Roots, Shoots & Seeds - An Introduction

Roots, Shoots & Seeds was a book about local food and communities I began with fellow Transitioner, Josiah Meldrum (now of Hodmedods peas and beans) in 2009, Here is the introduction.

It was a bright November day with a sharp East wind. In a church hall people were gathering and taking their seats. They were not here to worship or go down on their knees however. They had come to hear about growing and distributing food. The speakers that morning included Ru Litherland and Claire Joy from the East End of London and Mahesh Pant from Norwich. They had come to speak about growing vegetables to people who lived in one of the most intensely farmed areas in Britain

I stood at the back of the hall with a giant teapot in my hands, the church kitchen behind me. Josiah was on the front of the stage. After the speakers had finished, he instructed the audience to form into circles and discuss how we could get together and work out how to grow more food locally. The hall began to buzz: people sat in circles and exchanged information, ideas, experiences; they discussed how to transform and renovate public space, start allotment projects, community projects. If you had peeked through the window at this gathering from the outside it would not have appeared significant. There was no one glamorous or rich or famous inside. The food on the table was ordinary: parsnip and squash soup, organic apples, homebaked scones, tea. An inconspicuous event in a small market town in the hinterland of East Anglia.

And yet if you had come inside you couldn’t have helped noticing a feeling. A feeling that came from the sound of people talking to one another about plants and the land, the warmth in the room, a sense you could get together and start again. It was a feeling that stayed with me for weeks afterwards. It reminded me of something. And then I remembered what that was. I had gone next door to my neighbour who had just bought a nucleus of honey bees. She was about to take them back to her London allotment. We stood in the garden before a wooden travelling case and there were bees flying out amongst the flowers, the bistort and sunflowers, shining now in the late summer afternoon. Listen she said. I bent down and listened. The box hummed with the sound of hundreds of bees. It was warm and sweet-scented, and harboured an intensity you could feel even though you could not see it. We stood there for a long time together. Some part of us longed to be inside that hive.

The book

The food and farming industry is complex and hard to understand. Operating like an invisible and efficient machine it devours the world’s resources, processing and profiting from them, whilst at the same time rendering its activities into discrete units making it almost impossible to comprehend the whole. Several (very good) books have deconstructed the workings of this industrial machine, but so comfortless are their findings, so difficult and unsavoury the facts they present that it is easy to lose sight of the very thing under discussion, the nature of food itself and its origins rooted in plants and soil, its relationship with our own natural forms. Searching for ways out of this mechanised labyrinth, we get drawn further into its centre, embroiled in descriptions of its Byzantine intricacies. The physical reality of the plants and creatures, the voices and hands of the people who grow the food recede from view. It is clear in our minds that our activities are creating a wasteland out of paradise, but the absolute control of this system seems overwhelming and we feel powerless to do anything about it.
Cookery books, in the main, go to the other extreme. They divert our senses entirely and entice us into safe enclosures, offering up solace and sweet-tasting comforts and take no account of how these dishes arrive at our table. Feasts of all lands appear before our eyes, people smile glamorously in shiny kitchens and immaculate vegetable gardens, the hostess bakes cakes, the chef performs miraculous feats. Some are good cooks, and some ask questions, but still we feel excluded, stifled, mute before their show. It somehow does not seem to be the world we are living in.

Outside these utopias and distopias is the real earth where plants still grow, pots simmer on stoves, soil regenerates itself, spring arrives, rain falls, and people speak to each other and work the land. That meeting in November sparked an idea in us: to write a book about food that would be firmly rooted in this world and seek to make sense of the shifting times we are living in. A world in which the urgent issues of climate change and peak oil and the limits of economic growth have entered the dialogue around the table. We wanted to write a book about food and farming that was written in the field, in the kitchen and on the road, that spoke with the people in the field - the growers of lettuce and corn, the savers of seeds - and those who were gathering in the halls and backrooms of the world to find out ways to proceed, people who practised a way of life that sought to reverse the damage caused by industrial agriculture and to create a worthwhile future. We wanted to speak to these people partly because no book about sustainability or food has yet done this and partly because we felt it was important to record the shifts that were going on and our own experiences of them. The imperative, perhaps, of all writers and journeymen.

Several authors have suggested that in order to rebalance the natural systems and prepare for a world in which cheap fossil fuel is no longer available we need to regain a realistic view of how we live and eat. Poets and visionaries have declared how the archaic and agrarian ways of life need to be re-evaluated and relearned, because our present urban and industrialised ways will ultimately change and thousands of us will return to live with the land.

It is difficult to imagine this however when our consumer knowledge of agriculture is limited to farmers’ markets and rural idylls in our imagination. It is difficult when so much about the natural world is broadcast in terms of apocalypse. How can we regain a relationship with the land that feeds us when we dwell in cities, or we live seemingly embedded in city culture, and lack a real and vibrant knowledge of natural life? And given the possibility would we take it?

To look for this kind of future we have to look outside the labyrinth. This book takes as its departure point neither the food and farming industry, nor cookery, but the plants that grows in the agricultural fields that form the basis of our contemporary diet. It looks at the plant’s origin, its place on the table and in the cooking pot, how it grows, what it takes to grow, what it means in the physical and imaginal fabric of our lives. It looks at the field in which the plant grows, how it is shaped by the past, present and how it might look in the future. Unusually, it does not do this from an academic or journalistic standpoint, which is to say from a distance at its edge, but standing within it, in relationship.

Most books about sustainability or ecology are written by experts who return to offices and university libraries to write up their reports. Most cookery books are written by people who work out of professional kitchens and studios. This one is written by two people who live next to the field. One who has lived all his life there, and the other who spent most of her life trying to get back.

The journey

All journeys begin from home. This one begins in a barley field next to a small brick cottage in coastal Suffolk. I have lived here for six years, surrounded by beet and barley, and sometimes by oats, potatoes and peas, by grassland, by cattle and by the noise of the industrial agricultural machine. By the side of these fields are the fragments of wild land which still make the countryside exciting to live in: tracks that run in all directions across fields and marsh and wood, old oaks, bluebells, hazel trees and cherry hedges, the cry of owls, the slow boom of bitterns and in the far distance a shining strip of sea. For these six years and for as long as I can remember my eyes have been focussed entirely upon these wild margins. One day just as the year was turning, I found myself looking in another direction. My eyes had caught something in the middle of an expanse of earth covered in uniform green spikes. Two sleek and slender forms were observing me as I walked down the lane. For a while I couldn’t work out what they were and then I realised: Hares! The hare takes up position in the centre of the field so he can see everything around him. Most wild animals keep to the edge of fields so they can bolt into thickets and hedges at the first sound or sight of man, but the hare crouches right out in the open, facing the sun. He knows he can outrun us all and so in this moment I find myself regarded in that direct and startling way wild creatures look at you.

As I returned the hares’ gaze I found myself looking at something which up to that point I had ignored: the great loneliness of the field which contained them.

This book looks at the agricultural fields that almost all of us ignore, even when they provide our food everyday, even when we live right next to them. It doesn’t do this by examining the technology that has imprinted itself on the land, over a mosaic of green and brown and golden strips, layered in space and time, but by entering the field and taking up position within in. From here we wait to find a way to proceed, to get in touch with the kind of land that is under our feet, the kind of plants that are growing here and our relationship with them, not as separated units, divided against one another, but as part of nature, a set of relationships, of which we are part.

Food is all about relationship. Although commerce and industry breaks down food into separate objects, commodities and nutrients, to understand food in a true perspective you need to look at the relationships that exist between all natural things: you need look at yourself and the place you were born, the land that has shaped you, and the plants and the people that have fed you. The book is based on a journey that sets out to investigate those relationships and to engage in a dialogue about them: a dialogue between two people, a writer and a social scientist: one brought up in a city and another brought up in the agricultural belt. The book starts with our own relationship with those plants and then it sets out to find the growers and producers who are raising crops and food for the future.

The first section looks at ROOTS, at what already exists in the field: from the traditional roadside stalls and market gardens (Mr Moise is part of this section) to those who are reconnecting with the land and taking the growing of plants into their own hands - people who are learning to bake their own bread, starting allotments, men who are forming pig clubs, women who are keeping chickens and bees. It also looks at the modern kitchen in a state of downshift, what we already have stocked in our larders, in the form of skills and memories about the production of real food.

The second SHOOTS looks at contemporary growing projects. It follows those who are setting about restoring the land, regenerating neighbourhoods, beginning city farms, guerrilla gardens and radical soup kitchens, grassroots collectives and co-operatives. It investigates neighbourhood projects in Hackney, food co-ops in Ipswich, CSAs, box schemes, community bakeries and food hubs. Enterprises that are engaging in an informal economy as the formal one becomes less certain.

The third SEEDS looks at those who are storing seeds for the future. From those who are experimenting with agroforestry and organic farming to those who are growing heritage orchards and vegetables for seed, the keepers of biodiversity. It sets out to record not just the active work of these producers, but also the co-operative networks that are springing up between them as they trade knowledge and tools and experience.

Threaded through these encounters comes an exploration of the diverse philosophies and initiatives that support sustainability and co-operation, some of which have their roots in the radicalism of history, some which originated in the 1970s and others in this decade, including permaculture, biodynamics, deep ecology, one planet living, transition culture, free food, slow food, real food.

In this journey we talk with everyone we meet and to each other. We attend meetings, give talks, dialogue, ride buses, cook. William Cobbett talking to Elizabeth David in 2009, as the hour glass falls.

The field

The English fields have not just disappeared from our agenda, they exist as empty spaces in our imagination. As we drive by we scan horizons looking for bucolic comely views that satisfy our sensibilities. Sometimes we might notice a flash of watery blue, but do not know its name. Or we do recognise the colour and name it linseed. We catch a dash of scarlet among the barley. Oh poppies! we exclaim for a moment and hurry onwards. But whether we recognise them or not the flowers themselves hold no meaning for us. And the rest of the field covered in green, gold, or brown, misted or edged with snow, its shapes of stiff or silky-stemmed plants, withered or stout, all this is passed by unnoticed. Hymns and epics once came out of these fields, but today we give them no place in our lives. We have lost our reverence for the grain. We do not even know it as grain, the seeds of life that constitute our daily bread, or the earth it springs from, plants whose life-cycle we once sang songs to: the miserly rye, the slender and girlish oats, sleek and well-off wheat, and barley, monarch of them all.

To regain a right relationship with food what we need is not nutritional advice, superfoods, exotic food, more science. What we need is experience and communication, contact and encounter. And most of all we need imagination. Imagination recovers our relationship with life. In this the writer who chronicles the field, as much as the producer of plants, has a key role. The field has been well-observed by writers in East Anglia. Some of these men were also farmers: John Middleton Murray, Adrian Bell. Some, social and landscape historians: George Ewart Evans, Oliver Rackham. Some walked across the land: Sebald following a silken thread from Norwich down to Middleton, Roger Deakin setting off on a journey through the waterways and woods of Britain, Robert McFarlane beginning his quest for its wild places. Some were coming home. Richard Mabey recovering his sanity in the Norfolk waterlands, Mark Cocker discovering rooks returning to roost across the Yare Valley from a day spent in the corduroy fields, devouring insects.

We set out without a destination, because we don’t know yet where we are headed. We are looking for the new. Everyone knows these difficulties about food and farming exist. How to surmount them is not known. That’s the journey. We are setting out to engage in a return.

We walk our way out of monocultural fields and go past the modern rural allotments outside the village and ask if this is part of the answer, but we don’t know. We don’t know even if answers are what we are looking for. Like all writers we are finding the path, surveying the state of things. Finding the language of the time we are living in, giving words to what befalls us. It’s not a book of opinions and theories, it’s a found book. A field study.

The plants in the field are the starting point for each of the chapters. The plants are the staple crops of East Anglia, including (ROOTS) sugar beet, asparagus, barley, potato, rape; (SHOOTS) wheat, cabbage, field bean/peas, apple, gooseberry, maize; (SEEDS) sunflower, linseed, borage, hemp, oats, walnuts.

Each chapter is layered with our experiences showing these relationships. Looking at Wheat for example, we begin in a field of thin strips, bordered by hazel trees. The wheat grows at different heights and after harvest leaves a stubble of different coloured straws. These fields belong to Martin Wolfe on his research farm outside Metfield in Suffolk. The wheat he is growing is Cross Composite Wheat, genotypes that can adapt and go on producing under a wide-range of conditions, as well as giving a high yield and quality. The most stable and reliable wheats for the future, he tells us, will be those which are local and can flourish within the organic framework. When it is harvested some of the grain will go to make flour for part of a project known as The Norwich Loaf, initiated by the Transition initiative in Norwich, which aims to not only bring sustainability into the local food chain, but also helping to shift the cultural perception of bread (and indeed food) away from being simply a cheap filler to being something to relish and share.

The loaf is part of a wider project to promote locally grown, locally milled, locally baked bread in East Anglia. We talk to the farmers who are growing the wheat, the millers and the bakers and shopkeepers who are producing the bread; to Mick the Baker in Stanton, a rock musician who sings until midnight and bakes bread until dawn (he is an insomniac) and the people of Metfield who have opened their own co-operative community store, to Andrew Whitley of the Real Bread Campaign, and to Josiah who says one day he will teach me how to bake my own loaf (a challenge because I am allergic to gluten).

East Anglia

We examine this territory because it where both of us live and work. We could have started in Italy or India or Mexico because what we look at is happening all over the world. But East Anglia is a land we travel through and have examined in different ways for all our lives. A land that for all its defects and difficulties we call home. Home is not always a place you are born into, sometimes it is a place you return to. Sometimes it’s place where you have made yourself at home (Mahesh Pant, one of the speakers at the original meeting was from Nepal, Bruce Waldren, the vicar of the church, Australia). Home is a rare commodity in a restless world. Many people live in a constant state of movement and uncertainty: some because of a perpetual dissatisfaction with their lives, others because history has pushed them into a state of exile. Either way this deracination affects us all. It affects our humanity at a deep level. It makes us hostile, isolated and disconnected from life. Most of all its affects the way we eat and speak together as human beings and alienates us from the very planet that feeds and shelters us.

East Anglia is the major food growing area of Britain with a highly industrialised agriculture. From a distance it does not look promising ground for the future. Although many visitors seek out its watery broads and shifting coastline, it is predominantly a flat and harsh country, whose woods and hedges have been ripped out to reveal the stark geometry required by the industrial food machine. However it is also a place of pioneer experimentation, the birthplace of four-crop rotation and organic farming (Turnip Townsend in Norfolk, Eve Balfour who founded the Soil Association in Suffolk, the Henry Doubleday Research Association in Essex) and its open sky and emptiness are inspiring in ways that gentler, more hospitable landscapes are not. If you can value harshness you learn that the plants that come out of tough terrains have tough roots: the tougher the root, the stronger the medicine, the sweeter the honey. Many plants contain the potential for restoration within their forms. They can strengthen and increase what is already good in the body or soil, no matter how small, so it can set about working to rebalance the whole. On the face of it, East Anglia is possibly the least likely place to look for agrarian regeneration, but following the logic of plants, it is the best. The cure for the wasteland doesn’t come from outside the field; it lies at its heart.

East Anglia is not romantic. It lacks the power and grit of the great North, the visionary mythic West. It lacks poetry and lakes and mountains, faery castles and idyllic views. No one wants to live in Akenfield, or Crabbe’s Borough or sit in Wesker’s kitchen. No one yearns and sighs for the Fens. It’s way too realistic. But that realism, the ability to look straight at what is ahead of you, is what makes for resilience, the key qualities in ourselves and all living systems that can weather change and thrive in spite of adversity. Resilience is what we are in search for as we follow the contours of this heartland, investigating the alternative food chain, looking for the future in a kind of reverse archaeology - seeds for the future, people for the future, ideas for the future, in communities running from Norwich all the way down to the East End of London. We’re not following the main arterial roads but travelling along its byways and lanes, through its remote rainwashed back country and market towns, visiting smallholdings and city farms, where people with ingenuity, wit and perseverance keep life going - growing vegetables, chopping firewood, living together.

Field kitchen

In Japan a sixty year old farmer decided to write a book about farming and food. It is called The One Straw Revolution. For forty years, contrary to all modern Japanese agricultural practices after the war, the ex-scientist Masanobu Fukuoka tended his small fields of rice and wheat and orchards of tangerines without any pesticides or technology. He did not till or weed the soil or use machines and his fields yielded as much grain as the monoculture that surrounded his traditional hillside farm. When pests swept through the land his crops survived. He called his way of interacting with the land natural farming and maintained (until his death last year aged ninety five) that a heathy body came out of a healthy environment. To keep sane and sound you needed to eat according to nature and the territory in which you live. Food that needed to be struggled for to obtain was the least beneficial. Nature or the body itself was the guide you needed to follow,“but this subtle guidance goes unheard by most people because of the clamour caused by desire and the discriminating mind.”

To restore the body requires a readaption to nature. To renovate exhausted soil or soil rendered sterile with pesticides and herbicides and artificial fertilizer requires perseverance. It takes time for the body, revved up by an exotic, highly processed, high-fat Western diet, to reorganise and recover its natural appetite. It takes time to learn how to absorb the kind of food Fukuoka (and several contemporary Western writers on food) are talking about: plenty of plants, not much meat, not much. It takes time to break habits and to let go of the complexity of diets and science in one’s mind and the emotional reactions caused by an unnatural way of life. To engage in a way of being where food is naturally limited by place and time.

Once engaged in this process however your body self-organises in a revolutionary way: you don’t suffer from depression, anger or restlessness, you are not filled with the desires and cravings of the modern snack-and-go culture, the hostility that comes as a consequences of eating unnaturally formed plants and caged animals. However this transformative re-naturalisation process is rarely discussed. Our present Western diet, with its glamour, its comforts and its treats, fully backed by a corporate food industry, is the elephant in the room. And no one wants to go there.

Except that we have to go there, because it’s killing us and everything else in the room. The industrial food machine has substituted lifestyle for life, a way of thinking that convinces us we have a choice and that the choices we take have no consequence. But this does not mean that consequences do not exist. To continue to uphold our lifestyle, to choose cheap and convenient food, means we choose to compromise not only the natural life of eco-systems and the livelihoods of farmers everywhere (including those in East Anglia) but also the very nature of our own bodies and minds. For the future to happen we don’t need choice in the kitchen, we need to make decisions.

This decision starts as we stand at the chopping board and by the stove. It doesn’t mean facing another direction so we don’t see the elephant, it means facing reality and undergoing a radical shift of values. Reality is what we are doing everyday with our hands, our ability to ask intelligent questions: What does it means to eat and cook in connection with the living systems, ecologically, to take account of the consequences of our actions? What does it take to live and eat within our means?

The book is about growing food and about eating food. We look at the decisions people are making not only to re-establish links with the living world but also with each other. The industrial food machine, powered by cheap fossil fuel, has enabled some of us to dine like Roman emperors. Eating for resilience means we will eat a lot more like peasants, more simply and more often together.

This book looks at what it takes to make these kinds of practical decision, what happens in an energy descent kitchen, what kind of food you cook in downshift cuisine. How you go about putting life back into plants, into the pot, what Hopi farmers call navoti, the life in the seed, and Mexican cooks call chispa, the spark that fires up human beings.

A spark is what happened inside the hall on that cold November day. It started a hundred people communicating with each other and two to begin a journey: to find out how by embarking on the future we can turn our present lives around