Sunday 30 May 2010
You have to know two things to really appreciate what we were all feeling at that moment: the first is we had decided that year to only eat local fruit in season (with the exception of oranges and lemons).
The second is to taste those strawberries.
Malcolm has an organic smallholding near where Mark and I live and for the last seven years whatever the weather I’ve been going there and collecting a veg (and sometimes fruit) box. He and Eileen used to run a garage in London and made their own Transition from oil to working on this corner of sandy soil about 25 years ago. It is thanks to Malcolm and Eileen that I’ve been able to fully engage and experience what it means to eat in season. All the very good things. Like never knowing what will be in our box and every week it being a surprise. Like being fully conscious of what it takes to grow food from sowing tomato seeds to storing apples so they last until May.
We can’t grow much of our own food because we don’t own our garden, but even if we could I’d still make that journey south each week and back. Because it’s about relationship with people, as much as it is about eating delicious greens and beans. It’s about those conversations we all have week in, week out, about the land, about the weather and how the plants are doing - hearing the turtle dove in their garden when it arrives from Africa and the marigolds still flowering around the stall in the snow. What different plants are being experimented with each year: tomatillos, Cape gooseberries, new varieties of squash, Cantaloupe melons, baby turnips you can eat raw like radishes. Making that journey and seeing the hedges shift in time from white cherry plum to the red-berried hawthorn, the stall decked with Spring herbs and midwinter bay (nearly all my herbs were originally grown by Eileen: thyme, lovage, sage, salad burnet). A certain kind of loyalty you learn from this relationship people call CSA.
This kind of exchange gives you something you will never find in books or supermarkets: we can say what kind of Mexican chillies are the best to eat and how to prepare them, Malcolm can tell us how to pinch out cucumber side shoots, or when to prune a hedge (and lend us the tools to do it). That’s not internet information, that’s knowledge, hard-won by experience and a love of the material world.
Sometimes Malcolm invites us in and we have a walk around the plots: looking at the cherry orchard in blossom and the newts stirring in the ponds, the new garlic crop and inside the polytunnels where this week our kale, spring onions and courgettes have miraculously sprung. You’ve never seen such green vibrancy in one place. Soon we’ll be tasting our first new potatoes and broad beans. Oh, great joy!
You might wonder why everyone in Transition goes on so about veg. Why this month on the blog its been non-stop plants and flowers.
But you’d have to live with the poetry and rhythm of the vegetable year to know. In slow time, deep time. To decide to live a low-carbon life without all those 24/7 international consumer choices. With your heart in charge, not your head. That way you find out that in this coming month of Roses, its most lovely and fragrant fruit is flowering gloriously now in Malcolm’s garden. That, in spite of the weather, some plans conjured in the darkest of moments really do work out.
Above: inside the strawberry cage at Swallow Organics; Eileen's thyme flowering outside the door; strawberry flowers.
Saturday 22 May 2010
A year ago I would not have stood on the terrace of the Norwich Playhouse before a table covered with plants – tomatoes, beans, edible flowers - taking part in a seedling swap. Or gone to a Bungay garden, hammer in hand, to prepare a hive for the queen bee of England's first bee CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).
But these seemingly unrelated events demonstrate the pulls that are going invery different directions in our 'one nation' right now. Pulls we contend with every time we sit down to a meal.
A pernicious craving for sugar, fat and salt is one of the consequences of a globalised industrial food system. This is a system that relies on subsidised commodity crops, factory-farmed meat and a science that disguises its poor nutritional quality with addictive feel-good tastes. It relies on people being alienated and unaware.
The Transition events are part of a growing community culture: people coming together to grow vegetables and forge relationships between farmers, neighbours and local shops. This informal distribution network relies on people being intelligent, good-hearted and far-seeing. Who know, for example, that Spelman has for the last decade co-owned a food and biotechnology company (Spelman, Cormack & Associates), lobbying the very department she now heads.
When the East Anglia Food Link's Food Plan was publicised last month in the Eastern Daily Press, Richard Hirst of the National Farmers Union dismissed its vision of small-scale organic farming and local milling as "dangerous". However it is a 'business-as-usual' attitude towards our food supply that is dangerous. We live in unusual times. If we are prepared to invest in low-tech solutions and switch to a vegetable-based diet we could all become more self-sufficient and resilient.
While we demonise children for eating fast-food and ignore the unhealthy links between the bio-tech industry and government, we are not considering our future. We are not taking climate change into account, nor the damage our cheaply-produced food wreaks on nature. Nor are we considering the escalation in energy costs in the coming years. Our current food system is only efficient while energy costs remain low. What will happen when they rise? When the resources – water, nitrates, phosphates - on which monoculture relies become scarce? When the oil that fuels tractors, trucks and tankers becomes increasingly difficult to extract and costly?
It's widely believed that agriculture must double its output to feed a hungry world. Behind this 'truth' however lies multinational agri-business which stands to profit from the ownership of seed and increased pesticide production. Companies like Monsanto and BASF, who have pushed for GM production in Europe after a 12 year ban.
The real truth is our food system produces twice as much food as we actually eat and a good proportion of it is thrown away in the waste bins of supermarkets, restaurants and our houses.
"You like wheat, rice, corn?" asked a commercial beekeeper in the documentary film, Vanishing of the Bees. "Well, that's all you'll be eating." Last winter a third of America's honeybees died. For the growers of Californian oranges and Vermont cranberries that depend on pollination by bees, this is a serious concern. And it will be ours if we keep reaching for the OJ without thinking. Time to focus on neighbourhood apple trees and the small plants now growing on our windowsills in this late, very late, May sunshine.
Friday 21 May 2010
Denial is not a river in Egypt.
It’s the first time I've come across the word. It’s not the first time I’ve come across denial of course. That’s why I’m starting with this picture from way back: because Karen, part Native American like Jamie, had a way of speaking that came directly from the heart and shook you to the core. At a farewell dinner before I broke away from my old London life, my family was chattering away in the restaurant as if nothing was happening. That’s when Karen said:
“They’re not listening. She’s out of here!”
Denial is the response to things that are happening to us we don’t like, can’t face or deal with. Our minds blank them: we minimise or project them away from ourselves. We might acknowledge the words, but not the feeling reality. This is a psychological denial. A cornerstone of childhood and addiction therapy, of 12 step programmes. Family stuff, personal stuff.
When Jamie Sams talked about denial it was within the context of the new age, during the 90s when it was widely believed that American-style inner work would turn the world around. Denial was a word bandied about like “judgement” and “transformation” and for a long time during those travelling years, I thought it signalled a wilful kind of refusal to “deal with your stuff”.
But that’s not really the reason why the people I had spent the first 36 years of my life with fell away. When I joined Transition I came to realise that denial is intricately built into our culture and that it’s social and political as much as psychological. (“People like us don’t leave the country and explore themselves”). We’re blinkered from birth by our upbringing and our education to fit what class and creed we come from and to uphold the status quo. In order for those artificial systems to work we need to dismiss a lot of contradictory evidence. Most of all we have to deny and minimise the suffering that entails. Our own humanity and the world of feeling creatures we live among.
The reason denial is a deadly resistance for Transition is that in order to shift from “oil dependency to local resilience” we need to unravel our conditioning and see the colossal difficulty we’re faced with: our home planet entering an emergency state. This is no easy matter. Our culture denies the consequences of History, of capitalism, of industrialisation at every turn. We deny the effects of our consumerism every time we shop. We leave out information, jump facts and distract ourselves with fantasies and pleasures, including the kind of spirituality that has told us that a global “shift in consciousness” is something that happens on its own keep doing the yoga. As a result we literally don’t see what is in front of our eyes. We are elsewhere in our minds.
The fact is we are all part of an empire that has been exploiting nature and other peoples for millennia and we’re facing the consequences of that domination. In order to act, we need to see, and in order to see our superior, escapist, know-it-all minds will have to cede to the kinder authority of our hearts.
Transition gives us a frame in which to switch tracks. It gives us a chance to undergo change and explore unknown territory, so long as we engage in it on a real and radical level. If we do the 12 steps and don’t think of it as another environmental pressure group, or in terms of our own vested interests. Or that life is going to continue in the same way, just with solar panels and bicycles. If we don’t deny the people in the room, our comrades in Transition. If we have the courage to feel everything that we have left out and take responsibility (that’s real responsibility, not guilt!) and drop everything we don’t need (yes that’s us, not them!), then something extraordinary might happen on this planet we call earth. Something all our relations have been waiting for. For a very, very long time.
Above: outside Tea and Sympathy in New York, 1992; Dandelion clock with dew, Suffolk, 2010.
Saturday 15 May 2010
But there are some shifts nobody knows about. Because they are the shifts of our human evolution on earth. And some of us are waking up at the moment and feeling everything has changed, except we don’t know quite how to express it.
What’s strange about your life? asked Naomi one night at our Strangers’ Circle. Tully said that everything in his house had suddenly broken down and this had forced him to think about how dependent we are on stuff working and being repaired and what would happen when those services were not available anymore. I didn’t get my chance that night but later at the Low Carbon Roadshow rehearsal we picked different futures out of a hat and improvised who we were and what had happened between 2010 and 2110. Mine was Unknown Quantity. When I took the stage I found myself saying: one day people just stopped and started to do something completely different.
What I had wanted to say at the Circle was that I had noticed that a certain drive had stopped inside. And as a consequence life was feeling strange. Once there had been a great noise and now there was a kind of silence.
For thousands of years the merry go round of civilisation has whirled ceaselessly - the wheel of fortune, the wheel of karma, the wheels of commerce and capitalism. It whirls generations round in a frenzy of speed, music and colour. It seems like everything happens at that funfair: everything fashionable, interesting, important. Relinquish the wheel, advises the Buddha. Don’t linger in fairyland, warn the Ancestors. It’s all an illusion. But no one takes any notice. The pace of our lives is tempered by that glittering speed. We are compelled to go faster, bigger, buy more houses, more clothes, more holidays, more movies, more machines, more cake. If we step off the ledge for one moment we can’t wait for our next turn on that great production line.
The world is made of that speed and that drive. It is the drive of the will. The will to succeed, to overcome, to conquer. Even Transition has been party to its ambition. Partnered with the unkind reason of the mind, it is the force that has run rampage over the globe. It runs through all our lives like Alexander. We drink to keep up with it, always late, on a perpetual deadline. 24/7. We cut corners, skip facts, betray our friends, forget the green world outside the window. We are restless, never satisfied, never sure what we want, looking over our shoulder for the powerful people, to be invited to the right party, to wear the perfect suit, to walk with the gods. We fight time and nature with that drive – even Transition - with our passionate intensity, our desire to escape into all the fun and fantasy of the fair.
We are holding that drive, that inhuman artificial energy in our bodies and sometimes those bodies, those minds, break down.
And sometimes we real human beings break through. That’s a 5 Skin thing. A moment when we align ourselves with everything else on earth and powerdown. The drive stops suddenly, the way going to night-clubs once stopped. You wake up and you can’t do it anymore. It’s not that you decided to. It just happened. Sometimes this happens to individuals and sometimes it happens to a people: it happens because something else has begun to go on in the neighbourhood, something our unkind minds and ruthless wills had not considered. A harmonious way of doing things, of engaging in the world, that affects our inner and outer lives in ways we never imagined. Small bands of people coming together, swapping seedlings, sharing things, writing about everyday events, feeling at home. Focusing on the small things: on bees and walnut trees, a fiery soup and the kindness that can exist between people. Remembering what really matters about being alive on the planet.
The politics of the heart, the new government of the world.
Yesterday in Transition: Walking through the bluebell wood; Mark and Josiah (and Iris and Rueben) working on the kitchen table after lunch.
Friday 14 May 2010
Our carbon conversation this week was about home energy and what made us choose the places we live in. Space, style, appliances. “Is it because your furniture is comfy?” asked Ann as she scoured the list in the workbook. “Oh no,” I said “My furniture is really uncomfortable. “And your bed?” “It’s horrible,” I laughed. My third skin, the house we found eight years ago, however has a conversatory and I think it was this light-filled glass room that made us decide to stay. We had pocketfuls of seeds from our travels and Mark dearly wanted to plant them – desert bluebells from California, coral beans from Mexico, sacred datura from Arizona. Moving all these years, living in cities, we had never grown anything before. The conservatory and the pots around the house became our living library. Everything we had learned about plant medicine was catalogued there. Growing plants made returning to England possible.
One thing I’ve learned from shifting from place to place: the world doesn’t change course because of reason and facts. Poets know that, which is why empires, which are built on reason and facts, hound them so. It turns around because of small unexpected things, events that remember us: soups that reawaken a desire for life, words that break open hearts that have become frozen, an ordinary house that welcomes you home down an East Anglian lane.
The Walnut Tree
This year there are some unusual leaves growing in a small pot in the conservatory and here is the story that goes behind them - a letter I wrote in September to all the Transitioners who had decided to cut their carbon emissions by half the national average over a year.
“Today I planted a walnut. I bought a stack of walnuts from a roadside stall outside Beccles. They were small but delicious and as I sat cracking and eating them on my doorstep I thought of Rob Hopkins and his walnut trees, I thought of Roger Deakin who loved walnuts and lived (and famously swam) here, and of Dr Bach whose walnut medicine is for those who are resistant to change. Amongst all these mental arguments about climate science and resilience indicators, carbon sinks and footprints, I suddenly felt I had to do something Transitional that was connected with the physical earth, something that would make sense of what we are doing and take root in the real world.
Who knows whether the seed will sprout. Who knows whether we will succeed in our venture. Whether we will be able to hold together and create a new culture. I planted the seed because I needed to make a strategic act. To do something that had beauty and meaning. Even if my small carbon-cutting enterprise goes unrecognised, this walnut would exist. I would be able look back and say, well at least I planted a tree! (a very lovely one at that).
Norwich was once a city of orchards. Around the country (including some Transition initiatives) people are mapping their neighbourhoods, planting communal orchards in vacant lots, finding trees that bear fruit. Sometimes they go out together in gleeful bands, and glean this harvest that most people do not even notice.
When the walnut grows strong I’ll plant it somewhere in my neighbourhood. Maybe one day someone will come along and say: Hey that’s that Transition Walnut Tree! Remember that time when a gang of crazy people in Norwich decided they would swim upriver against the flow, and cut their carbon for real?
If you have a moment have a look at http://www.growsheffield.com/. It could teach us some things.”
Top: conservatory, cat and Neruda's Memoirs; walnut sapling; Essential Neruda: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe 2010) published last month; wild cherry hedge and garden apple blossom.
Thursday 13 May 2010
I think I made all my connections with people down these network of lanes where I live through the plants and trees. A few years ago we all came together to save our lanes from a development. We were all different and lived very separate lives in the way people do in England. We were the inheritors of all kinds of historical hostilities. But when we stood together in defence of the neighbourhood oaks, the bluebell woods, blackthorn hedges and moon daisy meadows all those unspoken difficulties disappeared. We still live in our differently shaped gardens, quietly behind hedges of elm and hawthorn, but there is a different feeling now between us. Everyone waves and smiles.
That’s what plants do. They bring people together. So what is happening in my garden is really my neighbour’s garden. It’s the neighbourhood garden – half cultivated, half wild – and all the exchanges that are going on there.
These are flowering redcurrant bushes in Julia’s garden next door where I have licence to pick as much as I like when they fruit. In summer we exchange greengages (from my tree), cultivated blackberries and honeycomb (from her allotment in London). Last year I decided to eat only fruit in season and with the exception of oranges and lemons, only local fruit. That’s when you notice what’s growing in the gardens as well as the wild neighbourhood – blackberries, rosehips, crab apples, plums and bullaces.
Elinor and Gemma with a Bungay Community Beehive. We just started up the first bee CSA in England. Mark bought the beehive from Julia and this Spring it’s going to house our first Transition bees http://www.sustainablebungay.com/.
Working Lane. Underneath my favourite damson tree, outside Philip’s studio where I am typing this blog. As I’m not on line at home I come here some mornings to work (as well as the library). The studio is in Philip and Irene’s garden skirted by a meadow and next to a pond, now glimmering with golden marsh marigold.
The Primroses on the bank (top pic) were taken on my way to take some tomato plants to David Moyse who grows some of the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted. He gives me all his green ones at the end of the season and I make chutney and give him some in exchange. His grandmother used to live in my house when his grandfather was the head horseman at the local farm.
Narcissi on the windowsill. I love flowers in the house, but only buy local cut flowers or ones from my own garden. These are from Norman who has a market garden at the end of the lane and sells his vegetables in all the local shops (brilliant leeks and cauliflowers).
Saturday 1 May 2010
Happy May Day everyone! I'm just back from the woods shimmering with new bluebells and there I found the pond which was covered in one of England's shyest and rarest flowers -the water violet. It was raining quietly and then the sun burst through the hazel and hornbeam trees All the birds were singing - blackbird, wren, thrush, robin. The bittern was booming in the marshes. Cows lowing in the village. Today the world is green, green, green and there are flowers everywhere.
The most revolutionary thing in a black and white world is to go for the rainbow - to bring in as many colours as you can into your house, as much beauty as you can into the hardness of the streets, as much harmony within the discord, as much laughter in a dark time.
Deep purple: pasque flower; True blue: emerging bluebells; sky blue: forget me not
Here's that extract . . .
"Venus, the earth’s mysterious sister, appears in the morning and evening, shining brilliantly in the sky during the month of May. You cannot look at her directly, as her surface is veiled by cloud. The veil hides a planet of volcanoes. No man or machine can land on her fiery body without being blown apart. In the painting Venus appears out of the sea, naked, balanced on the half-shell. You gaze into her pale vacant face and fall at her feet in adoration. But this is a manufactured Venus. The real Venus is active and fiery, not static and pale. When she comes naked into the world she brings revolution and May day parades, she does not bring consent. When you work with the wild flowers that emanate her presence in the month of May you know that artificial glamour has no power of itself. It is an object that can be worshsipped and possessed. Real beauty cannot be possessed. It can only be beheld. And only those whose hearts can match its fiery revolutionary nature can really know the love for which Venus is also famed.
I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees
Going green: green goddess; arum on the marsh track; unfurling horse chestnut bud
Beauty emanates the high frequency you feel in all living things. It arrives suddenly, unexpected; in the high intensity of a butterfly wing as it brushes past, in the startling presence of the quince outside the window, the perfume of a jasmine flower at dusk. It is almost oppressive that moment, unbearable as if this colour, this scent were pushing all the unkind things within your being out into the light. The frequency Venus brings has dramatic transformative powers. Sometimes you turn away from that kind of beauty. But if you hold that moment you undergo a kind of alchemy, as you shift from the base mindset of the world into the high frequency of the heart. This alchemy begins by pressurising the lowest elements down into their base material, forcing the beast out of the matter. Once Venus has forced everything ugly out of its hiding place, it can go about its radical make-over.
While the planet, regardless, keeps pushing up more and more radical beauty each spring."
Keep weaving that rainbow!
Radical Red: geranium flower by the conservatory glass door; mossy stonecrop, the tiniest flower in England on heathland