Monday 23 February 2015

EARTHLINES - Putting down roots

As the new edition of EarthLines is posted all over the country, here is my Life in Transition column for their winter issue, on history keepers, relocalisation and anchoring yourself in the neighbour- hood.

I am lost amongst the heather, at sea in an ocean of dusty fragrant purple. Walking down the coast towards Westleton, I’ve taken a cut across Dunwich Heath.  I do this walk almost every year as summer tilts into autumn, but somehow I always lose my way. I’ve arrived at one of the silver sanded tracks that wend across this luminous landscape, fringed with birch and lime woods.  Do I go left or right? The left will take me back to the visitor centre, which peeks above the Scot’s pine like a cliff top beacon, and the right will take me towards a place I cannot see. 

I’m not going to get it right this year either. I will plunge myself into a repeat cycle: following the path that goes alongside the reed beds, getting frustrated, losing time, asking visitors who know the heath even less than I do, and finally,  taking a risk, I will double back on myself and come across a tall old man with a scythe cutting bracken, who points out the way. 

It turns out I was on the right path all along, just going in the wrong direction.

Last week my neighbour David Moyse was buried in the local churchyard. His grandparents once lived in my house, a brick cottage tied to the local farm. His grandfather was in charge of the horses that ploughed all the surrounding fields, his father was the village blacksmith. In the church, listening to his childhood friend Ruth talk about his working life as an engineer, it sounds like a litany of enterprises that were once intrinsic to every country neighbourhood: the dairy, the laundry, the school.

For a decade we talked with David over his gate. About the weather, about flowers, about making wine from rosehips in a bucket. I had found his leeks one winter dusk on a stall made from an old pram and something in me felt exultant as if I had suddenly found harbour after a storm. Later we stood together in defence of the lane against a tourist development, and the action broke a barrier that sometimes exists between ‘incomers’ and local people with deep ties to the land.

The following autumn David gave me a bag of his home-growngreen tomatoes, and I made chutney for both our larders. It was the first direct exchange I made in my new neighbourhood, and the encounter formed the basis of most of the Transition pieces I then wrote about making ourselves at home. David gave us wood when he chopped his trees, he lent us his mower when ours broke down. But most of all he was always there at the top of the lane, like a guardian of the place, the church steeple keeper and key holder, the history man of the village. We always waved at each other, as we cycled by. Here we are, here we are!

For years I yearned to return to the countryside I had once encountered when I was young. For a long time I thought this was a nostalgia for a summer seaside childhood – an escape to a rural idyll from a cynical city world. When I came to live in Suffolk I realised it wasn’t a personal longing: the sparkling sea, the rustling marsh, the big sky, the oak that spread its arms wide, the scent of marram on a hot July day were all part of my becoming a real human being. Which is to say a human being who is at home on the Earth. This wasn’t just about having a relationship with the land. It was also about recognising the people who were already anchored in the territory.

David was like the country people I knew when I was a child, who were fierce and yet kindly, who grew cabbages and dahlias in their gardens, who knew the names of the birds and kept their tools in good order. And although we were from a different generation and different backgrounds, we loved the same place.

When he died, it was as if a great ship had been unmoored, and you could no longer hear its mast stays rattling in the wind. That’s when I realised at some point you have to become the kind of people you want to see in the neighbourhood. And perhaps the greatest gift I have gleaned from Transition is a narrative, a frame of how to become an anchor in a place. A chance to start again.

Relocalisation has been a task. Because there is a big restlessness in the world. I am one of millions of disconnected people yearning to belong, who at the same time, are pulled and pushed by a culture that demands that everyone moves all the time.

What happens when you stop? What happens when you don’t leave? What happens if you go to the place where your heart leads you to go, and are prepared to forego the conveniences and glamour of an urban, consumer-driven life?

There are stats you come across when you run a newspaper about grassroots activism that make the environmental and social challenges we face very clear. One of them is that 86% of energy in the UK comes from fossil fuels. The other is that the UK also has the richest and poorest neighbourhoods in Europe. We are more unequal and less prepared for a low-carbon future than most other countries.

When I first came to the lane I interviewed a man called John Minahane who had given up his city life to live in the country. He was the warden of a reserve, rich in salt and freshwater plants.

You can make a living here, if you are not proud,” he told me. And though this may be true of many places, you have to have strong reasons for taking a deliberately downward step, and something you love to sustain you. For John, this was a grand vision for a handful of scratch meadows on the curve of the road to Southwold. He wanted to create a habitat for bitterns. And in the last decade of his life he did:  he helped transform those fields into reed marshes, that now house otters and water voles, as well as the shy booming birds he loved.

Looking at the stats it’s clear a lot of us need to take a downward step if we truly wish to live in a sustainable world. What stops us are the pleasures of being a visitor, granted by the use of fossil fuels: holidays, cheap fancy food, the individualistic lives we can control at the flick of a switch. In harder times, our pride will not help us. But nature will, if we can access it in our ordinary lives.

For the last six years I’ve been involved in a collective practice that you can do (almost) for free anywhere: growing  veg, saving seeds, living with the seasons, making plant medicine, walking, wild swimming, foraging, chopping firewood. Learning to see the working of the universe in the small beauty of everyday things.

These are not, I’ve learned, add-on skills: these are skills that signify and embody a different way of being on the planet. In the opening essay of the latest edition of Dark Mountain, The Focal and the Flask, Tom Smith discusses the difference between the technology-based world and a human-framed ‘focal’  one – where cultures are built around the collective focus of a fire. Focal things ‘involve real reconnection with people, species and landscapes… entail greater involvement, greater work and knowledge, greater negotiation with others, all often seen as inconveniences in the narrative of modernity.”

To reverse the destiny of our restless machine-driven world we need to take up practices that go in another direction entirely. We need to learn another way of relating to and framing our lives, the practices another generation knew.

I am sitting beside the last sunflowers, winnowing tiny brown seeds on a tray. They are the seeds of asparagus kale: a monumental and handsome brassica that soars six foot into the air from green-grey leaves. You can eat its tender shoots in Spring like asparagus – or let it flower in golden sprays beloved by bees. It’s a heritage variety you can’t buy from a catalogue, but is one day handed to you by a fellow grower. There are thousands of seeds in these husky pods. Some of them are finding their way into envelopes to be dispersed this winter.

You can’t take a downswing without the planet’s help, and how you get that help is not done by pushing buttons or paying money. It is done the slow way, the hard way, with encounter, with patience, with loss, with solitude, with exchange. By walking in the opposite direction of restlessness. By knowing a place deeply and intimately, and not wanting to be anywhere else.

You can’t become a belonger on holiday or at a festival, on a retreat or at a workshop. You do it by immersing yourself in a neighbourhood over time, and not moving. And when the romance and nostalgia have blown away like chaff from these seeds, the territory will reveal itself for what it truly is. These moments appear like the flash of dragonfly wings, like a shooting star at dawn, and you need to be alert to recognise them:

You mean Minsmere Woods?” the old man said, as he paused with his great scythe. “Well, if you follow the track over this rise you will find a kissing gate. Go through the gate, and you will be there.”

Dunwich Heath, 2014; bunch of asporagus kale and kale buds from the veg patch; Hen Reed Beds; one of the archive photographs from David Moyse's book about Reydon, The Village Where I Went to School, published by Southwold Press and available from Wells of Southwold or Boyden Stores, Reydon, £7; EarthLines Spring Issue 2015

Thursday 5 February 2015

Farewell My Lovely

Yesterday I closed the paper. It was a tough decision and threw many un- answered questions into the air: about the limits of agency within grassroots and progressive culture, about how media is valued, about 'sustainable' livlihoods, about those who forge and record the 'beautiful solutions' in a time of collapse. We received some wonderful and heartening responses from people who have been involved in the project since it first began in 2011 - from fellow activists/writers/distributors and Transitioners. For me those relationships, as well as the integrity and coherence of the paper, made it a worthwhile project to devote many many long hours to. Here is my last post on our website:

Dear Readers and Supporters of Transition Free Press,

I am sorry to inform you that our innovative grassroots newspaper will not be published this year. We were hoping to relaunch this Spring with a bright new expanded edition but have been unable to raise sufficient funds to pay for our core costs.

For the past three years we have produced seven issues, all of which have documented the actions, skills and intelligence of Transition and affiliated progressive movements. Our purpose was to reflect the cultural shift many of us are involved in and to act as a communications tool for Initiatives and groups. Thanks to over 150 contributors, over 100 distributors, 50 advertisers and a collective editorial team, over 70,000 papers have appeared all over the UK - in shops, in cafes, universities and libraries, waiting rooms and market stalls. At public events and in private moments.

We have never been at a loss for material. 

TFP_Advert_STIR_Final Running newspapers is hard work and it was always our intention that TFP should be a co-operative social enterprise that paid people for their skills and dedication. Backing from a crowdfunding campaign and grants from Network for Social Change and Transition Network has given us time to build up a social infrastructure, with the aim of eventually becoming a self-sustaining enterprise.

However to become a sustainable business involves a paradox. Even though our editorial might challenge a 'growth-at-all costs' culture, we ourselves needed to grow massively to keep going. We needed to sell tens of thousands more papers, charge much more for them, dedicate more of our pages to advertising and find hundreds more subscribers. And fast.

Image1507 At the end of last year we did (finally and happily) succeed in finding funds for two of our proposed 2015 issues. but not for the whole year. To fulfil our obligations to become 'financially sustainable' meant we would have needed to make at least £20,000 pa profit to pay our core costs, and if we wanted to pay ourselves the minimum wage, over £30,000.

This was beyond our capabilities. We have always covered our production costs, but have never made the kinds of sums that make business sense. So even though the big picture public debates, from the May elections to COP15 in December, probably need the presence of a free press more than ever before, TFP will not be there to discuss them. Nor will we be there to record and celebrate the small events, actions, gatherings, projects, productions and conversations that make up the grassroots culture of a world-in-flux.

As the paper's editor and co-founder, I had hoped we could make a livelihood from our professional work within Transition. However, I now realise that for that to be the case independent journalism needs to be held in far greater esteem than it does at present. It has to matter there is a free press, that what we write matters, that our voices be heard. Because until our words are given space and attention the new story of community and collaboration everyone is waiting for will not be told.

I hope that new alliances, such as Real Media (see Amy Hall's post here) will demonstrate why the future needs a people-friendly, Earth-friendly media and that TFP's contributions and insights will have helped make that happen.

Meanwhile, dear readers, thank you for supporting us during these years. Thank you especially to our contributors, our subscribers (whom we will be refunding) and also our loyal distributors who, sometimes against the odds, have kept selling the paper to their communities. Thank you to my fellow writers, editors, designers and managers at TFP. Thank you all for your generosity, creativity and for giving it a go.

With best wishes, Charlotte Du Cann

484997_460945680613821_965150950_a Images: Charlotte Du Cann (Editor) reading TFP3; Trucie Mitchell (Designer) reading TFP2; our first reader on the train, reading the preview issue: Mark Watson (Distribution Manager) reading TFP4