Saturday 6 February 2010

Peak Oil On Troubled Waters

Don't cry for the Amazon, You buy Texaco. The year was 1991 in Quito, Ecuador. I found the graffiti whilst travelling through South America, writing a book about giving up consumerism and connecting with the earth. Unknown to me in the Amazon rainforest a thousand oil pits were leaking into the rivers and creating an ecological disaster zone thirty times greater than the ExxonMobil spill in Alaska.

All energy is borrowed. Someday you have to give it back, the indigenous girl tells the marine. Avatar the highest grossing Hollywood film in history has a fantabulous forest as its main protagonist. The trees and all the denizens on the planet Pandora are under threat by the American army, working for a mining company after its underground resources. Beautifully and imaginatively made, full of earth-based sentiment, it's a film that has stuck a deep chord in a disturbed world. The spirits of the forest look like seeds from the sacred Mayan ceiba tree. The native Na'vi resemble Maasai and Mohican warriors. The Outsider becomes one of The People. There's a happy ending.

The reality on earth is more difficult to look at. Joe Berlinger's documentary of the Ecuadorian oil disaster, Crude, follows the lawyers and the 30,000 Ecuadorians who have taken Chevron (who bought Texaco in 2001) to court to demand compensation. The forest dwellers are not the fierce blue-faced Na'vi flying on dragons, they are shy, sad-faced people whose lives have been polluted by the black oil that seeps into their soil and drinking water, whose babies are born covered in sores and who die early from cancer. The case has, like that of Exxon Valdez, been dragging on for over a decade. Chevron deny any responsibility.

In Avatar the spirit of the Pandoran rainforest runs through everyone, the trees' roots form a communications network that connects all of life on the planet. It's an idea that feels right, that sounds right, but whether we emerge from the cinema connected to our own planet is another matter. Do we realise as we go about our seemingly ordinary lives that everything we do is conncted to the Canadian forests now being torn down for tar sands or to ConocoPhillips' plans to plunder virgin Peruvian rainforest, or to the real-life American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?

And if we did realise this what would we do? As well as enabling communities to powerdown in response to climate change, the Transition movement considers 'peak oil' (the point at which the demand for oil exceeds its global production). Ultimately peak oil means less oil. One possible reaction to this is an endless battle between nations for fossil fuels, another is the reconstruction of our civilisation, a massive shift in lifestyle and the ways we treat the earth and each other.

To kick-start the latter, Transition brings attention to something almost impossible to see - a world entirely held up by the finite resource of oil, from our use of plastic and synthetics to the fuel that drives our vehicles and underpins our industrialised agriculture. Hard to see because we are distracted and disengaged at every turn by our illusion-based culture.

The truth is we'd rather believe that environmentally-sound creatures made in Hollywood will save the day. When real indigenous people from a rather less entertaining forest bring their case to bear we look away. But if we were truly connected to life we would not substitute animation for reality. We would not avert our gaze or prefer to live in wonderlands and never-never lands. Our task, as the Kogi, the Maya, the Hopi and all the real native elders who have come out of the wild places since the 1990s tell us, is to grow up and look at what is staring at us in the face. We're living in the same world and we're going to have to work very hard for that happy ending.

Outside my window that looks toward the North Sea there are orange lights glaring on the horizon. They belong to oil tankers, waiting in the bay for the oil prices to rise. Once you could look out and see forever. I don’t like to see them there. No one does. But the reality is they are there.

Friday 5 February 2010

Changing the Dream

"It is best to think of this as a revolution, not of guns, but of consciousness, which will be won by seizing the key myths, archetypes, eschatologies and ecstasies so that life won't seem worth living unless one is on the transforming energy's side."
(Gary Snyder, quoted in the preface to the Heart section of The Transition Handbook p.79)

The condor will take its place alongside the eagle. Tom and I were sitting in the Workshop cafĂ© waiting for Sorrel, jamming about storytelling, what we could do in the woods and in the Low Carbon Roadshow, the Transition project we’re starting this month.

Tom was telling me about the initiative, Be the Change ( that was inspired by an exchange with tribal elders in the Ecuadorian rainforest. The elders told the two originators a story about two birds. When the world is in balance the eagle and the condor fly together. In the modern age the eagle had taken supremacy in the skies, but now the condor was returning. You need to go back to America and change the Dream of the North, they said.

This condor was painted by Mark in a valley in Ecuador when we were both travelling through South America. The place is famous because its inhabitants live to an immense age. Like the eagle, the condor is a bird of the sun and a high-flyer; what distinguishes it is its ability to transform energy. It’s the king of the vultures, a scavenger who eats the dead.

By “dream of the North” the elders were referring to the North American consumer dream, the illusion that you can be who you want to be and throw away everything you don’t like and never have to deal with the dead. You can choose to live within the ideal life of the mind, to eat cakes and cows everyday, live in houses that are always as warm as summertime and never suffer the consequences. But, as permaculture states, there is no away within the earth’s eco systems: our away is someone else’s here. We’re trapped in an illusion that is poisoning the whole world.

It’s something you wake up to when you travel to these high, pure places. When Rob Hopkins travelled to the Hunza valley, the place of apricot trees and equally long-lived people, Transition was seeded. The Handbook opens with his drawing of the Himalayan village he considers to be the blueprint for sustainable community.

When you return from these valleys of immortality you bring a dream back with you, a dream of how to live in harmony with the earth. That’s your gift. Part of that dream is that the earth can restore itself and the people can restore themselves. One thing I learned from the Andes is that to align with the condor, we need to become transformers of what is dead and gone within ourselves and our culture - to liberate energy in ourselves the way mature forests liberate energy from the recycling of dead matter by the transformative actions of fungi and insects.

To free energy from what is dead and give energy to the living is the act that allows human beings to become symbionts rather than parasites on the earth. It’s the work that archaic and indigenous peoples recognise and accept, a responsibility for life itself. To see and feel your place within the web of life like this requires an act of imagination, which is why earth-respecting cultures value their acts of storytelling, singing and dancing so highly. Scientific facts and modern psychology can point the way forward, but only our creative imaginations can initiate what Gary Snyder calls the Real Work, hard yoga for planet earth.

We’ll be able to start our tasks of restoration once we remember that the dream of our own islands, once called Avalon, the place of apple trees, is linked in with the apples that Erik stored from his tree this year. Linked with the apple trees the children in Catton Grove are replanting in their estate that was once an orchard, with the Egmont russet cuttings we took from Malcolm’s smallholding to Becky’s co-operative outside Beccles. With the small projects that are happening all over England right now as Transition grafts its ideas for the future onto the rootstock of the wild ancestral dream. As I pass this week’s “speaking stick” over to Andy and wish him the best.

Because we do have a dream in the North. It’s a real one we’re creating right now.
Solar-powered, high-flying, liberating the world from old forms.

It takes a Billion, Billion Years to Burn Out the Energy I Have in Me by Mark Watson.

Planting apples trees with Sustainable Bungay on Valentine’s Day, 2009 at GreenGrow, Ilketshall St Andrew.

Thursday 4 February 2010

The Low Carbon Kitchen

I found the pheasant on the road coming back from a Transition day in a primary school in Framlingham. He was a beautiful bird without a mark on him, his coppery-flecked feathers glowing in the almost dusk. I carried him back to the car. "What are you going to do with that?" asked Mark. "We're going to eat him," I said. "It's a gift."

So he hung up in my larder for three days, after which I cut him down, plucked and drew him and cooked his body in wine flavoured with thyme and bay. I gave the neck and liver to the cat and buried his feathers, feet and head under the hawthorn hedge.

The dish (and the soup next day) were divine.

You might not think this is a story. Roadkill - no big deal. Except for me it was because I hadn't eaten any meat for 10 years.

The decision had taken me one second to make. It was as quick as the moment I picked up the cock pheasant and knew I had to take him home. I never changed my mind about eating animals. Once you see it you can't unsee it. It's like the aha Rob Hopkins calls The End of Surburbia moment, the peak oil moment, when suddenly without knowing it you find yourself in Transition.

Those kinds of decisions are made by the spirit which is faster than the speed of light. Our physical forms however are slower. It took six months for my body to adjust to the mostly vegan diet I now eat, to be able to absorb plants after a lifetime of eating fish and meat and cheese. It took my emotional body time to let go of the moreishness of sugar, palm oil, bananas. My mind to make the switch to organic and locally farmed food.

To completely change the way I ate I needed a territory to do it in. When I moved to Suffolk I could engage in the kinds of relationships that Tully talked about in his blog last week, a mix of wholefood shops and corner stores, roadside stalls and farm shops and a weekly box from Malcolm and Eileen in Darsham. It’s a practice I began two years ago when I gave up going to supermarkets.

If we’re going to seriously get into low carbon cooking, into downshift cuisine we’ve got to get smart on a lot of things. Some of those we touched on in our last Strangers’ Transition Circle on Food. One of these is energy. How much energy does it take to cook a meal?

The Monitor says that I am using 375 watts every time I go near my kettle, that a piece of toast is costing Mark 5p a slice and when he starts to bake his sourdough it hits 1KW and rising. Every time I’ve gone into the kitchen this week the Monitor is there before me.
"Turn that light off," yells Mark "We’re up to 677!
"Mark, I can’t cook in the dark!" I yell back. The kitchen lights, all unsustainable six of them went on strike and blew the circuit. Now we’re scrabbling about with a lamp and the corridor low-energy glow.

Downstairs letting the cat out of the door to go hunting on a frosty star-filled night, the Monitor glows like a blue police lamp in the living room darkness. She’s achieved her favourite result of Zero (until the fridge powers up that is). The temperature of the room registers 7 degrees. Little boxes on the display are stacked up: one box for night, two boxes for day, four boxes for the evening. Like one of those Christmas presents you got excited about when you were small however the Monitor (on loan from the Bungay library) is losing her appeal.

Because the truth is we can’t live on figures and facts like these. The data can make us aware of energy use in the kitchen - our hobs and ovens and kettles but they don’t feed our souls and our archaic hunter-gatherer bodies that resonate to the touch of wild creatures, roots and seeds and fruit and rain. They don’t bring us sweet memories or the tastes and textures of life. And to really change our habits, so that climate change and peak oil don’t ravage our lives and everyone else's we’ve got to make some other kinds of moves. The ones that scientists and rationalists might dismiss as poetic.

To go back through that small door to find the earth and all its riches, we’ve got to get creative and change what we value, bringing our immense knowledge of the world’s larder to bear in how we cook - street food and peasant food from Mexico, Morocco, India, China, Greece – using all the ingredients we have at hand, in time, in season.

The humble tastes of stored apples and January king cabbage, the pungency of winter purslane and mizuna, the richness of parsnip and swedes.

The taste of the territory in which we find ourselves.

In the end what matters is the connection. Once you find that you can let all that high-carbon food buying go - the swanky restaurant, the exotic fruit, disappearing cod, all those special treats and fancies and comforts that exploit the world and all its peoples. All these are substitutes for creaturehood - the relationship with the place that keeps us alive and connected. You can't have this relationship with industrialised food. It's an earth thing. A gift we find in our hands at the end of the day.

Cock Pheasant just before plucking on last year’s Poetry Paper
Collecting the box from Malcolm on a snowy day
Kitchen window with local garlic and Brussel sprouts

Wednesday 3 February 2010


" We’ve got to devise an ego descent action plan," I laughed. That was in a TN open space session in April. There were five of us down in the Belvedere Centre in NR2. We were discussing the question, How does Transition deal with our individual and collective desire for power? (you can find a write up of the session here Open Space Powerdown session ).

Powering down is normally associated with outside physical energy like electricty, with individual actions like turning down the theormostat. However its greatest challenge is on the inside: letting go of the power conferred by shiny and beautiful possessions and the identification with those who flaunt them to the max.

When I wrote this book about style I was enjoying life in the way you can in the city in your twenties, working in the fast track. But there was something missing. One day I woke up and realised I couldn't write fashion articles anymore. My heart was yearning for something else, something wilder and freer and deeper. I felt trapped in all those rooms and buildings.

I had woken with the memory of myself as a child hiding in an apple tree.

How to you get from here to there? From that picture to this?

"How much did this feather cost?" asked Lewis as we walked back along the path yesterday.
"Nothing!, I said. "It was free. The feathers came from wild birds."
"Can I get another one?"
"You can have as many as you like, " I told him. Keep your eyes on the ground".

He smiled and ran down to the hut to watch Cathy gut the pheasant. The children had never seen a feathered bird plucked or drawn before. "Now we know what chicken is," the girls said one to another.

Before we get back in touch with the earth the adults have got a few inner monstrosities to let go of. This is the second powerdown after materialism - the identification with old-school deities.

When I went traveling I sat in tipis and sweat lodges, worked in healing centres, read cards, did psychology and the whole new age thing. I stumbled across big truths in small awkward places and learned to be wary of the humble meditating person in an anorak. Because boy, before you knew it you'd find Jehovah or some other great entity inside in a big robe demanding your worship. If you don't do as I say it it's thunderbolts and off with your head!

The first insight that struck me in The Gift was that in a traditional community gifts circulate. You give feasts, you look after the family and you stay home where you are put. The gods leave you alone. If you want to develop as an individual you keep your good luck to yourself and break out of the circle and you pay a price for doing so. The price all travellers pay: exile for you!

The best stories however are travelling tales that go away and come back. When I left the city I left my community behind. But then so did the world: we live in a culture of individual breakaways. And no matter how modern people yearn for community none of us wants to go back to the villages that stifle us, to the gods who tell us we're out of line. We're a different kind of people, what the classical tales once called Nostoi, the returned ones. We've seen things and we want to go forwards. Most of all we want to live in a world without fighting each other over power. How we do that without being ostracised by the ones who stayed home is a task we face. But it starts by knowing we do not come empty handed.

This is what I love best about Transition. It gives you a chance to give back. And if you're lucky you find people who can accept the gifts you bring. Gifts for the future. Apple twigs for grafting, a feather for a hazel crown.

Above: front cover of Vogue's Modern Style (1988) by Alex Chatelain.
Holding russet twigs. Fairtrade Gloves by Pachamama, £12.90 from Focus Organic. Alpaca Coat by Scott Crolla (1990). Picture by Mark Watson.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Snowdrop, Snowflake

Just came back from the woods. Tired, muddy, happy. It was a good day. Tom, Sorrel and I and the children from Year Six spent several hours tuning into the season, running like wolves through the big trees, sitting round a camp fire, in a tipi, in Cathy's log cabin where she lives off-grid. The children asked her how she lived here far away from the city. How did she dry her clothes? How did she shoot the animals she ate? What fish did she catch? Cathy told them about making dandelion and burdock, about her solar panel, how the Neolithic peoples once lived here. How this watery wood harbours special creatures because it provides just the right habitat for raft spiders, dormice, nightingales . . .

My crew, the Nightingales, gave a performance at the end of the day. We wore hazel crowns with pheasant feathers and made everyone find us as we all hid amongst the coppiced trees and made our calls. We built shelters and nests and fell into the mud a lot. It rained and no one cared. I felt catapaulted into the day that some call Candlemas, some Imbolc but without names is the moment the year starts to make one small step towards the light.

It's when you pay attention to small things that the world opens up. The snowdrops amongst the leaves, the snowflakes that look like small planets, almost indistinguishable from the full moon that pours through the window. Yesterday Mark and I watched sunup down on the shoreline. There was a luminous moon going down behind us over the snow-speckled land, golden marshes, big sky, moving water and the sun breaking through on the horizon. I forgot about oil tankers and just watched the glow from that bright disc as it suffused the sky and poured down on the dark liquid horizon, as it ribboned its way down through the waves to our feet standing amongst the stones on the frosted hard sand.

At some point you realise that this small world is what we have, with all its fleeting beauty, and these forms are what we have, with all their physical limits in time and space.

Each snowflake a planet.

Each tree a galaxy.

Each child a universe.

All visitors here for a short time. Earth bound, muddy, happy.

Hazel in Wrong's Covert
Snowdrops in Reydon Churchyard
Snowflakes and Full Moon by Mark Watson

Monday 1 February 2010

We'll Be Coming Down the Mountain, Singing

It’s the day when the year opens like a door. The first peep of sun, the moment you wake up and notice that the birds are singing and there are shoots in among the dead leaves. Any time now the crocuses will be appearing in the parks and the snowdrops in the woods. It’s still winter but spring is lightstepping her way in.

This week I’ll be looking at spring shoots and early moves, what it means to be downwardly mobile, about a project some of us are starting called the Low Carbon Roadshow, about a book I’m reading right now called The Gift – How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World.

Today's top picture is from a project in Suffolk called East Feast where artists work with children, growing food on school allotments during the growing cycle of the year and cooking up a celebratory feast for the community. Tomorrow Tom Harper and I are going into the woods. He’s been working with a group of children in Catton Grove school and we’re going storytelling among the trees with some of the creatures that live there. I’ll be introducing the Nightingale who builds her nest in the blackthorn bush.

What I love about these birds is that they are hardly ever seen; even if you do catch sight of one they are brown and small and undistinguished. But the sound that comes out! The singing in the dark just as spring comes! That’s the story. People in Transition are like that too. We’re not really seen, and when we do see each other, we’re not stylish or smart. But we’ve got a voice inside us that has been repressed for years, aeons it seems, and we’re starting to make that sound heard in a dark time. Ay Ay yippy.

This blog is about people getting in touch with that song inside. When we met up for our Blog-In recently there were ten of us at John Heaser’s, and what we liked was that reciprocity between us, the feeling that we were creating our own culture. You don’t need editors or photographers, or money. You can just pick up a camera and take a shot of what’s going down in your kitchen and post it that day.

This pic is of a Mexican molcajete, a pestle and mortar made from volcanic rock. one of the oldest technologies in the world. I bought it one day when Mark and I drove to Nogales, through the grasslands of southern Arizona, where if you are lucky you can find grooves in the rock where the first people used to grind maize. I use mine to grind spices and a condiment called zatar that’s eaten in Palestine with bread dipped in olive oil, in Jordan, in North Africa, places where the wild thyme (or sometimes oregano or marjoram) is mixed with the sour sumac bush berries from the dry hill slopes, sesame seeds and salt. You taste this and you’re in those countries, without going anywhere near a plane.

That’s what I like about this low tech, high res culture: we’re using our modern intelligence, our love of beauty, our memory to connect with the archaic and redream the future. We’ve got a big task ahead to reconstruct ourselves from the inside, to reconfigure the world. But I guess it starts here in the kitchen with what you have at hand. With the people you’re working with, with the trees outside your door. The door of the year that is just now opening . . .

Molcajete from Mexico (with curious cat), garlic from Norwich allotment, Ring of Fire chillis from Darsham , bayleaves from my neighbour’s garden, thyme from outside my door.