Saturday 14 November 2009

Leaving The Pleasuredome

Last November at an Energy Fair in a Suffolk village John Gummer MP declared how people like us were making a difference and how that lady in the front wearing the woolly hat had the right idea about keeping warm. He then went on to say how frightfully important it was he kept his five cars and in particular the 4x4 outside in the car park.

In another era I would have spent this column denouncing the politician. But the fact is my attention has shifted. The times have shifted. Because all across the region ordinary people are doing the extraordinary. Though they have been educated to believe the top of the world is the place to be, they are discussing how to proceed down the mountain. They have not yet turned their heating on. They are walking to work and darning their socks. They are swapping clothes and vegetable seeds, showing The Age of Stupid in their village halls. And I'm not writing as an observer. I'm one of those people.

Whatever happens in Copenhagen next month a wave of low-carbon communities and Transition initiatives across East Anglia are already cutting their carbon emissions. We're not doing it because the government have told us to, but because something like conscience has entered our field. And even though, like everyone else, we have been dazzled by the pleasuredome of the Western World, we know that no matter how many buttons we push or planes we take the walls that have allowed us not to see or feel the consequences of our daily actions have become thin. We can only live this way by exploiting the natural resources of the planet and millions of our fellow human beings. And it's not just the trees and animals and people who suffer. It is ourselves, in our rages and our depressions, our children who run crazy in the schoolroom instead of running free, our parents who lose their minds instead of becoming elders.

Today people from 27 Transition initiatives across the Eastern Region are converging in Diss to discuss how to co-ordinate this downshift into a low-carbon world. They are engaged in a movement that began in Totnes in 2005 in response to peak oil (the imminent decline of oil supplies) and climate change that enables communities to make active steps towards energy descent. Their hardest task is to communicate the fact that to reverse the downward spiralling of eco-systems and resource wars, we can’t hold on to our fossil-fuelled life-style. At some point you have to stop eating the disappearing fish in the ocean. You have to put on your woolly hat.

To see the reality of our situation beyond our fairy stories of heroes and saviours is to see that we live in a world run by a corporate machine that is munching its way across the green earth, like a vast voracious caterpillar. For things to change that caterpillar has to transform and become something utterly different. What grassroots movements realise is this is not just a top-down political decision that can be agreed in a climate change summit, it's a personal task for everyone. Because when you dissolve your old world, that's when you start to dream of the butterfly.

If you had told me I'd be writing a column about not turning on the central heating 17 years ago, I would have laughed. I was a consumer journalist, finding meaning and solace in little black dresses and designer chairs, jet-setting to Tokyo and Madrid without a qualm. Now I'm part of a response to the greatest challenge people have ever faced, creating a culture that can live in synch with the planet, one amongst millions of ordinary people doing the extraordinary thing. Walking down the mountain together. Dreaming of the butterfly.

The Transition East Regional Gathering is taking place in Diss on 14 November 2009. Charlotte Du Cann is a member of Transition Norwich and Sustainable Bungay.

Friday 13 November 2009

Coming Together in Resilience

Today the trees are on fire. It's a moment that happens in November. All down our lane the great oaks are blazing gold, the hedges tipped with hawthorn and rosehip flames, the bracken rusty on the banks. At sunset the whole land glows amber, russet, crimson. If I could I'd fill this space with the sight and feel of it. For years I paid attention to these moments and these trees and flowers. Then last March my attention shifted, when, at the First Regional Gathering in Downham Market, I realised I was in Transition for real.

Resilience is one of the key words in Transition. It refers to the ability of an eco-system to withstand shock and hold together within radically different conditions. To invent ways of dealing with change. To evolve.

Last March Mark, Josiah and I interviewed Professor Martin Wolfe at his research farm, Wakelyns Agroforestry in Suffolk. The plant pathologist told us that it is the diversity of species working together that enables evolution to take place. He's developing what is known as Composite Cross Populations of wheat, organic wheat that will flourish in the kind of adversity that peak oil and climate change might bring (as well as providing the flour for the future local loaf in Norwich).

The strength of living systems depends on things, he told us, that cannot be measured by conventional agricultural science. Something Darwin first recognised as he observed the natural species-rich grassland around his house in Sussex: that the greater the diversity of species that existed in a place the greater its abundance.

The memory of how to thrive and be abundant in diverse conditions happens when many species work together. The ability to find solutions to the difficulties we face also depends on things that cannot be measured, or even recognised in a conventional and monocultural world.

As it is with flowers, so it is with people.

Next week Mark my comrade-in-Transition for the last 19 years takes over this blog for a week. He doesn't like this picture of himself Josiah took at the last gathering, (with shared lunch and Open Space "laws"). But I think it captures the spirit of the times. You know he's speaking to you when you look at that picture. There's a wild fire coming through that's sparking something alive that has been forgotten for centuries. I've been hearing it in people's voices during the last two weeks, as I've been preparing a document about the 28 Transition initiatives that have sprung up in the Eastern Region over the last two years. Talking with people from the villages, market towns, cities and bio-regions of Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex

Tomorrow we're all meeting up at the Second Regional Gathering. It's also the day my first column for 17 years comes out in the EDP an article about Transition called Leaving the Pleasuredome. I've just become part of a co-operative of 6 writers and each week we appraise and encourage each others' work. This community blog works in the same way - with Jon Curran, John Heaser, Tully, Elena, Jane, Helen, Andy, Mark, myself and others who have yet to join us. It's how life works, how people work best -in co-operation, in collaboration, in communication - how we get to enjoy ourselves together on this rough and beautiful earth, And now facing the greatest challenge we have ever faced - the triple crunch that Transition has articulated so clearly - it's also how we stand together and evolve.

In life, for life. See you there!

Above: Circle of summer flowers from the Midsummer Transition Party, 21 June 09 by Mark

Below: Mark in his famous brown jumper at the First Transition East Regional Gathering, Downham Market, March 7 09 by Josiah

Thursday 12 November 2009

Calling An Amnesty and Other Prodigal Returns

Your carbon debt is HUGE,” said Josiah on the telephone this morning. We were discussing last night’s Copenhagen Climate Emergency in Norwich and Tuesday's post about bathing in the hot springs of South America. I was about to leap to my own defence, armed with a “yes but I don’t have any children” or one of any number of possible parries. But I resisted the temptation. Because Josiah and I are co-ordinating the Second Transition East Regional Gathering in Diss this week, because we’ve been working at each other’s kitchen tables over the last year on local and sustainable food and all things Transitional and because, well, I like Josiah and his two boys, Reuben and Tristram and I'm looking forward to meeting his daughter, Iris, (now two weeks old) .We’re on the same road together. We can’t afford to fall out with each other.

Besides, who hasn’t got a huge carbon debt in the Western World?

We need to be prodigal and return to our senses, but we’re not going to do that if we are burdened with a debt we can never repay. If you undergo a radical change of heart, you don’t want to have to deal with accustations and judgements for your past follies as you walk back down the mountain. At the Climate Change talks last night it became clear in order to keep our emissions below that scary figure of a 2% rise in planetary temperature, we are going to have to drop our fossil-fuelled lifestyles pretty damn quick. And those of us who have used profligate amount of oil in the past, have lived in the fast lane, know the ins and outs of priviledge and glamour, know exactly how to do it. Because if someone like me can change, anyone can.

The fact is we didn’t know until now. We were brought up in illusion. I had never considered carbon emissions until I joined a bunch of community activists in Oxford and someone said something mildly about how much fuel aeroplanes use. The year was 2001 and I had spent the last ten years travelling in aeroplanes, buses, trains and cars across the Americas. When you know you know and you can take action - so long as you are free to do so. One of the speakers last night was the economist and driving force behind the New Green Deal, Ann Pettifor. She is famous for leading a worldwide campaign to cancel approximately $100 billion of debts owed by 42 of the poorest countries Jubilee 2000. The moment you cancel the debt, you can start to liberate yourself from the constraints of Empire.

The consequences of our life-style have now become clear. Since the 70s our carbon use has trebled. Climate change is directly due to our increased consumption, our flying round the world, our industrialised agriculture. None of us knew this at the time. Not because we were ignorant but because we are products of a civilisation that has deliberately blindfolded us to the effect of our actions, distracted us with entertainments, numbed our emotions with feel-good highs and hostility. We can do something about those things. We can wake up and not take those flights. We can ask questions rather than escape into our minds. We can join up and share food and houses and tools and fires. What will hold us together is our human relationships. The feeling that we want to see each other again.

So this is a call for amnesty for all prodigal sons and daughters. Forget the debt. Come home.

Above: reeds at Minsmere Marshes, Suffolk - the plant tribe at the root of Western civilisation and the world’s first source of paper by Charlotte

Below: Me, Josiah and Reuben with a pan of nettles for soup - Spring Tonic Walk, April 09 by Helen

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Diggers Unite!

Finally got down to the TN allotment today. Jane and I met at the train station and then we took the bus (35) almost to the gates and went walkabout the Bluebell plots, full of tall cabbages, late cornflowers, golden windfalls sprinkled on the ground, lanky sunflower ghosts and everywhere winter veg shooting hardily out of the soil. We met David from Take 5, (the great bar in Tombland where the Communications crew have their meetings), Peter who used to work for the EDP and is now the compost guru and of course Mahesh who is the MC of this small vegetable kingdom (complete with compost loo and community kitchen).

After a winter picnic of Jane's frittata under the now-leafless plum trees, my coleslaw of red cabbage and carrots laced with lemon, green chilli and roasted pumpskin seed oil we drank a masala chai tea boiled in a Kelly kettle. Kelly kettles were apparently invented by Irish fishermen and they are just the sort of useful tool you need on damp November afternoons. They're like an aluminium thermos with a bore hole through which the fire heats the water contained inside a metal jacket. You light your dry twigs in a small dish, put the KK on the hob and five minutes later, hey presto! you have your perfect zero-carbon brew.

And then we set to work. Serious digging with forks getting the bed ready for the Spring. I was going to wait for J's photo to come through of me, fork in hand, turning up the couch grass, but here is one from Kathryn Siveyer who does the most lovely blog about her Transition allotment in Canterbury that inspired us all in the beginning. I'll post that one tomorrow.

Short post today as I'm on the road. Writing this in the Norwich Library and about to go to the Copenhagen Climate Emergency talks . . . watch this space . . . Oh, here's that pic!

Top: Sprouting Broccoli by Kathryn Siveyer

Bottom: Charlotte at Bluebell Allotments South by Jane

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Finding Myself in Hot Water

Last night I went to Mangreen Hall. The Stranger’s Circle was meeting to discuss everyone’s personal powerdowns. We met in the kitchen and after supper did the unthinkable - we got our electricity, gas and oil bills out on the table, said last year’s totals out loud and discussed how we could live without all that central heating and hot water. Those of us from large warm houses and those of us in small cold ones. One thing was clear. That no matter how we looked at it, we have been living in an artificial world for so long, we are finding difficult to find a way out of it and discover the real one – the earth outside our doors, in all its beauty and challenges, with all its seasons that now in East Anglia, in these islands, means coldness and damp.

“It is hard to know that this magic carpet exists and that one will no longer fly on it,” Jean Cocteau once wrote. The artist was writing about his life-time opium addiction. Opium is one of the most powerful natural medicines in the world. It has relieved the physical suffering of people for thousands of years. But it has also distracted us from reality and stimulated our minds to such a degree that we find ourselves prefering to live in the stately pleasuredomes of our imaginations rather than face the (often terrifying) truth of the situation. Fossil fuel is one of the most powerful and addictive power sources in the world. It has enabled us to live like kings, flying over the planet, whizzing up and down the country, eating luxurious food out of season. But the fact is millions of us are destroying the real world in order to live in an artificial paradise.

Some of us in the Transition Circles are struggling to awaken from a life-time’s addiction to that cruel dream.

There were some sober moments in the kitchen last night. I live frugally, partly because I am poor and partly because I’m in Transition. But even without the central heating turned on and minimal use of electricity I am still 1.5 tons up with personal energy use, without considering transport or food. If we are cutting our personal carbon footprints from 6 tons to 3 this year, it’s going to be tough to cut more.

“There are those daily baths of course,“ said Mark.

I’ve been going cold turkey for years. I’ve kicked lines of cocaine at parties and little glasses of wine at six. I’ve given up supermarkets and holidays, I don’t have a freezer or a tumble dryer or a dishwasher, I don’t eat chocolate or bananas or go to restaurants, all my clothes are falling apart. But oh oh oh, HOT WATER! I’m finding that one quite tough. If you live in a cold house and get up at five to write there is nothing quite like that fragrant steaming tub to steep yourself in at breakfast time. Scented with juniper berries for stiff joints, lavender for a sore head, sea salt when your circuits are jangled, rosemary when you need a bold burst of sunshine. . . in those warm scented waters all those fractious thoughts and tangled-up feelings dissolve and a door inside swings open. 90% of my inspiration comes from lying immersed in H2O. This year I started sharing baths with Mark (taking it in turns), using only half the tub, using the water for our clothes, for the loo, for the plants. But whatever way we swing it, it’s still an oil-fired habit.

If I lived in Morocco or Turkey I’d go and scrub myself clean in the neighbourhood hammam. If I lived in Australia I’d walk down the beach to the tea tree lake at Byron Bay. If I was in New Mexico this morning I’d walk through the Apache pine forest and sit in the rocky hot springs of Jemez .If I was at this moment in Quito, Ecuador, I’d take a ride up into the mountains at dawn and immerse myself in the waters of Papallacta, watch the cold Andean mists evaporate and hummingbirds drink from the tree datura flowers that hang over the steaming sulphurous pools. I’d jump into the cold river and back again into the warm baths, and have a breakfast of freshly-caught trout and bitter South American coffee. Sometimes I think about all those mornings, those lovely waters of the earth I have bathed in thanks to the magical properties of fossil-fuel, and like Cocteau, it is hard to know I will never go there again.

Opium flower by Mark

Monday 9 November 2009

The Reality Business

It’s the dawn of another day. Small creatures have stopped prowling around my tent. The stars are fading from the immense night sky. Like an alphabet I almost recognise the letters of the constellations are disappearing one by one leaving only rusty Mars as an umlaut below a high waning moon. The cockerels are shouting from the nearby farmhouses, the ducks calling to each other amongst the marsh reeds, Wake up! Wake up! Owls hooting in the oak trees. Pheasants arguing in the copse. The faint sound of the sea in the distance. Ah, you might say, a small paradise! And yes where I live, a brick cottage down a coastal lane, it is in some respects. But at the edges, as I lie snug under a heavy crimson quilt, listening to another day begin, I can also hear the faint hum of lorries thundering down the A12, on the distance there are oil tankers strung like a necklace along the horizon, and those flecked and golden pheasants will soon be shot by men who pay up to £1000 per day to satisfy their ancient bloodlust. Once I would not have noticed these things, my eyes set firmly on the beauty of the earth, or in the meaning and significance of this mysterious life, but now I’m in the reality business, I’m in Transition, and I can’t ignore them anymore.

When we began this blog last month I wanted to hear about what it’s really like for people to live through Transition, and for us to keep some kind of record. And when I read of John Heaser’s pride in his woodpile, of Jon Curran’s delight gleaning chestnuts with his family in the woods, or of Tully’s anger taking his children to the city fireworks, those experiences stir my heart and make me feel it’s all worth it. Reality is hard to come by in an I-pod, me-only world. It’s so easy to get grandiose, sitting at our computers like the Wizard of Oz, issuing big corporate statements about peak oil and politicians, wearing spiritual cliches like Eygptian priestly robes (We are All One! The Power of Now! Be the change!) doing the great marketing spin on our lives. But actually what turns everything around is the treasuring of our small and roughly-hewn humanity. Feeling and thinking deeply about ourselves and our fellows. Paying attention to the details.The fact that we are who we are together, engaged in an almost impossible task: downshifting from the great pleasuredome of the Western World.

This blog is about the small things. Small paradises, small moves, small moments of affection and respect between people hard-pressed on all sides. This week I want to write about some of those moments and some of those people. It’s a busy week. Tonight I’m going to a Stranger’s Circle meeting, one of our neighbourhood Transition Circles, out in the hinterland at Naomi’s house in Mangreen. On Wednesday I’m visiting the TN Allotment with Jane, reorganising the website with Andy and manning the TN stall with Christine at the Climate Emergency Talks. At the end of the week I’m helping co-ordinate the Second Transition East Regional Gathering , when 27 initiatives will be converging on the market town of Diss to talk about the future. Stay tuned!

Morning Glory in the conservatory by Mark

Monday 2 November 2009

II Shoots: Bread of Heaven

There are seventeen of us in a room at the Baptist church on Boltolph Steet – a farmer, a miller, several bakers, wholefood shopkeepers, members of Transition Norwich, Professor Martin Wolfe of the Organic Research Institute and Andrew Whitley of the Village Bakery and author of Bread Matters. We are meeting to discuss Resilient Bread, the project that aims to create a sustainable supply of bread for Norwich, using locally milled flour from English wheat, grown on Norfolk farms.

There is a plate being passed around and on it are not wafers but slices of real wholemeal bread, baked by a neighbourhood community store. Everyone is looking at each other as if we can’t quite believe we are all in the same room together, eating those slices and listening to these lectures about peak oil and agriculture, about the natural selection of wheat genotypes that can thrive in eco-systems undergoing climate change. It’s hard somehow to get all those graphs and words about the future to relate to the rough brown food in our mouths.

Andrew Whitley, master baker, has worked with organic flour milled in a local water mill for many years. He is a neat and compact man with a keen intensity and a round face. Whereas the other speakers stood in front of us as they spoke, he remains seated within our circle and leans forward to reveal the secrets and horrors of the industrialised bread trade. Maybe it’s because he was once in the BBC Russian service that he emanates such a conspiratorial air (he is famous in bread circles for bringing a Russian sour dough culture into Britain 19 years ago that has since spawned thousands of loaves throughout the land). It was his rediscovery of the sour dough process that eventually led to the Real Bread Campaign which he launched last year.

It is half-way through his speech about the infamous Chorleywood baking process that I find myself suddenly looking at a universal truth. It’s one of those moments that opens like a door sometimes when you pay attention, notebook in hand. One minute the speaker is talking about their subject and the next they are talking about Life. Whitley was talking about time. Bread is all about time: time to mix, time to prove, time to bake. The key to real bread is in allowing enough kneading time so the gluten in the flour is activated, and enough proving time for the yeast to expand the dough to twice its size. Gluten is a protein that when kneaded makes an elasticated web, “like a series of tiny balloons” that become filled with gas from the fermentation. Yeast is a tiny mushroom, arguably the most successful symbiont with man. It is born to ferment. It ferments our food and drink and transforms them - wine, asses milk, bread and beer. Wild yeasts appear naturally in sour dough starters (made from fermented water and flour) as well as lactic acid bacteria. Sour dough was how all bread was made until the manufacture of commercial yeast. The longer you leave these agents to do their work, the greater the nutritional quality of the bread.

Industrial baking, invented in Chorleywood in the 1960’s, has not got time to spend on the niceties of natural alchemy, on these subtle relationships between gluten and yeast and lactobacilli, and has invented deviant ways to by-pass them. Whitley is listing them: high-speed mixers, addition of hydrogenated fats and water, increased use of commercial yeast, bleach, preservatives, a cocktail of artificially-mixed enzymes, as well as countless additives and emulsifiers (the so-called flour improvers). All these deny bread its natural fermentation time. And it is this cheating of time, he argues, that leads to the malfunctions within the Western diet: all its disorders of stomach and guts, its huge ballooning of bodies. Robbed of time industrialised bread brings disorder into the digestive system. Robbed of its rough coat of wheatgerm, the grain gives no nutrition. We keep eating but nothing satisfies our deep hunger. We pay 19p for something that should cost us £2.50. The staff of life has become an industrialised commodity without any connection with our physical beings or our intelligence. Our minds are no longer paying attention to what is on the plate but are elsewhere fixed on the cheap fast dreams of cities. On escapes and fantasies. Caught in a treadmill of hard labour, we are grabbing breakfast toast and lunchtime sandwiches, pizza, hotdog rolls, burger buns to go. We are so busy we don’t even know what we are eating.

To reverse this 50 year old habit would require a restructuring of our outside and inside lives. It’s where the grassroots movement of Transition and master bakers like Andrew Whitley meet. We meet in unlikely venues and discuss ways of bringing real food back into the hands of people and places: community baking in local hubs “where good transactions happen between people,” reskilling of home bakers and the creation of the Local Loaf (paralleling the National Loaf of the 1940’s) using local millers, bakers and shops and locally distinctive varieties of wheat.

The ingredients for real bread are simple - flour, water, salt, yeast. Bringing a resilient local loaf into Norwich is more complex. The mega-distribution system of the big three industrial bakeries have trucks perpetually on the road travelling 200 miles transporting ready-sliced to the city’s 122,000 inhabitants daily. They are roaring across East Anglia from Stevenage, London and Enfield. To feed Norwich sustainably would require 30 tonnes of wheat and several local mills. On the agenda that day in January were questions about the supply chain: quantity of flour, storage and transportation of grain, the price of a loaf, the feasibility of setting up and maintaining an electric mill in the city, the packaging and marketing of the loaves. Should the flour be stone-ground or roller-ground? Tin or round? Could Canadian wheat be used as a last straw (sic) in times of bad harvest, or grain kept back? Was the Norwich Loaf initially an everyday item or a speciality one-off?

East Anglia has arable land for growing the wheat but few working mills. The first challenge for the project is to find a mill in the city to grind the corn. The nearest wind or water mills are 25-30 miles away. The other is the quality of the wheat. The gluten content of bread is a key consideration in baking. Wheat has a very high gluten content (between 12-15 per cent) which gives the dough its extraordinary elasticity and ability to be moulded into the hundreds of shapes in which we have historically consumed it – from the heaviest of wholemeals to the airiest of croissants. Artisan bakers in England have been using commercial Canadian flour for decades because its exceptionally high gluten levels makes the light and fluffy white loaf we have got used to. The lower gluten content of our native wheat is compensated for by the Chorleywood method. The Norwich bakers’ main concern with using local flour was one of consistency (“No one is going to buy a bad bloomer”, one said rather gloomily; “You could call it ciabatta,” another quipped to much laughter) and there was a long discussion as to how we were going to get over the fact that life was unpredictable and that white and fluffy was not the future. It felt it was going to take some time for all of us to get used to the idea.

You could tell the bakers. They had a physical presence in the room that was quite distinct from those whose business was in words and figures. They seemed familiar though I had never really considered bakers before, or even talked to one. They existed in my imagination as mythical figures with white hats and aprons. Suddenly I realised they were men who worked with their hands and worked at night. And this was why the meeting that day had begun at 2.15pm.


One of the lesser known facts about Charles Darwin is that when he bought Down House (where The Origin of Species was written) it was not for the house but for the chalk grassland that surrounded it. The species-rich habitat provided the man who was about to shake the paradigm of the Western world with the perfect opportunity to observe bio-diversity and see how its elements worked together. It was here he saw that everything in the natural world is connected and that the greater diversity that exists in a place the greater its abundance.

At the same time as the naturalist was looking at biological complexity in the field, chemists were singling out individual components in their laboratories and developing the first nitrate fertilisers that would lead to the appearance of a very different kind of grassland. And a plant that once grew wild around the Fertile Crescent began to be bred as the basis of the global diet: modern wheat.

Professor Martin Wolfe is a plant pathologist who has spent the last decade working at his organic research station outside Metfield developing what are known as Composite Cross Populations of wheat. The evolution of wheat is a complicated business and requires your absolute concentration. Where once we ate thousands of different plants, the human species mostly lives off half a dozen crops of which wheat is now the top one. Outside the window of the Institute’s meeting room small green spikes are everywhere on trial: in a conventional agricultural field and in organic strips bordered by timber and fruit trees (a layout known as agroforestry). The Composite Cross Populations have a complex origin: three populations that come from 20 varieties and 200 intercrosses and a random male sterile genotype who acts like the joker in the pack. As a result the plants contain thousands of variations. It’s these variations that give the wheat the ability to produce consistent yield and quality of grain under a wide variety of conditions.

“Natural eco-systems are complex because they evolve that way for a damn good reason. The whole way of developing agriculture around the world depends on functional diversity. What evolutionary breeding showed was that if you dissemble the elements (in an eco-system) you find that yield increases with the positive interactions occurring. The more complex the connections, the better everything responds.”

We sit in the Institute meeting room, Mark, Josiah and I facing Martin. The biological history of cereal crops, he explains, goes in two directions: one that concentrated on a simple system using synthetic fertilisers to boost yields that led to the separation of agriculture and the natural world around 1850, and another known as evolutionary breeding that began in California in 1929 which introduced variation and worked within complexity. His story veers from wild barley in Israel to the development of maize in Africa and traces a familiar shape: the taking of heritage seeds out of farmer’s hands and putting them into the fists of seed merchants, the manufacturers of pesticides and herbicides and finally the corporations who patent rights for certain genes and focus on their monoculture (as well as produce the agrochemicals that support the varieties that contain them).

“Oh, I’ve got a story about Monsanto,” says Mark breezily who was taking notes. I shoot him a fast look. We haven’t got time for asides, even good ones. We have another meeting to go to. Martin is an ex-professor and has that smooth ease of delivery honed from years of lecturing to Cambridge students for exactly one hour. Although there is something bristly and creaturelike about his manner I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a creature I know, a tusky fellow, one not to be crossed.

Wolfe has no time for simplificaton and bristles academically about evolution being side-stepped by global corporations. The memory of how to thrive in different conditions – light and shade, temperatures, with plant pathogens and insects - persists in the genetic structure of naturally evolved seed. It has an inbuilt multifunctionality. But in the millions and millions of hectares of monocultural wheat these shared memories are not available.

“What happens if the weather is different from the weather it experienced during its ten years of selection? Modern wheat is bred to react maximally to input from pesticides and herbicides. But in the future the environment will be much more variable. How do we deal with that?”

Amongst the Composite Cross Populations there are answers to these questions, as well as an ability to function without agrochemicals based on fossil fuels. Because of their diversity and ability to complement and compensate for one other “there are huge amounts of variable phenomena emerging”.

As Wolfe points out: “There are lots of things breeders can’t see which are being affected by the environment.” Scientific plant breeding depends on things that can be easily measured such as height and leaf shape and so on. But the strength of living systems depends on things that cannot be seen in this way. “Inevitably the natural world is a much better selector than the trained human breeder. We have to be humble in these things.”

For 150 years however, sanctioned by the “Darwinian” assertion that nature is red in tooth and claw and inherently competitive, we have gone in the opposite direction. From Darwin we have taken the image of animals fighting for survival and justified all our aggressive acts against nature and each other. We consider evolution in terms of exotic birds far away in South America and conveniently forget his ecological analysis of the native grasslands of England that tell quite a different story. The plant world shows that nature is essentially co-operative and the success of eco-systems depends on a complex weave of relationships, as well as a long genetic memory. The simple system science behind modern agriculture, most explicitly expressed in “the crude plant technology” of GM, is one of control and domination. But this control has now, according to Wolfe, reached its ultimate, and is about to face the music in the form of climate change and peak oil.

“The question we are posing (or that is being posed for us) is how has evolution coped with a huge variety of conditions? It’s coped by lots of variation, lots of diversity, lots of different answers to potential problems.“

Maybe it’s the word population but every time Martin starts talking about the CCP that door begins to swing open again: he’s not just talking about wheat diversity, he’s talking about human diversity! We are, after all, what we eat. In a Westernised industrial world where human populations are forced to become increasingly monocultural and dependent for their survival on artificial conditions, our own evolutionary moves are now being called into play. What is happening to wheat is happening to ourselves. What would it mean for us to become composite cross?


We are on our way to talk with a baker in Stanton, where Josiah went to school. If Wolfe represents the biological thought at the beginning of the supply chain, the bakers represent the working craft at the end. It’s mid March, after a long and relentless winter, and there is not one cherry plum tree in blossom. The land still wears last season’s coat and the hedgerows are twiggy except for sudden bursts of golden-tasselled hazel. A low grey sky hems us in as we hurtle down the small roads that wind along the border country between Norfolk and Suffolk. It’s already bleaker here. The clay fields are giant-sized and empty, punctuated by the occasional spinney or solitary oak. Apart from the rooks, we are the only thing moving amongst the swathes of blunted green barley and darker rosettes of rape.

On the wooden shelves at the back of the Hillcrest Farm Shop in Stanton we find a quote from Felicity Lawrence’s Not On The Label on Radio 4: “Only a small number (of Britain’s independent bakers) genuinely bake from scratch, many depend instead on factory ‘premixes’. Today there are only 3,500 individual craft bakers in the UK, compared to about 35,000 in France . . .” In between crusty white and crunchy granary loaves, a round face is beaming at me from the kitchen.

The smile belongs to Mick the Baker who has been baking from scratch for 37 years. “You can talk to me as I’m working,” he says. It’s probably the only time we can talk to Mick as he is definitely a man on the go. As he works ten pans of dough into hundreds of hot cross buns, he gives us a run down on his working schedule, baking, singing with a band at the weekends and driving long-distance trucks. Most of his days start at 4.30am, Saturday begins at 1.30am. Do you ever get time to sleep? I ask? “ I don’t get a lot,” he says, “I used to survive on three hours. The only way is to keep going and not sit down. The trouble is I’m fifty now. The mind says you can but the body says maybe not.”

We’ve come to talk with Mick because he has just started baking with locally grown and milled flour. He bakes “the old-fashioned way” entirely by hand (except for the mixing), uses natural ingredients and is one of only nine traditional British bakers left in the Waveney Valley. “I’ve always done it natural. Slow mix, slow dough. Throw it in and hope for the best. I’ve got it right for the bread, I’m not sure for the rest of the life!”

Mick is “an old East End boy”, who began his apprenticeship at 15 and came to East Anglia in 1991 to run the Swan Bakery in the neighbouring village of Garboldisham. He chose baking because he was waiting until he was 21 to follow his dream of being a long-distance lorry driver.

“I’m more into quality than money. I’m not motivated by money, I’m motivated by music.”

Mick is a motivated man. As he whirls his two hands around 360 buns he talks non-stop about bread, about bread making machines, about his old-style baking equipment and the necessity of hot ovens, the time John Peel almost came to interview him but then he died, how sweeping up is the most important part of the job, how he likes to barter, swapping bread for customer’s eggs, surprising children with a box of cakes when they hand him a picture, how he holds the peace between the scrapping artistes in his band (“I’m in the middle of it,” he laughs) and sings almost everything – jazz, blues, funk, soul - just not country (even though he is a trucker), how he hasn’t got time to teach, has never read a book in his life and the reason he likes baking is because it’s creative: he creates everything from start to finish.

“I use Canadian flour which isn’t very patriotic but it makes the best bread. The organic English one comes up quite small and heavy but that suits some customers. I don’t mess around with fancy stuff. Mine’s the proper old English bread. People like a bit of crust.”

Like most hands-on craftsmen he learned everything by watching people. “If anyone asks me anything technical, I can’t tell them. I know what happens if you leave yeast out but I couldn’t tell you why. I know when the salt is left out because the dough moves quicker. In the summer it’s a nightmare in here because the bread keeps moving and you can’t stop.”

We stand in the tiny back kitchen, peering at Mick busily not stopping with the currant-spotted dough, occasionally swerving out of the way as he whisks a tray into the fridge or freezer. I want to ask him when do you have time for life? And then as I listen to him, hands spinning, talking about gigs and whacking everything in the bowl, knocking it on the table, whacking it back in the prover, I realise this is Life, this whirl of activity, creating, producing, bartering, sweeping up. On the wall there is a photograph of Mick singing with a hat on (“I always wear a hat”), a smiley T- shirt and rainbow trousers. He’s carrying a giant sunflower in one hand.

Mick tells us a story about working through the night. At the Swan Bakery he had a chill-out room and at night people used to drop by: policemen came for a quick kip, firemen on call, young boys without anything much to do. One night a couple came on their way from the Glastonbury Festival lured by the lights of the chill-out room. “They said they could not believe it.” You could imagine it then, stoned out of your head in the small hours, finding a light burning on a dark road, and a man working in the kitchen mixing yeast, flour, water and salt, cooking up the kind of bread you might like to eat. What did they see when the door swung open?

“It’s time to decompress,” said Josiah as we reeled out of the shop. We chewed our buns as we walked about the garden centre. Everything after the intensity of the kitchen didn’t seem quite real: the stiff and clipped box trees, the flashy petunias in their pots, silently waiting under a grey and cold sky. “What’s the story?” he asked, as we climbed back into the small car. We had come out on an adventure the three of us for the day. I don’t know what we had expected from either the scientist or the baker. We all felt rather dazed.

“I don’t know yet,” I said. I was thinking about what I had first seen, as I glimpsed Mick’s round face between the shelves of bread. It was like the sun was smiling at me.

When I came to the story I realised that we live in a culture that keeps everything separate and that when you start to assemble the components back together again, it requires a way of thinking about life and engaging in it that is not just a matter of graphs and statistics. The bakers and millers and shopkeepers once appeared in our imaginations as part of life. These people operated in the fabric of our daily lives: they lived in songs and in fairy tales, as characters in children’s picture books and playing cards. They were apparent and lived in the brightness of day. The processes of industry and science and agriculture are hidden. They recognise no people, only machines and numbers. They operate secretly in the dark and rely on our not joining up the dots and connecting the facts. Even when investigated by determined journalists like Lawrence, knowing facts about the global food industry does not actually shift our ways of thinking about them. What shifts our awareness are the door-opening moments, when those connections start cross-referencing and self-organising inside you - those revelations about time, about Life. Suddenly you get the whole picture. You know that when the time is out of whack, everything else goes out of whack. How when you side-step evolution there is a price to pay. And that’s the moment you start asking yourself who exactly is paying.

At this point, I don’t know which way the story is going. It’s still fermenting: the faces of the three men appear before me and need time to reassemble themselves into a coherent shape. What I do know is that when you look at wheat, you find yourself looking at civilisation. The ability to domesticate wild grasses and feed thousands of people happened at the same time in different continents – rice in Asia, millet in Africa, maize in the Americas. Wheat, with barley and rye, was the main cereal crop of the Middle East and clearly marks the shift from the nomadic and hunter-gatherer world, to the city-ruled agricultural world of conquered and indentured populations. When you look at wheat you look at bread, and when you look at bread you’re looking at people. You’re looking at a certain kind of people eating for a certain kind of reason.

It’s not sacred anymore in the way we understand sacred - our daily bread - but it serves the same function. Modern factory bread is cheap and in a world that prizes convenience and availability and money most of all, the cheapness of bread means it is highly prized. For one section of the population of course. For cheap food is and always has been, since the city-states established themselves 5000 years ago, the fuel of the workforce. Though civilisations prize themselves on their architecture and technology and their high-flown ideals, all of them depend on a huge and expendable underclass. The daily bread that was apportioned to the city slaves in Rome is as vital to them as the ready-sliced bought by the urban poor of the global metropolis. And the contempt the modern ruling classes have towards the masses who eat junk bread is in proportion to their great and ancient fear that they will one day rise up and demand not wholemeal loaves, nor even croissants, but equity.

Sometimes I think that my intolerance to wheat, to gluten and yeast, is a symptom of my own revolt against the prevailing order. I used to think it was an expression of the imbalance between settled agriculture and the wild places of this earth – a shout of solidarity for all those medicine flowers and prairie grasses, sometimes as tall as a man, mown down and replaced by the millions and millions of hectares of identical corn. Our minds may acquiesce to industrialisation, to the maltreatment of nature, but our archaic hunter-gatherer bodies do not. They close down, blow up and start minor revolutions. But now I realise the body doesn’t just revolt in sympathy with the earth, but also with its own kind.

There are millions of people who are allergic to wheat. Some so allergic (the so-called coeliacs) they cannot consume one tiny speck of flour. It’s a phenomen that came with the industrialisation of cereals, particularly in the last 20 years. There is no medical cure for what happens to the intolerant body. Gluten is seen as a foreign invader by the immune system and it attacks the delicate lining of the intestine that normally takes in the goodness of food. As a result the micronutrients - the essential minerals and vitamins - are not absorbed by the blood. Without these vital ingredients we grow weak and tired and depressed, rashes appear on our knees and ulcers in our mouths. We sweat, feel poisoned and our bowels collapse. White bread, the symbol of oppression of the dominant Western world in many cultures, is often blamed as a cause of malnutrition amongst the poor and indigenous. But gluten intolerance is widespread amongst everyone in a wheat-consuming world. Between 1 in one hundred or 1 in 600 of people in the UK, depending which report you read. Allergies don’t just happen to the masses.

It’s difficult to look at food allergies like this. We want there to be scientific solutions, fixes and formulas. We want to be separate and blameless and live our lives in discrete units, as if our physical reactions bear no relation to the way we treat the earth or the culture we uphold. We want to cheat time and cheat each other and think we can get away with things forever.

But we can’t.


It’s a bowl my sister gave me years ago and has, for as long as I can remember, sat quietly in the corner or in front of fireplaces in houses I have lived in. It sat on the long table in my London flat for years. When I went travelling it was one of the only things I kept during a decade of perpetual moving and shifting. I just liked it for its great and useful form - a large deep pottery bowl, terracotta on the outside, creamy yellow on the inside with a hand-drawn ox-blood-coloured rim. I cooked up a lot of dishes in that London flat with its long table, and in all the places where I went travelling. Except bread. Bread was not my style: it felt way too domestic and slow.

But last Sunday I made my first loaf in the pottery bowl, and found out what it was really called: a panchion. My fellow first-time breadmaker took a snap of me holding it at my hip to send to her mother. “She used to use one,” she said.

It wasn’t a grand production, just a regular soda bread made with local spelt and rye. We were a small group of people in a neighbourhood restaurant, taking part in a bread making club that meets the last Sunday of every month. What was surprising was that when my hands went deep into the sides of the panchion, they knew what to do without any instruction. Push, pull, knead. It was not like making pastry or anything else I’ve mixed in a bowl because the soda had activated the dough. You could feel the stuff living in your hands. Recorded somewhere deep in the bone-memory of those hands, in that bowl, in the spelt and rye, was the knowledge of people working with the staff of life for thousands of years. Knead, push, pull.
After kneading we waited. We had some tea and talked to each other. Then we put the round shapes into the oven. When we pulled our tins out forty minutes later, my two loaves were perfect. How did that happen? They were cracked in a cross shape - the distinguishing mark of soda bread - dusted with flour, chunky, sweet smelling. When I got home I went round and gave the spare loaf to my neighbour and the other I put in the centre of the table. I looked at that bread for a long time. And then I cut a thick slice and ate it the way I remember we used to in Ireland, with butter and hot tea. I did not get sick.

It’s something about craftsmen, about creators, that I’ve noticed. It’s not money that motivates them, or a machine that makes demands on their time. It’s something else. Wolfe remembers the strains of wild barley he saw once either side of a rock in a Middle Eastern field: short on the shadowy side of the rock and tall on the sunny side: beautiful! he declares and his face lights up (finally I recognise the creature, it’s a wild boar). Now I’m looking at those tough spikes of green outside his window in a different way, imagining how they can in a matter of months turn into pale golden fields of edible wheat on stalks of differing heights. Mick is telling us he makes real English bread, that people like a bit of crust. Now I’m looking at his shiny loaves stacked on the shelf. How come I never noticed that English bread was crusty before, that it is square? I ate bread for years. I’ve gazed out across arable fields for years. How come I never examined those hairy ears of wheat closely, the stiffness of their forms? I could have missed everything, skimming on the top of what I saw or thought, and never delving deep into the place where time lives, where the cross currents of our lives make sense of everything, where what happens behind the scenes before dawn is everything that happens after sunrise.

What did these three men have in common that made me look at life with another eye? I realised it was a relationship with the material: the desire to shape the stuff of life with your own hands. If you talk to a man about his passion for making hats or chairs, or turning a bowl from a piece of old railway track or a cherry tree that has blown over, or to a man who knows how to turn the earth so that beans or roses will spring from it, or how to make a necklace of out of seaglass that reflects light all about your throat you will find a man with a deep satisfaction inside him. I’ve spent some of my life talking to such men, without knowing why there is a strong curent that flows between us. And now I see it’s because we have something in common: their eye is on matter in the same way my eye is on the blank page. The possibility is that what manifests could go one way or another and your interaction in the matter is everything. It’s the kind of relationship you never tire of.

To be in life requires your utter engagement. Industrialisation switches us off. It’s only interested in people working like machines To put yourself in the centre of things is the position in which time starts making sense, whether you are a biologist, a baker, a writer or a musician. You are working with the substance of life. In those spaces created by the synthesis of gluten and yeast and bacteria, nourishment is forged from the seeds of the wheat grass. In the spaces created within the matter, the craftsmen glimpse a possibility of eternity. It’s a mysterious process that even deeply practical bakers like Whitley acknowledge. It’s being fully engaged in this daily alchemy that gives us the real rewards of life, that mere possession of things, or endless hours of leisure never can.

The industrial machine produces from life what can be bought and sold, demanding endless energy and life-force. It makes slaves of people and gives us money and entertainment and cheap goods in return. But you never get to engage with the fabric of life that way - with plants or bread or words - or find any kind of satisfaction. The craftsman is using his hands to making life beautiful, useful, delicious: he is putting his attention and his skill into those loaves and those loaves are coming up good. No one gets sick afterwards.

To find satisfaction you have to have an encounter with the real world and absorb its great subtleties. It’s difficult to make the deep connections about food without meeting the people that grow the plants or bake the bread, or doing those things yourself. You have to stand in the intensity of the kitchen and in the emptiness of the land. And then you have to go home and let those ingredients shift and move and expand together. Real bread takes time. Real stories take time. How many stories can you make with 26 letters? How many songs can you sing with 12 notes? How many solutions can you come up with with 17 people in a room? How many things can you make out of flour and water that are not the monocultural white sliced loaf?

The loaves of the old world are stored inside me: cottage white, granary brown, bap, bagel, pitta, naan, focaccia, ciabatta, pumpernickel, brioche. A man with a black face is gulping water from a bucket like a horse, his warm bread stacked on a rough shelf set in the side of a Greek mountain. I am standing by the door, a dish of Easter kid at my hip, about to put the dish inside his oven stoked with thornbushes. An old man takes my hand in a French patisserie in Queensway and puts a sweet roll in it. His name is Monsieur Pechon. He is eighty years old and blind. I am four years old and wearing a coat the colour of the sun. Each morning he waits by the door for us, les petits, to come and hold his bread baking hands. It’s a long time ago. It’s a long long way away from where we are now.

I am wondering as I write this story about wheat, whether we will make it back in time.