Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Low Carbon Cookbook - The Art of Lacto-fermentation

As the time of preserving the abundance of wild and garden fruit and vegetables arrives, the Low Carbon cookbook crew have been discussing the best ways of keeping stuff deliously for the store cupboard. Olivia Heal discusses the hottest rustic trend in city restaurants (after samphire and nettles) and the lowest energy method of all.

Fermentation heralds from ancient traditions the world over, and, used in the production of alcohols, sourdoughs, yogurts, cheeses, miso and a host of lesser known foods, it remains a fairly common part of our everyday diet. As to the lacto-fermentation of vegetables, it is best-known in Europe in the too-often-dismissed form of sauerkraut. Before you turn your gaze away in festering disgust, I beg you to look again on this sour cabbage, which has too long mouldered in the cupboards of pungent Northern European cuisine. Today, nutritionally, ethically and ecologically, lacto-fermentation is proving to be the edgiest in food thinking (and a great way of dealing with garden gluts.

Lacto-fermentation preserves vegetables in an environment of living cultures. These good bacteria are known as lactobacilli, they break the vegetables’ nutrients into more digestible forms, thus facilitating their assimilation, remove toxins and increase (yup!) vitamin levels, all whilst conserving the vegetables in a raw state. And, you can try this at home!

The lacto-fermenters of this world suggest that a diet in which everything is bacteria free and pasteurised starves our intestinal flora of the necessary nourishment, making us more susceptible to disease. Acknowledging that certain bacteria are very important for the functioning of the immune system and also provide competition for heavier, more potent bacteria, we can begin to dispel these current hygiene frenzy myths. Indeed, barrels of sauerkraut onboard ships saved sailors from the recurrent sea-disease, scurvy. And, the process of lacto-fermentation, as opposed to pickling and pasteurizing, by using living cultures keeps vegetables crunchy, sharp and alive over the winter months. What offers more delight than, in deep winter when barely a leek is standing in the garden, levering the lid of one of your fermented pots to let the smell of sparky summer vegetables pervade the room.

When fermenting, I refer to two excellent writers, perfect opposites, they are perfect complements. The first is highly practical Scandinavian Annelies Schöneck. Hers is a deep technical knowledge, and she tends to offer an introduction reminiscent of science lessons, followed by step by step fermentation recipes. She has at least a couple of books that have been translated into English: Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home: Creative Recipes for Lactic-Fermented Food to improve your health and The cultured cabbage. Vaguely retro, you might just spot their faded covers on the bookshelves of your local charity shop.

At the other extreme is a startling book by Sandor Ellix Katz, called Wild Fermentation. Quite as wild as the title suggests, Katz looks at fermentation as a means of revolt amidst a mainstream culture of mass produced, plastic packaged foods. With sections entitled: Cultural homogenization; Fermented stimulants and the rise of globalization; Resisting the commodification of culture; his book outlines how “we can merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as cocreators”. Wild Fermentation is an extraordinary, lucid food process, a recipe book which is less about quantities and ingredients, but about concepts, methods and practice.

Katz’s lesson is important, that the consumption of live foods offers a spiritual and practical interaction, interdependence and interconnection with the surrounding life forces. Lacto-fermentation shifts the food process from the near passive consuming of long dead food, to a creative, transformative action, from one of decomposition and decay to one of life, reproduction and transformation.

On a more practical level, lacto-fermentation manages to preserve vegetables without the use of freezers, canners, without pasteurizing or heating, simply by placing them in conditions that encourage the production of lactic-acid bacteria (lactobacilli), this natural preservative that inhibits the production of other bacteria. These conditions are Anaerobic and demand Pressure, a Catalyst and Salt. As with all food, the best results will be obtained with the best ingredients, so a wild sea-salt (such as Sel de Guérande) a pure unfiltered water or natural spring water and of course the freshest vegetables.

The catalyst is usually already present in vegetables, for example in the organisms on the cabbage leaves. However, to ensure a good outcome, I tend to use a supplementary catalyst. This can be blackcurrant (or gooseberry, raspberry or similar) leaves, which are high in lactic acid bacteria, and have their own sweet, subtle yet unmistakeable flavour. Whey can also be used, I make it straining yogurt or separating milk.

Although there are beautiful ceramic crocks made for the purpose, with a water airlock system, these are expensive (keep an eye open in flea markets). Kilner jars are likewise good fermentation apparatus, and can be found cheap on markets, however, do get hold of new rubber seals...

Otherwise, a bucket will do.

For a one gallon bucket of sauerkraut:
Roughly 5lb cabbage, 3tbsp sea salt, ¼ pt whey and/or 12 blackcurrant leaves.
Chop or grate cabbage. Pack it into bucket layering it with salt, blackcurrant leaves or whey and other ingredients of your choosing (chopped apples, turnip, horseradish, rocket, caraway seeds, juniper...), pushing down with your fists, kitchen implement or feet as you go. This (pressure) and the salt will help force water from cabbage, to create the brine in which the cabbage will ferment. Once bucket is full put a snugly fitting plate on top and weigh it down with a clean weight (i.e. a large stone you have washed). Cover the whole thing with a cloth. Leave for three or so days at warmish room temperature to get fermentation going, then move to cooler place and allow to ferment slowly. Don’t be afraid to check on it regularly, touching, tasting, noticing changes in consistency... mould may appear on the top, scrape it off, the kraut underneath will be fine, the white substance is lactobacilli... Leave at least three weeks, before digging in... Sauerkraut improves with age!

For a jar of lacto-fermented French beans:
Chop young French beans (roughly 1lb) and push into jar (1 pt), layering with salt (1/2tbsp), blackcurrant leaves (or spoonful of whey) and flavourings of choice (onion, garlic, dill heads, mustard seed, tomatoes...) Put on pressure and add more beans until jar is full and can take no more, cover with water, pressure again and fix lid. 3 days room temp, might start bubbling, then move to cool dark place for at least three weeks. Store until needed, open and enjoy!

This recipe for beans will suit most vegetables, some (such as cabbage, beetroot) will produce their own liquid under pressure, and you probably won’t need to add any water. Always make sure the top layer of vegetables remains under the water, you can use a weight of sorts, as this creates the necessary anaerobic conditions. The amount of salt will affect the speed of fermentation and the length of time the vegetables will remain preserved for, I estimate between ½ - 1 tbsp per pint jar of vegetables.

Lacto-fermentation is experimental, success or failure is bound up in a symphony of tiny details. A serious stench will warn you if things have gone bad. Keep an eye on the developments, test according to your singular tastes, and this curiosity will in its turn allow you to adventure further... Once you have the basics you can experiment, last summer, as well as the staple sauerkrauts and French beans, we had buckets of cucumbers bubbling all over, a pile of delicious carrot kimchi (using chillies, ginger and spices), jars of broad beans (ours were foul, as was our kale!), lacto-fermented beetroot, courgettes, seaweed...

Serve these bright crunchy veggies simply with rice, mix into a potato salad, for breakfast with kippers, amuse-bouche or as a tangy side. You can use the remaining juice as a starter for your next batch of lacto-fermented veggies, or drink it for a serious health-boost.

Fermentation is not only a highly practical skill in this peak-oil era, but is a domain for the curious and those keen to approach food in a more ethical manner. Encouraging a slight deviation in one’s mindset one can begin to experiment with what is growing around us, our climate and living conditions. So, why not reconsider that sour cabbage and join in this latest food frenzy!



Come participate in a cultural revolution! Wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body, becoming one with the natural world. Wild foods possess a great, unmediated life force which can help us adapt to shifting conditions and lower our susceptibility to disease. These microorganisms are everywhere and the techniques for fermenting with them are simple and flexible.” Sandor Ellix Katz, Wild Fermentation
Olivia Heal

This article was orginally published in Permaculture Magazine, PM 64, Summer 2010. Find more articles by Olivia on her food blog: La Bonne Bouffe

Photos of lacto-fermented beans by Olivia Heal; Wild Fermentation book cover and workshop jars by Sandor Ellix Katz. http://www.wildfermentation.com/

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Norwich Community Bees: Where does this piece go?

OK, perhaps we had not chosen the best possible day to put the hive together! The streaky blotches on the picture are actually the hailstones driving down into the mud. And it looked so sunny as we set out with the boot full of hive-parts and a spirit of adventure in our hearts!

Undaunted by the ominous rainclouds fast heading towards the FarmShare site, four of us unloaded everything and got to work. Even though we didn't have the instructions to start with, Erik knew which way was up and we got the main frame put together before the rain hit.


Retreating into the safety of the polytunnel, we sat amongst the tomatoes and aubergine plants and carried on while the hail bounced off the plastic skin above us, deafening us with its roar.


Despite all this noise and distraction, I completed my first ever frame!


The bees will use this honeycombed wax surface to build up the cells in which they'll store the honey. Making frames is a fantastic job because the wax smells so wonderful and it was hours before the scent of beeswax finally disappeared from my hands.


Sadly, because of the heavy rain, we weren't able to leave the unfinished hive in situ, so I've brought it home to put some waterproofing linseed oil on the outside surfaces before we return it to Postwick.

Once it's waterproofed and the rest of the frames are complete, it'll all be ready for the bees call it home!

For more informaton on Norwich Community Bees, visit our website.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Lines down - Transition Themes Week #6

Last week our telephone lines went down in a storm. Thunder shook the house, heavy rain soaked the gardens and barley fields and a bolt of lightning struck the corner of the lane by Mr Moyse's. The whole neighbourhood lost their connection to the world. Various British Telecom vans appeared on different days in front of different houses. “We think it’s lightning,” they said and went away.

On Thursday there was another massive storm down the Waveney Valley. The power lines in the local market town went down and all the shops in the high street fell suddenly dark and silent. No one could trade (except in cash). The bank machines froze, the petrol stations closed. I bought my goods on tick and hoped we had enough fuel to get to the next village.

Then my own power lines went down. I got hit by a high fever and lay disconnected to the outerworld for three days. I shook and shivered and sweated and thought how quickly your world can get thrown upside down. One minute you are dandy and sauntering down the lane to blog from Philip’s daisy-surrounded studio and the next you feel incapable of cycling to the nearest wi-fi at the local hotel. One minute you were a bison chewing yarrow and sweet grass in the high steppes and the next the Ice Age had cometh.

“And then there’s the giant solar flare from the Sun,” remarked Mark blithely on return from a Transition Suffolk gathering and handed me another lemon and ginger hot drink. "Which could put out the electrical systems for years."

Hmm. Downer.

Outside the window there was a small hubbub: a tribe of house martins were sitting on the wire running their annual flying school across the garden. Their sleek metallic-coloured bodies skimmed past so close to the window you could almost touch them. They were so vibrant and fast and alive, needing nothing except their own ingenuity and skill to power themselves all the way down to Africa. In a flash all The Road-like thoughts had vanished from my mind. Change happens quickly both ways. That's the good news.

And so here we are on Monday down at the Community Centre, still out of contact and feeling more horizontal than vertical, hence this rather less-than-robust introduction to the week. I was planning to write a communications post about the terrifically exciting Social Reporting pilot we’re launching at this year’s Transition Conference, organised by Ed Mitchell (web coordinator for the Transition Network) and myself. But sometimes you just are not as vibrant and fast and alive as you’d like to be and have to be flexible. That one will come next time.

Meanwhile welcome to our Transition Themes Number Six where This Low Carbon Life crew and guests will reflect on different aspects of Transition groups, from food to economics: Jon Curran will be reporting about Norwich Community Bees, Simeon Jackson on a new Outreach project. We’ll be hearing all the latest from the fields of Norwich FarmShare's first delivery of veg to the city and Olivia Heal will reveal the alchemy behind lacto-fermentation for the Low Carbon Larder.

At the weekend Kerry Lane will be sending an "outpost" from her new Transition job in Scotland and we'll also be cross-posting from the regional OneWorldColumnon a blog on the economy and the environment by Mark Crutchley of Norwich Greenpeace. Because no matter how much our seemingly clever and powerful networks convince us money is the principle driver of life, the earth always comes first. Watch out for that storm!

Philip's studio in summertime; still from The Road; swallows on the wire, from Elena's post, Things I Like to Do in Summer, June 2010.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

gardening is on the up

As we need more space to grow stuff it makes sense that in the future we grow on vertical planes. As we will also be using hovering cars by then it will be easy to water. But seriously the second image shows how it looked at the chelsea flower show last year. It grew all kinds of herbs and vegetables and the staircases were a greenhouse for indoor plants (on purpose, not like some flats that are like that anyway)

The flats where I live are not quite there yet, as you will see. But a family with children has started planting rocket and lettuce in the beds outside. One of the other residents has suggested growing hops up the side (I am thinking grapes). In London a group have got together and all grow a vine each and have made Chateau Tooting. Maybe one day the smell of brewing will waft up the staircase from the caretakers lodge. I live in hope.


Friday, 24 June 2011

are you a recycling whore?

I was in a shop on Magdalen street the other day telling the owner about the Magdalen Street Celebration. He asked why I had never been in his shop. I told him I never buy new furniture. He then told me he sold mattresses. There was then a pause where he looked at me and I looked away and we both realized the possibility of sleeping on a used mattress was not something he had ever considered. Anyway he won because I ended up in his bedding department promising him I would return as soon as I had been paid. So this got me thinking 'is there anything preloved that I would not give a go?'. Well clothes are a given including socks and bras and shoes (thanks to Wombling for the idea on reusing bras and 6 other things you didnt know you could recycle). Pants I draw the line at although my mother brought me some of hers into hospital once which I still have. My dad offered me a rifle through his medecine cabinet as he was having a clearout. I took anything unopened. I wouldn't buy a secondhand nightgown. There's no particular rule it's just some things seem wrong. A friend of mine will only wear secondhand clothes of someone she knows. I suppose it comes down to dirt really and contamination. So I would be interested in people's thoughts on what they would and would not re-use and I will leave you with a short video that gives you food for thought about what hidden treasure there maybe under your fridge click here

Thursday, 23 June 2011

How to get where you want to be

One of the problems of writing a blog and trying to impress your readers with promises of selling you car is that they not only read it but remember it and ask you if you have sold it yet. Well er no I havent. Its kind of broken from someone driving into it and now I have to mend it. But I havent been using the car much and experimented with taking my dog on the train last week. It was going quite well and Dotty had only escaped twice. But then on my journey home they replaced the train with a coach which wasnt allowed animals. So my dad had to drive me half the way home. But I did have the most wonderful time with my mum and the dog. They are both completely in the moment as you can see in the image.

Back to transport. When I am just walking round the city I dont need the car but sometimes it seems to take ages. So I took my bike to the local bike shop for repair and he sucked through his teeth and said it would cost £100. So I went on eBay and cheapcyle and freecycle ( got to be the ideal place to look for a bike!)and found some then in the mean time a friend lent me her bike.

So now I just have to work out the buses and I will be sorted. I love buses. I am thinking of getting one of those bus passes that you can get for the year.

I took a taxi the other day and the driver told me he had a picture of Boudicca on his back. I thought this was totally cool. Although he did think Boudicca was a man and changed into a dragon after dying. He took it quite well when I told him she was a woman. I didnt mention the dragon because I was less sure about that bit.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Achtung! Peak Oil Reports and Community Transport

What have a leaked German military think tank report on Peak Oil, a Guardian article stating that for two years the British government (i.e. the Department of Energy and Climate Change - DECC) has consistently played down and dismissed as ‘alarmist’ warnings from its own civil servants about the threat of civil unrest in the face of ‘peak oil’ energy shortages, and Sustainable Bungay’s midsummer bike ride and Green Drinks on Community Transport got in common?

The German report is clear, sobering and well worth reading. It outlines the systemic risks involved in an “unavoidable peak in oil production, which go beyond gradual shifts in energy systems and economies,” and discusses those risks from the standpoint of globalised, industrialised economies – oil being the base for 95% of all industrial output. The paper also addresses energy security and changing international and geopolitical relations – who has the remaining oil reserves and what that means in terms of potential political power shifts.

The Guardian article looks at the DECC report on the risks and impacts of a potential future decline in oil production within the present global context of historic oil price highs ($115 or £71 a barrel). The report had been unavailable to the public until a student gained access to it through a Freedom of Information demand.

Community Transport was the theme for Sustainable Bungay's solstice Green Drinks yesterday as a group of cyclists set off from the Buttercross in the centre of town to St. Peter's Brewery a few miles outside. Margaret Sheppard, SB's own full-on cycling campaigner, organised the ride both as part of National Bike Week and as one of a series of summer rides to raise awareness, show how enjoyable cycling can be and "get bums on bikes."

Some of us chose to go with Richard in the Beccles and Bungay Area Community Cars' wheelchair-assisted van - also to raise awareness of its existence as an alternative to private cars for groups of up to six people for anything from day trips to evenings out. The BBACC also have a network of drivers using their own cars to take people on shopping or hospital trips (this costs 43p per mile). In an area with a large rural hinterland, diminished bus services and many (especially older) people without private transport, this is proving to be an increasingly popular and valuable service.

Whatever the future holds in terms of energy provision, the current trend of rising oil and food prices seems set to last. We need to get more and more into the spirit of sharing our resources - and making it as enjoyable as possible - like cycling (or community bussing) out together at summer solstice for a drink to discuss the practical ways we can go about it.

Pics: Richard, Charlotte and the Community WAV; Bungay bikers at the Buttercross and entering St. Peter's Brewery, Summer Solstice 2011

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Low Carbon Celebrations 2 - Solar Power

Up before 4 this morning and on our bikes to the beach for the solstice sunrise. It had rained in the night and the air was soft and warm and filled with birdsong.

Besides one other person further down the beach with a dog, we were alone with the sea, the land, the sky and the morning.

We weren’t going to see the sun rise over the sea because there was a layer of cloud. But if you’re still and attentive you can feel the shift as the sun comes up. Then there’s an increase in light, the gold lining around the clouds intensifies, and you know that the star that powers our planet and makes life possible is there.

Anyone who gets involved in Transition becomes aware of the mighty subject of energy. We talk about it all the time. We look at where it comes from and ask how are we going to save it. What are we going to do about rising costs of food, heating, transport? Where does the food I eat and and the fuel I use originate? Who works to provide them? In what conditions? How much energy is needed to provide for our basic needs? How much as individuals and as a society do we waste on what we don’t need?

And what about that society? In our hearts we know that to continue the current consumerist and individualist lifestyle, fuelled and propelled by the availability of vast quantities of fossil fuels over the past 150 years is a logical fallacy – because, to quote Make Wealth History, “the earth can’t afford our lifestyle.” And those resources are physically limited.

But what does this mean for us as those very individualists? What do we each have to do to become the people we need to become for a fair, liveable future with the inevitable energy-constraints? What do I have to do?

How are we actually going to learn to share space, time, skills, food, ‘resources’? How do we drop centuries-old antagonistic, competitive ways of being in the world with our fellow humans? Those jealousies and envies which plague social interactions from the most intimate of friendships and relationships, to the most well-intentioned groups, because they are there, and have been for what seems like forever? How do we let go of our need to grasp, cling and be proprietorial? To own things and people all the time? How do we let go of I want what you’ve got? And move to how we make the best of what we've got - fairly, and before it's gone?

I’m not saying I have the answers to these questions. But I think to ask them is important. And then to pay attention to what comes up when we do give them time and space.


In tomorrow’s post I’ll be reporting on Sustainable Bungay’s midsummer Green Drinks which takes place tonight. The subject in honour of National Bike Week is Community Transport.


Pics: Before Summer Solstice Sunrise Southwold 2011; After Summer Solstice Sunrise Southwold 2011; In the Path of the Risen Solstice Sun; Low Carbon travel

Monday, 20 June 2011

Low Carbon Celebrations 1

This weekend all the neighbourhood phone lines went down in a lightning storm, and then a rogue anti-spyware programme appeared on the laptop whilst I was in a local hotel. So it was a huge relief to read Simeon's piece The Monetisation of Health yesterday down at the library: one, because it was really good and two, I was happy for it to go over into my slot if I couldn't get access to a computer. I think I've actually fixed mine now (I hope I'm not speaking too soon!) But we're still phoneless and so we're blogging down at the local community centre right now.

My first two posts this week are about celebrating, low carbon style. Today is Charlotte's birthday and here, in pictures, is how we've been spending some of it. All of the places we visited are less than ten miles from where we live and as much of our food as possible is from local sources.

Some fresh herbs and flowers collected early in the morning. These go in the medicine jelly, today renamed birthday jelly.

Breakfast. Whoever's birthday it is, the other buys the ingredients and prepares and cooks the meals that day. This was my birthday breakfast in May with a mix of local, organic and freegan delights.

Picnic lunch. Tortilla made with local allotment eggs. This is one of my favourite dishes to cook and the recipe will be included in the Low Carbon Cookbook - any publishers out there for a great resilient topical classy collaborative ethical food book!?!

Off to the shingle beach at Walberswick for a swim. The water still hasn't warmed up quite yet!

Picnic lunch of said tortilla and salad at the old quarry, now part of Westleton Common, and full of heather in bloom.

Relaxing under the flowering lime trees after lunch to the buzz of a thousand bees

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Monetisation of Health

One of the tragedies of modern society is how being ill has been shamed. If you are ill, then “there is something wrong with you”. If you are ill, then you have to grovel to your boss to be given the day off, or you have to “work through it”, “soldiering on” because you need to “get on with it”. We congratulate those who have managed to fight against it and have come into work anyway, heralding them as heroes for “not letting it beat you”.

NO! You are ill! The tiredness you feel is your body telling you you need rest! The processes you go through, like vomiting or having the runs, that’s your body protecting you from the organisms that are attacking you! There is nothing “wrong” with you. Your body is doing its job. It’s the germs that are wrong. It’s the germs that need sorting out, so give your body a helping hand by giving it the time and energy it needs to recover.

Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler and best-selling author goes one step further. “Being ill…”, he writes in How To Be Idle, “should be welcomed as a pleasure in adult life, as a holiday from responsibility and burden.” (UPDATE 7/9/11: My book review can be found here.)

So much medicine, whether pills from the pharmacy or alternative remedies, tends to relieve the symptoms, covering up the underlying problem rather than dealing with it. There are exceptions of course, but even those can disrupt our bodily processes in ways we don’t even know about and, in my opinion, should be a last resort.
What makes this attitude difficult, however, is the monetisation of health, and the monetisation of time. “Time is money”, as the overused and really quite inaccurate cliché goes. Well, if you’re ill, then that time is being wasted! That’s what your employer would say, anyway. I agree more with Tom Hodgkinson, when I am ill, in thinking “Oh great, I can lie in bed, watch old movies, stare at the ceiling, read books – in short, do all those things that I am always complaining I don’t have the time to do.” But that is not the view of the corporations, the government or even, by extension, your doctor. When was the last time your doctor told you to “have a week’s rest”, rather than “take this pill and you’ll be back to work in no time!”? It’s as though by being ill you’re committing some crime, which you will have to serve your sentence for unless you remain in denial and keep going as though nothing happened.

From both sides we are bombarded with expectations from the people who control the money – the employers on one side, the multi-billion pound health industry on the other. Both have monetised your health so that you’re a cog in their money-making machines. It’s sickening, and it’s disgraceful that our government has ever let it happen.
Why has no health organisation proposed the following: only work 21 hours a week, as the new economics foundation suggests? It would reduce stress levels on the one hand and also leave more time for us to look after ourselves and those around us on the other. Perhaps because this goes against the prevalent economic mantra of continuing growth at all costs?

Here’s a practical suggestion: When you’re offered a promotion by your employer, rather than taking a pay increase, why not take an hours decrease? It will save the company money in pay-rises, and give you more time to do what you want with your life!
Our economy is so much set up in favour of unsustainable corporate expansion, that issues that don’t have an increasing economic value just don’t get a look-in. Thankfully, our health system is in public hands, but we need to keep on the ball to prevent it from slipping into private hands. The Private Finance Initiative is one of many schemes which are already having this effect, and need to be reversed. As always, corporations are cunning creatures, and still have unprecedented power in the area of health, which guides policy and NHS expenditure. This power must be claimed back by those who should be really controlling the NHS – us!

Your health is not a commodity, for others to buy and sell, it is yours! So take responsibility for it yourself, and that includes taking responsibility for your healthcare provider. Be honest when you’re too ill to work. Work with your body, rather than against it in your recovery, and don’t fall foul to corporate interests who would take advantage of your illness for their own gain.
Images: "Strength to Last All Day" slogan from Aleve painkillers; 21 Hours report from New Economics Foundation.

Friday, 17 June 2011

A busy week...

I had a whole list of things planned for this post, but for one nearly everything I wanted to say has been said, for another the posts I expected in praise of homeopathy didn't materialise (so I don't need to post my irritated tirade about my personal viewpoint that it doesn't work) and then someone I'm close to spent several worrying nights in hospital. So it's been a busy week, and health has been on my mind: but not really in a way condusive to blogging about it.

So the only two points left to me to make are:

Looking afer yourself is pretty much the best investment you can make, I think. Keeping reasonably active, eating right and avoiding too much deliberate harm (smoking, for instance) saves you discomfort, the NHS money and the planet a little harm. But despite all that, we'll all need health care at some time in our life and the NHS is an amazing beast. Long may it live.

The other point is one I've never heard anyone in Transition mention, which surprises me: what are we going to do for contraception after Peak Oil?

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Medicine of the Heart

I once loved a man called Marko who had scars all the way down one side of his body. He was an artist and photographer from Slovenia. He climbed mountains and down into caves and sometimes for his art would scale cathedrals and towers and stage all kinds of death-defying happenings. During one of these events he tore across an icy lake at high speed in a gas-fired chariot and it blew up underneath him. His body was covered in burns and he lay inert in a hospital bed for weeks. He thought he was going to die.

One day, the nurses put a little baby in his room. The baby was completely wrapped in bandages. Marko was six feet seven and when he told me the story I imagined them there lying together in that hospital at the brink of a civil war, the tall man and the tiny baby and how in that encounter something extraordinary happened. The man started to struggle for his life.

The nurses put the baby there on purpose, he told me. I had given up. But when I saw the baby was worse off than myself I had to make the effort. My heart went to her.

This is a medicine story. And if I could tell you all the medicine stories I heard in my travelling days I would. Because those stories are about how life turns around just as you think it’s about to end. We need more than anything now these stories of restoration and regeneration because they hold an opportunity. If there is one theme that unites them all it is this: the transformation moment comes when you realise it’s not just about you.

Here is one of another kind: I am in Italy aged 29 and a man called Francis is putting a wild pigeon in my hands. It was caught in the chicken coop today. When you hold something in your hands, you are responsible for its freedom, he is telling me. You have to know what that feels like. Years later when we have parted ways and our life journeys have taken us to opposite sides of the world, I will ring Francis as he lies dying and he will describe to me the shape of his room and the terrace garden he has made outside. And that night I will dream of a wild pigeon that is beating itself against the window in my room and I will go to the window and set it free.

I didn’t know what to write today: I was going to write about ringing up my MP to talk about the NHS reforms, about Micheal Moore’s documentary Sicko and the terrifying consequences of privatisation. I was going to write about the EU’s directive on herbal remedies which has effectively banned thousands of years of human relationship with medicine plants.

I was going to show all the herbs you can still grow or find outside your door that help with all those ailments the pharmaceutical companies claim are dangerous unless licensed: thyme (anti-bacterial), rosemary (tonic), marigold (lymph cleanser), chamomile (anti-inflammatory), st johns wort (spirit reviver), nettle (mineral boost) dandelion (urinary tract), elder flowers (fever and chills) and berries (immune booster). How the best thing I ever did for my inner well-being was to banish self-pity and the feeling of having done something wrong. I was going to talk about how our global industrialised food system causes so many modern illnesses: heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, allergies, the collapse of the immune system, depression, attention-deficit and other childhood difficulties and that to radically change what we eat is not only better for ourselves but also the planet and the people of the world. And then I began thinking about medicine.

Medicine is not the same as health, nor is it to be confused with healing. At one time there was a lot of talk about healing the planet and “dealing with your stuff”. But most of us didn’t deal with it, or if we did it never did what we imagined it would: make everything OK in the world. We sat at the edge of our neuroses and complained about our parents not treating us right. We went to therapists to take the pain away. We did special diets and exercises, looked at our reflections in the mirror and said we loved ourselves, laid our hands on each other’s bodies, imagined we were important shamans, said mantras and meditated, and still the world was burning in front of our eyes.

Now we don’t have time or money or resources to lie on the psychotherapist’s couch or fly off into the Amazon rainforest for ceremonies. We have to wise up quick and see that health is not a personal quest for a better life anymore. To face the reality that climate change and peak oil bring to communities everywhere means we have to become physically resilient, mentally agile and emotionally clear. We need to make wise decisions, to deal with complexity, to see the world in terms of systems (rather than in black/white, good/bad polarity) and for this we need to be fired up. We need to be deeply and powerfully connected to that place inside where the medicine stories speak to us. We need our hearts.

In industrial societies we are taught to think in data and facts and figures, to be non-aligned with natural life. We are programmed to be out of step with the rhythm of our own blood and heartbeat, out of time with the rhythm of the year. We are trained to sit still and escape into our minds, into the feel-good places with artificial sounds and frequencies. Unconnected to our real selves, to our wild and free spirits, we remain trapped in ways that are hard to see or articulate. Shrinking away from the hostilities of the world we live in a contracted state that is also a state of emergency, locked into the repeat cycles of grief, hope and despair. The living systems of our bodies which need to be in harmony with the living systems all around us are artificially set apart.

To be truly healthy, as Paul and Mark have already suggested this week, we need to realign ourselves with the natural world, relax, slow down and step out of those concrete boxes that keep us hemmed in. This is as much a work of imagination and feeling as it is physically walking outside the door. The shapes of earth are round, sinuous, warm, fluid; they’ve got rhythm and colour, depth and movement. They are shaped like mountains, like snaking rivers, rippling grasses, the undulating coastlines, our bellies, our hair. Everything in nature beats in accordance with our hearts. Everything has correspondence and is related by its kinship.

The shapes of civilisations on the other hand are unforgiving: hard-edged, geometric, superficial, exaggerated and cold, their colours, harsh and unreal. None of them bear relation to us, except to our indoctrinated minds. We are educated to believe that the artificial systems of our civilisation are superior to the living systems of earth and that our natural correspondence with them is not only unnecessary but dangerous. These systems require huge amounts of energy from both ourselves and the planet to uphold. Because they are mechanical however they are always entropic. At some point the strain they exert on the natural systems creates too much toxic by-product and those toxins begin to affect the whole. We get sick. The world gets sick.

Many of us are aware of this. Some of us are aware that these artificial systems are poised to break up, unless we radically reconfigure the ways we use energy and consume resources. What we’re not necessarily aware of is the kind of medicine the earth and ourselves possess. And that between us we have the knowledge and the wherewithal to rectify koyanisqaatsi , our world out of balance. But to do this we have to give up the control of our minds, our obsession with power, and above all we have to give up our hostility. We have to come from a deep and fiery place inside in everything we do and be prepared to let everything go.

In this endeavour the way we have been artificially configured works against us: the world’s empire keeps up its hostile broadcast, 24/7: it dictates our thoughts, runs through our emotional bodies. We experience everything personally, but it isn’t personal. Our fears are not unique psychological problems, but the result of being socially intimidated into a particular perception of the world and giving our vital life-force to uphold it.

The empire shuts us all down, keeps us small and silent in its low repressive vibration. Stuck inside our interior narratives, we allow the old power structures to hold sway. Everyone tells us it is our problem, that we don’t fit, don’t succeed, don’t feel at home inside our own skins. We feel overwhelmed by responsibility. We close down, protecting ourselves from civilisation’s furious gods and systems, while we wait for a magical elixir, for the paradigm to shift miraculously on its own. But the fact is it doesn’t shift on its own. We have to shift. We have to move our bodies, our minds and most of all our feelings and make space in that fearful clutter that lives in our heads and our bodies.

We have to move out from our defensive positions, from our stuck inner worlds to be the kind of bold, radiant individuals that can deal with the challenges of powerdown, of constructing a just and meaningful low-carbon world. That's a big medicine. Maybe the strongest and bitterest medicine we ever came up with as a species.

In modern life health is considered as a physical concern and sometimes a mental one. We know it objectively as something that goes right or wrong with our bodies. We fear sickness and old age and keep death at arm’s length. We look at our human form critically, obsessively, as if it were a defective genetic machine that needs servicing, rather than a fluid mysterious intelligence that shares the same asymmetric shapes as moving clouds or ocean waves or the tail of a tiger. As a touchstone for an extraordinary work of alchemy.

We live most of our lives on that head and body vertical axis, whereas most of our meaning, our connection with life and with each other, with all creatures on the planet, happens on the horizontal one: the axis of feeling and spirit and the bridge between the two, our hearts. If there is a crisis in the world it is because our hearts as a people have not been in play. You cannot connect with the restorative capacities of earth with the moral, monodimensional, clocktime, right-and-wrong mindset of the industrial world, you access it with your creative ancestral imagination, with your deep, feeling heart as people have done for thousands of years.

To connect with that heart is the work of medicine. It’s a story of empathy and a story of liberation. Something stifled in us needs to come alive, break out and remember. We need an encounter with life to do this. We need to rekindle a relationship with all living forms, with our own form, know our breath as the breath of life, like the wind that blows through the leaves, learn to be fluid, not hold on to things, experience time and neighbourhood in a different way. And to recognise everyone who crosses our path as kin. As someone who can open the door.

Listen! Francis said and put an egg in my hands. I put it to my ear Tap tap tap: a chick was pecking its way out of its shell into the unimagined vastness of the world. I had been wrapped up in myself, far away from earth, and suddenly I was looking into his eyes. I wanted to get through to you, he said.

Pictures: wild rose, Hen Reedbeds, 2010; wild hops and blue lupines, medicine jars, Arizona, 2001; swimming with Marko, Ecuador, 1992; foxgloves, Sizewell Belts, 2011; morning glory 2010

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

A Taste of My Own Medicine Tea

(i)
The truth is I rarely think about my health, which is generally good, and it is twenty years since I last saw a doctor.

So when Rupert Read came to speak at Sustainable Bungay's Green Drinks on Shifting Cultural Values and said that to support the NHS and its founding principles of fairness, equality and humanity at a deep level was to support a 'positive deep frame', I became aware that it was not just about whether I went to the doctor or not, but that "if we support the NHS, we are casting our vote for those principles. We are saying that they really matter."

These principles really are going to matter in the transition from a high-carbon, energy intensive present to a low-carbon, energy-constrained future - in order for that future to be fair, healthy and even liveable. In this I fully support the NHS. I do not condone a system which says it's all right for some people to receive treatment if they have the financial means but not all right for others if they don't.

Having said that, the fossil fuel supplies which made the NHS (or any large public or private institution) possible in its present form are physically limited. The system will inevitably change, or face collapse. I see how we prepare for such change and what we do ourselves to keep both our health and those principles intact as a major part of what Transition is about.

(ii)
I have spent many years working with wild plants. Beyond getting to know the plants and trees themselves and the physical medicines they carry, being present in and paying attention to the natural world is crucial to our well-being. It's something I write about frequently on this blog. It's also something everyone can do with a bit of practice. You don't need to be an expert to connect with the planet's living systems. But we do need to have our feet on the ground and know what our lives really depend on.

When I first began to pay attention to the plants outside my door a dozen years ago (I was 37), I thought "I'll never get to know them, I've left it too late. I don't have the capacity..." But I knew it was important somehow (and that was before I'd heard of Peak Oil, taken notice of climate change or experienced my own severe economic downturn!).


(iii)
From the very beginning of my work with plants I've loved what I call medicine teas. These can be anything from a simple chamomile tea (relaxing, warming, good for the stomach) to a mega midsummer infusion with 20 flowers that lifts the spirits, to a plantain and yarrow tea that helps the immune system. You can grow the plants yourself or pick them from an unpolluted spot.

The tea I'd like to recommend today is lime blossom, very friendly and relaxing and a true Herb for Resilience in stressful times. When you're relaxed and connected with the natural world, you're not prey to the fears and hostilities of the 'human' one.

Limes are normally in blossom around the beginning of July though they are appearing earlier in some places this year. Here's how I prepare it. You take a handful of fresh limeflowers (it smells amazing), shake out any little insects and pop it in a teapot. Boil water and leave to go off boil. Steep for three to five minutes. You can leave it longer if you like it strong. A good time to do this is up to an hour before bed.

Pic: Ribwort Plantains in flower June 2011; Lime flower tea by Charlotte Du Cann, July 2010.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Nature and the impact upon mental health

Mad, bad and dangerous, these are all statements you may hear from time to time that describe a person who is mentally unwell. “Feeling tranquil, being in nature, being at ease, not feeling judged”, are all statements I have personally heard from people who are mentally unwell when they are given the opportunity to explore and discover wild and open places both in Norfolk and further afield.

A small, but growing, number of projects in the UK are introducing adults who are mentally unwell to the great outdoors. One such project provides opportunities for its participants to discover and explore wild places and open landscapes as a means to promoting and enhancing people’s mental health. Discovery Quest is an innovative and challenging community-based walking projects that supports adults with serious mental health problems who live in Norfolk. I am fortunate enough to work for this project and have seen with my own eyes the transformations that take place when an individual engages with the outdoors.

Participants who take part in the Discovery Quest programmes are given the opportunities to explore the Norfolk countryside on a weekly basis. They walk, learn and develop knowledge in a group setting. Later, they explore some of Britain’s national parks, such as the Lake District in northwest England and the Brecon Beacons in south Wales. The final stage involves a longer expedition in the Scottish Highlands. However, Discovery Quest is about more than just walking, it stimulates and educates participants in conservation and environmental awareness and provides a structured wildlife education package.

Often in times of mental distress, one important element that appears to fade away when distressing situations take over is the disconnection with nature’s natural biorhythms. Therefore, one of the aims of the project is to encourage awareness and responsibility for the natural environment. This is achieved in a spirit of fun, adventure and exploration.

It may be fair to say that human beings in the west generally spend long periods confined in concrete buildings far away from remote and wild places. Perhaps we have lost touch with our symbiotic relationship with the very ground we walk. Many academics argue that this disconnection with nature causes an imbalance in the mind and dis-ease occurs. It is not uncommon for participants who turn up at the start of a Discovery Quest walk or expedition to not communicate or respond in an open friendly manner to either their peers or staff. By the end of the walk or expedition, the same people are talking, laughing and sharing their experiences.

It is my personal belief that nature is the greatest therapist. Nature in all its forms has one abiding factor, its ability to be present and accept the impermanence of life. Nature appears to have the greatest ability to adapt to adversity. The difference with nature and the human race is nature does not forcefully impose its will. When people become dis-connected with nature, they appear to demonstrate the opposite, not being present, and find difficultly in accepting the things they cannot change. Once connection occurs with nature, a transformation appears to takes place and people become more accepting, present with themselves and others. Numerous studies both in the UK and further afield have revealed that spending quality time in wide-open places greatly enhances people’s well-being and sense of who they are. In 2009, Rachel Hine, Jules Pretty and Jo Barton conducted a literature review focusing on research that examined the Social, Psychological and Cultural Benefits of Large Natural Habitat & Wilderness Experience. For more information, follow the link.

Writing in the Guardian, the novelist Clare Allan, who has been an inpatient in a mental health unit in the past, revealed how a recent break in Snowdonia had left her feeling revitalized.
‘It does seem a shame, that when people are in crisis, when their self-esteem is at an all-time low, we put them in an environment about as far removed from the Glyders [a mountain range in Snowdonia] as it’s possible to imagine,’ she wrote. ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, instead of locking people up in airless wards with nothing to do, we took them into the mountains? I’m sure I’m being extremely naive, and there are infinite reasons why it can’t ever happen but it would be good though, wouldn’t it?’
Of course, there are many possible responses to Ms Allan’s apparently naïve question. For example, some might raise health and safety concerns (either real or imagined), or cite economic pressures. Opinions over what constitutes effective treatment might be raised, with some arguing that, for example, that the role of medication is crucial. Meanwhile, national or local policies might hinder or foster development, and some health practitioners might - dare I say it – see such novel initiatives as a threat to their professional existence. However, in my limited experience, observing people who are mentally unwell, be given the opportunity to connect with nature certainly reaps a positive and rewarding outcome.

I wish to end this blog with a quote from a female participant who had been involved with mental health services for many years, and in 2009 joined the programme:
“Being so close to nature can itself improve people’s mood and outlook on their life. I have witnessed group members overcome with the beauty and delights nature has to offer. Discovery Quest has given me back my hope, and made me realise that the future does not have to be ruled by my mental health condition, and that I am in control. I could have easily let it (my mental health problems) continue to control my life, instead Discovery Quest has helped me see that I can choose what I do and even when faced with problems I can still achieve great things. Everyone pulled together as a and it was great to see when you take away all the distractions of life how people bond with each other, and work as one. Even without the support of care workers and family we can cope! It has been a real revelation as to how things can influence our lives, some positive and some negative”. B.W. 18/09/2009
For more information www.discoveryquest.org. Facebook: Discovery Quest page. Twitter: Discovery_Quest.

Discovery Quest has been nominated for a National Lottery Award, best health project 2011. In order to be in a chance of moving to the finals we need your vote! Please follow the link: http://www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk/awards/best-health-project/121/.


Paul Lefever (Project Manager Julian Housing Support - Discovery Quest)

References: Allan C (2009) Peaks can be an antidote to the troughs of mental illness. www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/sep/02/mental-healththerapy-clare-allan (accessed: 29 March 2010]

Pics: Discovery Quest

Monday, 13 June 2011

Welcome to the "Health in Transition" theme week

Health is big news at the moment; every day it seems there are discussions on the Coalition's plans to "shake-up" the NHS, with each side putting their point of view across. Meanwhile, campaigning organisation 38 Degrees is running the "Save the NHS" campaign - over 400,000 people so far have signed up their petition, concerned that the so called shake-up will destroy the foundations of the National Health Service. I'll declare a certain partisanship here - I feel the NHS is something we as a society can be rightly proud of - available to all, free at the point of need, and run for the public good, not for profit - and I think that the government should be listening to what health professionals are saying about the reforms.

But health isn't just about the NHS, and, in true "This Low-Carbon Life" fashion, we're going to explore on the blog this week some of the many facets of health in the 21st Century, set against the backdrop of transition themes of peak oil, transition to a low-carbon society and the current economic challenges.

I've reflected before on this blog as to how our modern mainstream health services appear energy and carbon intensive - I haven't seen anything to make me think this will change. How might the provision of health services change in a world where oil prices rocket as availability diminishes? What will be the effect of legally-binding carbon targets on our health provision?

And what about health in a micro-context? If you look at your own body, it's an ecosystem as complicated and interwoven as any of the environments we see in the world, and is also kept in a delicate balance; all too easy to disrupt in our modern world, either through the physical, mental and emotional stresses we subject it to, or through the chemicals, benign or toxic, that are so prevalent in our modern environment.

This week on the blog, we're going to explore some of these themes. Tomorrow we'll start by taking a look at a groundbreaking initiative using nature to help people with mental health challenges.

Pic: http://38degrees.org.uk/

Friday, 10 June 2011

Carbon Conversations

My first Carbon conversation group had their last meeting a couple of weeks ago. The last meeting of the course is even more relaxed than the other sessions. It's deliberately designed as a chance to kick-back, natter and swap stories.

The group has the chance to decide whether they'd like to continue meeting, or to decide that it is time to go it alone.

We chose to meet in a Norwich café. Not everybody could make it, but one person emailed before-hand to talk about the changes they'd made as a result of the course. Those changes amazed me. Digging up the lawn for growing veg. Buying a bicycle. Getting a smart meter and using it to work out she'd cut her energy use by 7% since starting the course. Putting her name down on a waiting list for an allotment which she planned to share with a family member. Then came the real big one: re-evaluating her work/life balance with a view to working less: cutting down on commuting, spending less money, having more time to spend with loved ones. Less carbon, more fun.

I shared her successes with the rest of the group, feeling genuinely touched to have been part of the process of facilitating these changes. I couldn't get over how BIG a thing it is to go on a course and re-evaluate the whole of the way you run your life as a result. A husband and wife who'd also done the course shared a glance and then spoke together: "So have we." We all looked at them in surprise and they explained. "We've both asked to go part time. We listened in the session which related disposable income to carbon emissions, and decided the next way we could cut our emissions would be to cut our income." (I have to add here that I know the couple have already made lots of changes to their house, their means of transport etc, so the investments in these areas have already been made).

That's nearly half the group (and the other facilitator too!) reducing their work hours voluntarily to change their lifestyle and reduce their emissions. Everyone who didn't already have a bike has bought one, and those with old bikes have dug them out of storage and had them fixed up.

One woman, starting with a heavy Primark habit has gone on a 6 month buying-diet: pledging to buy no clothes, make-up or jewellery for 6 months. A colleague who shares her office has made a sign which she hold up when anyone talks about buying anything. The sign reads:

Can you afford it?
Do you need it?
Will you use it?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Conversations

This week, I'd like to talk about conversations. I've been told more often than I like to recall about the 'power of conversations'. Spend enough time around Transition-types (and yes, there is a transition-type, much as I've struggled against it) and you'll be bound to hear it.

I've generally found it a frustrating thing to hear. It so often went with a discussion about the death of community and that usually got onto the subject sooner or later of the evils of technology. So I decided that it was just people who don't understand how to use Google properly and merrily disregarded it.

I was wrong. I've later discovered that some of those people who were saying it work in IT, and that conversations are, indeed, very powerful.

I facilitate Carbon Conversation courses- which really are just that. Conversations about carbon. The course was developed in Cambridge by Rosemary Randall and if you haven't been on one yet, I highly recommend it. Keep an eye out in the Transition Bulletin for the next one.

I can't remember when I did my course (it was a year and a half ago, maybe 2. Something like that). What I do remember was how nervous and out of place I felt when I turned up, and then how relaxed and comfortable I felt with my group by the end. The big thing I remember is the difference it made in my life. It took all those 'locked up', 'stuck', what else can I possibly do to make my life greener?' feelings and let me let go of them. It got me to put cling film on my windows when nothing else had. It helped me cycle to work a bit more often.

It didn't make me feel small or guilty or incapable of change, which Climate Change very often does. I was so impressed and moved by the course I decided to become a facilitator. I've just finished co-facilitating my course- I'd like to tell you tomorrow how it went.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Empire

I've been reading Niall Ferguson's compelling account of the British Empire; I'm continually fascinated by how society organises itself, or, of course, is organised according to the desires of one or more parties.  Amongst other things, the book reminds me that history does not recognise the concept of a status quo, and that no matter how permanent a paradigm may seem to us now, in 2011, in reality it is as transient as any of the ancient civilisations buried under centuries of sand.

I came across a wonderful paragraph:
...the costs of overseas expansion [of the nascent British Empire] - or to be precise of the interest on the National Debt - were met by the impoverished majority at home.  And who received that interest?  The answer was a tiny elite of mainly southern bondholders, somewhere around 200,000 families, who had invested a part of their wealth in 'the Funds'.
Sound familiar?  In his 1953 book The Go Between, L P Hartley famously wrote "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there". Sometimes the past of Britain in the 1780s can seem startlingly similar to Britain in 2011 - less a foreign country and more a cracked and dirty mirror reflecting our modern world.  The plans to sell off our forests, the planned reforms to our health service and welfare state.  You have to ask yourself - who is paying and who is receiving the interest?

Quote from p46 of the Penguin paperback edition of Empire - How Britain Made the Modern World, by Niall Ferguson.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Feedback Welcome

Feedback is a gift, however it comes.  If you put your opinion out there, not everyone's gonna like it.  They don't have to; you can't please all of the people all of the time.  One of the important things about having a position is being happy to engage in debate, exploring the rights and wrongs of that position and seeing things from the other side.  And one of the great things about having a blog is that blogging sites are all set up to invite comment and opinion.  I love reading what people have to say, what they agree with and also what they disagree with.  Everyone's entitled to their opinion.

What's not so good is when people, usually anonymously, just post rants that point out all the failings of a course of action, but without suggesting any better course.  Sometimes without even offering any kind of rationale or context for the view.  You only have to look at some of the comments pages for the online version of the broadsheets, or the BBC's news site to see how quickly rational debate turns into mud-slinging.  Not helpful for either side of the debate.

I was pondering a particularly colourful comment when I was reminded of one of Barack Obama's speeches where he asked people not to simply criticise him for who he was, but to join in the debate, to get involved in finding solutions to problems.  I love this speech - see if you agree!

 

Monday, 6 June 2011

Making Connections

Apart from reading at church when I was at school, I'd never stood up to speak in front of a large group of people before.  Yet there I was at the Norwich Farmshare Open Evening, talking about my hopes for the Norwich Community Bees scheme.

I was quite nervous, but as I stood up, I suddenly thought "this is so exciting!"  Laura, Tierney and Elena had been talking with such passion about the farm and their enthusiasm was infectious.  People seemed to be really engaged and it felt like something important was happening.  We were starting to think about possibilities, making connections.

I was talking to Elena afterwards, and mentioned an excellent programme I'd heard on the radio - Climate Change Farm - about the Otter Farm where owner Mark Diacono grows foods not normally associated with the British climate - "orchards of pecans, quince, almonds, szechuan pepper, apricot..."  It sounds idyllic.  On the programme, he talked about how we are so used to growing plants in straight rows with a gap between them; this is done for ease of cropping, yet also causes space for weeds to grow, hence extra effort in weeding, water loss and soil erosion.

At the farm, strawberries are planted in great patches where they support each other and shade out weeds while keeping the soil moist.  It's a different way of looking at growing.  Elena had also heard the same programme and knew about the farm before.  I mentioned a scheme I'd read about in National Geographic where farmers are trying to cross-breed perennial wheat grass with more productive modern annual wheat strains to combat soil erosion caused by the  continual cycle of planting, harvesting and ploughing on modern arable farms.  From the picture I saw, the perennial wheat's roots looked about twenty times as long as annual wheat.  The long roots tap into the deeper, more fertile soil, find water more easily and hold the soil together.


When did I start getting excited about soil?  About growing and farming?  Since being involved in Transition, it feels like we've put down deep, perennial root systems.  Social root systems, linking people together; and root systems of thought, helping us to make connections with things that matter.  I'd never thought too much about it, but now I see connections everywhere.

Food and farming are so integral to our lives, so important, it's no accident that Oxfam's new global campaign for food justice is simply called GROW.

Pics: www.landscapeofmeaning.blogspot.com; www.NationalGeographic.com

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Deep Nature Week – A Postscript

I would like to thank all the bloggers who contributed over the last week to Deep Nature on This Low Carbon Life. Looking through the posts this morning I’m struck (again) both by the extraordinary diversity and quality which make up our blog and by how wholeheartedly everyone engages with the material.

Organising and leading a shared week on the blog is a quite different thing from simply (?!?) writing three posts in three days every six weeks, where I only have to focus on what I’m doing. What if no one wants to join in with the subject? Or too many people want to? And once you’ve worked out some basic guidelines, communicated with everyone, got the rota sorted out and the week begins, you are in a sense holding that week – what if it goes pear-shaped? Though I suppose pear-shaped wouldn’t be so bad given this week’s subject.

If you haven’t read the pieces yet, I recommend all of them. They read really well in order, from Into Deep Nature (the intro) to Swarm Catchers (natural beekeeping) and the mysteries of Poppyland (negotiating the balance of the wild and the domesticated). Ancient and Modern taps into deep sea time, whilst Alchemy 2 (the Micro Picture) gets elemental and ‘Nature’ throws up some surprises in Who’s been eating my potato?

I took the pictures in this post (Scorzonera, Pineapple Mayweed and Common Broomrape) yesterday at The Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm near Ipswich, where a meeting of several regional Community Supported Agriculture schemes took place organised by the Soil Association. I’ll report more on that for the July TN News bulletin.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Who's been eating my potato?

I doubt if anyone reading this blog sees ‘nature as an endlessly exploitable resource’ – as Mark put it at the beginning of the week. People in Transition are generally pretty aware of the need to work with the natural world. But what is the ‘natural world’ and does it want to work with us?

I’ve just dug up some potatoes – a vegetable that originated on the other side of the world and is only safe to eat as a result of thousands of years of genetic manipulation by humans to reduce the levels of toxic glycoalkaloids in the tubers – but something has got there before me. Millipedes probably. Potatoes have only been grown here on a significant scale for a few hundred years but the natural world is quick to exploit a new food source.

Last week we were walking in Devon and I took this picture from Haytor – I did not dare stand as the 80mph wind would have blown me over the edge. The tors are a relatively recent phenomena that were created during the ice age that occurred a mere 20,000 years ago and sent the early human settlers of this country scuttling back south to warmer climes. I was surprised to read on Wikipedia that ‘There is a theory that about 15000 BC prehistoric man, by killing the mammoths, removed a major grazing factor and so let the North American and Eurasian tundra get overgrown with trees, which, sticking up above the winter snow, made the land darker and made the spring warming much quicker, and so ended the last Ice Age.’ Surely this has to be the earliest example of man induced climate change on a major scale!

Coming back from holiday I found that my arch enemy The Mole had wreaked havoc in garden – the dry conditions leading him to undermine my prized recycled shed in his search for worms in the damper soil beneath it.

What this all means to me is that we can’t predict or control nature. We need to try and understand the natural world and to make the best of the resources available to us but nature will always throw up some surprises. Which makes it all the more important to build the resilient society that Transition aspires to.