Monday 24 October 2011

What's in Store for 2012?

"The question I want to ask is: do we have a National Store?" asked Lady Cranbrook. "That’s one question I can answer," Lord Deben laughed. "No, there isn't one." (from Reclaiming the Field)

I am not by nature a squirrel. I don’t get a big feeling for hoarding or collecting stuff (though I do, like many coastline dwellers, have a habit of pocketing stones and quirky things from the beach). And yet this is the time when it is smart to be thinking ahead and stocking up with summer's abundance. Some wise Transitioners have been at this for months: plaiting onions, bottling raspberries, cooking up vats of green tomato chutney and damson jam, drying rosehips and borlotti beans. Along their hallways and windowsills sit pumpkins of various colours and sizes, seeds carefully collected in a drawer, dried herbs and chillies swinging from the ceiling.

In TN's Low Carbon Cookbook discussions the Resilent Larder is a prime focus. Some of us cottage-dwellers are lucky to have this key cool space, others find chests-of-drawers in garden sheds, extra cupboard space in their downshift kitchens, drawers under beds. We don't depend on huge freezers to store glut produce, but find out ways of keeping things that can be bottled and dried for the winter months.

The modern industrial world lives and eats at a just-in-time delivery pace. In cities and towns people can dash out anytime to supermarkets where fridges hum perpetually and everything is kept wrapped and irradiated and gassed, chock full of palm oil and preservatives so it won’t spoil. Winter and summer are identical when you can ship produce from anywhere in the world. You can eat strawberries and French beans anytime of the year.

But to eat seasonally, locally, ethically, with an eye to peak oil and carbon reduction you have to rediscover how to store up your treasures on earth: find out for example that strawberries are not here forever, that they appear deliciously for these hot midsummer weeks only. And those greengages that are dripping from the tree in July and buzzing with wasps will glisten like gold and taste like manna on a cold January day. So you learn things your grandmother should have taught you: how to make jam, how to store apples, how to make sauerkraut and quince paste, what to do with chestnuts. You learn to appreciate what you have now, and keep some for later. Just like life.

It’s a whole different relationship with the world. Brought up in a city neighbourhood of delicatessens and street markets I learned to cook supper with stuff I picked up on the way home from work. I am a grazer and gleaner by nature, an opportunist who loves surprises. Ah, that looks good. Now when I look at my larder I can see the resilience factor at work in spite of myself. We are not as well-stocked as Nick, who turns everything into his garden into a pickle or wine, or as thorough as Graham and Nicky Eliott who teach classes on preserving in their organic smallholding in the Waveney Valley (last one on November 5).

But you can chart that shift. It’s packed to the gunnels: shelves of wild cherry, sea buckthorn and marigold tincture, dried elderberries and lemon balm leaves, beetroot relish and blackcurrant jam, on the floor sit two sacks of potatoes (Marion's and Malcolm’s) and several trays of apples (from our Abundance tables at Sustainable Bungay) alongside sacks of millet and rice flakes and sweet jars of rice and beans (from Suma wholefood group). Outside there’s another cupboard of freegan groceries and a cache of acorns on the table I hope to turn into seriously survivalist flour with a recipe from Milly at the Transition Camp. A dormouse would be happy.

This week on the blog in celebration of Autumn we are sharing our tips and thoughts about the cheerful and resilient storing of food: harvesting and preserving, showing neat ways to keep native fruit and prepare dishes from seasonal veg by a Transition crew of growers and cooks. Some of this food is from our veg boxes, roadside stalls and gardens, others from our wild neighbourhoods. As the storm gathers outside we’re learning new attitudes to old ways, scouring our nearby hedgerows, collecting fruit from city trees. Learning to relish what we have and not let harvests rot or go to waste.

In October's Transition Newsletter the post that had twice as many clicks than any other was Who is Storing Now? by Eric Curren. It's the initial piece in the series The Happy Hoarder on Transition Voice that advised learning from the experts - from survivalist dried food producers to Mormons to US Transition groups like Grand Ronde Transition in Oregon who shot this video on three month food storage. On the Energy Bulletin amongst articles on peak oil and the #occupy movement an ex-newspaper editor from St Louis now living in Ireland makes hawthorn wine and jelly and reflects on old and modern ways of collecting food:
When we do things like this, we act as modern gleaners, the subculture of people who gathered the waste left behind after the harvest. Gleaners held an accepted place in most cultures, gathering grains in fields or rubbish in cities

Stand behind a restaurant or supermarket at night, or look at berry bushes or weed fringes in season, and you might see our gleaners at work – freegans, greens, preppers and itinerants of all kinds. They wear your old clothes, fix your old toaster, and eat the pre-sliced carrots that the supermarket keeps under plastic and argon. If we have resource shortages and mountains of rubbish outside our cities, it is because we don’t have more of them.
Time to get those bottles out.

Photos: Halloween pumpkin heads; with Daphne, Lesley and Eloise at the Sustainable Bungay Autumn Produce Swap at the Library Community Garden; local rosehips;
poster from Agnes Varda's The Gleaners and I; dried field beans grown by William Hudson as part of TN's Beans, Oats and Bread project.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

What Do You Do? Writing on the Edge

We don’t talk much about what we do for a living in Transition. So today I was going to write about the “real world” work some of my fellow Transitioners are engaged in, about being a cook, or market gardener or librarian. Then I thought: why am I not writing about myself trying to make a sustainable livelihood from writing?

Writing, as a method, is rarely sustainable, no matter how right on you are. Producing books means taking down forests, working as a journalist means being financed by corporate advertising. Even this blog is invisibly dependent on vast machines fuelled by American coal. Your hands are dirty as soon as they touch the keyboard. And yet following Simeon’s criteria writing and speaking sustains the people just as vitally as food and water.

Communication functions within the human collective in the same way mycorrhizal fungi work within the soil, amongst the roots of plants and trees. Communication between ourselves keeps us human and at liberty. The shock doctrine that has been applied to the world economy is based on the the principle of forced solitary confinement of prisoners. It presses to keep the door shut between us so that we feel alone and powerless.

To work in communications means you work 24/7 to connect, cohere and make sense of the world. You speak for those who have no voice, disseminate ideas, uncover truths, challenge, inspire and a hundred other invisible tasks that go (mostly) unsung in organisations everywhere.

Writers know that their primary "job" is to keep those doors open, no matter how hard history presses. So whether you earn money by your craft, or not, it does not dissuade you from the daily task you have inherited in spite of yourself and your destiny.

The Task

How did it begin? At the age of 12 my grandfather began to perch on the edges of my life like a sparrowhawk.

Be a writer, he told me, and burn that cello!

Surrounded by the formality of the Club, he would launch into what he considered the worth-while things of life, which went in the entirely opposite direction of everything I had so far been taught. Self-discipline, rigour, gnosis, was the basis of his creed, as well as generosity in important matters, such as clotted cream. Writing was life’s greatest task, Arnold Bennett, who wrote 2000 words before breakfast, its ideal craftsman. Entirely self-educated, he learned to write by becoming a journalist, he taught himself law whilst serving in the trenches, and told me that life, and only life, can give you anything worthwhile.

“You must leave school,” he tells me, as I sit before the austere and shining battery of eating implements of the club dining room. “School will only teach you how to read books. When you become a writer, then you can travel wherever you like and be able to earn your living.”

“But I am only fourteen!” I protest (I am fond of books, and also of my school companions).

But my grandfather does not change his position on the matter. He proof-reads and copy-edits my correspondence in red ink, informing me that The Times always expects a good margin from its contributors and Life that we keep to the Delphic code.

Know thyself. To thine own self be true.

I became a journalist at the age of 22 having gone to university and read a lot of books first. I wrote for my living for 12 years in London: interviewing, styling shoots, writing opinion pieces, hitting deadlines for newspapers and glossy magazines. But what had attracted me to the work was my grandfather’s description of freelancing in South Africa, the way writing brought with it the unimaginable vastness of the African savannah. The unmistakable scent of freedom!

And so, one day at the height of my brilliant career, I left to experience those bright spaces:

Tonight is retro night: no one is talking about the future. There are models passing by with crystal laughter and young men dancing with themselves and a caberet from Harlem. I suppose this is a good enough way to say goodbye. Goodbye to words like serious and important, major and grownup. Goodbye to my fashionable vocabulary, goodbye to Sancerre at lunchtime, goodbye to black, goodbye to my fast life, all that double kissing.

"Once you go, you know there is no re-admission," warned the doorman.
"Yes," I said, "I do."

Hey ho, time to hit the road . . .

The Return

How do I come back? For a long time when we were travelling I was self-financed. When I left London in 1991 I sold everything I owned, including my flat, and then several years later my father left me some money in his will. When I returned to England in 2002 I could no longer return to my old work as a consumer journalist. Everything had changed.

“Who are you working for?” asked the ladies of Southwold politely when I arrived. “I don't work for anyone,” I replied. “Oh!” they exclaimed and turned away, fearing, as many conventional people do, the taint of the non-employed.

For a while I worked in local arts organisations (paid) and for environmental campaigns (unpaid). I used my skills to write press releases and theatre programmes and sometimes worked 60 hour weeks for the equivalent of £3 a hour. That’s when I realised the great cultural divide between the salaried and the wage earner in the UK, when I learned about the benefits system, about charity trustees and managers, and what it was like on the other side of the tracks.

One day I the poet, Adrian Mitchell give a lecture called Who Killed Dylan Thomas? I knew I had to write the books I had inside me, no matter what it took:

The kitchen years are about to end: the years when I adjusted microphones and radiators, stuffed envelopes, poured wine, knew the insides of buildings like my own body and the needs of people better than they knew themselves. These are the years in which I failed because I was someone who believed in editorial and could not write advertising copy, marketing copy or the kinds of prose shiny souvenir programmes are made of; where line managers tell me “we don’t want to know what you think”, and charity trustees that I am “just A.N. Other”.

These are the years in which I wear badges that declare I am a.n.other event
manager, venue manager, safety officer, press officer and spend hours counting the small change. The years I served a strange god. Here at this poetry festival I have been talking to poets who are sent into prisons and mental asylums, who are laughed at by schoolchildren, poets who cannot speak, who cry in supermarkets, who are not listened to anymore than I am myself. Poets who wake up in the midst of terror and make an oath of loyalty to the kitchen table, who praise radishes and olive trees when the times are bad.

Where does this go? I now ask myself, having written those books and been a Transition blogger for two years (unpaid). What does a lifetime’s knowledge of medicine plants, land dreaming, Western culture in all its aspects count for? Can being able to source and cook real food, put together a book, a magazine, a blog, to downshift, hold a meeting, give a talk, have any economic value? All of these skills are useful in Transition, but do they have any leverage in the world of work which seeks the young and qualified and a strict obeisance to the status quo?

The fact is, like thousands of people around the world, I am configured for a new time. I have downshifted from a life of privilege to find out how to move from a hostile individualistic way of being (Empire) to a collective, life-affirmative one (earth community).

I am here to show what it is like to go through those creative alchemical processes in order to make this shift happen: how to put a crooked thing straight in the world’s history, how to align with the planet, how to make sense of difficulty, bring meaning and value and structure into everything we do, create beauty, clear space. But few, if any, in the business-as-usual system want to pay for that stuff. Unless it takes the form of entertainment or to make the 1% feel more comfortable about their lives.

The fact is when you burn your cello and go for that freedom you make a bad servant. That’s a risk you take. A risk all writers take, even though it sometimes kills us and sends us to the gulag. You leave what is known and safe in order to keep the door open. Because you know in your heart that no human being is born a wage-slave and that it is time the 99% of the world let their voices be heard.

So dear reader, if you know of any publishers . . .

Excerpts: Passionflower, from 52 Flowers that Shook My World; Introduction to Reality Is the Bug That Bit Me in the Galapagos by Charlotte Du Cann and Mark Watson (HarperCollins) and Opium Poppy, from 52 Flowers.

Photos: #norwichoccupier at the Haymarket; annual passion flower; opium poppy; Brixton Pound stall from post on TTB's volunteer policy: with Theresa and Cecilia, Real de Catorce, Mexico 1994

Wednesday 12 October 2011

The Visitors - A Transition Journey

I'm setting off today, catching an early train. I'm leaving Bristol Temple Meads, London Liverpool Steet, Machynlleth. I'm leaving Darsham by the marshes of my own home territory, crossing the city, negotiating bridges, underground tunnels, standing on a platform with schoolchildren, city commuters and old ladies going to the sea for a holiday. I'm on my way to visit the social reporters who live in different corners of the country, to meet the people I'm working with to create this new Transition communications hub. To find out how the places we live in influence our everyday lives and our initiatives, and how we all connect on a national scale.

Outside the window the flowers of the autumn flash past, skeins of travellers joy, stands of Michaelmas daisies, a resurgence of great mullein. The apples fall from the railway trees and form small pools of gold along the track. The jackdaws of Britain gather in the grey skies over a canopy of beech and oak. Outside the window the soils of the island shift colour from the red outside Totnes to almost black outside Cambridge, the arable prairies of the East become the green misty hills of the West. Rivers, valleys, house backs, allotments, distribution centres, sugar beet plants, ancient steeples, sprinkled cow and sheep, barn and spinney, the pattern language of Britain speaks its eloquent lexicon of brick and stone, tree and estuary.

One thing you do not expect: how beautiful it still is and how gentle. How, even with the knowledge you carry inside your mind about melting glaciers, population expansion, planning laws, species extinction, fracking, a morning in England can be so lovely. That the shape of the Chiltern Hills or the Sussex downs or the first glimpse of the Devon coast can still take your breath away.

I wanted to visit everyone on the project as much as was possible, the reporters who write during the week and the guest editors who write each Sunday. So today I'm meeting Jo in Finsbury Park, having a coffee with Rachel and her son and cats in her kitchen in Dursley, sleeping in a tipi in Ann's garden in Artist's Valley outside Macynlleth. I'm meeting Chris Wells (Communications) at the Transition Conference in Liverpool, Peter Lipman (The Big Picture) at Ed's house in Bristol, Tamzin Pinkerton (Food and Health) at Transition Camp in Sussex, Shaun Chamberlin (Economics) at the Uncivilisation festival in Hampshire.

Will you write a piece for us? I say and smile.

One key thing I remember from travelling for all those years. Visiting makes a difference to people and places. If you are visited your house is refreshed by someone noticing the small things you take for granted - the colour of your walls, how you plant your garden - enjoying your children, you. When you visit you see other vistas, other houses, other initiatives, something moves inside. You are surprised by the generosity of strangers who respond so positively to your presence. No longer good old (or not so good but certainly old) Charlotte. Visiting is how we engage in diversity and feedback, how we value, how we make connections.

Visiting is how I find out that Jay (Totnes) shares a love of Gary Synder's work, how Rachel (Dursley) works for ecotricity, how Martin (Cambridge) could talk about business with Jay, how Adrienne (Lewes) could talk forest gardens with Jo, how we could all visit Joe at Transition Heathrow and experience how TH run their meetings by consensus. How we could all visit Adrienne and see how TT Lewes have renovated the weekly market with small producers and social enterprises and via direct action helped a derelict school become a community space. How we could all benefit.

Because visiting is key to the art of communication. If we just stay in our own localised communities we forget the bigger picture. When we surf the net and peek into stranger's lives across the globe we forget about our own land, the value of the face-to-face encounter, what it feels like to wake up in another bedroom, to break up our own rigid routines and mindsets and not have everything under control.

When I stayed with Adrienne before and after the Transition camp she was on a "locovore" Sussex diet, which like the Fife and Cornwall diets means eating only food and drink that grows within your vicinity. Sussex is abundant in vegetables and fruit and beer, but crucial items from the larder were missing, including salt. So she had gone down to the coast to collect sea water and boiled it down until it crystallised.

But we have traded salt for hundreds of years, I said (there are salt routes all over Suffolk), as we discussed the challenges of eating strictly locally and seasonally. And no matter how peak oil and economic recession will affect our ability to travel as freely as we once did, we will still move because it is our nature to move and exchange, as much as it is to make roots and be stable. And travelling to meet people in this last month has shown me how vital that linking up is.

I have loved all my trips. I loved staying with Ed and jamming with him over breakfast, cherry tree in the garden, cat on my lap. I loved helping Ann and John in their market garden and going to dip my feet in a wild waterfall. I loved meeting Sarah in Belsize Park (People and Connections) and having a glass of Pinot Grigio in a London bar. I loved walking with Martin through the Cambridge streets and meeting Steve (Transition Ipswich) by serendipity on platform number 2. I loved travelling back to Paddington Station with the oldest member of the GrowHeathrow crew, as he told me how he became an activist and fitted all the glass panes for their greenhouses, so they could all live there. I loved talking with Adrienne, sitting beside her beehive in the corner of her forest garden at dusk as the moon rose over the hill. I loved hearing everyone's stories and telling them mine, about the things we do. The feeling that life is OK and there are people everywhere working towards the future in all the corners of this land.

But the best thing about visiting is coming home. When you come back you realise why you chose to be here in the first place. Thanks to fossil fuel and the industrial complex many of us are well-travelled people: we love the sea in Turkey, the countryside in France, Italian food, North African markets. We think nothing of going to Thailand or Australia, and take the places we live in for granted. But in Transition our world shrinks and we have to work harder to love our neighbourhoods and ourselves.

I have yearned for the physical experience of being in the desert or swimming in the Aegean, I have longed to live again in the Welsh hills, and be able to walk into a city cafe. To be up mountains, on the road, staying in a hotel in an unknown town. But as soon as we start approaching Manningtree and the train swings across the broad reach of the Orwell, something opens up. The light expands, the horizon goes on forever. I'm in big sky country again. Soon I'll be changing trains onto the Lowestoft line and the land will become familiar: shorn barley fields, craggy oaks, golden marshes, water meadows, fluffy-headed hemp agrimony gone to seed, the boats laid up at Woodbridge, painted chicken houses as I approach Darsham and Mark waiting at the station to greet me.

How did you get on
he will ask, picking up the suitcase, a turmeric plant I was given and my rocket stove. Let's go home and have a cup of tea I will say, and I will tell you everything . . .

Photos: walking towards the sunrise, Southwold: Jo in front of her teaching nursery garden in Finsbury Park; Joe and Transition Heathrow at Grow Heathrow; Chris Wells and communication strategy at the Transition conference; Jay at Totnes station; field kitchen at the Transition Camp

Tuesday 11 October 2011

The Yurt and the Labyrinth - Transition Camp 2011

It has been a year of gatherings, each one different from the last. Although many have taken place in the countryside, this was the first one I had gone to that paid full attention to nature. The 2011 Transition Camp was not defined by its music or intellectual debate, but by our presence on the land, the chalk and clay pastures and woodlands of Sussex.

The Camp is held each October on a farm that once grew strawberries. When the English soft fruit growers co-operative was broken up by the supermarkets Waspbourne Manor Farm became the Wowo camping site and a centre for bio-diversity. For the last three years it has also hosted the South East Transition gathering in one of its main fields, organised by Mike Grenville of TT Forest Row.

The yurt was in a hornbeam grove by a stream edged by Himalayan balsam that at night was full of owls. Inside it was felted and had a skylight so you could see the trees moving. We slept on futons and a wood burning stove kept us warm. It was the kind of space you could live in for ever and happily forgo electricity and running water. It was also one of the spaces where the weekend talks were held.

The talks ranged from Sacred Baking to Fracking in the UK. Mike talked on Navigating Community Chaos. Adrienne talked about Natural Beekeeping. I talked about Big Picture Thinking and Medicine Plants. Summing up a discussion on Inner Transition, druid Philip Carr-Gomm warned us about the demons that can lurk in people's dreams for the future and cited the back-to-nature movements in Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries that become the dark history of Europe. Though the local Sussex downland TT initiatives seem gentler and more spiritually-based than our rough and ready big sky East Anglian ones, I didn’t encounter idealism. Something else far more earthy was going on.

In 2011 most of us are not thinking about a well-ordered 20 year Transition Timeline, but what will happen now when our industrialised system begins to crack economically and environmentally. Maybe three years ago we experienced a youthful burst of enthusiasm, but for most of us those demons appeared pretty quickly in the form of difficult meetings with our fellow Transitioners. Co-organiser Martin from Brighton (an initiative that had its fair share of demon struggles) did hold a fireside circle on How Is Your Transition Journey? but the main engagements of the weekend did not centre around our initiatives or communities, but on rediscovering an archaic and resilient way of being together.

Was this an escape from reality, or was it the reality? Giving the talk on plants I realised that finding a real connection with the planet, the lightness and intelligence it brings, is as important right now as keying into the #occupy movement or Keystone Pipeline protest, knowing about melting ice caps or organising community projects.

Civilisation with its problems is set within the bigger reality of the planet and so long as we do not indulge in fancies or the kind of individualism that Mark was talking about yesterday, we can connect with this reality with our physical bodies and our imaginations as well as with everyone in the world who is doing the same work. We just have to make the time.

Big Picture Thinking, Small Action Living - Facing Reality in Times of Radical Downshift

I read The Haw Lantern by Seamus Heaney. The hawthorn berry is the lantern carried by Diogenes, the cynic philosopher who walked around at the beginning of Athenian civilisation, peering into people’s faces looking for an authentic human being. To find the the real person in ourselves and to meet as The People requires a kind of scrutiny, an inner work that many of us have been conducting through the years. It also requires gathering in certain configurations in order that we recognise one another, to know we are not alone, that we hold the ancestral flame for the future inside ourselves as a group.

The weekend was opened and closed by gatherings organised by Rebecca from Transition Crouch End. We hung wooden discs on the tree of the weekend, the elder, made clay figures, held hands and walked in spirals as we sang songs. The children ran round the hay labyrinth and at night it was lit by candles. The communal camp was held in a circle of wooden stakes around a field kitchen, meeting tents and several fires. And there was something about these shapes, these circles of people, these felted enclosures, the tin washing and eating bowls, the soup on the fire, the clay oven that cohered us in a way that our separating straight-lined, square-boxed, pixel-formed modern world does not.

One of the main principles of the camp is about sharing knowledge. Not in an entertainment or arts-and-craftsy way, but because we will need these skills for the future - skills that range from making bread and felt to singing together and teaching bush craft to children. I found out how to make acorn flour by storing the nuts for two months, shelling and crushing them and leaching the tannin with several soaks of cold water. I made a rocket stove from two large and three small tins. I learned that you need at least 20 cross-pollinated plants for their seeds in any variety to maintain populations. And when we looked through the telescopes at the night sky and saw stripey Jupiter’s bright moons and the craters of our moon I felt the earth was not alone and nor were we in our struggles to keep life going here in a way that we in all in our hearts wish for.

But most of all I found out that when push comes to shove extraordinary things come out of people. I know that because when I gave my talks I didn’t have any time to prepare. Or rather most of the stuff I was thinking about on the train became irrelevant when I arrived on site and began to talk with everyone. I collected some plants and remembered some ways of paying attention I had found in an earth dreaming practice I explored with Mark years ago. Then when the time came I looked at everyone in the dark warm interior of the yurt, opened my mouth and told my story.

Herbs for Resilience: 10 Key Medicine Plants

I read Old Man by Edward Thomas. It’s a visionary poem about the southernwood bush. Thomas wrote it as he observed his 4 year old daughter in the garden just before he went back to the trenches for the last time. I passed round a sprig of the feathery bush and its relative, common wormwood, and asked everyone to guess what strong fragrant plants they held in their hands. Like most sunflowers wormwoods are a bitter medicine and they famously token the end of civilisation (their Latin name absinthium meaning against sweetness). The bitterness of reality that counteracts the decadence of the pleasure-dome.

Mike who also co-ordinated the camp as well as the programme (brilliantly) told me that holding it on the edge of autumn brought home the realities of living without fossil fuel. And it’s true, immediately you arrive your focus turns to shelter, warmth, food and making contact with your fellows. It’s small too (100 people) which gives you enough time to talk with just about everyone without suffering festival stress-syndrome, the anxious feeling that the great workshop/party/talk/encounter is happening in the next field and you will never have the Right Experience or make the Perfect Contact.

“It would be great if the Transition Conference could be held in a camp,” I said to Mike as we looked at the double rainbow appearing above our heads.
“Most people don’t want to camp,” said Mike.
“Maybe we all need to learn how to,” I replied.

I can say this because I was 55 before I went to a festival. Thanks to Transition I learned the beauty of sleeping in a tent outdoors, working in a field kitchen, meeting strangers round a fire. I learned that you can hold a dandelion plant in your hand and speak about its extraordinary bitter-leaved equalising medicine that frees up all the cramped and crystallised spaces inside. How it liberates knowledge and happiness from places you never imagined were there. How it can make everyone laugh and dance and feel the irrepressible sense of being alive, that force that pushes wild nature through the pavements of cities and well-behaved gardens everywhere.

And so Transitioners everywhere if you want to share the experience, you know where to come and where you are welcome. See you in 2012!

Photos by Mike Grenville and CDC: Labyrinth; the yurt and talk on Herbs for Resilience; Milly Hawkins talking about foraging for acorns; tools for making rocket stoves with Louise Smith; Martin Grinch biodynamic seed collector talking about gathering veg seeds: Mike in yurt doorway sweeping up at the end of the weekend; children queuing up to try the apple press with Fran the cook.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Physically, Actually, Really – Transition Topic Weeks

Our topic weeks began in March 2010 with an elephant in the room, Flying. Several of us were engaged in the Transition Circles at the time and the effect of personal carbon reduction within the initiative challenged many of us to (literally) walk the talk. It’s easy, for example to hold forth academically about peak oil, to feel instinctively that climate change is Important, but on the blog we wanted to ask the difficult low carbon questions of ourselves: were we still taking the plane? Did we shop at supermarkets and eat junk food? What were we doing about waste in our households and neighbourhoods, physically, actually, really? And was “community” just a word we used to cover up our splendid isolation, or were we in fact creating the kind of downshift culture we dreamed of by writing its new narrative, every day, on time?

The intent behind the topic weeks was to connect those dis-connects and brings those very real personal and political interests together. Resilience within eco-systems is due to its biodiversity. Many solutions to different challenges that come about due to the whole system being in communication with itself. Transition is a deliberately diverse practice and its media needs equally to allow as many different voices to be heard.

So the topic weeks always aim to include several positions on certain key subjects and not limit the discussion to one Transitionally-correct opinion. On This Low Carbon Life we have bloggers who are involved in this cultural sea-change at all levels of engagement, from toe-dipping to whole body immersion. All of us have different perspectives, different commitments.

But all of us are on the beach.

This year we have looked at thirteen different subjects, led by one of the bloggers who organises the rota, introduces the week and acts as a temporary editor. This year has included Elena (Autumn, Books and Waste) , Charlotte (Gatherings, Spring, Fashion) Mark, (Deep Nature, High Summer), Chris (Climate Change, Buildings in Transition), Kerry (Happiness, Christmas and Midwinter, Transition Basics), Jon (New Year, Transition Postcards, Health in Transition). Keep an eye out for Best Blogs led by Jon and Sustainable Livelihoods led by Simeon this autumn, Meanwhile here is Kerry just before she left for Glasgow summing up the Happiness Week.

Photos: Mark in Madre Tierra, Southern Ecuador (Transition Postcards); poster for Gasland from Fracking Hell and Other Apocalypses by Charlotte Du Cann (Transition Basics); dress from recycled plastic bags by helenofnorwich (New Year).

In Praise of Saying Thank you
by Kerry Lane
26 March 2011
Transition Norwich Blog

My blog today was inspired by the TED talk by Laura Trice that I have included above. She encourages us all to genuinely thank each other more and to be honest about the praise we need.

The value of praise
We are bought up thinking that saying thank you is just good manners, part of social convention, as arbitrary and subject to change as the custom of shaking hands and one of those things that 'young people these days, have no(ne of)'. But as we grow up we realise the underlying value of saying thank you, the value of praise. We realise our need as a species to have our efforts recognised and appreciated, as a way of feeling a valued part of our communities.

Having worked in several different organisations I have experienced first hand how much difference it makes to feel that your work and efforts are being recognised and valued. For a start it motivates you to keep going and to try harder for the organisation, it also makes you feel happier and more content with your job.

However, saying thank you is not just important in a work setting. Thanking people is such a small effort from you, but can make such a huge difference to how the other person is feeling, especially if they are very busy and/or stressed. I think if we all took the time to properly thank the people around us for what they do, rather than just assuming that they know we are grateful, then it could have amazing effects on our society. People would feel happier, communities would be stronger, people would feel less isolated, less trapped in a faceless world. One small gesture of human compassion could make a much bigger difference than you realise.

I find it all too easy to just not get round to thanking people for things, as Laura mentions in the video I some how feel a bit embarrassed by it sometimes. It is also so easy to assume that people know you are thankful, but even if they are, they are still going to appreciate a thank you! In our time poor world it often seems to be one of the things that doesn't quite happen, but I know what its like at the other side too, the slight disappointment and uncertainty of not receiving a thank you.

In a voluntary organisation, such as Transition Norwich, it is very difficult to ensure that everyone gets recognition for the effort they put in. Especially when there is not one person in control who sees everyone's contributions. However, it is so important as everyone is giving their time for free and wants to feel an important part of the community.

Thank you
So I would like to take this opportunity to thank some of the people that have put tremendous amounts of time and effort into making Transition Norwich the success that it is. Tully Wakeman, Christine Way and Chris Hull, who were all members of the original core group, put in lots of effort to get the whole thing started and have stayed very involved doing an awful lot of work behind the scenes without enough thanks. So I would like to say a massive thank you to them for all of their hard work. I would also like to thank Charlotte DuCann, Mark Watson and Andy Croft for being the biggest movers and shakers of the communications team to date, they are responsible for the website, the monthly bulletin and this blog and they have put massive amounts of time and effort in to making them so brilliant.

To all of you - we massively appreciate all that you have done and still do.

There are of course many other people who have made Transition Norwich the success that it is and I am very thankful for everything everyone has done, you are all amazing.

And thank you very much for taking the time to read my post and for being caring and conscientious enough to want to make this world a better place.

Saturday 8 October 2011

The Writing on the Wall

By Charlotte Du Cann
The future is fraternal John Berger (Hold Everything Dear)
Last night I went to a meeting about the Dark Mountain Project in Norwich. This literary and intellectual movement revolves around a manifesto written by ex-journalists, Paul Kingsnorth (The Guardian) and Dougald Hine (BBC) who, like many writers, artists and contemporary thinkers have "stopped believing in the stories our civilisation tells itself".

In response people are gathering in order to create a new cultural narrative. As Paul Kingsnorth explains in a recent interview in The Ecologist:
We’re an open space in which people can gather when they stop pretending that everything will be all right – that the world can be ‘saved’, that climate change can be stopped, that governments will start being nice if we shout at them loudly enough, that the world will change for the better through the sheer force of rational argument, that all the trends which are currently converging towards collapse will be magicked away if we work hard enough. Once you feel ready to step into that space, we ask people to look honestly at the way the world is, and where it is going, and to respond to that culturally and creatively.’
What is clear is that a space is being opened up, a vacancy in which a different configuration of people, thoughts and ideas can come together, a state in which the old dominant paradigm can be dissolved and a new one created.

On the streets of cities this is the #occupy the world movement. Inspired by the social uprisings that began in Tahrir Square in the Arab Spring of this year and later in the indignado movements in Greece and Spain, the #occupywallstreet campaign that began on September 17 is a direct reflection of this kind of cultural alchemy. It's a protest against the existing order but it's also a creative process in which the voices and feelings of ordinary people converge in order to find a way of expressing and manifesting social change. Real democracy and real solutions to our living on a planet in a state of crisis.

At present the prevailing "official" culture is rooted in a Western business-as-usual view of the world, that denies rather than reflects systemic collapse. However the structures on which this culture is based, the myths of endless growth and that special "celebrity" people (1%) have the right to rule and possess great riches, is being eroded as people throughout the world (99%) are waking up to the reality that words belong to everyone and that we need a new story that includes us all.

To criticise these occupations for not having a clear political agenda is to miss the point. Creativity has to allow a certain period of flux and uncertainty, where new forms appear unexpectedly, that don't fit the known or make sense, that appear random and most of all don't obey the existing rules.

You could observe that the #occupy events in New York and cities elsewhere are gimmicky, short lived, or not properly organised, but these leaderless, non-violent gatherings are key in that they focus fearless attention on what is described as "an entity of tremendous power which the mass of people resent and fear: the financial industry". They have also highlighted the extent to which the police will violently defend the existing story (women kettled and pepper sprayed, independent journalists arrested for filming) and the mainstream media are reluctant to relay a new one:

As a result people are now starting to realise just how corrupt and unfair the system is, and are choosing to join the movement which is sweeping across America (70 occupations in different cities and towns in the USA and several cities in the UK). Trade unions and other progressive organisations have teamed up in support and the numbers of people taking to the streets and campaigning online is increasing.

Meanwhile back at the neighbourhood pub in Norwich we discussed how we might go forward as a group of students, thinkers, artists, clowns, writers and community activists. We're going to organise an event in the Spring, write a journal, start creating a culture that does not just reflect the status quo bolstered by historical precedent. But first we are going to meet in an open space and see what happens when we come together.

Because the future is an ensemble act.

OCCUPY NORWICH Occupy Norwich is inspired by Occupy Wall Street, a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders, abilities and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.

Come on down on to the Haymarket on October 15th from 2pm. bring your placards, bring food and drink and warm clothing if you intend to stay. We don’t know how long this will last, but the first step is to get ourselves down there together, talk and plan, make friends, reconnect with our local community, and make it OURS!

UPDATE! (via @NaomiKlein)"After cops raided and tossed their stuff in the dump, garbage workers returned it to the protesters, saying "we r 99 % too, And in NYC, transit workers say they don't want to drive the paddy wagons taking protestors to jail, because they too are the 99 %"

Photos from occupywallstreet and occupymanchester.

Keeping a Track Record - Transition Themes Weeks #1-8

We began our Transition Themes Weeks in December 2010. During the last three years Transition Norwich has shifted its focus and energy - from an early burst of enthusiastic gatherings, world cafes and open spaces into creating and delivering several (hard) working projects. Many of these have sprung out of the 13 original theme groups where people met and discussed what we can do in the "real world". Norwich Farm Share came out of the Food and Farming group, Magdalen Street Celebration out of the neighbourhood NR3 group,The Low Carbon Cookbook out of the Stranger’s Circle, Carbon Conversations and TN2.

As a result of this shift many of us find ourselves working in different areas and our paths do not always cross. So the intent behind the Transition Themes Weeks was to bring these strands together, so everyone could see the whole pattern of the initiative. To cohere news from these groups that wasn’t covered in the monthly TN bulletin and relay what was happening at a more detailed in-depth level. Published every five or six weeks these reports are filed by regular contributors and also by people commissioned within TN and other outreach groups (last week's TT featured pieces for example by a Green county councillor and a local vicar). The week is introduced with all the latest from the Communications crew, including outside comms work that happens within the Transition Network.

These reports are not indiviudalisitisc “Me” pieces, they are told from within the social groups and in many ways have served as the framework for the new Social Reporting project. We have run eight weeks now and have covered everything from Bees to Zero Waste. Some of the year’s highlights include Mark giving a round-up of the Transition Circles, Tierney on Permaculture, Kerry on CafĂ© Conversations, Helen on starting up the Magdalen Street Celebration, Olivia Heal on Lacto-Fermentation (Low Carbon Cookbook), John on Toads Talk Transport.

The one we’re publishing today is by Simeon whose intelligence and concise style epitomises the editorial slant of these weeks. Here he is talking about the group he started after the meeting to discuss the Nicole Foss talk in April.

Photos: Notebook from The Sea Kale Project by Charlotte Du Cann; oil tanker from Transition Circles review by Mark Watson

Do We Control Money or Does Money Control Us?
Simeon Jackson
18 May 2011

Like many of Transition Norwich’s theme groups, the Economy and Business (now Economy and Livelihoods) group was set up in October 2008. It attracted a lot of attention throughout 2009, but dwindled somewhat at the end of 2009 into 2010. With Nicole Foss’s recent presentation, and the follow-up discussion, it is time to revive it! So what is the group all about?

At present, our monetary system dictates much of our activity. It is through our wages that we are directed to work in the interest of our employer. And once we have earned that money, it is through advertising, legal obligations (such as mortgages) and other forms of persuasion that we are convinced to spend our money in the interests of others. These “others” are often corporations, governments or other institutions that in themselves have obligations to their stakeholders and are willing and able to direct the activity of even more people to ensure that they meet those obligations. What makes this worse is that the obligation for corporations is no more complex than “to make profit”, and that therefore a large portion of our human effort goes towards the continual and unsustainable expansion of an ultimately doomed consumer society.

There are numerous books, videos and websites which explain these concepts much better than me, but what is clear is that this structure is wrong. It is fundamentally opposed to our individual freedom to do what we want with our lives, and makes money a master, rather than a facilitator in exercising our liberty as it should be.

The primary function, therefore, of an Economy and Livelihoods group is to establish what our requirements are for a monetary (or other exchange) system, and to try to shift from the current paradigm towards something which more satisfactorily meets those requirements.

Although there will be differing opinions on what those requirements actually are, the following actions would undoubtedly move towards it:

- Sharing knowledge about what the current financial system looks like, so that we can make informed decisions about government economic policies, as well as personal decisions, such as where our own money is invested and what we expect to be the benefits and risks. This may be through discussion sessions, talks and blog posts.
- Investigating, establishing and promoting alternative exchange systems that more closely meet the needs of people, including the promotion of existing local trading schemes, where appropriate.
-Stimulating a resilient green local economy, by encouraging development in renewable energy generation, energy conservation, local production of goods, sharing schemes and other enterprises that enable a low-carbon lifestyle.

The above is provisional, and may be added to and changed depending upon the discussions that we have as a group together. I therefore invite you to join us for the first meeting of the revived Economy and Livelihoods group upstairs at the Bicycle Shop Cafe, 17 St Benedict's Street on Tuesday 24th May at 6pm. Simeon Jackson

Picture from, which tells the story of the man who, starting with a paperclip, traded his way to obtaining a house; cover of Prosperity Without Growth by Tim Jackson

Monday 3 October 2011

A Year of Living Differently

This Low Carbon Life is two years old this week. Our blog year began with apples and angels last frosty October and ended with a sunrise over the sea on the hottest autumn day on record. In between eight of us have monitored the shifting mood of the world every day (except some Sundays) and shown how these shifts affect our ordinary lives in Transition, both from the inside and outside. The blog started out as a record and an experiment, a way of showing what a low-carbon culture looks and feels like, and for some of us during these two years this project has become a way of life.

The blog has undergone some changes since it began. Its shape has remained the same: regular bloggers writing for three days each interspersed with topic weeks with 5 or more contributors that explore subjects such as Waste, Climate Change, Health, Deep Nature, Buildings and Happiness and celebrate the changing seasons. But in December we introduced the Transition Themes Weeks with their regular reports on TN's theme groups (which we will look back at on Saturday) and there have also been shifts within our crew.

In May Kerry went to work outside Glasgow and Elena became more involved in Norwich FarmShare and both have become occasional rather than regular bloggers. At the same time we welcomed Simeon who's started up the Economics and Livelihoods group and Jo from the Permaculture Group and Low Carbon Cookbook. We've invited guest bloggers to contribute too during our theme weeks: Mark Crutchley (OneWorldColumn) on the the state of the oceans, Adrienne Campbell (100monkeys) Whose Land is it Anyway?, Rachel Lalchan (EcoMonkey) on giving up supermarkets, Andrew Boswell (Norfolk County Council) on the region's controversial waste incinerator and road scheme, amongst others.

Meanwhile we've covered events from Norwich Pride to the Uncivilisation festival, from the Transition Conference to the Norfolk Anti-Cuts demonstration. We've reviewed films and books, had a rethink about turnips and towerblocks, talked about the birds and the bees (oh, and sex) and all things under the sun (which has also starred in our many photographs). We've been cross-posted and quoted and perhaps most successfully been the editorial blueprint for the new Social Reporting pilot on the Transition Network.

This week on our retroblog we're selecting some of the individual posts that have struck us during the year. Tough call. How to choose from Helen's witty urban reports, Elena's feisty (and frequently delicious) pieces, Mark's warm and perceptive social reporting, John's practical, earth-connected prose, Chris's kinetic and lateral thinking . . . How to chose just three from over three hundred?

There's another question too looking back. How is this year different from the last? On reflection it's been soberer, deeper, tougher. Politics and economics have entered all of our lives and the posts have reflected this shift. There has been less on the domestic joys of baking bread and growing stuff and more serious thinking on social enterprise, livelihoods and activism. Most of us, following the shape of the initiative, have grounded ourselves within practical projects as the Transition movement has become more socially aware, less inward looking, more connected to other progressive groups. More conscious in many ways that we hold something precious in our hands we need to hold dear as the culture so many of us took for granted is falling apart at the seams.

Within this frame I'd select the kind of posts that were written after Nicole Foss came to speak to TN in April: My Struggle to make Sense of the Financial Crisis in an Era of Peak Oil by Mark and Defining Freedom by Kerry. Both have a sense of discovery and openness that are key to writing in the field. We are brought up in a civilisation that loves to have everything down and be in control, to be above it all, smart after the event, safe from all the messy and difficult challenges of reality. To write on the edge of Transition means you have to experience change from a position of not-knowing. Why I love this blog is because it gives space and time for that creative process. Because it shows how this downshift that none of us have done before can be done with grace, fortitude, beauty, intelligence, courage, style and above all, with great humanity.

What I love too is that here you don't have to market Transition or spin yourself or your life. You can say how it is in ways that you can't elsewhere, at home or work or amongst your friends who are all hoping things will turn out otherwise. You can write stuff you don't find in the mainstream media or written in books, because none of us who blog are hip or connected enough to register on that business-as-usual radar, we don't fit the box or the mindset, we live in the wrong city, we're from the wrong class, we're unfashionably in Transition, too old, too poor, too green, too radical, not radical enough . . . whatever. You can wake up with something to say and today you're going to say it anyway, straight from the heart. Even though you are under the kind of pressure that Jon captured so clearly and honestly in his A Shocking State of Affairs (my third choice). It's a different narrative. Written by the people who are experiencing it first hand. On a deadline.

Here's to us and all our fellow bloggers, citizen journalists of a disappearing and emergent world, and to all our dear readers. Thank you for being with us.

Still from Ken Russell's Amelia and the Angel:
with Helen at the Magdalen Street Celebration; with Jon and Simeon outside the Greenouse after our summer meeting; A Darkling Thrush; October sunrise.

A shocking state of affairs

Jon Curran
30th November 2010

I feel like I’m coming out of hibernation. The last few months have been crazy and I feel like I’ve had no time to think. Every single day was as hard as the one before. I felt disconnected.

One of the things that fell by the wayside while I tried to get things back under control was my involvement in this blog. I didn't have the time or energy to post, and wasn’t able to contribute to John’s excellent Make Do and Mend theme week, even though I had a piece all mapped out in my mind.

These recent months have taught me that I’m not as resilient as I thought I was. Pushed for time, and pulled in all directions, I’ve driven the car more, eaten more junk, taken less notice of things around me and the impact that my actions have had on the environment; I bought more stuff to compensate for how frazzled I felt in the rest of my life.

It’s not so much that things have calmed down, but I have perhaps got used to it. Luckily things in my immediate life haven’t changed that much while I’ve been out of the loop. "Luckily", because things could have – I was reading George Monbiot’s recent post “Britain’s Shock Doctrine” and yes, this is what happens when you take your eye off the ball. If you haven’t read Naomi Klein’s book “The Shock Doctrine” I cannot recommend it highly enough. Read it, read Monbiot’s post and then look back at events of recent weeks and months. It’s a sobering thought.

Which is why I’m very much looking forward to tomorrow night’s meeting of the Transition blogging community. It’s a chance for us all to catch up on what’s been happening in our lives, talk about ideas for the blog in its second year, and, for me, most importantly, to reconnect with just how important this work is; perhaps, now, more important than ever.