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

1 comment:

  1. Great thoughtful blog post. Much appreciated.