Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Opening Up The Nectar

Today we give a warm welcome on board to Jo Balfe as she joins the TN blog crew. Jo is active in Transition Norwich in the Permaculture and Low Carbon Cookbook groups and is part of Norwich FarmShare. In her first post she talks about the opening of her new (mainly) raw food cafe in Norwich this coming Saturday and the passion, experience and (very transitional) principles it is based on. I'll leave the rest to her...(MW)

The Nectar cafe opens its bright red door on Saturday 3rd September. I have spent the last three months building, plumbing, painting, collecting, experimenting, feeling a whole range of emotions and coming to the last few days before opening going, "this is going to be really amazing!"

We have a beautiful space just off Unthank road in Norwich, small but cosy and intimate I like to think! There is no cooking equipment, only a small hand-built kitchen area where we will be making up fresh salads, sandwiches, soups, juices, smoothies and a huge range of teas.

Most of the produce we are using will be coming from the Norwich farmshare, so will have food miles of about 6! The rest we will source from other local organic suppliers and my own and others allotments. The herbs for teas are all coming from the Organic Herb Trading Company, which grows a lot of its own herbs on their farm and sources the rest ethically from organic growers.

We also have our own herb bed outside and lots in pots inside. Charlotte from Suffolk is supplying us with her hedgerow and garden cordials and preserves, we have local honey, bread baked two minutes walk away at the dozen bakery and lots of handmade gluten free-raw goodies.

It is a friendly and fun space, where you can come and relax, learn about local, seasonal food, join in a workshop, have a herbal tea made specifically for you and enjoy cakes and treats which you can be assured have been handmade with ethical ingredients and with optimum health in mind.

I personally have spent the past five years learning and living a high-raw food lifestyle, after discovering it whilst travelling in Australia. I met some “raw-foodists’’ who I ended up living and working with, running a farmers’ market stall selling cakes, chocolates, smoothies, breads, crackers, dips, even pizza, all made from totally un-cooked, organic vegan and dairy free ingredients. Most of the produce we used was grown locally, including lots of tropical fruit, year-round vegetables and coconuts.

After living in this community for a year, I came back to Norwich and carried on eating mainly raw foods, but realised that I didn’t feel good about eating this way when I was buying a lot of imported fruit and veg. I then started integrating a high-raw diet with my instincts of keeping the focus on local seasonal ingredients, listening to my body and combining warming cooked meals with nutrient dense living-foods such as sprouted seeds and pulses, wild greens, and juicing and preserving seasonal gluts.

This felt much more sustainable to me being able to still eat in a way which felt like it was keeping the life-force as high as possible, but without compromising with non-local produce. For me, a locally grown meal lovingly cooked and shared with friends is far better for us than a meal which is totally raw but full of tropical foods which are probably weeks old before reaching our plates. Its all about choosing what’s right for us and adapting to our environments and situations.

I have broken free of putting a ‘label’ on the way I eat nowadays, I just love what I eat and love using local, seasonal food as much as I can! Right now, I am eating my way through so many home grown tomatoes and making so much gaspacho and tomato and herb salads that I will be happy to wait another year once the season is over to eat another tomato!

Eating in season connects us to nature, time and the abundance which is all around us. I only need to walk out of my home a few minutes to find trees brimming with wild fruits, medicinal herbs, berries and nuts. People have asked me about organising some foraging walks from the café and it is something I would love to do!

From Saturday 3rd September, we will be open from Tuesday-Saturday 10-5, for fresh juices, smoothies using either our home made nut and oat milks, or organic cows milk. Our toasted or open sandwich menu will include homemade pesto and tomato, organic cheese or homemade raw vegan ‘cheese’ with chutney, or hummus and grated root vegetables. A tasty salad bowl or a dipping plate of our sprouted seed crackers and three dips.

Our sweets are our speciality, with most of the cakes being raw and all vegan and gluten free. For a special treat, we make our own raw chocolates; not so locally grown but using organic fair trade cacao and local honey. Come in for a warming mug of almond milk chai or hot chocolate, fresh herbal tea or a coffee from our brew bar. Our organic coffee is gently pressed through hand-extractors.

I am running monthly workshops on raw food, which are based on the seasonal produce and traditions of that particular month. I am opening up the space for other groups to use for meetings, creative clubs or workshops.

The other thing which differs the Nectar from other cafes, is our mobile smoothie maker, the bicycle blender! On sunny days outside the café or at local events, you can pedal for your own smoothie, blending up fruity goodness by your own leg power! We will have the bike outside the café this Saturday on opening day, so pop along and try your feet at making your own smoothie or sampling some of our special cakes or lunches.

If you can't make it to the café, we will be at the Waveney Greenpeace Fair at Henham Park on Sunday with the bicycle, so do come and see us there! Jo Balfe

The Nectar, 16 Onley Street (off Unthank Road) Open Tues-Sat.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

A Different Kind of Tea Party

Summer came to an end yesterday with a surprise... a visit from fellow TN blogger John (Heaser) and his wife Rebecca. They turned up on our doorstep after a sea walk in Southwold, armed with a huge bag of homegrown carrots, beetroot, romanesco courgette and cucumber.

I picked fresh peppermint and spearmint from the garden for tea and we sat in the tent porch talking about plants and vegetables – everything from runner beans through to sunflowers, the ten types of potatoes John is growing this year and the ‘ricola’ peppermint I gave to Rebecca for her herb patch. This type is grown for Swiss chocolate and smells like After Eights.

This year we have grown more vegetables than normal - runner beans and tomatoes in amongst the herbs and flowers, potatoes at the edge of the compost heap (currently home to a large family of grass snakes), cucumbers, courgettes and aubergines. But the garden is still mostly unmown and left to its own wild devices for the benefit of birds, lizards, bumblebees and the friendly snakes.

John gave me a vital piece of advice for potato growing. And though it will be obvious to people who have been growing them for years, it may not be to novices (like myself). So I’d like to share it:

Potato leaves love sunlight BUT the tubers need to be protected from direct sun and so need at least an inch and a half of soil over them. This keeps them under the ground and stops them from going green (green on potatoes indicates a high level of solanine, which is poisonous to humans). Yesterday I had found a few good-sized potatoes exposed to the surface. But there wasn’t a lot left of them after I’d cut the green away.

Then the conversation turned to another kind of blight - imminent economic collapse, which had been a key subject of discussion both at the Uncivilisation Festival Charlotte had gone to, and the recent off-grid Sunrise festival. John said he’s glad to have 30 years’ experience of growing food at home to provide at least some basic necessities in the face of future adversity.

But what of the general awareness of anything being other than ‘business as usual’? Last week I had gone to Southwold for tea with a friend from London. She was glad to be on holiday she told me because her next door neighbours have spent the past nine months having building work done on their house and the noise is unbearable. And EVERY one of the houses around her has had major building work in the past few years. And the conversation among the other Londoners present was the same conversation I would have heard before I left two decades ago. Money, house values, children’s education. Nowhere in this seemingly financially secure company was there talk of collapse or the sense that life was going to be any different than it had always been.

As I walked home in the pouring rain I wondered: Is this because most of us are not aware of the storm brewing, or don’t want to look out of the window, or that it’s a taboo subject? Not the kind of surprising talk you have over tea?

There is an excellent interview on Transition Voice by Lindsay Curren with Dmitry Orlov, peak oil commentator and author of Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects. The interview is long but well worth the effort to read. In it he talks about collapse American style, where for most people in the ‘polite society’ of ‘how are you?’ ‘Fine’, collapse is ‘not even on the radar’. I don’t think that’s just America.

What kind of teatime conversations are you having?

Pics: John, Rebecca, Charlotte and me at the tent with mint tea; John's homegrown vegetables; ricola peppermint - all by Mark Watson

Monday, 29 August 2011

Bloggers on the Bench

Saturday 1pm. Last weekend of August, 2011. On a bench in Chapelfield Gardens after our quarterly bloggers' meeting at The Greenhouse cafe. Five Transition Norwich bloggers with The Transition Timeline by Shaun Chamberlin. To be left as part of bookcrossing week on the blog.

Now you see us.

Now you don't.

We didn't leave the book there on Saturday as we couldn't join it to Bookcrossing on the public library computers. And it had started to rain (note end of summer clothing and slightly shivery aspect of assembled company).

None of us writing this week had actually sent a book on its bookcrossing travels (Erik and Simeon are saving theirs for the new bookcrossing zone at Jo Balfe's new cafe The Nectar* on Saturday 24th September). Others were either treasured reference books, lost or from the library.

So to make it clear this is not just a photo op, this copy of the Transition Timeline will be released into the wild of Chapelfield Gardens this month, complete with BCID (Book Crossing identification number) and web address. If you pick it up, do log it in to help keep track of its journey. And happy reading.

Pics: On the bench l to r Chris, Jon, Charlotte, Simeon and Mark in Chapelfield Gardens; Bench and Book; Book and Bench

*The Nectar opens this coming Saturday September 3rd at 10am

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Hedgerow Resources

Despite the remit of this week I definitely wouldn't be leaving my copies of my chosen books on a bench anywhere, I couldn't bear to part with them. I would, however, definitely consider buying more copies and leaving them on benches to spread the word. And that in itself is a high recommendation of them as I don't tend to buy books now-a-days. I find that Libraries amply supply books that I want to read. The only purchases I permit myself are reference books that I will not necessarily read all in one go, but will keep refering back to for years to come.

So now that I have thoroughly piqued your interest I shall introduce my chosen books. The first is actually by Norfolk authors Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal, Hedgerow Medicine: harvest and make your own herbal remedies. It is a fantastic introduction to the ecology, history, folklore, medicinal properties, harvesting techniques and potential uses of 50 herbs which can be commonly found in UK hedgerows. It is clearly laid out with beautiful photographs and is very easy and enjoyable to read, although it is impossible to take in the information on more than a couple of herbs in one sitting! As well as providing interesting anecdotes (such as the fact that WW2 pilots ate blueberry jam sandwiches before a flight to improve their nightvision)there are also many easy to follow recipes for concocting your own remedies with clear explanations of their medicinal properties.

My other book is River Cottage Handbook: Hedgerow by John Wright. Now I happily sat down and read this book in one sitting, not because I was able to absorb all of the information in it at once, but because John Wright is such an engaging and amusing author. I would like to treat you to an excerpt:
"I am frequently told that going on a walk with me can be rather disconcerting. Except for the occasions where I offer my companion the odd leaf to chew upon, I appear to be strangely distracted and barely listening to what is being said to me. Well, I am - usually - listening; it is just that I am doing something else as well - looking.

Once one learns the foraging way of life, it is difficult to stop. If my walking is absent-minded, my driving is lethal. Foraging at 50mph, with eyes darting right and left and the occasional abrupt punctuations of the forager's emergency stop, has made me a danger to all road users."

And I know from experience that foraging on a bicycle is not much safer! In common with hedgerow medicine, this book gives you a detailed introduction to each plant, its distribution, appearance, harvesting technique and ways of eating it. It also, usefully, details some of the very poisonous plants that you need to make sure you avoid!

Between these two books I am slowly, season by season rediscovering my environment and transitioning my approach to food and health. And how exciting it is to concoct your own Rosehip and Rowan berry syrup to boost your immune system. For me it is the ability to take these books in bite-sized chunks that appeals to me, so when I happen to spot something whilst on a walk or I find time to go on a foraging foray I can dip into these treasure troves of information and glean a bit more knowledge of the world I'm living in and how I can be a part of it.

I would like to share these books with other people as they are easy and engaging introductions to foraging and herbal medicine. The revelation that you can eat things that grow all around us and which you can collect for only the cost of your time, challenges the supermarket concept of food, linking the consumer directly back to the source. Similarly herbal medicine calls into question some aspects of our current health system, especially the 'purity' of many medications, which only consist of one or two different chemicals and are consequently quite harsh on the body. In comparison plants are incredibly complex, containing many different compounds that work in harmony to affect change in the body, this results in much gentler medicine.

A greater understanding and personal control over our food production and healthcare will be very useful skills in the Transition. As will an increased connection to our environment. So come on, give it a go, eat weeds!

I did have lots of lovely photos for this blog, but blogger is having none of it so I will have to add them later!

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Survival - a Planetary Healers Manual

Can reading a book change someone’s life? Who knows what course my life may have taken had I not bought a very strange book back in 1976. I had a pretty conventional time at University – by the standards of the 1970s – and enjoyed myself at the taxpayer’s expense in rural Devon. That was followed by an equally conventional life of work in London in the early days of IT – yes computers really were the size of buses then. So I have no idea what made me spend quite a lot of money on ‘Survival into the 21st Century, Planetary Healers Manual ‘ by Viktoras Kulvinskas – maybe it was the pretty cover!

I read the book on the tube (no Ipods in those days) and people peered over my shoulder at the exotic (and some erotic) illustrations. The contents were a complete revelation to me – in the dark ages before the internet people were much less likely to be exposed to ideas and thoughts from outside their immediate circle of friends.

My partner at the time took one look at the book and exclaimed with dread “you’re going to become a vegetarian!!” – well she was not quite correct but I certainly ate a lot less meat and to her credit she took on board a lot of the messages from the book once she got over the initial shock.

‘Viktoras’ – as we called the book for short – led me to join Friends of the Earth, take up Yoga and WOOFing and ultimately to move to the country to grow my own food and now to Transition. I don’t claim that this book will have that effect on everyone – it was very much a product of its time – but if it inspires some people the way it did me, then so much the better. Unfortunately I leant my copy to someone in 1978 and I’m still waiting for it to be returned – so I’ll have to refer people to the library if they want to read it.

So what did Viktoras write in this magic book? From what I remember it was a compendium of ideas for healthy eating, sustainable living and just about every weird idea that was new and crazy in the 70s. One fact that I have tucked away for use in a time of word turmoil is that one can derive much more nutrition by sprouting grain than by baking it as flour. So you will know things are really bad when I dig up the remaining lawn to grow seeds for sprouting!

pics from

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Spirit Level... and never said a word

I have a book in my possession with a ‘wandering word’ BookCrossing sticker in it. I didn't find it on a bench though, it was given to me last winter by Erik at a Low Carbon Cookbook meeting. And although I’ve read it, and would recommend it highly, I probably won’t be leaving it on a bench any time soon. But only because I have no plans to visit Germany soon – if that changes I’ll take it with me…

The book in question is Heinrich Böll’s …und sagte kein einziges Wort (…and never said a word). It is set in Germany around the end of the 1940s and tells the story of a married couple as they struggle to meet their most basic needs and stay together in a world trying to rebuild itself from the ruins and trauma of war. This is a Germany in transition, a Germany in the predawn time of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) of the 1950s.

The story is narrated in turns by the man and the woman and Böll’s language is sparse and clear as he relays an almost visceral sense of postwar reality. There are the bombed out churches, grey government buildings and the rented room the couple and their two children live in, separated from their neighbours only by a flimsy screen. There is also the face of the woman, prematurely lined from hardship and worry, looking into shop windows at clothes she can’t afford and the gaunt figure of the man as he enters a Kneipe to spend the last of his change on schnapps and the pinball machine.

…und sagte kein einziges Wort is a kind of novel-cum-social report. It is frequently harrowing with an ending at once ambiguous and with a glimmer of light. Not precisely holiday reading. Then again we're not really in holiday times.

If …und sagte kein einziges Wort takes place in a Germany in transition after the second world war, then The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is firmly set in the first decade of the 21st century.

I am not a fan of books filled with statistical graphs. Having to prove everything exists by researching numbers then crunching them into averages has become endemic in our culture, even pathological. As far as social inequality goes, (which is what The Spirit Level is about) a good look around at our society (the recent riots, government spending cuts aimed at the least well off, a walk around any city, talking to people) will tell us most of what we need to know.

But The Spirit Level is a book well worth reading, for all its graphs and statistics. Its main aim is to show the social effect of income inequality (i.e. the gap between rich and poor) in different countries in terms of those countries' well-being.

The book looks at factors such as life expectancy, physical health, obesity, depression, education, teenage births, violence and punishment and provides evidence to show that in countries where the income gap is large (such as the UK), everybody is adversely affected. In other words it shows in tables and graphs what most of us in our hearts are aware of. That social inequality, with its attendant atmosphere of hostility and mistrust, is bad for all of us, with perhaps the exception of the very rich. And it is the level of income/social inequality within a country and not how wealthy a country is in and of itself which is the determining factor.

Other key points in the book include a necessary shift of “attention from material standards and economic growth to…improving the psychological and social well-being of whole societies". There is also the need to get beyond seeing the problems we face as individual psychological issues with individual therapies and remedies, to seeing them systemically, and ourselves as active parts of the social and political fabric.

And perhaps our greatest challenge lies in the last point above. Each one of us has been educated and conditioned to think and act individualistically (though not necessarily as individuals). So to shift to thinking in a more social way, as a member of society, is to go against that conditioning and is therefore a task. A task requiring both individual and collective effort in the face of a future where a 'Wirtshaftswunder' of the kind Germany saw in the 50s remains highly unlikely.

Photos: Heinrich Böll book cover; photo from BBC documentary 'Poor Kids'; The Spirit Level cover from the Equality Trust

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Benchmarks or Why I Don't Read Like I Used To

I have a confession. I don’t read books anymore. Or rather I read books very rarely, and as I began this blog this morning I wondered was this just me, or was it a symptom of our age?

Like all writers I read a LOT of books when I was young. I spent a childhood immersed in fairy tales, my student life devouring English Lit, my working life reading for publishers and media. By the age of 35 my kitchen housed a library of well over 2000 volumes.

"What are you going to do with all your books?" asked my friends aghast when I told them I was leaving the city to go on the road.

"I’m going to sell them," I said. And they were shocked that I should do such a terrible thing (more upset it seemed than by my imminent departure).

So they went: all my linguistics text books, the bent-spined Modern Classics, a collection of American novel first editions and illustrated versions of Alice in Wonderland, paperbacks, poetry, philosophy, plays, all the Great Works from Beowulf and Virgil to the latest smart and complicated novels reviewed by the Sunday Times.

After that I just read what I found in various cafes and swapped with fellow travellers. I began to spend time in libraries: leafy courtyards in Mexico; the vast reading rooms of New York. I began writing my own notebooks and forgot about keeping up with High Culture. I stopped reading fiction and started immersing myself in mythology, psychology, deep ecology, stories about people who changed their lives. When I returned and began to write up my own adventures that reading list decreased also.

Re-reading Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections late one night I realised I didn’t want to end up living in a solitary tower like the old psychoanalyst. I realised reading books had become an escape, something I looked forward to at bedtime. Then I saw an old lady reading by lamplight in an armchair in a Suffolk cottage. There was a stack of fiction beside her, mostly detective novels. "She reads for hours," her daughter told me as we stood there watching her scan the pages oblivious to our presence. And I shuddered.

When I joined Transition shortly afterwards in 2008 I read several of the seminal texts: Rob Hopkins' The Transition Handbook, Richard Heinberg’s Powerdown and David Korten’s The Great Turning. They shaped a way of looking at communities and the earth I knew nothing about. But once I felt I “got” Transition I was more interested in doing and writing about it than reading theories behind the social, economic and environmental shifts it demanded (though I now read a lot of my fellow bloggers on these subjects). Books about cultural change like The Tipping Point and The Empathic Civilisation frequently revolve around one great idea, sometimes spun out over hundreds of pages. And although those ideas were often really interesting they originated from within a scientific and establishment mindset and often lost my attention.

The truth of the matter is that the way we understand the world and transmit ideas has changed. We don’t need a pages of details once our imagination has been fired up. It’s changed with social media, with the democratisation of writing on the net, but also because we as people are in a time of shift and these often plodding academic texts don’t capture that spirit of the times. They are not written from the front line, in the thick of things, by people who are active catalysts within the collective, as touchstones for change.

We’re a people waiting for that new narrative to arrive on the shelves.

Hold Everything Dear - Dispatches on Survival and Resistance by John Berger

This is a week about giving a book you would want someone else to read, a life-changing book, a transmission that might make you look differently at the planet and start to powerdown. Looking back at the great world literature that once occupied my imagination, the texts I remember are not the stuff of romance, novels or biographies or bestsellers. All of them are non-fiction and all of them radically challenged my world-view: George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and Roland Barthes' Mythologies made me question (and ultimately leave) the acquisitive society I was brought up in. The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller revolutionised my interior life, Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down my understanding of history and politics.

The Transition book I would leave on the bench (if I owned it) is not however about peak oil or climate change, the financial crisis or growing vegetables. It’s about something else. I don’t write this with the book in front of me but from memory because it stayed in my heart.

Hold Everything Dear is a slim book about a journey to Palestine and written with all the spare poetry and intellectual fire of old age. The real business of writing is to uncover truth and transmit it in way that others can know it also and act in their own lives. It’s not to distract or to entertain or to keep the left-brain occupied on a train or beach, or to fend off boredom and the fear of death. My private universe. It’s there to startle and transform, to break the illusory bubble that imprison us and the Empire (as Korten describes it) would be happy we remained. To exchange vital knowledge and ideas. To awaken us from our individualist torpor and to connect us with the vibrant collective intelligence of all people who desire a different world.

John Berger goes to the front line and sees for himself how the Palestinian people are living. He looks at the hyperreality of the media, the business of war, at poverty and privilege. He stands by a group of donkeys and by a young boy watering aubergines under olive trees and locates himself in an ancient land. He sits at his writing desk at night and addresses the dead revolutionary artists he once knew. The future is fraternal, he says. He is 79 years old and he is still a Marxist and reading these pages you know why. When the chips are down hold everything dear he is telling us. The people that matter, the trees that matter, the life that matters.

For me this is the true frame for Transition. Belonging to a people who are intellectually active, politicised, fraternal with our feet in the beauty and form of physical earth, part of a lineage of writers and activists who have been dreaming of freedom for millennia and are prepared to put themselves on the line for it.

It’s a literary thread I rediscovered this weekend at Dark Mountain’s Uncivilisation Festival and plan to write about next week. Meanwhile here is a picture of Jo Balfe and me and book in her café, The Nectar (where our bookcrossing event will be on 24 Sept), taken last night as some of us gathered to share our knowledge about food and the future. Happy reading!

Cover of The Road to Wigan Pier; Jay Griffiths' Wild in a suitcase at Uncivilisation Festival: John Berger and cover of Hold Everything Dear; with Jo and RAWvoution at The Nectar Cafe.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

What if life in the future was all about doing less?!

The book I'm leaving on the bench is "How to be Idle" by Tom Hodgkinson.

“How to be Idle” as a title doesn’t conjure up the idea of Transition, does it? But then again, this isn’t really a Transition book. It’s a more of a motivational book, part of the “Heart and Soul” side of Transition. That might sound a bit ironic too, one might think, until you read it. For me (and I should think for many others in this fast-paced modern world), the idea of doing less (especially less of the boring stuff) seems like a great solution! Life is far too hectic, and this attitude is only exaggerated by the perceived necessity to “buy more!”, “earn more!” and “do more!” that is promoted by mainstream media, the government and our employers.

This book is written as a series of essays, each one representing an hour of the day, and each with a different theme of something that you could be doing in that hour instead of hard work. Chapters include “4pm: Time for Tea”, “5pm: The Ramble”, “Midnight: The Moon and the Stars” and many more of life’s little pleasures that come from just taking time off.

So you might still be asking, “what has this got to do with Transition”? Well, for a bit of help answering that question, I’m going to refer to Tom Hodgkinson’s further work “How to be Free”, which although not on the bench because I gave it to someone at the Transition Conference, I heartily recommend (possibly more so than “How to be Idle”, in fact). “How to be Free” is a kind of manifesto for the Idler. Specifically, I suppose, for the author himself. In this book, each chapter represents an action that one might take (and the author has taken) on the road to freedom. And it is here that one can see the connection between an Idle life and a life beyond Transition.

Tom advocates “Cutting up the Credit Card”, “Growing Your Own” and, on a slightly less straight-forward tack, “Playing the Ukulele”. Altogether, the image he gets across is one of a great life – one of fewer working hours, more connection with our loved ones and with nature, more time to do what we want, rather than what our employer expects of us. What isn’t immediately obvious (he doesn’t really dwell on it in either of the books) is how sustainable this kind of lifestyle is too. Most of the pleasures he mentions come at little cost, to us financially, and to the environment, whilst boosting our well-being far more than buying the latest gadgetry ever could.

It may sound at first like this is an idealistic proposal for a world of no work and many pleasures that is obviously unrealistic, but he’s not really saying this at all. What he is saying, however, is that work should be done on our terms, at a time when we want to do it, life’s little pleasures should be enjoyed now, rather than continually postponed, and cooperation should stand taller than competition when it comes to trading and industry. To me, it sounds like one possible manifestation of a great life beyond Transition.

All images from

STOP PRESS: Having had a quick browse of the Idler website, this quote was prominent, and backs up my final paragraph - "Idleness does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class." Robert Louis Stevenson

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The book I'd most like to leave on the bench for others to read... it's a difficult choice.

I'm inclined towards Mark Lynas' Six Degrees, but the picture it paints of our likely future is so terrifyingly bleak. If someone new to thinking about climate change were to start with that book, would they become engaged with the movement to reduce CO2 emissions? Or would they decide that nothing could be done and buy something shiny to make themselves feel better?

Then maybe I could leave How Bad are Bananas? Mike Berners-Lee's tremendous in-depth examination of (almost) everything we do, eat and buy to discover how carbon-heavy it is. But I wonder if it might not be the right book to leave on the bench, because it misses out that first step of why it matters how much carbon is emitted in the process of growing a banana, or air freighting a strawberry.

So, in the end, I plumped for The Atlas of Climate Change, by Kirstin Dow and Thomas Downing. It is a wonderful, visual exploration of so many aspects of climate change.

The reason I'd like to leave it on the bench is that it equips the reader with so many facts. Anyone reading this book can make a sensible response to questions like 'but why does it matter if I fly on holiday?' or 'but there's no real evidence it's happening, is there?'. They could also glean enough information to form an opinion about the right response to 'but what about China?'.

I'm looking forward to the next edition of this book coming out, as the edition I've read came out in 2006. The next edition was supposed to come out this March, but has been put back to October. I've pre-ordered a copy. I'm really interested to see how the figures have changed in 5 years, what new trends are apparent and if there are any positives at all.

I shan't be leaving a copy of this book on any benches, because I don't own a copy. But there are plenty of copies in the library, and every book you borrow from the library supports their continued future. Not that I'm biased in any way.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Welcome to book week!

This week we'll be talking about books. We then also decided to hold a book swap on Saturday 24 September 3pm at Nectar cafe, 16 Onley Street, NR2 2EB. We'll also start an Official Bookcrossing Zone, so from then on you can come and take and bring books there. For free, there aren't even penalties for returning your books late.

To provide the context for what I'm reading at the moment (4.), let me go back a few years, when I found a feminist book in a second hand bookshop: Gyn/Ecology (no, it doesn't actually talk about ecology, which somewhat blunts the pun, but it's a powerful book anyway). In it, Mary Daly laments the lack of historical sense amongst feminist students of literature, and recommends some classics that span 3 centuries.

1. Some reflections upon marriage, Mary Astell (1700)
2. A vindication of the rights of woman, Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)
3. A room of one's own, Virginia Woolf (1929)
4. The second sex, Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
5. The feminine mystique, Betty Friedan (1963)
I thought the sixth book that she recommends isn't as good as the others, which I mostly blame on the fact that not enough time had passed to distinguish what was presumably at the cutting edge at the time, but that has now lost much of its expressive power. (Sisterhood is powerful, various (1970)) I would therefore recommend:
6. Gyn/Ecology: metaethics of radical feminism, Mary Daly (1975)

In 1995 the women's conference in Beijing calculated that it would take until the year 2745 for women's emancipation to be completed. Reading these books that span 275 years, and that must have been part of the basis for this calculation, really brought home to me what we've let ourselves in for, in transition as well, as I've argued when talking of rebalancing the carbon cycle, and also what I was thinking of when I proposed a new pattern: the Moral yardstick.

P.S. Bonus track for anyone who reads Dutch: Er is een land waar vrouwen willen wonen, Joke Smit (1984)

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Friday, 19 August 2011

Important Information about your Energy Prices

I got one of those mails in the week - as soon as you see the title, you know it's not going to be good. And it certainly wasn't - my electricity will go up by over 7% and my gas by over 15%! I nearly choked! After all my efforts to insulate, cut back, track my usage, that is really going to hurt. Particularly given that I'd kind of assumed that, because my electricity was produced by wind farms (npower's Juice tariff) I wouldn't get hit so hard. Silly me...

Kerry pointed me at Ecotricity, who now sell gas as well as electricity, so as I track all my usage, I'll see what they can offer - they do seem to have healthy ethical and environment credentials so it's worth a look. The challenge will be if they're significantly more expensive, even with the hike in npower's prices.

It makes me think though, how much we're at the mercy of fluctuations in the price of energy. Did I say fluctuations? Seems like more of a ratchet mechanism, I don't remember them ever coming down (if anyone can tell me otherwise, please do!) I found this interesting report from the Department of Energy & Climate Change on UK energy - page 35 is the one to look at

Over the last ten years, between 1999 and 2009, real prices for domestic energy have risen by 60%, with the real price of electricity increasing by 45% and the real price of gas and heating oil increasing by 104% and 108% respectively.

If this is the case, isn't it about time we took responsibility ourselves for generating our own energy. I don't mean, of course, buying our own offshore oilrigs or anything like that, but there must be other options. Isn't it time we started thinking about community owned energy resources. Generated by the community, for the community.  If Transition Totnes can do it, so can we.

I think once the bees are up and running, next year sometime, this is going to be my next project!


Thursday, 18 August 2011

Tipping point with no easy answers

I've been listening to the BBC's Home Planet on the radio - each week the panellists answer questions sent in by listeners on natural history and broadly environmental questions.  It's fascinating stuff - sometimes the questions are "big" questions, quite often they're small, observational questions that make me look at things in a different way.

This week's show was recorded in front of a live audience from Faversham, and I was impressed that the first question was from a lady who identified herself as being part of Transition Faversham!  I got really excited at that point - nearly all the questions that followed were big questions, Transition questions - how can we cope with climate change, with peak oil; how can we promote local initiatives, a sense of pride in the community.  It felt like a tipping point - here were the questions we've been talking about or writing about over the last year or so - here on a national radio show, unapologetically bold about the challenges ahead.

But interestingly, the panel, normally so united when discussing migratory patterns of birds, the decline in bee populations, or uses for coppiced woodland, seemed miles apart and fractious too.  No-one disagreed on the basics - climate change is here to stay, peak oil is or will be a major issue that needs confronting.  But...  on the implications, on the shape of the future, on the options for mitigation or adaptation - these divided the panelists and gave a fascinating insight into something I observe nearly every days.  There are no easy answers; some solutions have problems of their own, some solutions just don't seem palatable to the rest of the population.  What to do?

One of the things I like about Transition is that it's a movement that evolves.  People try something.  If it works, they'll tell someone else.  The things that work improve, evolve as they're taken up.  Things that don't work so well are shelved until conditions change, when its own tipping point arrives.

It could have been easy to be disheartened by the lack of unity shown by the experts, but I was more cheered by the smartness of the audience.  They were asking good questions, big questions, and in asking them, they often framed the answers to their own questions.  Well worth listening to.

Pic: Graffiti on boarded up business, Tombland, Norwich

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

First steps towards permaculture

Lots of people I like are very interested in permaculture. This seems like a good reason to learn more about it. So at the Harlequin Fayre this weekend, I went along to Brenna's talk 'an introduction to permaculture'.

The thing which stood out the most for me was the principle of 'accepting feedback'- not something that as a person I'm very good at, in all honesty. But maybe, if it came from plants, I could learn to handle it.

I grow lots and lots of chillies- mostly because I like to eat lots and lots of chillies- but also because they fit on a windowsill reasonably well (but not these aja ones I'm trying this year- a book Tierney lent me has informed me they grow to 1.5 metres tall).

Sadly, I then end up growing lots and lots of greenfly. Earlier in the year I tried the old squirting them with washing up liquid trick- but all my chillies curled up their leaves and looked very sad. Even before my introduction to permaculture, I listened enough to my plants not to repeat that one.

My mum's response to greenflies has always been to put said houseplant out in the garden and see if it survives. If it does, generally being outside has done the trick and the greenflies are no more. I don't know if they are eaten by predators, or they fly away, or if just living outside is a bit harder for them. I expect it's a combination of lots of factors ('integrate, don't segregate').

So now my windowsills are very bare, and my doorstep is rather over-populated. Let's see what happens. With any luck, I'll be able to obtain a yield.

Those 12 principals of permaculture in full:

Observe and Interact
Catch and Store Energy
Obtain a yield
Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
Produce No Waste
Design From Patterns to Details
Integrate Rather Than Segregate
Use Small and Slow Solutions
Use and Value Diversity
Use Edges and Value the Marginal
Creatively Use and Respond to Change

And the chillies in that picture are: Biala Shipka, Lemon Drop (aja), Purple Venezualan, Ring of Fire, Iranian Round and another I've forgotten the name of!

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Cold nights

Over the last week or so, it's been really noticeable that the year is turning. Nights are colder, the wind has a bite to it. The full moon has been hanging low and golden in the sky or swathed in an almost autumnal mist.

The birds that populate my own personal calendar are telling me this too. Swallows are just starting to line up on wires and today I saw my first jay on it's low swooping acorn flight.

Jays are amazing birds. They are bright beautiful crows, with that corvid cleverness. They're here all year round, but in the Autumn they are suddenly everywhere. Flying from oak to oak, they collect as many acorns as they can and cache them.

This, together with their big brassy voice, inspired their scientific name Garrulus glandarius: Chattering, producing acorns.

Each jay can hide between 3000 and 5000 acorns in a year. They play a big part in regenerating oak woodland: each time they forget exactly where they hid the acorn it gets a chance to germinate.

Now I've mentioned them, you'll see they're everywhere. Enjoy them.

Monday, 15 August 2011

She's alive . . .beautiful . . . finite . . . hurting . . . worth dying for . . .

Earth shorts: juxtaposing an article written by Mark Crutchley of Norwich Greenpeace and the OneWorldColumn with a video put together by Vivek Chauhan, a young film maker, together with naturalists working with the Sanctuary Asia network (

It’s Oil or the Planet

We live in a society so addicted to oil and the cheap travel it makes available that we are prepared to take enormous risks with the very planet on which we live to maintain the supply of this precious commodity.

The US government has just given Shell permission to drill in the Arctic, while Cairn Energy is already prospecting off the coast of Greenland and Russia is gearing up to exploit the resources off its Arctic coast.

Yes that is the same Shell which a UN investigation has just criticised for inadequate control and maintenance of its operations in Nigeria. These have created such disastrous pollution that it will take 30 years and billions of dollars to clean up. The same Shell spilling, admittedly smaller quantities, oil into the North Sea as I write.

Meanwhile in Canada BP and Shell again, are amongst the companies involved in the Tar Sands industry which produces oil by mining low quality bitumen deposits. In doing so the companies involved are going to rip up an area of forest the size of England and turn it into an industrial wasteland, complete with polluted watercourses.

What can we do? Well the Co-op has long led a campaign against the tar sands industry and Greenpeace amongst others is campaigning against both Arctic drilling and proposals to allow deep water drilling in UK waters. Those who propose putting the planet before the oil industry need your help and support. Mark Crutchley

Video: This is a non-commercial attempt to highlight the fact that world leaders, irresponsible corporates and mindless 'consumers' are combining to destroy life on earth. It is dedicated to all who died fighting for the planet and those whose lives are on the line today.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Strim Reaper - Zero Carbon Scything

If you thought that cutting grass was a pretty boring activity, I am here to tell you otherwise. I'm a scyther, scythe teacher and all-round scythe nerd. Cutting grass is my raison d'etre.

Scything, as I am sure you will all know, is a way of cutting grass using a blade attached to a long stick. Think the Grim Reaper but with fescue rather than souls and you're there. Scything is undergoing a revival in Britain at the moment, largely thanks to the importation of lightweight Austrian scythes by Simon Fairlie. Usually I would choose to buy British, but no one in Britain is making scythes at the moment, and the old Anglo-American tools that can be seen in sheds and second-hand shops around the country are cumbersome, heavy and difficult to set up.

In the past, the scythe was used for many things, from harvesting wheat to mowing the churchyard. These days it's a great option for people with small to medium amounts of grass and weeds to manage. It's perfect for orchards and, with a bit of practice you can even mow your lawn with a scythe. One of its main benefits is its silence. There are no engines to disturb the peace of a Sunday morning. The only sound is a gentle swoosh of the blade going through the grass. It's also zero carbon. A scythe is person-powered. The only fuel needed is a midday sandwich.

On a deeper level, for people (like me) who don't have a lot of experience of using tools, the satisfaction of really getting to know a tool, and mapping it in your mind is a profound one. Scything is relatively easy to learn but it does take skill and that is what brings the satisfaction. The first time you cut a clean swathe of grass, get your blade really really sharp is one of great joy. It sounds corny, but it's true. It's a real 'taking of the stabilisers moment'.

So, hang up your strimmer and take to the scythe. You won't regret it..."

Beth Tilston

Postcard from The Scythe Shop; Beth Tilston at work. video (no audio) by Pete Vido of "short scenes demonstrating the versatility of a good scythe in diverse conditions--from "lawn" and field cutting to an "obstacle course" requiring precision mowing technique"; Beth Tilston at work.

Beth Tilston is available to teach scything courses (up to six people) either before the end of October or from May onwards next year. The course requires an area which has access to a reasonable amount of grass which isn't regularly mown short, plus somewhere with nettles, docks, thistles etc to provide variety. Contact or phone 07818474712

Saturday, 13 August 2011

News from Norwich FarmShare

Charlotte suggested that it would be good to see inside the FoodHub this week, so here is a photoblog to give you a taste of what goes on every week as people turn up from all over Norwich to collect their vegetables.

It's nice to just to sit back and watch people collecting their shares: the energy comes and goes in waves as everybody arrives and leaves at unpredictable times. First of all, everybody checks the sheets which tell us what veg we can have this week:

This gives us the chance to advise people about any special care their veg might need this week:

Then everyone sets to picking and packing their delicious local low-carbon veg:

After all that hard work, lots of people decide it's time for a cuppa. But some people have just one last job they need to attend to:

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Hope in the Darkness

Everything is a bit grim and depressing at the moment, with riots, recessions and peak oil all rearing their ugly heads. It is easy to lose hope and to feel that we are all doomed, but I was sent a link today by the fabulous Otesha project that cheered me up and reminded me of the huge potential of human creativity. We have in our collective hands the ingenuity and skill to find a solution to any problem that faces us, that is how we got where we are today. It is arguably one of the most precious gifts of the human mind. So today I would like to share with you some of the amazing creativity and ingenuity that is lighting the way through the darkness.

The link that inspired this post gives 5 ingenious ways of reusing t-shirts and I particularly like the tent idea and the awesome video that comes with it.

And what about this is an awesome alternative to landfill? Saving lots of money and resources compared to new building materials too. Or we could make clothes out of cigarette butts? Or Buddhist temples out of glass bottles?

If you haven’t discovered TED talks yet, they are an amazing showcase of creativity and lateral thinking. One of the talks that springs to mind as being ingenious is by an amazing Indian entrepreneur teaching kids to make toys from rubbish.

Of course some of the old creativity and wisdom is equally inspiring, such as making soggy salad leaves into salad soup or using souring dairy products to make amazing cheese scones.

The human mind is amazing and we can achieve incredible things. Let us hope that our ingenuity and humanity can lead us to the better future we are all striving for. Never be afraid to think outside the box, for that is the stuff of evolution and progress.

Please share your favourite examples of creativity to inspire us all.