Monday 21 March 2011

Spring Ahoy!

Happy Spring equinox everyone and welcome to our spring week on the blog! We’ll be taking a look outside, exploring what’s coming up and celebrating the end of winter. Low Carbon cooks and growers will be checking out new green shoots and leaves, our wild earth reporters, toads and bees and the medicine of trees.

I’m really celebrating the end of winter, throwing out that hot water bottle and thermal gear and throwing open the windows. No more shivering! No more parsnips! There’s a fresh breeze out there this morning, primrose on the banks, blackbirds practising their arias, woodpeckers drumming the oak trees. Time to wake up early, stretch the body and walk out. In the Chinese five element system this is the season of wood and the warrior when the deep energies of winter start uncoiling and branching out. Its organ is the liver and its sense, the eyes.

So I’m sensing out the world beyond all those rigid squares and pixels on my computer screen, looking at the undulating earth shapes of trees, the way life is bursting out of wood everywhere and colours and scents flashing past: tortoiseshell butterfly wing, crimson bird feather, musty and sweet fragrance of gorse and box. The equinox is when the sun is straight ahead, day and night are balanced equally and the new astrological year begins with Aries the Ram. It’s a big planetary time (Did you see that gorgeous moon?)

Like most people my attention has been caught up in the cataclysmic events in Japan and it seems almost incorrect to be considering these small events in our own secure neighbourhoods. And yet the Japanese famously gather under cherry trees to welcome the Spring. And perhaps we could do no better than sit beneath the oriental blossom that graces our city streets and connect with them – the people of a fellow island nation. You can never underestimate the power of the heart.

My chief Spring medicine tree though would be the willow, specifically the goat willow, that old craggy fellow now bursting into gold along riverbanks and canals.

Willow is a big water tree and well-known for its properties to relax and make fluid everything that is crystallised and cramped within (the bark of white willow being the natural precursor to aspirin). It's hard to feel joyous and alive with a stiff and tense body. Hard to sit under this tree and not look up! and see the sunlight in its branches. When you do, listen and feel the thunderous buzz of bees, now coming out of hibernation and gathering pollen from trees everywhere.

Here are my fellow Transitioners, Mark, Nick and Eloise spring cleaning at our Sustainable Bungay Give and Take Day on Saturday. It’s time to shift and move and recycle old things on all levels! I’m not in the picture because I played truant and went to the woods for the first time in a long time, lay underneath hazel trees and checked out early violets and upcoming bluebells and watched a flock of goldfinches feeding on knapweed seeds that had been left uncut in a meadow. Afterwards I dug the garden and made myself an inner spring clean tea of cleavers, plantain, dandelion and angelica (all great for moving sluggish systems, especially the lymph).

On my way home I gathered a few wild leaves to toss into one of those robust and tangy salads Elena’s been talking about: bittercress and tansy, hawthorn and chickweed. Here are some green and growing tips from my garden. I’ll be taking some feisty alexander buds along to try out with my fellow Low Carbon Cooks too tomorrow. It’s a full-on week ahead, including Nicole Foss on Friday and the big TUC march on Saturday. I’ll be needing those greens!

Under the neighbourhood cherry plum; coastal gorse; Sustainable Bungay Give and Take crew and van; Japanese cherry at Castle Meadow, Norwich; garden tips of bronze fennel, salad burnet, lovage, hawthorn, dill, chickweed, tansy and cleavers

Saturday 12 March 2011

parliament of bees

Yesterday I saw my first bee. I bent down and smelled the winter hellebore and it flew out of the fragrant green and pink petals. One of those huge bumble bees that buzz loudly around the first flowers of the year. Spring is coming and I’m feeling torn in my attentions. My eye glancing up at pussy willow unfurling golden fronds, down at the henbit amongst the growing grass. The flowers are coming back. You can feel their presence and the sap rising in the trees.

This picture is of an exotic hellebore that I liberated from a well-heeled garden nearby and planted down the lane under a holly tree. A spot of guerrilla gardening in the back country. It’s a hard time for bees right now and any flowers that provide early nectar and pollen are in need of a propagating hand. The UN has just published a report about the plight of world bees and are calling for wide-ranging protection of wild and feral flowers everywhere.

Today though my attention is focused on human affairs. I’m prepping for a meeting with Peter Aldous MP with fellow members of Sustainable Bungay. We're taking part in the Big Climate Reconnection, organised by the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition and I’m reading up on the Energy Bill and Renewable Heat Incentives and getting ready for the three asks, relevant to the Climate Change Act. Later we're going to a public meeting with Therese Coffey MP down in Southwold regarding the ship-to-ship oil transfers between tankers in Sole Bay. It's all about politics this week. Watch this space!

part two This is a picture of us having breakfast and a debrief at the Buttercross Tea Rooms. 30 minutes goes quickly when you're considering all the ramifications of Climate Change. Aldous is on the Environmental Audit Committee which is a cross-party group that monitors environmental and sustainability issues in all departments. All of us spoke about what kind of real-time actions a 60% carbon reduction by 2030 would require at local, national and international levels, including creating a low-carbon “powerdown” culture.

Josiah asked about TEQs and the suggestion of a sustainable development post in response to DEFRA’s recent (very woolly) report on “sustainable growth”. Nick asked about the Green Investment Bank, Daphne about the funding of fuel cells (which her father had invented). His agent – leader of the Conservative group at Waveney District Council – eyed us watchfully. One of the amendments to the Energy Bill the SCC Coalition recommended was that the carbon reduction target should be endorsed by local councils (after the once Transition-friendly Somerset CC cancelled all its climate change work this week we were keen to emphasise this). We can’t interfere with local councils, Aldous said. And went on to inform us that the official definition of fuel poverty was about to be changed.

What struck me was how our positions had shifted. At our meeting in November there was an element of excitement and tension. Aldous was behind his new office desk, most of us sat on the floor. Now we were stable and focused and sitting around a table in a community centre. The coalition government have since shown their colours. We have signed petitions and held placards, met up in the spirit of resistance. We know what is at stake. And not just those of us in Transition.

Down in Southwold the hall was packed and the people were in a rebellious mood. Therese Coffey was being held to account for preventing the ban on Russian oil tankers using the bay as a “lorry park” and putting the heritage coastline at risk. Two years ago the ship-to-ship transfers rose from 13 a year to 250. Instead of coming to port and paying harbour fees they transfer oil at sea (Sole Bay is shallow and calm and unhampered by shipping lanes). This is a conservative town but the Tory MP for Suffolk Coastal was given no quarter.

Are you on our side? asked the floor. Coffey slid away from the question. It was clear she was not. It’s becoming transparently clear, in spite of the complexity of most issues, whose side the Government is on. Not the small businesses of local towns, the economy that creates the green jobs that Kerry was writing about, the alternative wind and solar manufacturers (and certainly not the environment), but the oil business, agri-business, the nuclear business. Corporate power. Famously these corporations work by being invisible, but as we come together, as we swarm to defend our colony and our hive we’re bringing to light exactly who and what is raiding it. There’s a buzz in the air. Spring is coming on earth, and not just for the flowers.

Photo: guerilla hellebore; Sustainable Bungay climate action team from left, Daphne, Josiah, Mark, Nick and Lesley. Oil tankers off the Suffolk coast by Mike Page (EADT)

Friday 11 March 2011

tipping point

There is a moment when you realise that it’s not really about you anymore. You could call it the Hal moment, when the vagabond prince in the play becomes a king and forgoes his pleasure-seeking companions, or the Pablo Neruda moment when the poet transforms from lover to Communist and begins to write for the people. You could call it the Shine moment, where the introverted pianist stands up to his oppressive father and starts to play for real. It’s not that you are discounting yourself - it’s that the personal you with all its small indulgences, its interiorities and subjective biographical events is turned inside out suddenly and asked to be someone else. Someone who acts within the bigger picture. Your own Spring uprising.

This week something happened in a shop, in the way that some things occur in a quiet lull and you realise you are at a tipping point. Last week was busy: I had gone to all kinds of political meetings from the Sustainable Bungay’s Library event to the Lowestoft Coalition Against the Cuts rally, I had taken part in a protest about the closing of the recycling centre and talked about Zero Waste with our local MEP. I had written a piece about climate change and food security and talked animatedly about world events at the Alex with my colleagues on the OneWorldColumn.

This week was quiet and that’s when I began to notice how the Hal moment is happening to the least of us. We’re not princes or poets or piano players, but we’re waking up to our destiny nevertheless. Even in the small conservative town of Southwold there are campaigns to save the library, the tip and to challenge the presence of oil tankers in the bay. The conversations across counters and in bus queues are all about the public service cuts. Where once we were talking about the weather we’re talking about forests or the NHS. In our local delicatessen we were talking about the millionaire cabinet and I found myself in an argument with une femme de l’ancienne regime who believed the cuts were necessary, especially benefits, and it was hard for the Government to make business people pay their taxes. In a different time I might have made light of things, or kept my counsel, or conceded one or two points. But this time I stood my ground because in that moment I realised it wasn’t just my ground. She backed away.

Transition is famously non-political but it’s hard not to be political right now. You can’t just stay secure in your allotment and reskilling class and ignore the storm that is brewing. Every time you take a bus you’re looking at cuts to transport services, every time you take out your rubbish you are looking at the closure of recycling centres and the opening of incinerators, every time you buy food you’re considering price rises and the situation in North Africa. You can’t really talk about community without realising what is happening to that community, the closure of youth centres and drop-in centres, its social infrastructure. Or facing the doublethink of the Big Society. Or how the once-positive word “volunteer” is shifting its meaning towards being a person who colludes with the prevailing order. Discussions about peak oil have become no longer academic. They are taking place within the forecourts of garages everywhere. And the deciding driver in all this is, as Stoneleigh predicted in last year’s Transition Conference, is economics. And a government that has decided to back the banks, rather than the people.

For years it has been about “me” and my consumer lifestyle, but now, in a hard time, it’s becoming clear me needs to be “we”. And as I stood by the counter with Mark and the shop assistants I realised there are a lot more of us who stand to suffer from “austerity” than those who are making the cuts and benefiting from them. We are experiencing an ideological breaking-up of the public sector, implemented by those intent on becoming privately richer and more powerful. And those of us who believe in equality need to stand our ground and not be bullied by those autocratic voices, by those who have been trained to oppress the “lower orders” and get their own way.

Transition has taught me to be bold, to find a language which makes it possible to speak with everyone I come across, to engage in activities and conversations that refocus our attention away from that fossil-fuelled lifestyle towards a low-carbon way of being. Now I’m finding as I move from meeting to meeting it also contains the possibility of a real political function. Because it is not bound by party, it can bring different progressive groups together. Because it is isn’t conflicted by history and past example, it is free to act for the future. Because it is doesn’t attack the enemy and get entangled in negative power struggles, it gives space to what is actually happening, the difficult ethical choices we face as a society. And in that space the old order cannot play the games that they have been taught so ruthlessly to win. Me up, you down. If we want a fair and sustainable world, we can’t shirk these confrontations with Empire. We have to play our part.

In 2011 open space is no longer just an exercise.

Making Sense of the Financial Crisis in the Age of Peak Oil - A presentation by Nicole Foss on 25 March at the URC, Princes Street Norwich. Find further details here.

Photos: snowdrop and recycling centre protest, Southwold by Mark Watson; St Valentine's Day Unneccessary Massacre, Norwich by Trevor Phillips, Save the Library by Sustainable Bungay.

Thursday 10 March 2011

altogether elsewhere

One night last week I came through the gate and halted on the dark garden path. There was something in the air. What was it? Something ineffable, strange, marvellous. I called out to Mark who was walking down the lane. Breathe in as you come into the garden!

The odour of sweet violets. The flowers catch you unawares, containing as they do a singular property (ionone) which means you cannot smell them directly, or you might, but if you lean down to capture it it disappears. Maybe this is why they have been honoured as the flowers of memory. Because memories come like violets in a night garden, when you least expect them. And when you seek to hold the moment you realise it has already gone.

I had just been to the World Book Night at the Bungay Library as part of the Suffolk campaign to save our local libraries. The courtyard garden there was crammed with give-and-take books, there were petitions to sign and glasses of wine to drink and upstairs the local poet’s society was conducting an open mic session. I hadn’t thought about poetry for a long time. Once it had described and made sense of my whole world.

Suddenly amongst the creaky folk songs and polite lines about Spring a tall young man in a great coat stood up and recited an outrageous satire on the millionaire coalition government. It had a rollicking Hilaire Belloc gait. Polished and savage and loud, the recital was unashamed. A wild card amongst the well behaved community audience. I clapped wildly. It was Luke Wright, one of a group of young performance poets who came out of UEA known as Aisle 16, who had since gone on to run a club in London and appear on Radio 4..

Downstairs Margaret, a fellow Transitioner, had being accosted by a Tory matron.
"She was very upset," she said.

I laughed: He always shocks people, I told her. I had come across Luke Wright when I was working for the Poetry Trust. He and his fellow poets had sworn and swaggered and shaken the tea tent of the alternative fringe of the Aldeburgh Festival and some of the dowager patrons had walked out.

That’s when I remembered The Fall of Rome, a political poem that suddenly breaks away in its last lines into another world. How it is when we are intensely focused on one thing and out of the blue something unforeseen enters our field and reminds us of the bigger picture. The poem is by W.H.Auden capable, like all good poets, of delivering a perfect shock. The poem is set in a city that is Rome but all cities and all empires since. It is 1947 when the poem was written and also now:

An unimportant clerk writes:
on a pink offical form

We conform and yet desire our liberty. We protect and barricade ourselves in and are always waiting for the stranger to appear, for the unexpected call, the invitation, that reminds us - you are needed now urgently! The shock that might shake us out of our sleepwalking.

We can be so immersed in the daily round of life we forget to look up and remember where we are. We can be so caught up by the wheels of history, in the intrigues of people, we forget what planet we are on, that time passes and we have a collective destiny to fulfil. We can be so caught up in the minutiae of Transition in meetings and emails and events, defending the latest theories of climate change and peak oil, we forget what we are really doing all this for. The deepest frame of all.

Why do I like the poem? Because it reminds me we live in a time of fall, what the ancients once called the kali yuga, the dog’s throw, when the dice is stacked against us. The time when we lose the game and have to begin again.

When we do we will have to remember how to order our lives: not as they have been run, according to the laws of Empire, but according to the rhythms and measure of Earth. The Hopi call this measuring principle wild turkey. Amongst the most impeccable and ritualistic of peoples, growing corn in one of the world’s most inhospitable landscapes, the Hopi keep a door open for the wild things to enter. Because they know that for life to work for human beings, everything we domesticate from creatures to the growing of crops to the building of settlements, needs to be in balance with the wild and unexpected. The Earth is not tame in her nature. She has a wild and stormy heart.

Civilisation is a closed-system that attempts to control, possess and use all the resources of the earth for its own benefit. But the Earth as a whole multi-celled entity (including ourselves and our imaginations) is an open system, as anyone who has studied chaos theory will recognise. All closed systems live within the fluidity and dynamics of the open system and are subject to its laws, not the other way round. We either respect those laws as symbionts, or we don’t and become parasites. Either way, the laws of earthly movement still hold. The storm breaks and how we have acted in the past plays out in the future. When things become limited, chaos enters the field. When the city becomes decadent the barbarians enter from the North. The poets start raising their voices. Some of us start listening.

Altogether elsewhere vast
herds of reindeer move across
miles and miles of golden moss
silently and very fast.

Sweet voilets by the road, Save Our Library poster in the window by Mark Watson

Saturday 5 March 2011

Reclaiming the Field

By Charlotte Du Cann

"Did you just say Monsatan?" asked the lawyer. "I did," I said and laughed.

We were at the Spring Regional Conference of the Suffolk Agricultural Association in Ipswich. The subject was Climate Change and Food Security. But you could have retitled the conference: Climate Change: What a Great Opportunity to Promote Bio-Tech (and all the agri-business corporations that own the seeds and pesticides and fertilisers that make it possible).

We have to feed the 9 billion! declared the Chair, former minister for agriculture, John Gummer (now Lord Deben), and provide those miraculous loaves and fishes. East Anglia has to become a bread basket for the world!

So to prepare us for our destiny we listened to the scientist who talked about the perfect storm of climate change and how emissions from agriculture, principally nitrous oxide (from fertilisers) and methane (from intensively-reared animals) contribute to it. We saw maps that showed how Britain would remain part of the fertile strip as global temperatures rose and graphs that our home production of both grain and livestock were down and our imports up. We listened to the agriculture manager of Waitrose explain how they have plans to double their profits by 2016. And most scary of all we listened to MEP, Robert Sturdy who had no time for smaller farms, believed agriculture should be market-driven and regretted that so many good fungicides and herbicides had been withdrawn by the EU.

Basically we were confronting an impossible task: to produce more food with less land, less water, less pesticides, less fuel within a low-carbon economy, that is also a growth economy where no one is giving an inch.

“This is biggest issue agriculture has faced,” summed up the Chair, "And unlike the Depression of the 30s or the Black Death we are not facing this in ignorance we are facing this in knowledge. And because we know therefore we are responsible. People don’t want to know of course," he added, "Because once you know it changes you and you become ashamed.”

The farmers with their sunburned faces and tweed jackets remained for the most part quiet. The room was filled with their silence, like the mute East Anglian fields of wheat and barley, sugar beet and rape. Obliged to grow commodity crops, following the dictates of agronomists, governmental ministers and the demands of the market, they have been listening to these clever patronising voices for a long time, in a feudal land that has been under the plough for thousands of years. Their harvests are now utterly dependant on fossil fuels and agro-chemicals. And they know it will take more than a sermon on Genesis to bring those once-fertile soils back to life.

I am not a farmer, an agronomist, a scientist, nor any kind of expert. But I recognise when words are being used to dominate people rather than liberate them. The elephant in the conference hall, the beast who has already slouched his way across the planet, is our present global industrial food system. Manipulated by giant invisible corporations and made possible by a vast and complex distribution network it’s a machine that munches through eco-systems 24/7 and seems impossible to halt. But like all machines it has a crucial dependency that no-one likes to mention: its energy source.

Occasionally at question time other voices were raised. “What about peak oil?” asked my fellow Transitioners in the room.
“And what about peak phosphate and peak nitrates?” asked Lady Cranbrook of the Alde Valley. “Do we have a national food store? Or are the lorries our larder?”

Lord Deben laughed: That one I can answer, he said. We don’t have a national store.

We are, as the fuel protests by farmers and drivers showed us in 2000, famously 9 meals from anarchy.
The voices of the politicians rose as they imagined a formula that would conjure manna from heaven. In the future, declared the scientist, bio-fuel crops will spread across the landmass of Europe the size of France and Spain! We will have genetically manipulated, input-free, flood-resistant rice! We will run vehicles on electricity! We could argue about that for decades, he said.(Decades? As the carbon emissions in the atmosphere have risen to 380 ppm and the price of petrol has risen to £6 a gallon? As the price of wheat has doubled? As food prices in Britain are rising more steeply than any other developed country?)

Gummer’s argument (more theologian than politician) was that because we know about bio-tech we have an imperative to use it, the assumption being it gives higher yields. But we also know about organic farming, practiced for millennia without pharmaceuticals, that a fertile soil locks in carbon and that we can eat lower down the food chain and not waste a third of food we buy.

If you watch documentaries about modern agriculture such as Food, Inc. or read books by Felicity Lawrence or Michael Pollan, you also know that in order to feed 6 billion people fairly and squarely, let alone 9, we are going to have to radically alter our Western diet and powerdown, both in terms of what we eat (less meat and dairy) and the energy it takes to produce. We’re going to have to shorten our food supply chains, build up an infrastructure of small local producers and distributors, learn how to cook and grow, and get used – in austere times – to paying the real price of food.

At present we pay a mere 10% of our disposable income for what we eat. This is because cheap oil has created cheap food and because we don’t care to look at its provenance. We have fallen into what the writer Thomas Berry, calls the industrial trance. As we enter the shiny supermarket malls our minds glaze over the environmental damage caused by farmed salmon, or the reality that “local pork” is fed on Brazilian soybeans or that behind each colourful packet there are workers in fields and packing houses being brutally exploited. To pay the real price of food means giving up an escapist consumer lifestyle that makes our own hard working existences bearable.

And the present business model, as local farmer Lucy Wyatt pointed out, is going in the opposite direction. It’s encouraging us to keep disconnected and under its spell.

Maybe it was when the MEP started talked about the “moral imperative to grow more food and embrace this technology.” Or maybe when the man from Waitrose explained how they monitored “the eating experience of our customers” that I remembered Mourid Barghouti when he spoke in the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh just down the coast from here. The Palestinian poet was urging writers to use real words to keep a certain world alive and another at bay. Those in power, he said, live and talk in grandiose and abstract terms. They do not name the physical things of this earth: the ordinary, the beautiful and diverse. The names of plants and places and people. This was our duty. And maybe this is the right and only response to a “conference” at which a small elite spoke and most of us kept silent, where a cow was called a “product” and all the attention was on the latest marketing deal with North Korea. To name, without shame, what all of us really know.

There are farmers in Norfolk who grow amongst the commodity crops a heritage wheat known as Blue Cone. In Darsham an ex-mechanic called Malcolm treasures an oasis of kale and squash and spring lettuce on his smallholding. On a roadside stall in Reydon each day a woman called Sarah puts out jars of marmalade and fresh eggs for sale. On my windowsill there is a plant that has held glowing red chillies all winter. Its name is Ring of Fire. These humble relationships connect us with the fabric of life, which, whether the storm hits or not, is our only real security.

There is network of growers, allotment holders, writers and cooks in East Anglia working to re-establish a right relationship with food. Some farm, some teach schoolchildren, run shops, advise on sustainable food distribution. Some of us are relearning skills: how to grow leeks and raise chickens, swap seeds, share community kitchens and gardens. We're learning how to store apples, how to graft cherry trees. How to relish a simple dish of potatoes and beans, to eat radically outside the system controlled by corporate agri-business. It’s a different kind of culture. It’s not feudal. It's not dominated by those voices. Civilisations famously rise and fall according to their ability to feed their people. But sometimes it’s the people who start to feed themselves.

All photos from the Transition Norwich Low Carbon Cookbook project: Deconstructing the Dish, Sprouts and clover from Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm by Richard Mudhar; handful of dry field beans by Mark Watson.