Monday 28 May 2012

Everything must change - Transition Themes Week#14

Welcome to our last Transition Themes Week #14. We've been running this blog daily for two and a half years now. We created it originally to reflect back to ourselves and the world what a low carbon life looks and feels like, to show the kind of people we were and explore Transition ideas, particularly the experiences we were then having in the Transition Circles.

The Transition Themes Weeks were begun to report on the work of TN's projects - energy, economics, food, bees, Low Carbon Cookbook, Magdalen Street Celebration. They were there to keep us all in touch and functioned like a network in a resilient eco-system, working to connect and feedback to the whole initiative and different affiliated groups in Norwich. They began on Mondays with an introduction to the week and a post about Transition communications, both in the city and within the Network.

Today some of the groups featured in these weeks have fallen away, people have come and gone from the blog. And though there is still a committed core of us, life is pulling us in other directions. Some people are too busy to write, others have stronger commitments, and this puts a strain on other bloggers to keep up the momentum. Weeks are becoming harder to fill, to get a full house of contributors. So after June 20, summer solstice and The Festival of Transition (and my birthday!) we will become a more occasional blog. We're each taking a day and posting when we can. Hope you will still continue to join us!

Some reflections on the editing business and Transition

So everything changes. That's something you learn for sure in Transition. You also learn to reflect and see how you might have done things differently - not had you known then, but if you were to start again now. Now I think I would think twice about creating editorial roles, and what this entails in grassroots communications. Communications have a low priority within Transition. It is something that is done by someone, and is useful insofar as it works as a marketing or recruiting tool. Even though in Anthony Sampson's analysis of power in Britain the media holds the second greatest ability to influence events (way beyond government), creating our own media and forging a new culture is not considered important.

So now I would get clear on how communications, specifically editorial, are regarded within the rest of the enterprise. Secondly, I would hesitate to take an editor's role, even though this has been crucial in setting up both our Norwich blogs (and also the Social Reporting Project and Transition Free Press).

In traditional journalism, nothing happens without the editor. They are the deciders, the ones who say yes, maybe, and no way Jose. Everyone has their role around this decision-making process. I've worked with some great editors. Some I got on with, and some I didn't. There's usually something you don't like about the editor. That's because a good editor cares about the edition, and not you. It's not personal, it's just how it goes. Everyone understands that. The editor's word is famously final.

In Transition no one understands that, because you are not working professionally, you are working out of conviction, or because it suits you. You are loyal to the main storyline only as far as it works for you personally. Most people join a Transition project, as a hobby or an adjunct to their normal lives. So as an editor you can't really operate very well. No one is getting paid, so you have to be nice to people or you get a blank page.

At first people in the initiative didn't want an editorial crew at all. We started the blog along trad lines with ex-professionals - with an editor, managing editor, sub-editor and designer - which proved really useful for setting things up. Then the bloggers who came on board wanted to be a "community" and have "ownership" and tell the people doing the editorial work what to do. Censorship came up, and control. Egos clashed. Tempers flew. It felt like the most wonderful thing I had ever done and possibly the most horrible. That was a rocky moment. The Sturm und Drang moment all creative enterprises undergo. Eventually the dust settled and everyone found their rhythm.

The blog got published through thick and thin. We didn't miss a beat. I kept going because everything, I saw everything was grist for the mill. There were great opportunities for getting over oneself on a daily basis and exploring new territories. Sometimes we liked each others posts and sometimes we didn't. We learned a new tolerance, I think. I did certainly. I realised this was an alchemical space, where things got aired and changed, and we learned how to work in diversity. How we allowed each other to speak after millennia of silence.

For a while, maybe a year, things went really well. We had a full quota of bloggers and invited guest contributors on board. We had a new readership and were cross-posted in several places. We met each quarter to decide the rota and took turns to lead weeks. Then the initiative around which our blog is based started to lose momentum. Some of the projects faded. Some people shifted camp to Norwich FarmShare. Some of us started to be two-timers on the Social Reporting Project. I started to feel I was carrying the load and filling up gaps.

So here we are in May 2012 at a moment of shift . . . The editorial crew is a beautiful structure but it only works when a certain number of people are writing stuff together for real. In a grassroots blog where people are in it for the feeling it gives them, or as promotion, the editor becomes simply a useful coordinator who can be depended on to hold the fort, carry the rap, pick up the ball etc. You end up being a kind of nanny, or secretary. You feel that you are putting yourself on the line, doing all the hard Transition work, while other people stay within their comfort zones, in their conventional lives.

So I think to run a good community blog I would get clear on who exactly is doing the change, who is loyal to the cause, and make sure the load is fairly shared. I'd rotate the editor role, right from the start. If you don't have an editor at all there is an emptiness to everything. A bit like a ship without a captain, or a kitchen without a cook. There's no one at the helm, no presence there. No fire. No food. No home station.

I'm not sure how it would work. Or if it would work. Maybe that's the place we are right now in Transition. The kitchen only works with a cook, and the cook is tired of being treated as a servant. She is wondering what she is doing amongst the pots and pans, and telling everyone: serve yourself. The cook is not just me, she is all the real-time Transitioners who feel this way, she is everyone on the planet serving the Empire, those who dine upstairs at our expense. She is the earth too and all creatures and plants who sail with her. Taking off her apron, kicking off her shoes.

Transition training; with fellow Transition comms people taking part in a Project Sharing Engine day, London, 2011; Transition bloggers in Chapelfield Gardens: Ann Owen's market garden, visiting the social reporters

Thursday 17 May 2012

It's all right

"How come all your songs are about water?" the anthropologist asked the Hopi elder, as he sang to his corn on the mesa. "Because water is rare and precious in our land," he replied. "How come all your songs are about love?"
This is a post about a song. It's a song I've been singing all my life. You could say all our lives are a song. Or a harmony, or a rhythm. Sometimes the song is a lullaby, a threnody, a torch song, a protest song, or a requiem. It's something we sing on our own, or accompanied by other people, a capella, andante, allegro, con moto, ma non troppo. Sometimes the song we sing goes at a different pace, or is in a different key than the sounds amplified by the machines that surround us, which makes it hard to hold the note, to keep the beat on our own. Sometimes we long for people we can sing it with, and sometimes if we are lucky and the band is playing, we find them.

Little darling it's been a long and lonely winter . . .

I heard the song when I was eight years old, and sang it loudly as I went up the ski lift on the snowy meadow in the Austrian Alps. Behind me was Hermann, our instructor, whom I loved completely with the heart of a child. It was a glorious day. I was away from school, away from home, with my friends and the mountains sparkling all around me. I was in a new country and I felt free for the first time in my young life, as if I had stepped out of a black and white photograph and into a moving rainbow-coloured universe.

I didn't know the words (for the song had not yet been written down) but I knew the feeling. And you could say in those fifty-something years since, I have been faithful to that moment. I learned to sing this song in the heartless institutions of the world, in the corridors of power, in sad suburban houses and crummy hotels. I have sung it the bookshops of London and Bristol and Edinburgh, in an American gaol and in a Kent garden on May Day, in an orphanage chapel in Mexico, on the underground station in Santiago de Chile - in two,three and four part harmony (with a little help from my friends). When I first joined Transition I sang this song at the Heart and Soul group in Norwich, I sang it at Mark's 50th birthday last week - with Mark.

It seems like years since it's been here

Music is many things. And like everyone else in this culture I could trace my passage through life and all its tempestuous relationships through certain songs and symphonies. I spent my youth carrying a cello around, playing in scratch orchestras, singing in school choirs, queuing for hours for cheap seats at the Royal Opera House and the Festival Hall. I listened to Radio Caroline as it rocked in the North Sea outside my school dormitory window. I danced to the beat in the Meat Market in New York, in the Cafe de Paris in London, at a hundred parties in warehouses and mansions and slums. I danced to Aurelia's drum and Mark's chant on the rooftops in Oaxaca and made Julianne smile. You broke my heart open, she said, like Spring. I interviewed the country singer, Garth Brookes in snowy South Bend, Indiana, and he told me: the struggle is everything.

the ice is slowly melting

Maybe it was the 24 hour non-stop salsa bus ride to the Ecuadorian coast in 1990 that did it. But at some point, the music stopped. Mozart is driving me crazy, I said to my musician friends. All those bloody notes! They looked at me horrified. But it was true. Mozart was giving me a stomach ache. I felt as if I was stuck in a claustrophobic room and couldn't get out. Pretty soon I couldn't bear Beethoven either, or those gloomy Romantic composers or swoopy sopranos. I felt stuck in History, in a record that was going round and round.

And then it happened with Joan Baez. It's not that I was a big Joan Baez fan, but I was listening, wrapped up in a song she wrote about Dylan called Diamonds and Rust and I realised my feet were not on the ground. The song was taking me somewhere vague and nostalgic, somewhere out of time and out of place, and then abandoning me. I wanted to stay in that song, in that sad and poignant feeling, but it wasn't real. It was a path that led nowhere (which, in many ways, is what the song itself is about). I felt as though I'd been tricked. And pretty soon after that I realised that's where most music takes you, out of yourself, off-planet, never quite delivering you to the place you hope it will. And then leaving you in silence, longing for more.

the smiles returning to their faces

So what has any of this personal stuff got to do with Transition? There is a really positive side to music; it can lift you up, make you get up and shimmy (I still really love to dance), it can break the ice, make you smile. But there is a treacherous side to it too, and culturally at this point we would be wise to realise what those dangers might be. In spite of the brilliant, right-on lyrics that Jon has been writing about in the last three days, music is also mass distraction, an escape from reality (most assuredly from the hard facts of peak oil and climate change) and has been highly manipulated by the advertising and entertainment industries. It can make us believe we have freedom in our grasp and are connected to the whole world, when in fact we are as trapped as caged birds, stuck in our interior worlds, listening to i-pods. Lost in a trance, in the world of fairie.

Sometimes I listen to Bach's Goldberg Variations in the conservatory (I read once that plants like baroque). And if I had to keep one piece of classical music it would be this one. It's played by the recluse and keyboard genius, Glenn Gould. All thirty variations are played according to the same tempo. That rigour makes it one of the most exciting, on the edge, exploratory pieces of music ever written.

One of the key ingredients in The Transition Companion is Momentum. If you don't keep up the tempo, the project, the group, the initiative you are in won't hold. There will be nothing to depend on, no centre, no falconer for the falcon to return to (as Yeats would term it). The whooshy, feel good moments and ideas you might get at the start of Transition won't bear the reality of day. The Empire will demand back your allegiance and all your time.

Music is a tough business, as anyone who knows about the lives of performers (classical, jazz, rock, folk) will tell you. Audiences demand sacrifice and perfection, and many musicians are crushed, like butterflies on the wheel. Transition is tough too. It requires us to keep to the tempo of our hearts when the frenetic pace of the world goes too fast for them, it requires us to hold a harmony, when there is dissonance all around us. It requires us to change frequency and tune into the earth and not go off key. To succeed in our task will take practice, courage, rigour and most of all love. Love for the planet and for human liberation, for which we sing our song, even in silence. For the feeling of being free in the mountains on a blue day, free and light as a bird.

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes!

Photos: dancing with Aurelia and Mark, The Earth Medicine Show, Oaxaca, Mexico, 1993: Joan Baez, 1975; Glenn Gould, 1955; summer solstice sun rising over Southwold, 2011

Wednesday 2 May 2012

A Swinger of Birches

I don't know when the climbing thing began. Maybe it was in Port Meadow in 1998 when I found the apple tree down Aristotle Lane. One of those surprise trees that bear fruit with a taste you can never quite recapture. There were some way out of my reach. So I climbed up in the branches and helped myself. Once I got there, I didn't want to leave. I stayed aloft for a while and surveyed the scene. It was a whole new perspective. When I jumped down I felt full of vim.

After that I came across an ash down by the Thames that gave me a great view over the river. Sometimes people passed by below me and were surprised by the sight of une femme d'un certain age up a tree. Mostly no one noticed. Then I found a yew in Holywell Churchyard and swung up into smooth red arms. Unmistakably female, austere and yet very friendly.

Friendly? Yes, well that's what I started to notice. That each tree had its own character and mood. It was something you noticed when you were up there. Different things occured to you depending on the type of tree you were in: some reflective, some to do with action.

I wasn't alone. In 1998 there were a lot of activists who spent time in trees in the city. Down by the station a crew were trying to stop two horse chestnuts from being cut down and were keeping vigil in a tree house. Something jolted inside when I saw them. I have to make contact! Shortly afterwards joining a campaign to save the green corridor of the Oxford canal (with its great willows), I met people who had spent months up the oak trees at Newbury. Trees brought us together, irrespective of class, history, politics. They welcomed us to the neighbourhood, made us feel at home in a rocky time.

So after that I climbed a lot of trees: huge crab apples at Shotover Hill, goat willows down by the railway track, boxes in the University Parks. Unusually I didn't climb trees in America, or Mexico, when I went to those places during the millenium years. It was a thoroughly English obsession (though I did spend time in a thousand year old holm oak in the South of France). When I came to Suffolk there was no stopping me. Scot's pine, alder, sycamore, black poplar, holly, cherry, rowan and oak. I sailed in the canopies of trees as I walked through my new found land, across marsh and fen, on the way to the sea, back to the house.

I'm still climbing them.

My favourite climb is a birch. I love her soft bark and easy low limbs. As soon as I swing up and find a perch, all thoughts of people and situations drop away and I am in earth time, at home, here and now. You feel warm and secure up there, in contact with the ancestors of the planet, communicating in a language you can't always write down. An encounter that is joyful and sober at once.

We're always labelling our posts Reconnection with Nature as if this were a big task, requiring years of training, or special abilities. It's not. It's a small step you make as you walk out the door. A move out of the squares and boxes we think in into the fluidity of the physical breathing world. A shift sideways from your left hemisphere to your right, downwards from your mind to your heart, into your body.

And sometimes upwards, into a tree.

Climbing in a hazel at Frostenden; ash flowers in Marsh Lane; black pine at Oxford Botanical Gardens; up a sycamore in Marsh Lane; birch at Thorpeness fen; checking into an Italian alder in Finsbury Park. Title take from the poem, Birches by Robert Frost.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Merry May Day Everyone!

Up the cherry tree on Westleton Green

Down the blackthorn tunnel in Marsh Lane.

By the road side: blackthorn flower and scurvy grass

Best fruit in the lane: damson tree in flower