Thursday 26 May 2011

lock on - notes towards an article on activism and transition

To take in what is happening an inter-disciplinary vision is necessary in order to connect ‘the fields’ that are institutionally kept separate. John Berger, Hold Everything Dear
“No is one of the most honourable words in the English language,” said Deepak. “It needs to be reclaimed.” Deepak Rughani is a campaigner and co-director of Biofuelwatch and he's talking about the defence of natural ecosystems, an area he feels the Transition movement ignores. Without action to prevent the exploitation of the wild lands reduction of carbon emissions becomes meaningless. Without stringent protection of the pristine grasslands and rain forest in the Amazon basin the world’s rainfall patterns are dramatically disturbed and thus our ability to feed ourselves.

I’m researching a piece for the Transition newsletter about the relationship between activism and Transition and finding it’s a giant subject. Too large really for one voice and one blog. People are finding it hard to put their experiences into one pithy sentence. And when we say activism what exactly do we mean? Does this include strategic campaigning and grassroots community activism, as well as direct action and civil disobedience?

I had met Deepak at our recent meeting to discuss Nicole Foss's talk on financial deflation and the economic future where he had given an introductory overview. That’s when I noticed a shift that was happening in Transition. We had been working diligently on our community projects, building culture and infrastructure, when BAM! the world stormed right back into the room. Although we were talking about local solutions we were also debating the big global issues: civil liberties, civil disobedience. The cafe was packed. There was a buzz in the air I hadn’t felt in a long while. It brought a reality and an urgency into play that had been missing.

2011 is not 2010. It is the year when politics came back into all our lives, as we found ourselves marching against the Government's public spending cuts, watching the uprisings in the Middle East with fast-beating hearts - a time when we are being challenged to take a stand in a way that was no longer just about saying Yes
It's frustrating that (activism) is usually framed as "negative" campaigning, as it's all about making a more positive world and those positive messages are usually there but just not heard as loudly. For example the campaign "against" GM crops also pushed the alternatives of organic very heavily, campaigners "against" nuclear power sing the praises of renewables, and "anti"-incineration campaigners promote reduction of waste, effective recycling etc. Climate Camp not only highlighted problems but modeled a sustainable eco-village of thousands with its own energy production, grey water, compost loos, vegan food, democratic decision making structures etc. Far more than just opposing stuff. As I said before - holistic. (Rhizome Co-op from the Transition Network Forum on Activism and Transition
The fact is many people in Transition are also activists and campaigners and as I began speaking with some of them I realised that we don’t talk about it much. We live our lives in separate stories. In our meetings we are Transitioners and in the “outside world” we are someone else. It’s a phenomenon of our culture that Paul Kingsnorth writes about in the second issue of Dark Mountain. In Transition Norwich there are people who are activists for Greenpeace, for CND, who go on climate actions and marches, who sign petitions, who organise flash mobs, who fight for the NHS, for higher eduction, for the forests, for the libraries, who protest against Tescos, against the Northern Distributor road, who lobby politicians and councillors, who are those councillors, who are the people who speak with everyone and do not close down.

Some of us find that saying yes inevitably means saying no. Chris Hull, a founder of TN and also an active anti-Tesco campaigner (see right as Darth Vadar!) observes that being involved in local business and local food production means you will be against supermarkets by default and no matter how far you go to speak with those in power and civic office, "you get to a point where you are pulling in different directions in subtle and sometimes in subliminal ways, where the business-as-usual model is directly conflicting with Transition."

Christine Way has just returned from successfully blockading a port in Scotland to bring attention to the containers of “green” bio-mass woodchips from Brazil for conversion into electricity. A fellow founder of TN she has always maintained that both forces for change need to work together. And that just as Transition needs to keep the bigger picture in mind in all it does – those drivers of climate change, peak oil and economics – so activism needs to include the positive moves that Transition works hard to provide, and not become snared up in battling against the Establishment.

What alternatives are you providing?

One of Transition's strengths is its fluidity and I’m becoming aware of this fluidity the more I speak with everyone. You can, as a Transitioner (as I've found out) be as much at ease talking with a Tory politician as you can with a TUC shop steward, a local Green Party mayor or an anti-nuclear activist. The movement is not stuck in ideology or dogma and deliberately doesn’t fight the enemy, or struggle for power. The empire divides and conquers. Transition works within the same complex dynamics as an eco-system: within diversity In this it has a unique ability to connect and work alongside the many incentives for change that already exist.

To embrace activism as a dynamic force within the whole pattern of Transition strengthens it. We need to include those dramatic actions that bring planetary dilemmas into the limelight because our consciousness is shifting towards what Jeremy Rifkind in The Empathic Civilization calls the dramaturgical and the bio-spheric. Acting within the collective consciousness of the earth. This is a radically different position from the one of control and safety most of us have adopted. And it means making moves in real life, not just in our heads. BecauseThis Is It is not longer a slogan on the workshop wall.

For a long time we have been able to be the audience to history, to live our lives theoretically. We can watch the world on our screens and shut out its inconvenient truth at the click of a switch. But now history is coming into our streets and into our lives and we need to know how to act, or support those who act on our behalf. If we cheer for those bold protesters in Tahrir Square, in Wisconsin, for the thousands of campaign groups that Paul Hawken wrote about in Blessed Unrest, we need also to cheer for those who occupy Fortnum and Masons and the Royal Bank of Scotland, who protest against the corporations who threaten those fragile eco-systems on which we depend. The people who climb nuclear power stations and coal smokestacks and oil rigs to bring attention to the crucial debate about energy and the citizen journalists that write and blog about them.

In the current forum on the Transition Network you can find Ghandi's famous quote: Be the change you wish to see in the world to illustrate the positive-only nature of Transition. Many people have fled environmentalism and activism and joined initiatives because they felt to say only NO was an exhausting and often deeply negative experience. Many decided to turn their backs on any overtly political activity, even to forget they had once taken part.

However in this desire to get away from the bad stuff we forget that Ghandi was an activist par excellence and encouraged people to put their bodies before the brute force of Empire. And went to prison for it more than once. We forget that The Guardian newspaper was created when the media of the day failed to report the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in which 60,000 peaceful protesters were attacked by the army. We live in a society that is the end result of thousands of civil uprisings and direct actions: thousands of people whose names we do not know who have put themselves on the line. Understandably we would rather be working steadily on our energy descent action plans over the next 2o years and shifting happily towards a low carbon way of life.

But 2011 is not 2010. And Transition is changing its tempo. We’re not in the slow movement right now. We have to see that the strength of Transition initiatives lies in its secure root within communities, in its network of communications and that these provide a stable base for changes in the way single-issue actions, existing as they do on the edge of society, over a short time, do not. We have to see equally that our ability to think in many disciplines at once, which we have practiced over these years, puts us at an advantage, gives us an ability to resist splitting into polarity, the kind of polarity that causes the violence and hatred that activism and protests can descend into.

The recent riots in Bristol were right in the middle of Transition Montpelier's neighbourhood. They focused around the new Tesco, although there was a lot more to it. A local campaigning group (No Tesco in Stokes Croft) had been peacefully protesting against the supermarket for well over a year.

The riots weren't really about the Tesco, but it became 'the story' that the media hung their hats on. They began when the police raided a squat across the road on an unfounded suspicion at rush hour on Maundy Thursday. They then stayed there for hours, winding everyone up, and everyone got very over-excited and it ended up in a big punch up. Tesco was only involved when the police mysteriously retreated, and left an unlocked police car outside the un-loved store at 1 am, after hours of street punch ups. Unsurprisingly, the crowd, left to their own aggravated devices, smashed up the car and then laid into the store. Then the police came back and the fighting continued.

The campaigning group had nothing to do with the riots, and everyone was saddened by the riots.The campaigning group became involved in the media storm that followed the riots; they were bombarded with calls and emails from journalists, and tried to present a balanced response under a huge amount of pressure.Some of the stories painted un-favourable pictures about the campaigning group, as you might imagine! A few local papers used the story as a
way to stir controversy.

Transition Montpelier had supported the peaceful protest from the beginning, as we weren't that keen on Tesco, and the campaigning group had always been suggesting positive alternatives to it.They still are - food hubs are underway, local cafes and more. And they are our friends and neighbours. We did have discussions about whether we should support the campaign as we're not a 'campaigning organisation', and agreed to share news and so forth about the campaign.

The riots, unsurprisingly, scared a lot of residents. The stories in the media, particularly the negative ones about the campaign, made a few of the residents feel that the campaign was negative and causally related to the riots. Transition Montpelier's support of the campaign was therefore seen in not a great light by these folks. Naturally, we don't know how many people it is, but didn't feel great about it all. It's all very complicated! We continue to support the campaign group and local food groups. (Ed Mitchell, Transition Montpelier)
Being rooted in neighbourhood, in place, people and plants, is what Transition Heathrow discovered after running a successful campaign against the third runway at Heathrow. When they began to grow plants in a deserted greenhouse in the once-threatened village of Sipson with the explicit support of most of the locals, the local MP and a spokesman for the local police. Here's a spokesman from the highly active initiative that has brought a fresh burst of energy into the movement
Before the Transition Heathrow project had even begun, one of our initial key aims was to combine climate activism with local community initiatives by adding a more radical edge to the Transition Towns movement. The co-founders of Transition Heathrow all had a background of taking direct action with anti airport expansion group Plane Stupid and so we had experienced the massive success and impact that direct action had on framing the debate around aviation in the UK. It was off the back of Plane Stupid's successful work around the third runway at Heathrow that Transition Heathrow was born. Although everyone in the movement against the 3rd runway was extremely proud that the runway was cancelled, as individuals we wanted to go beyond putting our bodies on the line for a day, to a way of creating change that lasts way longer than front page headlines in newspapers the day after an action. This is where the transition movement comes in and has a big part to play.

What was most appealing about the transition model for us is that it is about the direct action of everyday life. We all know that governments and corporations are failing us when it comes to environmental issues and so clearly we need to take matters into our own hands. This is why transitioners “just do it themselves.” So when we wanted to plant stuff - we did some guerrilla gardening. And when we wanted a site we
squatted some abandoned land and brought it back into use. When we wanted to support the BA cabin crew strikes we took part in a solidarity bike ride through terminal 5.
Whatever we're doing it seems to be working. What was encouraging about the shocking police raid of our community market garden Grow Heathrow was the recognition that we are clearly getting to those who hold the power. A revolution disguised by gardening perhaps. Bring it on! (Joe Ryle, Transition Heathrow).
It takes a lot of courage to take direct action, to cross the line, to look the public and the policeman in the eye as you challenge the status quo. Even in small ways. The first time I took part in an action was a simple thing: we were a group defending a patch of green land in Oxford against developers and rode in a barge up the canal to paint the builder’s hoardings with our loud protest. But my hands were shaking as I wrote William Blake’s lines on the wall:

Bring me my bow of burning gold, bring me my arrows of desire.

That day something changed utterly within me. I had taken a step that a whole lifetime of well-behaved conditioning had tried to prevent. We all have those preventions in place inside. Our cultural conditioning keeps our minds compartmentalised, our emotions trained to seek security at all costs, to appear to be moral and upstanding citizens at all times. We have to see that without talking about our actions, without coming out about our radical nature, without sharing our private thoughts about the future, all our self-education that includes Marxist theory, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, the history of Levellers and Diggers, without connecting with all the land sovereignty movements that now exist around the world, Transition does not have the strength or wit or daring to challenge the dominant worldview. It runs the risk of becoming stifled by the tyranny of what Blake called "the polite society", by conventional good behaviours and small talk, and fragmenting as has happened in some initiatives. We are in danger of living in a never-never land of allotments and spiritual cliches. Thinking about the change we want to see as a result, rather than the being change that is the (often messy) process.

Not all activists who are also Transitioners agree with this premise however. In Lewes in Sussex there are
currently two projects running alongside each other: the construction of the UK's first community-owned 98kW solar power station, and the occupation of three acres of green land near the centre of town. The first is seen as a Transition project and the second is not. Superficially unrelated but in fact close in aim (localisation of production), the two activities have many people involved in common including councillors, Transition members and residents:
This is quite hard for most people to grasp in my experience. Long- term strategic planning and R&D are understood in terms of industry but not in terms of cultural and social change which mostly comes about through single-issue campaigns resulting in pieces of legislation which can also unfortunately be reversed. Transition is a design framework for cultural change which does not require changes in the law.

Which is not to say that designers can't also be campaigners and vice versa. Many initiatives have convergent aims but differ in methodology. These range across political, philosophical, economic, social and psychospiritual pursuits. So for example someone who protests in London against tax evasion can also be setting up a local food group in her home town and developing personal effectiveness and empowerment. She's engaging in activism, transition and transformation! While these categories overlap and provide mutual positive reinforcement, they preserve functionality best by remaining distinct (Dirk Campbell, Transition Lewes).
This is a working document. It's an ongoing conversation that's happening in Transition at the moment, one that has only really just begun. It’s a radical conversation because we are trained by our civilization to think and work in separate “fields” and not make connections when we speak to one another. To talk within the narrow confines of the room and the present moment. rather than engage with the full breadth of our physical experiences, through time, in relationship with the living, breathing world outside the door. It’s a vital discourse because we’ll be speaking not only within the deep frame of change, but also of liberation.

So I’ll end this (rather long!) inquiry with a review of a documentary that brings home the kind of courage and energy and risks many people take on our behalf to to free the world from its “mind-forged manacles". It’s a grassroots film that like Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change is a story told from the people who take part - the actors in this bio-spheric drama some call evolution. It’s not Hollywood, it’s not the BBC but it is what is happening right now in a town near you. Lock on.

Just Do It reviewed by Adrienne Campbell (Transition Lewes)

Just Do It is a new documentary film that follows the lives of several environmental activists over a year of civil disbedience and direct action.

Watching the various actions, I started to feel involved and even concerned for some of the young people as they put their bodies in the way for the sake of what they believed in. Although I'm a dyed in the wool transitoner, I've done a little playful, lawful activism on the side, and was inspired and emboldened.

I recommend this film to transition groups who might want to attract a younger audience and who also might wish to explore the wide, largely unexplored zone of playful activism, which sits beween normal behaviour and unlawful behaviour. Of course, Transition isn't about campaigning or activism but there is significant overlap and perhaps attitudes and skills to be learned.

The world launch of the film, which was funded through crowdsourcing, at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival in June will be followed by showings at local cinemas. If your transition group would like to encourage your local cinema to show it, please contact the film makers from the informative website here

Holding the banner at The Wave, 2009 (Mark Watson); protest banner, Greenpeace USA; Writing on the Wall, Bristol (Ed Mitchell); Poster from Grow Heathrow; ZAD (Zone a Defendre) demonstration, France; South East climate camp, St Anne's School, Lewes.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

the event

Last Sunday our neighbour Irene appeared in the garden with some tickets in her hand. She and Philip couldn’t go to this concert, would we like to go instead?

So that’s how we wound up in the new Studio at Snape Maltings amongst an audience of grey haired smartly-dressed people, drinking white wine and talking to each other intently like a gathering of hawks. It was the final concert in a weekend of Beethoven and Schubert– two late chamber works from the maestro composers. One an intense and unbroken struggle with form, the other a sublime intoxication with harmony. The Belcea Quartet were equally intense and brilliant, and I spent most of the first half marvelling at their sychronicity. I hadn’t listened to classical music in years, though I spent most of my youth carrying a cello around and hanging out with professional musicians, so I know how hard these works are to perform.

Then I closed my eyes. The Schubert quintet is famous for its intense adagio, for its beautiful slow sustained sounds with plucked notes underneath. It’s the kind of music that you don’t want to stop, because it seems so perfect.

But where was this music taking me?

Our culture is built around events like these. The people who go to them have been visiting these concert halls, these opera houses and theatres all their lives. A knowledge of these classical works defines us as civilised, educated and refined. At the first Heart and Soul, Arts, Culture and Well Being meeting at the Norwich Playhouse the question was asked: what will happen to this culture in Transition?

It was a good question because entertainment – high or low- is all about shifting our attention away from the present moment. When we’re engaged in listening to haunting sounds we’re not looking at the stuff that’s happening outside. We’re escaping into perfect harmonious spheres, into fiendishly difficult forms, being reminded of things that were or might have been. In history, in our own past. I’m remembering the times I came here to Snape, sailing up the river, to listen to Britten, Bach, Shostakovitch, Rostropovitch. . . going backwards to the 1975 to Kubrick's film, Barry Lyndon which used Schubert's music to chart the rise and fall of the rogue aristocrat.

I’m remembering how it was to work 60 hour weeks as an event manager to keep a community theatre (also housed in an old maltings) running, the strange sounds that came and went in the building: Tibetan monks blowing giant horns, arch-druids playing fairy harps, virgin choirs singing about loving Jesus, preachers playing cinema organs, children maniacally toe-tapping as their dancing teacher shouted: You can be special! You can be a star! Sometimes as I handed the performers a cheque or brought them a drink on the house we exchanged our looks of exhaustion.

What I remember most is the repetition, the kind of repeat cycles Sebald writes about in his melacholic work about this coast, The Rings of Saturn: the actors repeating the same lines, the musicians playing the same phrases, and how it felt as if I were in charge of some kind of machine that only cared that this show was repeated over and over again. And how our ancient folk wisdom warns us about not listening to the fairy music and getting lost for centuries.

At the interval I stepped out to the grassy terrace that looks over the marshes of the Alde river towards Iken church. The warblers were singing in the reeds and the swifts squeaking in the sky. The great red chestnut trees were in flower and the floor was scattered with white poplar catkins. It was a beautiful evening at one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world. It didn’t take me back, or away. Everything was here now.

In Transition we hold events of a very different kind, in humble venues: village halls and libraries. We organise seed swaps, community suppers, film nights, energy days, bicycle rides, picnics, talks, workdays. They are not glamorous, grand affairs, nor expensive to put on; nor do they confer any kind of status or come with a longing for a place just out of reach. They bring us to the present moment, to look at a future that is uncertain, in which our decisions are crucial.

Last week a group of us went to Tom Abbott’s barn on the edge of the common in the Saints. We said our names out loud and where we came from and the organisations we were all part of: Greenpeace, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Sustainable Bungay and then we watched the documentary, Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change.

The people are not beautiful and the film is not beautiful. What is happening to the Arctic is not beautiful though the landscape takes your breath away. The elders of the village speak to the camera about how the temperature has changed, about the shift of the winds from North to East, how the fish is contaminated, the seal fur degraded. How the icebergs they consider as living beings no longer visit the bay as once they did. They speak about how they were trained as children to go each morning out into nature and observe everything - animals, wind, clouds - to sense the living fabric of the land and their place within it and how that place is being shaken at its roots.

Afterwards we debated the difference of consciousness between the Inuit and the visiting “expert” scientists – one that sees the people as intrinsically part of the land and the second that acts as if seperated and in control of it. The Inuit, for example, say the radio collars on polar bears interfere with their hearing and their ability to hunt and thus drive them to starvation. All their criticism seems to be directed at the “wildlife biologists”, observed Martin (himself a scientist) wryly, rather than the Southerner’s way of life that is causing the climate change. We spoke amongst ourselves, each of us in turn, telling our story. How our education teaches us to think our worldview is superior to anything indigenous people might see or say, including that native land knowledge we hold inside ourselves.

On his deathbed Schubert requested Beethoven’s late quartet to be played as his body slipped away from the earth. It was a radical work for its time and in many ways heralded the disharmonious sounds of the modern world to come. It was there that Sunday, like a shadowy dream, and then it was gone. But the film stayed with me. Because it was about life. What it was saying affects the marshes I was looking at and the migrating birds in the sky.

The glaciers of the deep North are melting. It's not time to be distracted by fairy music, to get lost in shadows. It’s time to go out and observe and connect. We need the event to come together, to gather and to pay attention collectively to something we need our wits and our imaginations and our hearts to engage in. Because we’re not the audience anymore, we are the players.

Pics: Mark at Snape Maltings; elders and iceberg from Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change; still from Barry Lyndon, 1975; drinking wine before the concert; Happy Monday at Bungay Community Kitchen; talking around the fire by Kris and Eloise's yurt.

Monday 23 May 2011

The Sea Kale Project

Along the sandy dunes and shingle banks of the eastern seaboard there is a front line of wild plants, the ancestors of our allotments and fields - wild carrot, wild cabbage, sea beet, sea pea, sea kale, sea rocket, oraches, sorrel – and our medicine cabinets - wormwood and eyebright, sea buckthorn, sea holly, scurvy grass. Of all our ancient companions, the sea kale with its abundant flowers and rich detoxifying leaves is the largest and most impressive. Its tap root sinks deep into the shingle and holds fast in a rocky and uncertain time - the kind of plant that can weather a storm.

The plant marks a territory that runs along the shoreline from Norfolk to Kent. It’s a geographical, ecological territory, but also a place you can map in time, in the ways that make meaning of our presence on the planet since our forebears first ate those salty iron-rich leaves.

I came across the sea kale in Dungeness. I had gone there because of Derek Jarman. I had read his journals and noticed the flash of wild flowers in the text, as he struggled with the elements that howled through his shingle garden and to keep own tenuous thread to life. He had come in search of bluebells and found instead the bleak shore and the sea-kale that grew beside the nuclear power station. It was a singular territory that he made his own: wind-broken, austere, at the end of the line.

We had, like the artist, driven out of the city at bluebell time and found the crambe's crinkly purple leaves pushing through the stones. We had been travelling and were looking for a place to live. We walked past the black fisherman’s hut and its now-deserted garden, sat amongst the flowering dwarf blackthorn and crab apple. As we drove away, I looked back and the familiar mosaic of marsh and sky and sea sparked something in me. It was the memory of somewhere I used to know. A certain strand of my life that began when I was a child in Sandwich Bay and Felixstowe.

When we settled in Suffolk Mark and I began an open dialogue with the wild places along the coast, following a practice we had developed working with dreams and medicinal plants – visiting, holding a discourse within the territory, cohering our findings, keeping a creative log. It had become clear that for the future to happen we needed to be realigned with the natural systems and to recover our aboriginal ability to speak with the earth. How could we do this in our native land?

The dialogue began with a question: Who is this self in this territory? How can we communicate in an intelligent and vigorous way? What effect does the land, its moods, rhythms, creatures, weather, have on our imaginations, on our memories, on our realignment?

In 2008 we began a project that mapped the mosaic of eco-systems and their relationship with the human settlements along this shifting coastline. We named the project after the study seakale communities. Having this kind of dialogue means you don’t walk the track you choose. You encounter what is there. going out without a plan, meeting what crosses your path. Not just the beautiful, but also the difficult. We began just as the sea asters were setting seed n the marshes. On November 9 there was a massive storm surge. A powerful northeasterly wind ran against the high tide and the estuaries flooded their banks. We ran out of our houses and stood by the shore as the rivers merged with the sea and swamped the houses down at Blackshore harbour.

After the flood people everywhere began speaking about how to protect the land. Small bands collected together, stacked sandbags against the river wall, spoke out for the birds and the spirit of the place.

“Just a few cows”, we were told by the greysuited men from the Environment Agency in Reydon village hall. The agency were refusing to mend the broken banks of the Blyth as the government announced its retreat back to the metropolis.

"What about the fishermen?" I asked. "Fishing is not economic", he replied.
"What about the tourism?"
"They will go elsewhere".

The cows in the watermeadows didn’t count. The birds didn’t count. The land didn’t count. The people in the coastal seatowns didn’t count. Only the populations in the industrial towns would be secured. The oil prices began to rise. Suddenly I realised I was living in a different time. A time I did not know.

This was the time I found myself talking to Charles Clover, environment editor of the Daily Telegraph, our paths crossing after 25 years. He was telling me about the fish in the ocean he has spent his life defending, and a book he had written called The End of the Line. I told him what was happening down by the sea’s mouth. The agency was abandoning all the defences of the rivers and their harbours along the territory of the sea kale – the Blyth, the Ore, the Alde, the Deben. It was business as usual in the hotels in town, down at the pier, at the fish shop (The show must go on!) but some of us were beginning to ask why.

"They are going to take everything!" he said.

We walked the coast line from the statue of Neptune at Lowestoft, towards the Martello tower of Aldeburgh, from November to the following late summer. We stood on the beaches with 1700 others making a human SOS protest at Walberswick, watched an adder slither by through the sea peas as the police and activists outwitted each other at Sizewell power station, watched the sky burn as the reeds caught fire at Easton Bavents.

We swam in the ocean, with the seals, in the high waves, watched the sea become glass-green, pewter, azure, opal, bruised, mad with foam, tipped with fire. We swam in the wake of Roger Deakin, and walked in the footsteps of WG Sebald. Above us the sky raced with clouds, the wind blew sharp and salt, and warm, scented with heather, hail clattered on our heads. The sands shone silver, the cliffs flashed gold. The land pulsed with light, We pocketed treasures: sea coal, sea peat, a glass bead, a worn kitchen tile, an oyster shell, a deer skull from the tumulus at Dunwich at winter solstice. The sand martins departed their cliff dwellings, the barnacle geese arrived, the starlings rose like spectres over the marshes. Stags roared in the reeds. Seasons came and went. In the mornings standing at my window, I would see the sea like a shining band on the horizon, like a mirror. It’s a good day, I would say to Mark. Let’s go out.

Today is such a day. And I’m writing about this project, about the resilient sea kale, because you notice in a droughted spring, it’s the plants with strong tap roots that flourish. It’s the tap root that keeps us alive. To belong you need a story, and to have a story you need a territory. You need a strong tap root to keep you anchored in a hard time. Sometimes the territory you find yourself in is not the place where you think you belong. It is not the lovely bluebell wood, or the rose garden where you sit alone with your thoughts. It’s not a tropical ocean or an Aegean island cove. It’s a windy English beach with people and houses and oil tankers on the horizon, where you encounter a thousand difficult questions about power and nature and exploitation. And the story you need now is not the story you were born with; it’s a story you have to discover, that you are challenged to go walkabout and find.

Part of me when I began the project wanted to stay on that wild ecstatic shoreline with the flowers, with the birdsfoot trefoil and centaury and harebell, to put all my attention on birds and stones and light, to keep hold of the outsider position of the artist and dreamer, but that shoreline kept taking me to the people, to face those awkward questions: to the protesters at Sizewell, to the campaigners in the village halls. It took me back into journalism as I found myself writing an article on the project for a local community magazine, the first I had published in 2o years. It didn't take me to paradise, it took me straight into the heart of the struggle.

It took me back into society, into Transition, to the place where we all meet, the place at the end of the line, at the edge of the narrow land, England, at a point in time where we need to come to certain decisions about the future. Decisions and meeting places I'll be writing about this week with some of the people who have crossed my path.
Among the seakale on Sizewell Beach, 2011; Derek Jarman in Dungeness, 1992 (by Howard Sooley); Greenpeace protest at Sizewell A, 2003; SOS protest at Walberswick, 2008: Sea Lale Project notebook, 2009; Mark, seakale and Sizewell B, 2011.

Monday 16 May 2011

Transition Themes Week #5 - High Speed Broadband Connection

FRIDAY 6.30PM "Hey Erik!" I said to a familiar form cycling up toward the Earlham Road. "Are you on your way to a meeting? You have that determined look on your face". "No," he said. "I’ve just come from one!" We laughed, and then exchanged news about the CSA up at Postwick (Erik is on the Norwich FarmShare board), about the new assistant grower, about rain and rabbit fences and lettuces, about how brilliant it was Kerry got her Transition 'green job' in Glasgow and where the Low Carbon Cookbook meeting was going to take place this week. 10 minutes intense communication and then he was gone and I was walking to my meeting at the Alex with fellow OneWorldColumnists. It was a warm night and the great street trees were shifting overhead with their new spring leaves.

Our meeting was unplanned. Our paths had crossed unexpectedly in the city. No-one could have organised it. I’m not in the FarmShare, yet after our conversation I feel I know what's going on up there, about the vegetables that Erik grows in his permaculture garden out in Hethersett.

On the train home I read an article about Tahrir Square in a magazine Trevor handed me as we parted outside the pub. What struck me reading about the events that took place were their spontaneous and speedy nature. People had been thinking and talking independently for years, activists had been campaigning and suddenly when the time came, they converged without planning anything. When they met up, they knew what to do.

Everything self-organised. Suddenly.

SATURDAY 1Pm “We were speaking from the same situation,” Josiah said, talking about his BBC radio interview with other community activists for Save Suffolk Libraries. Each of them had been running separate campaigns for their local libraries, organised individual events, written for their own blogs, yet when they came together they spoke as a united front. Each person contributing a different strand. We had just been to a meeting where people from different library campaigns, anti-cuts campaigns, Transitioners, TUC shop stewards and local movers and shakers sat round a table and discussed how we could co-ordinate and communicate with one another. What had struck us was how the old formal ways of running things didn't fit this fluid and composite structure. We could all be components together, but one way could not dominate.

That’s when I remembered how it was at last year’s Transition conference. You didn’t have to know anyone in the way you have to know people ordinarily at social events, or in the workplace, hidebound by procedures or protocol, you could just ask: what initiative are you from? and immediately talk as if you knew everything about each other’s groups and projects. Some other social structure was in place. Something we don’t have the language for yet, but recognise when it’s in play. When you find yourself acting and knowing what to do, even though you have never been told, or taught.

SUNDAY 3PM "This is a very medieval situation!" I say as I walk into the library courtyard. Men in the garden, and the women upstairs in the solar sewing!" Richard, Mark and Josiah are repotting a giant aloe and twenty offshoots that someone has donated to the community garden. Elinor, Eloise and I are discussing what we’re going to do for our Bungay Community Bees week at the local Primary School. Keziah (aged 4) is unpicking her skirt, stitch by careful stitch. I’ve gone downstairs to talk with Mark about teaching children to plant sunflowers and how bees collect pollen from their spiral centres, what’s it like to grow something from seed. How long it takes as it sits on a sunny window sill to grow to its full height.

"I don’t know anything about teaching," he says.
"None of us do," I say. "Ask Keziah about that plant."

Keziah looks gravely at Mark and gives a progress report on a liquorice mint he gave her a couple of weeks ago. She was concerned that it only had leaves. "It’s a little bit dry," she says. You need to water it some more, he tells her, and then the flowers will come in July.

That’s all you need to do. You make a connection and you foster a relationship. Something happens in your imagination, with your physical hands: you get tapped into life. Something happens when you hand the child the plant, and the responsibility for being its guardian. It seems like nothing is happening. That all our thoughts and desires go nowhere, that some of our best-laid plans in Transition have gone awry, that the meetings we thought were the real meetings did not give us what we imagined and what should have happened didn’t take place.

But it is taking place. Thousands of small encounters, hands held across the divide, all criss-crossing and making a new pattern. The kind of culture where it matters that we know how long it takes for a plant to flower, the whole process, not just the end result. And that provides living soil with proper conductivity and mycorrhizal underground communications that are normally destroyed by global mono-culture.

We haven’t flowered yet. We are patiently putting out leaves, waiting for rain, grateful for dew. What our roots tell us is that we are not alone. We are invisibly connected, not just to the people we meet in Transition but to many people we do not know, who have been working in the same way, now and for hundreds of years through time. We feel that connection when we meet in the street, or the library. Mostly it happens in public spaces and often by chance. It happens when we meet organically. Which is to say when we meet in an atmosphere that is conducive to our gathering, in which ideas flourish and actions follow swiftly. What matters is not the form, nor the shared meal nor the expert facilitator. Not the debate about legal structures, nor the sharing of our emotions in a circle. What matters is that we care deeply about the subject at hand and we get engaged in that subject as social beings. As beings in touch with all life.

MONDAY 10AM We live in a culture that is all about result and engineering that result. About spin and data, about power and control and individuals who make it to the top. But Transition is not built on that culture; it’s grown according to the principles of permaculture - the fostering of beneficial relationships between all living beings. Fairshare, peoplecare, earthcare. It takes time and relishes all the steps of that process that leads to an outcome we don't know yet, but will recognise when we get there in the same way we recognise a flower when it's in full bloom. What we need now is the kind of dynamic medium in which to flourish, in which the best of people comes out.

A lot of us "get" Transition, but it's the articulation of what we get and the physical action that follows that matters. That's what creates culture. Otherwise we find ourselves talking and operating from old structures - as volunteers, as controllers, as people who follow orders or give them - bound by class and hierarchy, uttering the buzz words and cliches of the day. The reason why many Transitioners do not want to take up political or civic office is because they feel hampered by form, old configurations that keep people stuck in fixed power positions, unable to change or to express new ideas when they meet together.

A bio-diverse culture needs us to be diverse, which is to say we need to be intrinsically ourselves - rooted in place and within our skills - and working as part of the whole. Coming from a broad frequency band, rather from a narrow, seperated point of view. This is a new way of working in the world: one that combines a modern city intelligence with an ancestral knowledge of the land. So a key move in Transition is allowing people within the initiative to be fully engaged in what they love and are really good at - Richard as the guardian of the community garden, Josiah heading the Library campaign, Elinor as chief beekeeper, Eloise as an organiser of events, Mark overseeing plants and reconnection with nature . . . and me, well . . .you guessed it! Co-ordinating communications and heralding the act that follows . . .

So here it is, the line up for our fifth Transition Themes week - blog diversity at its best. John (Transition Hethersett) with a toads-eye view of local Transport, Simeon with an introduction to TN's new Economics and Livelihoods group, Elena with a field report from Norwich FarmShare, Helen with an update of the Magdalen Street Celebration, Mark with a round-up on the Low Carbon Cookbook and Adrienne Campbell, cross-posting from her blog 100 Monkeys with a report from Transition Lewes and the Climate Camp at St Anne's School. Check us out!

Native sunflowers on a car in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; Tarahumara sunflower, Suffolk; dancing the rainbow at Geldeston Locks, Suffolk on May Day - pics by Mark Watson

Sunday 1 May 2011

Merry May Day Everyone!

Under the Japanese cherry tree; bluebell wood, early purple orchid, hawthorn blossom; forget-me-not