Friday, 26 February 2010

Last Low Carbon Love

What’s my last low carbon love? The last item on my list of things that make it easier to be green? People.
Because living a low carbon life can’t be done in isolation- it’s too hard, and we need to share resources- both physical and emotional. It’s a community endeavour. Lots of people help me in my transition to living a greener life.

My lovely other half obviously deserves a mention, as he has to bear the brunt of it. None of this is really his thing- but he puts up with it and helps me out. He tolerates our freezing hall: we agreed it was unnecessary to heat a room we only walk through, not sit in. He puts up with me shouting at the radio when they interview yet another climate change sceptic ‘for balance’.

Then there are my friends, with whom I am perfecting the awkward little dance we do, trying not to offend each other, when they talk about their fabulous weekend breaks by plane to Scotland or Prague. They might not be the greenest of people, but they mean a lot to me.

The people I know through Transition really sustain me in my efforts, because I know they’re on the same journey. They buoy me up, not just through the things we’re able to achieve: the CSA that Tully is putting so much effort into, the classes the re-skilling group are organising; but by the fun we have along the way- the clothes swaps, the evenings in the pub, the beautiful meals we share in each other’s homes.

But it’s not just these people, it’s all the people whose names I don’t know. It’s the people running and working in Norwich’s independent bike shops, the sales assistants who understand that I don’t want a bag. Everyone who takes a single step towards living a greener life makes it easier for the rest of us.

So thank you, all of you, for the steps you're taking. And thanks for reading this week, I hope you've enjoyed it. I've had a great time writing.

Next week it's all hands on deck for the thorny subject of flying.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Low Carbon Loves Part 4

What's next? Libraries! I love libraries. I admit, I am a librarian, but I am writing this from the heart, as a reader. My fiction habit alone would easily bankrupt me in the absence of libraries. When you add to that my cookery book addiction, my love of poetry, and my passion for learning how to do things, its clear that without being able to borrow books, my purse would be a lot lighter and my book shelves a lot heavier.

So why is this green and Transition-y? Well, firstly, I take the books back to the library when I'm done with them, so each book gets read by fifty or a hundred other people- who also don't have to each buy their own copy.

I mentioned learning how to do things: I'm a member of the re-skilling group, with the aim of learning all the skills we'll need in the future Transition is envisaging. In my current pile of library books there is an excellent little book on clothes repair and alterations. These charity shop trousers are a smidgeon too long, and whilst I can take up a hem, I'd like to be able to do it properly so it doesn't show. This page on herringbone stitch should do nicely.

What else have I got out at the moment? A couple of children's books in French, part of my ongoing efforts to learn a language. An issue of GoodFood magazine. Also in the pile is a beautiful book on Moroccan cooking- which provided a recipe for a dried fruit compote with sweet couscous that went down nicely at a recent TN2 meeting. The maps I've borrowed to help me plan the holiday I'm taking in a couple of weeks to Dorset. I've been under the weather the last couple of days and read a lot, I finished off And my see-through heart, Queenpin, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and I'm about to start Allende's Zorro.

And that's before I mention the computers that libraries make available for everybody to use, the newspapers you can sit and read without buying, and all the things libraries do to be a focus for their community: knitting groups, reading groups, free activities for children in school holidays.

Having all these things available to us all to share, for free, seems to me a model of how things could be. Public libraries were largely funded at the outset by the Temperance movement, which wanted to provide for free a warm place for workers to go to that wasn't the pub. Tully blogged at the end of last year about the way all our public places are about consumption, that there's nowhere to go that isn't trying to sell you something. Maybe libraries will be the last warm free place we can go that isn't a shop!

I really believe in libraries. In the future Transition envisages, when we have less money and more need for information, when we can't afford (in more ways than one) for everybody to have their own copy of everything, and we need to be able to fix things, make things and do things, I think we'll need libraries more than ever.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Low Carbon Loves Part 3

My third Low Carbon Love is my local farm shop. It's the same one Jane has mentioned in her posts: The City Farm Shop at Notcutts. But I'd never looked at this price board.

Reading and learning about food and the way it impacts on our global, social and personal health, I decided I needed to change my habits. I was particularly shocked to read that we now spend less of our income on food than ever before: just 10% on average.

Food is probably the only thing I buy that I couldn't live without- and if I followed the national trend, I was spending less than a tenth of my money on it. That couldn't be right. I did some maths, and realised I was spending quite a bit less than the 10%.

This felt like the first thing to change, so I re-jigged my budgets and resolved to stop looking for the cheapest option. I next decided to start buying all my fruit and veg from the farm shop. That should ensure that what I buy is local and seasonal. And of course, it would be more expensive, but I was prepared to accept that. But it's not. I spend no more on veg than I did before.

Of course, it's less convenient. I have to make two shopping trips
instead of one, and yes sometimes it's a bind. But this is food. The stuff we can't live without. I think it's worth a bit of extra hassle.

And alongside the hassle come the nice surprises. It's nice getting to know the staff at the shop, becoming a regular. The food is tasty and It's super easy to eat seasonally. Everything is labelled, so if it says 'grown in Spixworth', I know it's in season, here, now. I don't have to write lists of which veg I'm planing to buy anymore. I just buy what there is, what looks best. If it's kale, it's kale Mornay for tea.

If I really crave something different, I might very occasionally pick up a pepper from Holland or an aubergine from Spain, but at least I know what I'm doing. Supermarkets have Broccoli from Spain in the middle of the English broccoli season, and asparagus from Peru all year round. Faced with all that I didn't know how to eat seasonally.

Shopping at the farm shop has changed the way I plan my meals, the way I cook and the things I cook. I've started re-filing all my recipes by season. I would never have guessed it would be this easy, this cheap or this interesting to cook seasonally.

I'm really pleased that the farm shop is there- I get locally produced food at an affordable price- and I feel like I'm supporting something worthwhile.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Low Carbon Loves Part 2

After Perdita, I'd like to introduce Boris. Boris is very different to Perdita. He's not flighty or glamorous at all. He is, however, reliable and a good friend. It's a different kind of relationship.

I couldn't bring Perdita home and spend an evening in the kitchen with her (well, I have, on occasion, but only when she was in a really bad state and needed some gentle attention with a spanner). But Boris, he lives in my kitchen. His looks are much more functional than Perdita's- he's kind of earthy to tell the truth- but oh! the things he can do!

Boris takes care of all my compost. He's a Bokashi bin, and I can't recommend him enough. Bokashi bins are miniature indoor composters- ideal for those of us without the garden (or space) for the real thing.

Without Boris I had no way of composting: it caused me real pain to be throwing away such valuable stuff. I tried freezing all my peelings to preserve them until I could take them to my family to put in their compost bin, but that just made everything in my freezer taste of off veg.

Now I pop all my peelings, eggshells and any other green waste into Boris, and cover it all with a scattering of the special Bokashi Bran. Once the bin is full I take it to my parents and they add it to their heap.

My parents love Boris too, because he's improved the quality of their compost no end. Adding the Bokashi helps their whole heap to break down much more quickly and to a much finer end result.

I'm so happy to have Boris in my life, and I recommend anyone in a similar position to get a Bokashi bin. There's lots of info on the web, and I got Boris from

Monday, 22 February 2010

Low Carbon Loves

For my week on the blog, I want to introduce you to a few of my low carbon loves: the things in my life that make it easier for me to be green.

Perdita demanded to be introduced first. I've not known Perdita long, but we hit it off right from the start, and we have a lot of fun together.

She's flighty and skittish and next to her I feel a little slow and lumbering, She's light on her feet and loves to dance. To be honest, I find it hard to keep on top of her. She's beautiful, with a style all her own: always glamorously kitted out in hand- me-down panniers and a hand-made basket.

Perdita was a gift last year from my other half's mum. Being in Transition had taught me that I needed to use my car less, and I had a poor neglected bicycle mouldering away in the garage. I tentatively started riding- after 15 years out of the saddle- searching desperately for off-road routes. After a few wobbles and a couple of hair-raising near-misses I found my feet and was soon cycling the 14 miles to work and back 2 or 3 times a week. I recorded how far I cycled and found that I reduced my car mileage by around a quarter last year.

Inevitably this poor old bike of mine gave up the ghost and as I was looking into repairing it, I was very kindly given Perdita.The more I cycled, the more confident I became and the more I enjoyed it. I hadn't realised how pleasant it would be. I love the sense of speed and movement, the beautiful shushing hum of the wheels. I feel so proud and free to be getting somewhere under my own steam. And speaking of free: I don't have to buy her petrol or pay to park her when we get there.

I've had so many magical wildlife moments cycling: slowing to watch a kestrel hunt; passing a whitethroat singing in a bramble bush; and several times on hot summer nights stopping to watch foxes just a few feet away. I had no idea cycling would be this joyful, but Perdita has introduced me to so many new pleasures, and I'm truly grateful to her.

Our relationship is a little unconventional (I have to chain her up quite often). She knows I use other means of transport, but I do feel quite bad about it. I know I don't take her out as often as I should, especially in the winter.

I worry that I'm something of a fair-weather friend to Perdita: I'm determined to show my commitment to her a little more fully this year.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Future food, future skills

For my final foodie post this week before handing the baton to Elena, I’ve been thinking about the food of the future and the skills we’ll need to rediscover or adapt for the way we want to live today.

My first pic is of some bantam eggs, bought in the market last week. These are a seasonal treat: they start laying when the days begin to get lighter, so that’s an encouraging sign for Spring. They will lay right up until the autumn, but they tend to get broody by late Spring - which is whey they are often used to hatch pheasant eggs. The problem with bantams, I found when we kept them in the Waveney Valley, was that they liked to nest in the hedgerow instead of their cosy little hen-house. I would find little heaps of eggs days later; and if I wasn’t quick enough, I would find a clutch of chicks cheep-cheeping under a hen bristling like a ferocious tea-cosy.

I won’t be keeping bantams in the city, although my neighbours at my last place kept some in an Egloo. No foxes can get in here, but the garden is too small. I wonder if there is scope for a co-operative group keeping hens and sharing the chores? Those bantam eggs are delicious and they are hardy little birds.

My second pic is of some of the tomatoes I grew on the allotment and at home last summer. I was trialling several different sorts for taste and blight-resistance. All tasted good; some were outstanding. But at the end of summer I couldn’t find ways to preserve them. Like Erik, I didn’t want to make chutney. I was able to ripen them all very slowly on the kitchen windowsill (third pic) and ate the very last ones just after Christmas. What I’d really like to be able to do is to dry them or to make some sort of bottled preserve of them. I don’t know how to do this safely.

Looking through some cookery books on country skills, I see that there are some things that I don’t want to learn: how to make rook pie with figgy pastry (Farmer’s Weekly 1940s) or sheep’s head broth (Jane Grigson’s English Food).

It’s very useful to know how to prepare a pheasant. I do know how to do that. My mama took the view that everyone needs to be able to do the squelchy stuff and it has been very handy. Baking bread: I can do that. Jams and jellies: I can do those. Brewing wine and beer: I’ve made some totally undrinkable stuff in the past; I’ve also had lethal country potions made by elderly neighbours – might be worth learning how to make those!

Foraging: I can do easy things like finding blackberries and field mushrooms; but I’ve no idea what wild garlic looks like, nor the wild ransomes that Nigel Slater raves about. I’d like to know where to look for the really good mushrooms (though I bet that most foragers wouldn’t be willing to show me).

I’d like to know how to dry fruit - I’m very scared of bottling and pressure-cookers. I’d like to learn how to make butter and cheese; even milk a cow or a sheep. Does anyone know where there are courses locally? It would be great if we in Transition Norwich could get together to share these skills, maybe with other Transitioners who are already doing these things.

My final book choices: Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking, just published. Full of practical advice on a huge array of country kitchen skills, from her first-hand experience of growing up in Ireland. I’m going to review this for the March bulletin.

And the last word goes to Marwood Yeatman’s extraordinary The Last Food of England: English Food, its Past, Present and Future (published in 2007). I keep dipping into it for more stories from the author’s recent travels around the country, in search of the traditional foods that he feared had gone for ever. He says: “They were not hidden; they presented themselves. All I had to do was to stay away from the food giants, make an appropriate purchase, and be careful not to ruin it when I got home.” His food story begins where fashion, globalisation and science stop.

Pix: Bantams' eggs; tomatoes from allotment and home; tomatoes ripening on kitchen windowsill

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Stored sunshine

Another day of really awful weather, but I feel immeasurably cheered by the stored sunshine on my kitchen shelves. Erik wrote that that the food year is like a battery, charging up in summer. This is some of that energy I stored up last summer: a peach preserve, which is so very welcome when I need reminding of warmth.

Erik remarked that the return he got from his trees was enormous, compared with the effort and yield from his veggie plot. My little fruit trees at home haven’t got to that point yet, but once I have put them into much bigger pots they should do very well. (My pic shows some of my apricots with bought peaches and nectarines.) I’ve got an apricot, a quince, two pear trees, three old-fashioned apples. One is the famous Norfolk Biffin, which was grown specifically to store right through to the end of Spring. I’ve never seen one, much less tasted one, so it’s exciting to look forward to that.

I’d love to hear more about the heritage project that Charlotte and Tom are involved in at Catton Grove, planting forgotten sorts of local apple. They’re helping to restore Norwich to its former glory; Tom was saying the there used to be lots of fruiting cherry trees all along the Avenues. Norwich was described in the 1660s as ‘a city in an orchard or an orchard in a city, so equally are houses and trees blended in it’. Everywhere there must have been fruit and nut trees, in people’s gardens and hedges, in the streets and in public open spaces. Wouldn’t it be great to plant again, in open spaces that are wasteland or where car parks are no longer needed? There was a great programme (again!) on Radio 4 – The New Diggers, where people in Todmorden, Yorkshire, are doing just that.

A first-rate nursery locally where I buy most of my fruit trees – and hazels – and soft fruit too is Read’s Nursery midway between Norwich and Beccles. I have no commercial interests in them, trust me! I like going there because they have a wonderful collection of trees that they raise themselves; and for those with a sheltered spot for exotica, they hold the national collections of citrus fruit and figs. They are also very knowledgeable about local varieties of fruit. There’s also the best online nursery that I have come across: Keeper’s Nursery, who sent me very good trees too. They have a huge collection of heritage trees and lots of valuable advice about pollination times, whether the trees are hardy, how well they crop and whether the fruit is delicious enough to be worth the effort.

Today’s books: the first is very good for advice on growing fruit, and veggies too. It’s out of print but you can track down second-hand copies: Anna Pavord’s New Kitchen Garden.

The second book is never out of print! Probably the most battered cookery book in my collection, much splattered: Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book. Not only does she provide comprehensive advice on what to buy, how to cook it and what varieties to plant; it’s also a fascinating read. One of my Top Ten cookery books.

Pix: peach preserve; summer fruit

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Future food

It’s bitterly cold this evening. Spring seems a long way away again, although it was such a sunny day. It’s one of those days when the Transition journey feels like it’s going to take a long long time.

Earlier this week some of us were talking about veggie boxes and how much we enjoyed rising to the creative challenge of doing something delicious with the most unpromising produce. “I must admit that turnips defeat me,” I said to Kerry. But no, she says she’s found a brilliant recipe that turned her from a turnip-hater (like me) into an enthusiast.

It’s Lent and I like to try to eat very simply for the forty days ahead. Much the same as the ideal Transition pattern of eating – seasonal, local, mainly vegetarian; not much dairy; little or no meat or fish. But – and this is what I’ve been reflecting on today – this is not just for Lent. At the moment I can choose how I eat; in future I won’t have any choice. I’m going to have to do it always and that might not be such fun all the time when it is for real.

I’ve been dipping into George Ewart Evans’ Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay (probably long out of print), following up on something Erik said at the TN café about East Anglian life. He’s writing in 1956 about the harsh realities of rural life in Suffolk, as told to him by a group of old people who lived through it all. Not all of it was bad, of course, and the festivals must have been great. But most of the time it was hard. I’ve read similar accounts about just how perilously close to starvation people used to be in the Riviera, saved only by their chestnut trees; and throughout those parts of the Mediterranean that seem idyllic now. Crop failure was very serious indeed. Food shortages were common and affected a far wider population than just the villages.

We were talking about food security, among a lot of other issues, at the Transition Talk Training in Colchester last week. Nigel, from Woodbridge, keeps bees and is definitely on the case. So is Marina, from the Apricot Centre near Manningtree. And me? I’m just starting out. I’ve grown fruit and veg all my life; I’ve briefly kept bantams (more of that later); I like to think of myself as a sensible shopper and fairly capable cook. But the changes I need to make in the kitchen are radical.

On that journey, I shall need to become a much more resourceful cook. Dishes like Charlotte’s Tagine aux Sept Legumes (really skilful use of humble ingredients with clever spicing), butternut squash risotto with rosemary (yesterday) and today’s lunch, Hugh F-W’s chickpea and kale curry. Today’s books will certainly help me to do more interesting things with my veggies in season.

First, one that I use all the time and keep in the kitchen: River Café Cook Book Green. It’s organised on a month-by-month basis; you have to make minor allowances for it being more closely aligned to the northern Italian seasons than England. Most of the recipes are really simple and taste divine. Potatoes and dried porcini mushrooms baked with some thyme and garlic (January); chickpea pancake with rosemary (that’s farinata, for Charlotte, from that hard-pressed Riviera)…

Second, one that Kerry and I think is indispensable when you just can’t think what to do with your fourth batch of parsnips in a row: Riverford Farm Cookbook. These guys know all about the realities of veggie boxes.

Pix: seasonal veggies on sale in the city; Transition Talk Training at Colchester (courtesy of Andy Croft)

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

What’s in my basket?

At the TN café get-together last night, we were discussing whether limited food choice was a good thing from the cook's point of view. In particular, we were talking about eating only local vegetables in season. Elena said: “Won’t it be boring? I do like to go to the greengrocers and decide there and then what to buy.” Kerry and I said that on the contrary, it’s actually a lot of fun. With limited choice, you’ve got the scope to be much more creative. More on that discussion later…

Tonight’s supper with friends is soup, bread and cheese – and pancakes, because it’s Shrove Tuesday. So, in the basket there’s ingredients for a veggie soup. It’s going to be minestrone, with a red onion, carrots, celery… maybe leeks, maybe a little bit of garlic; so far, so good, all produced within five miles of the city. (By the way, has anyone seen ‘dirty’ white Fenland celery lately? I haven’t been able to track any down this season.) Borlotti beans – also okay, because I did manage to grow some on the allotment. Tomatoes – well, this time round they will have to be tinned, but next season I hope to learn how to bottle my allotment crop or even sun-dry them. Parmesan cheese – I lose valuable Transition points here unless I substitute local cheese.

Bread: the Norwich loaf, made with a mix of Wakelyn’s flour and spelt. I might cook a flatbread too, but that won’t pass the local test: white flour (probably from grain grown in Canada, though I do have French flour in the cupboard); Maldon salt from nearby Essex; olive oil – definitely not from Essex!

Cheese: White Lady sheep’s cheese from Norfolk. Bought from the Cheeseman in the market, where I buy all my cheese; plus a good English Cheddar, Quicke’s. Unfortunately, Norfolk is not a great dairy county.

Meat: none today. I don’t eat much meat and it has to be organic; only from named farms in Norfolk, after enquiring about exactly how they have been produced. Is this a topic for our blog debate – whether to eat meat at all?

Fish: none today. Last summer I bought fish straight off the boat at Aldeburgh. There wasn’t much choice but it was so sparkling fresh. I don’t know where to get more locally caught fish – Lowestoft? I’d love to find out.

Pud: pancakes. Fails part of the local test. Eggs: local organic; milk: ditto. Flour: organic Italian Tipo 00, as it happens, because that’s what I always use. Lemons: Spanish.

What about the bottom line? Surprisingly, eating this way is much cheaper than the supermarket, as the City Farm Shop’s noticeboard shows. The supermarkets love to compare prices between themselves, but they are a lot more expensive than little independent shops and producers. Even the meat (from the best butcher in the city) was much cheaper than supermarkets. And eggs! £2.50 a dozen (organic, local) from the butcher; nearly twice the price (and half the size) in Waitrose.

Books: first, Thirty Miles: A Local Journey in Food in which Ian Walker meets producers, helps to pick fruit from cliff-tops and gives us lots of recipes all with food from his local area. He's told that he'll struggle to find good food; instead, he proves that cooking locally has lots going for it. "It offers both hope and a blueprint for the future of food in our country."

And Wild Cooking, a new book by Richard Mabey, author of Food for Free and now living in the Waveney Valley. The Times says in its review: “There’s nothing about making do [in the kitchen] that he doesn’t know – the book’s a delight.”

Pix: much-loved shopping basket with seasonal veg; blackboard outside City Farm Shop at Nottcutts

Monday, 15 February 2010

Green shoots - Spring is almost here

It looks as if gardens everywhere are beginning to wake up after a long cold winter.

I'm picking up the baton from Andy, another tough act to follow, with his thoughtful remarks on healing; and then John’s welcome observations that Spring is not far away…

…. which means that it’s soon going to be a busy time on the allotment and in my little city garden too.

I popped over to the Transition Norwich allotment yesterday and checked up on progress. The broad beans have survived bitter cold and are doing well; also the spring cabbages, garlic and onions (my second pic is of broad beans raised from Stan’s seeds – Sabberton Supremes!).

I’m doing some trials to find out which varieties do best. No chance at all of remembering what each variety is and where I planted them, partly because Mr Fox digs up my plant labels; so I have to keep a notebook with sketches and notes.

I've been learning a lot from fellow-Transitioners about the wider perspective on gardening. I’d love to keep bees; but Nigel advises that it’s a long term commitment and needs attention several times a week. He keeps bees in Woodbridge and suggested that the best thing for me to do at the moment would be to plant bee-friendly shrubs, especially things that provide food in winter.

And I’ve acquired a wonderfully diverse bird population in my little city patch, which I am watching as I type. I was inspired by Charlotte and Mark, whose rambling country garden is dotted with treats and feeders, with birds darting everywhere. Now I’ve installed some cylinders of nuts and seeds; and I won’t tidy away the leaves and seed-heads until Spring is really here.

Books: two great gardening books that I’d recommend are:

  • The Edible Container Garden by Michael Guerra (great for growing food in tiny urban spaces)
  • From Seed to Plate by Paolo Arrigo (lots of advice on unusual and delicious Italian vegetables, things that we can grow here in Norfolk)
Pix: Statue at Blickling Hall; broad beans; notebook

PS: Good programme on Radio 4 about seeds

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The first newt of Spring!


At this time of year the frogs, toads and newts are thinking about returning to their breeding ponds in order to mate.   Our forebears were much more in touch with nature and no doubt the origins of St Valentines day owe something to the wildlife activity that is now happening all  around us.

Last week, I saw the first newt of the year when the ice on my pond briefly parted.   The newts appear first, followed by the frogs and then the toads.    Toads spend most of the year up to 3 miles from their breeding ponds and spend the winter down old mole and rabbit holes, away from the frost.   Amphibians are ectothermic and need the temperature to reach about 8c before they can move around on land.   

Climate change has lead to earlier springs and this is bad news for the toads who wait until dusk before making their journey to the breeding ponds.   Dusk in mid Feb occurs around 18:00 which is the peak of the evening rush hour.   Many toads find that inconsiderate mammals  have built roads next to their ponds and the toads are ill equipped for coping with ever increasing levels of traffic.  Hopefully this year the cold conditions will delay the toad migration until a date when  dusk occurs later in the evening.  ToadPair

In several places around Norwich  volunteers use buckets to carry thousands of  toads to safety.  Without help, most of those toads would die and whole populations are being lost.

The problem has become much worse in the last 10 years as new roads have led people to make more journeys – particularly leisure related journeys in the evening.     

Amphibians have been on the planet for 300 million years and can survive unaided  in extremes of heat and cold that we humans can only tolerate with the aid of sophisticated technology.   Because amphibians do not maintain a constant body temperature they have very low food requirements.     Climate change will bring challenges for both mammals and amphibians but unlike us, the toads have seen it all before.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Changing the Dream

"It is best to think of this as a revolution, not of guns, but of consciousness, which will be won by seizing the key myths, archetypes, eschatologies and ecstasies so that life won't seem worth living unless one is on the transforming energy's side."

(Gary Snyder, quoted in the preface to the Heart section of The Transition Handbook p.79)

The condor will take its place alongside the eagle. Tom and I were sitting in the Workshop café waiting for Sorrel, jamming about storytelling, what we could do in the woods and in the Low Carbon Roadshow, the Transition project we’re starting this month.

Tom was telling me about the initiative, Be the Change ( that was inspired by an exchange with tribal elders in the Ecuadorian rainforest. The elders told the two originators a story about two birds. When the world is in balance the eagle and the condor fly together. In the modern age the eagle had taken supremacy in the skies, but now the condor was returning. You need to go back to America and change the Dream of the North, they said.

This condor was painted by Mark in a valley in Ecuador when we were both travelling through South America. The place is famous because its inhabitants live to an immense age. Like the eagle, the condor is a bird of the sun and a high-flyer; what distinguishes it is its ability to transform energy. It’s the king of the vultures, a scavenger who eats the dead.

By “dream of the North” the elders were referring to the North American consumer dream, the illusion that you can be who you want to be and throw away everything you don’t like and never have to deal with the dead. You can choose to live within the ideal life of the mind, to eat cakes and cows everyday, live in houses that are always as warm as summertime and never suffer the consequences. But, as permaculture states, there is no away within the earth’s eco systems: our away is someone else’s here. We’re trapped in an illusion that is poisoning the whole world.

It’s something you wake up to when you travel to these high, pure places. When Rob Hopkins travelled to the Hunza valley, the place of apricot trees and equally long-lived people, Transition was seeded. The Handbook opens with his drawing of the Himalayan village he considers to be the blueprint for sustainable community.

When you return from these valleys of immortality you bring a dream back with you, a dream of how to live in harmony with the earth. That’s your gift. Part of that dream is that the earth can restore itself and the people can restore themselves. One thing I learned from the Andes is that to align with the condor, we need to become transformers of what is dead and gone within ourselves and our culture - to liberate energy in ourselves the way mature forests liberate energy from the recycling of dead matter by the transformative actions of fungi and insects.

To free energy from what is dead and give energy to the living is the act that allows human beings to become symbionts rather than parasites on the earth. It’s the work that archaic and indigenous peoples recognise and accept, a responsibility for life itself. To see and feel your place within the web of life like this requires an act of imagination, which is why earth-respecting cultures value their acts of storytelling, singing and dancing so highly. Scientific facts and modern psychology can point the way forward, but only our creative imaginations can initiate what Gary Snyder calls the Real Work, hard yoga for planet earth.

We’ll be able to start our tasks of restoration once we remember that the dream of our own islands, once called Avalon, the place of apple trees, is linked in with the apples that Erik stored from his tree this year. Linked with the apple trees the children in Catton Grove are replanting in their estate that was once an orchard, with the Egmont russet cuttings we took from Malcolm’s smallholding to Becky’s co-operative outside Beccles. With the small projects that are happening all over England right now as Transition grafts its ideas for the future onto the rootstock of the wild ancestral dream. As I pass this week’s “speaking stick” over to Andy and wish him the best.

Because we do have a dream in the North. It’s a real one we’re creating right now.
Solar-powered, high-flying, liberating the world from old forms.

It takes a Billion, Billion Years to Burn Out the Energy I Have in Me by Mark Watson.

Planting apples trees with Sustainable Bungay on Valentine’s Day, 2009 at GreenGrow, Ilketshall St Andrew.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Low Carbon Kitchen

I found the pheasant on the road coming back from a Transition day in a primary school in Framlingham. He was a beautiful bird without a mark on him, his coppery-flecked feathers glowing in the almost dusk. I carried him back to the car. "What are you going to do with that?" asked Mark. "We're going to eat him," I said. "It's a gift."

So he hung up in my larder for three days, after which I cut him down, plucked and drew him and cooked his body in wine flavoured with thyme and bay. I gave the neck and liver to the cat and buried his feathers, feet and head under the hawthorn hedge.

The dish (and the soup next day) were divine.

You might not think this is a story. Roadkill - no big deal. Except for me it was because I hadn't eaten any meat for 10 years.

The decision had taken me one second to make. It was as quick as the moment I picked up the cock pheasant and knew I had to take him home. I never changed my mind about eating animals. Once you see it you can't unsee it. It's like the aha Rob Hopkins calls The End of Surburbia moment, the peak oil moment, when suddenly without knowing it you find yourself in Transition.

Those kinds of decisions are made by the spirit which is faster than the speed of light. Our physical forms however are slower. It took six months for my body to adjust to the mostly vegan diet I now eat, to be able to absorb plants after a lifetime of eating fish and meat and cheese. It took my emotional body time to let go of the moreishness of sugar, palm oil, bananas. My mind to make the switch to organic and locally farmed food.

To completely change the way I ate I needed a territory to do it in. When I moved to Suffolk I could engage in the kinds of relationships that Tully talked about in his blog last week, a mix of wholefood shops and corner stores, roadside stalls and farm shops and a weekly box from Malcolm and Eileen in Darsham. It’s a practice I began two years ago when I gave up going to supermarkets.

If we’re going to seriously get into low carbon cooking, into downshift cuisine we’ve got to get smart on a lot of things. Some of those we touched on in our last Strangers’ Transition Circle on Food. One of these is energy. How much energy does it take to cook a meal?

The Monitor says that I am using 375 watts every time I go near my kettle, that a piece of toast is costing Mark 5p a slice and when he starts to bake his sourdough it hits 1KW and rising. Every time I’ve gone into the kitchen this week the Monitor is there before me.
"Turn that light off," yells Mark "We’re up to 677!
"Mark, I can’t cook in the dark!" I yell back. The kitchen lights, all unsustainable six of them went on strike and blew the circuit. Now we’re scrabbling about with a lamp and the corridor low-energy glow.

Downstairs letting the cat out of the door to go hunting on a frosty star-filled night, the Monitor glows like a blue police lamp in the living room darkness. She’s achieved her favourite result of Zero (until the fridge powers up that is). The temperature of the room registers 7 degrees. Little boxes on the display are stacked up: one box for night, two boxes for day, four boxes for the evening. Like one of those Christmas presents you got excited about when you were small however the Monitor (on loan from the Bungay library) is losing her appeal.

Because the truth is we can’t live on figures and facts like these. The data can make us aware of energy use in the kitchen - our hobs and ovens and kettles but they don’t feed our souls and our archaic hunter-gatherer bodies that resonate to the touch of wild creatures, roots and seeds and fruit and rain. They don’t bring us sweet memories or the tastes and textures of life. And to really change our habits, so that climate change and peak oil don’t ravage our lives and everyone else's we’ve got to make some other kinds of moves. The ones that scientists and rationalists might dismiss as poetic.

To go back through that small door to find the earth and all its riches, we’ve got to get creative and change what we value, bringing our immense knowledge of the world’s larder to bear in how we cook - street food and peasant food from Mexico, Morocco, India, China, Greece – using all the ingredients we have at hand, in time, in season.

The humble tastes of stored apples and January king cabbage, the pungency of winter purslane and mizuna, the richness of parsnip and swedes.

The taste of the territory in which we find ourselves.

In the end what matters is the connection. Once you find that you can let all that high-carbon food buying go - the swanky restaurant, the exotic fruit, disappearing cod, all those special treats and fancies and comforts that exploit the world and all its peoples. All these are substitutes for creaturehood - the relationship with the place that keeps us alive and connected. You can't have this relationship with industrialised food. It's an earth thing. A gift we find in our hands at the end of the day.

Cock Pheasant just before plucking on last year’s Poetry Paper
Collecting the box from Malcolm on a snowy day
Kitchen window with local garlic and Brussel sprouts

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


" We’ve got to devise an ego descent action plan," I laughed. That was in a TN open space session in April. There were five of us down in the Belvedere Centre in NR2. We were discussing the question, How does Transition deal with our individual and collective desire for power? (you can find a write up of the session here Open Space Powerdown session ).

Powering down is normally associated with outside physical energy like electricty, with individual actions like turning down the theormostat. However its greatest challenge is on the inside: letting go of the power conferred by shiny and beautiful possessions and the identification with those who flaunt them to the max.

When I wrote this book about style I was enjoying life in the way you can in the city in your twenties, working in the fast track. But there was something missing. One day I woke up and realised I couldn't write fashion articles anymore. My heart was yearning for something else, something wilder and freer and deeper. I felt trapped in all those rooms and buildings.

I had woken with the memory of myself as a child hiding in an apple tree.

How to you get from here to there? From that picture to this?

"How much did this feather cost?" asked Lewis as we walked back along the path yesterday.
"Nothing!, I said. "It was free. The feathers came from wild birds."
"Can I get another one?"
"You can have as many as you like, " I told him. Keep your eyes on the ground".

He smiled and ran down to the hut to watch Cathy gut the pheasant. The children had never seen a feathered bird plucked or drawn before. "Now we know what chicken is," the girls said one to another.

Before we get back in touch with the earth the adults have got a few inner monstrosities to let go of. This is the second powerdown after materialism - the identification with old-school deities.

When I went traveling I sat in tipis and sweat lodges, worked in healing centres, read cards, did psychology and the whole new age thing. I stumbled across big truths in small awkward places and learned to be wary of the humble meditating person in an anorak. Because boy, before you knew it you'd find Jehovah or some other great entity inside in a big robe demanding your worship. If you don't do as I say it it's thunderbolts and off with your head!

The first insight that struck me in The Gift was that in a traditional community gifts circulate. You give feasts, you look after the family and you stay home where you are put. The gods leave you alone. If you want to develop as an individual you keep your good luck to yourself and break out of the circle and you pay a price for doing so. The price all travellers pay: exile for you!

The best stories however are travelling tales that go away and come back. When I left the city I left my community behind. But then so did the world: we live in a culture of individual breakaways. And no matter how modern people yearn for community none of us wants to go back to the villages that stifle us, to the gods who tell us we're out of line. We're a different kind of people, what the classical tales once called Nostoi, the returned ones. We've seen things and we want to go forwards. Most of all we want to live in a world without fighting each other over power. How we do that without being ostracised by the ones who stayed home is a task we face. But it starts by knowing we do not come empty handed.

This is what I love best about Transition. It gives you a chance to give back. And if you're lucky you find people who can accept the gifts you bring. Gifts for the future. Apple twigs for grafting, a feather for a hazel crown.

Above: front cover of Vogue's Modern Style (1988) by Alex Chatelain.
Holding russet twigs. Fairtrade Gloves by Pachamama, £12.90 from Focus Organic. Alpaca Coat by Scott Crolla (1990). Picture by Mark Watson.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Snowdrop, Snowflake

Just came back from the woods. Tired, muddy, happy. It was a good day. Tom, Sorrel and I and the children from Year Six spent several hours tuning into the season, running like wolves through the big trees, sitting round a camp fire, in a tipi, in Cathy's log cabin where she lives off-grid. The children asked her how she lived here far away from the city. How did she dry her clothes? How did she shoot the animals she ate? What fish did she catch? Cathy told them about making dandelion and burdock, about her solar panel, how the Neolithic peoples once lived here. How this watery wood harbours special creatures because it provides just the right habitat for raft spiders, dormice, nightingales . . .

My crew, the Nightingales, gave a performance at the end of the day. We wore hazel crowns with pheasant feathers and made everyone find us as we all hid amongst the coppiced trees and made our calls. We built shelters and nests and fell into the mud a lot. It rained and no one cared. I felt catapaulted into the day that some call Candlemas, some Imbolc but without names is the moment the year starts to make one small step towards the light.

It's when you pay attention to small things that the world opens up. The snowdrops amongst the leaves, the snowflakes that look like small planets, almost indistinguishable from the full moon that pours through the window. Yesterday Mark and I watched sunup down on the shoreline. There was a luminous moon going down behind us over the snow-speckled land, golden marshes, big sky, moving water and the sun breaking through on the horizon. I forgot about oil tankers and just watched the glow from that bright disc as it suffused the sky and poured down on the dark liquid horizon, as it ribboned its way down through the waves to our feet standing amongst the stones on the frosted hard sand.

At some point you realise that this small world is what we have, with all its fleeting beauty, and these forms are what we have, with all their physical limits in time and space.

Each snowflake a planet.

Each tree a galaxy.

Each child a universe.

All visitors here for a short time. Earth bound, muddy, happy.

Hazel in Wrong's Covert
Snowdrops in Reydon Churchyard
Snowflakes and Full Moon by Mark Watson

Monday, 1 February 2010

We'll Be Coming Down the Mountain, Singing

It’s the day when the year opens like a door. The first peep of sun, the moment you wake up and notice that the birds are singing and there are shoots in among the dead leaves. Any time now the crocuses will be appearing in the parks and the snowdrops in the woods. It’s still winter but spring is lightstepping her way in.

This week I’ll be looking at spring shoots and early moves, what it means to be downwardly mobile, about a project some of us are starting called the Low Carbon Roadshow, about a book I’m reading right now called The Gift – How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World.

Today's top picture is from a project in Suffolk called East Feast where artists work with children, growing food on school allotments during the growing cycle of the year and cooking up a celebratory feast for the community. Tomorrow Tom Harper and I are going into the woods. He’s been working with a group of children in Catton Grove school and we’re going storytelling among the trees with some of the creatures that live there. I’ll be introducing the Nightingale who builds her nest in the blackthorn bush.

What I love about these birds is that they are hardly ever seen; even if you do catch sight of one they are brown and small and undistinguished. But the sound that comes out! The singing in the dark just as spring comes! That’s the story. People in Transition are like that too. We’re not really seen, and when we do see each other, we’re not stylish or smart. But we’ve got a voice inside us that has been repressed for years, aeons it seems, and we’re starting to make that sound heard in a dark time. Ay Ay yippy.

This blog is about people getting in touch with that song inside. When we met up for our Blog-In recently there were ten of us at John Heaser’s, and what we liked was that reciprocity between us, the feeling that we were creating our own culture. You don’t need editors or photographers, or money. You can just pick up a camera and take a shot of what’s going down in your kitchen and post it that day.

This pic is of a Mexican molcajete, a pestle and mortar made from volcanic rock. one of the oldest technologies in the world. I bought it one day when Mark and I drove to Nogales, through the grasslands of southern Arizona, where if you are lucky you can find grooves in the rock where the first people used to grind maize. I use mine to grind spices and a condiment called zatar that’s eaten in Palestine with bread dipped in olive oil, in Jordan, in North Africa, places where the wild thyme (or sometimes oregano or marjoram) is mixed with the sour sumac bush berries from the dry hill slopes, sesame seeds and salt. You taste this and you’re in those countries, without going anywhere near a plane.

That’s what I like about this low tech, high res culture: we’re using our modern intelligence, our love of beauty, our memory to connect with the archaic and redream the future. We’ve got a big task ahead to reconstruct ourselves from the inside, to reconfigure the world. But I guess it starts here in the kitchen with what you have at hand. With the people you’re working with, with the trees outside your door. The door of the year that is just now opening . . .

Molcajete from Mexico (with curious cat), garlic from Norwich allotment, Ring of Fire chillis from Darsham , bayleaves from my neighbour’s garden, thyme from outside my door.