Friday 5 October 2012

Retro blog #5: I never promised you a rose garden

As well as our topic and themes weeks on This Low Carbon Life we also wrote in three-day (originally five-day) shifts. It gave us a chance to focus on our "home" subjects and to see the breadth of each others' experiences and to respond (the great advantages of contributing to a community blog, as opposed to a solo one, is  knowing you are not on your own). These days allowed us to stretch our wings as writers and photographers and appreciate our different styles and takes on life.

Where we met was in our celebration of plants, people and places. So whether this was Jon talking about bees, planting an oak or finding a city fox, John reporting on his vegetable garden in Little Melton, or rescuing toads on Norfolk roads, Elena on the wild life at Norwich FarmShare or Helen celebrating the artist quarter of Magdalen Street, place making forms the heart of this blog. You could say it created a connection between us, as well as grounding us within our Transition stories. Climate change and "community" can be abstract things unless fully engaged with. A feeling, kinetic and imaginative connection to our neighbourhood and its inhabitants (not just human) help us all make ourselves at home in a rocky and restless time.

One of our most eloquent PPP reporters has been Mark, who manages to weave a love of the wild and medicine plants with an unswerving generosity towards fellow Transitoners. Funny, warm, self-depracating, as well as a great record of community events and meetings, his blogs regularly track the comings and goings of plants, particularly this year where he has curated a Transition medicine bed at Bungay Library Community Garden. I really enjoyed the winter (look still no heating!) Meanwhile let's talk about the weather, the springtime foraging epic Conquering Alexanders and the mix of midsummer meetings in  Life is roses... sometimes.

We are told that life should be a paradise, when we see all about us a wrecked and polluted kingdom. We depend utterly on the plants for our food and air and shelter, yet we are taught to treat them as mere commodities. Somehow we have to restore our relationship with the planet, with each other and get back on track.

Sometimes we find help in the most surprising places . . . .

Magdalen Celebration crew, 2011 from Shift Together - Working Title (helenofnorwich); Mark under neighbourhood cherry from Wallking with Weeds (Charlotte Du Cann)

Some Notes on Tracks and Edges by Mark Watson
31 March 2012
At the edge where we encounter another human being, we discover for ourselves what it is to have to break down a little... Cat Lupton

I am standing on the platform at Lowestoft Station. It is early evening. April 2010. And May. And June. In under an hour I will have traversed the Broads on the two-coach train, past the swans and waterways, past the big sugar factory, past the wide green and gold vistas and the boatyards. And will have arrived in Norwich where I am on my way to a carbon conversations course.

I have loved these journeys, made possible as they have been by a bus service connecting Lowestoft to where I live further down the coast. This will not last. The bus route which has run for 26 years will be reduced then scrapped altogether in the Autumn. No more connecting night buses. The carbon conversations will finish.

I am unsure about the carbon conversations, a 6-session course over twelve weeks aimed at helping people reduce personal and household carbon use and emissions using a non-confrontational approach. I often feel like I’m at school disrupting more well-behaved pupils in a quiet and serious class, and prefer the more creative, deeper, experimental nature of our Stranger’s Circle meetings where we bring our household energy bills to show each other, take a good look at the industrial food system, have difficult conversations about transport use. Where we're making it up as we go along. Where there's more of an edge.

Down the line (sic) I see the value in both approaches, and it was through both the Strangers’ Circle year and carbon conversations that the Low Carbon Cookbook group was born, which meets monthly to explore low carbon ways of buying, growing and preparing food (and write a book about it – always the hardest part!)

But back to the easternmost station in England. I have no such ambivalence about the journeys themselves (carbon-footprint-calculated though they were). Having downshifted in a major way over the past decade from someone who travelled all over the place in bus, car, train and plane, I rarely travel beyond East Anglia now. And I’ve learned to become less spoilt, less desirous of more ‘glamourous’ destinations, more present to where I am.

That platform for instance. If you walked past where the small train stops, where no one goes, in June and July of 2010, you would find, there at the edge, the most extraordinary outbursting of native wildflowers and medicine plants, all Growing Up Through the Cracks: midsummer Mugwort, St. John’s Wort, Plantain and Yarrow, Buddleia and Wild Carrot. All shining in the early evening light. The plant the Chinese use for moxa in acupuncture, the ‘sunshine herb’ dispeller of demons and nightmares, the menders of myriad wounds, the butterfly bush and the ancestor of one of our favourite vegetables.

It is so easy to hate: those who flail the countryside hedgerows and pour poison on the poppies by the junction of the main road. The stupidity of councils and people obsessed by tidiness. The compulsion to keep anything that smacks of ‘wild’ or ‘untamed’ out or under strict control.

Those rude, healthy, resilient plants. How dare they push through those cracks in the polite concrete and tarmac. In the end they were not left alone, beautiful and shining on that part of the platform where hardly anyone went, but removed in the manner of all ‘weeds’ in the name of civic orderliness. They still make their appearance further over on the tracks and by the fences though it’s not quite the same.

And anyone who loves the 'wastegrounds' and the natural world will know how difficult it is to live with the feelings that these things bring up. In my pre-Transition years I was frequently overwhelmed by them. Now after all the meetings and events, carbon conversations and circles, food and plant swaps, wild plant and foraging walks and experiments in downshifting, I still feel the same about the destruction of wildflowers and their habitats, but I'm tougher. I'm taking people out to show them where the 'weeds' grow, what their properties are, how they feed bees, how they heal us and how beautiful they are in their own right, and curating a plant medicine bed with related events.

Not that Transition has been either an easy ride or a magic pill. Learning to temper one's individualism to relate to others, even include them at all and not lose yourself, can be a struggle. There's the frequent temptation to cut off when that carbon conversation is just too, too... annoying. Boring. Left brain. Whatever. Or to simply go along with things that don't feel right because challenging them would make you feel like you WERE THE ONLY ONE IN THE WORLD WHO FELT LIKE THAT and EVERYONE would look at you like the OUTSIDER YOU REALLY ARE and you would be EXILED.

But engaging in that struggle, difficult, edgy though it is, can bring a meaning and sense to life which no amount of comfort or opulence will ever bring.

And the quote at the top of this piece? It's from an extraordinary post, Meeting Your Edge, by Cat Lupton, writing this week on The Place Between Stories about grappling with individuality and community after an introduction to permaculture course.

It was reading Cat's post that gave me pause to consider these things.

Pics: Mugwort Lowestoft railway station 2010; on the train to Norwich, Lowestoft, 2010; Midsummer wildflowers, Lowestoft, 2010; Plants for Life talk at Bungay Library community garden, 2012

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