Monday 13 January 2014

Yarrow tea with Rosie

In 2012/3 I co-created and helped run a pilot for the grassroots newspaper, Transition Free Press. This was a full-on blue-pencil editing job on all macro and micro levels. However each issue I broke away from my desk to write about people I felt were key to the movement's outlook and philosophy. 

I interviewed Shaun Chamberlin about TEQs, Mark Boyle about the gift culture, Anne-Marie Culhane about the art of Abundance and George Monbiot about his book, Feral, and how Transition initiatives could help rewild their neighbourhoods. In the current issue I spoke with 20-year old activist, Rosie Music about life in the pioneer community of Grow Heathrow, now at the end of their long legal battle and soon to celebrate their fourth birthday.

It was perhaps the coldest day of the winter. Lucy and I were trudging through the snow-covered streets of Sipson, a village on the edge of the world’s third busiest airport. I was about to ask the woman slipping and sliding towards us if we were on the right way, when she gestured behind her.

“How do you know where we’re going ?” I asked.
“The hats,” she replied and laughed.

We were en route to Grow Heathrow, researching for Playing for Time, a book about transitional arts practice, well prepped in Latvian and Andean headgear. Rosie was our guide. She has lived on this creatively-shaped, squatted site for over two years now. That day she showed us round its raised beds, well-stocked kitchen, compost toilets, rocket stove shower and her own tiny house under its tangled roof of elder branches by the M4. Grow Heathrow grew out of airport expansion protest and a Transition initiative on derelict land that was once a market garden and the proposed third runway. What strikes you when you visit is that people who live and flourish here show particular resilience and attitude that feels key for weathering the future.

Activism and creativity lie the heart of Transition Initiatives. Most function as inspiration within traditional communities, but some of them also pioneer another way of being. Grow Heathrow don’t just do Transition as an add-on to their ‘normal’ lives every third Tuesday, or talk about living the low-carbon way at the local WI. They do it every day, 24/7. The renovated greenhouses that shelter 15 people permanently and hundreds of visitors, local residents, workshop and party attendees temporarily, are a hub for all kinds of off-grid and social practice. It’s a community that grows its own veg, builds its own wind turbine and straw bale meeting house, mends bikes, forages for medicine, chops wood, discusses its own governance and wellbeing, shares skills and opens its doors generously to anyone who wants to see what a certain future looks and feels like.

It’s not Shangri-La. It’s tough work and cold in the winter (though cosy in the main ‘house’ around a big wood burning stove). But there is something creative and energetic that conventional domestic life lacks, and you can feel it talking with Rosie.

“I first came when I was still at school. I felt it was exciting and imaginative. I was going to take some time out before university, but then I moved in and never left. I built a bender and started learning about growing and energy and living in a community, and I really loved it. And I still do.

“Being part of Transition Heathrow means I am involved in projects on the Grow Heathrow site and in the wider community. I’ve worked at the community cafe and the young people’s centre where kids have been excluded from school. I’ve started Open University (social science and policy). I also work with the Transition group I helped set up in Tufnell Park where I grew up. And I do some wider facilitation with a network called London Roots and give workshops on consensus and non-hierachical organising.

“In Sipson we take part in the Spring and Christmas Fair and the yearly Hayes Carnival. We also are part of the local campaign to keep Botwell Common from being developed. The village has been blighted by airport development and Grow Heathrow has given people hope that they are not alone in their fight and others will stand with them. The site is an example to local people of what 'else' there is, and what can be done with some creativity, determination and love, as well as a place to learn skills and come for a cup of tea.”

“The arts play a massively important role in helping people be more imaginative, free and communicative in their lives and in Transition.”

Rosie has helped run two arts residencies, where people from all over the UK have come to create an exhibition or performance. She is also involved with Transition Heathrow’s wellbeing group, which facilitates communications between everyone on the site.

“There’s a lot more diversity in the project now - people from different backgrounds and cultures - which means there is more disparity in how people see the world. This can create more conflict, as well as more reality. We try and do something together every week: go for a swim or to the park. Other times we hold councils, or a bigger gathering if there are tensions on site, or we have a court case coming up. We help with mediations between people and organise workshops.

“It is important to have a very diverse mix. We miss having kids on site, and also elders. It is key to have people who are enthusiastic about collectivity, no matter who they are: people who will put energy into the project and work together.”

There were some questions I had a year later now the group has lost their court case against eviction: what, for instance, were the challenges living in the community?

“Living with more people. You definitely have to learn how to live more co-operatively and understand yourself as a part of a whole. It’s really deep living together and doing these things. Being able to sustain yourself in a place that is tense however can also be draining. Grow Heathrow is both a home and a public project and anyone can come through, and obviously you are by an airport, so there is no getting away.

“Technically we can be evicted at any time. We’re still trying to appeal to the Supreme Court and negotiate with the owners to buy the land. This would change the organic nature of Grow Heathrow, but it would also release a lot of potential; for example we’d be able to work with local kids, which we can’t do because of insurance.

Looking back what would you see as your key experiences?

“Some of them are practical: building a my first cold frame; helping weld the blades for the wind turbine; making the wood burner in my house; walking barefoot around the site; learning how to make capers from dandelion buds; making cider from local apples; making dyes from leaves in autumn. Being in a community, knowing this is the energy and we created it, this is the food and we created it.

"Some are massive events like our third birthday; Christmas last year when the neighbours came round with a turkey; making a coffin for Keith when he died, and digging his grave and planting a cider apple tree for him with manure from our compost toilet. He really loved cider!”

Do you see yourselves as an example of living in the future?

“Our official line is ‘Furthering the Heathrow vision - an iconic symbol of community resistance to economic, ecological and democratic process.’ We don’t always meet our aims fully of course! It can be a struggle against the tide. But I see Grow Heathrow as an example of how we can begin to create a resilient community, how we can increase resource autonomy and build new alternative structures of organisation.”

“Was there anything you miss In terms of comfort?” I asked finally, remembering last winter’s snow and mud. Rosie laughed:

“Two things we really need to build are a bicycle powered dishwasher and washing machine . . .”

All offers welcome. 

Photographs: reading TFP3 in Southwold, hat model's own (Mark Watson); portrait of Rosie Music and residents of Grow Heathrow by Jonathan Goldberg

Sunday 5 January 2014

ARCHIVE: Breaking the Habit

Happy New Year everyone! This post was originally published on the Transition Norwich community blog, This Low Carbon Life which ran stories every day for over three years. It was part of a three-day slot between posts about group communication Having the Conversation and reading Roger Deakin Notes from the Sunrise Coast

Looking back I can hardly believe I wrote so much about Transition. I didn't realise then that blogging is as addictive as everything else. I'm pretty cured of the habit these days, working as an editor, writing news copy and the occasional column. Recently however I've been having some keyboard yearnings . . .  watch this space in 2014!
In The Transition Handbook Rob Hopkins describes our fossil-fuelled industrialised lifestyle as an addiction. We’re addicted to oil. And that presents humanity with a major dilemma: we find ourselves stuck inside a destructive self-replicating system with very few ideas of how to get out of it. We can either get together and find ways to liberate ourselves, or face the consequences of a planetary meltdown.

Tough call either way.

With classic dependencies like alcohol and heroin it’s clear what you do when you face the music, when you wake up to your life falling apart. You stop. You can do this with sheer determination, you can get professional advice. You can go to any number of self-help groups and sit in a room with fellow addicts. You can treat it as a personal problem or a social problem - the historical fate of certain people at the hands of Empire, indigenous tribes dispossessed of their land, the factory workers in the slums of 19th century Manchester. You can look at it as a spiritual problem, the fate of the most of us, escaping from reality in one way or another, because of the emotional harshness of our lives, because of the lack of connection with the earth and with the spirit of life. It’s not our fault and yet it is our problem.

Most addicts, when they decide to quit can ask someone who has quit before them: How did you go through this process? And can expect to receive an answer. Normal is not-addicted (or at least not to the degree that it rules your life). But how do you do this with Energy? When normal is totally addicted and our lives are built around a constant need for electricity and gas? When oil interplays in almost all our activities? When no-one before us has given it up?

Instead of looking at the big picture of peak oil and climate change and feeling unable to act, the Transition Circles in Norwich decided to tackle the problem from ground up and go the way of self-help groups. We kept the big picture in mind and concentrated on the four drivers of energy, transport, food, stuff (and waste) in regard to our daily lives.

We confessed our profligate use of heating oil and gas, brought our log books, crunched numbers. We came out as bicycle riders, as users of rainwater, organic food producers, second hand clothes wearers, non-consumers, admitted a secret horror of plastic. But hey! We were in a Safe Space. It was OK to care about the planet. No one was going to accuse us of being tree huggers or climate agree-ers. We had a lot of fun (and good food). And in a few months, most of us had shifted to a low(er)-carbon way of living. We reduced our emissions to four tons (half the national average). We’re still working on it and communicating our findings to everyone we come across, 100 monkeys-style. This blog was created from those original meetings in 2009/10.

Still, as we found out, you have to go cold turkey and that’s a personal thing between you and the Power that rules your life. And then you have to hold those decisions in the outside world, often against stern opposition. How do you do that?

I’ve given up a lot of stuff in my life. I gave up sugar in tea for Lent as an experiment when I was 12 and, heathen child though I was, discovered the joy of renunciation. I never went back to it. After living a high life during my 20s and 30s I gave up a colourful list of recreational drugs, vodka and champagne drinking when I went on the road. I gave up newspapers and television and designer clothes and buying interesting stuff in markets. I gave up smoking cigarettes (oh, tobacco!), meat and fish and cheese, restaurants and elaborate cooking. In Transition I gave up daily hot baths, owning a car, supermarkets, flying, central heating. The pre-Transition decisions got me a lot of flak, the in-Transition ones curiosity and questions.

The trick is the decision. You’ve got to see it matters within the big picture. You have to see that it gives you freedom. And that you prefer that freedom, all that space and time, to being caught in a repeat cycle, even at the risk of "losing" people. It isn’t really renunciation as I found out, it’s breaking a hold something has over you. When I gave up drinking wine it didn’t mean I would never drink wine again. It meant that I broke the habit of having to have wine every day in order to feel OK. I still have hot baths, but only when I need one. It’s not driven from a puritanical urge. It’s come because I want to be fluid and autonomous. And on a social level I want to find out how we can extricate ourselves from the oil age and what that demands from individuals and communities, humanity as a whole. So there’s adventure in there, intellectual and physical curiousity, pioneer spirit, desire for experience (and copy!). What would it be like to live in rural England without a car?

Right now I’m breaking a terrible habit I picked up this winter when I had the flu. DVDs from the library! I had given up going to the cinema in 2005. I love films, especially real life stories with redemption in them. The DVDs from the library are mostly Hollywood movies so I can’t even claim I’m engaging in high culture. I’m just distracting myself. After a while you feel enclosed in these worlds of American gloss, the girls with their perfect hair, those mawkish plot lines. The globalised culture depends on these movies and their star system to disengage people’s attention, to give everyone a taste for the artificial and the emotional tone it brings. Its violence and false desires. Its hidden heraldic structures that imprint themselves on our imaginations. Giving up has got to have meaning in there. And noble purpose.

If you lay out every thing you have given up, the habits you have broken, you’ll find yourself with a map of powerdown. That’s when you notice it looks a lot like gaolbreak. A lot like breaking a spell.

Photos: Smoking in the Yucatan 1991; opium poppy; Strangers' Circle. 2010 - All by Mark Watson. Black Swan poster, 2011