Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Neighbourhood food growing - grow leeks not sward

I moved from London to a very rural part of Suffolk during the cold winter of 1979. Heavy snow was forecast and the removal men beat a hasty retreat for the safety of the city, leaving us to face the elements. The next morning the lane had completely filled with snow and the nearest food was 3 miles away! Fortunately I had learnt enough about vegetables to recognize that the leaves sticking out of the snow at the end of the garden were leeks. We lived on them for the next few days. I have always grown leeks since and regard them as one of the most resilient of plants - no pests, able to withstand the harshest winter and they can be harvested on demand from September to March.

I now live in a village on the outskirts of Norwich which has been transformed within living memory from a place where most of the inhabitants worked on the land to one where most people work in offices. Fifty years ago nearly everyone would have had a traditional cottage garden where vegetables had pride of place, some people would have kept pigs, sheep and goats to graze the verges. There would have been fruit orchards and apples would have been stored for eating over winter. Now, vast amounts of space, time and energy is given over to the cultivation of grass. People even put precious fertilizer on the grass so that it grows more and has to be cut more often!

I can easily produce enough potatoes, leeks, parsnips, carrots, beetroot from an area about half the size of an allotment to make us self sufficient in these for most of the year. I use compost and manure from local animals to fertilize the ground. It makes me realize just how much food could be produced within most villages. There are signs that things are beginning to change, the village has increased the area of allotments under cultivation and there is now a waiting list. Followers of the Archers will be aware that Nigel Pargiter is planning to make some of his estate available as allotments; it may be a coincidence but a neighbour who has a vast area of grass, recently told me that he is also thinking of making some of his land available as allotments. At least it will cut his lawnmower fuel bill!

Monday, 30 August 2010

Wholefood co-ops

I had wanted to set up a food co-op or a buying group for years. A couple of years ago I had a go on my own.I was confident that enough of my family and friends would join in to make a success of it. I contacted a local wholefoods company and explained what I wanted to do. They sent me a form. The form asked for a company name and a VAT number. I got back in touch with them and said "I'm not a company, just a buying group and I don't have a VAT number". They said I still needed a company name and a VAT number.

This was too high a hurdle for me to overcome alone, my enthusiasm faltered and, defeated, I gave up.


My family and I continued to run our informal buying group- with them buying bread flour in 16kg sacks from Downham Mill and I buying rice 15kg at a time and swapping what we needed. From time to time we'd add a new item to our range- like when I discovered the wonderful Bintree bird seeds who grow birdseed in Norfolk and sell it at a price which competes with the stuff imported from China (which is nearly all of it).

Then the Transition Circles formed and I found myself part of TN Strangers (We don't come from Norwich, you see). In one of our early meetings we talked about the practical things we could do to reduce the carbon footprint of the food we eat. I can't remember who suggested it, but the idea of a buying group came up, and this time there was more than just me to struggle with the system. Then it turned out one of us already had an account with Rainbow.

We're still in the early stages, still encountering difficulties and trying to work out how best to organise it: how often to order, how to fairly share the burden of collecting and paying for the food- and how to use that 2kg of dried chickpeas I only bought to make the order up to the minimum amount.

Fighting with these minor complexities is certainly worth it. Thanks to the buying group I can get tins of organic tomatoes for 60p. I used to buy my tomatoes- well, let's say they came with blue stripes on. And after reading the chapter on tomatoes in Felicity Lawrence's excellent Eat Your Heart Out I had decided that was no longer acceptable to me. But spending 99p on a tin of tomatoes didn't suit me very well either.

If you're tempted to set up a buying group I'm sure us Strangers would be more than happy to show you the ropes- and Tully might even share his wonderful spreadsheet which takes all the pain out of the maths!

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Local Market Garden

Yesterday morning I went down the lane to talk with Norman at his six and a half acre market garden. I have been buying and eating his fruit and vegetables (supplementing our weekly veg box from Malcolm) for years now. He has been growing produce for many more years on the same piece of land his father took over at the end of the Second World War, and until quite recently he ran a grocer’s in Southwold called Market Garden.

I told Norman I was writing a post for our food features week on the Transition Norwich blog and explained to him how Transition has emerged as a community-led response to peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. And that a major focus in Transition is the relocalisation of food.

“Well, the oil is going to run out sometime and we’ll have to get along without all the pesticides and chemical fertilisers,” he said. “And that’s going to be tough, particularly where the land is poor or depleted.” He mentioned that at the moment several large corporations were in fierce competition to take over a huge Canadian potash firm.

Norman’s customers include several local hotels and shops. Whilst we were talking the van from Barbrook’s, one of Reydon’s two village shops, drove in to collect the day’s produce, including a box of vibrant lettuces of all different types. Barbrook’s is where we go for Norman’s veg and I always look out for his handwritten name on the boxes: NORMAN'S LEEKS or cucumbers, carrots or raspberries. They are always reasonably priced and never more than a day old. And if I need something I can’t find there and Norman is at his plot, he’ll let me go and pick it.

Norman was not familiar with permaculture, but he told tell me he was always ‘scheming’ and working out better ways of doing things, thinking of all the ramifications before taking action. Even a small improvement might take a month of intense thinking. He showed me a thousand strawberry plants he’d recently put in under a polypropylene ground cover, and explained how after long consideration he’d worked out a way of drilling the holes with a wooden stake and getting the plants in the ground in the least back-breaking way in a total of about four hours.

I noticed some low ‘greenhouses’ made from salvaged doors and conservatory roofs, and raised beds of recycled wooden planks. Norman told me he also uses old double-glazing for his ‘greenhouse effect’. He builds everything himself and mostly works alone with occasional help from his wife Pauline and other local people.

I asked Norman what he felt about the future. He said the trouble is our lifetimes are too short. So we don’t consider how our actions affect those who come after us. If we lived for 200 years, maybe we’d see more and act on that. “But you can’t use up all the world’s resources in the way we’ve been doing without consequences. Everything comes round in the end.”

As for Norman's future, he has no plans to stop market gardening any time soon. And whenever I'm in conversation with him, in the Transition spirit of honouring the elders in the community, I'll pay close attention to any tips he's happy to share from the wealth of practical knowledge he's built up over a lifetime in the field.

Pics: Brassicas, Zinnias, Barbrook's van; lettuce and tomatoes; Norman washes carrots and sorts lettuce; after deep thought - a thousand strawberries in four hours, mini greenhouses, young vegetable plants; Norman shows me how to put in a strawberry plant, pumpkin patch

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Community Supported Agriculture

I'm very excited that the money has finally come through (from the Lottery-funded Local Food Fund) that enables us to get going with the Community Supported Agriculture scheme, the school farm at the Hewett, and the flour, bread, beans and oats projects.

I'm excited for a number of reasons. Partly because it's been such a long slog - it's more than 18 months since Kirstin from the Soil Association talked to a TN meeting about Community Supported Agriculture, and we all agreed it was something we wanted to do. Partly because there's some paid work in it for me, which is a relief after a long lean time. But mostly because it's about bringing together two things that matter to me - community and food - in such a way that hopefully each allows the other to happen.

Why does Community help the Food part to happen? Well, it's perfectly possible to have a food system without any community, but less easy to have the kind of food system we'd all really like. I care about how the vegetables are grown, how people are treated, how animals are treated, how the soil is improved over time. As a community developing our own food system we can make sure these things are as we would want them to be. And we can support it in practical ways - for example by helping with distribution - which helps to square the circle between what we want and what we can afford.

And why does the Food help the Community part to happen? Well, discovering that is part of the adventure! But I do believe that communities have always drawn together around growing food, harvesting, cooking and eating it. And I'm confident that Transition Norwich is going to be great at finding ways to make that happen around the CSA, the school farm and the other projects.

So, I'm excited. I hope you are too. Come and be part of this food community!

Friday, 27 August 2010

Farmers' Markets

I’m often struck by the phrase “grain barons”, sometimes used to describe East Anglia’s farming community. It makes me think of Robin Hood and the fat, greedy barons; the “robber barons” of popular folklore. It’s a lovely evocative phrase, but I can’t see any relation between it and the fabulous hard-working farmers and small producers whom I see at farmers’ markets.

I used to go to the Beccles Farmers’ Market by the Ellough airfield, then more latterly to the markets in the Forum in the City. Here in Norfolk we're blessed with enough Farmers' Markets to ensure that you could go to a different one each week for many weeks; the EDP website has an excellent Farmers' Market Directory.

The one nearest to me, though, is the farmers’ and producers’ market outside The Green Grocers shop on the Earlham Road. Tierney who works at The Green Grocers says she wants the market to be “a local hub, where local people can come and share their passion for food, and learn from each other. We are really lucky to have a cafe and knowledgeable chef who uses the shop produce to create fantastic dishes too.” Farmers’ markets are important for “supporting the local economy, where the money stays in the locality and isn’t lost through chain stores. We want to work with other local businesses, particularly pubs and eateries to encourage the community to support independents.”

For Tierney, good local food is clearly more than just buying something to put on the dinner table. She is passionate about helping people learn to “appreciate the seasonality of produce and encourage questioning of where and who your food comes from. Meeting the growers gives us an overall appreciation of the true value of food!”

The markets happen on the 2nd Sunday of every month outside The Green Grocers shop, Earlham House shops, Earlham Rd/Recreation Rd (behind the big Co-op).

Thursday, 26 August 2010

I love meat... (Pig Club)

I enjoy eating meat.

I've toyed with vegetarianism but it's just not for me. But I also know what a huge impact the production and consumption of meat is having on the environment and how our desire for cheap animal protein blinds us to animal welfare issues. I'm also very conscious of the inequities of a food system that feeds vegetable protein to animals to meet the needs of rich consumers and lets the poor starve for want of a few calories. So our family eats meat once or twice a fortnight and we try and make sure we know exactly how that meat was raised, what it was fed on and how it was slaughtered. Of course the best way to do that is to keep your own animals and so I thought I'd use this post to say a little about my pig-keeping days.

For a few years in the late 90s I lived in a terraced house in Cheltenham Spa. The house was blessed with a long narrow back garden. We grew vegetables and kept chickens to start with but wanted to try something... bigger. More to the point my housemate wanted to start eating meat again but felt that to do this he had to be prepared to take full responsibility for an animal's life.

And so I was given 2 Gloucestershire old spot pigs for my 24th birthday.

They grew quickly - surprisingly quickly - charmed us, and lived off food waste from the local wholefood shop (which I happened to run). They turned our garden over in no time, they even turned next door's garden over a couple of times too. The two of them (despite us agreeing not to name them they ended up being called Breakfast and Dinner) became a talking point on the street. No one complained (even when they escaped) and some of the older residents remembered when quite a few of the households had backyard pigs and how kitchen scraps were pooled to feed them.

After 6 months it was time for the pigs to be slaughtered and butchered and, like anxious parents choosing a primary school, my housemate and I visited several abattoirs before finding one we felt happy with.

Seeing the pigs off in the van was tough, seeing them return in small bags was even harder.

We invited friends and neighbours who'd known the pigs to try the pork, roasting a big joint. Many sitting round the table were nervous about eating meat from animals they'd known, but as the meat was carved tentative diners became enthusiastic eaters: the pork was fantastic, and we ate and shared every bit with respect. Over the next few months we made a point of eating every last scrap - 'nose to tail eating' as Fergus Henderson calls it. We made brawn, rillettes, fried the ears, made more refined pates, set jellies and cooked big roasts. We learned how to really cook and eat meat. We lost any sense of squeamishness about cooking and eating offal and we learned what an honour and a privilege it is to keep and eat your own animal.

And so when the idea of a pig club started doing the rounds in Bungay I was an enthusiastic advocate. A pig club, functioning much like any other CSA where members take financial and practical responsibility for a few pigs, is a great way to give people the kind of introduction to husbandry that I had in Cheltenham, but as part of a wider supportive group. The Bungay club has struggled to find the right piece of land but we're almost there now. Keep an eye on the Sustainable Bungay website for updates on our progress.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The best bread in Norwich – and the best croissants!

This is Steve Winter, master baker and proprietor of Dozen artisan bakery in Gloucester Street. Everything in his bakery is made in the traditional way, by hand, with organic ingredients and freshly baked on the day. “Everything we do is made on the premises,” he told me. “It’s real bread – no chemicals, improvers or preservatives.” Their traditional bread is made with organic flour, water, sea salt and yeast; sourdoughs are made without yeast. Even the pastries are made with pure butter. There's no room for hydrogenated fats in Steve's bakery.

They’ve got a range of sourdoughs and some more traditional English yeast breads; there are rolls, baguettes, croissants, pastries, cakes and biscuits. There’s the Spotty Wombat, named by Steve’s Australian wife Hannah. “We name all our breads. Our wholemeal sourdough looks like a wombat, and when we added sunflower and pumpkin seeds to the mix it just had to be the Spotty Wombat!”

I asked Steve what’s different from the supermarket breads baked in-store. On the radio recently I heard those bakeries described as ‘loaf tanning salons’. Steve would agree. They aren’t selling real bread. Everything is speeded up, with a baking sequence of less than two hours. And to do that, they add all sorts of ‘improvers’ that aren’t doing our health any good at all. On top of that, they use mediocre quality flour and fats.

Steve explains that real bread baking is a long process. “We start the sourdough fermentation at 4 o’clock each afternoon. Then we come in at 2 o’clock the next morning to start the day’s baking ready to go on the bakery shelves at 8 am. We’ll get the traditional yeast breads out first; the sourdough takes a bit longer – around 9 hours from start to finish.” It’s a long day. In between baking the loaves, they fit in the pastries, cakes and biscuits.

I haven’t worked my way through all of his range yet, but so far everything has been outstanding – really delicious. And it's excellent value for money, when you take into account the quality of the ingredients and the artisan approach to baking. This is the kind of bread I want to eat every day. As for the croissants…. I asked a French visitor from Slow Food UK what he thought of them: “Marks out of ten? Nine and a half, and that’s only marked down because you bought them yesterday. The best I’ve eaten outside France!”

They won the EDP Baker of the Year food award last year, in their first year of trading. Fingers crossed for this year, Steve says. It’s not just his bakery that’s local, by the way; he's a local Norwich boy, trained at City College before going on to travel to Australia as a baker and returning to set up his artisan bakery here in the city.

I’m just off to buy one of his baguettes for lunch. Don’t worry – if you can’t get there yourself, you can buy his wonderful bread online at http://www.welovelocalfood.co.uk/.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Not just any farm store, this is Annas farm store - part food emporium, part day care for me




Contrary to popular belief it does not count as buying local if you live next to a Tescos (which most of us now do)
This is a picture of Anna who runs Annas farm stores. You get so much more than just things from farms. In the foreground you can see jam. This is made from Norfolk growers who give their excess fruit to some guy who makes it into jam. In the background are some pictures from a local artist (me) and until recently you would have seen knitted squares ( not for human consumption) because Annas was the drop off for squares knitted for Gay pride. ( her husband also makes costumes in his workshop for female impersonators but thats for another blog i feel)
Back to food. The bread comes from crusty corner bakery which gets its flour from Norfolk. People bring their spare vegetables they have grown and all the foreign food is fairtrade.
As well as food you get to play 'lets ask Anna for something she hasnt got'. This is part game part ritual. As the name suggests when you enter the shop you have to ask Anna for something she hasnt got. Once you have found something the ritual/game is over and you can continue shopping. You are not allowed to ask for strawberries in winter because that is cheating and you just look like a real townie.

If you dont have time to wander around your neighbourhood during the day she also does veggies boxes and you can have stuff delivered by cycle link and she is also in the town and open til 7pm so you can drop in on the way home from work. So if you are anywhere near Magdalen Road then go in and mention my name. ( you wont get you any special favours but i get a warm feeling from knowing my blog has had an effect on behaviour)


Annas farm stores is open Tuesday to Saturday
125 Magdalen Road, Norwich

Monday, 23 August 2010

Transition Food Patterns - An Introduction

Welcome to our first features week on the blog. We’re starting with the subject of Food in Transition in celebration of the Food and Farming Group’s successful funding bid for their four projects, including Norwich’s first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). During the week we’ll be looking at some of the food buying and growing patterns that form a key role in the social shift of Transition.

I first became aware of these “patterns” when we discussed Food in the Strangers’ Transition Circle in January. Tully had suggested we bring our weekly shopping lists and pay attention to them in terms of carbon reduction. Though we’d shared our electricity bills and car log books when assessing Home Energy use and Transport, Food felt different somehow. More complex and yet more in our own hands. I wrote the week’s transactions down and was surprised how many there were: grocer, fruiterer, market garden, veg box, farm shop, roadside stall, hedgerow.

Because it was not always so. I spent part of my working life writing about food and style. I ate in a lot of swanky restaurants and cooked (and styled) a lot of glamorous recipes. I lived in a world that thought nothing of paying $100 to eat the rare and dangerous fugu fish in New York, or a 17 course meal in Japan based on autumn leaves. And although travelling for real definitely altered my outlook on life and I have eaten a lot of humble rice and beans since, it wasn’t until I took part in Sustainable Bungay’s Growing Local food conference in 2008 that I became aware that something radical on a social scale needed to happen.

Josiah had invited several speakers for the event, including Mahesh Pant from Grow-Our-Own in Norwich and Clare Joy from Organic Lea in Walthamstow. Tully Wakeman from East Anglia Food Link opened the day and spoke about peak oil and its relationship with agriculture. He talked about the effects of our diet on the land ( 70% of grain grown in East Anglia is for animal feed) and asked if pigs were fed soya from the rainforest in Brazil could they be strictly called “local pork”? In an energy-scarce future we’re going to have to eat lower down the food chain, he said. Less meat, less dairy.

I had been a vegetarian for years by this time, and no longer shopped at supermarkets, so this news was not revelatory on a personal level, it was cultural. I had not joined the dots about agriculture and oil before. Or realised that the crops growing in the fields were for chickens. As for changing the national diet, to deliberately eat like peasants in a culture that was fixated on feasting like kings? This would not just be a matter of style, it was going to need some kind of seachange.

Food is one of the clearest ways of “getting” Transition. If you want to become aware of the ramifications of peak oil and climate change you have to go no further than your plate. Deconstruct the next dish you cook (or order). Find out where the ingredients came from and how many procedures it took to appear before you, and you can see global industrialisation at work. Transition aims to bring those ingredients a lot closer to home. So that food can be grown, produced and sold within a short (preferably walking) distance. Or at least if it has to come from far away (e.g. rice) it's fairly-traded, organic and hasn’t been flown in by plane. This is not just about taking responsibility for the waste (production and packaging), high resource and water use, soil depletion and the effects of pesticides that our modern food system wreaks, it’s also about forging meaningful links with life, with the place you live in and with people.

You can’t get more disconnected than our present system. Food, sealed in plastic, kept in large windowless hangers with artificial lighting, where hundreds of anonymous people move silently from one aisle to the next. We’re all foolish consumers in this world: we grab junk food without thinking, or spend hours obsessively following complicated recipes, like cooks out of a fairy tale.

Somewhere there is a sane and clear way to downshift our eating patterns, to decarbonise our agriculture, and get ourselves back on track with the eco-systems of the planet. That big corporate-driven system is hard to change from the outside as an individual, even as a grassroots organisation, but any of us can reconnect at any time. “Vote with your fork, ” advised the food writer Michael Pollan, when asked how to help the vanishing honeybees. “Three times a day.”

Reconnection gives value and meaning to food. But most of all it gives us back relationships that were once severed – relationships with the vegetable kingdom, with the creatures, with the weather, with the people who tend plants, who work with their hands, baking bread, collecting fruit, selling veg and rice and beans. And it gives back relationship with ourselves, as we learn to swap dishes, seeds, cucumber plants, plum jam, foraging skills, our experiential knowledge of the world. As we put our attention on the stuff of life and all its vital exchanges - so more of it can happen.

In the next ten days on This Low Carbon Life the TN blog crew will be looking at some of the food buying and growing patterns that make up Transition. We’ll be visiting some of the outlets in Norwich and in the hinterlands, as well as the ways we can take food production back into our hands from foraging to wholefood co-ops, from pig clubs to local bakers. Eat with us. Stay tuned!

Above: roadside stall en route to Beccles; shopping in Middleton Farm Stores; wholefood pattern from Strangers' Circle/Rainbow buying co-op.


Voting with my fork – low-carbon dinner in the tent - Basil’s spinach (Middleton Farm Stores). Norman’s runner beans (local market garden), organic gluten-free pasta (Rainbow Wholefoods/Strangers' Circle buying Co-op), Malcolm’s tomatoes and garlic (veg box); Sarah’s courgettes (roadside stall), home grown chili and basil (from TN seedling swap originally grown by John).

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Personal (Inner Resilience) - Review of the Week

When I first suggested this topic week on Personal or Inner Resilience, I was concerned there would be little interest in speaking about inner matters. But this weeks’s posts have proved me quite wrong. And I have a feeling there’s a lot more where they came from.

Jon and Charlotte both talked in different ways about practising self-discipline and cultivating a warrior attitude. A great lethargy began to come over me when I first read them... Discipline?!? Speaking up in the face of denial!?! Pass the chocolate! But I caught it before it put me to sleep, and used the irritation I felt at the thought of having to actually do something different about it to get me up again. Thank you both.

Another beauty of the posts this week for me has been that I’m not just reading them and saying, ‘Next.’ They are really thought-provoking. Gary and Andy both ask how we are going to be able to get along with each other? What happens when we have Transition in common but little else?

The fact is that most of us born in ‘rich’ countries have, over the past fifty years at least, had access to enormous amounts of fossil-fuels to drive a lifestyle which says ‘you can have it all, and even if you haven’t got it at the moment, you can get it’. This personal and collective fantasy is not resilient in the face of either the geo-physical restraints which peak resources and climate change are placing upon us, or the continuing economic crisis.

This is what we have in common and real awareness of it could lead us to drop our habitual hostility, antagonism and blind competition, and get up and do something different.

So whilst no one is an island and we can’t save the planet on our own (‘it’ll take at least three of us’, as permaculture cofounder, Bill Mollison, says), there are inner moves and changes that no one else can do for us.

I can’t get Charlotte or Jon to pull me up from my phlegmatic lethargy, I have to get up myself (although encouraging words from Andy this week have had very benficial effects!). I have to decide whether the day will be crappy or whether to take a warrior approach to what life presents. Whether to speak up in the face of oppression, or to keep silent. Whether I’m going to listen to an unkind and critical inner voice which tells me ‘it’s all gone horribly wrong and there’s nothing you or anyone can do about it’ or tell it to ‘shut up, you’ve had more than your fair share of my airtime’.

And start going down a kinder path.

Deep wave relaxation east coast style; shingle structures; peacock and buddleia - all August 2010

Friday, 20 August 2010

Peak Alienation

Maybe this is where we're at after 60 years of consumerism in the UK... Peak Alienation.

When I discovered Transition Norwich it was at a time of peak alienation in my life, and I was yearning to find a bunch of conscious human beings. I struggle with the term 'inner resilience' because it sounds like too much of a solitary pursuit. Solitude can be a useful thing, a necessary thing sometimes, even a pleasure, but being a hermit is not a sustainable venture (I know). As I commented on Gary's excellent post earlier this week, we are not islands; I think an inner resilience comes from knowing we share collective faith in a transition, however imperfectly defined it is.

My own faith in that transition is at least partly defined by the people I am on my journey with. I use a small 't' for transition because I keep seeing and reading it in so many places that are not connected with the Transition Network, but share the core appreciation that a radical, if not polar, shift in human culture is necessary and practically inevitable if we are going to survive as a species. Humanity can't be measured in empirical terms - who-does-what-well is only so useful. I think we all contribute to an evolving framework for shared resilience, sometimes in subtle and uncredited ways.

The indefinable factor in the transition IS the differences between us and how we relate to each other. That we have bothered to join in Transition with a capital T denotes a shared vision, intelligence and realisation of the fact that we have to do SOMETHING about it. Sometimes, disappointingly and even shockingly, this is where our similarities stop. And resilience is about withstanding shocks. And there are no shocks as withering sometimes as personal reaction to inter-personal tensions when they emerge.

So here is the first shock we need to weather if the Transition movement is going to be a force for transition of any kind. Resilience can mean bouncing back, but an elastic capacity to absorb shock and retain the same shape is perhaps not what's needed. Instead, maybe what's needed is the learning that comes with recuperation; reconstruction beyond the shock. Perhaps this kind of resilience is easier to plan for in external, practical systems like food, or buildings and energy.

Bridging divides between people, repairing a sense or expectation of alienation, requires empathy and that isn't something that our present society is encouraged to practise. Instead we have been encouraged to seek out common enemies in order to form some unified majority, which only ever causes 'us and them': hurt, indignation and alienation. That fragmentation stops people doing something powerful together.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is completely essential to the culture of transition and real unity. Again, perhaps we are not familiar with sharing our feelings of hurt in case they're seen as a weakness or an annoyance, but I think it's an essential thing to do if and when it happens. The longer things are left to fester, the bigger the rupture and the harder to repair. Sometimes it takes a shock to wake us up!

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Practising for Resilience

About six years ago, I started taking classes in Taekwondo, the Korean martial art, at the Black Belt Academy in Norwich.  It wasn't easy at first - I wasn't very fit at the time and I could never remember my left from my right, which can be quite important.  But I went along, week in and week out, and last summer I got my First Dan Black Belt.  Getting that black belt was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, and one of the things I'm most proud to have achieved.

I would never have achieved that goal without the combination of physical practice and the mental preparation that went with it.  A lot of the mental training was about learning to manage the things that you tell yourself.

How often you tell yourself, subconsciously, that you did something wrong, that you're no good at your job, that you're having a rubbish day?  Now think about the last time you mentally patted yourself on the back for a job well done.  Chances are it's easier to remember the former than the latter.  The negative voices can run in the background of our lives without us even being conscious of them; they stay a long time and wear a groove in our minds.

When I think about inner resilience, about our ability to weather shocks, I think about how important it is to practice being resilient; it doesn't just come of its own accord.  Being resilient doesn't mean being blindly optimistic; to me it means being aware of adversity and still pushing through.  Being confident in yourself and those around you; it means trusting other people and trusting yourself, taking risks.  That isn't easy - you have to work at it.

I made lots of mistakes on the road to that black belt, got the odd clunk round the head during sparring, fell over or forgot what I was meant to do next, sometimes in front of the whole class.  But every time that happened, I got up again, told myself I'd learn from the mistake, and carried on.  And every time I did something I was really pleased with, every time I did a great high kick or got a new belt, I learned to anchor that moment in my mind, to remember everything about it, so that I could draw on that positive moment when I needed it, when I was feeling down, when my resilience was low.  I learned to manage the things that I was telling myself in order to learn from the bad, but focus on the good.

So next time you have a really good day, remember it - remember what you were doing, how you felt, what the weather was like, what the day smelled like, every detail - and lock it away in your head for a day when you might need a little lift.

And next time you get out of bed, stub your toe on the door, trip over the cat, burn your toast, check whether your immediate reaction is "yep, this is going to be one crappy day".  If it is, stop that thought before it even forms and think about how you're going to create your own perfect day instead.  The first time you try it, it won't be easy, but the second time will be easier, the third even easier.  I promise you - and this from someone who has really had to make this personal transition - it becomes second nature.

Building your own inner resilience in this way will make it easier to face adversity of all kinds.  In the event of a big shock, we can all be black belts in resilience.

I'll leave you with a quote:

Whether you believe you can, or you believe you can't, you're right.

Think about it.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

On Resilience and Reality

Personal Resilience forms part of the first set of Pattern Language - qualities and skills that make up a Transition initiative. It's not asking us for an individual psychological profile. It’s asking: have you got what it takes? Are you the kind of person who can work as an active force for change within the collective and co-create a post-oil future?

It’s not until I joined the Transition movement (in 2008) that I came across the term in the context it is commonly used - the ability for communities to respond imaginatively to shock and not fall apart or close down. I understood resilience as a quality of endurance. Having weathered a few shocks myself, I realised that the human form is naturally resilient: our bodies tough and flexible, our minds keen to work out difficulties that lie in our path. We’re naturally warm, courageous, creative. We have an extraordinary capacity to regenerate ourselves. However we live in a highly-artificial civilisation that debases and warps most of those human qualities. In the place of our natural feelings for our kin and life itself, we are trained to go shopping. We’re taught to be terrifed of authority and to obey.

So it's not really our profligate use of oil that’s the main challenge in Transition, it’s the fact we have been bullied for millenia to toe the line. And those stick-to-the-status-quo rules are enforced everywhere by our culture, and even come out of our own mouths. The horrible truth is we repress each other.

Here I am standing resiliently on Lowestoft station en route to Carbon Conversations. I’m surrounded by “weeds” pushing their way through the cracks. Their once-pristine world has been covered in tarmac and they are hounded by human beings at every turn, banished to the wastelands. And yet they flourish.

How do they do that?


When I was young I was very nervous. I stuttered in front of the shadowy, violent world of grown ups I witnessed all around me. I spent most of my time in avoidance - up an apple tree, reading books, or inventing games with my friends. Then something happened. I discovered that crooked, unfair world could be confronted. I became bold and loquacious in front of my teachers and duelled with my father – a formidable defence lawyer – over the dinner table.

My stutter vanished.

I had discovered the first law of resilience: when you respond to the challenge of life, life gives you everything you need. I was skinny and sensitive, but something in me was tough enough to be a whistle blower. Daddy, why is the Emperor wearing no clothes? And when he didn’t answer I took up writing and asked myself the question, and then the world.

The fact is eco-systems are resilient because they are in communication with all parts of themselves, people are resilient when they are in communication with each other, but most of all I am resilient when I am in communication with myself. “Civilisation” makes sure we are as isolated as much as possible from each other. That facts are kept separate and compartmentalised in our minds so we don’t join up the dots. It makes us autistic, self-obsessed, controlling, full of self-pity and self-importance, highly dependant at the same time on being approved of and liked by other people.

In Transition our greatest inner task is to deconstruct the mindset that keeps that fossil-fuelled empire going. We have been instructed to be nice and polite. Thou shalt conform! So we have to challenge a lot of assumptions in ourselves and change a lot of patterns. Those aren’t just carbon-intensive behaviours, those are patterns of conformity set in place from childhood. Systems of coping with reality that have been socially inculcated: disappearing in our minds, escaping into pleasures and fantasies, denying the world’s shadow (and our own), controlling (or micromanaging as Mark wrote on Monday) our whole existence so we don’t suffer.

So for me the key factor in resilience is the ability to face reality. Not just so I can see clearly, but so I can be the person in a Transition initiative who says: excuse me but what is that elephant doing in the corner of the room?

What brings this ability to face the consequences of our actions, is awareness, what some call consciousness, a quality of awakeness. There are big barriers to this in ourselves. Big diversions. The obstacles I've had to deconstruct are: self-pity, the feeling of having done something wrong (what Gurdjieff calls inner considering), projection from others, and the fact that who I thought I was, was not who I really was, and that most people I knew preferred me when I was dormant. These are not my personal problems of course, they are everyone’s problems and a consequence of our social conditioning, but you have to face them first in yourself.

The fact is you can deal with any pattern, so long as you love being awake more than being asleep. Awareness doesn’t bring you happiness, or more money, or nice clothes (quite the opposite in fact). But you feel your life has purpose and meaning. You realise you are here to do a work. The state of being awake means that you wake up other people. If you see people trapped or burning in a house you can’t just walk by and say, hey dude that’s your karma. I’m in Transition and you’re in denial. You rush in where angels fear to tread. It’s an imperative of conscience.

So you can have self-amusement and the kind of sanguine temperament that sees possibility in every turn of events (as Rob Hopkins does), but the question I asked myself today was - what helps you hold the reality of peak oil and climate change, the consequences of a predatory capitalism, even at the cost of losing friends, family, even the members of your crew?

And I thought about that child and how she found her voice at fourteen years old. And then I realised the moment it happened: I was in a room full of people and I was no longer alone. I was surrounded by other human beings, and though they were laughing and talking in the way people at a party do, I saw they were trapped inside and suffering. And something in me burst out, through all that tarmac, and connect in the only way I knew.

What makes me resilient in the face of mass denial? Remembering the millions and millions of people that went before me, all the people unjustly held in prison, in schools, asylums, in barracks, in all the heartless institutions of the world, all the animals kept in cages, all the sea creatures caught in nets, all the birds on the wire, everything that has been held captive and suffered because of Empire. It is a small thing we do to challenge consensus reality in our ordinary lives, but it is also a great thing. And our resilience comes from the fact we are backed in all our endeavours, part of a collective intelligence, part of a great heart that has come here to say, enough! It’s time to liberate the earth and it’s time to liberate the people.

On the platform, Suffolk 2010; in the door, Kent 1958.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

How resilient am I?


Where Mark has started with personal resilience, it is my turn to follow. This isn’t something I have thought about a great deal, but I do think it is very important. Of course, the first question for me is, “Am I personally resilient?” Or, perhaps, “How resilient am I?”

For starters, I don’t fall to pieces in a crisis, and I can usually see the funny side. When things go wrong, I start thinking, “What can I learn from this? What good could come out of it?” I look around to see how I can help. I guess that's a useful beginning.

When I think of the Transition context for this, two issues come to mind: 1) There is the larger Transition issue of being prepared for a world in which energy is no longer so available, and the prospect that there will be an economic crash, perhaps triggered by limited energy. 2) Then there is the more immediate struggle to build active Transition initiatives, overcoming public apathy and personal differences within the group.

I have been thinking about the first question quite a lot recently, especially triggered by the Stoneleigh talk at the Transition Conference, which has been discussed on this blog and at various local meetings. If you don’t know about it, the title was Making Sense of the Financial Crisis in the Era of Peak Oil. She is predicting a very major financial collapse within the next few years.


So then, how would I cope? I am retired and live on a pension now, but that might go too. At least I don’t have a mortgage. I am as dependent as everyone else on systems totally beyond my control for food, energy, travel, stuff. I am only moderately practical and not particularly strong or physically tough.

In a discussion about this, someone commented, “Transition is my pension.” I agree with that. In a crash, I will need to be working closely with a group of mostly local people who will be looking after each other as best we can, sharing food and transport and whatever. So a major part of personal resilience is being part of a well-functioning local group that is itself highly resilient, that is resourceful and practical. I could make all sorts of contributions to that, from physical work to organising and problem solving.

That makes point 2) above all the more urgent. A local Transition group now seems to me less about creating public awareness in those who don’t know about peak oil and climate change, and more about getting some start to the resilient systems we will need to survive ourselves. A big crash will create the awareness rather quickly.

A resilient group means a lot more than a series of practical projects. It is mostly about how well its members get along. Do we know how to do that? Do we appreciate and acknowledge each other? Can we use disagreements and conflicts creatively? Are we clear about our roles and responsibilities? About who will be doing what and how we make decisions? This is where I now see the cutting edge, and where I have been putting in a lot of effort.

In a global society based around competition through the market, there are billions of us all working against one another. But if we in Transition are building a world in which we are collaborating to look after humankind and the natural world, then there is only one global collaborative group, of which our little local groups are part. I see the detailed practical skills of understanding each other and working together as our biggest and most immediate challenge.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Personal (Inner) Resilience - An Introduction

Welcome to our week on personal/inner resilience on the TN Blog. As in the previous topic weeks a different person will be writing each day, so do keep coming back!

Resilience is a key concept in Transition, taken from ecology. It means the capacity of natural systems to withstand shocks and changes without falling apart. We’ve discussed in Transition Circles and Carbon Conversations, for example, how unresilient the global industrialised food system is in the face of peak oil and climate change.

Personal, or inner, resilience is spoken about a lot less. It’s far easier to talk about what’s out there than what’s in here.

So I’m beginning by taking a personal look at the four elements Rob Hopkins suggests form a starting point for considering Personal Resilience (Pattern 1.5), based on the new way of explaining Transition as a Pattern Language:

Humour For me humour means keeping light-hearted in the face of darkness and difficulties. So I first have to acknowledge those difficulties are really there and resist the temptation to laugh about, dismiss or go above what I need to be looking at. There’s nothing so unfunny as making light of serious matters. When I catch myself doing it, I get really crestfallen. I also think self-amusement is a better term than humour, as it’s less woolly and has more self-responsibility in it. Taking myself too seriously definitely decreases the personal resilience factor.

Creative Exploration For me this blog is creative exploration linked with inner resilience. Each time I come to write a post, it forces me to engage in the subject in a way I wouldn’t ordinarily do. Which brings awareness to things that otherwise remain implicit. I’m paying attention to what I’m writing and bearing in mind that people will be reading it. Through it I’ve found increased confidence in all kinds of ways, including when I'm speaking with people about Transition.

Relaxation I do not meet many deeply relaxed people. I rarely feel deeply relaxed myself. I also distrust blissing out and absenting from my body and the moment, though it’s tempting to do so. Relax…and escape.

I was in conversation with a fellow transitioner on Saturday who told me he so micromanaged his worklife (which sometimes involves a 70 hour week), it was spilling over into everything, even his dreams! He said laconically that micromanagement ran in both his and his partner’s families, and early signs of it were appearing in his toddlers. He seemed relaxed but he was probably just exhausted.

For me relaxation is being fully engaged, awake and present to what I’m doing and what’s going on. My shoulders are not up around my neck and I’m not uptight. I’m not micromanaging the moment but I am in it. Being a control freak (and we’re all control freaks now) and relaxation are incompatible partners. And we’re going to need far less of the former and more of the latter to build personal and collective resilience. All right now, everybody take a deep breath…how are those shoulders? (Mine have just dropped about six inches…)

Optimistic Thinking Do you remember how in the old days people were described as predominantly of one humour or another? There were four main ones: choleric, sanguine, melancholic and phlegmatic. Well, optimistic thinking to my mind definitely belongs to the sanguine temperament. The main temperament of Transition is pretty sanguine too, with its emphasis on the positive. So what do you do if like me you’re a bit more on the phlegmatic side (perhaps with superficially sanguine personality characterisitcs and choleric/melancholic side notes)? Oh dear, should this be in the humour aka self-amusement paragraph? Perhaps I’m not best placed to talk about this one. Optimistic thinking, anyone?

Relaxation - Sunrise over the East Coast Aug 1 2010

Sunday, 15 August 2010

From “Oh” to “Doh!”

A big thank you to Erik for putting me straight on the maths!  As he quite rightly pointed out, I’d under-valued the flying as I needed to calculate four flights for four people, but the ferry, as per the cited website, is per car.  So there we have it – my 2010 holiday had a lower footprint than last year’s flights.  Hurrah!
2009
Miles
CO2e (tonnes)
Flights1.32
Rail1670.08
Car (Eire)6200.16
Total1.56
2010
Miles
CO2e (tonnes)
Ferry0.904
Car (UK)6600.17
Car (Eire)6200.16
Total1.234

Although I feel much happier now, it does once again highlight the difficulties of making those tricky decisions with the best information available.  Luckily I had someone like Erik to help me out - other people may not be so fortunate.

(All sources as per yesterday’s post!)

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Oh… I wasn’t expecting that.

So, this week, I've talked about about my holiday and how good it was to take the car and ferry rather than flying.
Then I thought I'd work out the carbon footprint of both and see how much I saved, to nicely round off my blog week...

2009
Miles
CO2e (tonnes)
Flights0.33
Rail1670.02
Car (Eire)6200.16
Total0.51
2010
Miles
CO2e (tonnes)
Ferry0.226
Car (UK)6600.17
Car (Eire)6200.16
Total0.556

OK, so the numbers are only fractionally different, and are based on one set of calculation engines I found on the web. But it does highlight the difficulty of making decisions when the information is not readily available or not actually embedded into our daily decision-making processes. I was pretty gutted when I did these calculations last night.

I can rationalise it. Possibly overall, a ferry lasts longer than an airplane and so the embodied CO2 is less than the plane journey. Maybe the full end-to-end infrastructure of air-travel is overall more damaging than car / ferry travel. Possibly the fact that we have to hire a car in Ireland if we don’t take our own makes a difference. The simple truth is that I just don’t know. And we, as individuals, as societies, cannot make proper decisions unless all the facts are in the public domain and fully transparent.

So, what will I do next year? I’m inclined to still do the ferry / car journey again – it was certainly a better experience for me. The rest of the family may feel differently. We’ll have to see.

Notes: Carbon Footprint measured in tonnes CO2e. Flight & Car carbon footprint measured at http://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx. Flights are return Stansted to Dublin and include multiplier for radiative forcing. Rail is return Norwich to Stansted. Ferry is return Holyhead to Dublin. Ferry emissions from http://www.carbontracking.com/reports/irish_ferries_emissions_calculation.pdf

Friday, 13 August 2010

Céad míle Fáilte *

Ireland in the summer is gorgeous. You can never guarantee the weather, and it rained at least a bit most days, but on the very big plus side, this means that every day is beautifully fresh, and the countryside is a perfect irridescent green. Most of the rainy bits were early in the morning, so by the time we were all up and about, it was warm enough to go to the beach, even if we had to take raincoats with us, just in case...

We were lucky enough to be staying in areas of outstanding natural beauty, first in Sligo where so much of the landscape is made famous by Yeats' poems, and then in the wild Burren of County Clare. The girls loved it, especially seeing all their cousins, and driving the tractor on their uncle PJ's farm.

Although I didn't really get to read my holiday books as I'd planned, I instead found inspiration of a different kind. We went to see a house, where every possible sustainable innovation had been designed in to the build. Rain was collected in special gutters and treated for drinking water, the house was warmed by geothermal energy and triple-glazed wondows, the water was heated by solar heaters, the waste water was treated in reed beds, and there was even a wind turbine was being erected. I was in serious eco-envy territory!

Then a few days later we went to visit my uncle who had been building a solar water system from a couple of old radiators! He'd been quoted a few thousand euro to install a professional system and instead he'd got the bits he needed from the reclaimers' yard and built it himself. I was very very impressed, especially as all the adverts I've seen for such systems have been prohibitively expensive.

It got me thinking. I'm sure we have an old radiator somewhere in the shed. Now all I need is some black paint. And a little bit of guidance.

Pictures: Rosses Point, Co Sligo; Uncle PJ's farm, Co Clare; Uncle Peter's solar water system.

*Céad míle Fáilte - "A Hundred Thousand Welcomes" in Irish

Thursday, 12 August 2010

En route to the Emerald Isle


Every summer for the last few years, we've flown to Ireland to visit our relatives, who gather together each July to celebrate the family, remember those who have passed away, and, more recently, welcome a new generation of children.

This summer, conscious of the impact of flying on the environment, and, if I'm honest, determined not to give any more of my hard-earned money to Mr O'Leary, we decided to drive and take the ferry. Tully had assured me that it was possible to take a family across land and sea to the west of Ireland and still enjoy the trip. I promised R faithfully that we would stop at regular intervals for a break, and even ask for directions if we got lost; so, with the car packed full of entertainment for the under-fives, we set off on our epic journey.

I had forgotten how lovely England is, how green, and how wild. Something you certainly never see from the window of an aeroplane.

We'd agreed not to stop at motorway service stations or Little Chefs, but to find somewhere off piste for pit stops. And so, just off the A14, we found Manor Farm Shop Catthorpe, a pefect jewel of the English countryside. It's a working farm (they grow the wheat for Weetabix!) and has a farm shop and cafe where everything (bar the coffee, I guess) is either grown on the farm itself, or is sourced locally. It was fantastic, the food was amazing, the staff friendly, and they even had art & craft activities for the kids. R and I both opted for the superb Rarebit with Pear, A was delighted to order herself a gorgeously fluffy omellete with cheese and mushrooms, and G, who normally eats nothing but fruit, tucked into her beans on toast with some enthusiasm. She couldn't eat it all as the portions were so generous, but luckily kind Daddy stepped up to the plate and helped her out.

Not only was it the perfect stop-off, only a mile or so from the A14/M6 junction, it was a perfect example of how a well-thought out, locally-run, sustainable operation can beat the bland, ubiquitous national chains hands down. Well done, Catthorpe, ten out of ten!

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Running Successful Meetings - Pattern 2.4

Today I wanted to write a post about one of the 63 Patterns. I was planning to write about Critical Thinking (1.2) . But then I put my hands on the keys at sunrise this morning and this is what came out. As Erik said in his post on permaculture and growing veg: what you do is not always what you plan.

At first in Transition you go to a lot of meetings. Meetings are Transition for a while. You learn quickly about facilitation and go-rounds, about plenaries and agendas. You discover the joy of being able to share the richness of your experience, of being listened to. Sitting in a circle in the first days of the Heart and Soul group in 2008 it felt everything was possible. That the butterfly that was talked about in so many of the books we were reading at the time was forming itself in the room. We’re the imaginal buds, we said and laughed.

Later you discover the joy of sharing food and visiting each other’s houses. However you can’t help but notice how some people are eloquent and committed and some seem just there for the ride and are not interested in change, or doing any inner or outer work. Sometimes some of that talking gets on your nerves. Sometime you get on people’s nerves. There’s a tension between consensus and control. Between the people who want Transition to be part of the conventional world, and those who feel we should be starting over. After a while you think maybe this group thing isn’t the best way to get on. Shouldn’t we be doing something together?

Sometimes those meetings we all went to worked beautifully, and sometimes they really didn’t. People clashed. There were unbearable tensions, “atmospheres” someone called then. That’s a good word. It conveys the feeling-tone that came out as ancient power struggles enacted themselves in the room. As loud voices and strong wills quelled projects and good intentions. That dinobrain at work ensuring that the world would not change. People left. I left. The elephant remained in the room.

There was a poem I always felt like quoting, but never got round to it. It’s called A Ritual To Read To Each Other by the American poet, William Stafford:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
And I don’t know the kind of person you are
A pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star

We have to know what kind of people we are lest we get lost in the dark. And that’s a hard thing to do in a group. Especially one that is based on a new idea, rather than a traditional kinship. It feels like Transition could hold us with its great sense of possibility, the way it opens everything up. And it does for a while. Just as the “technologies” of open space and the friendly sharing of food in each other’s houses kept us meeting. But those feelings of cameraderie are not strong or deep enough for the shifts we need to make. We need to bust out of individualistic thinking and not be dependent on each other for emotional support. It’s easy to be superficial in a group for the sake of fellowship, to go along with what everyone else is saying so as not to be excluded and cast as the “difficult person”. To conform to prevailing patterns that fit the old meeting rooms we sit in. What’s not easy is to find a medium in which our common destiny is realised.

We can meet and get through the agenda. We can design community events and discuss what kind of legal structure we should adopt. But to really establish these 63 Patterns without being ousted by those kept in place by an old antagonistic mindset, we need to meet as people-in-Transition. We need to think together, as opposed to sounding off as isolated units in a group.

Last week Gary came over and we sat in the entrance of the tent and discussed Transition and conflict for five hours. It was a successful meeting. There were no clashes or tensions. We felt expanded and not constricted in each other's company. You could say it was because our difficulites were the same and we had the same feeling for Transition (as well as being an occassional blogger and founder of Transition Diss, Gary is a trustee of the Network). Because we shared similar territories, originating from big cities (New York and London) and had spent our lives working in communications. Or loved dancing, or because our conversation happened by the sea, in a garden outdoors.

But mostly I think it’s because we put our heads together and looked at the situation from a big perspective. We were awake to the fragility of the moment. We are all part of an intelligence, Gary was saying, that is moving from competition towards co-operation.There’s a lot of space in that idea. That’s a neo-cortex conversation if you engage in it. Most of all it’s realising that for meetings to run successfully, we first need to meet.

Imagine if twelve people could think co-operatively, or a whole community. Or the world.

Meetings in Transition: first Transition East meeting in 2008, Downham Market; Transition Circle - Strangers group talking about Resilience, June 2010; meeting tonm Harper at Frank's Bar to discuss bee and sunflower class, March; working party building the Bungay Library Community Garden, July; Bungay Comnunity Bees in communication by Mike Southern; A Ritual to Read to Each Other by William Stafford. from Stories that could be True: New and Collected Poems (Harper and Row, 1977)

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Flowermind

Last week I gave a talk about bees and flowers for the Bungay Community Bees with Eloise. She spoke about nectar and pollen and garden flowers and I spoke about the year of the bees and wild flowers, how it falls into three parts: the spring rush of blossom, the June gap, the rich high summer blooming that lasts until September. I laid out some leaves on the table and asked everyone to recognise the trees that bees seek out – cherry, blackthorn, willow, sweet chestnut.

Then I showed slides from the year I followed the track of wild flowers for a weekly exhibition at the Southwold Museum. I’ve been studying wild flowers and plant medicine for a decade now, but I never looked at them from the perspective of bees. It totally shifted my focus. Now I see bees everywhere. How come I never noticed them before?

"The bees have five eyes," said Elinor, who heads the project with Gemma from Sustainable Bungay. Three of the eyes are on the top of their heads. "They deal with the UV," explained Hugh, one of the group's beekeepers. Bees see a completely different colour range than human beings. A vibrationally different Earth.

Imagining the future the novelist, Tom Robbins called the next age The Age of Flowers. The ancient fight and tussle of our mammal and reptilian brains would cede to the new leadership of the neo-cortex. The neo-cortex fits like a swimming cap over our heads and it receives its impulses and information directly from sunlight, like the flowers. All inspiration happens in this third brain. All evolutionary vision.

How many flowers does a bee have to visit to fill a jar of honey?


That was one of the questions I’d asked the children when Tom Harper and I gave a bee class in Catton Grove this Spring.

Two million.

That’s a lot of flowers. If we want to get the bees back on track, we’re going to have to do something about those plants we keep chopping down and mashing with pesticides. We’re going to have to love dandelions and thistles in our gardens. And start noticing what’s growing by the roadsides and riverbanks. Opening our eyes. Start tapping into the neo-cortex that fits over our head like one of those swimming caps covered in flowers people used to wear in the 60s.

Malcolm told me a story about bees last week when we went to collect our veg box. We were standing by a lavender bush covered in bumblebees. Every time we looked at the bush we saw another type of bumblebee. There must have been eight different kinds working those purple heads. In one of the poly tunnels, he said, a swarm of wild bees had taken up residence, busily building combs. Malcolm eyed them for several weeks, and then he thought about rotavating. I’ll start at the other end, he thought. The next day they were gone. And the extraordinary thing was, he said, they had taken everything with them.

You can’t rush to see the bees. You have to be still and tune into a certain frequency. The flowers will take you there if you let them. They will shift your attention, so you can see another earth taking shape in front of your eyes.

One of those attention-shifting flowers is skullcap, named after the shape of its seeds. Skullcap is a lovely little plant. An elegant plant. Fine ladder of leaves with small snapdragon-type flowers of an incredible blue. You might not notice it, down by the river where the big showy waterland plants are now in their high summer glory – hemp agrimony, great willowherb, wild angelica, purple loosestrife. However it’s a star medicine plant, most famously in America, where the Virginia skullcap is a premier nervine. Nervines are plant medicines that take you down. When you’re high-wired they’ll calm your agitation, your frayed nerves, your anxiety. Plant nervines are the poppies, valerian, limeflowers, hops, chamomile. Some are mild, the sort that help you get to sleep at night. Skullcap is the business. When I made a tincture of wild skullcap in Arizona and proved it, I ran crazy around the room for an hour. That’s how I knew it was a strong medicine (proving a medicine shows you what it cures).

So if I had to choose a Nervine for Resilience it would be skullcap. You just need to sit down beside that plant and immediately you unwind, take a deep breath, the sky opens above your head and you feel a sense of possibility inside. Mostly in this world we are high-wired to the max, bred to be in a state of emergency, our bodies revved up, inflammatory, in a constant drama. 911, 24/7. As a result the world we perceive and take account of is very restricted. We are not using our flower minds, our bee eyes. When you relax you can see things the way the bees see the earth. You make different moves when you are in that state of harmony, the kind of sure-footed moves we need to be making, looking at the way things are sliding in Transition - peak oil, climate change, economic collapse.

The Empire keeps everyone in a state of hostility: we’re bred to be aggressive and competitive, cold, calculating, territorial, ritualistic, obsessive. Our attention narrowed by battles and big business. This is the reptilian, dinosaur brain in command. We’ve been trying to work out our difficulties with our mammal minds, with our psychology and emotions, our sense of loyalty and kinship, but we need to get to a different level. Only the neo-cortex can deal with that dinobrain. All shifts of consciousness happen in a moment of enlightenment. That’s why we need to tap into the intelligence of ourselves that connects directly with the sun, the way bees and flowers do.

We write about a lot of subjects on this blog, as we find ways in our ordinary lives to deal with Transition. but one label stands out: Reconnection with Nature. Even though we live in cities, work in offices, live in houses, drive in cars, watch screens all day, think about diets and film stars and everything going horribly wrong, something in us knows otherwise. We’re not going to weather this evolution on our own. We've got to connect with who is with us, all the way.


Flowertalking: skullcap flowers in the Hen reedbeds; purple loosestrife by the River Thames; honey jar with bell heather in Southwold Wildflower exhibition 2004; toadflax with bees by the road 2010; wild angelica by the pond; Taramahara sunflower in the garden.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Zero Carbon Holiday

“It’s an attitude,” I explained to Philip in the lane, talking about tents and The Holiday.
“Ah,” said Philip, “Bonnes vacances.

We're not-going on a zero-carbon holiday. We’ve put the tent up in the garden and are taking turns to sleep under the greengage tree, moored in the long grass sprinkled with wild carrot. It’s a good space inside. A mattress, a stool, a wooden box for a table, a candle, a coloured mat, a glass of water. In spaces like these you don’t need much. There is something magical about their containment. Yurt, shed, studio, tree house, den, cabanas with rooves of leaves and a communal kitchen down the hill. Thousands of tent-dwellers are having this experience right now in fields and festivals everywhere in England, as they listen to the wind move around their small shelters like the rigging of a ship, as they step out each morning, bare feet on dewy grass. Fresh air. Sunrise. Mist. Today it feels like everything will be all right.

Half of our diseases are in our heads, and half in our houses.
That’s what Andy told me. He was reading a quote from the writer and wildlife artist, Ernest Thompson Seton who inspired the Woodcraft Folk in 1912. Seton advocated living as much as possible outdoors in tune with the elements. When Andy came down last Friday with Ollie and Antony, we walked along the windy cliff edge and jumped in the rough sea, and then we came home and talked in the tent. The boys played cards and whittled sticks. I made tea. It started to rain, and though there were five of us and it’s only a three person tent, it felt just fine.

That’s what I mean about attitude. Everything gets pared down. You do what is necessary. And that simplicity brings out the best in everyone. You feel connected to the planet and to your fellows. Most of our lives we do what is unnecessary. We work to maintain an empire that creates massively complex earth-damaging, people-damaging systems - systems of technology, systems of commerce, of psychology, of addiction, power struggles. But, like our bodies, what we really need, is neither fancy dishes with extravagant ingredients, nor junk food with a hundred additives, what we hunger for is simple fare. What we long for are picnics and campfires, blackberries and wild greens, sitting under trees, swimming in the river, walking on the earth, sleeping outside with the stars above our heads.

And maybe for the odd weekend, maybe for two weeks of the year, if we are lucky, we get to live this life we were constructed to lead. We call it holiday. But maybe it should be recognised as sanity.

If we could get a taste of that simplicity, that outdoor existence, and value it above everything, our lives would be much happier, We would be less stressed and less conflicted. But we would have to look hard at this indoor life first: these houses and our heads full of complicated nonsense – and find ways to deconstruct them. The houses are demanding and expensive. They suck up energy and time, need constant cleaning and decorating. They are full of machines that need servicing and replacing. Sometimes in our Carbon Conversations a feeling of hopelessness would come into the room. It felt out of our hands. It did our heads in. As if the lifestyle were running our lives, rather than ourselves.

Big house, big head, small world.

Last August Andy and the boys came and put their tent up in the garden and their visit sparked off an idea. Maybe there was a way we could chart this carbon cutting journey we were embarking on together (then called Transition Norwich 2.0) that would treasure all our small independent moves. This Low-Carbon Life was born. My first regular blog post (The Reality Business) in November was written from this tent. Since then, like some of my fellow bloggers, I have completed a year of reducing my carbon emissions by half. Done a cycle of Carbon Conversations. We’ve looked at electricity bills and car logs, swapped stories and useful tips. Now some of us are moving outside: we’ve started to dig gardens, chop firewood, swap vegetables and clothes, organise wholefood co-ops – working to create a culture that is stronger than the allure of the energy-sucking pleasuredome.

Where do we go from here? One thing I’ve realised: this attitude is a good place to start, where life does not feel out of our hands, or hopeless or ignoble, the place the poet calls:

A condition of complete simplicity
Costing not less than everything

We have to start where we feel things are all right. Where we are valued for what we do. Small tent, large universe.


Andy, Ollie and Mark (and Anthony) playing Go Fish in the Tent (rescued last year from Latitude Recycling point); Sustainable Bungay Summer Picnic; Mark taken by Andy at Covehithe.