Wednesday 28 March 2012

Searching for the Narrative

6AM. It's going to be another beautiful and rainless day. Downstairs the field beans are soaking ready to be made into hummus, trays of wallflowers and strawberries I collected from Rose last night before our Bungay core group meeting waiting to be put into the ground, my spade, reforged by David, waiting by the door.

When I finish this blog, I'll upload our third "Letter from America" onto the Transition Network site. It's from Fred Brown in Transition Pittsburgh, a city that has been in decline for decades since the steel industry closed down. The hummus is for the TN Blogger's meeting tonight at Simeon's where we will be watching In Transition 2.0 and organising the rota for the spring and summer. Before then we'll be going to Kev's for our Dark Mountain Norwich meeting. Ah, another day in Transition . . .

The Dark Mountain Project is launching its newlook website and blog tomorrow. Amongst the information about the Festival in August and excerpts from the first two books (third collection in July), you can find the manifesto which began this cultural movement in 2009. At our last meeting we read the Eight Principles of Uncivilisation out loud and discussed how these principles worked within our lives. We are keen to create an uncivilised event in Norwich, but we wanted to get clear on how to embed our ideas within the frame of the project. It's easy to agree to a principle in principle. Connect with nature? Sure. Find a new narrative? Sounds good. Putting that principle into practice with one another is another matter. How do you connect? What is the story? Can we go out and tell it, and where do we start?

Here. Now.

This is not an easy time to find commonality. Not because we don't have things in common, or because we don't care, but because the stories of individualist success we live by are hard to relinquish, and it's equally hard to know how to begin a new one. How, for example, does a city built on the American Dream, speak about its failure? How do we as an urbanised people find a way to live in synch with nature, how can we find value in a culture where everything and everyone is for sale, how do we make good our place in the world? How do we tell the story of collapse without collapsing ourselves?

These were some of the kick-off points in the early Heart and Soul explorations, before we became immersed in Transition projects and doing stuff. This was the place you could find at any Occupy assembly from Hay Hill to St Paul's and discuss economics and our common destiny, before the camps got evicted. It's a key conversation between people and it seems clear that we need to keep having it. Because we live in a know-it-all civilisation in a time when we know nothing at all. We are smart as hell in our minds, and so very very dumb in our hearts. We have skills and experiences honed in solitude, in specialist workplaces, but to get to tell that new story, we have to find a way to share our skills and experiences with people who know nothing about us, or us about them. We have to keep remembering and not forgetting, not getting lost in the trance. In the broken neighbourhoods of Pittsburgh, in a student house in Norwich. In David's Flixton smithy with my broken spade.

How do you begin? First you make the space and time and the agreement. You talk straight-up, without romance or self-importance, unafraid of sounding like a fool. Most of all you listen.

Here is Kev in his notes to us: "First off we talked about about the place of humans in nature - how this contact is enhanced by immersion, hallucinogenic plants, dream exploration and journeys. We discussed needs, wants and how the vast majority of humans have lost sight of the negative environmental impact of civilisation. We went on to discuss that city views are only one story and discussed examples of indigenous communities who have other approaches to city life. We discussed the Eurocentric and humancentric nature of acquisition and its impacts.

We moved on to discuss a second theme - of the stories underpinning civilisation - not only exploring the myths (included in the principles) but also the place of other stories in child- and adulthood. We agreed we often understand and give meaning to the world through stories - there were different interpretations to stories, e.g. Cinderella is to 1) illustrate the desirability of the monarchy and/or 2) kindness leads to reward and/or 3) deeper meanings relating to fire, alchemy and contact with animals and other dimensions. In exploring myths we discussed power - how it is created and maintained and how mapping (of territories) can distort ownership and belonging.

We discussed left and right hemispheres, McGilchrist's book (The Master and His Emissary), the animated film based on it (The Divided Brain), and the brain scientist who described having a stroke on YouTube. This led to further exploration of the importance or otherwise of religious interpretation of events, of the presence of spirit and spirituality and their differences. We discussed the place of science in power politics and interpretation of existence, ideas of abundance, hierarchy and the gift economy."

At the point we talked about values in Ava's front room that night, with Kev and Mark and Diana, I had a strong desire within me. It was for fresh water, that came from the earth untouched.

"I would love to have a spring of pure water in my neighbourhood," I said. Where you could go and drink straight from the source, the way you can from fountains in some towns in France. It felt, in that moment, more important than anything else.

Outside the ponds of Suffolk are empty and it's another dry spring. There is a well in my garden, but it is cemented over and polluted from all the nitrates in the fields. All the water I drink has been treated with chemicals, or comes in a plastic bottle with a price on its head.

There is a myth in England, known as The Fisher King. It is famous now as the courtly story of Parsifal and the Grail legend, a strange and complex myth, that is commonly interpreted in terms of Christian redemption. It's deeper origins however are more earthly. The land of the wounded King is laid waste because the "well maidens", the springs, have been destroyed by him and his men, and are no longer held in reverence as life-givers.

How do we start the story? We begin at the source. First things first.

Abandoned house in
Pittsburgh by Michael Goodin (Creative Commons); some of Dark Mountain Norwich crew in Chapelfield Gardens; David reworking the spade, Mark collecting milk at Johnny's, Flixton; at a waterfall in the cloud forest in Ecuador, 1992.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

powaqqatsi or breaking the spell

(Capitalism) has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, that it is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells (Karl Marx)
It's a new house by the river. It's not the Antilla mansion that Arundhati Roy writes about (where I found this quote) in her searing portrait of industrialisation and land grabbing in India. but it's big. A gleaming white monstrosity, overlooking the silvery River Blyth, its dun-coloured marshes and water meadows, all the way down to the sea. A big house with a view, the kind of mausoleum that Sebald might have written about in his melancholic walk, contemplating the rise and fall of Empire along this coast.

Something about this house strikes me: the way it is so out of synch with its surroundings, exuding its "mystery and a quiet menace". It would be more at home in Malibu or on the Riviera. And yet being at home is not the point of such places.

One of the meadows it overlooks was once known as Bloody Marsh. It was named after a battle in 1624 when the landowner, Sir Robert Brooke, set up a boarding house for men and dogs in the village of Walberswick and four men were killed trying to maintain their commoners' rights. The enclosure of common land in England began with the Norman conquest, with the foreign kings who claimed the wild forests for their hunting grounds. It was completed by Parliament who claimed the rest of the wild land for agriculture.

Reading Roy's account of the relocation of people in the forests of India, of millions of villagers displaced by the building of giant dams, hounded by armies hired by corporations, of all the present land grabs that are resisted in Guatemala, Africa and China, is to see a certain pattern prevailing in the world. We forget we were once those indigenous people; that the Sandlings of Suffolk suffered the worst pauperism in the country. We are unaware that we have inherited a story that justifies such monstrous deeds. But most of all, that we have been led believe that to live in this big house is to find our rightful place in the world. Our own fairy palace.

Dispelling the Sorcerer

"They are so powerful," I am sitting next to Anthony Smith who once came to our Transition Stranger's circle and introduced the documentary, The Age of Stupid (which he helped fund) at Cinema City just before Copenhagen. Things are depressing at 10:10. There is not enough money and the political and corporate climate deniers are vociferous.

"They are so powerful," I am sitting opposite Ross Jackson, writer and businessman from Copenhagen, whose book Occupy World Street is just about to published. We have all just been to a talk at the Assembly House called Guardians of the Future where he explained his road map for a new economic future. I am talking about shifts that happen on ground level. I have worked with grassroots organisations for years, he says, what we need is a new political structure.

I am not a politician, an economist or a business man. But I am a writer, who knows human history depends on the decision of a people to follow a storyline, or change it mid-sentence. All narrators, by dint of their craft, are prodigious rememberers. It is their job to remind the people of the right way to walk the earth. Trackers of the collective imagination, they learn to recognise an illusion when they come across it: they hold it up to the light and test it against the physical reality of space and time.

Storytellers know, for example. that is no sorcerer is powerful for ever, that all trances can be broken. At some point the small child, the youngest daughter, the third brother, the fool, comes and challenges the magician, cuts through briars and restores beauty to the kingdom. One day the sister runs widdershins and finds her brother trapped in the lake of reason. He or she doesn't believe in the stories, and so asks the emperor, the fisher king, the boy with the frozen heart the question that breaks the spell. How come you have no clothes on? What is wrong with you, man? Shall we go home?

As folk tales and history tell us: you never know when those people arise. The Arab Spring showed us tyrants can be toppled. Whole autocratic regimes can collapse overnight. The Berlin Wall can come down. Aung San Suu Kyi can be released from house arrest. The big houses along the East Anglian seaboard can fall into ruins. These are not big moves organised by PR agencies or oil barons. These are moves of small and ordinary people, holding out for something else. They are the spirit of the times.

Maybe it's because I spent a decade looking at the frills and furbelows of the ancien regime, documented its predilection for glamour and grand views. Maybe when you are brought up in the ambitious atmosphere of politicians and public schoolboys you can see and feel so clearly how everything is done at the expense of the human heart. Like dragons, the 1% amass great hoards and compete with each other, in a world constructed entirely of will and ego and its unbearable self-pity and self-importance. How everything depends on the 99% believing in the ultimate superiority of a fairy-tale elite - presidents and queens, stars and celebrities.

The story we are taught to believe in is the story of power. Power sends everyone in the room and in the world into a trance. What breaks its spell is not to desire that power, nor any of the material things it brings, the big house, the sweetness of revenge. It is to know deep in your inner core that those who live out their dragonish nature at the expense of their hearts, never inherit the kingdom. And nor do the servants who worship, or despise them.

What has this to do with Transition? We are the small people in the villages and neighbourhoods, eating in our community kitchens, sharing our tools and produce from our gardens. We are the people walking by the mansion on the way to the river, who know the territory inch by inch. We are the people who tell each other a new and ancestral story, who live within the generous aesthetic of the heart, and not in the rulership of the will. We are commoners and we are not alone. We walk alongside millions of people everywhere, taking matters into our own hands. We are the people who know the way home.

*Powaqqatsi is the second film in a trilogy by the director Godfrey Reggio. The word comes from the Hopi language which means "parasitic life" or"world made by a sorcerer at the expense of others".

Avenue to the Big House from Patience (After Sebald); Huichol people defend their ancestral land; poster for Powaqqatsi; the river Blyth

Monday 26 March 2012

The Map is not the Territory (Original Remix Version)

Last week it was Spring Equinox and we ran a Connecting with the Living Systems week on our "sister" blog, the Social Reporting Project. So today I'd like to republish one of the posts in response to our own week here on This Low Carbon Life on documentaries. Unusually none of us focussed on peak oil or climate change films, but on films that worked to join up the dots. The last two posts in particular looked at fragmentation and the urgent need for coherence: the splitting of the modern mind (Divided Brain) and "silo" society (Crisis of Civilisation) and how these artificial divisions affect the world we live in.
Nafeez is talking about social and political fragmenation, how the radical step is to connect these areas up, including the seemingly diverse focus of Transition and activism. McGilchrist is talking about bridging the left and the right hemispheres, how we need both reason and imagination to live successfully on the planet. Eco-systems are resilient in proportion to their ability to connect and communicate; empires maintain control by separating and dividing the people against one another and alienating them from their neighbourhoods and the wild earth.

Natural systems diversify and co-operate. They work within a frame of symbiosis. Artificial systems, which are parasitic on natural systems, pull towards monocultural domination and replication, and run the danger of destroying the host. How we, as a "civilised" people, reverse this fate is by working in symbiosis with the eco-systems of the planet in everything we do. We see and then change the pattern. Mentally, emotionally, physically.

So this week I'd like to talk about the moves Transition and other initiatives make to link up, not just as individuals and communities, but with all beings on earth. How that in order to to find a new co-operative narrative to live by, we need to end an old and hostile story that has been running the show for a very long time indeed, in our heads and in our cities.

How we need to realise it is not the planning and the mapping of the left hemisphere that will bring this into play, but the wild imaginative realms of the right, an "uncivilised" people making themselves at home in the territory.

And so: first things first . . . .

Happy Spring Equinox!

This is the grove I come to each spring, first with the daffodils, and later with the bluebells and red campion. This is the season, between the Equinox and May Day, when England is her most green and exuberant. I love this spring moment. I love English marshes and Welsh hills, the deserts of Arizona, the valleys of Ecuador, the islands of Greece, the forests of Mexico. I have traversed many lands, sat with a thousand flowers and learned their medicine. I have climbed trees, swum in wild water, and spent a big part of my life immersed in the fabric of nature, trying to find words for the wild, the beautiful and the free . . .

But what on earth has this got to do with Transition?

Heart and Soul

In the Heart and Soul, Arts Culture and Well-Being group everyone is talking about themselves and their emotions. Oh the sorrow and the grief! they wail, The earth is angry and in despair. Are you sure it's not you? I ask. We are the earth, they tell me.

I look around and see people with closed eyes, sitting on cushions in a circle. A candle is flickering in the twilight. This is it says a notice on the studio wall. Outside the rain is falling softly, the cherry blossom is on the grass, a blackbird is singing gloriously. It's Spring 2009. I am about to leave the group, which is in the process of divesting itself of art and culture and wellbeing. I have loved coming into the city, bringing branches of blackthorn and bay into these speaking circles, the way we could share our untold stories and dreams for the future. It was fiery and liberating and new at the start of Transtion. But old spiritual hierachies are reasserting themselves, pressing on all sides for us to conform. And I'm not feeling connected to the song outside the window.

Somehow I know we have to connect with that Spring and agreeing we are All One and Connected to the Web of Life is not cutting the biscuit. Sitting alone on the mountains of Arizona, the Andes, up Cader Idris, that's not hard. Here in the middle of Norwich, in the arable district of East Anglia with others, it's another story. We're trying to find common ground, so we can tell that story, first to each other and then to the world. But this is not It in the workshop arena, where everyone is worshipping Joanna Macy and Thomas Berry, intrigued by shamanic ritual and talisman, enmeshed in the power of Me and Deep Ecology. People are meditating under willow trees outside the UEA. But the willow trees are not getting a look in.

One thing I know: you can't communicate with the planet without Art and Culture or Well-Being, without dance and poetry and medicine. On the community blog we start up later that year, Reconnection with Nature is our top topic. We are unabashed, creative and very free-form. John talks toads and woodpiles, Mark talks seeds and bees, Jon talks sea, Kerry talks hedgerow, Elena talks bird. We rediscover our neighbourhood, exchange foraging tips, write in praise of all the seasons. We love the planet. We have that in common. (we still have that in common). It's a thread that runs through all of our pieces.

And I could talk quite happily about all those 98 posts, but somehow this is not what I want to say about Reconnecting with the Living Systems and Transition on this equinox morning, because there is an ur-difficulty here, and that is Transition, like everything else in our culture, is based on the control of what is known as the "environment". And whether this control is sustainable or organic, localised, low carbon, whether we strenuously downshift to mitigate climate change and all kinds of resource plundering, it is not making any real aligment happen. Because we are still human beings commanding the planet for our own use. Even the deep green practices of Permaculture assign wild nature to an unspecified region known as Zone 5. Not in my garden. Not in my country.

The Territory of the Heart

The ur-problem is that we are living in our minds and we look at the planet from that mind. We forget that it is a place of heart and soul. We give the planet to the commanders of the human mind - gurus and gods and government and big science - and think "nature" is a messy strange place outside ourselves, outside our artificial "built environment", something to be kept in reserves or on television programmes for our entertainment. As our economic systems collapse, so does the protection of the planet's eco-systems. Everything is up for grabs. Ocean, forest, mountain top. Economic growth is more important than air, water, tree, bird; the idea of social justice becomes more important than the reality of sandhill cranes. The countryside is portrayed as a place where rich and privileged people live.

What is the right response to this collective madness?

The earth is primary. The sun is primary. The air is primary. The water is primary. Our hearts are primary. These things come first. Our living bodies are made of these elements and everything we touch and feel and eat and breathe is made of these elements, no matter what our imperious and foolish minds tell us. If we do not somehow get aligned to the earth as a collective, the primary source of our own living systems will no longer be available to us.

How can we discuss the future together, if first things do not come first? If everything in our culture says that life comes from the marketplace (see our supermarket week), or from business (see funding) or that ideas are more important than physical reality? That the map is superior to the territory? How can we in Transition find a way to speak with one another that is not couched in dry, academic terms, concerned about top-down management and planning, illustrated by corporate-style photographs of ourselves inside and outside buildings? How can we reclothe ourselves in the fabric of the earth, connect with the high frequency of the trees and wild grasses, liberate our constricted bodies and minds, let ourselves flow like rivers, follow the shapes of clouds and coastlines, flourish, blossom, branch out, leap like the hare, sing like the wren? How can we feel the heartbeat of our fellow creatures, behold all mountains, all seas, all lands in the light of the sun? How can we now leave the room and go outside?

How can we dance with the planet on this Spring day?

Wild places: on the tumulus by black poplar and wild daffodils; valley of Vilcabamba, Ecuador, 1993; Sonora desert morning, 2001; cenote in the Yucatan, Mexico, 1991.

Monday 19 March 2012

Cinema Paradiso

Welcome to our Transition documentary week on the blog! This week we are choosing one amongst the many documentaries that have shaped our thinking and ways of seeing the world. Films that have made us wake up, open our eyes, changed our point of reference. Our experience of life depends on our perception of the world, and media of all kinds influence this, overtly or subtly. A film can restrict or corral our worldview, or expand it and show us new territory.

Most films offer escape and glamour, and dwell in realms that have little to do with our ordinary lives. But some bring reality home. Make us look at things we would rather not look at, the places we don't normally see. The oil fields in the Ecuadorian rainforest in Joe Berlingers' Crude. Food factories, bullied farmers, tar sands, strip mining, melting glaciers. The consequences of our industrialised culture.

Transition often starts off in small grassroots cinemas, in halls and studios, with films that look at peak oil and climate change, ranging from the confrontative (Gasland, The Age of Stupid) to the upbeat (Power of Community). On Thursday Mike Grenville, who runs a Transition film programme in Forest Row, Sussex, will be sharing his tips about showing films, as well as his fave docs. Because this is not just about the documentaries, it's also about the set and setting in which you see them. Watching Life at the End of Empire would have really been no fun without the feeling I was surrounded by people who were ready to discuss its issues afterwards. Or watching the first Transition movie outside the celebratory context of the TN Birthday Party. They would have made little sense.

So the kind of films we will be looking are not entertainments: they are tools for discussion, sparks that light the fire.

Where do we go to find these films? In Norwich, there are regular documentary screenings at Cinema City, ranging this month from Patience (after Sebald), a photo essay on walking, memory and history, to a World Without Water (with panel discussion afterwards). There is also the monthly film night at the Quaker Meeting House every third Friday. Run as a "busy activist's alternative to a book club" alongside FoodCycle, the nights began in 2011 with Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine and will soon be showing, The Crisis of Civilisation, our Saturday story.

What About Me?
But the film I am choosing today swerves away from these attentions. I saw it at our Sustainable Bungay/Waveney Greenpeace film night last week in Tom Abbott's barn in the Saints. It's not about peak oil, or climate change, or digging potatoes. It does not examine the external factors that shape us – the industrial military complex, the domination of the consumer culture – and discuss ways we can mitigate them. It looks at the internal drivers, at our natures that strive for freedom, our bodies and imaginations that reflect the awesome forces of nature and the cosmos. What it means to be human here and now and connected.

Maybe it’s because I don’t travel anymore, or own a television, an I-pod or a radio, that the film, unscripted, shot on video, full of music and dance, made such a bright impression. Maybe it’s because I am surrounded by the tweedy countryside of England, its dun fields, and sober raincoats, all its quiet rhythms, that the colours of Africa and the sharp wit of city rappers and foxy old gurus startled me. I live on plain fare, and so the film appeared in the barn like a gorgeous feast. Oh, brave new world that has such people in it!

However it brought something else home. We live in a civilisation that runs along a vertical axis between mind and body – our world is masterminded by the Empire that fixes its attention on the control and possession of the earth’s physical assets. But this is not the whole story of life. This film was unequivocally framed along the horizontal axis, the dynamic between heart and spirit. The struggles for life (in spite of Empire and its false desires and self-absorbtion) are also a collective, multi-layered shout for freedom, for creative expression, for the mysterious and alchemical forces that run through us, the meaning of our being here together, billions of us at this point in time.

Shot on eight sequences in over 50 locations (which can be viewed seperately) by Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman, the film looks at different aspects of human life from the trauma of childhood to the acquiescence of old age. It is a vibrant, noisy, sassy, colourful mix, interweaving American philosophers, Bedouin musicians, Chinese rappers, Gabonese Pygmies and Tuvan Throat singers, shot on rooftops, balconies, in streets and villages. It's a long way from the monoculture of the Mall.

In Transition we are as much subject to living in a trapping world of things, of sterile planning, funding, separation and control as anyone else in this culture. To bring the horizontal axis into all we do, to liberate music and creativity from its role as entertainment and escape, and instead see it as central to our lives, is the key to real change. The fact is as people, whatever land or nation we come from, we meet in the moving rhythms and harmonies of the heart. We are on earth together, creating a new narrative. In our minds we are alone and stuck in perpetual war and slavery.

Normally after the films we discuss how the subjects bear on our lives in Transition – The History of Oil, Inuit Wisdom and Climate Change – this time we laughed, got up and shimmied.

Gotta loosen up, gotta dance, gotta get free.

Stills: Singer in What About Me?; growers from Power of Community; East Anglian seaboard from Patience; women in What About Me?; dancing at film night, The Saints.

Friday 9 March 2012

A Loyal Customer

We're here, we're queer and we don't shop at Sainsbury's (Graffitti in Oxford City Centre)
This is a post about shopping and a conversation we've been having for three years now in my Transition initiatives about relocalising food culture in East Anglia. Because when you're discussing supermarkets you are really discussing the industrialised food system and the producerist society we live in. It's a massive topic and one we will return to in our Diet and Environment Week in April, when I'm hoping to write about disentangling ourselves from Big Ag on the micro-level. Right now I'm looking at the macro-level and how there is life after supermarkets. Really.

Facing reality

So why haven't I shopped at supermarkets for four years? Because when you see and feel the system that supplies the store you don't want anything to do with them. Mostly we don't consider the food we buy or put in our bodies, or follow its track back to the field and the workers the way Mandy looked at bananas yesterday. We look at the show on the shelves, think in terms of convenience and price. However, if you look behind the scenes, at the machine that provides this endless array of convenient, cheap, stylised, fossil-fuelled food you come to different conclusions.

The facts are easy to find. Starting up the Low Carbon Cookbook in 2010 we draw up a list of books and documentaries, and all the issues appear on the table, from supply chains (Caroline Steel's Hungry City) and the cruelty and madness behind commerical meat production (Food Inc) to depletion of the world's fisheries (Charles Clovers' The End of Line). We discuss everything from waste to water to land rights. How come the world isn't having a rethink about everything? we wonder.

Because we are persuaded on all sides by marketing, and by our erroneous belief that we can change a system from within. We are grateful for justifications. I could say that the local Rainbow Supermarket has helped us raise funds for Bungay Community Bees, and provided a bus to The Wave in 2008, but this won't alter the fact it is still a supermarket, using the same buy-and-sell tactics as everyone else, that the "ethical" Co-op hastily backed down from the now notorious Workfare scheme and has contracts with equally notorious Texaco. All supermarkets are dependant on global supply chains, distribution hubs, tankers, mass abbatoirs, factories and refineries, chemical laboratories, tactics that grind down small farmers everywhere, in favour of corporate control. Invisibly, this machine grinds everyone and everything down in its relentless pursuit of profit. We have all the evidence we need to change our allegiance. How come most of us don't?


One thing I've learned: inner transition does not mean bringing to share our wibbly-wobbly "What About Me" emotions and pretending this is the earth speaking through us. The real inner challenge is to shift our inner governance towards our hearts, to break down the barriers in our minds that deftly separate one action from another. Our minds persuade us that having an idea is the same as making a move, allow us feel right on buying veg in the local organic market, and be in denial when we walk into Waitrose. Some of this shift work we can do on our own, but to be effective we have to hold our own in groups.

In the Strangers's Circle we are looking at our shopping lists and Naomi is wringing her hands. If her son doesn't have his frozen ready-made pizza with shrimp and pineapple he will be ostrasized by his peers and life won't be worth living.

Get a grip girl!

No one dies if you don't eat pizza! I like Naomi, I like sitting in her kitchen and the discussion we have around the table. I am not singling her out. She could be any number of women (and men) who have come towards me, holding their children before them, wailing and gnashing their teeth, as they assert their Right to Buy Turkey Twizzlers, or white sliced bread, or whatever goes into the trolley. It's Cheaper in Supermarkets, they chant like a mantra. There is no alternative. We are powerless to change. You vegan, you elitist, you communist!

Lucky for me we are not living in times when heretics come to a bad end.

The Circles are an alchemical space. All things are allowed here in the spirit of carbon reduction. We don't judge each other, but we don't pussyfoot either. Some things get realised in that space and acted on later. Tully will write about the disconnect in a blog a few days later and drop his "Tesco habit". Elena will write about palm oil and I will give up margarine. Norwich FarmShare will happen thanks to both of them and now dozens of people can connect with the land that grows their vegetables on the outskirts of the city. It's a process. Transition is a process. It demands that we face reality and make decisions. Those are not mind decisions though, they are heart decisions.

On the mind/body axis these kinds of move are almost impossible. Your body is addicted to that supermarket food, your mind can runs loops around your good intentions, you have been brainwashed by the Empire all your life. You engage in bouts of self-calming and duplicity, worthy of the Coalition. Your heart however can weigh up many factors at once, connect you with the feeling and spirit of things, break those separating walls down. It doesn't excuse itself and argue. It sees and it acts. One day the affair is over. I have been sleeping with Sainbury's and Waitrose, and Tesco's and Safeway. I realise I don't love them, or my time spent between their cold and heartless aisles.
That's the real subject of my blog today. What shopping with heart means, what can happen in a post-supermarket world.

Finding the pattern

Viens, ma petite, says a quavery voice and puts a sweet roll in my hands. I am four years old, shopping with my mother. Bayswater, London. 1960. M Pechon founded this bakery/patisserie in Queensway. Now blind and old, he spends most of his day by the door and when small children come through he gives them a roll. My early life is spent among shopkeepers, being given small gifts, feeling the physical world that nourishes me from the land outside the city, the sawdust of the butchers, the ice of the fishmongers, all manner of temperature and smell. When my friend Christine's father, Oscar Montanari, brings us a tray of peaches he imports from his native Italy I think I am in heaven. One day Stephanie Morgan gives me something green and crunchy to taste. Wow! I say what's that? It's a green pepper, she says. From Sainbury's. It's 1967. My mother is about to change her allegiance and get in the car to go shopping. I do not go with her.

Somewhere a pattern remains in our memory that makes sense of the world. In a time of unravelling that's a pattern that comes to me about local food and shops: home grown veg, home-made marmelade, conversations with shopkeepers, picnics, orchards, foraging for blackberries. It's not a nostalgia thing, or a question of privilege. Like everyone else, I have eaten a mountain of salt and vinegar crisps and can remember the jingles for breakast cereal, better than most of my lessons. When Mark and I compare our childhoods of bourgeios house and council estate, we share Twiglets and Custard Creams and Bird's Eye Fish Fngers, every variety of industrialied food, drenched in pesticides (from oil) and fertilizers (from natural gas). I wish I had like my friend Polly been brought up on hippy, socailist food. But I wasn't.

When I grow up however I find myself loyal to markets and delicatessens. I spend fifteen years working as a lifestyle journalist, documenting the skills of the shopkeepers, cooks, artisans, hatmakers and chair makers of London. I could tell you stories about the grocers from Samarkand, Bangladesh, Cyprus, Portugal, shops that specialise in wine or cheese or herbs from my city years, I could sing the praises of the Arizona co-op and the markets of Guatemala and Mexico from my travelling years. What I couldn't tell you is the name or remember the faces of anyone at the checkout in the numerous supermarkets I also went to. I can't remember any good times I had in these places. All I recall is how chilly and brightly lit and alien they were, the way the food was covered in plastic, how everything looked dead.

In another life, in Suffolk, in Transition. I find myself in market towns, battling against the encroachment of supermarkets, bullying corporations that are co-ercing local planners to change roads and housing estates to serve their interest, where small businesses are dropping like flies. I find myself reading Felicity Lawrence's account of the immigrant workers among the greenhouses of Spain and the packing houses in Thetford and can't buy that stuff anymore. I go to parties where prepackaged, factory food is laid out, and see how humble home-made dishes are left uneaten (except by myself). I start researching a book with my fellow Transitioner Josiah called Roots, Shoots and Seeds, about the arable fields that surround us and yet no-one sees, even though, like all civilisations, we depend on them in every aspect of our lives: sugar beet, rape, potatoes, flax and barley. Asking questions about pesticides, about soil, the effects of peak oil and climate change on agriculture. Looking at the future and making small moves.

What is life without a supermarket? It means a weekly trip to Juan's organic grocers, Jack's farm shop and Malcolm's smallholding where we have had a veg box for nine years. It means roadside stalls, produce swaps, freegan gifts, a montlhy shared Suma order and occasional visits to Norwich market, cycling down to our local ex-post office which sells organic milk and produce from Norman's market garden down the end of my lane. It would be harder to do some of this without a car, especially now so many rural buses have been cut. When we didn't have a car for months, I hitched and cycled. An inconvenient truth for sure.

As Shane Hughes wrote last week, once you engage in something with your heart and soul, other opportunities and riches come your way. Supermarkets cater for our engineered individualistic, bargain-basement emotions, but they don't bring happiness or fellowship, the kinds of relationships I have with Malcolm or Juan or Vanessa, or the joy I feel at noticing the fresh eggs and daffodils on Sarah's stall, as I go by.

The range of food we eat is much smaller for sure. Seasonal veg, pulses and grains mostly. I don't buy bananas, shrimps, tuna, greenhouse tomatoes, ice cream, or anything with palm oil, a diet that most people from all income streams consider ordinary. Most of my money is happily spent on food and distributed in the neighbourhood. If I buy a jar of honey it comes from the beehives in the local churchyard. It's twice as expensive as supermarket honey from overseas, and so I eat a lot less of it as a result. I eat a lot less of everything as a result. But I then don't miss or long for anything either.
Supermarkets are our materialistic churches of desire, catering to our addictions for sugar, fat and salt, to our weakness for novelty. To get out of them you need to drop the desire. It's not a decision you make rationally. No one persuades you to "change your behaviour". One day you see the pattern and are shocked to find blood on your hands.

You walk out the door because you no longer want to keep destroying the ocean bed and the forest, the eco-systems of the earth, exploiting your fellow human beings, throwing them off their land, condemning your fellow creatures, chickens, pigs and dairy cows to a life of hell. This is not a Me-Only decision. It's one we are having together. No hard feelings. No blame. We have all been asleep and now some of us are waking up and finding out what to do. Growing oats and beans, storing apples. Moving as David Korten would call it, from Empire to Earth Community.

Transition provides the platform on which these conversations can take place. We have this conversation at the Transition Norwich Low Carbon Cookbook meetings, at Carbon Conversations, at Sustainable Bungay's Happy Mondays at the Community Kitchen, at our Abundance produce swaps. If we don't have the conversation we don't learn anything, explore new ways of sharing and nourishing ourselves. We will just keep wandering the supermarket aisles, alone, disconnected, confused by false choices, lost in a bad dream, far from each other, far from home.

Time to link up.

With a sack of Suma millet; Felicity Lawrence' Eat Your Heart Out; with Malcolm at Swallow Organics, Darsham; with Naomi outside Focus Organic, Halesworth; with Mark at Middleton Farm Shop; wholefood co-op circle; Occupy the Oil Aisle protest poster; Occupy the Food Supply!

Tuesday 6 March 2012

A Short Story about Sticks

Some people are seed people. They are able to conjure new shoots and roots in all kinds of soils and circumstances. Some are grafters, creating new orchards with their careful attention and skill. Some of us are come-what-may, what-the-hell cuttings people. We like to stick sticks in jam jars or pots of soil and leave them to do their thing. Well, it might take we say blithely, and get on with something else all winter. One day we find small sage leaves on the kitchen window, fig twigs looking vibrant in the garden, and are amazed they have grown roots and are already budding in March. A miracle! we exclaim. Wow! Yay! and all manner of enthusiastic sounds.

We are a reckless and an exuberant tribe.

This is a small story about twigs and a plant known as Duke of Argyll Tea Tree, a grand and proprietorial title given to a humble shrub that grows in the mountains of China and Tibet. The eponymous Duke understood the bush would make tea and so brought a shipload of cuttings home in 1739. Or the labels got switched between Lycium chinenses and Camellia sinensis mid-voyage, depending on what version you read. In the manner of all weeds, it escaped the Empire's clutches and discovered, like its compatriot, the railway buddleia, conditions in Britain that were perfect for itself and flourished. Now it grows just about anywhere along the East Anglia seaboard. You might miss its arched and small-leaved form most of the year, but notice its summer flowers as you head to the beach, winking at you with violet eyes.

It's a solanaceous plant from the same family as the nutritious potato and aubergine and the highly poisonous datura and belladonna, a family of food and medicine givers. If the Duke had remembered his botany he might have studied the plant more closely and found he had indeed a treasure in his hold. Because the plant contains both qualities in its prodigious oval red fruits. Known as wolf berry in the West and goji berry in the East it is one of the world's great superfoods, highly anti-oxidant, packed with minerals, and a peerless tonic and medicine for the immune system and the eyes. There is not a part of the body it does not revivify in some way - liver, heart, veins, the sexual organs of men past their prime.

This is a story about cuttings in a week where we are looking at seeds. This is a story about writing where we are looking at books. So I'm not strictly following the brief here, but hey, you don't get precision with the people who put sticks in the ground and hope for the best. This winter I've been polishing up a book I wrote a few years ago about plants. It's not a seedy sort of book that tells you how to grow vegetables and flowers, but about the things that happen around plants and people that love them, the kinds of connections you make and how things that seem a mistake turn out to be fortuitous.

For over a year now I've been communicating with Jeremy Bartlett who runs the wonderful Grapes Hill Community Garden, and writes a report each month on the TN Bulletin. This year I suggested the Low Carbon Cookbook crew might rent one of the raised beds and grow food and medicine plants there as a showcase. Too many local people (luckily for the Garden) wanted to grow veg this year, so we settled on a compromise. I can give you a corner, he told us and some space for signs.

"How about three plants," I suggested, "that show how you can grow ancient and modern superfoods in your own backgarden for free?"

I had just had a long conversation with Jo Balfe at the Nectar Cafe who uses goji berries from a local allotment (which she dries herself - raw gojis are a challenging taste) in lots of her homemade teas and raw food dishes. Imported from China they can be pricey as well as carbon-intensive (£2 for 100g). A second year wolfberry bush will yield a kilo of berries for free and are a great alternative to sultanas in your muesli.

"Oh, I'll grow the Chia and amaranth," said Mark and began rummaging in his seed box, leafing through catalogues (he is a seed man). "Where are we going to get a bush from?"

This January we went up to London to meet the Social Reporting crew in Finsbury Park. We converged around the beds of Edible Landscapes London ,which is a Transition plant and tree nursery, growing and grafting all kinds of perennial shrubs and trees, many of the species recommended by Martin Crawford, master forest gardener of England. There were goji twigs EVERYWHERE. You can't go wrong with them, said Jo, the project's co-ordinator. "Let's take some home", I said to Mark, and later wrote to Jeremy about our find. Wonderful! he wrote back. I've put a link to ELL on the website.

So this is a small story about cuttings and connections. About a bunch of bare sticks that links people, gardens, projects, initiatives, cities, nations. That links cooks, growers, medicine people, brings small miracles in its wake. It costs nothing to do and means everything to experience. You believe it might happen, but you don't fuss or pay too much attention. One day the stick surprises you with buds and leaves, and you rejoice out loud and tell everyone you see. It worked, you cry. How marvellous, another plant! another tree!

We are a joyous, communicative tribe.

When you sit down and write your own book or blog, or read other people's, like John's yesterday about weeds, or Adrienne's on local food systems, you realise that life happens as it should because people make time to love the world. The writers are the ones who record everything, who notice the beauty of everything connecting, the plants, the people and the places. The sound of another spring happening all across the land.

Seeds on the table, illustration for Plant Communications chapter in 52 Flowers That Shook My World; morning glory cover of 52 flowers (Two Ravens Press); city wolfberries from a great blog called Reading History in the Green Spaces of Berlin; Jo Homan and me at Edible Landscapes with some signs she made for edible bushes; goji berry twigs in our conservatory (MW).