Wednesday 28 October 2009

Sea Beet, Sugar Beet

We are swimming out to sea, out towards the sandbanks where the waves are breaking. We are strangers to one another on the beach but kin in the sea. There is an edge in these waters we feel as we near the bank, a nervousness we hide with our occasional shouts to one another and laughter. Something in us knows, that even though the sea is shallow at low tide, the currents are fickle here.

Standing on the island I can feel the presence of the wild shore behind us. It ia the last day of summer. Tomorrow the holidaymakers will go home and the beach will empty. Already you can feel the turn in the air. Soon the barnacle geese will arrive from Siberia, the sand martins depart to Africa and an East wind will come and erase all our footsteps.

The children who swam alongside me have become bored with the phenomena of sandbanks and are now chasing each other back to shore, the lovers drift shyly sideways into a watery embrace. I am left looking out towards the empty horizon, the cross currents shifting urgently about my feet, sun pouring down on my head. I am looking where millions have gazed before me, across the wrinkled North Sea, into the vastness of space and air. Everyone wants to come here to the land's edge and gaze outwards into this space. I spent years of my life wanting to come here. What were we looking for in all that blue?

I wanted to know the texture of the wild land that lies behind me, the tastes of it, smoky and salt, the bitterness of the centaury flower that shines on the cliff, the sound of the lone cry of the curlew wheeling downriver, the rough feel of alder bark, the way the light shines on the reed beds. I can look now down the coast with all its estuaries, across mud flat and fen, and map all my stopping places – Southwold, Aldeburgh, Felixstowe, Sandwich Bay – I can chart my life as I came slowly northwards, slow as a red-sailed barge that once made its way up the eastern rivers, stacked with salt and barley.

In the sandy dunes and shingle banks there is a front line of wild plants, our first food plants, the ancestors of allotment and field - wild carrot, wild cabbage, sea beet, sea pea, sea kale, sea rocket, oraches and sorrel – and many traditional medicines - wormwood and eyebright, sea buckthorn berries, sea holly root, scurvy grasses. Of all these ancient companions, the sea beet is still highly prized by modern foragers for its rich leaves. It’s a handsome plant, large and sturdy, with long green spiky flowers and tough stems that turn streaky red as autumn comes. The kind of plant that can weather a storm.

Last winter the sea rose up as far as the plant-line of this shore. The wind ran against the tide and the estuaries flooded their banks. Along the coast people began speaking about how to protect the land. Small bands collected together, stacked sandbags against the river wall, spoke out for the birds and the spirit of the place.

Just a few cows, we were told by the greysuited men in the village hall, refusing to mend the broken banks of the rivers and the harbours in the sea beet’s territory – the Blyth, the Ore, the Alde, the Deben, as the government announced its retreat back to the metropolis. What about the fishermen? I asked. It’s not economic, one replied. What about the tourism? They will go elsewhere, said another. The cows in the watermeadows didn’t count. The birds didn’t count. The land didn’t count. The people in the coastal seatowns didn’t count. Only the populations in the industrial towns would be secured. The oil prices began to rise. Suddenly I realised I was living in a different time. A time I did not know.

I want to keep this last day of summer, to stand on this sandbank forever. But already the water is growing chilly. I know, like everyone else, that something wasn’t quite real about this life by the seaside, this endless gazing towards the horizon: it was a holiday. A holiday that lasted for a hundred years, a get-what-you-want, go-where-you-please, eat-cake-every-day holiday. Like parties and love affairs, it wasn’t all fun. It rained, you got bored and read too many books. The family quarrelled. The show on the pier was a shabby affair. And sometimes as you stood as I do now on the most beautiful afternoon of the year, with the tang of wild beet in my mouth, the light playing on the sea, you felt something vital was missing.

Beyond the beach and this line of wild duneland plants, this golden edge of reeds, the swimmers in the sea, the elegant lines of silver birch and sanderling oak, lies the hinterland of East Anglia. In these heavy clay spaces lives the wild beet’s domesticated cousin, Beta vulgaris, sugar beet, that dwells in its millions in hundreds and hundreds of identical acres of agricultural land. The sea beet is distinguished by its leaves, thick shiny leaves that cook up well as a salty wild chard or spinach. Its relation, the sugar beet, is distinguished by its root, which when it is harvested in the bitterness of January you can find piled in great pale yellow mounds, left by grinding machines that churn the soil and slash its leaves, or storming down the dark lanes in trucks en route to the refinery at Cantley. You don’t want to look there, beyond this wild and sandy edge of light at all that mud and mangel-wurzel. At all that desolation and winter. But at some point you have to look at this land. Because you know, whether you like it or not, that the holiday is over.

* * * *

Of all the addictive substances that we seek out on the food shelves, fat, salt and sugar, sugar is perhaps the most pernicious. Natural sweetness is stored sunlight in plants, most deliciously manifested in fruit. In search of natural sweetness men will, as they have for thousands of years, climb cliffs and trees and brave swarms of angry honey bees. In the manufacture of artificial sweetness they will destroy the world and each other.

Many plants are grown commercially for their sugar content - rice, maize, sugar cane - but in England sugar is made from beet, principally in East Anglia. It is commonly sold as white table sugar, the stuff we spoon into tea and coffee, our home-made cakes and jam. Not that we think about this sugar very much, or the thousands of processed foods we eat that contain it. We like to taste sugar, but we don’t like to look at it. Sugar beet fields are ugly, the factories at Cantley and outside Bury St Edmunds are ugly. The facts of sugar slavery are ugly.

We don’t look at our dependence on sugar because its presence makes our working existence bearable. Sugar rewards every action performed in the name of progress and industry. It fuels its teatimes and lunch breaks, its endless cups of tea. In Ronald Blyth’s peerless documentary of Suffolk rural life, Akenfield, everyone lives for cake. In a labourer’s diet of bread and turnips, the sweetness of cake appeared like a fairy godmother. Still now in the bakeries and tea-rooms and church halls of Southwold, people’s eyes flash as they view stacks of iced cakes, fruit slices, chocolate eclairs, scones, biscuits and buns. Oh, the treats that are in store!

Sugar seeps into everything, into our dreams, fuelling our cravings and desires, eating the enamel on our teeth, adulterating our blood, diverting us from looking at the hardship and difficulty before us.

For years when he came home, Josiah would smell the sweet smell of the sugar refinery mixed with the malt of the brewers. Sugar beet was in his blood. When Josiah was seventeen he and his friend Stuart secured the contract to weed four hundred acres of sugar beet. The farmer was offering £1000 and gave a month to complete the job. It sounded like the easiest money they’d earn that summer.

Normally the farmer would have given the contract to a local woman. She would then put together a team of 5 or 6 who’d take the full month to do the job. This year she was on holiday. Josiah and Stuart talked it over: they were young, they could do it on our own, we could do it in two weeks.

The farm manager took them out to the fields on the first day, he gave us a map of the farm showing where the sugar beet was being grown and then he told us what was expected. The weeds in question were, in fact, sugar beet plants.

Sugar beet is a biennial plant, putting on leafy growth in the first summer and storing sugars in its large tap root. In the second year it uses this stored energy to grow a three or four foot flower spike and produce thousands of seeds. The beet plant’s growth is controlled by hormones, the release of these is stimulated by environmental conditions - temperature variations and day length are particularly important, and for the plant to flower it must be photo-thermally induced. The winter and spring that year had been warm, the soil in that part of Suffolk is light and doesn’t hold water well and the beet were panicking: the boys were confronted by a huge field bristling with thick woody stems capped with green flowers.

It was explained that these stems would blunt the blades of the harvester that cut the top off the beet before it was lifted from the soil, that the roots of these plants would have a lower sugar content and that if the seed set it would be scattered by the harvester and so-called volunteer plants would grow in next years crop acting as a reservoir for yellowing virus which causes Rhizomania, a wonderfully named but devastating disease of the beet family.

Josiah hadn’t really considered what 400 acres would look like, or how long it might really take to walk up and down a field thick with beet plants or even how hard it might be to pull up a sugar beet plant cleanly. The field the farm manager had taken them to was huge, it had a small wood in the middle of it making it hard to judge its full extent. It was bounded on three sides by scrappy hedges and on the third by a high barbed-wire topped chain-link fence. Over the fence we could see the hangars and runways of the local R.A.F base. The fiekd turned out to be about 50 acres, there were six others to weed.

We began the work in high spirits spreading out to cover ten rows each we could sweep across the field quite quickly. We had thick gardening gloves to protect our hands and, along with bottled water and a packed lunch, planned a trip to the village pub at lunch time. By the end of the first few sweeps across the field my gloves had given up, torn by the beet stems. Their hands were green with chlorophyl my back was stiffening and it became clear that conversation across the rows was difficult if they were to maintain a reasonable pace.

He thought about the pub.

Josiah started to calcualte, began to get drawn into complicated mental arithmetic. How much sugar in a sugar beet? How much in a field? The first real science experiment he’d done at school, that is to say one that involved bunsen burners, had been the extraction of sugar from sugar beet roots. He remembered that farmers aimed for between 15 and 20 percent sugar. Each sugar beet they walked past must have weighed more than half a kilo so every 8 or 9 plants represented a half kilo bag of sugar. The farm manager had told us that they might expect 8000 tonnes of beet from the 400 acres. Combining this information with my vague memories of that school experiment I worked out that the the sugar yield from just this farm could be well over 1300 tonnes - that would be 2,600,000 half kilo bags of Silver Spoon sugar.

He needed a pint.

Saturday 24 October 2009

Food in Transition: Moro East by Sam and Sam Clark

Food is one of the principle ways we can engage in creating a low-carbon culture. Cooking happens every day in our kitchens and what we buy and eat is in our own hands (or at least it needs to be!). In the following months the TN blog is going to look at some of those low-carbon food issues from home-growing veg to community orchards, from distribution hubs to fairtrade tomatoes. We'll be debating whether or not to eat meat or fish, drink orange juice or new world wine and most of all how we can be inventive with what grows locally and doesn't cost the earth. We'll also be reviewing some of the best cookbooks around. Here is one:

Sam and Sam Clark's restaurant Moro is famous for its cuisine deeply rooted in the Spanish and Muslim Mediterranean. Their third cookbook, Moro East, is set nearer home: in an East End allotment they shared with Turkish and Cypriot neighbours, exchanging recipes around kebab grills and great vegetables. The 150 Moorish recipes apppear amongst the allotments’ creative salvage and burgeoning plants - dishes spiced with rosewater, cumin, mint, pomegranate, as well as local poppy leaves, pea shoots and green tomatoes. The book is a poignant testimony as Manor Garden Allotments were later bulldozed for the Olympic Hockey Stadium.

Its essence, captured in Toby Glanville’s elegiac photographs – children playing amongst hosepipes, women making flatbread, men cooking over charcoal, fragrant dishes served on tin plates and terracotta, everyone eating together – however is not lost. It’s a picture of what a postcarbon future might look like.

Moro East by Sam and Sam Clarke (Ebury Press, £25)

Sunday 18 October 2009

On the Road (without a Car)

On World Carfree Day (Sept 22) I cycled cross-country to meet the Transition initiative, Sustainable Bungay who were celebrating the day by cycling to a pub called the Geldeston Locks on the River Waveney. Just as we set off to meet them Mark dropped his bike and buckled a wheel. “I’ll take the bus,” he called out to me as he wobbled down the lane. “How will we get back?” I yelled back. “I’ll ring Graham and Nicky!” he shouted as I pedalled on resiliently into the autumn wind.

15 miles later I met everyone by the Buttercross. It was, perhaps, the most beautiful evening of the year. The sun had been roaring all day and had gone down in a blaze of glory. The moon rose over the hill, the land lay tawny-coloured and breathing in the twilight. Warmth rose up from it as we cycled down the back road to Geldeston from Bungay, through the mill and down the track to the Locks Inn. Occasionally a car would stop in the lane startled by this sudden line of cycling people, laughing and talking, as wheels bumped over stones and veered into hedges.

At the Locks we were scheduled to meet the Zero Carbon Caravan, a group of cyclists making their way from Wales to Copenhagen for the Climate Change talks in December, entirely without fossil fuel. En route from Norwich however they heard they had lost their passage over the sea from Lowestoft and had been diverted to Dover. They had to make it in three days (“Three days!” exclaimed Margaret, one of SB’s veteran cyclists, “Do they know the hills in Kent?”). So we had our regular monthly Green Drinks and when it came to go instead of returning home we went back with Graham.

When I say went back what I mean to say is we canoed back down the river. Graham climbed skilfully into one canoe with the bike, and Mark and I climbed rather less skilfully into the other. We pushed off from the shore, there was a rushing sound as the boats entered the stream and then suddenly we were gliding out into the star-filled night. Great shapes of trees rose beside us - ashes and willow – as we moved by. The water brimmed right to the edges of the land and the stars and the branches glimmered in its dark surface that was as smooth as a stone. There was space everywhere as meadows water and sky merged together and in that space it felt as if a door opened. For a moment I didn’t know where or when I was as we paddled softly down the Waveney that could have been the Mississippi or the Amazon.

It was the moment of autumn equinox, the moment the light of summer cedes to the dark of winter. In that full-on mysterious planetary encounter I realised why all of us came out of our way to meet each other in Transition, in spite of all its difficulties and heartaches, why we took pains to cut carbon and struggled up hills to travel across the sea in a sailing boat. You give something up because you love the earth, and the earth gives you something in return. Something, if you thought about it, you were born to experience.

The next morning I helped Graham gather hazelnuts from his abundant red cobnut trees and as we patiently shifted through leaves on our hands and knees it occurred to me I would never have spent a long and (equally abundant) breakfast with him or canoed down the river had we driven our car.

So this week a month later I went entirely car-free. Being car-free in a city is not hard but in the backcountry where I live it’s tricky, especially at night. It’s one hour by foot round-trip to the Library (where I use the Internet) and four bus rides to collect my veg box and shop. Nevertheless I walked everywhere: mapped the neighbourhood for apple trees, picked the last damsons and blackberries, witnessed the gathering of starlings and jackdaws and the turning of the leaves, and met and talked with people I had not seen for months and would never have encountered had I taken the car. The discipline of a week was good, just like having that day was good. Because that way you start paying attention – paying attention to the things that really matter about being alive, right now on the earth where we all live.

Left: Chris Keene of the Zero Carbon Caravan in Ludlow

Friday 16 October 2009

Don't Shoot the Messenger

Or The Bad Cardigan Day
(hair is not looking too hot either).

Here I am giving a Plenary on Local Transport at the Waveney Rural Summit.

Sunday 11 October 2009

Carbon Admissions

We had our first Stranger's Circle meeting last Friday. The Transition Circles started after Tully wrote a ground-breaking paper on the need to expand and explore the work of carbon reduction. A hub group formed in July called TN2 and this has since developed into the Circles, based in different neighbourhoods. The Strangers (after Stranger's Hall in Norwich, originally a meeting house for the Hugenot weavers), are a group of us that live in the hinterland of Norwich. Our first meeting was held in Shotesham and like the other groups, Circle West and City Centre, we decided to talk about energy.

After our shared meal in the kitchen (with Angie's delicous damsons for dessert - see pic above) we talked Electricity, mostly in relation to home heating. Already we're into October and temperatures outside are falling with the leaves. Last winter Mark and I had our heating on for one hour each day and we really toughened up. "It's important to turn everything into an adventure," I declared. Everyone thought we were way too extreme (though Elena said she and Alan were thinking of cutting out heating in the mornings this winter). We decided that keeping one room warm during the evening was the most efficacious way forward. Because the Strangers live out of the city we have an easier time with wood-burning stoves and can go collecting fallen wood or trees in our own gardens and hedgerows. It's also easier to get outside and have a relationship with the earth, the wind and sky which is the best way of keeping warm. Something about shivering indoors in cold, damp houses and not moving makes you just want to reach for that switch.

We owned up to other difficulties: non-green teenage sons, a clothes habit, too many hot baths in the wintertime. Each circle has its own style. Circle West is developing into a local support group, where ours seemed to contain seeds of political and philosophical discusssion within it. Tully brought up the question of social equity in relation to our pursuit of resources. Naomi brought up the clash between a new culture of limit and the concept of endless universal energy which lies within current spiritual thinking. Can they work together? Or do we need to review the way we think about energy and how it powers our illusionary way of life? In many ways it felt like the real discussion about fossil fuel had only just begun.

If you would like to join a Transition Circle check out the TN2 page on the TN website and find out when the next meetings are and their main subject for discussion.

Friday 9 October 2009

Low Carbon Party Cookbook

It was a great party. Unit 5 was wreathed in fairy lights and everyone joined in with the show -we watched the In Transition film, became "spect-actors" in an impromptu theatre piece, improvised by Tom Harper, danced to cycle-powered music provided by Tom Foxe, Fret 6 and The John Preston Tribute Band.

The Transition banner flew on the walls alongside Reskilling's innovative bunting made from old clothes.The Sheriff of Norwich, Tim O'Riordan opened the proceedings. Tully gave us an update of what we have all been up to in the last year.

But perhaps the star event was the ABUNDANCE of food brought by the Transition Cooking Bee who brought trays of delicious low-carb (on) snacks which we ate gleefully accompanied by Golden Ale (from The King's Head a stone's throw away), Jonty's local cider and organic apple juice - some pressed earlier at the Bluebell Allotments.

Here is the list.

Spinach tartlets with organic spinach from Mangreen garden
Pumpkin pies with organic pumpkin from Mangreen
Eggs from a couple of miles away
Plum flapjack with Mangreen plums
Apple cake with Elena's apples (from her nan)
Tomato chutney - some from Mangreen, Andy also brought in some tomatoes
Pizza with Charlotte's organic tomatoes, garlic and chilli
Onion bhajis with local onions (from Paddocks Farm Shop, Mulbarton)
Organic dried chick peas for Falafel
Homemade bread with flour - a mixture some from Essex, some organic
Pastry - very local flour - given by Tully
Honey - from Orchard Apiaries.

Many thanks to Elena, Naomi, Alex, Mick and everyone in the Mangreen Kitchens & Gardens.

This winter TN will be compiling recipes for our Low Carbon cookbook. If you have any up your floury sleeves, do get in touch

Left: low carbon wheelbarrow grill (not from the party but a from a great community allotment cookbook, Moro East, by Sam and Sam Clark, pictures by Toby Glanville - book review to follow). Right: A "non-personality" shot of the Band from Downham Market and Villages in Transition.

Sunday 4 October 2009

More of a Party than a Protest

Tonight we are one year old and we're having a party. We're celebrating our first anniversary and showing the just released In Transition, a short inspirational documentary film about the world-wide Transition movement that began in the UK in 2005.

Transition initiatives are about facing the reality of climate change, peak oil and the economic downturn wherever you live. But they’re also about resilience, being able to share and work together and create a vibrant culture that can thrive amid the challenges of a post-fossil fuel world.

This year Transition Norwich has been meeting up to find out how we can move forward and enjoy this low-carbon future together. It’s been a busy year since we unleashed at St Andrew’s Hall last October. We’ve been appearing all around the city: at the Sustainable Living Fair at the Forum, at St Benedict’s Street Fair, in the Lord Mayor’s Procession (with Celeste, the blue Transition dragon), at the Zero Carbon Fair in Chapelfield Gardens, on a discussion panel after the screening of The Age of Stupid at Cinema City. We’ve had a midsummer party at the Ranger’s House on Mousehold Heath and shared an autumn ceilidh at the Keir Hardie Hall. Our practical projects include starting up a community-supported agriculture scheme at Postwick and a market garden at the Hewett School, a recycling project at Mile Cross and having our own Transition City Allotment at the Bluebell Allotments.

Key behind all these activities are the TN Resilience Action Plan and Transition Circles. The Resilience Plan group (one of 14 theme groups) is developing a detailed vision that sets out how Norwich could meet its needs for food, energy, transport, textiles and other goods over the next twenty years.

Transition Circles were begun by a pioneer group of Transitioners who’ve made a commitment to cut their carbon footprint to half the national average over the next year. Transition Circles are at the hub of Transition – people who are meeting up in neighbourhoods all over the city to discuss what it takes on a personal level to really downshift and create a collaborative economy and still enjoy our lives. You can read about our discoveries in our new blog, This Low-Carbon Life, or even better come to our first birthday party. As well as the film there will be local planet-friendly food and drink and cycle-powered music.

Because climate change and peak oil don’t have to mean the end of the world, just the beginning of a new low-carbon future.

Transition Norwich 1st Anniversary Event, Sunday October 4 at 7.30pm at Unit 5, Beckham Place, Edward Street (off Magdalen Street). Donations. For info and booking contact or tel 01603 664928