, erstwhle Minister of the Environment, wants to turn into the GM Bread Basket of England. When we began Roots Shoots and Seeds we wanted to look at our relationship with these invisible fields, ask questions that no one asks, even though we are entirely dependent on what happens with their boundaries. And that's where I'm starting with this post: with One Day (Tuesday) in my Life as a Low Carbon Cook.

It's a massive subject, as Jasmijn mapped out so clearly, and clearly contentious. I could go in any direction as a long-time food writer: from being a food fashion editor at ELLE magazine in the 80s to a Transition activist and blogger today. I could talk distribution hubs, slaughterhouses, Monsanto and Cargill. I could talk oysters in Paris, fugu fish in New York, baby eels in Madrid. I could tell you about any number of conversation (and arguments) I have had with hedgecutters, scientists, gamekeepers, shopkeepers, beekeepers. bakers, farmers, radical growers, happy hoarders, city chefs and local fisherman. I could show you the hell of the feedlots outside Yuma and a paradise moment eating sea urchins on a Greek island.

And yet, to address this topic squarely, honestly, it has to start with the food we hold in our hands right now and the territory outside the window. How we can put these two artifcially disconnected things together. If we are going to be resilient as communities we need to relocalise and shorten our supply chains in a world which is skewed to favour big industrial farming and the global food machine. We're going to have to wean ourselves off those pesticides and fertilisers from fossil fuels, replenish the soil and think hard about water and diversity. That's the big picture.

We are also going to have to radically change our diet. As all resilience food writers will tell you, from Michael Pollan to Colin Tudge, this means less meat and dairy, more plants. Almost no fish if you care about oceans. That's the small one. And this is the journey I have been on as a Transition cook and writer, as part of a pioneer project called the Low Carbon Cookbook. And it begins here in these barley fields outside the small brewing seatown of Southwold. Because when you look at civilisations you are looking at the cultivation of grasses, the agriculture that keeps them alive. Maize and millet, rice and wheat. We look fondly at leaves and we argue fiercely about animals, but actually we should be considering these crops, in whose praise we once sung hymns and danced at every part of the growing year.

Millet and Rice

9am. Walking with Dano and Mark toward the tumulus, past wheat fields and pig fields. Starting the day in a wild way. When you focus on the wild you're looking at the cracks and edges of things in England because that is where most of life is thriving. Your eyes scan hedgerows, the reedbed, the copse, the speedwells and poppies that grow amongst Demeter's grains. As Transition medicine and plant people, we're looking to rebalance the domestic and the culitivated, finding the true form of all living things - including our human bodies. So we start by looking at the memory of this land, its shifting patterns, at the mesh of fields and commons through time. We're not looking at land use, or environment or diet, we're looking at earth and food, looking for a narrative that grabs the imagination, pulls you closer to people and the plants. Less mind, more heart.

In Suffolk several Transition initiatives are going locavore in September, following in the tracks of the Fife and Cornwall diets. If you eat bread, meat and fish and cheese you could eat like a king within a 30 mile radius. But this is hard going if you are a gluten-free fellow who doesn't eat animals. That's when you see our dependence on imported food. And you start looking at those fields with some kind of respect, wondering what other crops they could support. Can we grow lentils, soya, chickpeas, all the mainstay staples of the vegetarian larder? (very hard in this climate). Looking at my breakfast I know we can grow millet (though mostly for caged birds in the UK), but not rice. "Wet rice emits more methane than cattle", Josiah has informed me. So I've learned to let go of Basmati, along with rainforest palm oil and soya, tropical fruit and all processed food. I eat brown rice from Italy and a lot of tahini and winter cabbage.

You might think this is depriviation, but it isn't: writers and cooks love challenges. We love being resourceful and witty, coming up with creative solutions. If we want to restore and rebalance the world, we have to do it by sparking interest, waking everyone up. Facts and scientific method are useful and call us to account, but they don't inspire us to explore. Everything is material for a story to a writer, all ingredients are a dish to a cook. Show them a cupboard or a situation, and they are already imagining what inventive and delicious things they can do with it. A cook is not a chef, a conjuror entertaining the masses on television with their smart and sexy sleights of hand, or cooking up fairy feasts for the elite. A cook is someone who alchemises the rough and ready and makes life worth living, finds meaning at every turn, every day. Somehow to downshift we have to unleash our creativity. We have to learn to love the territory, get to have a relationship with those fields. We have to immerse outselves in these grains and pulses and find out their story. Put our lives in play.

Field Beans

1pm Lunch of left-over black eye peas (USA) and rice, spring greens and harissa, after bean planting today in the garden: black beans known as Cherokee Trail of Tears, runner beans, French beans, wrinkly peas, Dunwich broad beans, all from seeds I found at the Walberswick Seed Swap.

In the cookbook we have this game called Six Ingredients. Imagine you can only live on what grows in England but are allowed six ingredients from overseas. What would they be? Tough call for lovers of chocolate and tea, raisins and durum wheat. We reckoned that between us we could share our spices by post. Was that cheating? Or was that simply a sign of how things might go?

This is my choice: olive oil, lemons, black pepper, rice, red lentils and a bean. Not sure whether that's a pinto, black, aduki, black eye pea or lima yet. You could substitue hemp, sunflower or rape for the olive, suggested my fellow cooks, and chillis for the pepper, and then have oranges and noodles. Yes, I say but some things you just have to have in life. Olive oil is one of them.

In the last year and a half we have discussed a hundred ingredients, we have looked at growing patterns, raw food and freegansim, we've lit rocket stoves, cooked together, swapped plants, read books, watched documentaries, and immersed ourselves in the living fabric of food, and reported all our findings. Our main task is to bring awareness in an area where there is a lot of denial. Most people live their lives entirely disconnected from food production, from these fields. Our task is to reconnect, investigate, make conscious, reduce carbon emission in all aspects of our meals - transport, packaging, waste. But most of all to change what and how we eat. How do you wean yourself away from a highly processed, ready-cooked, addictive diet, from a culture built on bourgeois cuisine, that makes feast food an every day occurance and turns organic "peasant" food into something that is weird and elitist? How do you eat ethically, ecologically, economically, with heart, in sych with all creatures, all life on earth?

In Transition Norwich we started by mapping: Norwich FarmShare began with a plan called Can Norwich Feed Itself? The Low Carbon Cookbook began with Deconstruct the Dish, an exercise which places attention on the material, engaging the imagination, our ability to cross-reference and make different pathways, to ask ourselves questions.

This is how it goes: everyone sits down at a table with a large sheet of paper (two people to one piece). You draw a circle and put all the ingredients of the dish inside. Then you take each ingredient and write everything you know about it alongside. You ask yourself and/or your drawing partner: Where did I buy this? Which land did it come from? How did it get here? What people were involved? What’s my relationship with them? When did I first eat this dish? Then you share what you discovered with everyone in the room.

The dish I brought was Fava, which means bean in Greek. It's made with yellow split peas, traditionally served with eggs, red onion and olives. Beans are the big story. Right now we're working with field beans: one kind of bean that grows brilliantly in these fields and makes one of the best hummus I have ever tasted. Soon to be available in food stores in Norwich, thanks to Josiah and Nick Saltmarsh of Provenance and East Anglia Food Link.


4pm Going out into the garden to pick the salad, for tonight's Cookbook meeting. I'm pretty sure Erik will bring leaves from among the 76 plants he grows in his permaculture garden in Hethersett - sorrel, land cress, lovage, early lettuce (maybe), salad burnet (for sure), so I'm collecting some perky wild leaves to add to the base mix - dandelion, cleavers, daisy, chickweed, yarrow, mugwort, hawthorn, with some flowers - violet, primrose, rosemary and alexanders. I'm walking past my donated strawberries and cherry and apple trees now coming into blossom, the three greengages, blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes in flower, rhubarb coming up. Apart from oranges and lemons, I only eat seasonal fruit, so Im looking at those trees with joyful anticipation.

Back in the kitchen I cook up lentils (Canada) for a salad, and quinoa (Bolivia), flavoured with orange and cinnamon, wild garlic leaves and some seeds I've sprouted in a jar. Quinoa is a quandary crop. Hailed as a modern superfood, it is an ace staple due to its protein content and is a great gluten-free substitute for cous cous and bulgar wheat. But the new global demand for it is destroying the fragile soils of the altiplano and the people who grow it are are going hungry. Forced away from their native food and eating white bread, they are going the way of all people who eat a Western diet. I eat it now very rarely and buy Fairtrade. Polenta has become a stand-by.

11pm Returning from Norwich the fields are dark and still. The cat is out hunting rabbits, the owls are hooting one to another in the oak trees. Bilions of stars are sparkling over our heads. We had a good time at the cookbook meeting. Erik didn't bring his leaves, but a delicious home-grown apple, rhubarb and pumpkin crumble, sweetened with Norwich Community Bees honey. Our main focus was on how much KW energy goes into making a vegetable stew cooked in three ways - hay box, on the hob and pressure cooked - and into baking bread and boiling water. Nick had been trying everything out in his boat in the river outside the house. We exchanged facts about gas and electrity and swapped stories about cooking under pressure in the community kitchens of Norwich FoodCycle and Sustainable Bungay's Happy Mondays! And then we talked plants: achocha and chia, goji berry and blue honeysuckle, and all the wild things you can forage right now. And quinoa seeds, which Erik is going to send me in the post. Yes!

"Does it grow OK here?" I ask. It grows fine, says Erik, but it's tricky to harvest and you have to wash it or it tastes of soap.

Outside in the tiny yard stand trays of broad beans planted by Sophie's Spanish flatmates who have come to the city in search of work. A memory of their homeland. Plants that have been growing quietly for a million Spring nights. Plants that keep us all rooted in a rocky time.

Looking over the barley field (Mark Watson); roadkill pheasant on the Poetry Paper; still from Power of Community; with Dano and Whitney and wild salad, filming for the Journal of Wild Culture; postcard for Great British Beans (Josiah Meldrum); mapping the dish by Elena Judd (Norwich FarmShare) and Gemma Sayers (Transition Ipswich/Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm); cape gooseberries and Tierney, head grower at Norwich FarmShare, among the brassicas (by kind permission of Tony Buckingham, copyright )

Article originally published in the Social Reporting project during a week focussed on Diet and the Envrionment

Thursday 26 April 2012

People of the Butterfly - A Review of In Transiton 2.0

In an abandoned lot in Pittsburgh a boy is selling lettuce. Down Tooting High Street a carnival is in full swing. In a village in Portugal two men are walking in a field beside horses. In a fire station in Moss Side a film preview is taking place: “There was silence. You could have heard a pin drop. And then a sound, kind of like a pin dropping. There it is again. And again, many times in rapid succession. Then silence. Nothing.” This is Joel Prittie, writing about his experiences previewing the film, In Transition 2.0, simultaneously with eleven other initiatives worldwide in February. He’s telling us how the machine jammed, how he resolved the dilemma, and how everyone cheered at the end.

It’s a small story. These are all small stories. You might not know they are happening or take much notice of them. But if you were curious, you would discover how that lettuce came to be growing in such an unlikely neighbourhood; why everyone in the carnival was wearing clothes made of rubbish; why the elders of the village were teaching the young people to plough; why Joel Prittie, ex double-glazing salesman, knocked on 1100 doors in the rain in Manchester. If you pulled these stories together, you would notice they all had a common thread. That’s the moment you realise it’s a big story. The story in fact. The story of how people are coming together in the face of difficulties and making another kind of future.

That’s the story of Transition 2.0.


The Transition movement began in 2005 in the market town of Totnes in Devon and since then has sparked off 900 initiatives worldwide. There are initiatives in cities and rural villages, towns and bioregions. Originally billed as a “community-led response to climate change and peak oil”, Transition provides a structure for communities to engage in order to become resilient in the face of these challenges. The term, borrowed from ecology, means the ability for systems to adapt and survive great shocks.

Living within a dominant corporate monoculture where communities are often fragmented and there is little mainstream media attention on these global realities, this is a big ask for most modern people. Every aspect of our industrialised lives has been made possible by cheap fossil fuels, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat. We live, however, mostly in the dark about these facts, or the effects of our daily actions on the environment. Or if we do know them, we see them as information and do not take action.

In Transition 2.0 focuses on the moves groups of people are making to look at the future squarely, to make connections with one another and to find ways to thrive in challenging times. In 2012, resilience also means the capacity to deal with Transition’s third driver, the economic crisis. The shock of the shock doctrine — the crushing blow of austerity, as people everywhere feel the consequences of our growth-at-all-costs culture and the increasing consolidation of wealth for the few.

In its typical pragmatic, positive way In Transition 2.0 doesn’t analyse this situation within a political frame. It acknowledges the big picture, and then gets down to work relocalising the neighbourhood. The film lays out the three drivers briefly at the start, then follows the track of the second book, The Transition Companion, dividing its attention on the different stages Transition initiatives go through, from the start up phase — forming a group and raising awareness — to building up local social enterprises. Rob Hopkins, the co-founder of the Transition Network, explains these stages, and the film looks at the projects that best illustrate the way Transition works.

In many ways the documentary is a tool, a showcase for people who may know nothing about Transition’s aims and structures. It is a mild watching experience, with interviews and information, and you might wonder why someone who has been involved in two initiatives and immersed in Transition communications for almost four years would have anything to find in it. What more did I need to know?

But the fact is: this is a big story. Resilient systems enforce their connections by constant feedback. You are consciously connecting with others through a vast communications network, that works like the mycorrhizal fungi in soil. I might know what is going on in the neighbourhood, but I don’t know what is going on in Portugal or Maryland. You don’t know for example that the first Transition initiative in India has created 400 vegetable gardens in Tamil Nadu. You don’t know how the co-operative Handmade Bakery in Yorkshire set up business, how the Brixton Pound (Britain’s first e-currency) works in the market, or that the mayor of Monteveglio in Italy has adopted an energy descent plan for the whole region. Most of all you realise that the crisis which up to this point has seemed academic is now very real in many places.

Unlike the first film which focused on the start up exhilarating phase of Transition, this had a darker, deeper tone. Here are initiatives who are undergoing the shocks of climate change and the collapse of top-down infrastructure. Here is Japan after the nuclear disaster, New Zealand after two earthquakes. Transition groups that had already been working together were able to respond collectively to the crisis. Thanks to the connections already made though the Lyttelton time-bank, the initiative was able to pull in help to deliver water and food all over the devastated town.

“We are setting up structures, pioneering them and putting them in place for the future,” explained Dirk Campbell of Ovesco in Lewes, Britain’s first community owned solar power station (see right). “It’s difficult and takes enormous amounts of effort, commitment and time.”

Facing the crisis

There are many criticisms of Transition. It is not political, realistic, activist enough; it is white and middle class; it lacks structure; it’s too structured, too fluffy and feel-good. It doesn’t fulfill everything. It’s true, it doesn’t fulfill everything. But you would be hard pushed to find another method that can bring diverse people together within a frame of change. There are plenty of adversarial organisations that address climate change (Climate Rush, Greenpeace) and the financial system (UK Uncut, Occupy); there are plenty of low-carbon incentives (10:10, and urban growing projects (Growing Communities in Hackney, Abundance and city farms in Sheffield). But what Transition does is address all these aspects simultaneously. It allows for many kinds of people to sit in a room together and work out ways to proceed. What is the most important ingredient or tool in the book (87 in all)? I asked Rob Hopkins at the Twitter launch of the Transition companion. The first one, Working in Groups, was his reply.

Our number one challenge is working in groups when we have been raised in an individualist hierarchical culture, taught to be hostile to the max. The film doesn’t show the struggle that most groups go though in dealing with this, though it does talk about conflict (including the testimony of Chris Hart from Transition Lancaster that collapsed and then reformed itself successfully a year later). Nor does it show the massive fall outs that happen when an old way of doing things (my will against yours) clashes with a new (our way together). How these old structures cling on. How the new ones demand massive inner shifts, but that if you manage to hold together extraordinary things start to happen.

What it does show is how Transition as a method, culture and network brings people together to work out solutions in places suffering from massive downturn. In the Portuguese village of Amoreiras the initiative held a meeting and asked everyone to dream. The village had suffered the fate of many rural places where most of the population had left for work in the cities. The group listened to everyone’s desires and then put their collective vision into motion. They painted the whole village, set up a local market, organised a working party to bring about better healthcare.

Here is Fred Brown in Pittsburgh, a city that in the 1970s and ’80s, lost 100,000 jobs when steel mills transferred their manufacturing to countries around the world. It’s a city where marginalised low-income neighbourhoods are threatened by incoming gentrification and big businesses. In his community of Larimer, Google have recently built a new facility, benefiting from millions of urban redevelopment funds that were intended to help the residents:

“The community doesn’t need or want more experts telling them what to do. We want partners and we want help to develop and implement our dream. Transition is helping us come together, deepen the vision, create working groups, get practical work done, and understand community-wide needs. It is also giving us language and a process for negotiating with those who seek to take, or to give on their own terms — empowering us to be proactive and co-creators.”

This is the hardest task. We are taught to listen to experts and to obey rules. Transition puts the decisions back into our hands and asks everyone to take the lead, become knowledgeable about how towns and councils work, talk with other local groups, find out about waste, alternative energy, sustainable food systems, how to write a press release, give a talk, keep bees, grow a lettuce. We are discouraged in our every attempt by the status quo. Keep shopping, keep distracted, keep listening to the old story! But there is new narrative out there, what Paul Hawken calls the greatest untold story of our time. Some of this is embodied in Transition. It’s hard work and rarely paid, but it brings rewards you don’t see on the surface, that are difficult to show on a film. These are the invisible connections between people, feelings of belonging, of meaning, of self-worth, boldness and possibility, the simple joy of sharing things, tools, knowledge, apples from your tree.

I feel proud of where I live at and it’s changed me.

Most of all it gives you an opportunity you never knew existed. Here’s next week’s schedule with my home initiatives of Sustainable Bungay and Transition Norwich: showing a documentary with Waveney Greenpeace in a local barn (Crisis of Civilisation), working in our monthly community kitchen (for a sit-down supper for 50), helping out at our Give and Take Day (free exchange of stuff), introducing people to medicine plants in an event called Walking with Weeds, writing on two community blogs (one local, one national), setting up a newspaper (Transition Free Press).

None of these activities would happen without this small band of people I have been working with for the last four years. We would never have met. History and consumerism and the class system would have kept us separated from one another. Our library community garden would be bare brick. The bee-friendly wildflower meadow would be unsown. Norwich would not have an urban farm. I would never have met any of my fellow transitioners I am in daily contact with, or the many affiliated groups that write in our blogs from Occupy Norwich to BiofuelWatch to the new bicycle workshop off Magdalen Street. I would not be writing this piece. You would not be reading it. The film and everything that happens in its 66 minutes would not be happening.

Except that it is happening: and it’s worth seeing if only to know that these seeds are being sown in a time when everything seems set against us and all life on earth.

There is a story that underpins what we do and sometimes we tell it to each other in the hard times. The caterpillar keeps munching his way voraciously across the green planet. One day he buries himself in a cocoon, and unknowingly begins the process of transformation. His body starts to dissolve and as it does imaginal buds start to appear from nowhere. At first the caterpillar’s immune system attacks and defeats this new form. Then the buds rise up again. This time they link up and the defence system can not destroy them. They hold fast. The old structure dissolves. The butterfly begins to emerge.

It’s a form you would never have imagined, something beautiful emerging in world that appears only to profit the greedy and antagonistic. But sometimes in our struggle we catch a glimpse of the butterfly wing. In the flash of carnival costume, in the mists over a Japanese mountain, in the sound of each others’ voices, in the smile of a boy holding a lettuce grown against all odds.

This piece was originally written for the on-line magazine STIR. You can order copies of the DVD from the In Transition 2.0 website.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Review: National Planning Policy Framework 2012

Reading government policy is not quite as enjoyable and easy as the book I reviewed on Monday, but nonetheless worth looking through.

The National Planning Policy Framework is a document recently adopted by the coalition government as requirements for the UK planning system. It revokes and replaces 44 government documents that had previously made up the nation's planning policy, cutting down over a thousand pages of policy to a manageable 50 or so.

A Controversial Policy

There was great concern when the first revision of the document was published from organisations and individuals who thought that the government's "presumption in favour of sustainable growth" would be a free ticket for developers to build whatever the hell they liked, provided they could justify that the "benefits" outweigh the "adverse impacts" in terms of "sustainable economic growth".  You can see why they had problems with it from this passage:
Local planning authorities should: ...
  • grant permission where the plan is absent, silent, indeterminate or where relevant policies are out of date.
All of these policies should apply unless the adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole.
Thankfully, they revised it, and now the clause in question reads:
14. At the heart of the National Planning Policy Framework is a presumption in  favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking.

For plan-making this means that:
  • local planning authorities should positively seek opportunities to meet the  development needs of their area;
  • Local Plans should meet objectively assessed needs, with sufficient flexibility to adapt to rapid change, unless:
    • any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably  outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole; or
    • specific policies in this Framework indicate development should be  restricted.
For decision-taking this means:
  • approving development proposals that accord with the development plan  without delay; and
  • where the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out-of-date, granting permission unless: 
    • any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably  outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this  Framework taken as a whole; or
    • specific policies in this Framework indicate development should be  restricted.
This managed to persuade environmental and historic interest organisations (such as the National Trust) to accept it, and most of them have now withdrawn their complaints.

What does the NPPF actually say?

The National Planning Policy Framework's clauses are often open for a lot of interpretation.  The benefits of this, in my opinion, are that it prevents bureaucrats from picking up on minute details of planning policy and blowing them out of all proportion, and it also leaves lots of flexibility for different strategies to be taken by councils and developers in different parts of the country, where the economic, environmental, or social requirements of the area may be different.

I'll use one of the "Core Planning Principles" (clause 17) as an example (and one that is particularly relevant to us transitioners!):
[Planning should] support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate, taking full account of flood risk and coastal change, and encourage the reuse of existing resources, including conversion of existing buildings, and encourage the use of renewable resources (for example, by the development of renewable energy) 
This, I'm sure you'll agree, is a very noble piece of policy, and one that most of us would support wholeheartedly. It is also flexible enough to allow for areas in question to prioritise different aspects of climate change depending on the risk of the location to flood risk, for example, or the number of existing buildings that the area has.

But at the same time it's a bit woolly, for exactly the same reason. Whether a particular local authority does prioritise one aspect of a "low carbon future" over another is seemingly up to them, and could cause undesirable consequences if they put too much emphasis on one thing over another, as they may be persuaded to if they are threatened by lobbying interests, or influential media coverage.

Approval for housing developments, for example, is one of those things that will be different depending on the strength of the local authority's plans.  If the local plan comes to the conclusion that housing developments are fine, and all other conditions are met, we could see housing developments sweep through towns, but if the Local Plan limits new housing development, then even developments with strong sustainability credentials may struggle to get through.

So will this policy guarantee us sustainable development?

The strength of this new policy is based on the fact that it hands much of the power and responsibility for planning back to local authorities (where, in my opinion, it belongs), by stating that local plans should be made, and that these plans should reflect the particular needs of the community, as well as be in line with national policy (i.e. the NPPF document itself).

With this power in the hands of the local authorities, we then rely upon the strength of those particular authorities to create plans and implement them in a balanced manner. Whilst in theory the policy ought to give councils the power to challenge controversial projects, it may also leave a lot of scope for dubious projects to fall through the cracks where the council does not have the resources to create a detailed enough Local Plan (particularly an issue when budgets are being cut back).

What difference does this all make to me?

For those submitting planning applications, they should be granted quicker where they are in line with the Local Plan, and should be slower and harder to achieve if they are not in line with local plans.

But even if you do not ever wish to file an application, there are a couple of big changes that the framework represents, even if most of the time you won't notice them. Local authorities, holding more responsibility, should be more vocal about what local plans are, and how they are changing, as these are now the documents determining whether an application should be approved or not.  Hopefully politicians will woo voters by indicating what they hope to prioritise in local plans, and voters will hold them accountable to what they promise.

I have yet to read the more detailed clauses (I've only got to page 12 so far!), but I'm sure this won't be the last you hear from me on the NPPF!

Images: The National Trust's "Planning for People" campaign, that led the fight for rewriting the NPPF; Save Hethersett campaign image from

Monday 23 April 2012

Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts...

For the past week I have, uncharacteristically, been racing through a book, not able to put it down. That book is "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain, who I first heard of from this TEDTalk, and just happened to notice the book on the shelf in a bookshop when I was passing through town.

As an introvert myself, I have always been acutely aware of the fact that our culture is built on the "Extrovert Ideal", and all the effects that has had on my life. Despite introverted activities having as much value to society as extroverted ones, a higher value is consistently placed on extroverted activities both in the workplace and within schools. You will be hard-pushed to find a job description that does not ask for "teamwork" and "communication" as essential skills, but are unlikely to find one that demands more introverted traits such as reserve and sensitivity, even when they would be advantageous to the role.

The first three chapters (Part One) explore this "Extrovert Ideal", how it came about, and the effect it has had on individuals and on society as a whole, whilst the rest of the book looks at how introverts came to be the way they are, and what tools the introvert can use to understand themselves and extroverts better, and live happier and more fulfilling lives as a result.

The book, reminiscent of Tracy Chapman's song "Talking about a revolution" (which insists that it "sounds like a whisper"), gives numerous examples of people who have changed the world, not despite, but often partly aided by, their quiet and sensitive nature. Such people include Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt (who stood up for the misrepresented when she was First Lady) and Rosa Parks (an African-American civil rights activist). By being quiet and reflective, we find, introverts are often much better at seeing the bigger picture, averse to high risk and better at activities that require a lot of solitary study and concentration.

I wouldn't write a book review on here unless it had something to say about transition, but this book I really do feel has a lot to say. Transition, I feel, is an introverted movement, in that its focus is not on simply communicating (like the Occupy movement, in many ways), but is contemplative and about getting stuff done even when the movement is misunderstood or not accepted by society as a whole. This, I feel, is a great character trait, because Transition doesn't just pander to people for the sake of pleasing them (as governments do, most of the time), nor does it try to be controlling or aggressive.

However, along with the positive character traits, there are negative ones. The Transition movement, like introverts, has a small number of dedicated friends, but often gets lost in large crowds, and sometimes finds it difficult to make itself heard over the more assertive members of society, such as banks and corporations (the book suggests, indirectly, that the financial recessions of both the dot-com bubble and those more recently were caused, at least in part, by extroverts taking disproportionate risks whilst ignoring the warning by introverts (such as Warren Buffett), who, being risk-averse, had looked ahead, and saw financial crises in the making).

The Transition movement, therefore, and its members (particularly the more introverted ones), would do well to take a leaf or two out of this book. Here are a few suggestions:

Assume a soft leadership

Susan Cain suggests that introverts make good leaders when they preside over proactive people, whose strengths they can bring out, without stealing the lime-light, or stifling with top-down control. In the same way, the leadership that transition can bring to an area, where a local council may not be able, is in inspiring existing companies, communities, and individuals to take the initiative to improve itself, and to reward it for doing so.

Learn to be more vocal, but schedule in "restorative niches" too

Introverts can burn out if they try to go against their nature for too long (pseudo-extroversion), and although they may step out of their comfort zone for short periods and express themselves very well, they may need to recover by creating a "restorative niche", where they can just "be themselves". A great example of this is the Magdelan Street Celebration - just one day a year of activity to express the values of transition in the Norwich north city region - but which, if held constantly, would become tiresome, and would drift away from the values which it was all about in the first place. To keep the movement on track, restorative niches are required; perhaps something like last year's "Spring Scheming", or the discussion following Nicole Foss's talk in April of last year.

Foster creativity

Creativity is never produced by "groupthink". Original and creative ideas comes from a single mind, even when inspired by external events or other people's less-developed theories. For us to face the challenges that present themselves during the transition to a post-peak future, we need creativity, and therefore we would do well to provide situations in which such creativity can thrive. These won't be big parties or social get-togethers (however fun these may be), but quiet moments where ideas are shared freely, but leave people with plenty of time to think around and develop their own ideas and solutions (I consider this blog to be a great opportunity for me to get my creative juices flowing, to explore and express my ideas!)

There's one little quote from the book which I want to leave you with, in support of blogging as a method of expression for introverts:

Studies have shown that... The same person who would never raise his hand in a lecture hall of two hundred people might blog to two thousand, or two million, without thinking twice.

If only TLCL's readership were quite at the two million mark!

Saturday 21 April 2012

New Workshop - Bicycle Links

After several months of painting walls, ham- mering work- benches together and hunting for secondhand furniture, Bicycle Links opened its doors at the beginning of March. We're based in an old shoe factory, St Mary's Works, at the north end of Duke Street in the city centre.

The heart of our project is to recycle the sad old bikes that are abandoned or unwanted and give them a second lease of life. This not only stops usable items going into waste, it also provides good quality secondhand bikes for sale - doing two green things in one go.

The great thing about refurbishing bikes is that it's also an opportunity to give unemployed people maintenance skills and experience. This is the third aim of our project. We're developing a volunteer program that will offer weekday sessions from 'fix your own bike' to more general workshop practice.

Bicycle Links is a community interest company, in other words a social enterprise. The enterprise part includes bicycle repairs, maintenance classes, a women's evening, bike sales, events (hopefully) and, soon, bike hire. We've even started a bicycle library.

As a new business we've had some 'what are we doing?' moments. With 3000 square feet of workshop and all the overheads we did wonder sometimes if we were mad or stupid. But it's starting to come together now and we're getting a steady stream of repairs. The response from visitors has been great.

Norfolk is a brilliant place for cycling and if nothing else we want to encourage more people to get about on two wheels. We're open Wednesday to Saturday 10am to 6pm, so please come and see us. And if you have an old bike rusting in a shed that you don't want, we'd love to have it.

Lucy Hall

Friday 20 April 2012

Norwich Community Bees

It's just over a year since we first came up with the idea of starting the community beekeeping scheme that became Norwich Community Bees.  Last March I had no idea of how much hard work it might be to turn that idea into reality, nor how emotionally attached it was possible to become.

We spent last summer getting things started, sourcing kit (thanks again Beechwood Bees!), getting the group bank account set up, putting the hive together and finally, at the end of summer, we managed to get a swarm installed.  It was such an exciting event!

Sadly, so very sadly, our first colony died over the winter, and Erik had to share the bad news with the group.  I felt absolutely gutted when I heard, feelings I'd never have thought I'd experience in the context of a group of insects.  Lots of people clearly felt the same, as I had mails from friends and people I'd never met before, all offering condolences and, just as important, encouragement.  Bees are having a hard time at the moment, it's not uncommon to lose a hive.

So, onwards and upwards.  I'm still hugely enthusiastic about what we're doing here, and so, clearly, is the group.  We have our first meeting of 2012 planned for Sunday 29th April, up at the Norwich Farmshare site, when we'll be sorting out everything in preparation for a new swarm and making up frames.

We're always keen to welcome to new members - membership for 2012 is only £20 and for that you'll get an equal share in whatever honey our lovely bees produce, as well as the opportunity to get involved in making hives and looking after the bees themselves.  Membership also makes a great gift!

You can find more information on our website at or you can mail us at  We'd love to hear from you!

Pic: (Creative Commons)

Thursday 19 April 2012

Norwich Farmshare and social justice

Why isn't everyone a member of Norwich FarmShare? I'll let off anyone reading this who lives more than 5 miles from Norwich; or who grows all their own veg; or who doesn't eat vegetables (although we welcome supporter members too, who pay us just £2 a month and don't have to have any vegetables!).

Who else is there? People who haven't heard of Norwich FarmShare yet- well, our marketing team is working on that. People who don't feel that locally grown, low waste, low carbon, knobbly, muddy, odd vegetables are important to them- hopefully one day we'll be able to have an outreach project worker who can help us tell people what's great about all that stuff.

So we come to people who can't afford it. I think these people split into two groups. I meet an awful lot of people who tell me they can't afford it (as they glance distractedly at the shiny screen of their newest gadget). I'd like to rename these people a group who can afford it but don't actually want to be a member. And to be honest, that's completely fair. We couldn't possibly grow enough vegetables to feed all of Norwich anyway.

I also work in some very poor areas of Norwich and I know very well there are some people who very genuinely can't afford it. There are people in Norwich who don't know where their next meal is coming from. Not because they squander their money on fags and playstations; not because they're bad people. I struggle to know how & why people can be so poor when as a country we have so much, when there's so much money just sloshing around that quite by chance 23 of the 29 members of the UK cabinet are millionaires.

Yet according to Foodbank (a national network providing emergency food to families in crisis), 13 million people around the UK live below the poverty line, and in Norwich alone they fed 1,760 families in the last 6 months.

I struggle to express how angry it makes me that this need exists. But happily, I've been able to start to do something small about it. It's always worried me that people who are members of Norwich FarmShare are, by definition, people who can afford it. That restricts us to a certain section of the community. And while I believe that our vegetable shares are good value for what they offer, I also know that they're a big chunk of money if you don't have much.

Amazingly, we've been able to join a project run by the NHS called Healthy Start. Healthy Start gives families on low incomes vouchers to spend on fresh fruit, vegetables and milk. That means that families who meet the conditions for the vouchers can get a weekly share of local, delicious, seasonal vegetables for free, and we can claim the money back from the NHS. The NHS and wider society benefits in the longer term from the improved nutrition and then health of the young family- nobody loses.

I'm so impressed that the NHS has had the courage to make this scheme open to food co-ops, CSAs and local small scale producers and retailers, and not just got into bed with the big four supermarkets. If you know a grower or a retailer who you think might be able to join, do tell them about the scheme- they can find out all the details here. Or if you would like to check if you or a friend can get the vouchers, that information is here.

If you'd like to know more about Norwich FarmShare, try our website, or visit us any Thursday between 4.00 and 6.30 at our Food Hub to meet us and ask any questions you have.

Elena. Pics: Hafidha and Aziz; Veg by Jan.