Monday, 31 January 2011

My Inconvenient Life (without a Car)

First the exhaust fell off and Mark tried to tape it back Mexican-style. Then we took the car down to the garage. Carl welded it and Chris gave us one of his laconic predictions: OK for short journeys. But we knew - as you always Just Know- that it was a Sign. We drove gingerly down the bumpy icy lanes and started to do complicated arithmetic with bus timetables. In a full-on blizzard we skated off the road at night into a ditch. That was another one.

Then, out of the blue Daphne, a fellow Transtioner said: you can have my old car. A reprieve! Another Vauxhall, and a diesel, so we could try out the fuel from our Sustainable Bungay bio-diesel project in the Spring! We were exultant. Two weeks later it refused to start. The alternator had gone. And Chris gave us another of those looks and a list of other unforeseen horrors to do with camshafts and brake pipes. Oh God, here it is: The Total No-Car Situation.

If you’re reading this in the city you’re probably thinking, what’s the big deal? But in rural England, right now, not having a car has consequences. We can walk to the local town (35 minutes) but that ancien regime, non-organic seatown is not where our social life is, or Transition, or most of our food. And since the cuts the buses have rocketed in price (£3.20 for the same journey) and the services drastically reduced. I cycle to collect our veg box (20 miles), Mark walks out and meets everyone in the lane. We are getting fit and back in touch with the neighbourhood, with the elements, after a long secluded winter . .

But how are we going to get to Bungay? Our 30 minute car journey suddenly turns into a two-bus, two and a half hour one. £5 becomes £12. And there are no buses back. Our Norwich journey at least has one night bus (at 11.15pm) from Lowestoft train station. You see, life shrinks. You don’t have that freedom anymore to go where you want. And that’s why, though the petrol prices have reached a record high, people hold on desperately to cars.

But something else happens. It really does. I found that out in the first post I wrote about Car-Free Day and found myself canoing down the River Waveney under the stars at Autumn Equinox. You can stay the night with us, said Nick and Josiah and Elinor and Gemma and Daphne. After Green Drinks, Margaret drove us home, Rita and Kate picked us up to go the Lowestoft Anti-Cuts meeting, and Lesley gave us a lift to the Core group meeting. Come in for a cup of tea, a glass of wine, supper, we said. We found ourselves talking and laughing, getting to know each other in a way that isn’t always possible in our Transition events or meetings in the library or the pub.

Do you want control or do you want relationship?

That's a question I used to ask people when they wanted to connect with flowers or with their dreams, in the days when I taught such things. There was this big struggle inside as the desire to have it My Way ceded to the kind of openness required to tap into the multi-dimensional nature of the earth and ourselves. You can’t see the earth as it really is with your dualistic rational mind. You can only see it with your heart, when you are immersed in the fabric of life and allow self-organisation to happen. When you risk and let go. You think generosity comes from the giver, but actually it comes from the receiver. It comes when you work within an open system, rather than a closed system over which you have Total Control, steering wheel and gear stick in your hands.

We’re not taught relationship. We’re taught to live in isolated bubbles and to escape into our minds. We sit in circles and share ideas about community and support, but we’re mostly talking to ourselves, in separation, as cycles of inconsolable grief and terror go into replay in our emotional bodies. I found out in our old flower and dream work that people like to be in control of the earth they are saving, in the same way lovers like to be in control of who they are loving. To manage and design every situation. Not because we’re dictators but because we have been bullied and shamed by our upbringings to live in shut-down. Seize power or be humiliated! Take the wheel or take the bus! However you can’t control and communicate at the same time, neither with people, plants nor the planet. It’s either a one-way domination or a two-way free-will exchange. And the world we get to inhabit depends entirely on that choice.

At some point in Transition you have to become the passenger. And accept the invitation.

Photos: Dashboard with devil's claw seed pods, Arizona, 2001; Sustainable Bungay Library Community Garden and the new hazel screen.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Postcard from Madre Tierra, Southern Ecuador - Early '90s

Dear All,

As you can see, the view from the straw palapa I'm staying in here is beautiful. I've just been watching a condor circle high above the peaks. We're in the foothills of the Andes in Southern Ecuador in a place called Madre Tierra near the small town of Vilcabamba.

The journey took seven hours by bus from Cuenca to the north, which is much higher up, and colder. The bus was crammed with passengers and belongings and I thought at one point I'd be driven mad by the 24-hour salsa music the driver had on full blast. Then we started to descend. Banana and papaya trees began appearing. They became more and more abundant. I felt my body unwind with the warmth.

But it's not really the view or the bus ride I'm writing to you about. Nor the fact that Vilcabamba is famous for people who live to be a hundred years old, and for the San Pedro cactus said to hold the keys to eternity.

It's this place. Madre Tierra. I don't think I've ever been anywhere like it. You can't book in advance, so the bus drops you off and you walk up the hill in the warm dark past the sugar cane field twinkling with glow worms under a sky full of stars. I was nervous about finding the place packed. Where else would we go in the middle of nowhere? What if we have to SHARE with PEOPLE WE DON'T KNOW? Kitty, the Australian girl who told us about Madre Tierra in a cafe in Quito, told me "no worries, Mark, it'll be fine." (How come Australians are always so laid back?)

We arrived to a friendly welcome and were given a bamboo hut to stay in. Very elementary, a couple of beds, a rickety table, a ceiling light - with a wasp's nest built around it. WASPS! I've had a phobia of wasps since childhood. It took me a VERY long time to get to sleep.

Next morning I saw the other huts dotted about the hillside. On the balcony outside our hut there are coffee beans drying in the sun.

Loos and showers are communal and the water is solar-heated. It took me some time to get used to the low pressure (I've always loved a bit of a power shower!), but I'm slowly tuning in to the place. It's lovely to shower outside with my bare feet on the earth.

Every day at breakfast and dinner, everybody converges upon the communal 'dining room', a huge table set under a verandah, overlooking the valley. There you meet fellow travellers on the South American trail from all over the world, and watch rainbows dance between the mountains. The owners are Jamie from Ecuador and Durga from Canada, who live in a small house on site and come and talk with the guests at mealtimes. The wasps won't hurt you, they told me. And the coffee is seriously local. As are the awesome fruit salads of papaya, mango and banana, and the flowers in the huge pot of afterdinner tea.

Most of the food is grown here in the gardens at Madre Tierra. It's all vegetarian, the cooks prepare it fresh every day (and eat what the guests eat) and any waste goes to feed the very free-range chickens and turkeys. The latter are glorious fowl who let you know audibly and with a proud display of tailfeathers just who has the right of way when you meet them on the path.

Last night we had a steam bath heated from wood gathered within walking distance. Several of us sat pressed together naked in the warm darkness of a small hut. We threw water on hot stones with a scented eucalyptus branch, breathed... and sweated! And got to know each other.

We're probably leaving tomorrow or the day after. But we'll come back whilst we're still in Ecuador. There's something about this place that tastes of the future.

(ii)
Suffolk, England 2011

PS: On that visit to Madre Tierra I got over my fear of wasps. It has never returned. You could call it sleeping with the enemy that turned out not to be the enemy.

PPS: Coming to think of it, I'm not addicted to power showers anymore either.

PPPS: I have not been to Vilcabamba since 1993. I'm not addicted to flying now, either. But I do love communal eating, flower tea, rainbows, cactus, condors, turkeys and Madre Tierra wherever I go.

Pics and Painting: Madre Tierra, early 90s, Visions in Ecuador 1993, all by me

Friday, 28 January 2011

An island economy

I've fallen in love with the Islands of Scotland. For about the last 3 years, every big holiday has been a long slow haul up the East Coast Mainline, or in a National Express coach overnight until we awake, stiff (and really needing to use a toilet that stays still underneath you) but thrilled to be on holiday. We take local buses and trains that get us bit by bit to the ferry ports, drop our bags and rush to the ferry rail to watch the sea rolling, the land tilting and shifting and diminishing. Alan holes up in the lounge with a book, I stay up on deck for as long as I can bear the cold, watching and watching for the glimpse of a fin.


The year before last we went out to the Shetland Isles. My dream was to see the Orcas that patrol the summer seas off the Northern Isles, but they eluded me. We saw many and beautiful things along the way: puffins, snipe drumming in the dusk, larks singing from every cloud and the terrible bonxies; but the thing that made me think most was the state the local businesses were in. Booming. Successful, vibrant, tiny.

For the first time I understood that every single thing for sale on an island has to either be produced there or imported. In many of the small island communities of Scotland the cost of shipping goods from the mainland creates an unofficial 'import tax', enabling small local producers to compete on price.


We ate at a wonderful restaurant on Barra, which served locally reared chickens, beef, lamb and scallops caught in the bay. It would, I'm sure, have been possible for them to buy in frozen chicken breasts from Thailand like most other restaurants do, but there seems to be something different about the way islands do things. It is expensive for the local farmers to export their produce to mainland markets, and expensive for restaurants to buy in produce from them. So they don't. They sell to each other, and cut out those middle men.


The Harris tweed manufacturers are still going strong on Harris. Each bolt of cloth by law has to be produced in a crofters own house, woven by hand. The tweed is protected by an act of parliament: the Harris Tweed Act of 1993, which states the wool must be dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides. This enables a local dyehouse to survive and protects the tradition of hand weaving. The fabric certainly isn't cheap, but I bought a few metres off the bolt: when else would I have the chance to buy an entirely hand-made cloth in Britain? It's beautiful stuff, sturdy and thick. Herringbone tweed, the colours of heather and seafoam, clouds and peat.

People often complain that Norfolk is hard to get to. It's like an island, they say. What if it was, I wonder? If we could impose an import tax on all food and goods brought across the border. Small local companies might be able to compete again. All our good Norfolk wool that is thrown away at the moment might be spun again. The supermarkets wouldn't be able to sell meat for less than our Norfolk farmers can rear it for.

It's a romantic and probably unworkable dream, but I'd love to see it.


Pictures: all mine. Bottlenose dolphin in the Moray Firth, Local lamb on Mull.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Ötzi in Hethersett

Over the last 12 years, I’ve been to 8 ecovillages and smaller ecological communities in 6 European countries. Although I would have liked to talk about that experience as a whole, I haven’t found the words yet to do that. It’s partly because these 8 communities differ as much from each other as they differ from the status quo society. (Although there definitely is a common denominator to them, which is why they’re all part of the Global Ecovillage Network.) So what I’m left with doing is taking out one particular experience that is easy to write down, because it came to me in words.

In 2008 I visited Damanhur in Italy as a volunteer. One of the people there said that for three years he had eaten only food grown in the valley. (He had stopped doing this because it was such a hassle.) Damanhur is a community with a spiritual leader, who has a weekly question hour for visitors. I asked him what the connection was between the ecological and the spiritual aspect of the ecovillage as a whole and that example in particular. His answer impressed me a lot. He talked about Ötzi, who was born and lived in Italy about 5000 years ago, and who died in a glacier on the border with Austria, where he was found in 1991. Scientists had a field day, because his body had been frozen all that time. They analysed the trace metal composition of his body, which was so specific that they could pinpoint exactly which valley he had lived in before he set off for Austria. That is, his body had the same composition as that valley*. Talk about local food!

For those of you who don’t know me, and still wonder about the title: I grow all my fruit and vegetables in my garden in Hethersett, and this year intend to add honey and dinner carbohydrates

Photograph from wikipedia.
* I’ve followed Falco’s lead, and simplified the story for clarity.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Medicine People - Arizona 1994 - 2001

The sky island rises above the desert floor; a ring of mountains known as The Mules. The town within its rocky arms appears, at first glance, unremarkable: a collection of small wooden shacks scattered up a red hillside, down a gulch, with narrow steep streets, skinny metal staircases, a red-bricked main street with a few old-fashioned storefronts; an alternative cafe, a co-op store, a library with oak floors, a parking lot shaded with ash trees and desert willow. By the highway that winds through the mountains there is a “hell’s hole” where European immigrants once mined for copper; in the abandoned gardens the fruit trees they planted still grow - pomegranates, mulberries, figs. Everyone that lives here has been somebody somewhere else. One day they woke up in the city and the desert called them. They got sick, or cried too much, or had a dream, or like me, met someone on a film set who said it was funky place full of artists, full of thorny attitude.

There is something that calls you: in the luminous space that surrounds the border town, in the mineral mountains, in the prickliness of the people. Something that brings you to be tempered in the alchemical furnace of the desert. To gaze up at the stars that burn bright in the obsidian sky. Outside the thorn bush and cactus keep their independent positions in the flat lands and in the canyons. Keep your distance! they say to each other with their formidable spines. Stay out of my way! And yet standing amongst them you have never felt so together in your life.

For seven years 1994 - 2001 I came with Mark to this old mining town in the Chihuahua desert. We rented apartments, bought thrift store furniture and made friends with those fierce independent spiky people. This is a postcard and if I could put everything I loved about this place into it I would. But that’s for a book.

What I want to say is I learned a lot of things here I couldn't have done if I'd stayed in my conventional London life. England is a time place, cold and damp and saturated with ghosts and history, obsessed with form, always looking back. Arizona is hot and dry. It's all about space and opportunity and looking forward. My old friend Carol went into the desert when she was 40 years old. Everyone had left her and she had to start again. She sat down in the middle of nowhere and cried for a long time. Then she put her hands into the earth and her hands formed bricks out of the red mud. She built a house with those adobe bricks and then she lived there.

To start again you have to find a new point of departure. I had left the city and my old life and I had to learn another way and this is where I learned it. I learned medicine plants, I learned to live in a straw bale house without A/C or a telephone or a lock on the door. I learned to hold my own and come to my own conclusions about the empire, as I watched chain gangs working along the highway, when the sulphuric acid from the mine’s slag heaps stung my eyes, when I heard immigrant families running down the streets at dawn and helicopters searching for them, when I found young men standing in the garden, lost and collapsing with thirst and exhaustion, having walked and hitched all the way from El Salvador.

I learned from real hippies who had settled here in the 70s: flower girls who had come out of Haight Ashbury, artists who had walked away from fame in New York, who had spent ten years travelling in a bus across America, radical lesbians, activists, poets, the first permaculturists, the first people to build compost toilets and grow organic vegetables. People who had put themselves on the line and weren't going back. They were tough and bitter when I met them, living in rooms full of books with painted floorboards and a wood stove. And I spent winters and summers in those rooms in an old miner’s hotel, in an adobe roundhouse, in a yurt. I lived among medicine plants on the edge of the wild desert and I listened to their stories. They passed everything on. Everything that worked and everything that didn’t.

It was not paradise. It was an immense red land with an immense blue sky, where you could drive out down a road edged with sunflowers all the way down into Mexico and feel entirely free. But, of course, no one was entirely free. “Little roads not immune from grief,” Carmen used to call them. This was Apache territory, the last tribe on Turtle Island to stand against the white invaders. They lived in warrior bands in these sky islands like mountain lions, red bands tied around their heads, men and women smoking the rough leaves of wild tobacco.

What I learned from Arizona was about keeping a flame of a different world alive in spite of circumstances. How you do this without losing heart. How to endure alongside the earth and all its creatures. How to withstand the shocks of history and keep your humanity intact. To live a medicine life. How to wait in the long afternoons, to live without comfort or convenience. How to walk through the territory and not be afraid of snakes and scorpions, of flash floods or a bear or the border patrol asking you, what are you doing out here? How to look them in the eye and say:

Why officer I'm looking at a flower, what are you doing?
I'm looking at this scrawny stick because underground it has a vast reservoir stored in its tap root that can keep it going through this summer drought and tonight when we are sleeping it will unfold its white lotus-like flowers as it does once a year. And all the moths in the desert will be summoned by its extraordinary fragrance. I'm learning to be like that flower that some call Queen of the Night and the Apaches call Pain in the Heart.

When I returned to England I brought that medicine with me. It's a bitter medicine because it's got broken heart in there and shattered illusions, dreams that didn't work out and loss. But the medicine of the heart is bitter, because it's our experience that will really come to matter in Transition. Not just our obvious skills and abilities, but those some of us learned while we were out travelling in the far-flung places, on the road, waiting in a desert town for destiny to knock on the door.

Photos: Bisbee, Arizona and coral bean flowers; Mark and the San Jose mountains; soaptree yucca flowers; medicine jars with hop tree flowers and wild lupines.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Solar sisters in Sri Lanka

Being one of two guests being welcomed by an elaborate ceremony with several hours of performances by all the different classes in the school, followed by a feast of local food with all of the teachers of the school was slightly overwhelming! But I suppose it illustrates how much benefit we were bringing to their village.

Through a brilliant little NGO - the Himalayan Light Foundation* - we were installing solar panels on to a school in the Sinharaja region of Sri Lanka as part of their solar sisters project. This would allow school lessons to continue outside of daylight hours, as currently they had no lights at all in their classrooms.

As I have found, unfortunately, often happens with foreign volunteering we were mostly there for funding the project - paying for the solar panel systems as well as the cost of our trip. However, we were given a days training in installing solar panels and I did help the Sri Lankan technician who was doing most of the work to put a few light switches together!

We were staying with a local family for a week and, besides a few excursions to tea factories and local reserves, we spent most of our time hanging out at the school with all of the children and playing cricket, which they were considerably better at than us!! It was definitely a fairly basic existence and we were staying with one of the better off families in the village. They cooked over an open fire in the kitchen, we washed using water from the tanks out the back and the WC was an experience complete with giant spiders! However, as Jon said yesterday they were all very happy and positive, much more so than most people I know in the UK, and we very much enjoyed our stay with them. I hope that our gift of solar power has helped their village school. I definitely feel that it is one of the main potential benefits of solar power, in providing a small amount of electricity in otherwise very remote areas. It also does highlight for me how little electricity we really need to use and it makes our lifestyles look horribly wasteful.

*More information on the Himalayan Light Foundation can be found here http://www.hlf.org.np/. They can be challenging to get in contact with, but do persist as they are lovely people!

Photos: banner of the welcome ceremony, me fitting a light switch, Sally playing very scenic cricket, Asoka in her kitchen cooking over an open fire.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Postcards from another world

At night, the velvet darkness was alive with stars. We would sit out on the veranda, listen to the crickets singing, and look up into the sky. During the rainy season, frogs would add their voices, but more often than not, the only sound would be the whisper of the breeze, the buzz of the occasional mosquito and the distant grumble of the generator, giving us the nightly ration of electricity. I still dream about nights like that.

I was lucky enough to live in northern Nigeria as a child, and the experience profoundly influenced me. It was low-carbon living because it really had to be – it’s impossible to rose-tint the way the local people around us lived. They were small-scale subsistence farmers, cattle traders and shopkeepers. They didn't choose to live that way; they did it because they were poor.

By local standards, we were rich; though in comparison with people back home in England, our standard of living was basic. We had no televisions or videos, and even if we had had those things, we only had electricity for a set number of hours a day, powered by that erratic generator. There were limited public services and no telephones. Even the water supply was inconsistent, and I remember the scramble to fill the bath, the sinks, every conceivable pot and pan when we knew the water was about to be cut off again. We lived on local produce because, mostly, that was all that was available.

Yet, in so many ways, those were the richest years of my childhood. Without so many of the distractions we now take for granted, we read books, played games, roamed for hours on our bikes. We had a freedom that was so distinct from the frenetic and fast-paced 24-hour society that we have now.  I can't imagine any other kind of childhood, and a part of me wonders how I can give my own children a taste of that kind of life.

People tell me that a zero- or low-carbon lifestyle would be a disaster, all hair-shirts and miserable denial, and that people wouldn't enjoy it, just wouldn't go for it. And while I’m certainly not advocating the kind of poverty that the local people had to live with – poverty is not noble and it’s not good enough in the 21st Century - the memory of the low-impact lifestyle we had while we were living there tells me that we can be remarkably adaptable and optimistic when we need to be. We can do it and we can enjoy ourselves.

This week on the blog, our blogging community is showcasing a series of "postcards" from places we've visited or lived in; parts of the world that have taught us something about that physical and spiritual sustainability that is so crucial if we really want to change the way we live in our world.

We hope you enjoy them – feel free to comment and tell us about your own experiences.

Image from http://www.africawithin.com

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Reading Between The Lines

"Okay, you can take my picture, as long as I'm reading an intelligent book!" I said to Bill, the photographer from the EDP. So I picked up a copy of The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and sat down.

This was in Southwold Library on Tuesday. Yesterday the Southwold Journal ran a front page article Save Our Libraries and I appeared inside, though you can't see what book I'm reading.

Suffolk County Council have drawn up a list of 29 (out of 44) libraries to be closed as part of their "divestment" of public services programme, unless community groups and local councils can come up with a way of taking them on - part of the so-called "Big Society". (Norfolk though is to keep all its libraries.)

I go to our local library a lot. I use the computers for research, to check emails (no internet at home) and to look for jobs. The head librarian is (another) Charlotte. She runs a superb ship with Lynne, Sue and sometimes Ann.

Our library is visited by everyone, the poor, the rich, the lonely, families, the old, the young, the unemployed using the computers to seek work. Our libraries are for everyone. They are part of the public good, and they work because they are run by professional and experienced librarians.

A 'divested' library in the hands of volunteers as per the Big Society would be something else. The word 'voluntary' implies you can turn up to 'work' or not as you see fit. It's not your livelihood, so unless you’re utterly committed and treat it as a real job, you'll be doing it for other reasons, which may be noble but won't be professional. It is not the same focus. And it won’t be the same library.

I bumped into the reporter for Archant newspapers, who own the EDP, EADT and the local journals, THREE times on the day of the photograph – in the library, the street and on the bus (what is happening to our rural bus services is for another post!). “People in the street are saying they don’t want the library to close," she said, "but they don’t want me to mention them by name.”

I said my name was Mark Watson and that all of us whether we use the libraries or not need to look at the fact that besides being invaluable for books, CDs, DVDs and the internet, they are vital hubs of social interaction. Like the drop-in centres and shelters for people with mental illness or nowhere to live, which are also under threat. Where will people go to connect with others? As part of belonging to the place we live in?

Bungay Library is also threatened, and by extension the community garden which Sustainable Bungay and the Librarians have created together over the past eighteen months. (See the Grand Opening on YouTube here). Children from the local school planted the first spring bulbs last Autumn, and they are now coming up.

The people making the decisions to cut these services are not the ones relying on or using them. And they are too distant from them to really empathise or care about it.

Recently the Transition Network decided after much consideration not to endorse the Big Society (see Rob Hopkins' illuminating report here) as it currently stands. Transition Initiatives should not have to take up the slack from the government's public service pending cuts. In particular whilst little or no real provision is being made to address Climate Change or Peak Oil. But also because the present government's actions show a complete lack of empathy and equity in its dealings with people.

And that's why each of us needs to make the effort and increase these qualities in ourselves and with each other. Then there might just be a tipping point. A real shift in cultural values.

Banner: EADT front page Friday 21 Jan; Me and an Invisible Tipping Point in Southwold Library, and Save Our Libraries, Southwold Journal Fri 21 Jan

Friday, 21 January 2011

Medicine Soup

Like many people I went down with one of the virulent 'flus which have been affecting households everywhere this winter. I'm much better now but sometimes I get suddenly tired or cold and just have to rest. Others say they think it's gone and then boom, their temperature goes up and they're back in bed. The coughs drag on, energy levels are low. I had a blank feeling for days, like things weren’t making any sense. And I just sat in bed watching dvds on the laptop. I really felt for my friends with young families who all got sick.

I think these illnesses are partly social, related to the stresses placed on our immune systems by the current inhumane and depressing actions of a government which does not have the best interests of the people at heart. In fact which has no heart. I doubt anyone is really immune from the effects of this.

When I was ill, there were certain foods I just couldn't face. Milk and cheese, for example. And sweet things.

But this is a soup I made, first for Charlotte when she got sick, and later for myself. The ingredients are mainly local and seasonal, and something about it just hits the spot. It’s really kept us going:

Leek and Potato Medicine Soup

Dice three or four medium potatoes and cook in a saucepan with a pinch of sea salt (I use Malden). Keeping the potato water for the soup, drain the potatoes. Skim off any grey froth from the water.

Meanwhile slice three or four leeks and heat gently in a frying pan with a little olive oil.

Add some chopped fresh rosemary and thyme (dried thyme also works) and freshly milled black pepper. Optional (but kind of essential): the peel of half an organic unwaxed lemon. Don't let any of this burn.

Add the potatoes to the pan and heat it all together for a few minutes. Return all this to the saucepan with the potato water. Squeeze the juice of the lemon half into the soup. Heat gently through but do not boil.

Serve with a splash of olive oil and season to taste.

I sometimes add a teaspoon of miso for extra flavour, but it's certainly good enough if you don't. This soup tastes even better the next day. This is definitely one for the Low Carbon Cookbook!

PS Another lifesaver is an infusion of chopped fresh organic ginger (available from Follund Organics in Norwich market, The Greengrocer or Rainbow), freshly squeezed lemon (again organic and unwaxed is best) with a teaspoon of local honey.

PPS Don’t let them get you down entirely!

Thursday, 20 January 2011

In Deep Shift

On Tuesday night Sustainable (aka Transition) Bungay hosted our third themed Green Drinks at the Green Dragon. Since we introduced the themes (the previous two were Economics and Livelihoods and Energy and Community), these monthly events have gone from being rather quiet affairs with between one (!) and six people ‘catching up’ at a table, to vibrant evenings where an invited ‘expert conversationalist’ sparks off lively discussions in a packed bar.

This week the topic was “Shifting Cultural Values”, and Dr. Rupert Read, Norwich Green Party councillor and reader in Philosophy at UEA, our expert conversationalist.

This was the first time Sustainable Bungay had broached a ‘philosophical’ rather than 'practical' subject, at least in public. We felt some nervousness before the event. Was it too intellectual? Airy-fairy? Wouldn’t it be safer to stick to practical subjects - wind turbines, low-carbon entertainment? Was the pub the right place for it? Wouldn't everybody just get distracted and talk about football results? But worst of all, WHAT IF NO ONE TURNS UP?

At twenty five past seven there were six of us. Oh dear, Rupert’s coming all the way from Norwich, disaster turnout, wrong subject choice, all fears confirmed... You stop that, Mark Watson, I told myself. There’s nothing wrong with small meetings. It’ll be intimate. The right people are here… and other things of a self-calming nature!

When Rupert began at a quarter to eight, there were thirty people in the bar, including eight new faces. All the emails and tweets, the press release, the poster and the printed newsletter, the word of mouth, had worked. People did want to talk about these things called cultural values, however vague that might sound. This was the best turnout yet.

Josiah welcomed Rupert and introduced the theme. He said that since the credit crunch, there has been an increasing awareness of a real need to rethink the way we relate to each other as human beings and in society. This evening is part of that process.

Rupert introduced himself as a philosopher of language and politician and said he was coming at the subject from these angles. He first asked us to consider how words shape the way we look at things and how they can be rendered 'congenitally vague', meaningless or misleading depending on how they are used, particularly in politics and the media.

'Sustainable' was a good example of a word that had become jargonised. Rather than denoting a way of life friendly to people and planet and one which we would have to work at from where we are now, the word itself carries implications of being able to maintain roughly our current (quite unsustainable in the proper sense) lifestyle indefinitely, with little or no effort required!

Rupert then introduced the subject of frames or cultural narratives, which he argued were more useful than isolated words for exploring and addressing our cultural values. Some frames are superficial whilst others are deep. You can read more about frames in the report by Tom Crompton "Common Cause" (download here 1.17MB)

The main cultural shift discussed was going from individualism, thinking of everything in terms of 'me' to a kind of collectivism, where we engage more as 'team' or community. Other shifts introduced were:

- Doing the Right Thing rather than the Profitable Thing (I thought this was particularly apposite given the present climate of massive public service cuts which are all based on Profit for the few and to hell with everyone else and our lives)

- Taking an active rather than passive stance and doing things oneself rather than waiting for others - even becoming your own MP!

- National well-being becoming more important than possessions

Rupert's dynamic presentation got the whole room going and was followed by an equally dynamic Q&A. We spoke about the importance of allowing space for people to express our feelings about what's actually going on (e.g. the cuts to the NHS) rather than talking in purely rational, formal or abstract terms; of giving ourselves and each other time to consider our relationships with one another, with the natural world, to think about our sense of place and belonging. To give these things and each other value.

One thing that struck me particularly was when Rupert said 'if you want to support a deep, positive frame, support the NHS.' This is because the founding principles of the NHS are to do with equity and 'healthcare for all', regardless of financial or any other status. So if we support the NHS, we are casting our vote for those principles. We are saying that they really matter.

It was a great evening - some people were shifting cultural values right up until closing time!

Banner: (l to r) WHAT IF NO ONE TURNS UP!; Rupert Read talks Shifting Cultural Values in Bungay's Green Dragon; Rupert and Nick in deep flow conversation

Sustainable Bungay's Green Drinks at the Green Dragon takes place on the second Tuesday of each month. Everyone welcome.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Share a bit more

This evening I am hosting a Transition Circle meeting on trying to set up a 'resource sharing' scheme. The idea is that there are many things which we do not need one of each, but the 'individuals' focus of our society has meant that we often do. So we are going to try out sharing instead to save money, the environment and to strengthen our little Earlham-based community.

There are so many possible things that I don't know quite where to start. Maybe the kitchen is a good place and I'm sure our sizeable collections of cake tins can be put to better use than they currently are. And as my bike tools are currently stranded in Edinburgh, borrowing a few basic tools to fix my brakes would be amazing!

I am interested to see how broad we set our sharing. There are the obvious things such as lawn mowers and cake tins, recipe books and hammers, but whether we get into skill/service sharing as well is an interesting question. For example someone could offer a bit of bike repair and someone else could offer some darning, anything's possible!

The logistics may take a little bit of organising, especially for more sizeable items, but at least we all live in the same part of the city so won't have to go too far to collect things. And another activity we were talking about is making a few bike trailers to share so maybe that will help solve those problems.

Whatever we come up with a little more sharing rather than personal hoarding in the world can only be a good thing.

Photos: art work at Glastonbury

Monday, 17 January 2011

Criticising the status quo or creating your own reality

When you are not happy with the way that society works and you want it to change, there are several different approaches that you can take to try and bring about that change. I have always had a tendency to consider them as the positive and the negative approaches, although of course it is a continuum. Two examples at the extremes are criticising and lobbying against government policy as an example of the negative approach and creating your own eco-community, such as Findhorn, as a positive one.

The reason I characterise them in this way is that personally I find that most campaigning has a very negative focus - there is this problem, lets complain about it - where as transition tends to have a more positive focus on creating a lifestyle and community that we want. Kind of like focusing either on the problems or on the solutions.

Part of the reason that I have decided to write about this today is that I find just focussing on the problems and campaigning about them very difficult to stay enthusiastic about. Always complaining about something and writing letters expressing your opinions to government ministers (while being a very useful and worthy use of your time) uses an awful lot of energy without giving you much back. Alternatively creating a sustainable community also uses a lot of energy, but you do get so much back through friendships, experiences and the sense of achievement. So subsequently I find it much easier to find the enthusiasm to go to a transition event, than I do to keep contributing to the campaigns of all of the mailing lists I'm on! It's not that I don't want to save the NHS, stop the government selling off our forests and stop the horrendous problem of bycatch that the fishfight campaign has so shockingly highlighted, but as a very small piece of a very large machine it is hard to get satisfaction from your part in it.

Now my intention was not to make the case for one side or the other, they are both necessary to a certain extent, in that we need to identify the problems before we can come up with sensible solutions. However, I do feel that focussing on the problems alone will never get us anywhere, it is so important to actually change ourselves and our lives to address the problems. And I have a suspicion that we could come up with brilliant solutions and address the problems, without much focus on them, as long as we were aware of them. If enough people start to live their lives as they want them then government policy will surely follow and besides won't we have more fun this way?
Photos: Hugh Fearnley-whittingstall's campaign to try and stop hundreds of tonnes of dead fish being thrown back into the sea due to EU law, www.fishfight.net, image from the facebook group Hughs Fish Fight; Building a human pyramid as a metaphor for change, taken on my Otesha tour by Ruth Clark.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Norwich Co-operative Communities

Norwich Co-operative Communities is a shiny new project borne out of an idea by Jackie Luckman of Shepway, Essex, called Shepway Co-operative Communities & Environment Welfare Club. Jackie started a Facebook group and invited others around the country to start one for their own area, building a network of networks, not so unlike the Transition movement.

I quickly became excited by this idea and jumped at the chance to instigate something for Norwich. Having previously worked in mental health and employment & training, I have seen how very well-intentioned and hard-working organisations do the best they can for the people or groups they aim to help, with extremely stretched resources. However I often also wondered why they didn't work together more.

We could take an example from ants. They use the soil surface to leave pheromone trails that can be followed by other ants. In species that forage in groups, a forager that finds food marks a trail on the way back to the colony; this trail is followed by other ants who then reinforce the trail when they head back with food to the colony. A lesson to us all, though we already know that two heads are better than one, a problem shared is a problem halved and 'No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main'. The ants, it seems, had it figured out long ago.

Earlier this week I launched a new online forum (go to http://www.norwichcc.tk/), which will be one way for organisations (or indeed, any local groups, businesses or individuals who want to make connections) to communicate their ideas, ask for and offer help with a range of things, limited only by what people want and what people can offer. To me, that seems a very broad spectrum indeed, as it could encompass health, well-being, the environment, the arts, crafts, recycling, sustainability, growing, disability, youth, community, talks and demonstrations and so much more. The online method is a mere starting point, how wonderful if it were to become so much more 'real', with its members actually meeting with each other, talking and collaborating.

The site is now up in beta, please do join and suggest it to anyone you think may find it interesting or useful. Feedback and suggestions very welcome and please do tell me if you do have any issues so I can try to correct them. Currently the site piggy-backs on the server for my Wombling website and I shall move the site over to a dedicated server as it develops and grows.

No more island loneliness.

Eco Treedweller

Sources: Goldy Sunset by ryandws, 'No Man is an Island' John Donne.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Strictly Roots - Low Carbon Cookbook

This is the veg that Erik brought. It came out of the dark clay of his garden in Hethersett, though the plant, one of the Sunflower tribe, is originally from far away in the Andes. It is a yacon, sometimes called apple of the earth and is eaten sliced as a salad with lime. Erik cooked it up in Christine's big North African pan with some chopped kuri squash. You said you liked water chestnuts he said (and it’s true tossed into a stir fry it was deliciously, surprisingly crunchy). What else is going on in your garden right now? I asked him. Roots, he replied. And sage. And proceeded to add a handful to the pot.

It’s been a tough winter for growers. Roots from swedes and salsify have done OK (once you could haul them out of the snowy, frost-bound ground) but anything above ground and leafy has suffered. Cauliflowers spotted by frost are being thrown away in their hundreds. At our January meeting we talked parsnip and horseradish, we talked the ecological footprint of quinoa, lacto-fermentation and how we are eating a LOT of cabbage (but not so many oranges). And afterwards we watched a programme about the discarding of tons of good fish into the North Sea.

This is the garden that Jeremy showed me. It’s the Grapes Hill Community Garden at the corner of the Dereham Road that's about to open its gates after two years' hard graft, from finding funds to putting up railings. It’s an act of local regeneration, an alchemical work that is turning a run-down playground into a flourishing green space - a showcase of what people can do when tarmac is pulled up and imagination and goodwill gets to work. Jeremy is one of a team of growers who along with Lara Hall from Norwich City Council are turning the paper plan above into physical reality.

At the moment what you see is bare winter earth with the structure of five wedge-shaped beds, four square (all with wheelchair access), a round lawn, trellis, spaces for compost, rainwater tank, hand-hewn wooden benches. But when Jeremy starts talking trees and plants the garden starts coming alive. Here's the corner where the fig tree will go. Here are the posts where the grape arbour will be. Here is the apple and cherry orchard, with room for medlar and quince. Here under the trees are currants and strawberries; here late raspberries and a heritage crimson-flowered broad bean, fragrant herbs and spring bulbs. The vegetable beds will be allotted to the community and members of the garden this month. Everything will be organic. As well as a living breathing space amongst the bricks Grapes Hill will be a teaching garden (Jeremy is a Master Gardener), showing people how to grow their own fruit and veg, from sowing seeds to harvesting.

We stood for a long time in the rainy twilight talking plants. People who love plants are always able to communicate with one another. Do you know oca, he asked me? Oca and mashui are two root vegetables that are grown alongside potatoes in the Andes. Which families are they from? I asked. Oxalis and nasturtium he replied. And I remembered then how wild nasturtiums grew alongside the freeways in Quito. And that’s when I realised that I hadn’t noticed the traffic all this time. It was coming up to rush hour but standing under the bare-limbed ashes, talking roots, the cars had disappeared.

When you have plants in common something happens. When you cook together something happens. It’s hard to say what really except that invisible connections are made that make sense of things in a time when absolute madness seems to rule. When fish are thrown back into the sea and everything once owned by the people is up for sale.

A humble pie cooked by four people who don’t fly in aeroplanes anymore. A small Eden by the ringroad.

This is what I wanted to say on Monday: it’s what we put our attention on that matters. Communication can bring attention to what is happening before our eyes and bring the spirit of things into play: it can make a simple dish into a feast and a small garden into a paradise. It can make those South American vegetables appear as marvellous magical beings that bring connection with the great Andes with them, roots that connect two meetings on a rainy Tuesday, the community garden with the Low Carbon Cookbook, everyone in the room.

We’re living in a cold and hostile climate right now and we need to put energy into our root communication systems. Because what’s happening beneath the ground, under the radar, is what is going to make sense of our lives. Not our individual fantasies, our special moments, our spiritual beliefs, what “I” think about the world, but what we are physically doing with our hands and our time together. At the meeting we talked about our vegetable connections with places and people: the school allotment Erik had when he was eight years old, Christine’s grandfather who kept pigs and chickens in his back garden in Tottenham, about Kerry’s family who kept cherry orchards in Kent, my father in Kent who loved to grow asparagus and transmitted a love of vegetables that has endured when almost everything else has been taken away. Our inheritance, our memory, our imagination - what all good cooks and writers and gardeners share.

People who put their attention and love and intelligence into what they do are a resilient people. Because when you are engaged in seeing the world afresh, seeing the world through creative eyes, everything that happens around you matters, takes on a shine. You’re not in shut down. You are not a.n.other and infinitely replaceable. You are valuable. This transition only happens because of you.

Erik, Jeremy, Fran, Christine, Kerry, Martin, Charlotte . . .
Oca, Yakon, Mashua, Kuri
Salvia officinalis
Grapes Hill, Norwich, Quito
This Low Carbon Life.

Grapes Hill Community Garden have three meeting dates this month: 15/16 January – bindweed root removal between 11am to 2pm both days. Monday 17 January - AGM 7.30 – 8.30 pm Belvedere Centre bar lounge, Belvoir street, NR2 3AZ. Sunday 23 January – Tree planting day. Meet on site from 10.30am. All welcome.

photos: Yacon roots from happyearth.com. Garden pictures from Grapes Hill Community Garden. Video for the Big Fish Fight here

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Norwich Community Supported Agriculture

It's all go at the Norwich CSA. Since I last wrote we've done shedloads of work. Surely the most exciting piece of work was done by Tully, Erik and William, who have successfully recruited us a farm manager. They advertised widely and we got a huge pile of applications. Our recruitment panel whittled them down to a manageable short-list and then held the interviews. We are very happy that our preferred candidate, Laura, accepted the job and will be starting in post mid-February. I am sure she will want to introduce herself closer to the time, so I will say no more on that.

We've held a visioning session to get our values and dreams for our farms down on paper: you can see the results here. Everybody's ideas and passions counted and will guide us as we work to establish the CSA. Some people's passions led them to very concrete outcomes: keeping bees or learning to coppice; while others considered the whole nature of our food system and the way we treat our land. It's very inspiring to look forward and envisage what we can grow on this site- it won't just be vegetables!

One of the toughest meetings I've been to was on the 5th of January. The Environment and Growing group met to discuss our plans for the land. The meeting started on a low-note, as we discussed the fact that the land owner has asked us not to plant the hedge we'd planned across the field. We hadn't known, but after 5 years a hedge gets protection under planning laws. If we plant a hedge across Chris' field and then (perish the thought!) we fold as a business, he would be left with a hedge partitioning off one quarter of a field, and having to jump through planning-hoops to try to get it removed. Of course we don't like to think this way. None of us are here because we want to talk about our CSA failing, or how hard it might be to get planning permission to grub up a beautiful hedge- but we have to do it. We have to think through every possible angle, to give the CSA the best possible start.

So we put our heads together and we thought and we pondered and we plotted. Between us we came up with a list of possibilities that will benefit wildlife just as much as the hedge, help out our crops and hopefully cause the land-owner less of a headache. Then we had to change our plans for the fruit trees and coppice: we had planned to put them on the field margins to maximise the land we can crop. But we've found out that those field margins are an importation habitat protected under the higher level stewardship scheme. But though our positivity and team work, I really think we've managed to come up with a plan B (and C and possibly D) that is very nearly as good as plan A.

If you're interested in being involved in helping us shape the CSA we're meeting tonight (13th January) at 7.30 at the Baptist Church on Duke Street . We'll be looking at the vision we created in December and working out how to make it a reality. Please do come along!

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Low Carbon Students?

As soon as I decided that I wanted to facilitate a Carbon Conversations course - helping people on the same journey of change and confidence building that I had experienced - I realised that the university was the best place for me to do it.

I was fairly heavily involved with the green scene at UEA while I was studying there, but I had definitely felt the difference in emphasis between the campaigning focus of the student groups and the more personal lifestyle-change focus of transition. At the same time I knew that there were lots of students at UEA who were trying to reduce their environmental impact, but with little support or student specific advice.

Luckily the Student Union agreed that this was a good idea and have funded a course of Carbon Conversations at UEA. We have almost completed the course with the first group now and I have found it incredibly inspiring. Helping other people to realise what changes they can make in their lives is a very fulfilling feeling.

It has been an interesting process focussing the course solely on a student lifestyle and the sharing of advice and opinions on how to view changes or how to save energy in a house you don't own, has been incredibly useful to everyone - including me!

There are many features of student lifestyles that affect low carbon living: from the short term renting of houses I have already mentioned, to the necessity of travelling (usually long distances) to visit your family, or in some cases having to travel for your academic course. However, it is amazing how much positive change you can still make. Carbon Conversations helped me out of feeling that I had very little control over most of my carbon emissions, to giving me a whole range of small changes that I can now do to make a real difference.

As I'm sure you will have realised by now I very much enjoyed facilitating the session last year and I hope to run another session in 2011. I also hope to get more students trained as facilitators so that we can start operating Carbon Conversations on a university scale! It is possible -Transition Edinburgh University ran 15 courses last autumn!!!

Photo: the Carbon Conversations handbook (www.cambridgecarbonfootprint.org)

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

An Urban Transition Lifestyle

ShakespearPoint(9) - Image Copyright: Racheblue @  bluAngeldesigns
Shakespear Point, New Zealand
Last night, as on many other evenings of late, I fell asleep dreaming that my partner and I, alongside a small brood of enchanting offspring, lived in a beautiful, highly insulated straw bale, timber framed home we’d built ourselves in a tranquil woodland setting. There was a stream running nearby, plenty of room for chooks and goats, maybe a pig or two, composting toilets, solar powered energy and hot water for when it was too warm to run the woodburner’s back-boiler. The idea of working simply on the land, growing our own food, coppicing wood for fuel and tool making, living in conjunction rather than competition with nature has long been a romantic dream. Lately however, the dream is becoming less and less of a fairy tale. Not only does the possibility of such a rural idyll seem increasingly necessary, it also seems more and more a real viable possibility. In the hopefully not too distant future, I aspire to live this bliss.

However, right now, I am here in Norwich - a wonderfully vibrant and creative city of diverse culture and a wealth of history. Positive visioning is a wonderful and essential method of transition to a highly sustainable lifestyle but in the meantime, I have spent most of my life living in cities (or bourgeois suburbia) and will most probably remain an urbanite for a good few years yet. I love cities for many reasons. The physical scale compared to a rural village or woodland outpost, the inevitable saturation within a constantly evolving history, the wide variety of people from various regions of our planet and different walks of life, all these things thrill my heart. The systems that seem to order our modern urban lives on the other hand, leave much to be desired and perhaps that’s why my rural dream is so powerful.

As demonstrated by the other writers on this blog and a host of forward thinking people elsewhere, sustainable, low carbon living in an urban setting is not only possible but is in many ways an easy choice. The overused Kermit line, ‘it’s not easy being green’, holds very little truth these days and is often a convenient excuse for maintaining the passive, all accepting, ‘economic growth at all costs’ status quo. Being green, living sustainably and consciously, evolving from passive consumerism to low carbon living is easy if we know how.

'Human' graffiti, Pottergate, Norwich
And, I believe that innately we do know how. We can allow ourselves to switch off from the constant stream of negativity and doom that emanates constantly from conventional media and results in an exhausted population with little hope, and a desire only to be entertained and consume in order to escape and fill the gaps in our too often fast paced lives. If we do this, we give ourselves space to slow down.

In that slowing down we may find it is no longer necessary to buy our food and groceries from supermarkets, particularly when (as in Norwich) there are so many local markets, on-line suppliers, independent stores and healthy, organic produce available. It may seem futile to buy new clothes from high-street stores because someone else tells us that our current wardrobe is now ‘out of date’ or no longer ‘on trend’. We may realize that updating our technological gadgets because we’re shown a glimpse of a newer, shinier model is not imperative to the good life. Suddenly the idea of growing our own food or buying from local, sustainable suppliers seems more inviting. Swapping, mending, recycling and making our own clothes and homeware becomes desirable.

In the slowing, we may find that we’d rather walk, take a bus or train or car-share instead of driving in our own personal metal bubbles. We may find that using less non-renewably sourced energy becomes an attractive option. Rather than locking ourselves away with all our worldly treasures held tight, we may want to share our time, skills, knowledge, resources and material possessions with our friends, family, neighbours and wider community who may in turn, start to appear more essential to living well than we had previously thought. We may find that the slowing improves our health and wellbeing and makes us feel more alive.

Labyrinth, Norwich Cathedral
At first glance, the idea of slowing down might seem at odds with urban city living but it need not be. It simply means making the spaces - physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally - to step off the fast track, down onto the overgrown, wild, chemical free meadow of sustainability we may have hardly noticed before. Take a look. Breathe in the vibrancy of life. It’s beautiful out here. The grass is actually greener, the weather exciting, the inhabitants friendly and supportive, the air is clean and the future bright.

Rules can be made up as we go along or we can discard them altogether. We can learn not to accept other people’s rules if they don’t suit us. We can allow mistakes to be made, allow time to grieve, learn lessons, find a more appropriate path and continue the journey. We can go easy on ourselves and discover what works best for us, changing our plans as necessary. There is no one perfect path except the one you are on. Travel slow and travel well x

Monday, 10 January 2011

Happy Monday! Transition Themes Week #2

Is it just me or have things suddenly got much harder? Here I am on Monday and I'm supposed to be introducing our second Transition Themes week, as part of the communication group, and Omigod I've found myself with writer's block. Or rather I've got something infinitely worse, which is I've written several paragraphs that don't seem to make any sense. I got up at six with Venus blazing in the sky and frost in the garden and four hours later "It" is just not happening.

I couldn't write at New Year, said my colleague, Trevor, on the OneWorldColumn. I looked ahead at 2011 and couldn't find anything positive to say. You could write about gloom, I said. Maybe other people feel the same way and need to hear how it is. Not how it should be.

And so now here I am with a taste of my own medicine. What do you do when something doesn't feel like it's working?

Here's why a forest garden in Devon is heading up the week. This agro-forestry garden is really working. 500 species of plant interacting in perfect harmony and symbiosis. I found this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFbcn06h8w4 via Twitter. Transition Norwich is one of 101 Transition initiatives world-wide that take part in this social media engine. So as well as tweeting the latest blog or TN event the twitter feed acts like a roll of small newspaper headlines that bring the kind of news it would take hours of individual surfing to find (you can also subscribe to the excellent Transition Initiatives Daily and Transition Partners "twitter newspapers"). Some of them make your heart jump.

I sent the video link to the Food and Farming google group and Fran Ellington wrote back and said the Grapes Hill Community Garden was inspired by Martin Crawford’s design and did anyone in TN want to get involved in some of the activities they are holding this month? Hey, I said, why don’t I visit the garden and write it up for the Low Carbon Cookbook slot (on Friday). That's when I began thinking about other places in the city, what activities we could highlight. Things you might not know were going on underfoot. So on Thursday Kerry will be writing about the Carbon Conversations course she's running (with Peter Ellington) at UEA and Elena will be reporting on the progress of the CSA at Postwick (having it's own agro-forestry planting day on 30 January).

Rachel, one of the movers and shakers in the Magdalen Street Celebration in October will be writing tomorrow on Transition Urban Lifestyle. Rachel just moved to Norwich from London (where she was involved with Transition Wandsworth) and runs the excellent Ecomonkey blog ("ethical and sustainable news, updates and opinion, plus tips to help save our planet"). On Saturday Eco Tree Dweller who wrote about her recycling business Wombling (also in NR3) in our Waste Week last year will be back reporting on a new social enterprise Norfolk Co-operative Communities. And Mark will be rounding the week up on Sunday.

What will you be writing about Mark? I asked. I don’t know yet he said. It depends on what happens in the week.

I was going to write how human communications act like fungi in a complex eco-system, such as a forest. The garden works because of this massive underground exchange network. You can’t control that kind of system: it's open and flexible and self-organising. What you can do is make the space and allow creative symbiosis to happen. You make the meeting place -a garden or a blog - so people and ideas can work together. So connections and relationships start happening. So we know we're not in isolation. That's what I'm doing really as the organiser for this week. Preparing the ground for the days ahead. Sweeping the stage for everyone to appear. If those paragraphs make more sense later I'll let you know. Meanwhile it's over to the crew . . . Happy Monday!

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Why are there no vegetable brushes?

I enjoy growing my own veg but at this time of year the root crops are pretty muddy when I dig them up. I don't want to peel my organic carrots as the skin has valuable nutrients - so an effective vegetable brush is essential. So why is it so hard to find one?

The kitchen shops in Norwich have pretty little brushes for polishing the tops of mushrooms but nothing for getting to grips with a dirty carrot! Surely not everyone buys their veg pre washed in plastic bags? After checking out nearly every shop in the city I found what I think is intended to be a floor brush in the Co Op - there were two half hidden under some mops - but it is robust enough to get the carrots clean and no need to peel them. I'm fortunate to have an old sink in the garage where it does not matter if the mud gets sprayed around a bit.

We have come along way from our 'roots' when you can't buy a brush to clean them.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Big Society Anyone?

So, it seems I've been a bit "Mr Angry" the last couple of days, so I'll round up with one last bit of social rage.

Every day there are news stories about public service cuts, the ever-increasing cost of living and rising unemployment.  At least on those days when the media can get its head round a story that isn't about some vacuous C-list celebrity.  It feels grim.  I saw a piece of graffiti on the way into work the other day - "Cuts kill Communities".

And yes, there are going to be cuts here in Norwich too.  On the Norfolk County Council Consultation website, there are (I think) 154 different consultations, and after a bit of searching, I found the Environment and Development - Budget Saving proposals 2011-2014 section.  Unlike the petition section of the 10 Downing Street website, you can't see if anyone else has commented, which is a shame.

Oh, and the consultation closes on 10th January 2011.

Yes, 10th January - that's this Monday.

When I went to see Billy Bragg last month, he talked about cynicism and apathy as the biggest threats to social change and social justice.  Hardly anyone I've spoken to seems to know about these, and I only know of one other person who's responded to any of them.  There are lots of words such as reshape, reduce, streamline, efficiencies.  I'm not against those sorts of things per se, and some of the wording seems very innocuous, but if we don't make our feelings known, we can't complain if things don't go the way we would want them to.

So please take some time tomorrow, have a look at the site and response.

If nothing else, it shows we care.

And that we're paying attention.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Our National Heritage

Annette sent me a link today that filled me with longing - a site where you can buy your very own piece of woodland. I love trees and forests for all sorts of practical and personal reasons, and I've always wanted to own some. They're not just part of our planet's lungs, but fabulous and beautiful places to get back in touch with nature.

Of course, £40 odd grand isn't that easy to get my hands on so I'll have to put that one on the back burner, as it were.

However, I already own a huge chunk of woodland. In fact, so do you. We all do. Our nation's forests. Which is why I was particularly peeved to find out that our current government is planning to sell off vast areas of state-owned forest to private enterprises, effectively giving the carte blanche do do whatever they like with them, including chopping them down.

Just in case I didn't state my feeling clearly enough: that forest belongs to all of us. And our children, and their children too. I'm not at all happy about it being sold off!

So far, 123472 people have signed the petition on the fabulous 38 degrees campaigning website protesting about the proposed sell-off. Please send the link to anyone you know who you think is likely to sign up.

As I'm unlikely to come up with the £40k needed to buy my own little bit of arboreal heaven, I've just signed up to help the Norwich Community Agriculture group with tree planting on their site on Sunday 30th January. If you'd like to be part of it, check out the Transition Norwich website here. Maybe I'll see you there!

Picture from Guardian Blog site as linked above.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The World Turned Upside Down

Twelfth Night, the last day of the Christmas season, and a Christian festival traditionally associated with the visit of the Three Kings (or Wise Men or Magi, depending on your preference). But Twelfth Night is also associated with far older, pre-Christian festivals based around the concept of overturning the established order of society - the world turned upside down.

As depicted so well by Shakespeare in the play of the same name, servants would take the role of lords and ladies, apprentices their masters, the fool would become the king.

It got me thinking about what it would mean to be a lord or master today - who are the people in charge? Clearly there's the government, but also the bankers and business leaders - the "captains of industry" - who run vast swathes of the economy and therefore the country.

And while, arguably no-one voted for the current coalition government, at least not in its entirety, we all, to a greater or lesser extent, vote for the bankers and business leaders. How do we do that?

A friend of mine was complaining last year about an article he read about bankers bonuses. "I'm bloody well paying for those bonuses," he reflected bitterly, "I bank with X Bank." My question was obvious: "Well, why are you still with them then? Move your account to a bank that doesn't." But guess what? He didn't.

And the reason was that his original X Bank paid more interest than, let's say, a more ethical alternative. So that's what you get. If you want an extra nought-point something percent interest on your savings, you have to make your choice. If you want a fairer, more equitable society, you have to put your money where your mouth is. I get virtually no interest on my bank account, but I also pay no bankers' bonuses. That doesn't make me a saint or anything, far from it, but there's no point in complaining if you're not going to do anything about it. Your money is the oxygen that fuels the current bonfire of our economy - if you don't like it, cut off the oxygen.

And of course, it's not just bankers' bonuses, though those make an easy target. It's the investments in arms-dealing, dictatorships, tar sand oil extraction, deep water drilling. And it's not, of course, just banks. What about building societies, your ISAs, pension funds. Do you know where they're invested? Imagine if a huge proportion of the population simply switched their money and investments into more ethical, socially minded alternatives. That would truly be a World Turned Upside Down worthy of Twelfth Night. Jon Curran

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Housecoat

I read The Women's Room by Marilyn French a year or two back and loved it, a wonderful book. But it did puzzle me that all the female characters wore housecoats. I'd never encountered such a thing. The more mid century American books written from a woman's perspective I read, the more housecoats I found. Googling 'housecoat' told me it was just an American word for what we call a dressing gown. But from the books it was clear that women viewed these as normal day wear- something you'd be happy to greet friends in if they visited you. (Just like I do in a dressing gown, to be honest!)

This got me thinking.

Why would you wear a coat in the house? You might if it was cold. Which it might well have been without central heating, especially if you were alone in the house (children at school, husband at work) and not well off enough (or maybe not expected) to heat the house 'just for you'. Remember that one of the points in the 'good wife guide' was to light a fire for when your husband came home.

Clothes used to be much more expensive. They were something to be looked after carefully, mended and patched. A housecoat over the top of your good clothing might well save your clothes from being plucked or snagged. Washing clothing was much harder by hand, and if that housecoat absorbed the spills and smuts of housework, your good clothes might need to be washed less often- and as a bonus, clothing that is washed less often lasts longer.

So, we've found a garment that cuts down on your heating bills, lets you do the laundry less often and helps your clothing last longer. Only in an increasingly energy-profligate society would such a useful item fall by the wayside. Join me in bringing back the housecoat!

I recommend those stylish patterns from the 40's: the modern ones aren't quite so alluring.

Pictures: vintage patterns from Etsy, new housecoat from the telegraph shop!