Saturday 30 July 2011

When the Chips are Down

It’s noon on Saturday and a small and buoyant crowd of people are gathering for a rally outside the Forum. Activists from France, farmers from Norfolk, campaigners on bicycles with placards saying Stop Gambling with our Chips!, children riding small red tractors piled with red and white tubers from Wales. A waitress from The Greenhouse is handing around (delicious) organic chips to passers-by. I’m taking pix and speaking with Brenna and Tierney and Christine from Transition Norwich, Becky and Hayley from GreenGrow outside Bungay and the people from Growing Communities in Hackney. We’re all here to champion the potato, that key staple veg of all our allotments, gardens and fields and protect the land from the invasion of GMOs.

For the last ten years the Sainsbury laboratory at the John Innes Centre has spent £1.7 m of public money researching (so far unsuccessfully) a potato that is resistant to blight. During this time the UK has successfully resisted the introduction of GM food into its stores and supermarkets. But the laws in Europe are now changing, making it easier for GM crops to be grown and the debate is back on the table for both growers and consumers. Already the seed merchants and pharmaceutical companies are pressurizing farmers in East Anglia to adopt them and this event is bringing this into public awareness. At 1pm a red tractor will drive through the streets of Norwich to the John Innes Centre and deliver a load of conventionally bred blight-free potatoes in protest at the research and trials taking place there.

“It’s becoming impossible for farmers in Canada to be organic," reported one of the speakers (this week a farmer in Australia is suing a bio-tech company as their seeds have entered his crops and he has lost his organic status) as we listened to speeches from the Soil Association, local farmers and national campaigners outlining the main reasons why public money should be spent elsewhere.

“It’s complex,” said Josiah before he went on BBC Look East to discuss the GM potato trials at the Centre. Scientific research and the debate around it is complicated, but the decision to allow GM trials is simple. You either believe that it’s OK to radically interfere and manipulate the structure of plants and sow the land with these invasive artificially-bred organisms.

Or you know it isn’t.

The real complexity here however is not this decision, but in arguing from different paradigms. One where corporations seek to control and exploit the natural world for profit and to drive the industrial food machine to every corner of the globe, and the other (of which Transition is part) where individuals and groups seek to establish a small-scale agriculture that works with the natural world, to prevent waste and relocalise the food chain. Josiah who has worked with local growers for years (including FarmShare) and knows his potatoes (as well as the research behind them), faces the same difficulty all of us do in facing that argument.

The people who push for GM are smart and aggressive and have little conscience about these matters. Their decisions are based on conquest and profit. They also fund the academics who can argue cleverly on their behalf. Those who oppose GM have gut instincts, a knowing in the core of themselves that bio-tech crosses a certain line and a feeling they do not want to eat food grown in this way, anymore than they want to eat cloned animals.

The majority of people in the UK have those same unacademic feelings and instincts and do not want to put “Frankenfoods” in their shopping baskets. Corporations seek to persuade everyone to buy bio-tech by claiming it will banish the spectre of future World Hunger, mostly in Africa. The reality is that there is already famine in Africa, as there are massive land grabs by UK bio-fuel companies (a main cause of rising food prices). There are also studies that prove growing organic crops is a far better solution to food security than global industrialised farming which dispossesses and exploits people, drains water tables and destroys local eco-systems. The “opposers” are in fact not so much against GM and its consequences but for everything it takes away, including social equity.

The difficulty is that it is not really an argument we need to be having. Arguments reduce issues into black and white boxes and exclude the ur-complexity, which is not the Byzantine line of scientific reasoning, but the richly-woven web of life, the way everything on the planet is connected and in relationship. The dominating “left-brain” mindset of Empire goes way too fast for this complexity to be seen or heard. It deliberately compartmentalises each issue, so that its contradictions never confront each other. It reduces communication into superficial feel-good spin whilst keeping the depth discussion of real-world ethics and social responsibility at bay. It reduces the globe to a soundbite. A few short moments on a television broadcast.

GMs have been in use in North America for years now. The crops don’t give the great yields that are promised (and sometimes fail), use more pesticides, and the seeds (which farmers can no longer keep themselves) have increased dramatically in price. Economically many farms are struggling. In spite of all the scientific research there has been no study on its effects on people’s standard of health (the US has one of the worst in the Western World). There are plenty of good reasons why we are outside the Forum today in defence of the real potato. But the underlying force that brings us all together has been the subject I’ve wanted to pay attention to this week on This Low Carbon Life.

Because ultimately there is a decision that we all have to take at some point down the line, as the Artic melts, as the environmental storm brews all about us: whether we follow the reason of the mind or the logic of the heart. This ultimately is a question of allegiance. Not just to the beating engine of our bodies, to the profound feeling intelligence of our beings that informs every great thing that we do, but the heart that is the natural order and organisation of all life.

The earth is not made of the human mind. Cities and civilisation are constructed of the human mind, but the natural world and everything we depend on for life is not. Air, water, plants, pollinators. Our minds tell us we can control what gives us life, in spite of increasing evidence to the contrary, and forget one essential fact. The earth is a creation of heart.

We just have to reassemble the letters.

The gathering outside the Forum; chips from the Greenhouse; Brenna on her bike; Jack from GreenGrow with the red tractors (small version); already blight-free potatoes from Wales.

Friday 29 July 2011

The Spirit of the Beehive

In 1923 the philosopher and seer Rudolph Steiner gave a series of lectures on agriculture in which he predicted the future fate of the honeybee. Mechanical beekeeping practices were putting these creatures under high levels of stress and interfering with their natural cycles. In eighty years' time bees will face a crisis, he said, and because bees are inextricably linked with the human world, we will also.

The honeybee has worked her delicate symbiotic relationship with the plant world for millions of years and for as long as anyone can remember the sweet substance she makes from the nectar of flowers has attracted the attention of human beings. Still today men will climb trees in the deep forest to steal honey for the benefit of the tribe. It is a substance that no man can make himself - its flavour and density changing from flower to flower. From the light and delicate orange blossom to the deep resinous flavour of pine trees. Only when civilisation came did people begin to cultivate and control bees and provide them with hives. For hundreds of years people chased out or killed colonies from their skeps at the end of the honey season in autumn. Now they feed them with sugar to substitute their foraged winter stores and it is this practice, along with manipulating the queen and her colony and the damaging use of pesticides in our agricultural systems, that has precipatated our present world-wide collapse of honeybee populations.

It was in response to this crisis that we began Bungay Community Bees in 2009, a small Transition project that was the first Community Supported Apiculture in the UK and caught the imagination of bee and flower lovers everywhere. Last Sunday we held a Bungay Beehive Day in “celebration of the honeybee and other pollinators along with the plants they love”. We held it in the local festival marquee on Castle Meadow and though it was a first-of-its kind event it attracted the attention of people from all over East Anglia. Because, no matter how dark and difficult the times, there is something the honeybee colony has that brings people together in a certain spirit. And it is this spirit that Steiner referred to when he said that, in spite of the crisis, the evolution of people would follow along the lines of the honeybee.

It’s not personal, said Margie from the Natural Beekeeping Trust as she described the way bees work with each other and the world. The Trust promotes a move away from commercial beekeeping practices towards a harmonious relationship with the bees and a respect for nature. She was opening a series of talks we organised that ran along with our information stalls, bee and flower walk (conducted by Mark), display hives and children’s activities. And though there was respect for the scientific method the talks we gave that day were about something else.

People say they have done Transition for years, they don’t need to be part of a Transition group, or they try and hide the Transition word at all costs from their friends and community and pretend it is something else, something less challenging, less well . . . evolutionary. But the fact remains it is evolutionary. Not in the way Steiner or a scientist might describe evolution, but because it is effecting something people have not done collectively before, which is to live in harmony in nature and with each other, having spent millennia living against nature and against each other.

The two spheres – human and natural - are indivisible. Those that feel they don’t need to join the Transition movement because they have championed the environment for decades sometimes forget that this is a social movement. And those that feel it’s all about community and people also forget that it is based on permaculture and our right relationship with places and plants. Something has to bridge those two worlds in our imagination and in our actions and no creature does it more effectively, more elegantly, more beautifully than the bee.

The honeybee was first cultivated in ancient Egypt and has been used as a model for social organisation within civilisations, from kingship to socialism to Buddhism. Hive mind is something that is both sought by controllers and feared by the controlled. However this is to entirely misunderstand the organisational field bees operate in and what that feels like.

Imagine you are in a hive, I said the schoolchildren as they sat by their computers in May. It’s warm and dark in there (20c) and scented with flowers and there is a hum that resonates inside your body. It is one of the cleanest and sweetest-scented built environments in the world. The bees fly out into the sunlit world and they return with the sweetness of the earth. The queen is like the sun in the solar system and everything in the hive is organised around her creative powers. Everyone has a role and knows what to do.

You don’t understand the field with your mind, you understand it with your heart and your physical form. It’s a different order of intelligence altogether.

It’s hard to talk about the organisational intelligence of the heart, because we are a cold-blooded mind culture, addicted to competition, fantasy and domination. We worship science and reason and champion our above-it-all powers of control and give little place to the warmth and beauty of our natural beings that love to work in co-operation. Publicly we do not acknowledge the effect of high or low vibration in the physical world, even though privately we respond in every moment to atmospheres in rooms and people. Joseph Beuys the activist-artist, once set up an installation called Honey Pump in the Workplace, inspired by the lectures Steiner gave. He contended that if you provided the right conditions people would naturally communicate and work together in harmony. You don’t have to explain anything people just "got it". The warmth and vibrancy of natural substances related to the warmth and movement of our blood and activated the higher centres of our consciousness: thought became imagination, feeling became inspiration, and will, intuition.

It's that natural harmony we are trying to get to in Transition. It’s a hard slog because the mechanical forces that keep us within the unnatural system of civilisation, that stop us swarming, that overwork us, seem stronger than our natural instincts. Our immune systems have been weakened by the chemicals we have been absorbing for decades, and the powers of the sun that emanate from all creative people within the collective have been routinely excluded or they have had their wings clipped.

And yet if we provide the right conditions people come together and things change quickly. Those sunny creative forces emerge from within and affect the whole. As soon as Bungay Community Bees was formed the whole initiative underwent a shift of mood and tempo, meetings suddenly got easier and more coherent. Other projects started up. Within the town council where there had once been mistrust and dismissal, there was interest and acceptance. The local newspapers ran full page stories, local radio and television interviewed our first beekeepers. On Sunday an estimated one thousand people came to the workshops, talks, walk and to visit the stands and stalls.

We’re doing everything we can to help the bees.
What we don’t know is that the bees are doing everything to help us.

Entrance to the Bungay Beehive; our first top bar hive; Margie's talk on Natural Beekeeping; children's workshops, making bee masks and puppets and bug hotels; Plants for Bees board; climbing Castle Meadow on Mark's walk; in the Bungay Library Community Garden; wild "weeds" in honey jars; Philip's talk on bumblebees and wild plants; Bungay Community Bees boards

Thursday 28 July 2011

On an ordinary summer's evening in a Transition town . . .

"It’s definitely the stick," said Mark as he stood with a piece of wood in his hands. It had been inadver- tently donated at Sustainable Bungay's Give and Take Day and suddenly reappeared in our hallway. From the outside it looked like a shiny broom handle but it wasn't: it was a fighting stick belonging to a young man mortified by its disappearance. But you’d have to be a warrior to know that.

It’s an ordinary summer's evening in a Transition town. We’re on our way to our monthly core group meeting. First we have to drop off the stick at Kate’s and have some supper with Nick.

“You share your lives in the blogosphere and I’d like to share some of what I do," Nick said as he began to fill a box full of July veg - onions and garlic, fennel, beetroot, fresh eggs and blackcurrant jam. We sat down at the kitchen table and drank some squash wine, ate a delicious bean salad and talked about the financial crisis.

You have to be in Transition to truly appreciate Nick's house – kale and courgettes in the front garden, sorrel around the door, a garage with dried herbs hanging from the ceiling and shelves full of preserves, giant tanks of rainwater, chickens, cupboards and windowsills with kegs of homemade wine, a stack of books on economics. It’s not what it looks like, but what is behind everything you see. What it took to get there. The bare aesthetic of downshift.

Years ago I interviewed a man called Tommy Roberts. I was working for a glossy magazine at the time and the subject of the article was Taste, that indefinable quality that distinguished one person or house from the next. What is Taste? I asked various arbiters of style, fashion designers and editors, owners of grand and important properties. Tommy was once a designer of natty suits in the 60’s when he was known as Mr Freedom but at that time had a shop under Centrepoint full of zany, brightly coloured modern furniture: Taste is the Japanese room with one beautiful vase in the corner, he told me. A lifetime of taking away makes that room. It’s what you don’t have that defines taste.

We live in a have and have-not culture and our value systems are entirely based around possessions. Not just the things those designers were talking about back in the 1980s when materialism and property began its great boom – wallpaper and watches and John Fowler’s "pleasing decay" - but a personal warehouse of business connections, children, communities, garden flowers, Hollywood stars, holiday countries. My special world.

"Well, you’re rich in other ways," said the man at the Financial Instability workshop at the Transition Conference after I had detailed my downshift from The World of Interiors to Sustainable Bungay.
"I really am not rich", I replied.
"You are rich in social relationships", he insisted, frustrated with my density. "In quality time. You are abundant in other ways."
"I have very little", I replied. (which is not strictly true because like most people in this country I have chairs and tables, pots and pans and all manner of basic essentials). "What is wrong with nothing? Why do we have to be wealthy at all?"

What I wanted to say was I had spent a lot of time clearing out that room. And I didn’t replace the things I used to own with different things - with people or experiences, or a low-carbon lifestyle - but had learned to love space and time and the freedom that lack of ownership brought.

In downshift less is not more in the way we once understood Japanese style. Less means you take everything you don’t need away, so that what really matters is left. It means you don’t have because having is no longer important. What becomes important is that freedom of movement and living a deliberate life.

It’s an ordinary evening in a Transition town and we’re on our way to our meeting at the Library. But first we have to meet at the pub with the Community Bee Group to celebrate the success of our Beehive Day (which I’ll write about tomorrow) and then unload Eloise’s van full of information boards and select some just picked fruit from the back of Cathy’s car. Cathy runs the Abundance project and swapping our produce and plants- at our meetings, in the Library community garden- has become a way of life. So here we are in the car park with a stack of boards and punnets of cherry-plums and blackberries meeting in a damp summer in a difficult time, swifts whizzing round the roofs, echinacea flowers full of bees.

At the Transition Conference we all did an exercise. We had to imagine a group we longed to be with in the future. I am no good at visioning and all I could think about was the fact I would be 65 in ten years time and how weird that was. And then I realised I don’t long for a group of people because I am already with those people and I had met them three years ago in the theatre down the street from here. And what was difficult to feedback to my fellow Transitioners in the canteen in Liverpool was the fact that it wasn’t the individuals in the initiative that made us matter to one another, the way we are used to people mattering in our lives, as special friends, or heroes, support systems, as possessions and dependencies. My important relationships.

It was the fact that when we met up as a group in these public spaces something happened between us. Something we held in common. We understood implicitly what we were doing and why – sharing stuff, organising events, going through the agenda. When I looked at this working-together in the visioning it looked like an energy field, the kind of energy field you sense when you stand by a hive humming with bees. A hum of warmth and intelligence that allows people to naturally collaborate and make that low-energy downshift happen. When that’s going on you don’t need possessions to compensate for your isolation, to anchor your introverted fantasy world. You don’t need data or climate science to persuade your tricky mind. You just need to tune in and act.

If you passed by Bungay Library tonight you’d notice the lights were on and if you peered in you might see a group of people around a table, eating plums and laughing, one person intently writing notes, one speaking, another occasionally calling order and everyone else paying attention. None of us look as if we are arbiters of taste, or abundant, or full of well-being or anything else the modern world puts a price on or gives value to. We’re obviously not important members of the community with homes-to-die-for, or great jobs or cars. We appear utterly ordinary and so we are. Ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing.

You can’t see the field from the outside, you have to feel it from the inside. You recognise it when you are in it because you are doing it along with everyone else. In fact you can’t be in it unless you are doing it.That’s the real shift. The move from individualism to group collaboration for the good of the whole is primarily a personal shift, away from ownership and control, into a field of exchange and communication and reciprocity, into give and take. And that’s a whole new lexicon of being. It’s not a replacement of things, it’s a move. A let go and a join in.

Because Transition is not a noun, it’s a verb.

Photos: echinacea by the carpark; with squash wine in Nick's kitchen; rainwater storage; Cathy's Abundance fruit; Nick with harvested herbs.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Waiting for the Heatwave, Living on the Edge

Sometimes I think summer is a state of mind. It pulls you back into memory like no other season: to your picnic childhood, brief summers of love, books set in intense heatwaves on the brink of adulthood, at the end of empire. The past is a different country. They do summers differently there. Even looking back at the photographs of last year everything seems somehow more numinous, more vibrant, more . . . well hot.

High summer is seaside and the people flocking from the cities to sit by the glittering, watery edge of the island. To be unmoored in time, naked to the elements, set free for a moment on this last strip of permissible wildness. It’s cycling down to the dunes in the morning and going for a swim (not today though, it’s raining). So this is a picture from last July when we met Beth from our lane one fine day.

BIG GARDEN But whatever the weather and our fragile happiness that depends on it, the natural world is still out there doing its thing, which in this moment outside the window is expanding in all directions.. Up to midsummer everything shoots skyward in an orderly manner. Then July comes with its big summertime moon, the trees grow dark and shady and the garden becomes huge, resplendent and unruly. I walk about with a pair of shears in my hand and wonder how bushes can turn quite so Amazonian. Here it is at dawn, with some of the local seaside plants - fennel, wild carrot - and surely the biggest buddleia in the world.

INSECTS: Summer is when all the insects arrive. Some are welcome and some are really not. Summer for the black cat (now curled up in the long grass like a small lion in the savanna) is scratching ticks and fleas. For us it's swatting the massive mosquitoes from the marsh and bloodsucking flies known as clegs (maybe should be renamed camerons), avoiding lying in nests of ants, negotiating with the wasp battalions over the greengages. Oh, and aphids . . .

But summer is also the “lawn” full of grasshoppers, the dramatic webs of garden spiders, stag beetles under the logs, the thrilling experience of dragonflies whizzing past your ear on their zig-zag patrols. And it’s sitting beside the buddleia amidst a cloud of butterflies – peacock, scarlet admiral, tortoiseshell, painted ladies - and sometimes those butterflies and dragonflies landing on you. Clocking you with their highly-tuned intelligence. It’s predicted to be the best butterfly summer in 30 years this year, so keep a look out!

BEE PLANTS: All this week I’ve been looking out for flowers in the lanes for our Bungay Beehive Day on Sunday. I’m organising the Plants for Bees stall where we're having a display of the main honeybee plants of the year and a live exhibition of high summer flowers in honey jars. I'm really looking forward to talking with Katherine from the River of Flowers project about planting urban meadows and creating pollination streams.

June is tough for bees in the countryside. Agrochemicals and vergecutters destroy all the “weeds” that once provided them with abundant pollen and nectar. But by July their “hungry gap” is over and there are flowers growing like reckless rebels everywhere they can. Here are some of the ones that are growing by the edge, through the cracks, on the verge of an ecological breakdown. Great mullein on the A146 outside Beccles, viper’s bugloss by Adnams' brewery outside Southwold, St John’s wort on platform 3 at Lowestoft station:

STORING IT UP: Everything is fleeting – childhood, love, the flowers, a summer’s day - and sometimes you just have to take time, even five minutes, to notice the sweet moment as it runs through your living body like a river. Store it up for those long dark winter nights ahead, like fruit in a jar. Like the cherry jam Ed gave me from his tree in Bristol, like the strawberry jam from Malcolm’s smallholding in Darsham, like the whitecurrant jelly from Julia’s garden next door, like the wild cherry-plum pie Nick brought to our Low Carbon Cookbook meeting in Norwich this week and Mark making me laugh on the train going up there.

Here he is in shock response to rising food prices (one of the discussion topics for our Burning Issues chapter), standing with Erik beside Christine’s small city orchard of peach, plum and pear. Smile!

Beth, Jessie and me on Southwold beach; big garden at dawn; scarlet admiral on buddleia in Philip and Irene's meadow; by the great mullein on the A146; by the viper's bugloss outside Adnams' distribution centre; St John's wort on Platform No 3, Lowestoft;
Mark on the train (with banana), edible flowers from the garden; with Erik on Christine's balcony.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Being the Anchor (Pausing for Reflection on the Transition Conference)

One thing I learned from plants, I said to Dan as we headed home to Suffolk and resumed our discussion about roadside herbs, is that whatever you experience in the company of the plant that is the medicine. What makes the medicine is the looking back on that experience afterwards, the dialogue you hold about it and the story you then tell the world.

So after the whirlwind three days in Liverpool what is that story? I wanted to experience everything - the 90 minute workshops, the three hour workshops, the open mike session, talking with the friends I’ve made in Transition who I can’t see everyday - and like everyone else I couldn’t. I missed the Tree Walk, the singing Flash Mob in the canteen, the roving storytellers, the incredible bookshop in the foyer. I had a job to do: I was disseminating all the publicity and media and comms work we do in Transition. I took part in all the main events of the conference to keep pace and then I returned to the Media Action Station, liaised with Ed (web coordination), Mike (photographer), Chris (audio), David (video) and all the conference bloggers who swung by.

When I stopped running and accepted my small role in the whole pattern, that’s when everything started to make sense.

To be an anchor as a communications person means you are in the midst of the action. You report back to the studio and that dialogue makes the broadcast. Being an anchor in a medicine sense has another function: it means you are prepared to put yourself in the eye of the storm and allow that change to take place within you. You are grounding yourself wherever you are, finding your bearings, and bringing the knowledge of what you know into action. Harmonising all those different voices. And that is not an easy position. It demands all your attention, all your feelings, all your time.

We were here to enjoy ourselves, to network, to celebrate, to engage in discussions and explorations. But we were also here to work. And the work of the future means we have to break out of the repeating patterns of the past and live life urgently and for real and not as we have been taught as a theory in our heads.

The conference was a metaphor for Transition, the kinds of pressures we have to withstand, the break-out moves we have to make. Held in Hope University (an ex-Catholic teaching college) the modern buildings kept us in their scholastic corridors and meeting rooms. We spilled out onto the lawns at midnight like noisy students and experienced a certain pressure that in many ways felt like a final exam. You might not know (unless you made that journey) that you were actually in Liverpool. It was hard to find home, said Jo and Inez at the final plenary in the chapel. Or feel close to the earth. Even Jay Griffiths' eloquent talk about wildness felt strangely academic.

We were people in a fishbowl with ideas, responses, theories, we had exercises and workshops and games that enabled us to come together and design a future of energy descent. Beyond the glass windows and the air conditioning lay the real world. What brought it into the room were the messages that came from the outside, particularly those political stories from Transition Heathrow and from Transition Barcelona who on Sunday night showed us videos of the extraordinary uprisings that have been taking place in the main square. How thousands of people in response to the financial and political crises of the times have come together and started to discuss a different way of doing things. Earth care, people care, fairshare.

This is the story of our times: the people who have been working for years persistently, in activism, in Transition, in permaculture and medicine, who suddenly when the moment comes, bring those principles into action. In the city squares of the world the people are gathering to design a future that they want. A democracy that is not dictated from above. One that comes out of neighbourhood, community ownership, sharing of resources, consensus decision making, participation, communication. One that is immediately local, but connects with people everywhere on the planet in the same situation. It self-organises because the people who hold those principles in place put themselves in anchor positions. They hold the change. This is not leadership or control, nor is it random and chaotic. It’s another function entirely.

Last year Nicole Foss in her talk said there will be people in the future who you might not have noticed before, because in the industrialised, push-and-shove, hierarchical culture we inhabit, they are given no value or are taken for granted. But in a time of turbulence their presence becomes known. They are the anchor people who stabilise, who connect, who include, who cohere, who make sense in a time when everything seems to be falling apart. Who bring lightness and possibility in a a time which appears heavy and dark. Who, because they know what to do, so does everyone else.

(click play and press cc for English subtitles)

When the police forced the people out of the Plaza Catalunya the spirit of what had taken place went into 23 neighbourhoods in the city and fired everyone into discussions and community-based actions. People got together to prevent the police evicting their neighbours (thousands of homes have been repossessed by the banks). Groups went into the countryside and took the news of what was happening which had not been reported by the mass media. They are walking now through Spain, going from village to village telling the story.

We met in Liverpool and now we’re returning to our villages and towns and neighbourhoods, telling the story of how things could be different in our words and actions. There are many stories that emerged out of the conference and I hope to relate all of them over the coming months. Today this was the one I chose to tell. Because Transition happens for real when we go out and join in the square with our fellows. When we put our feet on the earth and make ourselves at home. That's not a given, it's a task for everyone who longs for change. I could finally relax at the conference about not experiencing everything because as people came by and told me their experiences they became mine too. Transition is not an individualist story: it's a composite one, many stories told by many people.

Time to stand up and speak. Time to become our own media.

Group photo at Hope University
; interview with Ben Branwyn by David Wilcox; interview with Mike Grenville by Ed Mitchell; Video about Plaza Catalunya from Duncan Crowley's blog (Barcelona en Transicio)

Monday 11 July 2011

Key Messages from the Edge

What's the story of the conference? Hard to see when you're in the midst of the action. Last year Stoneleigh's talk on the financial crisis burst upon the scene and shocked us into looking at the future as a unified group. This year the strands are many and subtle and require time for unpicking, remembering, letting rise to the surface. So I'll sketch out some themes and fill them out tomorrow. One common response to a weekend of full on networking and activities and celebrations was the need for key core messages so here are a few:

MOOD OF THE MOMENT Calm. Focused. Mature. Engaged were the key words from Ben Brangwyn, Peter Lipman and Rob Hopkins of the Network. A willingness to get engaged at a deeper and more committed level. A lot of the discussion is happening at the edges. Like the conversation about livelihoods, the national hubs getting together and organising themselves as networks, the people from Barcelona and Madrid talking about Transition in the squares of Spain. Here's Rob with the book of the conference, David Fleming's, Lean Logic - A Dictionary of the Future and How to Survive It.

A WILLINGNESS TO ACCEPT CHALLENGES The Big Group Process took two hours yesterday in the chapel and food court. Walk if this question means something to you, called out Jo. Stay where you are if not. Have you experienced conflict in your imitative? Everyone was walking . . . and laughing ruefully. Walk if this has brought rewards. We kept walking . . .

WHAT KIND OF CULTURE DO YOU WANT TO CREATE? Question posed by Nick Osborne (Glastonbury) talking about the invisible beliefs and structures that shape our conversations in groups. How much are we prepared to go beyond the superficial. The courageous people who bring the debate into a deeper and more authentic space. Here is an interview with David on a workshop he held later on Group Dynamics:

COMMUNICATIONS Jamming about editorial with many groups. Showing our community blog on a workshop about websites. Meeting (and recruiting) social reporters and guest editors. Discussing communications strategy for the network. Resources for initiatives. Collating key messages particularly to do with the economic recession. What we want to say. What we need to say at this point in time.

ENGAGING YOUNGER PEOPLE Another hot topic was the dynamic between self-organisation and control and how younger people break the crystallised structures of older generations. Is Transition getting too set in its ways was the question asked by one of the Social Reporting crew, Caroline Jackson (Lancaster) in her conference blog, Move Over.

This was the first conference that included children. Samadi will be the youngest blogger on the block when the Social Reporting pilot kicks off in September (and a great drummer too). Here he is discussing websites with Ed on Saturday.

Meanwhile the last workshops are now taking place and the final plenary about to begin. I've just been the cameraman for a really interesting interview with Ben Brangwyn about this year's themes which I'll upload tomorrow. Check out the Transition Conference blog if you have time.

Hasta la vista!

Poster by Transition Barcelona; Rob Hopkins by Mike Grenville; interview by David Wilcox; Cartoon to demonstate the communcations strategy by Chris Wells; Samadi and Ed

Sunday 10 July 2011

Let it grow where it wants to grow

Here I am back at the Media Station, talking to Susan Upton from Transition Fejoe Omstilling in Denmark, showing her how to blog. Kerry is writing up yesterday's events opposite me (just posted - see below!) And Simeon (see above taking part in Rob Hopkins' workshop on Transition ingredients) is also planning a post (if there is time). It's a multi-post Sunday!

Behind me the conference comms group is engaged in working out a Transition media strategy (here's Peter and Chris transcribing yesterday's theme group meeting). We're meeting again after lunch after a hard morning's Big Group Process work. Watch this space!

Transition ingredients workshop; Peter and Chris mull over media; Kerry and fellow Glasgow Transitioner at lunch

Saturday 9 July 2011

Leaving for Liverpool

En route. We left around 11. Dan (Transition Ipswich) picked me up in our rain-drenched lane and we talked medicine plants non-stop (he’s a herbalist) as we wound down small Suffolk lanes until we got to Diss to collect Gary and then more windy Norfolk lanes until we found the last member of the Transition East road crew, Simeon (Norwich). And then we hit the A11. It was serious motorway driving after that.

It’s a long way to Liverpool, across flat and industrialised country, potato fields and wheat, windowless distribution centres and coal-fired power stations.

We talked Transition - economics, politics, community farms - as the towns and flowers flashed past, Cambridge, Crewe, Birmingham Derby. Rosebay willowherb, soapwort, Himalayan balsam, great mullein. The M6 got snarled up. Transport tweets went flying as.the Transition Network bus got held up outside Wolverhampton and we got stuck at Stoke. " If we don’t make it by 7 you’ll be punished," said Dan. "What with?" I asked. "The Archers," he replied "And a gin and tonic". A150, M6, M62 and finally Hope University.

The gin was delicious. Lemon, no ice,

Full-on meetings began immediately. Here’s Mike Grenville (Forest Row) discussing one of today’s fishbowl sessions on Activism with Adrienne Campbell (Lewes) and Ian Westmoreland (Heathrow).Off camera I’m discussing the two workshops I’m helping run on Communications and the Media this morning with Chris Wells (Kensal to Kilburn) and Social Reporting with Ed and David Wilcox. We're also inviting people in the bar to interview each other on video and then uploading on the Transition network site.

What are you expecting from the conference? Haven’t asked myself that question yet. One thing I do know it’s a busy day ahead. I’ll keep you posted from our Media Action Station between sessions. . . .but first breakfast!

Later. Can you believe it it's now 7pm and I'm off in search of supper. Not stopped or had any time to blog AT ALL: theme group preparation, meeting, mapping, singing, interviewing, workshops, fishbowl (on financial instability), lunch, meeting Kerry, 5 Rhythms dancing. Am at the Station opposite Ed uploading videos, next to Chris and Paul working out a media strategy. We're all off to find some supper . . .

11.30pm The bar is in uproar as the band play their last song (especially from the Portuguese delegation). Outside my window everyone is still sitting on the lawn discussing the day's events. Jay Griffiths who gave a talk on the Politics of Kindness, the Transition film crew, the storytellers, the conference organisers, people from initiatives all round the world. Transition Barcelona are telling everyone about the Indignados of Spain. If there is a different mood this conference it is undoubtedly to do with politics and finance and finding a language in which to discuss these things among ourselves and those we meet.

Walking to the Chinese take-away down the street with Helen (Matlock) we discussed social enterprises and living on the edge and how her initiative's CSA has been paying for her organisational skills in food and wood. "It's not time for playing anymore," said Mike. "It's got to work."

Meanwhile the singers outside my window are singing through the night:

Hey Jude don't be afraid, Take a sad song and make it better . . . well, we are in Liverpool.

Photos: Still from Of Time and the City by Terence Davies; Transition East gang about to hit the A11; which way?; Mike, Adrienne and Ian in the bar, Hope University, Liverpool; singing a welcome song from Guinea at the morning gathering; Peter Lipman interviewed by David Wilcox.

Monday 4 July 2011

Come Together Right Now

This month all over England tents are appearing in their thousands across green fields and meadows. If you were a stranger you could be fooled into thinking we had become a nation of refugees, or had broken out into civil war. But then you realise the people are doing something rather more entertaining. We're doing the summer festival thing; escaping from the city and our ordinary routines, picnicking, camping, dressing up, dancing and singing, making merry while the sun shines.

Although Festival-going was once a hip and radical way to gather and listen to music or explore alternative living on the planet, it has now developed into a mainstream pastime. There are festivals and summer camps happening everywhere in the UK: funky, commercial, political, experimental, traditional, Transitional.

And so, during the days leading up to the Transition Conference 2011 in Liverpool, This Low Carbon Life blog crew will be looking at all gatherings great and small this week and asking: are these outdoor pleasuredomes just an excuse for hedonism and a mass distraction from reality? Odd weekends where we can cut the slack, let off collective steam and convince ourselves we are groovy movers-and-shakers really underneath, before returning to our conformist high-tech, high-carbon city lives? Or do they serve a real and essential purpose, providing a meeting place that is not possible within the restrictions of our “normal” social groupings and work places? A glimpse of how life could be if we dropped our collective desire for possessions and mechanical power? Something nearer the earth.

Nearby at the Henham Estate as the security fences for this year’s Latitude Festival are put up by workers bussed in from London it’s easy to be cynical, but last month I went to a convergence that in many ways has replaced the once Great Green Gathering and discovered something else:

Tin Village, Sunrise Festival, Bruton, Somerset
The village is constructed the week before: a square of tin-roofed timber-framed buildings set round a no-dig garden and a wood-fired pizza oven. The hand-chopped fuel heats a copper tank that feeds hot water into the field-kitchen. The waste water feeds into the grey-water system constructed from local reeds and iris flowers. Breakfast and lunch is cooked by Jumala on rocket stoves, perpetual chai brewed by George on a camp fire. Even the Transition Network newsletter being edited by Mike today as I arrive is sent on the wire using solar and wind-power. The Village is a travelling model of off-grid living, organised and run by people from all over England (some Transitioners, some who are already living communally on the land), and the purpose behind everything here is a teaching and a skill-share, how to live sustainably, with an eye to powerdown.

You could sit in the workshop spaces of the Village and learn everything you needed to know about downshift: practical stuff about earth ovens, inner stuff to do with change. Mike begins at 7am teaching yoga and ends at midnight showing films about peak oil and living without money, I’m giving a workshop on Social Reporting and Storytelling with Ed (web coordinator for the Network) and working my keep in the field-kitchen, making dough, chopping veg and talking with festival goers who queue up to make their own organic pizzas. It’s hands on, full on, for three days.

Here I am with Cat from Transition Brentford discussing wild edible plants, listening how to make a disinfectant from horsetail and orange peel. Here I am rushing off with a plate of chickpeas for Pete from Tinker’s Bubble who has just found two swarms of bees underneath a car. Here I am talking with Kath (one of the Village’s organisers and also a beekeeper) about the best ways to transport them. Here I am talking with Jumala who made the chickpeas and who used to cook for the Hari Krishna folk in India and Cardboard City in London. And now back again kneading dough: push, pull, fold, feel, let go.

Afterwards I walk around the tents in the two fields, checking out the scene like everyone else. Drink, eat, move, listen, watch. Do things I wouldn’t normally: dance to The Orb, sit naked in a sauna, drink mead, watch the sun go down between the green hills with a hundred other people. The shapes and colours from another England appear like magic: tents like giant hats, blackboards with curly coloured handwriting, girls in wild exuberant costumes, pennants fluttering in the breeze. Wizards talk about the end of the world, circus performers tumble through hoops, a black poet tells a tale about losing his leg, children in dragonfly wings climb a dragon made from ash and willow branches. Crowds roar at bands at several stages. You can cycle to recharge your mobile phone, work for two hours in the Buddhafield cafĂ© and get a free curry, make sour-dough bread or a wood bowl in a forest garden, you can lie in a rainbow faraway garden and rave on till dawn. Boom, boom, wah-wah, the party in fairyland never ends. Or so it seems.

What matters is that we remember we are all workers and that we care about each other, says Theo Simon from Seize the Day in the Green Dome. That’s the sentence that sticks among the millions of words and lyrics floating in the breeze. Hard to remember when there is a pressure to enjoy everything, catch it while it lasts (quick, quick, because in a few days the show will disappear). That’s why it’s important to write stuff down I’m telling the Social Reporting crew on a dry-run for this weekend’s Transition Conference. We have to feedback our experiences and put them into form, so they take root within the fabric, or it could vanish like a midsummer night’s dream. What matters is that we start telling a different story.

What is the story? That’s the key question. The story is what you keep and want to pass on. The story you can tell to a circle of people, or write down because you care. The rest is transience. What remained from Sunrise was the fire, the feeling of being part of a crew that converged and did stuff together. Head, heart and hands knowledge that you can’t get from books. The first two days were hot and beautiful and then on the last day the storm came. The wind howled and shook the tents. I sat with Mike in the children's activities area among a pile of rain-soaked mats and drank coffee gratefully from a tin mug, as the Village crew began to chop wood and light the stoves. Rocket stove, camp fire, earth oven. That’s when you remember what really matters: shelter, warmth, food, company, and most of all warmth.

No fire, no people.

Sunrise camp; George and the Magical Art of Chai Making; Tin Village blackboards; workshop on Design for Sustainable Living by Kieran Vandan Bosch; making pizza; no-dig garden; Jumala making breakfast