Friday 31 August 2012

Ribwort Plantain is Your Friend - Get Your Balls Rolling!

It's the last day of summer, a blue moon and I'm off in an hour or so for the last of the plant medicine 'surgeries' I've been holding at Bungay library community garden every Friday for the past few months. Between 1 and 3pm anyone can come and talk about plants as medicine, share knowledge and tips and visit the plant medicine bed.

These Friday sessions have formed part of Sustainable Bungay's Plants for Life project, which I've been curating this year.

As well as the central bed of the library garden showcasing a variety of medicine plants, the project also includes a monthly talk, walk or workshop on some aspect of plants as medicine. Authors, medical herbalists and biodynamic growers have given readings, shown us how to make great green teas, tinctures and oils and passed on invaluable tips for growing herbs. I have taken several groups on walks around Bungay exploring the medicinal value of the plants we call weeds.

Over the past month I've received so many requests from people asking which plants will help with insect bites and stings that I'd like to share some tips about a fabulous plant - it's common, handsome and grows everywhere. You probably step on it all the time.

When it grows unimpeded by human feet and its flowers shimmer in the light and breeze, you wonder why you never noticed it before. And it is truly a medicine chest.

And although summer is coming to a close, bites and stings will still be a possibility for some time yet, especially for those working on the land or in the garden, so...

Ribwort Plantain is your friend.

Bites and stings of bees, wasps, ants, nettles, mosquitoes, horseflies and fleas are alleviated by rolling a ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) leaf in your hand into a juicy ball, and applying it to the bite/sting.

The leaves of this friendly, common, handsome plant have been giving me a hand all summer and I've been recommending it to everyone.

It really works, often immediately, and is utterly safe. And usually not too far away.

I was stung on the neck by a wasp in a local shop and after making a very unmasculine shriek, I went home, rolled a plantain leaf and applied it to my neck. The pain disappeared immediately and there was no swelling.

So get those balls rolling! And love those plantains!

Note: This piece is adapted from a post I wrote earlier this week, itself an extract from a forthcoming, more extensive post about the plantains. UPDATE October 2013: More of my posts about and including plantain and its marvels can be found here.

Pics: ribwort plantain flowering; ribwort leaves; ribwort flower close-up; rolled ribwort plantain ball (all by Mark Watson)

Wednesday 29 August 2012

Low Carbon Cookbook - Fruta mi amor?

Maybe it's because we're planning a Mexican fiesta meal next month for Happy Mondays that I keep remem- bering this refrain we used to hear long ago on Cartagena beach, where large ladies would sashay down the sand with piles of exotic fruit on their heads - fresh coconut, papaya and mango. Juicy, sweet, mouthwatering salads, cutting the salt of the sea and the fierce tropical heat. Those were the days when tamarind lollies, tumblers of passion fruit and naranjilla juice were an everyday thing and none of us thought twice about catching a plane.

Now in Transition exotic fruit is forbidden fruit: way too many pesticides and air miles, way too much exploitation of pineapple and banana workers. We live in frugal times with an eye on the planetary clock. Like many Transitioners I don't buy out of season or from supermarkets, and my tastebuds have been narrowed down to European organic citrus and English raspberries, quince and pears (and the occassional home-grown cape gooseberry or kiwi). I am stalwart in the winter, long months of wrinkly apples and early rhubarb, pulling out frozen plums or strawberries from the small artic in my fridge when guests come for supper. I say to myself: next year I shall bottle and prepare! But of course, like the currant-loving, sloe-pecking, cherry-picking birds, I gorge on the fruit when it is there, and then forget all about it.

These blackcurrants and gooseberries are from the Bungay Library Community garden and were a small handful of intense, multi-levelled sweetness, eagerly enjoyed by Mark, Josiah and myself last week. Normally as September advances my eyes are flicking up into street trees everywhere, the small roadside stalls are bursting with plums and we are gearing up to our Grow and Give produce swap. Last year I had enough apples stored in my larder to last until Spring. I was relishing the shared fruit in Cathy's orchard. The year before I was amassing wild fruit for jam. There was abundance everywhere you looked. Wasps and scarlet admirals feasted on the rotting windfalls in gardens.

2012 is a different year - no damsons, few cherry plums, fewer cherries, almost no scrumping apples. Fierce winds and frosts in Spring burned the blossom and many pollinators were grounded. What we have is a profusion of blackberries (the core of our Mexican pudding and winemaking workshop) and elderberries, which with sea buckthorn, will be the basis for our Fruit Tonic Plants for Life session next month.

"Sour this year though," remarked Margaret, as we discussed blackberries at our core group meeting last night. "Like the strawberries."

Without sun or light, the fruit does not sweeten and amor is harder to find. This year, with massive drought in America and the Artic sea-ice at an all-time low the shadow of climate change is falling over our lives.

You cannot be a cook or a gardener and ignore the effects these shifts in temperature and pressure are having on our local weather and thus the food crops on which we depend. Our mood is affected by these things. Once I might have written gleefully about our greatest feral fruit, the evocative way its rose-scented perfume curls around the house, bringing the happiness of all Septembers with it, how blackberry-gathering is one of the links to our ancestral foraging past, how I love to lean out of the window and see old couples and children with bowls of berries in their hands, or young men on bikes talking and eating from the hedges in the rich-gold evenings. Now my attention is otherwise engaged. It's OK to treasure what we have, to enjoy working and meeting together, but the frame in which we do these things - our community enterprises, events, projects - has to be palpable. It has to be real.

We began our Low Carbon Cookbook group two years ago to bring attention to the food we eat, to explore what it takes to downshift the kitchen and make our larders low-carbon and our bodies resilient. We've held conversations about food systems, energy and ethics, shared meals, skills, experiences, tracked our everyday growing and cooking patterns. This month as many harvests fail, or yield little, and prices rise, it feels as though we were just prepping in our one-planet community kitchen, and the real work is only now beginning . . .

The Low Carbon Cookbook archive can be accessed here. Plants for Life Fruit Tonic Workshop will be held at Bungay Library Community Garden on September 23. Wild plums - a short memoir on fruit and cooking - one of the original 52 Flowers That Shook My World is published here.

Fruit pix: Wild and garden plums, 2011; blackcurrant and gooseberries (Josiah Meldrum), Mark and Josiah, 2012; blackberry and elder berries, 2010; sea buckthorn berries, 2011.cherries, strawberries, peaches and nectarines, Strangers Circle, 2009 (CDC)

Monday 27 August 2012

postcard from the woods - uncivilisation festival 2012

For we are all,
We are all,
We are all the children of,
We are all the sons of,
A brilliantly coloured flower,
A flaming flower.
And there is no one,
There is no one,
Who regrets what we are.

(Huichol Peyote Song from Pharmako Gnosis by Dale Pendell, 2005)

How can we become people who regret nothing and whom no one regrets? How can we find the new narrative about ourselves and the earth that Charles Eisenstein calls "the new story of self and the new story of the people"? Was it always there and we have forgotten it, or is it here now inside us, waiting to be cracked open like an acorn, to rise and take root?

I am at the Uncivilisation Festival in the Hampshire woods on the downs of England, giving a writing workshop based on my book, 52 Flowers That Shook My World. I am standing in at the last minute for a poet who couldn't make it, and as I walked through the dark wood last night, the warm wind shifting through the trees, I thought: what are the medicines the plants have taught me that I can now give?

One thing peyote showed us: we are not what we thought we were. We are more. We are not defined by class, or family or work, we are creatures of the sun and wind and the mythos of many lands, and no tranformation of the world, no transition, can truly take place until we become different kinds of people. And how do we do that surrounded as we are by the city world, its buildings, its harsh statistical language, its abstractions and globalised mindset?

You have to change the territory in which you move and speak, in which you come to different conclusions. You have to go into the woods and encounter the wild. The wild is not an escape from reality, it is a liberation into reality, out of the illusion of civilisation. For we are more than we think we are. We are kin with all creatures, all clouds, all rivers. We move and breathe and create part of the world's dreaming, the verbs and adjectives of its language.

This is one of the precedents for the Dark Mountain Project and for this festival, which over an intense August weekend gives 300 people a glimpse of what the future might feel like once we shed our conditioning, and start to tell our stories around the fire. Once we loosen the shackles of our identity and let the trees in.

There are several words for human being I said, in other cultures. The Okanagen word is land dreaming capacity. It is our function, if you like, to name the world, to make stories, weave fabrics, to dance and to sing. It is how the earth sees itself in our reflection. Another is winklil which is a Mayan word for vibrating root. The human being comes into the fabric of the earth with a certain sound or frequency, which resonates and harmonises with other beings. When rooted, it is our music that keeps the world in harmony.

You only have to think of the kinds of sounds cities make, or politicians or motorways to know the world's discordance. Out of time, out of place. It is our work as writers, I suggested, to name the physical and imaginative world beautifully, to root ourselves and get us all back in tune.

Breaking the acorn

The first writing exercise is to find the seed within and the right conditions in which to germinate.

I am holding my hands open and in my right, I hold practical seeds from my Transition garden: chickpeas, broad beans, sunflower seeds; in my left, two dreaming seeds, both from the desert in Arizona, a bearberry and a scarlet coral bean. The first is a traditional medicine for the kidneys, the second a tool for divination. Everything in our culture suppresses the germination of these seeds. Everything at Uncivilisation encourages it - practical worshops on scything, imaginative storyteling about Siberian shamans and the loss of the Caspian tiger. If you are a plant, I said, what kind of plant would that be? In which territory do you flourish?

At the Festival everyone is camping in the meadow. We meet around fires, listen to poetry and music in this woodland theatre, we debate in tipis and yurts, walk through tree and leaf galleries and performances under the starry skies. Last year when I stumbled upon Uncivilisation I felt I had come home. Lover of Transition as I am, there are parts it does not reach, where Dark Mountain speaks directly - language and creativity, mythos and earth. I realise that my roots lie deep within its territory, and that though I am happy working in the community kitchens and workaday comms and events of Transition, here I can be myself: here I can tell the medicine stories I learned and be heard in a certain attention.

Attention is what I am looking for this year - not the attention for the performer ego, but the set and setting in which to receive and transmit vital communications between ourselves as a network. Last year the festival had a very different feel, and I was a different person. It was just after the London riots and there were many talks about collapse and a lot of urgent political and intellectual debate. This year everything is acoustic and seemingly more mellow, more art and psychology than economic discussion. I am familiar now with the language of Dark Mountain (partly because I distribute the three books and help out with publicity). So I walk from event to event in search of the story. Not the journalism story which I wrote last year, or even the one I just wrote about Dark Mountain for the activist magazine STIR, but a story of a breaking kind. Like medicine, you don't know what you are looking for; you just know when you happen across it.

"What is the dreaming of Uncivilisation?" I asked everyone at the workshop. You can look at a dream - a night dream or an event or a relationship - on five levels. 1. the everyday level: what is happening over 48 hours 2. on the life level: in terms of your biography, what does your presence here signify in terms of your life? 3. As part of the human collective - what does this festival mean in terms of society? 4. on the mythical level - how does Uncivilisation affect the mythos of the world? 5. on the earth level: as the earth speaking to us. What are these woods telling us, the trees and the hills?

I am looking for the story. Standing with Kevin from our Dark Mountain Norwich group, stewarding the gate, I find a bank of eyebright flowers. This tiny eye-medicine flower is hard to find on the clay and sand soils of East Anglia, and we are on chalk here. Kevin tells me he found gravediggers hacking the chalk yesterday eight foot deep with pickaxes. And it's true: if you go down through the yurts and flowery enclosures you find yourself deep among the yews of the South Downland burial site.

It's easy to arrive at festivals and lose yourself in cameraderie and entertainment, and although this is no way a commercial event the desire to kick-back and have a good time is strong. Who doesn't like to drink cider and laugh and meet strangers who feel like kin? But this lightness does not crack the kernel.

I'm looking for something deeper, a more sober, urgent narrative that resonates with this land. Something more collective that allows death and loss to the party. I have been in Transition for four years now and know that we have to move together, out of individualism, beyond Me and my eternal sorrow and anger. I feel it sometimes: as we move around the fire in a Brythonic dance to the sound of bagpipe and violin, and the creatures of Mearcstapa move out of the darkness in the shapes of raven and wolf, stag and hare. I hear it in the discussion I have with Dougie (who curates the Big Tent stage) as we talk about the Deep Green Resistance, and with Robert who is reading Tennyson's Ulysses out loud in the wood. I stumble into it as I move from a wilderness initiation workshop and find myself amongst the mourners of the burial site and see a glimpse of the bright downland grass. And then I find it, right at the end of the festival, at a reading among the beech trees.

She was our sister, our mother, our lover.

Jim Hindle is reading from his book Nine Miles, a searing and beautifiully-wrought story about the road protesters in the 1990s. A celebration of the protests 20th anniversary is one of the themes of this year's festival and many of the people who have spoken of their experiences are sitting in this circle, the writer Jay Griffiths, the musician Andy Letcher, and the photographer, Adrian Arbib. All around us Tom Hirons, who has organised this talk, has hung slates in commemoration of all the camps that were held to defend the trees and the land from being destroyed in the name of growth and progress. Many of them near the Sustainablity Centre where we are now.

Hindle is quiet and intense as he reads his testimony of those tough and magical winters spent amongst the canopy of ancient oaks. He was a teenager then, and badly broken by the experience, yet the passion for the land is palpably there. It burns, and you can feel it. And I realised then that this was the spirit I was looking for. It was a mood, a warrior mood, that comes once the kernel has been cracked open inside. We are older now. We have lost, our lives have collapsed. Our hearts have been broken open, and now some of us realise they were meant to be, because a broken heart that can remember and reassemble itself burns more fiercely and more powerfully than any other - as every shaman story tells us. What these initiation tales do not tell us, as a future people, is that we do this work of return together. That's our own indigenous medicine story. Now I knew why I had ended my workshop with a passage from Tree Dialogues chapter. Once in these lands we decided everything under the trees. Everything to do with right government. It was not personal, but a matter for the collective.

"Would you do it again?" somebody asked the activist and writer.

"Yes," he said.

"Yes," we all said.

I was remembering the hilltop in Oxfordshire, I was remembering the oakwood of Shotover. I was remembering the people. People I had known who had stood by trees, and people I have never known who had stood by trees. We were all there, waiting, it seemed, for an aeon by the tree in Staverton Thicks.

We are holding out, the oaks said finally.

My heart jumped.

“I am with you,” I said. “I am always holding out.”

I am holding out that our hearts will return. I am holding out that the people of this green land will throw off our dark oppression. I am holding out that even though Mark and I are alone in this oak wood, we will all one day emerge from the underground and meet together. I am holding out that even though we are hidden and often alone, we know in our hearts, in our thousands, we are together. No matter what house we come from, what work we do, where we dwell in the kingdom, we are already united: the men that walk the mountains, the men who swim the wild rivers and seas, the men who sleep in the branches of the trees and burrow among the roots to stop the machines from killing the wildwood; the lion-hearted who speak out loud, who call to account, who bear witness, the oak-seers, the acorn-bearers; the ordinary men of England and merry maids of England, who bring their lightness and beauty and laughter, who stand by the men, who walk beside them, who see them and keep the fire. I am holding out for us all standing here together, as the oaks hold the sky in their branches and their roots hold the earth. We are holding out. We are holding the land sovereign. And with one heart we say:

This planet does not belong to you.

Photographs: woodland walk by Adrian Arbib from Solsbury Hill (forward by Paul Kingsnorth and George Monbiot); Robert reading poetry in the woods; woodland stage at Dark Mountain 3 writers' reading; slate road protest commemoration by Tom Hirons: Pete, Wendy and Paul with their 52 Flowers about to board the bus; Jim Hindle discusses Nine Miles; art installation (CDC); Farewell and Imagine Wolf by kind permission of Bridget McKenzie from This Learning Planet.

Quotations from 52 Flowers That Shook My World - A Radical Return to Earth (Two Ravens Press)

Saturday 25 August 2012

Gleaning from the past

Contractors were harvesting potatoes in the field next to us yesterday and as is usually the case a lot of potatoes were missed by the machinery. I reckon that enough were left on the ground to feed the entire village for the year - if anyone could be bothered to pick them up. I grow my grow my own potatoes and don't really need any more but I spent 5 minutes picking up a large bag load from just a few metres inside the entrance to the field. I tried offering them to other people but no one wanted them and were certainly not prepared to pick up some themselves. I got the distinct impression that they were only comfortable with food that had been 'authenticated' by being sold by a supermarket - and I can understand why people are rightly concerned about what they eat.

Not so long ago, gleaning was an important privilege for country people and people depended on gleaned food for the winter. I suppose it is good that people are now so wealthy that they don't need to worry about paying for food but is still seems a shame to see so much food go to waste. I wonder how long it will be before rising fuel and fertiliser costs leads to people keeping an eye open for gleaning opportunities once again.

The potatoes rapidly went green in the bright sun and most are now too poisonous to eat.

Thursday 23 August 2012

Noughty but Nice and Keeping Refreshed at Happy Mondays

The Low Carbon Cookbook group hasn't had a meeting this month, and so here is a post I wrote for the Transition Social Reporting Project yesterday, 22nd August, about the latest Happy Mondays meal at the Sustainable Bungay community kitchen - a celebration of multiple birthdays with falafels, cupcakes and the herbs that refresh us. Mark Watson

Bungay community centre, Monday 20 August, late afternoon. I have spent the past hours gathering and infusing herbs for the herbal refresher I am making for Sustainable Bungay's Happy Monday meal. These events happen once a month with a different theme, using as much local food as possible and are organised and prepared by the Community Kitchen subgroup of Sustainable Bungay. Anyone can join in and help out or just come to enjoy the food and atmosphere. This month's meal is also a Happy Birthday celebration for the proportionately large number of us in SB who have arrived at an age with '0' in this year .

I'm hot, I've been unable to find any organic, unwaxed lemons in town and outside everyone seems to be moving at a snail's pace as the heat increases towards the end of the day. It must be nearly 30 degrees and I'm definitely feeling the effect of my particular 0 (which is no longer 30). The infusion of over twenty herbs (picked both from home and from the community garden at the library) smells amazing, but it's still piping hot, people will be here in forty minutes and WE DON'T HAVE ANY ICE!

Margaret (another 0) offers to go down the road for the ice after she's finished the flowers for the table. Charlotte cools the infusion by transferring it from jug to pot to saucepan to pancheon and puts in the summer fruits and flowers. I add a little sugar, fizzy water, a bottle of Nick(0)'s homemade raspberry wine and some blackcurrant cordial, testing as I go to get the right balance.

I've stationed myself in the main room where it's slightly cooler. Janet ties balloons on the windows and I carry on pouring and stirring and testing. Thane and Emma are among the first diners to arrive. "Great!" I said. "Tell me what you think of this. I don't want it to be too diluted."

"It's certainly strong enough," they said. "Adding more water would be fine. It's really refreshing!"

The mood of the kitchen is the usual one of intense concentration as everyone in the crew goes about producing the dishes: Josiah rolling the falafels he's made from British fava beans, Christine preparing a raspberry coulis for her cup cakes, Lewis testing the beetroot for the Moroccan salad. Cucumbers and tomatoes are sliced and onions are chopped for the accompanying dips and sauces. "Charlotte, can you do the yoghurt sauce?" says Nick almost at the last minute, whilst he washes up several large pans.

The drink is finally ready and living up to its name. People are arriving and everybody wants some.

"This is delicious," says Sally. "You must tell me what herbs you used."

"Well, there are over twenty five, with a strong base of lemon balm and lemon verbena, and... I'll come and tell you about it later," I said.

And there was plenty for everyone, with Dano (but not Dan0), taking the pancheon round the table so people could have seconds.

The meal was great, too – falafels, pitta bread, salads, sauces, oven-baked wedge potato chips, followed by cup cakes each with its own candle – and that raspberry coulis!

The candles were lit, the lights were dimmed and there was silence for a moment before we all sang Happy Birthday. Janet (yet another 0) and I laughed as we both realised we were singing happy birthday to ourselves and tried to add an 'us' in there somewhere, which didn't rhyme but never mind.

PS There were even more 0 birthdays in Sustainable Bungay this year than I mentioned here: Elinor, Eloise, Jon and Dee also celebrated the beginning of new decades. So cheers to you too, guys!

Pics: Birthday balloon by the window*; Peppermint (ricola) flowers*; oh those cup cakes, in the kitchen; Dano offers Margaret another glass of herbal refresher. By Josiah Meldrum and *Mark Watson

Monday 20 August 2012

REconomy comes to Norwich

Last month Fiona Ward of the Transition REconomy Project came to Norwich as part of a UK roadtrip. Chris Hull (Norwich FarmShare) and Simeon Jackson (Economics and Livelihoods group) showed her the city:

Norwich is a beautiful city, second only to London in importance until the industrial revolution. Within the city boundary live 137,000 inhabitants, but ‘greater Norwich’ – which includes the urban fringes – is more like 230,000.

I learn from Chris that it has a strong shoe making history along with textiles and weaving, and “the most esteemed flint knapped wall” in the whole of the country, if not the world. I am no green building nerd but even I was impressed with this.

Now employment is mainly in the service industries, especially public sector, insurance and finance. The city has the largest open-air market in England, established by the Normans around 1074.

The town centre is the usual mix of chains and some independents. A group of local businesses got together and formed an organisation, then created Norwich Lanes, a lovely collection of independent shops.

I wonder what other stories are out there about independents collaborating to fight back against the chains – not something I hear much about, but then again, I haven’t been looking for them.

I meet with Chris and Simeon in a local coffee shop – I am eating a LOT of cake on this trip – and hear more of the history of Transition Norwich and the main business it has created called Farmshare. This Community Supported Agriculture scheme (CSA) was in part inspired by the food section of Transition Norwich Resilience Plan, which explored whether Norwich could feed itself.

Members weigh their share at the food hub

8.5 acres are rented from a local farmer, and 2 growers produce vegetables and salad crops for around 100 members of the co-operative.

The members commit to pay for 1 year’s supply of fresh seasonal produce, which is brought weekly to the down town food hub (a space rented from Bicycle Links, another social enterprise), where the members weigh and bag their own share of the produce.

A ‘small’ share – enough for 1 person – costs around £4.50 a week, paid as a flat monthly fee. Some produce may be bought from other local suppliers to meet gaps. Members also give some hours of time per month, and can do work shares to reduce the cash cost e.g., designing the marketing materials.

The aim is for 150 members which will ensure the scheme breaks even, hopefully by October. It was started with around £30k of help from the Local Food Fund (now suspended) that helps pay wages and also bought a tractor and a van. The plot now is roughly the size of the old market gardens that ringed the city, and have an apprentice scheme in place. It’s not officially organic but grows without artificial fertilisers and pesticides.

And for your table this week…

Visiting the hub in the heart of the city, I can see how this provides more than just a food pick-up point. It’s a social time for people to chat, and to speak to the growers and have that direct connection to the people who are working the land to grow their food. Farmshare is starting to invite other small producers to come along, providing them with another direct outlet to consumers. Sharing the space with another social enterprise also raises their profile.

The meeting rooms there will be used for giving the classroom bits of the growing skills training courses that will be run. This enterprise had the help of the East Anglia Food Link (website being re-worked), a group I will follow up with on my return. It feels important that food strategies are held at appropriate scale including community, region and nation and I am interested to hear more about this regional level work.

Simeon is keen to re-start the Economics and Livelihoods Group, and to initiate some work in one or two of the more deprived parts of the city. He has run a visioning session in an area with lots of empty shops that is currently cut off from the rest of the city by a large derelict building. The approach has been included in a Communities Living Sustainably bid, and if successful this should help ensure the work continues.

T-Norwich found that the energy that was in the initial group has tailed off, with most of it going into projects like Farmshare and also the T-Norwich blog and Carbon Conversations training.

Visioning was done here in St.Augustines

This has left a bit of a vacuum in the centre, and now they are re-igniting things with a Phoenix group – getting people back together to refocus and see which direction to take next, planning some open events etc.
This is emerging as a theme from several of the places I have visited, an initial group that forms, meets for a while, and then puts energy into projects and new enterprises. Then there is an awareness that the centre has diluted, and timing feels right to put some attention back on it.

T-Norwich has no strategy at the moment for how to develop the local economy, but there is interest in learning what others are doing around this, and how such an approach might work to re-ignite things, and bring new people and new energy into the fold.

This model would need to include the means by which people could be resourced to co-ordinate and deliver this work, and which legal structures might be needed to enable this. This need is coming through loud and clear from all places I visit. Fiona Ward

Sunday 19 August 2012

ARCHIVE: Plants, Bees and Fascism in the Garden - High Summer Photoblog #1

Every day this week on This Low Carbon Life, one of the crew will be telling a story in photos (and maybe some words!) on the theme of High Summer. As the weather turned wet and windy last week, John joked that we might need a plan B for our theme week. Or was that plan Bee? Everything reminds me of Bees at the moment - as if with Bungay Beehive day next Sunday (where I'm leading a Bee and Flower Walk and also giving a talk about honey as medicine), I need reminding...

Meanwhile back to the photos, and a few words about my letting go of fascism in the garden. I have grown a white-seeded form of sunflower for years now, faithfully collecting the seeds at the end of each season to plant the next Spring. You can see if you click on the picture below that the flower has vibrant gold sepals with a beautiful green-gold centre.

I'd nurture the young plants (probably quite obsessively) and Charlotte would always make sure she was somewhere else when it came to planting them out as I would become inexplicably bad-tempered.

Anyway, this year as usual I planted the seeds, the plants grew and I was alone when it came to planting them out. But what were these flowers that emerged ten days ago - with bronze flames!?! Then I remembered the dark sunflower we had in the garden last year given to us by Rose at the Transition Norwich Plant Swap...

A moment of bewilderment and shock! Then over the next few days a strange sort of relief as I relaxed. I don't have to control everything! The new sunflowers are undeniably beautiful. And it means that the bees have been busy in the garden too. I think I can live with them.

Anyway, it seems I'm not alone when it comes to 'fascism' in the garden. I was telling Becky from Greengrow about my sunflower awakening on Saturday at All Under One Roof, where she had a stall next to Sustainable Bungay's.

"I know, it happens to me in the garden, too. And not particularly anywhere else," she said. "Have you read any Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish sociologist? He talks about the fascist elements of our modern consumerist 'gardening society'."

But enough of fascism. Here are a few more pictures of my low carbon high summer. Here's Charlotte on Saturday holding up the local paper with an article on Bungay Community Bees, featuring our main beekeeper, Elinor, and Elinor herself.

Here I am with Amanda, manager of Bungay library, looking at the Anise Hyssops I brought for the bee bed in the library courtyard garden this year. I talk about them so much that John tells me they are known locally as 'Mark's plant' in Little Melton these days! Amanda says they are very popular with both bees and people.

And last but not least, here is a St. John's Wort being visited by a honeybee in the garden. One of the great native wildflower medicine plants, I had never seen honeybees on it before. But this one clambered over every single flower gathering up the pollen. And yesterday the plant was full of bumblebees.

A few hours later: I just received a request from fellow Transitioner Nick asking if I'd lead the planting of the medicinal plant bed next year in Bungay Library Community Garden. I said yes of course and I'm already excited - by then maybe the fascism will have gone completely! Mark Watson

Pics: Banner of new sunflower, result of non-fascist gardening techniques
; last year's white-seeded sunflower head; new sunflower this year; Charlotte and Elinor at Sustainable Bungay stand at Satuday's All Under One Roof; Talking Anise Hyssop with Amanda at the library; St. John's Wort and honeybee

Saturday 18 August 2012

How do we make planning fun?

It’s been rather depressing in the garden recently with squashes withering in the cold and tomatoes dropping with blight but one surprise was this flower which rose on a 60cm stalk from my bog garden in front of the beans. I’ve never seen it before so I guess that it must be enjoying the wet! Does anyone know what it is? The last week has been hot and the plants are making a valiant attempt to catch up before autumn arrives.

I spent an afternoon this week in a very hot council chamber in order to speak on a local planning issue . One of the agenda items that I had to sit through was further phases of development at Queens Hills, Costessey. It was the usual depressing stuff, I’m afraid. One of the councillors asked why no allotments were included and the developer replied that it was a bit late to ask that but he would see what he could squeeze in. There was not a single mention of cycle paths and the main way of encouraging people not to use cars seems to be not to provide parking places. Highways admitted that travel planning was ‘in its infancy’ in Norfolk, I wonder if they have heard of climate change yet.

The committee had 20 other items on the agenda and were probably going to be there till well into the night – so in the end, a living environment for thousands of people, that will last a hundred years was decided in 30 minutes by 10 mainly elderly people. I don’t blame the committee who get very little recompense for giving up huge amounts of time – it is the lack of interest from all of us that is the problem – the time to raise issues is when the plans are being made. Which is what I’m trying to do in Little Melton, where we face massive developments on all sides – anyone care to lend a hand? Reading planning documents is not a lot of fun but it has to be done if we are to create something better than how Queens Hills is going to end up.

A squirrel taking a look at a development site

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Why the Olympics were good but bailouts were bad

It’s easy to forget that when we spend our money, we aren’t just giving away our money, but the recipient is receiving it. It’s a passing of purchasing power from one person to another, not an expenditure, rather like the law of conservation of energy.

So when I saw the following edited billboard from the London 2012 Games posted at Make Wealth History, I started to question the other side of the equation.

 Your Games

Our initial reaction when you see that £9 billion has been spent by UK taxpayers to bring about the games is probably one of disgust. And rightly so – we never voted to have the Olympics; the Olympics supports London far more than the interests of the rest of the UK; and we are forced to pay for something whether or not we support it, or gain any benefit from it.  Altogether, that means that the decision to spend UK taxpayers’ money on the games is controversial.

But once you get past the selfish view of economics that we take as individuals, and instead look at the economics of the country and our society as a whole, this money was well spent. I’ll tell you why: Think for a moment about what costs the Olympics have had to face.  The costs that come to my mind are the design, engineering and building of Olympic venues and huge numbers of event staff to pay for their various services, from security to ball-boy. With very few exceptions, that money got delivered straight back into the UK economy as wages.

And will the government get back any of that? Of course! Their employees will pay income tax and the businesses that ride on the Olympic wave will pay their rates and taxes (in part thanks to our friends at 38 degrees).

So let’s compare that to bank bailouts.

What we could do with the bank bailouts

In this graphic from the Guardian, you can see equivalents to the £38 bn figure for bank recapitalisation in 2009, but this figure has since risen to £123 bn, according to this article, again from the Guardian, so rather than four we could have actually bought more than 13 Olympic games for the current bank bailout money!

But that’s not really the point, because the more significant thing is where this money goes. As we have all seen during recent years, the money that banks were given by the government did not go towards supporting our productive economy in loans to companies and entrepreneurs, and it did not go towards the wages of vulnerable low income families.  Banks selfishly continued to pay out huge sums in salaries, bonuses and make huge profits, ensuring that any benefit that came of the bailout remained firmly under the control of bankers, so that they could continue speculating on property and gambling with the world’s economy, whilst leaving the productive economy to fend for itself.

To be honest, I’m not at all surprised that bankers would take this kind of action.  If I were in their shoes, I may well have done the same (such is man’s fallibility), but what this does indicate, I feel, is that our economic system isn’t really designed to help society as a whole to develop and prosper.  It is designed as a game, where the winner takes all, and those who are unable to participate – through not knowing the rules, or not having the right friends, or not having enough cash in the bank already – must beg for the mercy of those who do.

Did we have a choice to bailout the banks?

Some people would argue that the government had practically no choice in bailing out the banks, because to have let them fail would have been catastrophic to our economy.  Those who take the opposite corner usually do so with the neat little phrase “bail out the people, not the banks”. The argument goes that the government should let banks fail, whilst guaranteeing the personal liabilities that the bank holds.  Who knows whether such action would have consumed as much money as bailouts, or have made pension funds fall flat on their faces and left millions of vulnerable pensioners without?

But what we can see is that the recipients of money from the Olympics were more diverse and more deserving than the banks, and created a more pleasing result for the millions of people who watched the Olympics, in London and around the world.

Disclaimer: I’m not an economist, and therefore may not be able to defend claims that I make in this article, so if you know more about this issue than I do, please correct me in the comments below!

Images: Billboard from Make Wealth History website; infographic from Guardian website.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Low Carbon Cookbook goes to Italy

Last night I cooked risotto. I hadn't cooked a risotto in years, but then swinging into Louise's deli on my way to the beach my eye caught the box of arborio rice. I'll make it with spinach I thought and some of the white wine we have right now. "Good with a stock made with dried mushrooms," advised Mary, who was a cook before she worked in this friendly neighbourhood corner store.

So that's what I did. I soaked some shitake mushrooms (organic sun-dried), cooked up some of Basil's spinach, chopped up one of Malcolm's onions and began the process of making risotto, which as you know is the very opposite of fast food. The key to risotto is not the ingredients - though those matter too of course - good olive oil and stock. The key is attention: risotto demands you stand and stir by the stove for half an hour, focusing on the gradual absorption of stock by those fat glistening grains of rice, so that by the end you have a rich and creamy dish, perhaps one of the most satisfying you can serve.

It's all about being there. Or here as the case may be.

In my travelling meat and fish-eating days I would have made risotto with clams or squid (known as risotto nero due to its inky-black colour), or with a chicken stock and butter and served with a good sprinkling of Parmesan. But last night I found this is truly a great vegan and low carbon dish, and goes beautifully with spinach on the side, served with lemon and olive oil. (Arborio is also a "dry" rice - which unlike "wet" rice does not leak methane into the atmosphere).

It wouldn't of course make a great Bring-to-Share dish, which is the main theme of the Cookbook recipes. In fact many of the classic Italian dishes, due to their immediate cooking and eating styles, are not well suited to our ad hoc gatherings (though pasta does make a resilient salad base). However in this great season of basil and tomatoes, something Italian is definitely in order. So here is a quick pizza recipe I learned from the Sunrise Festival, along with other summer festival favourites, chai and elderflower champagne. We cooked these pizzas in individual round tins in the wood-fired earth ovens (made from scratch on site with a tank that used the heat from the ovens to warm the water for washing up afterwards). You can bake these in an ordinary oven however in a big rectangular tin. Cut into squares and eat warm.

Oh, and if you are heading down to Sunrise Off-grid this month, don't forget to call in to the Tin Village and make one yourself!

Sunrise Pizza

All ingredients are organic and as local as possible

2 cups wholewheat flour
2 cups spelt flour
1 tsp yeast
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2-3 cups of warm water

Tomatoes (tinned or fresh), chopped
Black olives, chopped
Onions, sliced
Basil and parsley, chopped
Red, green and yellow peppers, sliced
Mushrooms, sliced
Cheese (we used local Cheddar but traditionally this would mozzarella), grated
Sunflower oil, for basting tin

Make the dough one hour before you need to cook the pizza. Put yeast and sugar into a cup of warm water. Leave at least five minutes to activate. Mix flours and salt in a basin, add yeast and sugar mix and the rest of the warm water and mix in with hands until dough is of "birds nest" consistency.

Put on a floured surface. Don't worry if it feels a bit rough and dry at first as working the dough makes it sticky and you will be adding more flour as you go. There is a lot of mystique about kneading dough, but when you get down to it and your hands are pushing and pulling crossways, you somehow know how to make all the moves instinctively. Human beings have been making bread for thousands of years and somehow our ancestral hands know just what to do. After about ten minutes, or when the dough is elastic and smooth, place back into basin and cover with a damp cloth and put in a warm place for an hour.

Assemble ingredients. You can be really inventive with these - as any trip to a pizzeria will tell you. One thing we learned from the earth ovens, those delicious thin pizzas don't need great heavy toppings or the dough doesn't cook through. So resist piling up your plate!

When the dough has risen, take out and "knock back" the dough for a couple of minutes. Roll out with a rolling pin (an empty bottle will do if you haven't got one - though traditionally you would stretch the dough by hand). Grease your baking dish with sunflower oil. Place dough into the dish and add ingredients as evenly as possible, with tomato at the base and grated cheese at the top. Put into a hot oven for 2o minutes.

Buon appetito!

Tin Village will be running pizza workshops at Sunrise Off-grid Festival this month, 23-27 August. Check out the series of great Transition talks running there too.

Images: pasta al fresco with local spinach and tomatoes and home-grown basil from Introduction to Food Patterns; lighting the earth ovens; pizza waiting to go into the oven; rolling dough and making pizzas all at Tin village, Sunrise Festival, 2012.

Sunday 12 August 2012

ARCHIVE: On an ordinary summer's evening in a Transition town . . .

We're just on our way to Cathy's orchard and meadow for the Sustainable Bungay annual picnic and games (this year it's boules, instead of our usual rumbustious rounders on the Old Grammar School Field). So here is a summer celebration (from July 2011) of some of the people I've met in Transition and the friendliness and fellow feeling you can find in downshifting times. The above pic was taken after our July 2012 core group meeting, as we feel the heat of the Hot Wall and slip into a moody album mode.

"It’s definitely the stick," said Mark as he stood with a piece of wood in his hands. It had been inadvertently donated at Sustainable Bungay's Give and Take Day and suddenly reappeared in our hallway. From the outside it looked like a shiny broom handle but it wasn't: it was a fighting stick belonging to a young man mortified by its disappearance. But you’d have to be a warrior to know that.

It’s an ordinary summer's evening in a Transition town. We’re on our way to our monthly core group meeting. First we have to drop off the stick at Kate’s and have some supper with Nick.

“You share your lives in the blogosphere and I’d like to share some of what I do," Nick said as he began to fill a box full of July veg - onions and garlic, fennel, beetroot, fresh eggs and blackcurrant jam. We sat down at the kitchen table and drank some squash wine, ate a delicious bean salad and talked about the financial crisis.

You have to be in Transition to truly appreciate Nick's house – kale and courgettes in the front garden, sorrel around the door, a garage with dried herbs hanging from the ceiling and shelves full of preserves, giant tanks of rainwater, chickens, cupboards and windowsills with kegs of homemade wine, a stack of books on economics. It’s not what it looks like, but what is behind everything you see. What it took to get there. The bare aesthetic of downshift.

Years ago I interviewed a man called Tommy Roberts. I was working for a glossy magazine at the time and the subject of the article was Taste, that indefinable quality that distinguished one person or house from the next. What is Taste? I asked various arbiters of style, fashion designers and editors, owners of grand and important properties. Tommy was once a designer of natty suits in the 60’s when he was known as Mr Freedom but at that time had a shop under Centrepoint full of zany, brightly coloured modern furniture: Taste is the Japanese room with one beautiful vase in the corner, he told me. A lifetime of taking away makes that room. It’s what you don’t have that defines taste.

We live in a have and have-not culture and our value systems are entirely based around possessions. Not just the things those designers were talking about back in the 1980s when materialism and property began its great boom – wallpaper and watches and John Fowler’s "pleasing decay" - but a personal warehouse of business connections, children, communities, garden flowers, Hollywood stars, holiday countries. My special world.

"Well, you’re rich in other ways," said the man at the Financial Instability workshop at the Transition Conference after I had detailed my downshift from The World of Interiors to Sustainable Bungay.
"I really am not rich", I replied.
"You are rich in social relationships", he insisted, frustrated with my density. "In quality time. You are abundant in other ways."
"I have very little", I replied. (which is not strictly true because like most people in this country I have chairs and tables, pots and pans and all manner of basic essentials). "What is wrong with nothing? Why do we have to be wealthy at all?"

What I wanted to say was I had spent a lot of time clearing out that room. And I didn’t replace the things I used to own with different things - with people or experiences, or a low-carbon lifestyle - but had learned to love space and time and the freedom that lack of ownership brought.

In downshift less is not more in the way we once understood Japanese style. Less means you take everything you don’t need away, so that what really matters is left. It means you don’t have because having is no longer important. What becomes important is that freedom of movement and living a deliberate life.

It’s an ordinary evening in a Transition town and we’re on our way to our meeting at the Library. But first we have to meet at the pub with the Community Bee Group to celebrate the success of our Beehive Day (which I’ll write about tomorrow) and then unload Eloise’s van full of information boards and select some just picked fruit from the back of Cathy’s car. Cathy runs the Abundance project and swapping our produce and plants- at our meetings, in the Library community garden- has become a way of life. So here we are in the car park with a stack of boards and punnets of cherry-plums and blackberries meeting in a damp summer in a difficult time, swifts whizzing round the roofs, echinacea flowers full of bees.

At the Transition Conference we all did an exercise. We had to imagine a group we longed to be with in the future. I am no good at visioning and all I could think about was the fact I would be 65 in ten years time and how weird that was. And then I realised I don’t long for a group of people because I am already with those people and I had met them three years ago in the theatre down the street from here. And what was difficult to feedback to my fellow Transitioners in the canteen in Liverpool was the fact that it wasn’t the individuals in the initiative that made us matter to one another, the way we are used to people mattering in our lives, as special friends, or heroes, support systems, as possessions and dependencies. My important relationships.

It was the fact that when we met up as a group in these public spaces something happened between us. Something we held in common. We understood implicitly what we were doing and why – sharing stuff, organising events, going through the agenda. When I looked at this working-together in the visioning it looked like an energy field, the kind of energy field you sense when you stand by a hive humming with bees. A hum of warmth and intelligence that allows people to naturally collaborate and make that low-energy downshift happen. When that’s going on you don’t need possessions to compensate for your isolation, to anchor your introverted fantasy world. You don’t need data or climate science to persuade your tricky mind. You just need to tune in and act.

If you passed by Bungay Library tonight you’d notice the lights were on and if you peered in you might see a group of people around a table, eating plums and laughing, one person intently writing notes, one speaking, another occasionally calling order and everyone else paying attention. None of us look as if we are arbiters of taste, or abundant, or full of well-being or anything else the modern world puts a price on or gives value to. We’re obviously not important members of the community with homes-to-die-for, or great jobs or cars. We appear utterly ordinary and so we are. Ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing.

You can’t see the field from the outside, you have to feel it from the inside. You recognise it when you are in it because you are doing it along with everyone else. In fact you can’t be in it unless you are doing it.That’s the real shift. The move from individualism to group collaboration for the good of the whole is primarily a personal shift, away from ownership and control, into a field of exchange and communication and reciprocity, into give and take. And that’s a whole new lexicon of being. It’s not a replacement of things, it’s a move. A let go and a join in.

Because Transition is not a noun, it’s a verb.

Photos: standing against Bungay Library wall with Daphne, Lesley and Josiah; echinacea by the carpark; with squash wine in Nick's kitchen; rainwater storage; Cathy's Abundance fruit; Nick with harvested herbs.