Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Plants for Life Year and Belles Tisanes de France

This report was first published on Sustainable Bungay's website. It consists of a review of this year's Plants for Life project and a write-up of the last of the events in the series this year, a talk about and tasting of the herb teas and honeys of la Drôme region in France.

It was a lovely way to end this year’s Plants for Life series. At 3pm in Bungay library last Sunday, we did a round up of the events and spoke about  what we’d enjoyed and learned from them. Then we took a visit to the Drôme region of south-eastern France with Eloise Wilkinson. This was via a brew of the tisanes (herb teas) and a taste of the honeys from the place where she spent the early part of her life.

Plants for Life – a quick review

Each month between eight and forty people came for a talk, walk or workshop on the theme of plants as medicine. We met mostly in the library where the central bed of the courtyard garden also showcased the theme. I curated this throughout the year, with the help of others in Sustainable Bungay, most notably Richard Vinton.

Each Plants for Life session featured a guest ‘plant person’ speaker and included medical and lay herbalists, authors, organic and biodynamic growers, and home winemakers.

We looked at the medicine under the ground as we connected with our roots in January, learned growing tips in February (never water basil in the evening, morning is always best for the roots; keep coriander moist it hates beings dried out), adopted a herb to focus on for the year in March, walked with weeds in April, heard about hedgerow medicine in May, made midsummer wildflower oils in June, went on a bee and flower walk in July, had our world shaken by 52 flowers in August, made autumn tonic tinctures in September and medicinal wines in October.

I asked everybody on Sunday to think about two things to share with the group about these events. First, a general feeling about why it had been worth coming to them, and then something specific thing they'd learned during the plant medicine year.

People expressed an increase in their general awareness of the plants around them, and were inspired by the open sharing of knowledge in the sessions. After the plantain oil-making workshop in June with Rose, Eloise said her four year-old daughter became obsessed with plantain and had spent the summer telling all her friends about it! Coming to think of it, I spent all summer doing the same thing!

Having the rhythm and continuity of a regular monthly event was felt to be key, as was looking at plants in so many different ways. "I try not to say 'weed' anymore," said Lesley. "It's fascinating to find out about how everything's connected in an eco-system. And I've now embraced nettles!"

"It's really good for the imagination," said Charlotte. "Everything from foraging to growing to connecting with the different times of the year. And I loved the practical stuff. I knew nothing about winemaking until the session with Nick. The fight between the yeast and the sugar really grabbed me."

Richard has loved wildflowers since he was a child, and enjoyed the tea-making at the meetings. "When you find out all the things a common plant like Yarrow can do, for example," he said, "you wonder why you bother going to the chemist so much."

"It's been really productive," said Nick. "And I've enjoyed all the variety. Talking of yarrow, when we went Walking with Weeds, I was stunned when you asked everybody if they recognised the leaf, and a six-year old boy answered immediately, 'That's Yarrow!' "

Newcomers Linda and Tony had both been inspired by the last few events to find out more about the qualities of plants. "Raspberries," said Tony. "I had no idea about all the benefits of raspberries."
For more about the specific Plants for Life sessions, do visit the archive on Sustainable Bungay’s website, where you’ll find previews and write-ups of the events.

Ô les belles tisanes de la France - A Visit to the Drôme with Eloise Wilkinson


La Drôme is an extraordinary area in south-eastern France, where three different landscapes/eco-systems meet. There are the plains of the Rhône river, the low-lying hills in the Valley of the Drôme and the bigger Massif Alpin mountains. To the south are the mountains of the Mediterranean. The three climates are continental, alpine and meditaerranean. In this place of convergence, half of the total number of plant species in France are to be found.

After speaking about the nature of the land, Eloise turned her focused to tilleul, as limeflowers are such a part of the French cultural fabric. Lime trees in France are somewhat like our English oaks in that they are the traditional tree of justice under which meetings, councils and even courts were held. But tilleul is probably best known as a relaxing and digestive herbal tea.

“When I was a young child, every evening the adults would make a large pot of limeflower blossom tea, tilleul. I’d get the really strong feeling that the evening I was allowed to join in with this tea ritual would mark my own transition to becoming a grown-up.”

There used to be an annual Foire au Tilleul (Limeflower Fair) in the area, which lasted a whole week and where the price of tilleul was fixed for the coming year. The last one was held in 2003, although there is still a (much smaller) fête.

“I think often about this area which is so unique in terms of the meeting of such different landscapes and what effects climate change and instability could have on it,” said Eloise.


It was time to drink some tilleul from the Drôme ourselves. The flowers smelt delicate with a honey sweetness to them. And shortly after we drank the infusion, several of us remarked on just how relaxing it was. No one wanted to get up from their seat.

“We might be staying the night,” I laughed.

I dragged myself downstairs to make a second pot, this time of ‘Couleurs d’automne’ (Autumn colours), which was made up of a mixture of hawthorn, mallow, spearmint and again limeflowers. Delicious, but just as relaxing. We didn't get round to trying the sweet and resinous thyme tea, thym serpolet (Thymus serpyllum) another Drôme native, and like other thymes, a boost for the immune system.
Eloise passed around various honeys from the Drôme for everyone to taste: rosemary, lavender, limeblossom and pine. And sweet chestnut. They were all extraordinary. The tree honeys were dense and intense, particularly the sweet chestnut, with its definite medicinal smell.

Then we sat in silence for a while, infused by the teas and the honey. Infused by plants for life.

Community Well-being and the future

Throughout the summer I paid a weekly visit to the library garden to hold a ‘plant medicine surgery’, where anyone could come and share any aspect of their plant knowledge or ask questions. We watched as the giant burdock (blood purifier and organ restorer) became more giant and the native vervain (restorative of the nervous system) put out its tiny star-like flowers like points of light. And a common theme or question emerged from these meetings: what does well-being entail, not just on the individual but also on the community and the planetary or ecological level? Can individual well-being really exist in isolation from the whole or on a too-stressed planet?
Next year Sustainable Bungay will form a new Arts, Culture and Well-being subgroup with these questions in mind. Anyone and everyone is welcome to join in and it will be the topic for the first Green Drinks of the year on 8th January at 7.30pm. The brief is open and there will be a monthly conversation, practical activity or workshop, exploring the different elements that constitute community well-being and culture: topics so far include growing food together, permaculture, meditation and creative non-fiction writing and journalism along with social and other media.

Meanwhile I would like to thank all the plant people who contributed so generously to the Plants for Life project this year, those who came to speak, to listen, to join in... and to those growing all around us. Mark Watson



Herbal Teas of France, Nov Plants for Life poster; Adopt a herb with Dan in March; Eloise showing the map of the Drôme, Tisanes and honeys, November; Plants for Life on the 'A' board and drinking tisanes in the library, November; talking well-being with Christian and Fairy by the plant medicine bed in Bungay community library garden, July; Walking with Weeds, April All images and artwork by Mark Watson

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Playing for Time

Last month I embarked on a collaborative arts project called Playing for Time. It’s the vision of Lucy Neal of Transition Town Tooting and has been recently awarded an Arts Council grant. My role in the work is to help shape and distil a vast store of community arts practices into a book, and during the next year I will be writing regular posts on this blog to report on our experiences. 

The book will be written by a group of practitioners, several of whom are in Transition initiatives and so resonate with Norwich’s own past and present creative enterprises, including Abundance, Magdalen Street Celebration and of course This Low Carbon Life!

Here Lucy Neal, creator and producer of Playing for Time introduces the theme: 

Does art have a purpose? Can it change our sense of what is possible in the world? Artist and cultivator, Eva Bakkeslett thinks so. She works with yoghurt, yeast and fungi and is fascinated by micro-organisms. She tapes the sound of bread rising and tells stories of emigrating Finns who carried their culture to a new country by dipping their handkerchiefs in yoghurt to re-activate on arrival.

Evas house is full of jars, some with cultures over a 100 years old. She loves everything to do with fermentation and the remarkable resilience of micro-organisms. She makes a soft click-clocking noise in her mouth. Thats the sound of bread rising she says. 

Eva is on to something: her art explores the subtle and invisible wonders of life and re-energises people's engagement. An encounter with her work brings an awareness of the earth and environmental change to the fore.

This year I was a writer-artist in residence at the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) and have been gathering up ideas about transitional arts practices like Evas for a book called Playing For Time. Its a handbook that will join the dots between the philosophies of art and the creative skills that are emerging in response to the planetary challenges we face.

The book considers the role the arts play in re-imagining a world in which life on earth and its cultures are sustained. These range from traditional arts projects to transition approaches to foodgrowing, visioning processes, eco builds, education, inner transition events, group facilitation or local development plans.

What stories are we living by? 
Much of transitional arts practice could be said to come down to narrative: the live storymaking of the experiences we are living through at this moment in our planetary history. Working with the playwright Sarah Woods from Transition Bro-ddyfi, Wales we found four different kinds of narrative emerged:

PERSONAL NARRATIVE:  How we experience who and how we are. Our inner life of spirit and emotions balanced with outward actions and how we connect to the world. 

COMMUNAL NARRATIVE: The shared narrative - co-created, collaborative and co-operative. The focus of Transition Towns and a natural one for the arts, building bridges, empathy and understanding, creating space where inspiration and change can be explored. 

GRAND NARRATIVE: A galvanising idea that in combination, globally our actions, plans, imaginings, projects and campaigns can create the shift to a more ecological age. Impossible to undertake alone, its the narrative of Occupy, We are the 99%, The Great Turning.

SUPER NARRATIVE:  A narrative of all time and all dimensions of life on earth. The shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene Age, means our planet may no longer provide a comfortable place for us to live. It is a narrative of home and wonder and of fear and loss.

Playing for Time is seeking to hear about activities that engage with these narratives and  help everyone imagine a different future. From foodgrowing, to walking, rites of passage, plays, craft, public art, community celebration, engaged optimism, direct activism, sharing food, land use, play, psychogeography and map making, reports about any of these events or projects that have fostered shifts of perspective would be very welcome.

Maybe its something like Transition Heathrows Kaleidoscope artist residency in June that mixed activism and permaculture, or Tootings Transition Shop with Encounters Arts in May, a place of exchange, that helps reclaim our high streets.

In the future we could see a return to more rooted, cyclical patterns in our art and culture. Our descendants may be dipping their handkerchiefs in yoghurt to preserve precious resilient cultures. What other tales of creative acts and art-making might there be? With your participation and input, Playing For Time hopes to draw these in! Thankyou!

Lucy Neal was the founder co-chair of Transition Town Tooting  and the co-founding Director of the London International Festival of Theatre (1981-2005).  Playing for Time is supported by Transition Network, the Battersea Arts Centre, Artsadmin, New Economcs Forum and CAT. Contact: lucy@lucyneal.co.uk

Article originally written for the preview edition of Transition Free Press

Sunday, 25 November 2012

ARCHIVE: Peak Palm Oil

In the Low Carbon Cookbook last April we focused one evening entirely on the subject of oil. Not the fossil fuel kind that Transition normally looks at, but the cooking oils we use every day without thinking about either their provenance or environmental effects. We looked at rapeseed and hemp which grow in the UK. olive, sesame and sunflowers which are grown and produced in other countries.

But one oil we did not consider, which is rarely in our kitchens but an invisible presence in a vast majority of processed dishes and an integral part of the global food system is palm oil. A recent article on this ubiquitous substance stated that palm oil plantation expansion in Indonesia is set to release more than 558 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2020, according to a report published in Nature Climate Change. That’s more than Canada’s yearly CO2 emissions. Elena Judd, one of the original movers and shakers behind Norwich FarmShare, wrote two posts about waking up to its pernicious damage:

On Palm Oil by Elena Judd  
5-6 May 2010

This is the mistake I want to talk about this week. I think palm oil has the potential to be one of the bigger environmental mistakes we make as a species. It's an oil derived from the fruit of the palm. So far, not much to separate it from rape or olive oil. But the problem is where its planted. The biggest plantations are in Indonesia and Malaysia, with others in Africa. It grows in tropical climates. Essentially it grows where there was rainforest. The equivalent of thirty square miles a day of rainforest are being felled to plant more palm oil plantations.
 
That rainforest is one of the most biodiverse habitats on earth. In Sumatra there are 465 species of birds and in Borneo 420. Sumatra is the only place in the world that the Sumatran tiger lives. Between 2004 and 2008, according to the US Great Ape Trust, the orangutan population fell by 10 per cent on Borneo and by 14 per cent on Sumatra. The decline of the orangutan in the face of deforestation motivated by palm oil has been described as genocide.

Ok, so we get the picture, palm oil is really bad. That's ok, because as we saw yesterday, humans are pretty clever, and as soon as we work out that something is really bad, we stop doing it.
No-one's going to accept palm oil. It's clearly a dreadful thing. Nobody's going to eat anything that says 'palm oil' on the label. Certainly nobody in their right mind is going to put it in their petrol tank and burn it. Right?

Wrong. Palm oil is being sold as biofuel. International agreements to increase the use of biofuel are directly contributing to the increased destruction of rainforests to grow palm-oil plantations. These international agreements seek to decrease the impact of climate change by reducing the emissions from burning fossil fuels. Unfortunately, the land that the plantations are being grown on is not only ex-rainforest, it's also ex-rainforest that grew on ex-peatbogs. The emissions from cutting down the rainforest and burning the peat are greater than from the fossil fuels they seek to replace.
And as to not eating anything that says palm oil on the label? There's no obligation to declare palm oil on ingredients lists. Any food that lists 'vegetable oil' as an ingredient may or may not contain palm oil.

Avoiding Palm Oil
;Palm oil is the 'cheapest' vegetable oil available to food manufacturers. Clearly, it costs us all a great deal, but not in the monetary terms understood by world trade. The World Health Organisation has reservations about palm oil's safety- and has advised that it should not be considered a healthy alternative to trans fats. Research appears to show that palm oil consumption is linked to higher rates of heart disease. That gives us a monetary cost in providing health care for those people, but also a human cost in terms of loved and valuable people dying before their time. Add in the environmental cost of deforesting huge areas of rainforest and the environmental, human and monetary costs of worsening climate change (through burning peat bogs and rainforest to grow the stuff) and its starting to look pretty expensive to me.

I decided I'd like to find out how much palm oil I am consuming. I really believe that Michael Pollen is right in what he says about 'voting with your fork':
How you and your family choose to spend your food money represents one of the most powerful votes you have... and you get three of them every day.”
Last week I recorded everything I ate. I didn't change the things I ate, I just wanted to record an average week. At the end of the week I checked the ingredients list of everything I could and worked out if it was likely to contain palm oil or not. I know that there is palm oil in lots of non-food items, like soap and shampoo, but I didn't record them during the week. My soap from Lush is fine, as Lush spent lots of time and money working out how to make soap without palm oil- and then made their successful method available to any other company who wanted it.
I learnt a lot about where palm oil lurks and what I can do to avoid buying the stuff. None of it is rocket science, I admit, but I'm pleased to have learnt it.
None of the 'raw ingredients' I cook with have palm oil in them. I can't say for sure it wasn't used somehow in their growing and processing- that kind of thing is hidden away and hard to find out about. But I am confident that none of the vegetables, spices, fruit, pulses and flours I use have palm oil in them.

By contrast, all of the processed foods I indulge in are suspect. The odd frozen pizza that makes it into my trolley is very likely to have palm oil in. The crisps and chocolate that make my workday a bit more luxurious are interestingly split: in this instance, crisps are fine but the brand of chocolate I love the most is neither fair-trade nor palm-oil free. Whenever I don't have time to make my own bread, the supermarket bread I fall back on almost certainly contains palm oil. The 'big three' bread bakers use it, as the independent discovered:
“It's in the top three loaves – Warburtons, Hovis, and Kingsmill – and the bestselling margarines Flora and Clover. It's in Special K, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, Mr Kipling Cakes, McVitie's Digestives and Goodfella's pizza. It's in KitKat, Galaxy, Dairy Milk and Wrigley's chewing gum. It's in Persil washing powder, Comfort fabric softener and Dove soap. It's also in plenty of famous brands that aren't in the top 100, such as Milkybar, Jordan's Country Crisp and Utterly Butterly. And it's almost certainly in thousands of supermarket own brands.”
But the ingredient which is most worrying me is margarine. I cook and bake with it too, which means my home-made bread could be just as compromised as the supermarket stuff. If there was a legal obligation to label palm oil, I could be sure to buy a palm-oil free margarine.
It was frustrating looking at all those labels that said 'vegetable oil' and having no idea if it was palm oil or not. Then I turned over a box of chocs from the Co-op that a friend had bought me. There on the label it said 'palm oil'. Looking into it, I found that the Co-op voluntarily label all their own-brand products which contain palm oil. No other supermarket does this.
I'll be voting with my fork and shopping at the Co-op more. And I'll be a very happy bunny if they sell margarine without palm oil in it.

STOP PRESS!: There is a key petition about bio-fuels being handed to DECC this Tuesday. Please sign the PETITION

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

A Tale of Two Cities . . . and a new newspaper

Last Saturday in Norwich a demonstration gathered in Chapelfield Gardens and made its way cheerfully and noisily towards City Hall. This was We are Norwich, a coalition of trade unions, community and political groups, protesting against the English Defence League, who were marching for the first time in the city. As the two marches converged they were separated by barriers in front of the steps. On one side the gloomy fascist contingent in dark coats and a sound system blaring harsh anthems. On the other the colourful counter-demonstration with rainbow-coloured faces, banners and laughter. Outside the War Memorial the two groups, faced each other and jeered, like two stags with invisible antlers, unable to lock horns.

Only a couple of streets away there was, however, a different story.


"What we need is not confrontation, but to be able to work together," said someone at the Long Table in the aisle of St Lawrence's Church. This was The Common Room, a prototype day organised by Social Spaces and 00:/  in collaboration with the Churches Conservation Trust. It's a social enterprise that helps communities in different UK cities make and shape a shared space in which to meet, learn skills, barter knowledge, run on the principles of co-operation, connection and resourcefulness.

Great ideas, projects and enterprises seldom originate from a single person working in isolation. For stimulation, enthusiasm and collaboration, people need to work in an environment full of fellow entrepreneurs, ideas, learning, conversation. On Saturday you could share your ideas for what you might do if you were a member of The Common Room Co-operative, take part in a Trade School class by exchanging food, items or advice for new knowledge - from herbs for resilience to time skills to social media - host a conversation, or drop in to bake bread or build a web app.
In the common room I discovered aspects of people whom I already know that I hadn’t seen before. Although I’ve known Mark for about a year now, I’d never really heard him talk in-depth about his practice with plants. In discussions I was able to draw on knowledge shared with friends to benefit the wider dialogue. It was as if the place allowed us to apply ourselves in ways that we can’t always do in other public spaces (Jeppe Graugaard from Place Which Connects)
The EDP covered the first story, but the second went unreported. Clashes between people are news, people getting on and creating a friendly future are not. As a result the world we read about and perceive all about us is skewed by an often hostile political paradigm.

Good news from the Common Room

So this is a story about The Story that is Not Being Told. Since joining the OneWorldColumn in 2009 many of the stories I have been reporting on have stemmed from the Transition movement which I have been active in for the past five years, both with local initiatives, Transition Norwich and Sustainable Bungay, and as part of a national network. This spring several of us decided to launch a national quarterly newspaper to gather these stories in one place and distribute them throughout the UK.

When I joined OWC it was a weekly column on the EDP. It became a blog in 2011, when the column was cancelled after six years. Although on line communications and social networking form a strong messaging system, the physical printed page still commands greater attention. Print goes places that computers do not go and has the great advantage of putting a complex narrative in one place, directly into your hands, which one-page-at-a-time virtual media cannot replace.

Mainstream papers, severely hit by the recession and loss of advertising revenue, are shrinking their staff and increasingly publishing stories from “the wire” and press releases, rather than real-time investigation. Stories are judged not by their merit, but by on-line readership figures. As a result the mainstream press often sinks to the lowest common denominator and defaults to the governmental, or corporate, line. The smaller and more progressive stories disappear altogether. Celebrities and violence prevail and “reality” becomes defined within these very constricted parameters. Increasingly too many people now consider communications to be something they can get for free. So though this is probably the most challenging time to be launching a new national newspaper, it will not lack for stories, nor will it lack for a readership keen to hear the good news from places the mainstream media does not go.

Stories about the people, for the people, by the people


My first column on OWC was about Leaving the Pleasuredome and preparing for a low-carbon future, shifting away from the dominant narrative, to what Charles Eisenstein calls " a new story of Self and a new story of The People."

The Transition Free Press is based on this premise. After publishing our preview issue in the summer, the need for new media now seems more relevant than ever. As peak oil pushes unconventional oil and gas extraction to new extremes, as climate change brings storms and food crises in its wake, as the economic recession brings many countries to their knees, so our desire increases for alternative solutions and a kinder, more generous culture that can look the future in the eye.

Our small, resilient paper will champion communities and projects that often get missed by mainstream media. We’ll be holding up a beacon in the potentially dark and difficult times ahead. Where the breaking story is of confusion and greed, we aim to bring coherence and  the gift economy into play, where there is fantasy we will bring grassroots reality, where there is loss we will show the opportunity for well being and knowledge share. And most of all where there is silence, we aim to bring words and listen to the voices of people who do not normally get heard. 

We’re planning to run four issues during 2013, starting on Feb 1 2012. Our 24-page issue will follow the blueprint of our preview issue and contain a colourful mix of news, reviews and features, dedicated pages to energy, the land, people, economy, food, well-being,  the arts, cartoons and a unique Transition agony column.

In these four pilot editions in 2013 we hope to bring together in one place the stories that help us navigate the times of downshift, stories about people by the people who are coming together in their neighbourhoods and initiatives, starting up food projects, alternative energy schemes, and thinking within a broader, deeper and more meaningful frame. To show, as Mark Boyle said recently: “Different ways of being human”  other than the self-obsessed consumer model we see promoted everywhere else.

How you can help launch a paper

This week sees the launch of our first Transition crowd-funding appeal with BuzzBnk , an on-line crowd-funding platform that brings social enterprises “looking for start-up or growth capital together with like-minded people keen to participate in a new way of funding social change”. So now in this 90-day campaign we hope to raise the funds to enable us to send out the good news throughout the UK (as well as on-line everywhere else). You can buy an annual subscription for £15 or give a higher contribution (£50-£750) and receive gifts, from an ecologically-sound T-shirt to a whole Transition library.

Can you help by buying a subscription, giving a donation, or joining our distribution network?  Could you spread the word, through blogs or social media or word of mouth? Funding a newspaper is a big challenge, but we are determined that the word will get out there, on city streets, neighbourhoods and social spaces everywhere.

Thank you in advance for your generosity. Charlotte Du Cann (editor) 


Our 2013 pilot editions will include local stories and projects, including the Magdalen Street Celebration and Norwich FarmShare. The first issue will be published on 1 February 2013. Follow us on Twitter transfreepress and Facebook.You can buy an individual subscription, or make a contribution to the enterprise on our crowd-funding page here.  www.transitionfreepress.org 

(This piece was originally published on Saturday 17 November on the OneWorldColumn)

Images: We Are Norwich sets out (Bill Smith, EDP); The Common Room, St Lawrence's Church - Long Table and Herbs for Resilience workshop (Jeppe Graugaard); potato day at Norwich FarmShare, copyright Tony Buckingham; High Street group proceess, Transition Conference, London 2012 (Mike Grenville)

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Trees in Transition

There is an oak I go to visit. Sometimes I just go there and sit under its huge spreading crown, and look over the fields and we keep each other company. Sometimes I visit when I feel fractious or discombobulated, or when a certain restlessness happens. I always greet the tree. Then I sit down and wait. At some point even on still days a breeze will rustle through the branches and echo in the nearby poplars. Within ten or fifteen minutes, I feel grounded and calm. Sometimes a conundrum or question I have is resolved. This is the effect of the tree.

I think a radical overhaul in our relationship with and approach to 'nature' is long overdue. All culture and civilisation is built on and over the earth's living systems and not the other way around. The earth is primary and we are secondary, as Thomas Berry put it.

In our present civilisation trees, like everything and everyone else, are primarily considered in terms of resources, how useful or profitable they might be. Or as property to be managed, cut down or controlled. Or we might see them in ecological terms, how they store carbon and provide oxygen. Our relationship with them is often abstract.

But what about approaching trees in their own right, seeing them as a part of the biosphere along with ourselves and other forms of life? Connecting and communicating with them?

Trees are always at home, wherever they are. Even though often we are not. Wherever I've spent time trees have shaped and informed my experience, whether growing up amongst beechwoods in Buckinghamshire, spending a season in an old miner's cottage under a huge cottonwood in the high desert of Arizona or the decade I've now lived in Suffolk. Much of this is due to the quality of being-at-homeness that trees possess.

In the face of all our human restlessness and running around, trees seem to be saying, hold on, slow down, wait (at least) a minute, stay awhile, take root, connect with where you are, with the planet, with life. Come home.

And Transition challenges us to get local, to start coming home.

(ii) Trees in Transition

I'd never really considered consciously until this week just how much trees inform transition. All the abundance projects, mapping neighbourhood fruit trees and planting walnuts, foraging and gleaning apples, plums, berries. Learning how to plant and prune.

In the thousand plus posts since 2009 on the Transition Norwich blog, This Low Carbon Life, the most popular label is Reconnection with Nature. We have hosted tree weeks with posts on The Gift of a Tree, Fruitful Trees and A Swinger of Birches and we've run a week on Deep Nature. In Sustainable Bungay's Introduction to Permaculture course in January 2010, which kickstarted the building of the Library Community Garden, I met Paul Jackson, a tree surgeon and nature lover, who helped save some threatened poplar trees in the village where I live. Paul also fashioned oak planks into seating for the central plant bed and planted fruit trees in the garden.

At a recent Green Drinks, Rob Parfitt, from the village of St. James, spoke about the orchard planted over the past few years by a group of villagers. Along with the varieties of apples and pears there are also quince, medlar and cobnut trees.

In the following conversation a feeling arose that what was now being done for pleasure by people in their spare time might well be a vital part of the resilience of the village in coming times. It was a kind of skilling up, learning to work together on the land and with the trees.

My own relationship with trees has expanded since becoming involved with transition. Previously I ordered wood for the stove from a nearby woodsman, stacked it in the woodpile and when it ran out, gave him another call. Later I would forage for wood around the neighbourhood lanes. Earlier this year I felled a dead elm at the bottom of the garden. There were three trunks, each between twenty five and thirty feet high. The first two I sawed myself with a bowsaw by hand (and if anyone copies the way I did it I accept absolutely no responsibility for any of the consequences). As I sawed through the wood my body entered a kind of merging with the action and the tree. It was total attention of the kind Kerry mentioned in her post on Wednesday. I had never felled a tree before but the two trunks came down in exactly the right place. I was sweating and exhilirated.

When it came to the third and biggest trunk the next day, it wasn't happening. I approached the tree three times and each time I became suddenly exhausted and could hardly lift the saw. I looked at the trunk. It was not that much thicker than the others. But my body was telling me something. I rang Nick from Sustainable Bungay and asked if he'd give me a hand. We finished the job together a couple of weeks later with a two handed saw.

So we had firewood from the  bottom of the garden which was great. And there was beauty too in felling the tree by hand, a tree we had lived with, walked past and seen from the window for years until elm disease took it, where the birds had perched and sung and rested. We could honour its presence and passing. And it was joyful too, working with Nick.

(iii) Taking Notice

This post would not be complete without mentioning the current plight of another of the hallmark trees of Britain and Northern Europe, the Ash, in the form of dieback disease. Government failure in the last two administrations to ban imports of live ash seedlings into the UK despite warnings that our ash populations could be seriously threatened, led to an article by George Monbiot in the Guardian calling the relevant environment secretaries to account. My hope now is that no rash eradication programmes are set in place before the trees have a chance to build resistance to the disease over time.

Ash disease, like those of elm and horse chestnut, calls all of us to account. We need to start looking at trees and the earth's other living beings in a different light and stop treating them and the land as simply property, resource or something that makes a nice view or blocks it. Or that we can cut down, uproot or trash as we see fit, without regard or negotiation.

These are the beings that provide us with timber for our dwellings and furniture, heat for our fires, shelter, shade, food and medicine. They are home to any number of birds, mammals, insects. Some of them give us grounding and answers in a restless, stressful time. They give so much to us and life. It's time to take notice of them. Mark Watson


Photos: Under the Oak, Winter Solstice 2011*; In the desert shade of the Cottonwood, Arizona 1996*; St James Village Orchard map by Rob Parfitt*; Felling the Elm with Nick, 2012*; Teaching Medicine Plants under the Silver Birch with Transition Belsize, May 2012** by *Mark Watson and Charlotte Du Cann, **Sarah Nicholl

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Mr Moyse and the Green Tomatoes

Years ago when I first came to the lane, I joined a neighbourhood action group to protest the development of a tourist railway. It was going to cut through the network of lanes that run along the marsh in the back country of the parish. I offered what I could do as a newcomer. I wrote flyers and press releases and stood up in the village hall, speaking on behalf of the badgers and the blackthorn and the people who love to come down these "commons" on foot, or bicycle, or pony trap. After that (very successful) campaign, I felt I had finally put down roots. Everyone waved cheerily as I walked by their houses. And none more so than David Moyse (75) ex-engineer, steeple- and record keeper, who has lived on the corner of the lane all his life and his family for generations before him.

When I joined Transition the following year, I began to write again, after many years silence, and one of the very first stories I wrote was about the little roadside stall I found with neat bunches of leeks for sale and the man who grew them in his wedge-shaped garden.

It was the beginning of the Low Carbon Cookbook. 

 "Near me at the corner of the lane, Mr Moyse puts out his excellent tomatoes at the end of the season on a roadside stall in the manner of Suffolk cottagers, with a tin or jar for coins.They come in three sizes, but all of them are intense. Last year as we walked by we would say how much we were enjoying the tomatoes over the hedge. Just as October was coming to an end I found Mr Moyse walking towards me in a most determined manner:

"I’ve got to have a word with you," he said.

I had been talking about green tomatoes, how they are so delicious fried and make such good chutney. And now I found myself with several kilos of green fruit and a challenge on my hands. We had got talking when I went round to collect them and I had found out that Mr Moyse’s grandmother once lived in my house. She was the best cook in the lane he said.

So this is a small sustainable tale about honouring the elders and finding your roots wherever you are. Start talking over the hedge and you will make contact with another generation who knew how to live in synch with the land. Talking to the greengrocer in the market town I found he used to deliver milk by horse and cart as a boy (still works two horses), that the man who owns the local organic store originally comes from a dairy farm in Galicia where they still milk their 70 cows by hand. After the evening milking he says the family sit round together in the barn and talk until midnight. The key to human sustainability is communication; and not being afraid to open your mouth and make a fool of yourself. That way you find out that making chutney is dead easy (just don’t burn the pan).

Because I had of course never made chutney in my life. I liked the idea of making chutney which is not the same thing at all. I searched for a recipe from the library, picked a few windfalls from the apple tree and brought out the biggest pan I had. (Well actually it’s the only decent pan I have). Several hours of chopping, stirring and bubbling later the house was redolent with vinegar and mace and raisins and I had ten shiny dark-gold jars in the larder.The largest one I reserved. Six weeks maturing time later, I burst into the Moyses' bungalow and wished them a Happy New Year! I wasn’t ever quite sure whether they liked it, or were just being polite when they accepted the jar quietly with a smile.



This year on All Souls Day Mr Moise called out down the road after me. 
 
"Would you like some more of those tomatoes?" he said.
"You liked it the chutney then?" I asked.
"It were beautiful," he laughed. "Come round tomorrow."
 

So now we have a deal. Last year I found out about the history of the lane (his grandfather was head horseman of the neighbouring farm, his father the blacksmith), this year I learned about making wine from the fruits of the hedgerows and the local gardens, from rosehips, grapes, whitecurrants, blackberries, and now I’m having a rethink about all those windfalls I see lying around. Couldn’t we get an apple press and starting making our own juice?

It’s is not an official Transition initiative this lane I live in, but it is a transition lane in spirit, with all the right ingredients for resilience: market garden and barley fields, horses and rabbits, allotments and ancient coppice, wild cherry hedges and oak trees. There’s a good diversity of people too – dwellers of grand houses and humble cottages, newcomers and natives who have been here for generations. The lane brings everything and everyone together. Sometimes we meet and get talking about what the sloes and the mushrooms are doing this season. The plants are always a bridge. That’s when you get to feel you are living in the same place, in the same land, on the same planet. It’s the most extraordinary thing about transition. It makes you feel you belong in a time when you never thought it was possible."


So now, years later, Mr Moyse is definitely David. Now I know he doesn't like being called Mr., and is happy for Mark and I to swing by, talk over the gate, and ask for things if we need them. He has lent us his old lawnmower (which we eventually bought), and we have been enjoying his cucumbers and beans and delicious ripe tomatoes for several summers long.

 Now I always make my own jam and chutneys from local fruit - yellow cherry plums, damsons, apples, blackberries, and of course green tomatoes. This year I've used large unripe marmandes donated by Mr Pinder aka Malcolm, and several tiny Columbiana cherries we grew arounnd the tent in company with their fellow Solanacea cousins, Hopi Tobacco. I've had to move quickly because Mark is Very Partial to fried green tomatoes for breakfast. Those gorgeous slow-growing marmandes are a big treat too to have amongst a good pan of roast vegetables (right now sweet potatoes, last of the peppers, parsnip and pumpkin). I used a recipe from Elizabeth David's Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen, a very old Penguin I found in a junk store. I added a chilli and used mace and cloves (as there was no allspice in the cupboard), apple cider vinegar and less sugar and salt.

Green Tomato Chutney
2lb green tomatoes, skinned and chopped
2lb cooking apples, peeled and sliced
1/2 lb onions, sliced
1 1/2 lb brown sugar
1lb raisins or sultanas
2 tsp each of ground ginger, all spice and black pepper
2 cloves garliic
2 tbsp salt
1 1/2 pints of white wine or Orleans or white wine vinegar

Put all the ingredients in a pan, except the vinegar. Moisten them with some of it and cook gently for appromiximately an hour. Keep adding the vinegar as it bubbles down. When it reaches a jam like consistency it's ready. Allow to cool for a while then then pour into warmed jars. Keep for six weeks at least before using.

ED says it is "a long-keeping chutney"  . . .  just not in our house! 

Images: green tomato chutney (CDC) photographs from David Moyse's book The Village Where I Went to School, published by Southwold Press and available from Wells of Southwold or Boyden Stores, Reydon, £7; tent garden wtih Lesley from Sustainable Bungay, 2012 (Mark Watson).

Friday, 9 November 2012

Some People More than Others

This is my introductory post for this week's theme of Class, Hierarchy and Transition on the Transition Network Social Reporting Project. Mark Watson

(i)
We live in a society and culture that is shot through with class and hierarchy. We are brought up living and breathing it whether we like it or not, with our monarchies and corporate pyramids, line managers, owners, renters, professionals, masters, servants, wage-slaves, the woman who has and the woman who does.

Some people are upstairs, some people are downstairs, the ones downstairs are dreaming of what it’s like to be upstairs. And whilst most people do not find themselves literally living in Upstairs, Downstairs today, one look at our lives, our day-to-day exchanges, the way we speak and act with each other, the language we use, not to mention the huge (and growing) disparity in wealth distribution and access to resources, is enough to see how heir (and heiress) we are to millenia of inequality in civilisation. Our own government (if we can call it ours) here in the UK is testament to this, packed as it always is with privileged public schoolboys.

Some people, as Irish poet Rita Ann Higgins says*

know what it is like,
to be called a cunt in front of their children
to be short for the rent
to be short for the light...
 

and other people don't.
 
(ii)
But what has this got to do with climate change, peak fossil fuels and economic crisis? The things that individuals and communities in transition are responding to?

In a recent interview with Rob Hopkins, Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the UK Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, says that an adequate response to climate change and continued economic growth are mutually exclusive. Levels of energy and resource consumption need to be drastically reduced, and it's the people who earn more and therefore consume more, where these reductions need to happen most. He says that already people on lower incomes are consuming less because they have less money:
given that we face a lot of issues now with unemployment, welfare reductions etc., issues that disproportionately affect people in the middle-lower income band; it is these people that could actually benefit from a transition to a much more efficient and lower carbon economy. Andersen goes on to say that Transition’s bottom-up, community approach is pivotal in providing examples of how individuals and groups can prepare for a future with less fossil fuel energy and less consumption. They are, in effect, the pioneers.
Most people who have done "very well out of our western system, and live very carbon profligate lifestyles are going to face difficult challenges, and we should not pretend otherwise."

At present though, many of these people, including old friends of Andersen’s in the oil industry and even fellow climate change scientists "think climate change is a serious issue but are not prepared to make any changes to their lifestyles. It has raised some serious challenges for me in maintaining personal relationships..."
Until we actually embrace alternative means of finding value in our lives, I think that transition from where we are today, high-carbon, high-energy lifestyles, to ultimately lower-carbon lifestyles is going to be both difficult and unpopular. But ultimately, I do not see an alternative.
Some of those alternative means are going to have to come from letting go of the idea that some people are ‘better’ than others because of their position of birth, class, profession, what school or university they went to or because of how much money and property they own. This includes the have-nots. We have to stop aspiring to resource-hungry lifestyles. Another dream needs to happen.

(iii)
I am the current chairman of Sustainable Bungay, a grass-roots community initiative in north-east Suffolk, 15 miles from Norwich. The group started up in November 2007 (it’s our 5th birthday this month) after a Climate Change conference in the local Emmanuel church (which included speakers from the Tyndall Centre in Norwich). 

We became an ‘official’ Transition initiative in the summer of 2008, ‘unleashed’ in 2009 and we’ve been unleashed ever since. We have had minimal funding since we began. We host several events each month, and you can read more about us on our community website – in fact, I've just noticed the about us section is due for an update.

I’m not saying that no hierarchy or class exists in Sustainable Bungay. There is scarcely a place in our culture and in ourselves where these have not been ingrained, and they are sometimes expressed unconsciously.

But I’d like to talk a bit about the core group, which has been meeting together for five years now. Every month since then, bar December when we have a party, we meet at the library or the oak room at the Three Tuns pub and organise and feedback on our various events and projects.

We have a chairman, a secretary, a treasurer, a bank account and a basic constitution. 

The core group meetings are open to anybody who wants to come as are all our events. This ‘open plan’ structure has kept the group coherent, dynamic and relatively fluid. The meetings provide a space where people can report back on how the projects they’re involved with are going, ask for help or sound out ideas for new ones. 

This commitment to turning up each month over the years has been a key part of building community. The open nature of the group means that people of all different types get to meet each other, work together, even take the lead on projects: employed, unemployed, self-employed, old, young, middle-aged, with money or without, working class, upper class, middle class. What we're getting is a great deal of excellent practice in working together, one of the major skills we'll need in a downshifted future.

I grew up in a working class family of Irish immigrant and English background on a council estate in High Wycombe, in an atmosphere with Bohemian overtones and musical and artistic ability. My dad was a car mechanic and my mum cleaned offices and houses. I passed the twelve-plus and went to grammar school where I was thrown suddenly among middle-class people with much more money and status (and posher cars) than my parents had. I have known what it is like to be short of school books* and money and to be looked down on*. To wear a cheaper school uniform than others and be aware of it. And to dream of being upstairs when I was downstairs. As an adult living in various places I have also felt the exclusion of being a renter when most other people were buying their houses.

I am no longer personally so much at the behest of these things. Partly due to age, partly to having spent a great deal of time examining them and lately to involving myself in Transition with all the friendly collaborations and difficult encounters, carbon cutting and community building. I'm tougher now. Though social inequality is as rife, as iniquitous and as inexcusable as ever.

I am at present the non-hierarchical chairman of Sustainable Bungay (happily holding the position until it's time to let go for someone else's turn), and a writer on this Social Reporting project. I have been downshifting for years on very little income (could do with a bit more, actually), exploring with others ways to (re)connect with the planet, keeping our carbon down and our spirits up.

My dreams though are neither up nor down these days, more steady-state.

Photos: Temple of the Magician (all civilisations need a magician or two), Uxmal, Mexico, 1991; We Told Them the Wealth Would Trickle Down**; Downsizing at the first Sustainable Bungay Give & Take, March 2009***; Plants for Life (for everyone) poster, April 2012. Images/artwork by Mark Watson except **from the  Mendo Island Journal and *** from Sustainable Bungay
*from the poem Some People by Rita Ann Higgins (1988) in An Awful Racket (Bloodaxe Books, 2001)