Monday 16 September 2013

Harvest - Enjoying the archive of This Low Carbon Life 2009-2013

This Low Carbon Life has been a collective Transition blog for almost four years. It now has over 1000 blogs in its archive on a wide-range of topics from books to wellbeing, reports about Transition events and projects, philosophical reflections, personal and political testaments, great photos, oh, and humour too!

Started in 2009 in response to the downshifts taking place within the neighbourhood Transition Circles, the blog was created to house and reflect the rich material gleaned, as we looked at energy, travel, food, consumerism and a hundred other topics discussed and acted on as we reduced our carbon emissions.

By 2013 most of the original collective dispersed, as the focus and structure of Transition Norwich changed. You can read about where we all went here.

Some of us are now writing on our own blogs (and sometimes cross post here). You will find us in the following places:

Charlotte Du Cann Also with the Dark Mountain Project
Simeon Jackon Also with Green Party Norwich
Mark Watson Also with Transition Free Press.

Some things don't change however in our Low Carbon lives. Food growing and foraging is one of them. As we shift into autumn, gathering the harvest is still one of our main topics. The lead pic is of some Pink Fir Apple potatoes I grew in my garden this year. You can find the piece that goes with it on my new Tumblr page people.plants.places.

Meanwhile don't forget to have a forage amongst our rich store of posts here on this blog (see right hand column for topic list). Enjoy!

Images: gleaning apples on Thorpeness Dunes: Pink Fir Apple potatoes; wild cherries gathered on Wellbeing Walk, August 2013 (Mark Watson)

Saturday 20 July 2013

Signing off for summer

We are signing off for the summer break now. But do keep reading us! We have a stack of great reading material in our low carbon archive. If you want to know where This Low Carbon Life blog (and collective) have got to do check out our summer update:

Meanwhile I'm heading down to the Uncivilisation Festival in August with the Dark Mountain Norwich crew. I'm curating the literary stage there (Mark is doing a medicine plant walk too) and I'm really looking forward to meeting up with fellow creators on the edge. Our fourth Dark Mountain collection is out this week so do get your copy. Essential reading under the tree and by the sea this season.

We're also working on the third edition of Transition Free Press (out on Sept 1). Why not subscribe to our downshifting, food savvy, community newspaper and get one delivered to your door? Have a great holiday all!

Thursday 11 July 2013

In praise of bees

 It only seems to be a  few weeks since there was not a bee to be seen in the cold, windy weather and I had to use a paintbrush to pollinate my peach tree in the greenhouse.

Suddenly there are hundreds of bees all over the garden, enjoying the flowers and the clover in what passes for a lawn - so I got my camera out to record their industrious activity.

It all seems harmonious in the bee world,  you don't see them fighting over the best nectar.

After a belligerent week for the Parish Council with arguments and accusations over planning applications,  I wished that we humans could be more like the bees and find ways to work together and with nature.

Maybe we should eat less meat and more nectar?

The cat was not impressed by that suggestion.

Saturday 6 July 2013

So What is Permaculture Exactly?

Virtually all of us (some without knowing it) lead lifestyles only made possible by the ‘scorched earth’ policies of our growth-focused society. We are wildly out of sync with the ecological imperatives facing us.

The Transition movement offers a methodology for building resilient communities at a local level, so where does permaculture fit in?

Permaculture is a discipline which seeks to observe and apply the principles of natural self-sustaining systems. Originally an abbreviation of ‘permanent agriculture’ permaculture is far from confined to food-growing.

Understanding the ecology of say soil or a freshwater lake from a holistic perspective allows the distillation of principles which can be reapplied to the design of human systems such as water harvesting, energy use and buildings construction.

But the application of permaculture goes even further than this. As complex human beings we have our own personal ecology operating in our lives. Our relationships, our work, our finances, the way we raise our families and much else all function in a state of dynamic equilibrium; they are influenced by similar factors to any ecological system.

Understanding how self-sustaining systems work allows us to design out potential weaknesses (such as high energy consumption or personal stress) and design in long term resilience.

In August we are running Norwich’s first two-week residential Permaculture Design Course on 12 acres of land, 4 miles from the city centre. We will be using forest gardening, polytunnel design, ecological building design, woodland management and life-style case studies to learn and apply permaculture principles and to produce designs for sustainable living.

The course will be led by Aranya, one of the UK’s foremost permaculture tutors with several specialist guest speakers.

If you’d like to know more, including information about subsidised places, please visit:
Deepak Rughani is an ecologist and campaigner living in Norwich. He is a Co-Director of Biofuelwatch

Thursday 27 June 2013

Where we are now - This Low Carbon Life Summer Update 2013

Midsummer 2013 and the new vegetable garden is flourishing. By the time the apples are ripe and the potatoes harvested this blog will be four years old. For three years we published posts daily along weekly themes with a crew of 8-12 people. Over time, as Transition Norwich shifted and changed its form, the team has dispersed and this year the blog has become occasional. This doesn't mean we are not still here doing stuff in our communities, living a low carbon life, just that our attention is not on writing blogs. Nor does it mean that you can't dip into our massive store of over a thousand posts, and find great and relevant gems there. Just check out our extensive topic list on the right hand column and have a good browse. It's an inspiring picture of what a downshifted future might look and feel and sound like.

Meanwhile I thought I'd write an update. Where have we gone? Well, Transition Norwich is now mainly focused on three areas, and most of our ex-bloggers can be found there: John Heaser and Erik in Transition Hethersett, one of TN's Transition Circles (mostly active in the west of the city), Chris and Elena busy at Norwich FarmShare, and Helen with organising the Magdalen-Augustine Celebration. Jon Curran meanwhile is writing for the Norwich Escalator programme, and Simeon, who was elected as a Green Party councillor in the recent May elections, is active in the network, Visions for Change; Mark, still tracking wild and medicinal plants, is organising the distribution for Transition Free Press during its pilot year, and putting his attention on Wellbeing (principally with TN's country cousin, Sustainable Bungay).

And me? Well I'm helping edit a book with Lucy Neal about Transition and the collaborative Arts, called Playing for Time - Making Art as if Life Matters. She has been coming down almost every week this summer and we have been working out of her caravan in the garden. Other days I have been editing Transition Free Press (now working on the third edition) and distributing books for the Dark Mountain Project.

After writing 74 blogs last year (!) I found myself stepping back from these keys as the year turned and letting myself go fallow. Recently I emerged from the clover and wrote a post on my own blog inspired by the cover for the new Dark Mountain book. It wasn't about food or community, or transition initiatives. It was about the visionary English artist, Samuel Palmer. It was about belonging.

When Transition Norwich unleashed almost five years ago, I sat down at the Arts, Culture and Wellbeing table and discussed with others how these subjects might influence the way we face a future without abundant resources and finances. It feels, after many explorations within Transition, mostly around communications and community activism, that I have come full circle. You might say I've come home. Maybe we all have.

Rob Hopkins' new book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, focuses almost entirely on practical projects and the revival of the High Street. It gives a clear simple picture of the Transition movement, as a way for local groups to come together and start community gardens, bakeries, energy projects and local currencies. But, for me, Transition has mostly been about a process, a going through: undergoing a radical restructuring of the self, to become an active agent within the collective, in order to live effectively in the future. To feel at home on the planet amongst my fellows.

As a writer it has meant witnessing and reporting on that process, and the cultural moves we need to make to downshift in our ordinary lives. Intellectually, pragmatically, emotionally, imaginatively. It has meant making meaning and giving value to this low-carbon life, learning to open out and become articulate about subjects that are "outside my skillset" from zero waste to high finance. And most of all it has meant learning to work in a group. This Low Carbon Life began all that for me, and perhaps for all of us on this journey. Looking back, though it worked beautifully as a collaborative project and produced some great posts, I don't think it entirely broke the tyranny of the silo, that position of individual control that is the bane of all social enterprises. Me did not entirely become We, the connected Self, one amongst the Many.

Some of that is due to this form of media, and some to our  strong social conditioning and history. Our fear of letting go and taking charge. Blogging is, by its nature, insular and subjective. And maybe that's why eventually we dispersed. We needed to break out into other areas. However I do feel that a lack of dynamic inner work and group interaction will reduce any initiative to just doing stuff within a conventional set and setting. Digging the garden, putting on community events, marketing ourselves. There is no harm in any of those things. But to see a different world into existence takes other skills: depth, rigour, perception, intuition, courage and light-heartedness. In that territory the artist and the writer is a pioneer. So, right now, that's where I am headed . . . . Have a great summer all! 

Images:tree spinach in the garden; delivering copies of Transition Free Press to May Day Fair in Chapelfield Gardens; cover of new Dark Mountain collection by Kit Boyd: (you can pre-order a copy or subscribe for the year here); community garden in Transtion Portalegre, from The Power of Just Doing Stuff by Rob Hopkins (you can order a copy here)

Wednesday 19 June 2013

ARCHIVE: Herbs for Resilience - Yarrow

I wrote the post below almost three years ago in September 2010, but walking back home today I spotted the first yarrows coming into flower where I live near the Suffolk coast, and was reminded of it. Yarrow is truly a midsummer herb, and seeing it flowering in its right time in a year of such strange timings, I felt at once relieved and brought back into some sort of balance. Here's the original post with the winter tea recipe of elderflower (now also coming into flower here) and yarrow at the end:

On the way to the Greenpeace Celebration Gig, I was struck by all the yarrow plants growing along the roadsides. There seem to be more than ever this year.

Although you could mistake this handsome, sturdy plant for an umbellifer (carrot family) at first glance, it is in fact a bold member of the sunflower tribe, which springs up again and again when it's been cut down.

The very first plant tincture I made was of Yarrow back in 1999 at Midsummer, from plants growing outside Christchurch College in Oxford. I still have one of the bottles.

Making that first tincture was really exciting. I immersed myself in everything about it. From finding the plants and choosing the best time and place to pick them to tasting the leaves and smelling the flowers. Should I use vodka or brandy? Vodka. It's stronger with a cleaner taste. Okay. Now remember to shake the jar every other day. Two weeks later I proudly decanted my yarrow tincture into several brown medicine bottles.

Throughout the ages Yarrow has been used to staunch wounds (its Latin name, Achillea millefolium, refers to the great warrior Achilles), stop nosebleeds, and in China to make divination sticks for the I-Ching. These days it also fights allergies, colds and flu and strengthens the immune system. It can also help with stress.

Several years ago I went to the Indian Embassy in London to get a visa for what would turn out to be my last plane journey. After hours of driving at dawn, tubes, queuing and waiting in the packed and chaotic visa office I got back to Suffolk totally exhausted around ten at night.

Those were pre-Transition days when I had less fossil-fuel awareness and more money and took more baths. I also had a bottle of Yarrow essential oil (not a fossil fuel but very expensive). Just one drop in the hot water got the azulenes going! Both Yarrow and Chamomile contain these compounds which turn their oils an extraordinary blue. The effect was immediate. All the stress left my body. I was restored.

In these downshifted, downsized days of infrequent bathing Yarrow is still one of the main stalwarts of my herbal medicine cupboard, mostly the dried herb for tea (the azulenes are activated by hot water in infusions so you don't need the expensive oil!).

Recently I discovered a patch of ground at the back of the local community centre, full of pink and white yarrow. Joan told me no one had ever put any chemicals down there, so I collected some, dried it in a brown paper bag in the airing cupboard for three days, then chopped up the flowers, leaves and stalks and had my first cup. It was fresh and fragrant in a way you don't find even in the best teas bought from shops. I felt I was being strengthened from the inside out.

For a resilient winter tea
Add equal amounts of dried elderflowers and yarrow to a pot with a pinch of peppermint. Infuse for at least five minutes. Drink. And be bold.

Pics: pink yarrow flowers 2010; Midsummer yarrow tincture 1999 and dried yarrow herb 2010; picking yarrow 2010

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Flight of the Butterflies

As the IEA reports ever-increasing carbon emissions, and Britain's environment minister denies any change in the climate in the last 17 years, what is the response of the truly awake person in the current cultural dissonance? In the summer issue of the radical grassroots magazine,  STIR. I wrote a review of Barbara Kingsolver's novel, Flight Behaviour, the latest 'cli-fi' book that look squarely at our present crisis and whose main protagonist is one of the most extraordinary creatures on earth. 

In many ways dystopias are easier to write than a realist fiction that can look at the awesome forces that are out of kilter on the earth. Most books would rather put their imaginative attention on a post-collapse world, than face the gritty problems of a family or community living out the consequences of neo-liberalism and a globalised industrial culture. How can you create a plot when the conventional “bad guys” – those who wield corporate power - have become invisible? How can you find empathy for people who appear as ignorant victims of circumstance and stand in their home territories, witness to weird weather and species extinction. - subjects which seem better handled by the deeper and more metaphysical forms of poetry, or by non-fiction, unconstrained by a linear storyline?

Although the heroine of Flight Behaviour, Dellarobbia Turnbow, is a far cry from Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, this is a classic tale of a trapped woman yearning to transform and break free from a near-impossible situation. What distinguishes it from these works and the thousands of romances built around the same theme is its mighty big subtext: climate change.

Barbara Kingsolver is known to tackle big subjects in her novels — sometimes successfully, sometimes not: women in the Arizona mine strike of 1983 in Holding the Line, sustainable food production in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Native American rights in Pigs in Heaven, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky and the Mexican revolution in Lacuna, and, most famously, the impact of colonialism in the Congo told through the eyes of a missionary family in The Poisonwood Bible. All these themes, however, belong to the human and political realm.

Climate change is notoriously hard to talk about, belonging to what some call the 'supernarrative', the massive planetary shifts, that even though caused by human civilisation, we have limited capacity to control as individuals. Our sense of agency in our personal and social lives melts with the glaciers. History we can deal with, war, poverty, and even apocalypse, but eco-systems in feedback loops? These are non-human, non-linear realities normally assigned to science and to ecological campaigns. However human beings are not created from facts and figures, we are the creatures of story - the choices we make and the roads we take. Story is what makes meaning and gives value to our lives. 


Role of the Novel

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the novel rose to prominence along with industrial civilisation, when people felt their lives to be largely shaped by human forces and therefore responsive to acts of individual will (Askay Ahuja reviewing the short story collection, I’m with the Bears)
 In Flight Behaviour the central ecological dilemma takes place in a run-down sheep farm, in a run-down town where everyone has strange names, goes to church and every turn of the bad luck or weather is attributed to the Lord’s mysterious ways. The book is told from the point of view and in the language of 28 year-old Dellarobbia, who is stuck in a small house among the Southern Appalacian mountains with two small children and a husband she doesn’t love, dominated by harsh and judgemental in-laws. She has no money, no education and no prospects. Her neighbours’ son has cancer and all their peach trees and tomato plants have dissolved in the endless biblical rains. Small wonder you think she wants to throw it all away on an affair and run heedlessly up a mountain one day in ill-fitting boots.

Somewhere, after many long descriptions, the book takes a small flight of its own: the revelatory lake of fire Dellarobbia discovers on the mountain instead of her lover turns out to be millions of displaced overwintering Monarch butterflies. The hero of the book, a dusky well-mannered scientist, arrives from the Outside World with his assistants to live in a trailer on the Turnbow farm and record their destiny. His passion for these insects, his intelligence and grace, affects the smart but unschooled Dellarobbia and Preston, her son, and their world begins to open up. Will this encounter manifest into a relationship? Will the wooded hillside be logged? Will the butterflies survive the on-coming winter? Will redemption come to Feathertown? Will she herself take flight, like the flame-coloured butterflies in Spring? And then? So the old-fashioned devices of story telling kick in and you have to find out the outcome, though the prose does not get any easier for all that.

Kingsolver was originally a scientist and she applies her scientific eye not just to the insects undergoing numerous tests in Turnbow’s barn-laboratory —she puts their whole world under the microscope. Long drawn-out scenes in the local dollar and thrift stores tag every item on display; an exchange with an activist reveals that their “lifestyle” scores very low on the carbon ratings. Numerous rather creaky conversations between Ovid Byron, the entomologist, and his new assistant spell out the behaviour of this extraordinary butterfly and the ramifications of global warming. It’s a right-on subject and you cannot fault the author on facts, Yet this “left hemisphere” fixation on detail makes for a flat Puritanical prose-style, lacking lyricism or feeling. The beauty of the Appalachian mountains is absent and even Dellarobia, cast as a red-headed Venus by the local TV company, does not come across as beautiful.

Story of our times

One reason we read, and need fiction is to understand how and why we are living now while imagining our way forward. (Adrian Ayres Fisher reviewing the post-apocalyptic novels, Arcadia and The Dog Stars)
 So this is a personal story and a story about our times. When I left my old city life I stopped reading novels; by the time I returned to England ten years later and joined the Transition movement I had stopped reading books almost completely, unless they were related to work. I realised reading books had become an escape, something that afforded a comfort at the end of the day. Novels belonged to a book club, literary festival culture, the books you took to the beach. They belonged to old ladies at the libraries who checked out ten thrillers at a time to occupy their minds and fill their days. They were not the challenging and inventive works I once studied.

Like many of my contemporaries, when I returned to writing the form I chose was not fiction. We rediscovered the essay, the pamphlet (often in the forms of blogs), creative non-fiction and citizen journalism. In an era where becoming rooted in time and place has become an imperative, many of us sought out the older and vaster forms of myth and fairy tale, radical prose of the commons that challenged the history of the Empire. The impromptu speaker of words on the streets and at festivals took our attention, and fiction receded to a remote drawing room and Sunday newspaper world that seemed increasingly old-fashioned, conformist and slow. Used to squeezing plot into 140 characters or a pithy caption these 437 pages stuck in the Appalachian mud now seemed way too lengthy. Who had the time to read this stuff?

The pursuit of a narrative that can speak of our collapsing times is a mantra of the day, and perhaps it’s worth asking: does this narrative belong to the people who see the future coming, or do we include, as Kingsolver does here, the people who deny it is happening and are most likely to lose out when it does? Who will log their voices and their experience? Can we step in each other’s shoes and imagine what is it like, how it could be different, without the fictive form?

One of the major tensions in Flight Behaviour is the lack of awareness the outsiders (in their designer boots) have about the restrictive and humiliating nature of being dirt poor – of not having the right house, or education. Or indeed shoes.“Most of us have to walk around in our sleep, accepting our underprivileged position,” Dellarobbia tells Ovid:
I’d argue that the teams get picked and then the beliefs get handed-out. Team Camo get the right to bear arms, and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own. The other side wears I don’t know what, something expensive. They understand recycling and population control and lattes and as many second changes as anybody wants.
 I am not a climate denier and so cannot imagine what the doubters among Kingsolver’s readers might feel about Flight Behaviour. Looking out at equally waterlogged country (in East Anglia) I find myself thinking about that small imaginary house in Tennessee and realise that the book’s strength is linked to its ability to see what is, without any ought to be in the way. And that responding to nature in crisis might just bring things out of us we never thought were there.

When I opened the book I felt I would rather spend two hours watching Jennifer Lawrence in similar bleak conditions in Winter’s Bone. But in the end the novel had greater staying power. Roots, and not screen stars, are what we need right now, wherever we are, if we want to hold ourselves in place on the earth.

Images of monarch butterflies from 2012 documentary The Flight of the Butterflies; STIR is available at selected outlets and by subscription (see their website for details)

Thursday 6 June 2013

FROM THE ARCHIVE: The Sea Kale Project

Five years ago I began a project which had at its base a walk along the Eastern Seaboard. It was called The Sea Kale Project.  

Originally it was going to be a springboard for a photographic exhibition and extend into Norfolk. In the end however the walk was the catalyst that drew me back into writing. First a small piece in a local magazine and then journalistic blogs, principally about the Transition movement, in the following three years. Sea Kale was also the subject of the final chapter in 52 Flowers That Shook My World. 
Tomorrow, in another different time of shift, I will go with Mark to Sizewell beach, as we do each year, to pay visit the extraordinary community of wild and robust cabbages that flourish strangely and beautifully beside the nuclear power station. Here is a piece I wrote in 2011 in celebration:
 Along the sandy dunes and shingle banks of the eastern seaboard there is a front line of wild plants, the ancestors of our allotments and fields - wild carrot, wild cabbage, sea beet, sea pea, sea kale, sea rocket, oraches, sorrel – and our medicine cabinets - wormwood and eyebright, sea buckthorn, sea holly, scurvy grass. Of all our ancient companions, the sea kale with its abundant flowers and rich detoxifying leaves is the largest and most impressive. Its tap root sinks deep into the shingle and holds fast in a rocky and uncertain time - the kind of plant that can weather a storm.

The plant marks a territory that runs along the shoreline from Norfolk to Kent. It’s a geographical, ecological territory, but also a place you can map in time, in the ways that make meaning of our presence on the planet since our forebears first ate those salty iron-rich leaves.

I came across the sea kale in Dungeness. I had gone there because of Derek Jarman. I had read his journals and noticed the flash of wild flowers in the text, as he struggled with the elements that howled through his shingle garden and to keep own tenuous thread to life. He had come in search of bluebells and found instead the bleak shore and the sea-kale that grew beside the nuclear power station. It was a singular territory that he made his own: wind-broken, austere, at the end of the line.

We had, like the artist, driven out of the city at bluebell time and found the crambe's crinkly purple leaves pushing through the stones. We had been travelling and were looking for a place to live. We walked past the black fisherman’s hut and its now-deserted garden, sat amongst the flowering dwarf blackthorn and crab apple. As we drove away, I looked back and the familiar mosaic of marsh and sky and sea sparked something in me. It was the memory of somewhere I used to know. A certain strand of my life that began when I was a child in Sandwich Bay and Felixstowe.

When we settled in Suffolk Mark and I began an open dialogue with the wild places along the coast, following a practice we had developed working with dreams and medicinal plants – visiting, holding a discourse within the territory, cohering our findings, keeping a creative log. It had become clear that for the future to happen we needed to be realigned with the natural systems and to recover our aboriginal ability to speak with the earth. How could we do this in our native land?

The dialogue began with a question: Who is this self in this territory? How can we communicate in an intelligent and vigorous way? What effect does the land, its moods, rhythms, creatures, weather, have on our imaginations, on our memories, on our realignment?

In 2008 we began a project that mapped the mosaic of eco-systems and their relationship with the human settlements along this shifting coastline. We named the project after the study seakale communities. Having this kind of dialogue means you don’t walk the track you choose. You encounter what is there. going out without a plan, meeting what crosses your path. Not just the beautiful, but also the difficult. We began just as the sea asters were setting seed n the marshes. On November 9 there was a massive storm surge. A powerful northeasterly wind ran against the high tide and the estuaries flooded their banks. We ran out of our houses and stood by the shore as the rivers merged with the sea and swamped the houses down at Blackshore harbour.

After the flood people everywhere began speaking about how to protect the land. Small bands collected together, stacked sandbags against the river wall, spoke out for the birds and the spirit of the place.

“Just a few cows”, we were told by the greysuited men from the Environment Agency in Reydon village hall. The agency were refusing to mend the broken banks of the Blyth as the government announced its retreat back to the metropolis.

"What about the fishermen?" I asked. "Fishing is not economic", he replied.
"What about the tourism?"
"They will go elsewhere".

The cows in the watermeadows didn’t count. The birds didn’t count. The land didn’t count. The people in the coastal seatowns didn’t count. Only the populations in the industrial towns would be secured. The oil prices began to rise. Suddenly I realised I was living in a different time. A time I did not know.

This was the time I found myself talking to Charles Clover, environment editor of the Daily Telegraph, our paths crossing after 25 years. He was telling me about the fish in the ocean he has spent his life defending, and a book he had written called The End of the Line. I told him what was happening down by the sea’s mouth. The agency was abandoning all the defences of the rivers and their harbours along the territory of the sea kale – the Blyth, the Ore, the Alde, the Deben. It was business as usual in the hotels in town, down at the pier, at the fish shop (The show must go on!) but some of us were beginning to ask why.

"They are going to take everything!" he said.

We walked the coast line from the statue of Neptune at Lowestoft, towards the Martello tower of Aldeburgh, from November to the following late summer. We stood on the beaches with 1700 others making a human SOS protest at Walberswick, watched an adder slither by through the sea peas as the police and activists outwitted each other at Sizewell power station, watched the sky burn as the reeds caught fire at Easton Bavents.

We swam in the ocean, with the seals, in the high waves, watched the sea become glass-green, pewter, azure, opal, bruised, mad with foam, tipped with fire. We swam in the wake of Roger Deakin, and walked in the footsteps of WG Sebald. Above us the sky raced with clouds, the wind blew sharp and salt, and warm, scented with heather, hail clattered on our heads. The sands shone silver, the cliffs flashed gold. The land pulsed with light, We pocketed treasures: sea coal, sea peat, a glass bead, a worn kitchen tile, an oyster shell, a deer skull from the tumulus at Dunwich at winter solstice. The sand martins departed their cliff dwellings, the barnacle geese arrived, the starlings rose like spectres over the marshes. Stags roared in the reeds. Seasons came and went. In the mornings standing at my window, I would see the sea like a shining band on the horizon, like a mirror. It’s a good day, I would say to Mark. Let’s go out.

Today is such a day. And I’m writing about this project, about the resilient sea kale, because you notice in a droughted spring, it’s the plants with strong tap roots that flourish. It’s the tap root that keeps us alive. To belong you need a story, and to have a story you need a territory. You need a strong tap root to keep you anchored in a hard time. Sometimes the territory you find yourself in is not the place where you think you belong. It is not the lovely bluebell wood, or the rose garden where you sit alone with your thoughts. It’s not a tropical ocean or an Aegean island cove. It’s a windy English beach with people and houses and oil tankers on the horizon, where you encounter a thousand difficult questions about power and nature and exploitation. And the story you need now is not the story you were born with; it’s a story you have to discover, that you are challenged to go walkabout and find.

Part of me when I began the project wanted to stay on that wild ecstatic shoreline with the flowers, with the birdsfoot trefoil and centaury and harebell, to put all my attention on birds and stones and light, to keep hold of the outsider position of the artist and dreamer, but that shoreline kept taking me to the people, to face those awkward questions: to the protesters at Sizewell, to the campaigners in the village halls. It took me back into journalism as I found myself writing an article on the project for a local community magazine, the first I had published in 2o years. It didn't take me to paradise, it took me straight into the heart of the struggle.

It took me back into society, into Transition, to the place where we all meet, the place at the end of the line, at the edge of the narrow land, England, at a point in time where we need to come to certain decisions about the future. Decisions and meeting places I'll be writing about this week with some of the people who have crossed my path.

Among the seakale on Sizewell Beach, 2011; Derek Jarman in Dungeness, 1992 (by Howard Sooley); Greenpeace protest at Sizewell A, 2003; SOS protest at Walberswick, 2008: Sea Lale Project notebook, 2009; Mark, seakale and Sizewell B, 2011.

Monday 27 May 2013

Give and Grow, Walk and Be Well

Give&Grow and Well-Being Walk May 2013 06 Beans and Peas to Give and GrowSustainable Bungay's 4th annual Give and Grow event last Sunday (20th May) at the Bungay Community Library garden held a particular significance this year in the light of the recently passed EU "Plant Reproductive Material Law" aiming to regulate and restrict the sale, exchange or growth of all plants unless officially registered.

This would have impacted severely upon our freedom to (legally) "Give and Grow" in the manner of even our humble SB events, had the law not been mitigated in the final hour due to pressure from growers, gardeners and lovers of plants and freedom from all over Europe. See The Real Seed Catalogue's page for more information and why we need to keep an eye on this law (and take a look at their great vegetable seed list, too).

Our 2nd Well-Being walk took place after the Give and Grow with a group of six adults and three children setting off through town and the annual Bungay Garden Street Market, where we were joined by Sofia, recently moved to Norwich where she is studying midwifery. So here is a story in mostly pictures and some words of both the Give and Grow and the Well-being walk:

Give&Grow and Well-Being Walk May 2013 01 Lesley
Lesley Hartley, who is curating this year's Edible Bed in the centre of the library garden. Note the crimson flowered broad bean to Lesley's left. After a slow post-cold-winter start, the garden is beginning to respond to Lesley's hard work.

Give&Grow and Well-Being Walk May 2013 02 Lesley and Mark
Plant Medicine 2012 meets Edible Bed 2013. Mark and Lesley trying not to hide behind flowering brussels. What was that about Brussels, seeds and plants..? Keep giving and growing!

Give&Grow and Well-Being Walk May 2013 03 Brussels, Sign, Van
Brussels, A-Board and the big old red Post Office van, which Eloise has picked up all the large Give and Take day furniture and garden donations in over the last three years and used to deliver items to people after the events. As well as couriering display boards for Bee group events and other talks and workshops.

Give&Grow and Well-Being Walk May 2013 03A Nick, Mark & Lesley
 Nick shows Mark how to construct a make-shift seed envelope. This turned out to be a double (flowered?) version.

Give&Grow and Well-Being Walk May 2013 04 Richard planting Primroses
Richard demonstrates how to divide primrose roots and replant them. Primroses respond well to root division and the best time to start is just as the flowers are going over. Here Richard explains that even a small section of root like the one in his hands will resprout, though a misting table is best for roots this size.

Give&Grow and Well-Being Walk May 2013 08 Richard planting Primroses 2
 A new tray of primroses.

Give&Grow and Well-Being Walk May 2013 05 Double-flowered feverfew
Double-flowered feverfew growing out of the cracks and just about to come into flower. Feverfew leaves are a well-known herbal remedy for migraine. I'd never heard of anyone who'd actually used it till last year. A lady from Beccles came to a Plants for Life session and told us she swore by feverfew and used it any time she felt the beginnings of a migraine lurking. "Do you put it in bread," I asked. I'd read countless times that bread helped it to be easier on the stomach. "Oh no, I just eat a couple of leaves raw. Always works!"

Give&Grow and Well-Being Walk May 2013 07 Tony Reading TFP
You can't go to a Give and Grow event anywhere these days without coming across someone reading the Transition Free Press! Tony in  deep concentration.

Give&Grow and Well-Being Walk May 2013 09 Charlotte and Tony
And isn't that the TFP's editor sitting there with Tony? What a coincidence!

Give&Grow and Well-Being Walk May 2013 10 Paul and Rob and TFP in Pocket
Goodness me! Is that ANOTHER copy of Transition Free Press sticking out of Paul's pocket?

Give&Grow and Well Being Walk May 2013 11 Straw Bale Culture by Lesley
Straw bale culture. Cucumber. nasturtiums and giant pumpkin planted by Lesley for EastFeast at the Street Garden Market.

We've now left the library and the Give and Grow and started our well-being walk. No one was in any rush to leave the courtyard garden though, it was so relaxing.

We mapped out the route between us deciding to go via the market to the bridge at the bottom of Earsham Street and then down Castle Lane which skirts round the castle ruins. A favourite walk for several people, some found the castle ruins romantic, some liked visiting the wildflowers and others found it an  enjoyable route for walking the children to school.

Give&Grow and Well Being Walk May 2013 12 EastFeast at the Market
A brief stop at the East Feast stall (love that hat, Dano!), to play a board game with the children, and then on to  Orchard End Herbs: "I know you," I said to a young woman there. "You came to my Trade School class on rosemary and circulation at the Common Room in Norwich a few months back. Would you like to join us on our well-being walk?" "That'd be great," said Sofia. "And I'd like to bring some friends to Happy Mondays tomorrow. How do I book?" "You need to talk to Josiah," I said. "And he's coming on the walk, too."

Give&Grow and Well Being Walk May 2013 13 Looking Over the Bridge
Leaving the market (and the Punch and Judy show) and heading down to Earsham Street bridge and the River Waveney. This is one of Sally's favourite places to visit.

Give&Grow and Well Being Walk May 2013 14 Bridge Over the River
Waterweeds in the Waveney.

Give&Grow and Well Being Walk May 2013 15 Occupying the Street
Reuben leads us purposefully to Castle Lane.

Give&Grow and Well Being Walk May 2013 16 Down to the River
Take Me To The River, but don't drop me in the water... at least not until August when we combine our annual picnic with a swim.

Give&Grow and Well Being Walk May 2013 18 Edge of Flowers
Back lanes full of wildflowers and garden escapes, from cow parsley and Babington's poppy to shining cranesbill and grape hyacinth. One of Bungay's delights.

Give&Grow and Well-Being Walk May 2013 17 Sitting on the Bench
Sitting (and climbing) on the bench, before heading back to Sally's for a cup of tea. The whole walk was very relaxed and took about an hour and a quarter. To find out when our next Wellbeing walk is, check out the Sustainable Bungay Calendar - all welcome!

Images (all by Mark Watson): Beans, peas and seeds; Lesley and the Edible Bed; Mark and Lesley behind the flowering broccoli - medicine plant bed 2012 meets edible plant bed 2013; brussels, board and red van; making seed envelopes; Richard demonstrates primrose division 1 & 2; double-flowered feverfew growing through the concrete; Tony gets the lowdown with Transition Free Press; And again with TFP's editor Charlotte; Give and Grow and sit down for a chat; straw bale culture; garden street market with Dano; Earsham Street Bridge; waterweeds; follow the leader;  down by the Waveney; plants along the wayside; on the bench

First published 27th May 2013 on Sustainable Bungay's website

Saturday 18 May 2013

Crossing tracks - A Conversation with Jeppe Graugaard

Last winter I had a conversation with Jeppe Graugaard. We sat by the fire in my house and he switched on his tape recorder and though I felt bone-weary, bone-cold, exhausted by months of flu, I looked back at the track I had made over the last decades and found a kind of pattern there that made sense of things in a way I had not seen before. It sparked something alive. Although I have spent a great deal of my life interviewing people and hearing their stories, this was the first time anyone had sat down and asked me questions and was interested in the answers.This kind of attention is rare in our me-only, rush-rush world. About as rare as a ray of sun in that hard and difficult winter.

When Jeppe published our conversation in his blog a month later, just as Spring came, it was a revelation. In all honesty I can't remember saying any of this! I told him. He was now in a summerhouse in his native Denmark, writing up his Phd thesis about grassroots innovation, based on the Dark Mountain Project. I was amazed at how he had transcribed our talk almost verbatim, as he had with many other Dark Mountaineers, the thinkers, artists and activists who have helped shape this cultural network. Because I know exactly how many long painstaking hours that takes to do.

I had first met Jeppe briefly in 2009 at the first (and only) Arts and Culture meeting held by the Heart and Soul group upstairs at Take 5. We had decided to hold our first midsummer Transition party up at the Ranger's House on Mousehold Heath. He was about to research alternative currencies in Lewes and so never made it up there among the tents and trees.

But somehow our tracks crossed again: we met two years later at the Uncivilisation Festival and decided to start our own Dark Mountain Norwich group. When Rob Hopkins came to Norwich Jeppe wrote a piece about Transition for This Low Carbon Life called Reimagining the Future. He had come that winter weekend with Vanessa (who I had originally met at Occupy Norwich and asked to write for OneWorldcolumn) and we had all spoken at our Sustainable Bungay Give and Take Day about the Gift Economy. We had recently taught Trade classes - about time, about flowers, about communications and making - at the second prototype day for The Common Room at St Lawrence's Church (the third is happening today as I write). Tracks that were making a certain pattern in time and space.

Recently I took part in an on-line conversation about grassroots groups and I found myself realising that what I valued about Transition, what I valued about Dark Mountain, and all the groups I have connected with or written about were the networks of people and the shape and sense they made of my own life. Not necessarily my personal life, but a communal passage through the world that is part of an invisible pattern we can't always see. Those seemed to be more powerful and interesting than any other connections I could think if. And what I was saying in the thread was that the desire to belong to community of people in the way it is commonly understood, was not really my own desire, which is always to contribute to a radical cultural shift on this planet.

Sometimes the "communities" we think we are part of, those circles and clubs, don't necessarily make the meaningful shape that a network does. And some of the difficulties we encounter in such groups are caused by our wanting them to be our people, our family, our friends, when the kinds of people that are part of a network are not configured to provide that kind of emotional or material security. It's a freer and more dynamic exchange. We pop up in different places, in different guises over time. And when we meet, those meetings are treasured at a deep level, knowing they will not last for long. Those intense and focused conversations that happen at the edges in Transition are perhaps the most fruitful and enjoyable parts of our shared human experience. Certainly mine.

Today Jeppe is writing by a lake in Denmark and I am walking in a bluebell wood in England. We're meeting again in August at the fourth (and final) Uncivilisation Festival where Jeppe will be talking about Time Culture and I'll be talking about Rewilding the Self. I'm looking forward to that and all the conversations we'll be having around the fire under the stars.

Anyway here is the opening of our winter conversation. You can read the whole thing here.

Medicine Stories, Liberation and Shifting Allegience

JDG: I thought maybe a place to start was with something which you say in the beginning of your book 52 Flowers That Shook My World. Early on in the book you talk about ‘shifting allegiance’ away from civilisation towards the planet and this is something that has stuck with me. You say it happens on two levels: one is in the imagination, that’s the first step, and then it happens in the physical world when you start rearranging yourself in a way that can express that shift of allegiance. I thought maybe we could start with this, how that has turned out for you, going from living in London and being a fashion editor a long time ago to being here now. And I know that’s a very long journey and a big jump but maybe you can lay out what you think has been most important or what has been some of the most valuable stuff you learned from that process?

CDC: I am not a very linear person and I live in a very linear culture of the beginning-middle-and-end kind of stories that one is brought up with. But the stories that would grab me when I was young were the fairytales and the myths. I learnt myths very early on, the classical myths and Greek-Roman myths, which are the ones I know the best. Right from the age of seven or eight those were the things that really profoundly affected my imagination. And they don’t operate in beginning-middle-and-end. Although in some ways they use that sequence that’s not the world they operate in. They operate in this mythic, archaic dreamtime imagination, which is where I feel very much at home and which is the guiding principle of everything I write . . . .

This decade has been all about making myself at home in my own native land, which is a big practice and very hard to do in England. And part of that has been joining Transition where I’ve had to learn how to work with people and as a group in a different way. Talking about things we have been talking about today [in Sustainable Bungay] about the gift economy, about learning how to share, about learning how to give up individualism, which is a process in itself. Because even though you go travelling, you’re not necessarily working in a group. It’s still all about you. It could be about you and the great humanity or you and the great universe, you and the great planet, but it is not you and a bunch of people. Knowing the land as a people. That’s very different. That’s how we used to be.

For example, in Mexico when the Huichols walk to the mountain, they walk with the people. They are not walking as little, individual people trying to get their moment of enlightenment before they go back to the city. It’s a totally different thing: they are walking as a people. And most tribal and archaic people do this as a people, they don’t do it as individuals. You know, you might go and have your vision quest to find your name but you are coming back to the tribe, you are coming back to be one of the people, to be an integral part of it. So we’ve lost that. We’re trying to relearn it, I think. It’s on quite a humble level. Like doing things like ‘give and take’ today, community meals for fifty, it’s trying to get back to understanding what that’s like. That’s a much harder practice, I think . . . .

It has to be about heart. If you live a life governed by heart that is a different world to if you live a life governed by the rational mind. They are just different universes. So something that heart can feel and intuit, and intention being part of it, that has a currency and an agency that the rational doesn’t even recognise. It doesn’t know what you are talking about.

So, of course, if you sit down and do something with good intent - and you know that in your heart whether you have good intent or not – that has a power and agency that you cannot see but it will make all the difference. You can sit down with no intent and tick all the boxes and nothing will happen because you’ve got no good intent. Because it is not locked into what I would call the fabric of this world which we can’t see. The fabric of the world which we can’t see understands intention. That’s why some people do these strategic acts because they’re learning how to work with intention, so it makes sense within the fabric of the world.

So when they do one thing that echoes in all places… it’s like a hologram. You know, you do one thing in one tiny place and it goes in all places. That’s what I mean by making an intentional act. And that means everything, but the rational mind doesn’t understand that. It's a right [brain] hemisphere thing. We can’t even talk about it, really, but we know it. We understand it. We get a feeling for it. Transition sits down and goes “we need workshops, we need to get stats on that”. It’s all information. But that only goes so far. The point we are at is that we’ve got as far as facts and information can take us. And now something else has to kick in.

You can tell people “the Earth is coming to an end unless you do something”, well yeah, ok, that’s a piece of information. That’s not awareness. If you were aware of it you’d be going: “Right OK, what needs to be done?" That’s awareness. At least you are there, you’re going “OK, so now I know. So now I live in a different place”. That’s where Dark Mountain is. Which is why I like it. It doesn’t go in all guns blazing to try and sort everybody out. It sits on that very uncomfortable edge. It’s enough to be aware right now. Then we’ll see."

Text and photos from Remembering - Pattern Which Connects; Jeppe (left) at The Common Room, Norwich, February 2013; Dark Mountain Norwich crew in Kevin's camper van, Suffolk, July 2012; Uncivilisation Festival will take place on 15-18 August at the Sustainability Centre, Hampshire.