Thursday, 31 March 2011

I drive therefore I am

A year ago I made a pledge at a mental health conference to give up my car. To be honest I didn't really know what I was saying as the previous session had involved me massaging a girls hand (apparently this is a relaxing activity) and I was rather flustered.

Anyway a year later and this seemingly easily forgettable idea written on flip chart paper and hopefully now fallen down the back of a filing cabinet has been remembered by quite a few people who seem to relish in saying 'still got the car then?' whenever they see me.

Well as it happens they can stop their mocking because I am selling it. I have had the roof fixed. That was quite cheap and I got to keep the biro that was blocking the tracking system. Its been serviced and is ready to sell. Now I just have to deal with the grief. I mean this was the business. A soft top sports car. My midlife crisis car. I always felt like I could pull in this car. Should I want to although I never did test it out. It was actually quite hard to get out of in an alluring way being so low and the heated seats made me think I had finally wet myself.

Although the main interest was from children so that was a non starter. One day I laid in bed and heard some school kids saying ' oh cool! wow look at that!' I knew they were talking about my car and I felt a rush of pride. Then I heard one of the girls knowledgeably inform the others 'an old lady drives that'.

Of course I will have to actually GET places without the car. But since I have been living in a tower block in the city ( see tomorrows blog) I have hardly used the car. I walk everywhere. I go by train to see my parents (if you book in advance its actually cheaper than the petrol alone). I use taxis if I am tired and my bike if I can remember where it is. I also turn things down that I know I cant get to.

So anyone wanna buy a car? only owned by an old lady who hardly used it.....

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

My Struggle to Make Sense of the Financial Crisis in the Era of Peak Oil

Peak Oil, I get. I’ve been in Transition for three years and had my end of suburbia moment(s). I understand that fossil fuels are limited and non-renewable. That as the world’s oil fields diminish, demand exceeds production, and the remaining crude oil is harder and more expensive to extract, the enery return on energy invested (EROEI) drops to a fraction of what it was when oil was plentiful. No more cheap petrol. Oil prices soar. And along with them the price of everything else in our industrialised, oil-dependent global economy – including food.

The same with Climate Change, the anthropogenic variety. Creating a vast artificial industrial complex all over the planet which demands huge amounts of energy, destroys most of the rainforests and other complex eco-systems and burns billions of tons of fossil fuels every year with its attendant carbon emissions and expecting it not to affect the climate just makes no sense.

These two ‘drivers’ informed the beginnings of the Transition movement six years ago – a challenge to people and communities to respond to Peak Oil and Climate Change and start preparing for a (liveable, maybe even preferable) energy-leaner future without the whole world falling apart. When the financial crisis hit with the credit crunch in 2008 the economic downturn became the third driver.

Then last year Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth) presented her talk Making Sense of the Financial Crisis in the Era of Peak Oil at the Transition Conference. It changed the whole course of the event. Suddenly Transition was seriously looking at economics and finance – money.

Money is where a vast amount of our attention and energy is invested (sic) and informs most of our decisions and choices, whether we have it or not. For the majority of us on a very basic level it’s the means by which we have a roof over our heads and put food on the table in the current economic system.

But it’s also where a lot of our aspirations, fears, fantasies and desires get caught up, “When I’m rich and famous, I’ll have a big house (and servants!!!…)” Yes, I wanted it too! This has been the case since money was invented but it’s been exacerbated by the creation of trillions of dollars of virtual wealth over the past thirty years. In addition, enough people have become more wealthy or comfortable in that time for others to feel they have the chance to follow.

But all this virtual wealth has been fuelled by cheap plentiful energy. This is where the connection with peak oil comes in. There will not be enough available energy for the modern Western resource-intensive lifestyle to continue. There won’t be enough real wealth to support it. The gap between rich and poor is already widening, bringing into sharp focus questions about social equality and the sharing of available resources.

So any conversation about the future has to include a discussion about money. Stoneleigh alluded to this on Friday night in Norwich. “It’s important to understand the way the global economy works,” she said several times. How markets work. How we are entering a time of deflation after a 30 year financial bubble. How housing (in the UK) has now become worth 8 times our incomes and yet the price of real things that matter like tools and bread are cheap and almost without value. How this will change as houses lose their value and the prices of real necessities like bread and milk go up. How when people can no longer afford the repayments on their mortgages, if one person sells their house in a neighbourhood cheaply, the prices of all the houses in that neighbourhood are affected. Meanwhile personal and global debt is enormous (the UK has the second highest debt-GDP ratio in the world after Japan).

This suggests the need for a good, hard look at what our values are. These are the conversations that need to take place. In the Stranger’s Circle meeting last year when we talked about "Stuff", each of us produced an item of value to us - all of them tools to do with either communication or making or mending things.

Social and communications skills were high on Stoneleigh’s list for what we’ll need in the times ahead, along with food growing and the ability to make things. We’ll also need to find inexpensive ways of entertaining ourselves.

I’ve been grappling with all these things since the talk, alone and in conversations with Charlotte and Nick. They’re hard to understand and hard to talk about, almost like breaking a taboo or a spell. It's like trying to catch a magician out in a sleight of hand. Or chasing shadows. Money is so entrenched in our perception of value.

But when relationships between people are given value, then you can start to share things. Some of those things cost little or no money.

Like joining in a Give and Take day, or listening to a storyteller in Bungay Library or going on a bee and flower mapping walk with Netta through Beccles and listening to the bees roar in the goat willow.

A follow-up discussion of Nicole Foss's talk will take place at Aladdin's Cafe on Magdalen Street, 12th April at 6.00pm. Everyone welcome.

Pics: Not Chasing Shadows with Netta and Charlotte in Beccles; Goat Willow with Bumblebee

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Doing Things Differently, Together

"What we found doing this, among people in many countries, in city, suburb and countryside is this - that as long as it is part of a story, changing your life radically is wholly possible. You can endure anything - as long as it is part of a story of heroism and transformation."*

“So did you ask your question?” I said to Nick over a mug of tea and a shared plate of chips in the Buttercross Tearooms in Bungay on Saturday.

I’d had to leave the Nicole Foss talk Making Sense of the Financial Crisis in the Era of Peak Oil before question time the previous night to catch the train home.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I asked about who all the debt is owed to (the banks) and how is it ever going to be paid off if people have no money. Will governments do anything?”

Stoneleigh’s advice was not to wait around for top-down government because they will do little or nothing. Grass roots, bottom up was the way to go.

She emphasised that in a time of severe financial and energy contraction the last thing we need to do is close down and become engulfed in the (mass) psychology of contraction, thinking just about ourselves and our immediate circles, or panicking. We need to be able to rely on each other. This is a time to be building relationships of trust. ‘If you don’t have an extended family, make one,’ said Stoneleigh, echoing the closing words of the film that got me into Transition in the first place three years ago: “Find your people.”**

These years in Transition have really opened me up. I talk with many people I may not even have met otherwise. About things which don’t get expressed anywhere else with the same understanding or attention. I’m not alone in this.

In the early days it was common at Transition meetings to hear things like, “I can talk about climate change and peak oil here without feeling like the weirdo. I’m not the only one saying we need to do things differently.”

I hear that less now. More and more of us are starting to do things differently, together.

* Sharon Astyk on the Energy Bulletin
** What A Way To Go - Life At The End Of Empire

Pic: Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh) in Norwich last Friday

Monday, 28 March 2011

A Welcome Message

I’m starting off my three day slot this week with pictures from some of the events in Transition Norwich and Sustainable Bungay which we’ve held over the past ten days. I’ll speak about the events themselves in more detail in the following posts.

First I want to say something about Welcome. One vital component for a successful Transition event (or group) is that people are made welcome. This includes everyone from the people in the group themselves to the people coming in the door.

Some people have a knack for communications, or for organising events and making sure everything goes smoothly behind the scenes, or understanding how systems work, building websites, designing newsletters and leaflets, chairing meetings, speaking about peak oil and climate change. I have a knack for making people feel welcome and I never considered it at all important until I got involved in Transition.

But it can make a real difference. If you’re coming to hear Nicole Foss’ aka Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth) talk about Making Sense of the Financial Crisis in the Era of Peak Oil and all the tough deep challenges it implies for the future, you're more likely to be receptive if you're relaxed and have been made to feel at home. Particularly if you don't know anything about Transition. I know how I feel when I'm greeted warmly at an event and the difference when there's no one at home (or on the door).

Key to the success of any Transition group or project is an awareness of each others' qualities and skills. If you start with your own it’s far easier to be generous about other people's. Then everyone can get on with what they’re good at. Wanting to do what someone else is doing, have what someone else has got, or having unrealistic (and often grand) ideas about ourselves and what we could be doing stops good things happening.

As Nicole Foss stated in her presentation on Friday (a great talk with over a hundred people - organised by Christine and Charlotte, chaired by Tully), Business as Usual in a world with diminishing fossil fuel reserves and spiralling debt is not an option. This means finding ways to make the inevitable process of downshifting something worth wholeheartedly engaging in, rather than a descent into a grim twilight zone of contraction and competition.

That's easy to write. But it takes effort and practice to get used to a more communal way of living after all these years of fossil-fuelled individualism. To work together in a harmonious way. That's what the essence of Transition is about for me. And the more people on board the merrier. So welcome...

Pics: Eloise and Daphne hang the welcome bunting at Sustainable Bungay's Spring 2011 Give and Take day; Molly welcomes people to Transition Norwich's Stoneleigh presentation last Friday; Nick and the cat making themselves at home at Save Bungay Library's Telling Tales event on Saturday

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Permaculture 5

Unfortunately, the word technopeasant is already taken, because otherwise it would be a good word to describe my aspirations.

Frank Herbert describes it like this:

"A sophisticated human can become primitive. What this really means is that the human's way of life changes. Old values change, become linked to the landscape with its plants and animals. This new existence requires a working knowledge of those multiples and cross-linked events usually referred to as nature. It requires a measure of respect for the inertial power within such natural systems. When a human gains this working knowledge and respect, that is called 'being primitive'."

What you see happening in nature is that other animals don't defend their territory from their competitors that are different species. Humans break this "rule" as a matter of course. The inertial power, the linkages, then suggest the idea of stewardship to rebalance this lack of sharing. Permaculturist call this zone 5: if you net your cabbages you need to include a wild zone in your territory for the pigeons. I think it also means, in a year with a small apple harvest, that between the time that the apples are all eaten and the raspberries are ripe the only fruit I will eat are the small amounts of rhubarb and strawberries I grow. That there are enough other things to eat if a crop is less prolific one year: since it's not actually a hungry gap I'd call it the temporal zone 5.

And linked to that abundance of options, I think a peasant would have a working knowledge of the links between the amount of land there is for each person, lean years and overpopulation, and therefore value the one child family, of elemental cycles and value the composting toilet, in short: have a sustainable ecological footprint.

Friday, 25 March 2011

A Spring Tale

One sunny spring morning a posse of permaculture oriented Norwichians assembled at Norwich station for an exciting excursion to the foreign country of Essex. After a pleasant train journey we set off on our first mission to walk to the Apricot Centre. On the way we found some rather enticing banks of salad...

...tasty purslane and garlic mustard, the first foraging of the spring that on this beautiful day we took full advantage of...

At the Apricot Centre we had a very interesting tour around the permaculture designed fruit farm and we got to appreciate all of the emerging signs of spring.

Flowering redcurrant

Newly emerging leaves...

...shining like jewels in the spring sun

Furry caterpillar catkins

Gorgeous blossom... beautiful juxtaposition with winter

and a successfully fruiting outdoor nectarine!

At the second project we visited - the peoples community garden in Ipswich - we had another lovely tour and then had a little nap...

...and did some concentrated digging to give a little bit back!

All in all a rather marvellous spring day!

Photos: All by me of the visit day

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Springing into Spring

The magnolia blossom is starting to come out in the garden; the first sign really that the warmer weather has hit the garden. The bees are starting to buzz around the blossom, and the birds are starting to wake me up early in the morning.

The warmer weather means G & A get to spend more of their time outside, which is great after a cold winter cooped up in the house.  There's only so much CBeebies you can cope with, and it feels like they're uncurling along with the leaves.  So the first really warm weekend means that the trampoline goes up in the garden and they spend their time after school bouncing around.

Trampolining is said to be very good for the logical, mathematical part of the brain (something to do with the balance between your eyes, ears and the core of your body) but to me they look just like March hares bouncing and dancing all over the place.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Bumblebees, Honeybees, Archangels, Box

Last Sunday when the sun came out after what seemed like a winter of aeons, I looked out of the window at the garden, saw all the work that needed doing and despite the good weather an enormous lethargy come over me. I wanted to crawl back into bed with a book!

But instead I decided to take a look at what was out there and grabbed the camera on my way.

The first thing I found was a group of Red Deadnettles (or Archangels) all in bloom in the long sere grass, which we leave unmowed for the insects. Bending down to take a photograph I heard a buzz and out flew this bumblebee, followed shortly by a second.

And something stirred in my dormant self: Isn't this Spring? Aren’t I part of Bungay Community Bees? Haven’t I just been reading reading the newly published United Nations Environment Programme report, Global Honey Bee Colony Disorder and Other Threats to Insect Pollinators, which states a clear need for the presence of many more wildflowers? Am I not preparing a series of wildflower bee walks this year? Wake up Watson!

This is from p.5 of the UNEP report:
"Bumblebees are highly social, like honeybees, but with smaller, less structured nests, that can consist of up to 1 000 bees. Bumblebee colonies are annual; the entire colony dies out each year and leaves only mated queens to hibernate through winter. The queen will start a new colony in spring. Bumblebees pollinate tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, and cranberries, just to name a few. Bumblebees are the only pollinators of potato flowers worldwide."

Red Deadnettles are a native wildflower and a major source of pollen for bumblebees during March and April as they wake up after the winter. They are a modest plant and I didn't take much notice of them at first, but the more I look the more beautiful they become.

I still remember the days before I gave any plants, let alone wild ones, any thought at all, beyond their being pretty or tasty. Then in the 90s I started visiting every kind of territory from waste grounds to canal and riverbanks and seashores getting to know our native wild plants. I became totally hooked.

It's only since becoming involved with Bungay Community Bees though, that I've been paying more attention to the relationship between flowers and bees. And realising that what started out as a personal interest is really about being connected with the web of life.

I'll be talking more about wildflowers and bees on the blog over the coming months. Right now I'm off to track a bee walk through the market town of Beccles with fellow Transitioners Charlotte and Netta. You might like to take a look at this great national wild flower project, River of Flowers.

Pics: Spring Morning March 2011; Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) on Red Archangel; Honeybee on Box Tree flowers

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

A 'Fine Tilth'

The sun is warming the soil and after months of inactivity there are loads of things to get done in the garden and seeds to be planted. Somehow it always catches me unprepared but this year I have achieved that elusive ‘fine tilth’ that the gardening books and seed packets exhort us to create. The problem with gardening on the clay soils of East Anglia is that the soil is often either squidgy mud that sticks to your boots or is baked into lumps and impossible to turn into a tilth of any sort! So how did those old Norfolk ‘bors’ always achieve a fine tilth when sowing their immaculate rows of vegetables?

I guess that growing their own food was an economic necessity so they would have made gardening a number one priority and been out there digging when the conditions were right – unlike me who fits my gardening in around other activities and just hopes to hit lucky when it is time to sow seeds.

Well it worked this time but of course not everything is perfect in the garden – can we have some rain please?

The picture above is a Marsh Marigold in the pond that is the courting ground for many frogs and toads at present - I love the frog chorus late at night!

Buds appearing on my prized Morello Cherry - how many pies this year?

Cucumber seedlings bursting forth - and finally the 'fine tilth' - with onion sets protected from the birds. The picture at the top is of a peach in my greenhouse.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Spring Ahoy!

Happy Spring equinox everyone and welcome to our spring week on the blog! We’ll be taking a look outside, exploring what’s coming up and celebrating the end of winter. Low Carbon cooks and growers will be checking out new green shoots and leaves, our wild earth reporters, toads and bees and the medicine of trees.

I’m really celebrating the end of winter, throwing out that hot water bottle and thermal gear and throwing open the windows. No more shivering! No more parsnips! There’s a fresh breeze out there this morning, primrose on the banks, blackbirds practising their arias, woodpeckers drumming the oak trees. Time to wake up early, stretch the body and walk out. In the Chinese five element system this is the season of wood and the warrior when the deep energies of winter start uncoiling and branching out. Its organ is the liver and its sense, the eyes.

So I’m sensing out the world beyond all those rigid squares and pixels on my computer screen, looking at the undulating earth shapes of trees, the way life is bursting out of wood everywhere and colours and scents flashing past: tortoiseshell butterfly wing, crimson bird feather, musty and sweet fragrance of gorse and box. The equinox is when the sun is straight ahead, day and night are balanced equally and the new astrological year begins with Aries the Ram. It’s a big planetary time (Did you see that gorgeous moon?)

Like most people my attention has been caught up in the cataclysmic events in Japan and it seems almost incorrect to be considering these small events in our own secure neighbourhoods. And yet the Japanese famously gather under cherry trees to welcome the Spring. And perhaps we could do no better than sit beneath the oriental blossom that graces our city streets and connect with them – the people of a fellow island nation. You can never underestimate the power of the heart.

My chief Spring medicine tree though would be the willow, specifically the goat willow, that old craggy fellow now bursting into gold along riverbanks and canals.

Willow is a big water tree and well-known for its properties to relax and make fluid everything that is crystallised and cramped within (the bark of white willow being the natural precursor to aspirin). It's hard to feel joyous and alive with a stiff and tense body. Hard to sit under this tree and not look up! and see the sunlight in its branches. When you do, listen and feel the thunderous buzz of bees, now coming out of hibernation and gathering pollen from trees everywhere.

Here are my fellow Transitioners, Mark, Nick and Eloise spring cleaning at our Sustainable Bungay Give and Take Day on Saturday. It’s time to shift and move and recycle old things on all levels! I’m not in the picture because I played truant and went to the woods for the first time in a long time, lay underneath hazel trees and checked out early violets and upcoming bluebells and watched a flock of goldfinches feeding on knapweed seeds that had been left uncut in a meadow. Afterwards I dug the garden and made myself an inner spring clean tea of cleavers, plantain, dandelion and angelica (all great for moving sluggish systems, especially the lymph).

On my way home I gathered a few wild leaves to toss into one of those robust and tangy salads Elena’s been talking about: bittercress and tansy, hawthorn and chickweed. Here are some green and growing tips from my garden. I’ll be taking some feisty alexander buds along to try out with my fellow Low Carbon Cooks too tomorrow. It’s a full-on week ahead, including Nicole Foss on Friday and the big TUC march on Saturday. I’ll be needing those greens!

Under the neighbourhood cherry plum; coastal gorse; Sustainable Bungay Give and Take crew and van; Japanese cherry at Castle Meadow, Norwich; garden tips of bronze fennel, salad burnet, lovage, hawthorn, dill, chickweed, tansy and cleavers

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Spring greens

Last weekend but one I was in London, and as ever went to perform my dutiful cheese-pilgrimage to Borough Market. While I was there I spotted a basketful of foraged wild garlic. It was selling for £3.00 per 50g, less than the truffles, I admit, but still a bit of a stretch. I remembered the beautiful bunch of leaves Charlotte brought to mine last year to share and decided I'll have to keep a look-out this Spring. I don't know if it grows near my house- and I thought at the time: I'm not sure I'd necessarily recognise it.

The next week found me strolling down a wooded valley in Wales to watch the sunset over the beach. Suddenly, the air around me was electric with a feral tang. Garlic! I knew it was there before I even spotted the leaves. The whole valley floor was covered with young points unfurling, with older leaves dotted across the steep sides. I picked a handful to add to our mushroom stroganoff- delicious. They were just as good in the next night's stir-fry too. It seems that the foraging year is just beginning, so it's time to make the most of another beautiful book which graced my Christmas list:

This is an excellent book, not a pocket-guide, certainly. More of an encyclopedia. But the beautifully delicate, full size black and white photos of the plants have really helped me to identify them. It's chock-full of fascinating information too, I really recommend it. I understand there are 10 copies in Norfolk libraries- best get there quick!

Friday, 18 March 2011

The best way to eat turnips

...I carried on flipping though that excellent cookbook (see yesterday) and came to the page about mangoes. This filled me with sorrow. I rarely eat mangoes. There are several reasons: they come from a long way away and they're a soft fruit. My growing understanding of the way our food is produced leads me to think that any short-shelf-life fruit coming any further than from Europe will be flown here. I try not to buy any foods that travel by air.

But the worst thing of all is that when (maybe once a year) my desire for a mango (or, more often to be honest, the amount it's discounted to) overcomes my scruples and I buy one, it never quite tastes as good as it should in my imagination. A mango should be the most delicious, giving fruit. It should be tender, slippery, soft and luscious.The smell should be almost overwhelming and the taste heavenly. Rich, floral, intensely fruity with roses and honey and that tiny background flavour of something unpleasantly animal that just brings it all together.

And the mangoes I've eaten just aren't that good. So I eat the next one only when I forget that the last one was disappointing.

Still, my eye trailed down the mango page, where it found the sentence about sour apples having much in common with an underripe mango- just right for a spicy Thai salad. That idea fizzed in my brain in a very exciting way. It had just got to that dull bit of winter about 2 months after the first soups, roasts, bangers and mash with oodles of gravy and the like were treated as returning heroes, when they were starting to pall. All I wanted was fresh, raw, cold, tangy food.

So I dug through my veg box to find everything I could eat raw and made the most delicious zingy winter salad. Carrots sliced into slim ribbons with a potato peeler, moon turnip slices, swede in matchsticks. Cabbage or kale in slivers. Garlic in delicious slices. Chillies, sliced and lurking evilly. Ginger in thin bright shards. Those apples in chunks, tossed in lime juice for sourness and to keep them pretty. All dressed with lime juice, sesame oil (just a drop, very easy to overdo), sweet chilli sauce and a quarter-teaspoon of dark muscovado sugar. Heaven. I'm sorry that I can't offer you a picture, but I've never been able to resist eating it long enough to photograph it.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

The year I learnt to love turnips

Turnips have been a recurring theme this winter. They first reared their heads in a planning meeting for Norwich FarmShare. Alejandro was working hard to understand how much veg people might want each week, and had consulted with a group of soon-to-be members. He came back to our meeting with his findings and shook his head sadly, saying "Nobody wants any turnips.". No, I thought. I most certainly don't.

But then I got this wonderful book for Christmas. It's written in the most delicious way which veers from sharply dry in one sentence to lusciously gushing in another. It's The Flavour Thesaurus, by Niki Segnit. In it she pairs flavours and ponders the outcomes, chasing after geographical, historical and scientific tidbits, and glorying in the flavours all around us.

So far, so un-transitiony. But as I flicked through the book, occasionally pausing to wipe the drool from my chin, I found the page about swede: "Unlike parsnip and potato, swede has a rather good flavour when raw- it's hot and sweet like a radish". Which got me wondering about turnips- why didn't she mention turnips? If they weren't good to eat raw, she'd have said "unlike parsnip and turnips" surely, as they're much more similar than potatoes are. Further down the page, it said that swede are thought to be a cross between turnips and cabbage. Well, I thought. Swede and cabbage are edible raw, so why not turnips? Not very scientific, I admit! So I googled it and found it written in more than one place that Turnip are edible raw- so I tried it.

Yum! Raw turnip is a lot like a radish, and I love radishes. They're even pretty good cooked. Peel them, cut them in half root to tip and slice them as thinly as possible for beautiful glowing little half-moons. They're just right for stir-frying or adding to a hot and sour Vietnamese noodle soup. But better still is including them in a..... but that's a story for another day. Come back tomorrow to find out my absolute favourite turnip recipe.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Putting the People First

I was enormously inspired by a Channel Four series recently - The People's Supermarket in which chef Arthur Potts Dawson set out to challenge the major supermarket chains by setting up a cooperative supermarket in London, owned and run entirely by members.

The whole programme was fascinating and incredibly inspiring; one of the best TV programmes I've seen in I can't remember how long.  It also chimes with so many of the themes that we've discussed on the blog over the last year or so, from local food, to waste, to community action.

You can watch the whole series for the next two weeks only, on the Channel Four website, and you can also visit the People Supermarket website at

I urge you not to miss it!

Picture from The People Supermarket's website.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

A different kind of aesthetic

I've been reading the excellent "Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England" by Ian Mortimer. It's a fascinating book, written in the style of a modern day Rough Guide or Lonely Planet travel guidebook, and full of the kind of quirky details that seem to fall between the gaps when you're doing history at school. Much less about battles, much more about what people ate, what they wore, and what they actually thought about things.

I really liked this bit: realise that there is a whole different aesthetic at work here. ...there is no need for flowers in a pot to beautify a medieval house. lies in having the necessities of life close at hand. To the family that lives here, beauty lies in the smoke issuing from the roof openings and the knowledge that there is plenty more firewood just outside the door.
Perhaps the reason this bit appealed to me is that we've finally, finally got the woodburner up and running. OK, it's slightly late in the season, but you never know, the weather could still take a turn for the worse.

I haven't got my wood supply sorted out yet - that's the next step. There's a bit in the Transition Handbook about the inherent value stored in a year's worth of wood stacked up to dry, and there is a form of beauty in that as well as utility.

I used to think of things like that as a bit scruffy, something that should be tucked away and hidden from sight, but maybe I'm learning to see things with that different kind of aesthetic.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Waxing lyrical

Last summer, I blogged about artificial chemicals in the various potions and preparations I use to control the eczema I've had my whole life. Eczema's a funny thing in that no-one really understands it fully - it could be genetic, could be environmental, could be down to allergies, to things we eat, things we wear - or it could be all or none of those in any one person. That makes it very hard to treat, so most of the treatment tends to be about control rather than cure.

I was, though, genuinely concerned about the amount of artificial chemicals I was applying to my skin, and by extension, to the environment when they inevitably washed away and disappeared down the drain.

So I was pleased when I got an email in response to the blog-post with a recipe for a home-made preparation based on bees-wax, honey and oils. I've now managed to get my hands on some beeswax from the church in Southwold where I also get my honey, and I'm looking forward to trying it out. As you can see from the picture above, the wax looks like fudge; it also smells marvellous, a deep, rich honey scent that you can almost taste.

I'm also testing a concoction based on chickweed and beeswax that I've been given. I started using it on Saturday, and so far, it's looking really good. I'll keep going and let you know how I've got on sometime in May.

Picture of beeswax: (c) Annette Taylor at

Saturday, 12 March 2011

parliament of bees

Yesterday I saw my first bee. I bent down and smelled the winter hellebore and it flew out of the fragrant green and pink petals. One of those huge bumble bees that buzz loudly around the first flowers of the year. Spring is coming and I’m feeling torn in my attentions. My eye glancing up at pussy willow unfurling golden fronds, down at the henbit amongst the growing grass. The flowers are coming back. You can feel their presence and the sap rising in the trees.

This picture is of an exotic hellebore that I liberated from a well-heeled garden nearby and planted down the lane under a holly tree. A spot of guerrilla gardening in the back country. It’s a hard time for bees right now and any flowers that provide early nectar and pollen are in need of a propagating hand. The UN has just published a report about the plight of world bees and are calling for wide-ranging protection of wild and feral flowers everywhere.

Today though my attention is focused on human affairs. I’m prepping for a meeting with Peter Aldous MP with fellow members of Sustainable Bungay. We're taking part in the Big Climate Reconnection, organised by the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition and I’m reading up on the Energy Bill and Renewable Heat Incentives and getting ready for the three asks, relevant to the Climate Change Act. Later we're going to a public meeting with Therese Coffey MP down in Southwold regarding the ship-to-ship oil transfers between tankers in Sole Bay. It's all about politics this week. Watch this space!

part two This is a picture of us having breakfast and a debrief at the Buttercross Tea Rooms. 30 minutes goes quickly when you're considering all the ramifications of Climate Change. Aldous is on the Environmental Audit Committee which is a cross-party group that monitors environmental and sustainability issues in all departments. All of us spoke about what kind of real-time actions a 60% carbon reduction by 2030 would require at local, national and international levels, including creating a low-carbon “powerdown” culture.

Josiah asked about TEQs and the suggestion of a sustainable development post in response to DEFRA’s recent (very woolly) report on “sustainable growth”. Nick asked about the Green Investment Bank, Daphne about the funding of fuel cells (which her father had invented). His agent – leader of the Conservative group at Waveney District Council – eyed us watchfully. One of the amendments to the Energy Bill the SCC Coalition recommended was that the carbon reduction target should be endorsed by local councils (after the once Transition-friendly Somerset CC cancelled all its climate change work this week we were keen to emphasise this). We can’t interfere with local councils, Aldous said. And went on to inform us that the official definition of fuel poverty was about to be changed.

What struck me was how our positions had shifted. At our meeting in November there was an element of excitement and tension. Aldous was behind his new office desk, most of us sat on the floor. Now we were stable and focused and sitting around a table in a community centre. The coalition government have since shown their colours. We have signed petitions and held placards, met up in the spirit of resistance. We know what is at stake. And not just those of us in Transition.

Down in Southwold the hall was packed and the people were in a rebellious mood. Therese Coffey was being held to account for preventing the ban on Russian oil tankers using the bay as a “lorry park” and putting the heritage coastline at risk. Two years ago the ship-to-ship transfers rose from 13 a year to 250. Instead of coming to port and paying harbour fees they transfer oil at sea (Sole Bay is shallow and calm and unhampered by shipping lanes). This is a conservative town but the Tory MP for Suffolk Coastal was given no quarter.

Are you on our side? asked the floor. Coffey slid away from the question. It was clear she was not. It’s becoming transparently clear, in spite of the complexity of most issues, whose side the Government is on. Not the small businesses of local towns, the economy that creates the green jobs that Kerry was writing about, the alternative wind and solar manufacturers (and certainly not the environment), but the oil business, agri-business, the nuclear business. Corporate power. Famously these corporations work by being invisible, but as we come together, as we swarm to defend our colony and our hive we’re bringing to light exactly who and what is raiding it. There’s a buzz in the air. Spring is coming on earth, and not just for the flowers.

Photo: guerilla hellebore; Sustainable Bungay climate action team from left, Daphne, Josiah, Mark, Nick and Lesley. Oil tankers off the Suffolk coast by Mike Page (EADT)

Friday, 11 March 2011

tipping point

There is a moment when you realise that it’s not really about you anymore. You could call it the Hal moment, when the vagabond prince in the play becomes a king and forgoes his pleasure-seeking companions, or the Pablo Neruda moment when the poet transforms from lover to Communist and begins to write for the people. You could call it the Shine moment, where the introverted pianist stands up to his oppressive father and starts to play for real. It’s not that you are discounting yourself - it’s that the personal you with all its small indulgences, its interiorities and subjective biographical events is turned inside out suddenly and asked to be someone else. Someone who acts within the bigger picture. Your own Spring uprising.

This week something happened in a shop, in the way that some things occur in a quiet lull and you realise you are at a tipping point. Last week was busy: I had gone to all kinds of political meetings from the Sustainable Bungay’s Library event to the Lowestoft Coalition Against the Cuts rally, I had taken part in a protest about the closing of the recycling centre and talked about Zero Waste with our local MEP. I had written a piece about climate change and food security and talked animatedly about world events at the Alex with my colleagues on the OneWorldColumn.

This week was quiet and that’s when I began to notice how the Hal moment is happening to the least of us. We’re not princes or poets or piano players, but we’re waking up to our destiny nevertheless. Even in the small conservative town of Southwold there are campaigns to save the library, the tip and to challenge the presence of oil tankers in the bay. The conversations across counters and in bus queues are all about the public service cuts. Where once we were talking about the weather we’re talking about forests or the NHS. In our local delicatessen we were talking about the millionaire cabinet and I found myself in an argument with une femme de l’ancienne regime who believed the cuts were necessary, especially benefits, and it was hard for the Government to make business people pay their taxes. In a different time I might have made light of things, or kept my counsel, or conceded one or two points. But this time I stood my ground because in that moment I realised it wasn’t just my ground. She backed away.

Transition is famously non-political but it’s hard not to be political right now. You can’t just stay secure in your allotment and reskilling class and ignore the storm that is brewing. Every time you take a bus you’re looking at cuts to transport services, every time you take out your rubbish you are looking at the closure of recycling centres and the opening of incinerators, every time you buy food you’re considering price rises and the situation in North Africa. You can’t really talk about community without realising what is happening to that community, the closure of youth centres and drop-in centres, its social infrastructure. Or facing the doublethink of the Big Society. Or how the once-positive word “volunteer” is shifting its meaning towards being a person who colludes with the prevailing order. Discussions about peak oil have become no longer academic. They are taking place within the forecourts of garages everywhere. And the deciding driver in all this is, as Stoneleigh predicted in last year’s Transition Conference, is economics. And a government that has decided to back the banks, rather than the people.

For years it has been about “me” and my consumer lifestyle, but now, in a hard time, it’s becoming clear me needs to be “we”. And as I stood by the counter with Mark and the shop assistants I realised there are a lot more of us who stand to suffer from “austerity” than those who are making the cuts and benefiting from them. We are experiencing an ideological breaking-up of the public sector, implemented by those intent on becoming privately richer and more powerful. And those of us who believe in equality need to stand our ground and not be bullied by those autocratic voices, by those who have been trained to oppress the “lower orders” and get their own way.

Transition has taught me to be bold, to find a language which makes it possible to speak with everyone I come across, to engage in activities and conversations that refocus our attention away from that fossil-fuelled lifestyle towards a low-carbon way of being. Now I’m finding as I move from meeting to meeting it also contains the possibility of a real political function. Because it is not bound by party, it can bring different progressive groups together. Because it is isn’t conflicted by history and past example, it is free to act for the future. Because it is doesn’t attack the enemy and get entangled in negative power struggles, it gives space to what is actually happening, the difficult ethical choices we face as a society. And in that space the old order cannot play the games that they have been taught so ruthlessly to win. Me up, you down. If we want a fair and sustainable world, we can’t shirk these confrontations with Empire. We have to play our part.

In 2011 open space is no longer just an exercise.

Making Sense of the Financial Crisis in the Age of Peak Oil - A presentation by Nicole Foss on 25 March at the URC, Princes Street Norwich. Find further details here.

Photos: snowdrop and recycling centre protest, Southwold by Mark Watson; St Valentine's Day Unneccessary Massacre, Norwich by Trevor Phillips, Save the Library by Sustainable Bungay.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

altogether elsewhere

One night last week I came through the gate and halted on the dark garden path. There was something in the air. What was it? Something ineffable, strange, marvellous. I called out to Mark who was walking down the lane. Breathe in as you come into the garden!

The odour of sweet violets. The flowers catch you unawares, containing as they do a singular property (ionone) which means you cannot smell them directly, or you might, but if you lean down to capture it it disappears. Maybe this is why they have been honoured as the flowers of memory. Because memories come like violets in a night garden, when you least expect them. And when you seek to hold the moment you realise it has already gone.

I had just been to the World Book Night at the Bungay Library as part of the Suffolk campaign to save our local libraries. The courtyard garden there was crammed with give-and-take books, there were petitions to sign and glasses of wine to drink and upstairs the local poet’s society was conducting an open mic session. I hadn’t thought about poetry for a long time. Once it had described and made sense of my whole world.

Suddenly amongst the creaky folk songs and polite lines about Spring a tall young man in a great coat stood up and recited an outrageous satire on the millionaire coalition government. It had a rollicking Hilaire Belloc gait. Polished and savage and loud, the recital was unashamed. A wild card amongst the well behaved community audience. I clapped wildly. It was Luke Wright, one of a group of young performance poets who came out of UEA known as Aisle 16, who had since gone on to run a club in London and appear on Radio 4..

Downstairs Margaret, a fellow Transitioner, had being accosted by a Tory matron.
"She was very upset," she said.

I laughed: He always shocks people, I told her. I had come across Luke Wright when I was working for the Poetry Trust. He and his fellow poets had sworn and swaggered and shaken the tea tent of the alternative fringe of the Aldeburgh Festival and some of the dowager patrons had walked out.

That’s when I remembered The Fall of Rome, a political poem that suddenly breaks away in its last lines into another world. How it is when we are intensely focused on one thing and out of the blue something unforeseen enters our field and reminds us of the bigger picture. The poem is by W.H.Auden capable, like all good poets, of delivering a perfect shock. The poem is set in a city that is Rome but all cities and all empires since. It is 1947 when the poem was written and also now:

An unimportant clerk writes:
on a pink offical form

We conform and yet desire our liberty. We protect and barricade ourselves in and are always waiting for the stranger to appear, for the unexpected call, the invitation, that reminds us - you are needed now urgently! The shock that might shake us out of our sleepwalking.

We can be so immersed in the daily round of life we forget to look up and remember where we are. We can be so caught up by the wheels of history, in the intrigues of people, we forget what planet we are on, that time passes and we have a collective destiny to fulfil. We can be so caught up in the minutiae of Transition in meetings and emails and events, defending the latest theories of climate change and peak oil, we forget what we are really doing all this for. The deepest frame of all.

Why do I like the poem? Because it reminds me we live in a time of fall, what the ancients once called the kali yuga, the dog’s throw, when the dice is stacked against us. The time when we lose the game and have to begin again.

When we do we will have to remember how to order our lives: not as they have been run, according to the laws of Empire, but according to the rhythms and measure of Earth. The Hopi call this measuring principle wild turkey. Amongst the most impeccable and ritualistic of peoples, growing corn in one of the world’s most inhospitable landscapes, the Hopi keep a door open for the wild things to enter. Because they know that for life to work for human beings, everything we domesticate from creatures to the growing of crops to the building of settlements, needs to be in balance with the wild and unexpected. The Earth is not tame in her nature. She has a wild and stormy heart.

Civilisation is a closed-system that attempts to control, possess and use all the resources of the earth for its own benefit. But the Earth as a whole multi-celled entity (including ourselves and our imaginations) is an open system, as anyone who has studied chaos theory will recognise. All closed systems live within the fluidity and dynamics of the open system and are subject to its laws, not the other way round. We either respect those laws as symbionts, or we don’t and become parasites. Either way, the laws of earthly movement still hold. The storm breaks and how we have acted in the past plays out in the future. When things become limited, chaos enters the field. When the city becomes decadent the barbarians enter from the North. The poets start raising their voices. Some of us start listening.

Altogether elsewhere vast
herds of reindeer move across
miles and miles of golden moss
silently and very fast.

Sweet voilets by the road, Save Our Library poster in the window by Mark Watson