Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Spice Route

I am a Stranger amongst Strangers, yet curiously feel at home as I head towards Spice Paradise on a rainy Saturday night. I know this street even though I don’t live in NR3. I lived in inner city neighbourhoods for a big chunk of my life, Westbourne Grove in the 60s and 70s was a London W2 Magdalen Street. I would lean out of my window at twilight and hear the slap slap slap of the chapati makers in one of the six Indian restaurants along the Grove and smile as our cat vainly licked his turmeric-stained paws, evidence of his tandoori chicken raids from their dustbins. My student life was spent among sweat shops and sweet shops in the slumland heart of Birmingham. Wherever I travelled thereafter the scent of cumin and coriander came with me: those Eastern spices became an indelible part of my kitchen.

So the “only South Indian restaurant in Norfolk” was the obvious choice when I invited Ed Mitchell and Gary Alexander from the Transition Network to meet over a Cobra and a dosa. “TN has organised a big celebration here next week,” I said and outlined the plan: puppet workshops, art exhibitions, craft stalls, local bands, performance . . . the street’s changed a lot, said Ed, who used to promote reggae bands just beyond the flyover where all the action will be on Saturday. Twenty years ago when he was in “Dev” at UEA there was a sharp edge. Now some of that edginess has softened, relaxed. There are rainbows in between the dark buildings. This neighbourhood restaurant is like that too. Light, spacious, colourful (predominantly a shocking salmon pink). South Indian food is feminine in comparison to the warrior cuisine of the North: airy dosas made of rice and lentils, fragrant fillings and dipping sauces, sweet coconut, sour tamarind. It’s a friendly place. Everyone was smiling. Even on the busiest night of the week we were left in peace as we discussed Transition comms for over three hours. I haven’t felt so relaxed in an eating house like that for a long time.

Afterwards we walked past Aladdin's, the cafĂ© and patisserie where many of the Celebration’s planning meetings have taken place, and some of the street’s international grocers. If you have time on Saturday check out the great Indian spice shops: Mr Miah's and the newly open Spice Land where the owners are from the key spice territory, Kerala (the shop owners will be "Living Books" for the day so do ask questions about food). Cooks from the One Planet Community Kitchen buy sacks of rice and bags of cinnamon and cumin here. These are the exotic grocers that whet your appetite with their piles of world produce. The scent of a thousand dishes meets you as you stand among stacks of plantain and yams and gaze along the crammed shelves. For me, now a country dweller, this is the city. Something you can’t find anywhere else. A global meeting place where everyone can feel at home. Listen out for that different drum beat!

Spice Paradise No. 41 (01603 666601)- Aladdin's Cafe and Patisserie No. 3 (766112). A Miah & Co No. 20-20a (615395). For full information about the event To give a hand on the day or 07747 751656.

Spices from the One Planet Community Kitchen; marigold, cosmos and fennel seeds from the garden; Aladdin's interior; TN and Taiko (Japanese) drummers outside Forum in March.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Magnificent Magdalen Street

In a matter of days the very first Magdalen Street Celebration (that we know of) will take place in, you guessed it, Magdalen Street! I am super excited about this for several reasons, not least because I simply adore this quaint and magnificent street and all it represents.

When my partner and I finally made the decision to up sticks from our beloved London to this Eastern outpost, where he’d spent his teenage years and I’d enjoyed visiting over the last 10 years, we were looking to live in an area of Norwich that would provide a suitable barricade against what we imagined would be a difficult transition. When we viewed potential homes in this area and discovered Magdalen Street, we both knew immediately that this was the place for us. It had our increasingly important requirements of sustainability, diversity and creativity written all over it.

To our fresh from the capital eyes, the street easily held our interest, seemed vibrant and edgy, a bit run down but open to improvement, full of charity shops (essential to one who buys only two new items of clothing per year), antique emporiums (perfect for sourcing the vintage furniture our new home would need), a wide variety of interesting restaurants, pubs, cafes and food stores as well as some fabric related shops (irresistible to a crafts person such as myself). And, of course, the beautiful river flowing through at the bottom. What more could two East London evacuees, wide eyed and desperate to retain a bit of cosmopolitanism in our new East Anglian lives, need?

Yes, there was the somewhat harsh 60s architectural disaster of Anglia Square to contend with, but what beauty does not benefit from a less stunning background to give it a lift! Knowing that design improvements were on the agenda helped immensely yet time has revealed that there is something quietly poetic about the stark lines of the flyover and square against the irrepressible creativity pushing its merry way out through the pavement cracks towards the sunlight.

So, less than 5 months ago, we moved to glorious NR3. The transition proved an easy one and we discovered that not only does Magdalen Street hold all the treasures we’d hoped for and more, but there are many other folk here who also see the beauty and potential of this entrancing street. Compelled to meet with them we enthusiastically joined in the plans to celebrate all that is wonderful about the area and this Saturday sees the culmination of those plans. With music, art, theatre, dance, story sharing, historical tours and more, we will celebrate a community that is diverse and transient, yet rooted deeply in Norwich history; a fine example of sustainability and a showground for Norwich’s creativity. I can’t wait. See you there!

by Rachel Lalchan

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

you know you are getting old when the antiques shops are selling your childhood stuff

Welcome to day 2 of the week leading up to the Magdalen Street Celebration (dont worry I am not doing them all!) This is a photograph of Magdalen Street in 1936 taken by a photographer called George Plunkett. He took a picture of every single shop in the street. These photographs says a number of things to me

1. nothing is too ordinary to be worth photographing
2. there have always been empty shops in the street
3. its a lot easier to shop locally on a bike

Its easy to think 'things have always been like this and always will be'. Its like the shock you get when you first spend Christmas with the in-laws and realize the tradition you held dear are not universal (I tried to convince them but could find nothing in the bible about when your presents should be opened) But things can quickly change. Think how quickly we have become used to not smoking indoors and paying for plastic bags.

In the same way I have in a few months become used to the street and bumping into people I know. The man from the pawn shop now says hello to me. We wave to folks as they walk past the cafe windows. I saw a blind man negotiating the roadworks and recognized him from the NNAB centre. This makes the experience of the street so rich and we hope that many others will feel this way after the festival.

As for the antique shops reminding me of my childhood, who cares? The eighties are cool again ( so someone young told me)

Sunday, 26 September 2010

how to make something out of nothing

Martin Luther King did not say 'I have a nightmare'. If he did then perhaps his saying would not have been so famous. So following this philosophy what better way to persuade people to buy local and live sustainably than to have a party?
Today's blog starts a week of posts leading up to the Magdalen Street celebration. What started as a simple question 'what can we do to get people involved?' posed at an north city transition meeting has turned out to be a massive event with a double page spread in the paper. People from all walks of life have come forward to be part of the day and the event promises to be a lot of fun and hopefully the start of a greater feeling of community in the area.
Whats really amazing about the organizing of the event is that we started with no money and just had enthusiasm and a lot of networks. One person knows loads of people from NUCA, someone else the local Churches, someone else has an interest in history and before you know it word spreads and everyone is ringing up begging to be in it!
This week will include posts from many of the transitioners who have helped organize this event or who have an interest in the street.
I hope you will follow it and come on the day.
I will leave you with a picture of one of the sculptures that will be on display.
It is called one small step and for me it captures what we have done by celebrating the street, one small step to a more sustainable and enjoyable community.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

In Praise of the Great Tomato

In the Low Carbon Cookbook we'll also be looking in depth at ingredients. Taking certain key plants and following their tracks across the world and in our imaginations. Today I'm highlighting the Tomato because this new world fruit has made its way into practically every kitchen in the world since it's "discovery" (by Cortez in Mexico in 1519). The tomato is often the first plant people grow on their own and was the most talked about plant in the TN Seedling Swap in May. It's easy to manage, fitting happily into pots and town gardens, inside or outside. Brushing past the scent of its leaves brings the memory of greenhouses, childhood, summer, Italy. . .

It has an allure like all members of its family, the Solanaceae which include the edible (potato, aubergine, chili) to the mind-altering (datura, belladonna, henbane). Pretty, often deeply scented flowers, exciting dark foliage, mysterious fast-growing fruit and tubers. Today it is a mainstay of the global fast food system (think ketchup and pizza) as well as modern classic cuisines (think pasta and salsa). It is highly flexible, good hot or cold, and of course, delicious.

Like its poisonous plant relatives, containing tropanes and other hallucinogenic compounds, however the adored and fiery-coloured Tomato has a dark side.

Elena wrote about a tomato rethink in her post on Wholefood Coops last month. Tins of Italian tomatoes are a storeroom staple, especially in the winter. Like me, she had read Felicity Lawrence's Eat Your Heart Out. One chapter of this shocking book about the corporate food monopoly is devoted to fish and tomatoes and follows the trails of the African migrants, hounded out of their traditional fishing grounds by European trawlers (mostly for prawns) and landing in Southern Spain to work in the supermarket salad greenhouses.These men live in squalor in makeshift shacks on some of the most polluted land in Europe (tomatoes, like all glasshouse inhabitants, suffer from infestations, so are doused with huge quantities of toxic chemicals).

So last winter after engaging in Carbon Conversations and calculating the fossil fuel use and carbon footprint of unseasonal hothouse vegetables, I tried to kick my tomato habit. I decided to buy local tomatoes from roadside stalls, from my veg box and grow my own in the summer. I weaned myself off indoor tomatoes and just used dried tomatoes or an occasional tin for cooking curries etc. I thought I'd be desperate for the fresh ones by the time June came. But I wasn't.

Instead I began to wonder . . . How many of our foods are we addicted to, or eat by habit, or convenience, without considering our bodies or our fellow human beings?

Home-grown toms: Marmande, Bush tomato, Gardener's Delight on a giant basil leaf.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Low Carbon Cookbook - Fava

This is the dish I brought on Tuesday for our first Low Carbon Cookbook get-together at the Greenhouse. First eaten on an island in the Cyclades, this is a staple that is grown and eaten all over the world. It's simple to cook, nourishing, tasty, good-looking and very flexible as a dish. You can have it as part of a main course, among salads, or as a starter with pitta or crackers. For supper, for lunch or as a meze. Warm or cold. Oh, and it takes about twenty minutes to cook. You don’t have to soak the pulse either.

Construction Method
Put 250g of yellow split-peas into a pan with cold water (two inches above the peas). When bubbling turn to simmer uncovered for 20 minutes or until soft. Skim any scum that rises (usually in the first five minutes). Stir if necessary to prevent sticking. The peas will either collapse of their own accord or you can press them against the sides of the pan with a wooden spoon. The texture is up to you. Season with salt.

Turn into a bowl. Shake some good olive oil over the top and garnish with thin slices of red onion, roughly chopped parsley, black olives and halved hard boiled eggs and lots of black pepper. Serve warm.

Deconstruction Method
These are some of the details we looked at during our exercise. Food connects and coheres almost all the Transition themes from Economics and Livelihoods to Zero Waste. It brings attention to the massive production system behind everything we eat and the number of questions that lie unanswered within every dish we consume. The exercise also highlights the number of relationships you engage in if you don’t shop in supermarkets.

Yellow split peas – organically grown in Canada. Produced by the co-operative Suma. Bought in local grocer’s Focus Organic in nearby market town. Can these be grown elsewhere? I asked myself. Yellow split peas grow all over the Med. What does the plant look like?
Packaging – light plastic. Suma have a detailed description of their new packaging policy on their website. This is one of the few items I use that go to landfill as light plastic snares up the local Council’s recycling machines. Some organic stores now have the American system of wholefood dispensing units which means you can reuse your own packaging. Transport - Cargo ship and truck to and from Suma (find out more about this).

Olive Oil – organically grown in Italy. Produced by Clearspring. Bought in Strangers’ Wholefood Buying Coop. Olive oil is the least produced of the oils we consume. The Cookbook will look at several of these including rape, hemp, evening primrose, sesame, sunflower. We’ll also be looking at how co-ops work and where they exist locally. Packaging – glass. Recycled. Transport – freight? More research needed here. Fairtrade – who picks the olives?

Red onions – organically and locally grown by Swallow Organics. Collected in a weekly veg box as part of an eighteen-mile shopping round car trip. Veg boxes are one of the smallest types of CSA and form one of the Transition Food Patterns. We’ll be listing schemes that operate around Norwich, including TN’s own CSA scheme at Postwick.

Eggs - from hens kept at a local allotment, sold on Sarah’s roadside stall (along with jams, flowers and organically grown veg). Transport is nil, but I know almost nothing about the hen’s feed. Typically hens are fed grain and scraps (70% grain grown in East Anglia is for chickens and pigs). Free range hens can forage for insects. Need to investigate!

Olives – grown and harvested by Zaytoun, a Palestinian fairtrade co-operative. Bought at the Peace Camp in the Forum. Zaytoun run an extraordinary scheme whereby people can help with the harvest that begins in October and stay with Palestinian families (the presence of foreigners in the orchards helps prevent land seizure and destruction of the ancient olive trees).

Parsley – home grown from a plant grown from seed by Erik in Hethersett. Swapped for a bag of Late Crop Cara seed potatoes at the TN Seedling Swap in May.

Salt – sea salt from Maldon, Essex. One of four traditional salt makers in Britain. Cardboard box recycled. Plastic inner bag to landfill. Salt and its harvesting will be one of the information boxes in the Cookbook.

Black pepper – organically grown in India. Produced by Infinity Foods, organic wholesaler in Brighton. Spices are one of the few things we cannot grow locally and have become almost indispensable in daily cooking (home-grown chili would be the best substitute for black pepper). However their lightness both in weight and use means less intensive long-haul than say, rice. Before oil – petroleum that is – and coal these goods would have come by sailing ship and been very much more expensive.

The Island’s Windmill, Cyclades, Greece (photo by Terry Harris). Naomi and Charlotte at Focus Organic, Halesworth - despite the rain! (photo by Mark Watson)

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

One Planet Community Kitchen 1 - Deconstructing the Dish

Last night we had our first One Planet Community Kitchen meeting at the Greenhouse in Bethel Street. We met to discuss a new Transition Norwich project, the Low Carbon Cookbook. Twelve people came and we put our heads, hearts and hands together. Josiah shared his broad experience and knowledge of co-ops and laid out their basic structure and tenets. We introduced ourselves and the dish we brought with us to share.

The Kitchen is a regional hub that aims to start up food and arts projects in different Transition initiatives. All the projects will share three aims: 1) to work creatively as a co-operative group 2) to bring ecological awareness to the food we eat 3) to map local food patterns.

In the next few months we’ll be writing on the blog about some of the aims of the Kitchen and showcasing our work. Ways of calculating an ecological footprint for food – looking at carbon emissions, as well as other greenhouse gases, in transport, production and processing. We’ll be considering waste, packaging, the use of water. Several people who came were from the four Transition circles and were Carbon Conversation facilitators; Erik ran the original One Planet group at UEA.

We’ll be focusing on the Transition Food Patterns of Norwich and its hinterlands in the way we began in our Transition Food Patterns Fortnight. Building up a list of producers, talking to people, visiting city allotments and food projects. We’ll be writing information boxes that show why engaging in local market-diversity (as opposed to supermarket monopoly) creates resilient community, what exactly organic certification means. And we’ll be cooking! Trying out recipes that are sustainable, intelligent, delicious, meaningful. Bring a dish to share dishes that everyone can eat.

Last night we talked about many things - how to go forward as a co-op, consensus decision making, bread and bees. Tom talked about how low-carbon food needs to be vibrant and aesthetic, Mediterranean in its temperament. Christine brought the constriction of diets into play. Grower-cooks, Jo and Janet discussed what to do with damson and courgette gluts, Kerry with green tomatoes. Gemma talked miso soup with Donegal seaweed from the Ripple Food Coop she founded in Ipswich. Josiah talked venison sausages supplied by someone he once knew who was licensed to shoot deer in Thetford Forest. Mark talked about a local “omlit”with veg box onions and Cara potatoes we had just dug from the garden. Elena talked honey from the Fat Cat pub and showed us (and gave us to taste) a divine way with runner beans, delicately shredded and flavoured with home-grown chili and brown mustard seeds (didn’t mustard once grow commercially in Norfolk?). Erik showed us a circle that began and ended in compost, a cycle that included seed swaps and germination, weather and parties and snails. The earth is not linear. It goes round and makes extraordinary connections with all its constituent parts. How do we create a book that is non-linear?

The Deconstruct the Dish exercise kickstarts this creative process by putting attention on the material, engaging the imagination, our ability to cross-reference and make different pathways, asking ourselves questions. This is how it goes: everyone sits down at a table with a large sheet of paper (two people to one piece). You draw a circle and put all the ingredients of the dish inside. Then you take each ingredient and write everything you know about it alongside. You ask yourself and/or your drawing partner: Where did I buy this? Which land did it come from? How did it get here? What people were involved? What’s my relationship with them? When did I first eat this dish? Then you share what you discovered with everyone in the room.

I brought fava, a yellow split-pea dish I had once eaten when I was 20 years old. I had arrived on the Greek island before Easter and there was no food to be had in the taverna. Out of nowhere there appeared this dish cooked by the island’s poorest family. They brought it to us shyly, a steaming golden pile, adorned with eggs and olives and a loaf of bread that was baked in the side of the mountain. We devoured it happily. It brings good memories this dish and reminds me of the key to all good meals and creative works - generosity and essential ingredients.

The island was one of the most sustainable places I have ever been. There were no cars, few houses had electricity and everyone drew water from wells and a communal spring. The diet was rough and plain, mostly vegetarian with occasional meat and fish - Easter kid, snails, sea urchins, octopus and bream. The olive oil and thyme honey were the best I have ever tasted. In my picture I drew eggs from Sarah’s roadside stall, parsley grown from Erik’s seeds at the Seed Swap, olives from a Palestinian women’s coop bought at Norwich’s Peace Camp. It was food with meaning, with roots that sank deep in the earth. The industrial food system has no such connection, neither with place nor people, nor our heart’s memory. So to eat sustainably we have to remake those links. That’s one of the main purposes of the Kitchen. Last night some smart and sassy cooks and some essential ingredients came together. Our first project, TN’s Low Carbon Cookbook finally got on the stove . . .

Miso soup by Gemma (Transition Ipswich, Sustain, Ripple Food Coop ) and Green Beans by Elena (TN, CSA, Strangers' Circle). Josiah and Charlotte planning One Planet Community Kitchen at the Greenhouse.; banner - me describing fava; Mark's Cara potatoes; Venison and Puy Lentil Stew by Josiah (Sustainable Bungay, Provenance, East Anglia Food Link). Gemma and Jo listening to Tom from the Greenhouse; Apple and Green Tomato Pie by Kerry (Transition Norwich, Otesha, Greenhouse, Green Grocers)

Many thanks to Tom at The Greenhouse for making us so welcome.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Walking Home

“I didn’t turn to wildlife because I was bullied and oppressed, I turned to wildlife out of love, and love helped me in a bad time, as love will. But love is far more than comfort. There was more than mere escape here: there was meaning, purpose, beauty, and especially, love. I reached these things through the power of the wild world and through the power of my imagination. And so far as I was concerned, the two things were indivisible. (Simon Barnes My Natural History)

I hadn’t walked in a long while. One time in my life when we first came back to England, I walked everywhere. Down the coast, through marshes, across heaths, along empty country roads, tangled green lanes. Through long afternoons, at sunrise, in the night under stars, in the rain and snow, my feet following the tracks of deer and pheasant. I was walking myself back into the land, immersing myself in bird, tree, flint, the ancestral feel of things.

Sometimes you walk to connect yourself with a place, with your own creaturehood. And sometimes you walk when you don’t know what to do. Where am I going? What am I doing here? Is there any meaning to our existence? What does the planet feel about all these statistics we make about the future?

Somewhere along that walk you’ll find something that will answer those questions. It might be a small thing. And yet it’s a key that opens the door.

“What make are they?” he asked.
“What make?” I said, and laughed. They’re not machines, they’re animals! Red deer.

We looked, the two men and I, at the group in the field. The deer looked at us. They were young males and occasionally two would rise up and spar elegantly with their hooves, in that famous heraldic pose you see on coats-of-arms.

“Have you heard them roar?” I asked. I was about to say “you have to experience the deer rutting before you die,” but hesitated. They were already old.

As autumn comes the red deer of Britain gather in the forests of Suffolk: at Tunstall, Dunwich, Minsmere, Iken. As dawn breaks and the mists rise the stags meet in the clearings under the birch and pine, carrying their antlers aloft, to decide who should be running which territory. The sounds of their contests rumble through the land. To hear that primordial sound is to remember everything about wild things.

I write this because as equinox approaches some part of us, unmoored in the summer, comes back to earth. As I emerged from the tent (where I’m still sleeping) into the dark early morning, I noticed Orion glittering on the horizon and the owls calling down the lane. The dew was cold on my feet.

Where am I going? I am walking home. What am I doing here? I know the names of things. Is there any meaning to our existence? Ah, more tricky. Only if we remember that everything tracks back to the ancestors, to the shape of the wild world. What does the planet feel? What do you feel when people talk about you as if you are not there?

The men had been friendly. We talked about deer and the heath (we were at Dunwich, eight miles down the coast). But when they were gone, I turned my attention back to the deer. The deer are what I remember. Walking the bony track of white sand. The bees among the heather, the colour of the rosebay willow herb, the long curve of the beach, the crab shell in my pocket, the light on the river, the ropes of wild hops around a telegraph pole, the lilt of the water swimming, the taste of salty samphire in my mouth.

There was once a Jesuit who gave up his monk’s cell and walked instead into the mountains. His name was Anthony de Mello. De Mello wrote that nothing human can touch us where it really matters. We let our whole lives be shaped by the people who we think should love us completely and tell us we matter, and yet they cannot. Because no one can love us until we love ourselves and that Self is something mysterious, indefinable, ungovernable, Other that we can only reach in our own inner solitude, in the depths of ourselves.

When we realise that self, we realise that we did not come to love each other in the way we think we should, but something else entirely. We came to love our own nature, and that nature could only be found in the patterns of wild nature itself. This is not a nature that is accessible in any other way than with our own being - our own presence within its fabric. It is not something we can own, or control or manipulate, or put in our gardens on show, or use as a resource. We can only find it it by being at home with its Otherness.

It is a question entirely of relationship. Indeed as love always is.

Sun, Southwold Denes; mushrooms, Minsmere Woods; bell heather, Dunwich Heath; samphire, Walberswick Marshes

Monday, 20 September 2010

Transition Twitter - A Day in 140 Characters

7am Geese tracking across the sky, arriving from Siberia with their archaic sound- sharp tang of autumn in the air - shift of mood

8 A low carbon breakfast on the dark side- damsons, elderberries, blackberries. Wild fruit abundance in the lane. Great rosehip year too.

8.30 Prepping One Planet Community Kitchen meeting tomorrow. Josiah tells me wet rice means mega-methane - is this the end of basmati?

Mark busy editing 1st Transition YouTube of Bungay Library Community Garden Opening. Amanda and Christian cut the ivy ribbon yesterday.

9 At my neighbours' checking email, twitter, blogs. What pic shall I use? Field still bright with marigold and cornflowers. Bees too.

Elinor wrote Bungay Bees turned the other day (Heavy Syrup). Seems like no-one is looking forward to winter coming

9.18 Erik wrote Transition Circle Earham South are discussing Why we Disagree about Climate Change by Mike Hulme. Uploading onto calendar now.

9.27 tnnorwich has just started tweeting. 1 of 77 Transition world inititatives - fast glancing into how everyone is doing . . .
rt@robintransition The first 'Transition as a Pattern Language' pattern now online for your comments: this one is 'Measurement'...

About to tweet Tom Foxe’s Cycle Dynamo Workshop and party. Meeting up with Ed, Gary and Josiah afterwards for a network east exchange.

But first my morning on this new hybrid comms tool - twitterblog . . . . stay tuned!

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Herbs for Resilience - Yarrow

Note 6th July 2013: I'm excited to be contributing a plant medicine/herbs for resilience walk this August at the final Uncivilisation festival organised by The Dark Mountain Project in Hampshire. Maybe I'll see you there!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 September 2010

Waveney Greenpeace Celebration Gig

This year’s Waveney Greenpeace event on September 5th was the last to be held on Farmer Paul’s land. We were going to help Josiah set up and run the tea tent. The day before, the exhaust fell off our car and Charlotte discovered me in the garden with a ball of string and some chicken wire.

“That’s very Mexican,” she said.
“Very apt for the make do and mend week,” I replied. “How on earth are we going to get there?”

I made several phone calls. No one was at home. I left messages.

I needn’t have worried. Josiah drove cross-country to pick us up next morning. The sun was shining and we talked about harvest and fruit and the unusual apple tree he’d found, badly flailed on the road side but full of fuit on the field side.

“Will anyone come?” people were wondering. I was too as I secured the tea tent tablecloths with gaffer tape. The atmosphere was unusually quiet. What had grown into the large Waveney Greenpeace Fair over the last 20 years had been whittled down to a Celebration Gig in honour of everyone who had made it happen. There were to be no commercial stalls this time.

We set up the Transition East 2010 table and put flowers and fruit from the hedgerows and our gardens on the tea tent tables – buddleia, fuchsia, sloes, dogwood, blackberry, ash.

I went visiting: Tom Foxe was setting up his cycle dynamo in the food tent next door(click here for his bike generator workshop this month) for the acoustic musicians. A truckload of old settees and easy chairs arrived and two young men created a make-shift front room for the audience.

‘Whoops, better move the Greenpeace banner from above the bp supports climate change! poster in case people don’t get the joke,” said Emily. The map about Canadian tar sands extraction remained.

I spoke with Adam about his elegant composting toilets, and with Eloise and Adele, who were setting up facepainting and a fairy garden for children. Sally, one of the veteran organisers, lent me her scissors.
“They belonged to my mother,” she instructed me. “Ten minutes.”

The gig began at midday. Josiah looked ruefully at the bubbling tea urn.
"Last year I was having to fill it constantly by now," he said.
We looked at the empty tables and the occasional person wandered by.
"Oh well, I can freeze the flapjacks."
"What, all 320 of them?" I asked.

We made ourselves a hot drink. He explained to me how to make five kinds of flapjacks – very easy, not time consuming. And then I explored the inside of the old caravan behind the tent.

The flapjacks were the metaphor for the Greenpeace event downshift. Usually in the tea tent there are cakes of all shapes and sizes, and huge plates of sandwiches being frantically constructed and consumed all day long. This year there were flapjacks and Celebration cake. Minimal, but delicious.

Then people began to arrive. By one o’ clock the tea was flowing and the piles of flapjacks were diminishing. I really got into selling Malcolm's vibrant chilli plants (Serranos and Ring of Fire) from the Transition East stall, (mind you I was dressed for the part in a flowery Mexican guayabera).

"Mark you have to come dancing!" said Charlotte dragging me away from my sales pitch - first to the Norwich Samba and then Uncle Romeo, a group of men of a certain age (like me) in big wigs playing 70s funk and disco classics, like Don’t Leave Me This Way and Red Light. They were awesome. The band could really play and sing and had the whole music tent boogying and roaring with laughter... though I did experience a tinge of embarrassment when Charlotte began whooping along with several other very energetic women.

As we left the fields that evening we passed Farmer Paul on the track. We thanked him and said we'd really enjoyed ourselves. He told us he had too. "Like it was in the beginning," he said.

Pics: Top banner - Setting Up the Tea Tent and the Transition East table at the Waveney Greenpeace Celebration Gig; Middle Banner - Nick and I and flowery Mexican guayabera in the old caravan, Tom Foxe and his daughter charging up the batteries, and 'people did come'; Bottom banner - Fuchsias, Chili plants and tea mugs, Josiah's chocolate flapjacks, outside the Greenpeace tea tent

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The challenge of community living

The community living side of the Otesha tour was one of the things I was really interested to experience as increasing community spirit is one of the key aims of the transition movement. However, like many people in modern society, I had never lived in a community where I knew everyone and they knew everything I did. Now I know that my experience this summer had significant differences from living in a strong local community, but it was interesting none-the-less.

I lived with 12 other people, together for every moment of the day, eating together, sleeping together, making decisions together and looking after each other for two months. And amazingly it worked! We didn’t have a single real bad feeling in the group for the whole trip, which was a bit of a miracle, but also a testament to how cooperative we all were and how well Otesha prepared us for group living. Some of the key aspects that I think contributed to the success of our group living were evening meetings, consensus decision making, group rules, rotating roles and a shared mission, which I shall explain in turn.

Every evening on the tour we all sat down together and had a meeting where we discussed what was happening the next day, any role changes, any problems, anything else someone wanted to discuss and always finishing with Highs/ Lows and Angel/ Joker. These meetings meant that everyone always knew what was happening, any issues were discussed long before they became problems and we could keep making sure that we were living as we wanted to (face paint, yoga, lentils and all). The Highs and Lows deserve a special mention. They involved everyone sharing the high point and low point of their day. This provided a good way of keeping the group bond strong, checking the mood of the group, making sure everyone was alright and importantly finding out what everyone had been up to! It was amazing how you started living your day through Highs and Lows – such as ‘this will definitely be todays high’ – and I really miss them. Sharing your day with twelve other people is very special. Similarly the angel and joker nominations for the day made sure we heard of all the good deeds and silly stories of the day!

In the training week we were all taught the basics of consensus decision-making, which was an important aspect of the evening meetings. Now true consensus decision-making takes years to learn, but even using the basic structure made a big difference to our group. Essentially it is a set of rules and hand signals to make decision-making run smoothly. I cannot explain it in this post, but it includes aspects such as always having a facilitator, taking it in turns to talk, not repeating or making unnecessary points and signalling your agreement through ‘twinkling’ your fingers (please forgive me when I accidentally do this at future transition meetings!). It is interesting that I now find group decision-making without consensus a bit intimidating and stressful, so I would definitely be up for encouraging the use of this ‘safe space’ in Transition meetings.

In the training week we also set out what we expected of the group in terms of our behaviour towards each other and everyone else we came into contact with. We also decided what actions would be taken if these expectations were breached in minor or major ways. Although this felt a little bit scary and bizarre at the time it meant that we all knew exactly what the deal was. So it created a safe environment where everyone knew the boundaries, but could enjoy themselves as much as they wanted within them!

Everyone in the group had a role, such as ‘time lord’ – to keep everyone on time, ‘compost’ – in charge of disposing of the compost and ‘organised fun’ – to ensure we didn’t get bored!! And these roles were ‘rotated’ every 3 days or so. These were great as they meant that everyone knew how they should contribute to the group effort and who was responsible for what. And rotating them meant that no-one was stuck being Big Zip trailer fairy for longer than necessary (Big Zip was the bike trailer for the cooking equipment and the fairy had to keep him clean, in working order and pack him up before a cycle – a challenging and time consuming role!). There was also, however, the essential role of super swap who could help out those who were struggling and take over from those who were ill or absent for whatever reason.

Finally, we had all chosen to come on the tour and were all passionate about spreading the word about sustainability and social justice in as fun and engaging a way as possible. And we all wanted to make it work and for the team to get all the way up the country. So although we all had many different motivations and journeys to get there we had a shared mission and this meant we all tried our best to make it work – and it did!

Now it is quite difficult to see how you could apply some of these to Transition, but I have a couple of thoughts and would love to discuss transition community with anyone else who would like to! I, like many other people in transition, get meeting fatigue! But I think keeping meetings practical, respectful and personal makes them much more enjoyable. Emotions are also an important part of any meeting so acknowledging them makes life easier for everyone!

I would definitely like to organise more ‘meeting skills’ workshops (non-violent communication, consensus decision making etc) for Transition members as I think these are vital skills that are largely missing in modern society.

Rules and boundaries are essential to creating a safe and productive environment and although transition is fluid and leaderless I personally feel it would benefit from some structuring ground rules. How we developed these though would require discussion!

Breaking tasks down into lots of small roles means that one person doesn’t always end up doing everything, especially if the roles are rotated around the group. This could theoretically be applied to any plan that transition members came up with.

Finally one feature that Transition definitely does have is the shared mission and keeping this in mind and reinforcing it is very important. We are all working together for the good of the planet and our future – creating a better world for ourselves. I am very glad to be in this with you all.

Now discuss.

(and ask me lots of questions about my trip, I will be very happy to talk!)

Photos: catching some rays (Sarah Hunn), collapsing in a heap (Laura Kim), consensus decision making in action (Mike Snyder), cooking dinner (Laura Kim), celebration (Hannah Read), team puncture (Beth Sissons)

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

The inspiring people and projects of the UK

Today I would like to share with you some of the amazing people I met on my travels and some of the exciting projects I got to visit.

The brilliant thing about cycling around, in big groups, wearing copious hi viz, with your bike fully loaded and pulling a bike trailer is that it gives people an excuse to talk to you. I talked to more ‘strangers’ on the street on this tour than I think I have in the rest of my lifetime and it was great! Having an excuse to start talking to someone about what you’re up to and seeing their amazement and excitement when you explain what your doing is one of my favourite parts of the whole tour. And then hearing what they are doing, when they last went cycling and how they are growing their own lettuce (and the free tea and cake that sometimes results from the conversations!) is so heartening. I really miss that random connection to people now that the tour is over and I am almost tempted to get my bike loaded back up and to cycle through Norwich just so people can ask me what I’m doing! There are so many people out there doing their little bit.

As we cycled up the country we were lucky enough to discover many inspiring projects along the way. In Bristol we were given a ‘permaculture tour’ of the city, visiting the GroFun allotment, which aims to inspire people to start growing veg in their own gardens and through the ‘many hands’ scheme, everyone involved helps each other out with bigger jobs when they need it, so you are not on your own! Next we went to Eastside Roots, the permaculture gardening and community centre, where you can purchase lots of different plants produced along permaculture principles, share skills, learn about permaculture and just enjoy the atmosphere and the composting toilet.

We also had a cycle around an eco-community with houses constructed out of all kinds of exciting things, such as cob or strawbales, and had a look into a commercially viable city farm, all very exciting.

But the highlight of the day was meeting the legendary Mike Feingold, permaculture guru, and having a look round his community orchard and allotment. Mike, as can be seen from his photo, is a fantastic character and we thoroughly enjoyed learning about the principles of permaculture through the cycle of uses you can get from just one cauliflower stalk (fed to a goat, goat poo is eaten by your worms which your chickens can then eat and their poo makes a good tree fertiliser, so then you get very virtuous apples!) and eating pakoras made from all kinds of exciting ingredients like hop tips and radish pods. We had a tour around his fantastic community orchard that has over 60 varieties of fruit trees and good root stock. You get taught to graft your own fruit trees and then you graft some for the orchard and they provide a fantastic resource for community projects and guerrilla gardeners around Bristol. The whole thing is a fantastic example of permaculture with a huge array of companion plants and ingenious solutions. So that is a selection of many of the great things happening in Bristol.

Slightly further up the country we stayed at the Peace house in Coventry. It started as a housing cooperative and has developed into a peace and environment centre, providing a night shelter for Asylum seekers and a hub for many fantastic campaigns and projects. It also has an amazing second hand bike workshop where an army of volunteers renovate secondhand bikes and then sell them to the community at low prices to encourage cycling. They consequently have the most amazing collection of secondhand bike parts and I spent an entire day in their workshop being helped to change various parts of my bike!

The final place I am going to talk about is Newcastle which has the Star and Shadow cinema. This cinema is run entirely by volunteers working on anarchist principles. So everything from the projecting, to manning the bar, to printing the programme, to the cleaning is done by volunteers and all decisions are made by those who are present at the time. When we were there it was being renovated, once again entirely through volunteers and skill sharing and they very kindly put on a private film showing for us after a tour around the place. Absolutely fantastic.

My other star place in Newcastle was the Cycle Centre UK bike shop, who persevered until they got the old gear cable out that was stuck in my gears and then gave me a tandem gear cable for free as I was doing good for the community. Then the next day when we were leaving and my bike rack snapped clean in two (good times!) they sold me a discounted display rack and fitted it for free. Community spirit is definitely alive and well and the good people of the British Isles are forging ahead with many inspirational grassroot activities. Of course there are many other projects and people that we came across on our way that I haven’t had the space to mention, but this fantastic selection offers food for thought and I now have an urge to set up a secondhand bike workshop, cooperative gardening workforce, anarchist cinema and much more in Norwich, so if anyone wants to join in…

Photos: where are we going? (Beth Sissons), cheeky tea and cake with an end to end van (Sarah Hunn), Group photo at the GroFun allotment (Sam White), Ecohousing (Laura Kim), Mike Feingold (Mike Snyder), the Peace house (Beth Sissions) and the star and shodow cinema (their website).

Monday, 13 September 2010

An Ode to cycle touring - Otesha style

The next three days blogs will be about some of the aspects of my epic cycling adventure that I have just had with the Otesha Project UK. There was a series of blogs at the end of July taken from my cycle tours' group journal and the full series of these journals with all of our shenanigans can be found on the Otesha website (

Otesha is a Swahili word meaning ‘to plant a seed and make it grow’ and The Otesha Project is a youth led charity that is empowering young people to make big changes in the world through their everyday actions. Every summer Otesha organises cycle tours where volunteers aged 18-28 cycle around the country visiting schools and youth groups delivering plays and workshops about issues, such as Fairtrade, grow your own and ethical fashion, informing and empowering children to change their world. Also trying to be a living example of what is possible – carrying everything with us on our bikes and 3 trailers, trying to only eat a low impact diet (difficult when you have such high protein requirements), wearing recycled clothing, living in a small supportive community (24/7) and crafting amazing things out of various cardboard packets, old maps, bike inner tubes and brake pads. We made a short ‘day-in-the-life’ video while we were on tour, which I have included below if you want to know more!

The first part of the tour that I’m going to explore is the cycling. Having been predominantly a town cyclist before the tour, it has been somewhat of a revelation in the world of bicycles! The first observation is the change in my concept of distance. Before the tour I would have thought twice about cycling to something 10 miles away, due to the time and effort involved and choosing the bicycle as my mode of transport for a 60 mile journey wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. But now, having regularly cycled 70 miles in a day carrying all of my life on my bike, it seems a perfectly reasonable way of travelling long distances. Since returning from the tour I have cycled 20 miles to a friends for dinner (2hrs) and 60 miles from my parents house to Cambridge for my return to Norwich (5.5hrs).

It is amazingly liberating to have an entirely independent, fossil fuel free way of travelling considerable distances. And actually the time it takes is not prohibitive, it does however involve a slight change in your frame of mind to accept that actually 60 miles is a fairly long distance and it is therefore justified to spend 6hrs travelling it! The point of sharing this revelation is not to boast of my new found agility, but to point out that before this trip I would never have considered this and doing a mere 21 days of long distance cycling this summer has now made it seem perfectly possible. One proviso is that making sure your bike is in good nick does make a huge difference to how easy it is!

My next observation is about the assurance and satisfaction I now get from knowing how my bike works. Now I am not claiming to be a bicycle expert by any means, but I now know how all of the bits work, can do bike maintenance and basic repairs and have some idea what is wrong if there is a problem. This has increased my wonder at these magnificently simple, efficient machines and also means I can ensure that my bikes are always easy to cycle and that I am not constantly reliant on bike shops for small problems like misaligned brakes (which saves me money and hassle). I would encourage anyone who goes cycling – even short distances – to acquire basic bike knowledge for all the reasons mentioned above. I hope to organise a bicycle reskilling workshop this autumn so if you want to learn then keep your eyes open.

My third observation is just how fantastic bicycles are as a way of touring an area or the whole of England. You can get to anywhere you want, but you get to take all of the lovely small roads - and if you are lucky cycle paths - and to see the true area rather than it’s A roads. The joy of travelling is largely in the random discoveries you make on your route, such as the amazing tea shop in Dornoch and the Clava cairns Neolithic burial site outside of Inverness. And even the ‘boring bits’ you travel through are quite interesting in themselves and more than compensated by the beautiful views and quirky town and street names.

We are blessed in this country with a fantastic national network of marked cycle routes, many of which are off-roads and through many beautiful places. There are occasionally issues of inappropriate gates, steps and slightly more off-road than expected, but generally we found the national cycle network to be an absolute blessing. You can find them marked on any OS map by little round dots, alternatively you can find all of the routes on the Sustrans website or you can buy cycle maps of many areas including Norfolk from Goldeneye

So before you dismiss long distance cycling as an activity you would never be able/ want to take part in, just consider its many benefits and the relative ease in which I found myself converted! Peace and bicycle grease to you all.

Photos: Me on my bicycle (Sam White), video - a day in the life (Mike Snyder), a tour of bikes! (Laura Kim), learning about bikes in our training week (Mike Snyder), an exciting find on our way - the ice cream bike! (Sarah), celebrating at the John O'Groats sign (Sam White)

Sunday, 12 September 2010

A Useless Generation

This is a picture of a bridge in a place I used to live in the desert called Turtle Ranch. It’s made from scrap wood and metal and leads across a wash that is usually dry but in the monsoon season roars with rainwater from the mountains. The house was built by hand from adobe and mesquite, old glasshouse frames and by a pragmatic attitude that some might call pioneer and others recognise as a mix of 70s ideology, permaculture and a Transcendental connection with nature that Chris Hull talked about in his post on rainwater last week. It had a rough beauty all of its own.

Today we live in different times and different places. The spirit of the enterprise that led many to live closer to the land and to take matters into their own hands has dissipated. “I am part of the most useless generation that ever walked this planet. I’m very good at moving pixels around on a screen… and fixing bikes…” laughed Ben Brangwyn at Transition Norwich’s Unleashing almost two years ago. And though there are amongst us skilled gardeners, menders and darners, people who are fully aware of the consequences of their actions, we live within a time of bourgeois tastes, where shops and services for everything abound. To travel and live in another’s country, on borrowed time, is easy. To downshift and live in a house where everything is chipped, cracked and falling apart is challenging, especially when you are the only one in your street doing it.

Last month, just before our Give-and-Take Day in Bungay, my friend-in-Transition Elinor gave me a night-dress that she had been given that didn’t fit. And I can’t tell you what that felt like to wear something that hasn’t come from a charity shop. No one had worn it before me. It was fresh, clean, and a clear sky blue. It belonged to me utterly.

We live in a culture that loves such moments. And we would be foolish if we didn’t recognise their power, for it builds on our every desire to inhabit the lovely and the new, to escape into a realm far away from the toil and sweat of human existence, the ugliness of the world.

We would be foolish if we didn’t recognise how easy it is to throw things away that break, to ring up and ask someone else to unblock your drains, mend your machines, to clean your windows. To lord over what we control and possess like haughty princesses.

We would be foolish if we didn’t realise all our desires to pull ourselves out of poverty (as most of our families have through history) was a powerful motivating factor in our present materialism. And that to put on recycled clothes and to eat off cracked plates as a necessity meets strong social resistance in ourselves, as well as an instilled fear of humiliation.

We would be foolish if we didn’t face the fact that we like to lead lives that keep us apart from our neighbours, secluded in our fairy towers, no matter what platitudes we utter about community.

Only if we have another kind of attitude, one that matches the idealistic, individualistic 70s can we actually make this Transition voluntarily and with good cheer. In 2010 that’s a planetary awareness and an innate sense of social justice for our fellows. We can’t do this within the consumer dream. Because the cultural aesthetic of the clean and the new and exclusive is too strong. We have to put our values in another dimension entirely and think differently. We have to expand our consciousness in a way that human beings that never done before together. Because engaging in our collective intelligence will be more absorbing, more urgent, more satisfying, a greater work, more completely useful than feeding those desires for individual pleasure and possession. Our attention will shift naturally and we won’t worry anymore about the colour of the wallpaper, or the state of our shoes.

We’ll be too busy making do and mending those broken relationships with the planet. Making bridges across the invisible divides that separate us from one another, with parts we discarded on the dustheaps long ago.

Bridge at Bisbee Junction, Arizona; Give and Take Day at the Chaucer Club, Bungay; Heavenly Blue morning glory.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

No parts – no mend

Sometimes we would like to mend things but it just can’t be done. This is my late departed printer, that was alive and well a week ago but was condemned to be buried in a hole in the ground , simply because it was not possible to economically replace a few worn parts. As an IT consultant I see lots of printers that get binned for similar reasons. My friend Steve at Recycle PC confirms that there is a massive problem with all makes of ink jets and that the design life is about three years (mine actually lasted 7 years, but it could easily have lasted far more). Many printers cease to work simply because the pads that absorb waste ink have become full. These pads are little more than cotton wool but are impossible to get at and expensive to buy.

I hope that at least some of the metals were recovered before my printer went to landfill. Printers are far from being the only problem. It is not possible for users to replace the batteries on many phones and music players – it is hard not to see this as a cynical marketing ploy.

This expensive multifunction printer was multifunctionrepaired when its ink pads clogged up but the cost was not much less than buying a new printer – even though the parts were tiny. I had it repaired, more because it would have been unforgivable to scrap so many resources – rather than on economic grounds.


It is not all bad news – I was able to replace the cutter blade on this hedge trimmer at about 50% of the cost of a new trimmer. Though this did require me to dismantle and reassemble most of the machine without the aid of instructions! If I had to pay someone to do this then the cost would have been prohibitive.

Manufacturers tell us they provide what the consumer demands – well it is time more consumers demanded products that can be easily repaired and that spare parts are made available at sensible prices.