Thursday, 17 September 2015

Mapping Grassroots Britain

Last night watching A Dance to the Music of Time it came to me that for decades now Britain has looked backwards into the past - its form and feel embedded in the hierarchical style of Empire. Whatever happened to creating the future most of us yearn for, a future which benefits everyone, including the environment we all live in? And how would we recognise it when we came across it?

To show that that future has already been seeded and taken root is the aim behind The Grassroots Directory. It was launched last week with this wonderful street map by Laura Barnard. The map is of an imaginary town, village or city neighbourhood made up of many of the innovative community-led, owned and run projects that are now happening all over Britain. In a Guardian piece today I catalogue some of these enterprises that appear like a net of bright sparks across an apparently hostile and corporate-dominated country. 

What distinguishes them is that they bring benefit to the places and people they share, whether orchard, cinema, farm or energy company. These projects are not driven by an individualist desire for power but by collective necessity and ‘cluster under the umbrella of a social and solidarity economy’ as John Thackara writes about so eloquently in his new book How to Thrive in the Next Economy.

They belong to a new mood that is now shifting the country politically and economically and most of all in the hearts of its people. If you know of a project near you do get in touch with us at Details about this sourcebook and its aims can be found at We would love to hear from you.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Holding fire

Last month I travelled up the East Coast to the Scottish Sculture Workshop in Aberdeenshire, where my fellow editor Nick Hunt and I told the story of Dark Mountain around the fire and later gave a workshop on the 8 Principles of Uncivilisation in a field. We were part of the Breakdown Break Down camp where cultural workers, artists and activists were engaged in an 11-day exploration of 'deindustrialising our sense of self'. 

One of the evening talks was by the centre's director, Nuno Sacramento, on taking oil out of our relationships with the land. He was beginning to document different ways of interacting with the surrounding lush terrain with its estate-dominated larch woods and grouse moors and mammoth cattle. He called it the Lumsden Method (after the village where the centre is situated). Already on his list of methodologies was the work of some of the camp's speakers and teachers - from soil sampling and animal communication to land rights and bio-remediation. 

'Have you got a land dreaming?' I asked him. 'It's a way to directly perceive a place with others.' He hadn't. So I resolved to send him a method I used to use years ago. It was called Earth Dialogues.

For a long time now I have been  focused on the social aspects of downshifting, engaged in the methodologies of community activism. Now when I look at the land I see it in terms of geology mythology and history. I see roads and fossil fuel extraction, I see crops and the industrial food system; I see clouds and think of climate change. But I didn't always see like this.

'The land is always political,' said John Jordan at the Breakdown Break Down Workshop in London that preceded the Camp. Steve Wheeler, another of the DM ed team, and I were holding a discussion after our presentation called 'Finding Your Way in the Dark'. A lot of people were getting hot under the collar about the word 'rewilding'. It seemed that social justice and climate activism were being sidelined.

'Sure,' I replied. 'I go out foraging and meet a fence and that tells me the land is someone else's property and straightaway I bump into history and hierarchy. Rewilding is about taking down that fence - literally and metaphorically - and seeing the land and yourself in a different way. 

'You can see a mountain being exploited for its forests or minerals or tourism. But the mountain also exists in and of itself. It is Mountain in the way you are Human and that's an uncivilised relationship I think Dark Mountain explores.'

The Uncivilisation Principles caused a similar disquiet in the field at Lumsden. However the living systems of the planet are not 'Nature' that exists outside the metropolis for the benefit of tourists or 'privileged people' (as one participant called those of us who live in rural backwaters). Unless we have a relationship with the planet on its own terms, in its own language, through our own planetary beings, we cannot really speak on its behalf. We will only be talking in geo-political terms and pussyfooting around the needs of other human beings (our own 'tribes' or those we deem worthy, depending on our political persuasion). Or we will want to manage everything back to a pristine state of wilderness and so write ourselves (and 7 billion others) out of the story.

Either way this is a human-centric story, told by people looking through civilised eyes. Somewhere along the line you will hit a wall when you try to tell a new collective story that includes the planet and all its elements and beings. We hit that wall in those Breakdown discussion circles. Something needed to break us out of our mental straitjackets. That's when I remembered a small workbook Mark and I put together in 2007. It was in essence a manual of practices that explores what happens when you stop talking from your head and start using other parts of your intelligence to see and communicate with the Earth and each other.

The following 'recipe for action' is a skeleton key to the Earth Dialogue practice. In his talk Nuno poked fun at the nature writing of the 'lone, enraptured male' surveying the world from his mountaintop eyrie. What made me suggest our 'method' was because speaking practices are not individual endeavours. Having an expansive time on your own in nature is not hard if you have the resources and time; perceiving a landscape with others is work. 

The Dialogues were a kind of springboard for that work. 

Earth dialogues

When we travelled to America in the summer of 2000 we took the practice out of the room and started to dialogue under the cool shade of trees. We started to use the techniques we had found working with dreams and plants in order to locate ourselves in time and space. We would get a feel for the certain places we visited and find out what they were communicating to us. 

We had already begun to explore this with others in England. Four or five of us would meet in a place and then go and sit in different positions within it. Later we would regroup and relate out loud the impulses, directions, information and messages we had received. We’d make a tea of the leaves gathered there and put together a collective vision or dream map.

As the millennium turned we travelled to many different places in this spirit of enquiry: an old quarry floor, an ancient coppice, a burial mound surrounded by a circle of beech trees, a city scrubland, an ancestral mountain, a hot spring under the stars. Assisted by our communications with the Earth in our dreams - mountains, seas, animals, birds, flowers, insects and stones - we found we were able to behold a whole geography in 'reality'.

We called this way of seeing perceiving within the field. This meant beholding the planet as a participant, rather than from the separated control position of our minds. The group energetic readouts enabled everyone to speak freely from their hearts about the planet instead of being trapped into talking from any ecological or fix-it mindsets.

The Earth Dialogues allowed us to experience the Earth not as ‘landscape’ or ‘nature’ or ‘the environment’ but as a complex of dimensions, a vast meeting place of many kinds of being in which being human is only one strand. However we also saw that this strand has a vital meaning within this dimensional web that is linked with our native ability to perceive. 

Instead of looking inward to understand a plant medicine or dream, we found ourselves looking outwards, into the composite fabric of life. We were not just receiving information, we were also transmitting. 

Perception we realised was a two-way process.

conditions for an earth dialogue

Earth dialogues are essentially communications between the natural world outside your front door and your own physical beings. You go forth with a small group in a particular attention. You need to be able to include everything you experience and hold many kinds of awareness at once. Unlike the hermetic space of a room, the outside world is full of distractions and invisible interferences. Your head can quickly become full of words that block your view and interrupt your engagement. 

The essential act of an Earth Dialogue therefore is tuning into and physically connecting with the place you are visiting. Perceiving within the field is best understood in terms of transmission and reception. To receive you need to become conscious of your body's ability to perceive, using your senses to become aware of temperature, light, sound, pattern, the direction of the wind and clouds. To transmit you need to become aware of your inner forces and relate them to the outer world: connecting with the air, for example, by breathing in its scent of salt or pine, and breathing out the warmth of your being; connecting your feet with the land, as your toes grip the rock or bare earth; your movement within the water, as you glide with the currents of the river.

To perceive with the body requires adjusting to the tempo of the Earth and the tempo of your heart which go at the same pace - the same wingspeed as the bird in the sky, the same rhythm as the sea wave rolling to the shore, the same stillness of the hill with the sun rising behind it.

In daily life we walk around with the talking heads of our mindsets fully switched on. As a result the Earth is rarely seen, never felt, never lived on. A never-never land you may dimly remember seeing as a child and in your heart privately long for. The Earth Dialogues were all about return, not to childhood but to the place that is always here.

How to frame a dialogue that takes place 'outside' and includes the outside 

1 Tuning into the time and place When you (the group) have arrived at the place you wish to visit, establish the conditions for a dynamic dialogue between everyone taking part. 
Agree upon a time-frame and meeting place for your readouts. 
Fan out.
Find your position within the territory (you may not find this straightaway). A spot where you feel at home. A plant or tree can act as a good anchor.
Greet the land in your own way.
Sit in a state of attentive stillness. Feel your feet and take a few deep breaths.
Connect with your inner core and the beat of your heart. 
Open your consciousness and become aware of the elements of the place and time - the quality of light, the weather, the season, atmosphere of place, the mood of the day. 
Now take note of the various beings that inhabit this place - animals, rocks, trees, plants, other people. You do not need to rush. A period of silence and patience is required for the whole picture to be revealed.
Listen to the sounds, notice how everything is moving - creatures, birds, the wind in the trees, yourself. 
Take note of any subtle feelings and realisations that arise, what ideas and sensations, memories or shifts of perception that come as you sit there, listening, observing, feeling.
Become aware of the correspondence between the elements of this place and your self.
See how everything connects, how this hill is all hills, how this ocean is all oceans.
Remember what you have experienced. 

2 Energetic readouts Return to your chosen place of dialogue.
Relate your findings to each other, taking turns to speak. 
Relate what happened and also any feelings that came up, what was going on around you, your communications with other beings during the time.
Your fellow visitors can then ask questions about your experience.
Listening to others is as key to this process as speaking, as you are forming a composite picture. One person might just report a shift of awareness, another relate a whole story. Note the correspondences between your accounts. Each person holds a part of the map.
When everyone is finished make an agreement to write or draw some kind of creative record and send it to everyone else.
Go out and celebrate together. 

* * *
At Lumsden one of the key post-
meeting places was the sauna built out of old whisky barrels (whisky production is a key local industry, due to the area's unusually pure water). No matter what happened during the day everyone could pile into the dark, scented warmth, or if they were lucky have a Finnish/Estonian 'energy whisk' with leaves of rowan and maple and sometimes nettles (ouch!). Sharing the physical elements of fire, water or earth takes you right into the heart of an Earth Dialogue. The mind is pushed out and you can get close with your fellows.

All Dark Mountain stories are told round a real or metaphorical fire with people listening. All Earth Dialogues happen outdoors with people immersing themselves in the fabric of the planet and then speaking. Or sometimes the other way round.

Here is how it started years ago in New South Wales at the end of our travelling and the beginning of the practice years, where we had rented a bungalow fringed with frangipani trees by the ocean, and met up with Sarah who we had crossed paths with in Colombia.

Tea tree lake

byron bay, australia 1998

We had been focusing on the dreaming practice all morning with Sarah. 'Let’s go to the tea tree lake,' she said. 'There’s something amazing that happens there.' So we walked down to a warm still pool behind the beach, where the roots of the tea tree go deep into the water and stain it red brown. We swam out to the middle. 

  ‘Now,’ said Sarah, ‘you have to dive down as deep as possible, then just let yourself float up. Keep your eyes open and look up. Whatever you do, remember the light!’

We all dived down together. I opened my eyes. Everywhere was dark-brown. Then I looked up and saw a dim golden colour above my head. As I floated up from the dive it got stronger and stronger, until it burst into a shower of diamonds as I surfaced with my two companions and burst into laughter. We were all laughing and splashing water around us. 

Amazing we all agreed. And immediately dived down again.

Nothing really ‘happened’ at the lake. It was an intense experience for a few moments. But in those moments, naked, diving into the brown and golden water, bursting through the surface of the glittering sunlight, we had become different beings. It was as if our modern European histories no longer existed, our city biographies. We were suddenly just three human beings in the middle of their lives, enjoying the Earth together, starting again at a certain point in time. Mark and I were beginning our dreaming practice in this ‘rainbow’ sea town where people from all parts of the world, like Sarah, were gathering to live in a more heart-based way.

The tea tree lake visit was the energetic basis for the practiice we would call the Earth Dialogues, though we didn’t know it at the time. It had the three key components: trees, water and human beings who had been speaking their dreams out loud together. The combination of these three energies provides a matrix for a subtle transformation. The oil of the tea tree has become the world’s most effective natural germicide. It can see off opportunist white fungal growth, in the same way speaking with heart deals with the monologue of the mind.

Swimming in wild water, as we would find found in the years that followed, instantly decrystallises rigid thinking; pettiness and anxiety dissolve in the flow of a river or in the vastness and fluidity of the sea. The dreaming practice, inspired by a lecture on Aboriginal dreamtime, had connected us with our archaic roots - the roots of common humanity - so that we could move forwards. We were feeling our bare feet on the red earth, walking along a track we had not taken before. Except perhaps in a dream. 

Here at the end of the twentieth century in these soft brown waters, infused by the great medicinal tree of Australia, a mind-dominated parasite culture we had held inside ourselves for aeons, was starting to be replaced by another way of life entirely.

We were remembering the Earth for our future.

(from Speaking with the Fire 2007) 

Making fire

When I looked back at this time among the medicine trees, I wrote that Australia was an ancestral place of fire where our old civilised lives could be burned away and we could begin again. It was also the place where we decided it was time to come back to England.

I did not realise then that fire is not just about burning away dross. Nor did I realise how many years it would take me to return to my homeland and find it as rich as the world I had travelled across for almost a decade. But I have found its treasures still lying in the deep places and the seeds of the future buried in the hearts of people. You just have to peel away the layers of history and look at the hills and the windy roads with different eyes. And sometimes with your fellows sitting around a fire.

Here I am with Nick as we introduce ourselves before a great metal fire-dish forged in the workshops behind us, among the foothills of the Grampian Mountains. I am talking about the mythical Saxon smith Wayland whose name-place was the site for one of the first Earth Dialogues Mark and I held in 1999. I am talking about forging the future, and how going into the material and finding its fiery spirit is the only way for humans to really understand their place on the planet which has sheltered us for so long. 

What does this have to do with a swan feather and writing? The answer will be in the next Dark Mountain journal, our first themed issue on technology and tools and now in full swing production. It will be published on 15th October, we will be launching it with readings, songs, performance and conversation at Iklectik Art Lab, Old Paradise Yard, London. Hope to see you there!

Jumping the midsummer fire, Suffolk (Josiah Meldrum); mountain, Vilcabamba, Ecuador (Mark Watson); sauna, Scottish Sculpture Workshop, Aberdeenshire (SSW);  speaking round the fire (SSW)

Friday, 7 August 2015

Taking a break... postcard from the edge

Dear Everyone, I have been taking a break from blogging for a while. Not that I am on holiday though! Just centred on other activities - slowly crafting Dark Mountain's Issue 8 on tech and tools and prepping the ground for a new grassroots publication (watch this space). And of course wavy sea swimming and plant attention (here after some hefty weeding with Mark at the Bungay Library Community Garden )

I do have a post brewing about some new adventures with Dark Mountain (here in red trousers about to give a talk with Nick Hunt at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop) and some past adventures in land dreaming that I am reworking and updating into a future mix. 

And talking of heady mixes here are some of the latest summer meads we have been making: the end of strawberry, elderflowers and roses (June), the maturation of raspberry, mugwort and other high summer leaves (July); the beginning of redcurrant, spearmint and marjoram flowers, and blackcurrant and fennel flowers with heather honey (August). This last one we drank around the fire at Lughnasa. It was divine! Now bubbling away is wild cherry with meadowsweet, vervain and watermint (that's medicinal!). Mead really shifts your attention and highlights the presence of flowers and insects whereever you go. Kind of puts you off that writing tech too....

Photos by Mark Watson and SSW

Friday, 3 July 2015

ARCHIVE: Fruits of our Labours

One of the great things about keeping a record is being able to look back and see where you were this time a year, or more, ago. This time last year I was working on Playing for Time with Lucy and we were cooking up elderflower and gooseberries; two years ago I was prepping for the last Uncivilisation Festival and immersed in blackcurrants and cherries. But whatever shape my working summer takes, July always heralds the sweetness of fruit and the salty excitment of swimming in the sea before breakfast.. 

Here is a short post I wrote in the early days of This Low Carbon Life when I was just discovering the delights of growing things (which right now include My First Cauliflower, a bevy of butter lettuce, Mark's summer meads, and, as the little sticks gleaned from community garden giveaways in 2013 have grown into mighty canes, raspberries on demand, mmmmm....)

Suffolk 5th July 2010

 A month ago I wrote a post about Malcolm and the Strawberries. They were in flower at the time and Malcolm reckoned, in spite of all adversity, this year would be the best crop ever.

It was. There were so many strawberries he and Eileen didn’t know what to do with them. There was an abundance of ripe scarlet berries. The sudden July heat ripened the whole crop in a week.

On Sunday morning Mark and I went over and picked pounds of fruit and had a strawberry feast: strawberry jelly, strawberry coulis, compotes (with rhubarb) and jam. Lots of jam. The whole house was steeped in the fragrance of roses.

It’s that time of year. Suddenly after all that waiting, after the patient sowing and repotting and watering the rewards start coming fast. And you have to start eating and cooking and preserving to keep up with them. Blackcurrants and gooseberres under the greengage tree, broadbeans and tomatoes among the pots. And a new wonder - cucumber!

I’ve never grown a cucumber before. I’d taken them for granted. But it’s a really exciting plant. A big vigourous climber with showy yellow flowers and tendrils, now joining the long trails of morning glories and passionflowers around the conservatory. Up to the solstice things grow in a steady, upward swing. You feel sort of in control of things. After midsummer they grow out, everywhere. There’s a seismic shift. You go outside and the lawn has turned into a savannah. The trees have doubled in size. The world is full of insects – bees, dragonfly, thunderbug, hoverfly, butterfly. Everything is thirsty. Suddenly you’re in demand.

Amongst all this wild exuberance and activity the big vegetable moments come and go: peas and sugarsnaps, French beans and young turnips, spinach and courguette. I have learned in my eat-in-season, love-it-while-you-can years to relish each one and eat as much as possible in those days, the way I put flowers in a jar beside my bed to absorb their fleeting beauty - mock orange, honeysuckle, peony and rose.

Because very soon the moment will be gone. It will be replaced by another. You want to be there for that moment, as if it were the only time you were experiencing it. With everything you have. That’s the way I’ve learned to love the earth. As if you will never see summer again. Holding the moment in your heart. and then releasing it, like a bird in your hands.

Right now in strawberry season, I can’t look at another strawberry. I am strawberried-out. But in my larder are a row of intense red shiny jars. One day when the snow falls, when the evenings grow dark, or it’s just been grey too many days in a row, I’ll come back to those jars and open one and the room will fill with the fragrance of summer, with the memory of how it is when the world is full of light and the days stretch endlessly in front of you, the air is filled with the scent of hay and the sound of skylarks, and the butterflies begin to appear, as if from nowhere.

Mark's Rose and strawberry mead in production, 2015; Mark and strawberry hoard at Swallow Organics; my first cucumber among the sage flowers; strawberry jam, 2010

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Bread of Heaven

Right now I am working with fellow editors on the next issue of Dark Mountain. It's a non-fiction and visual exploration of technology and tools, juxtaposing an increasingly machine-dominated world and a de-industrialised way of life that is hand-made, reskilled, in tempo with the planet. This is a piece originally written in 2009 for a book about East Anglian food crops, co-produced with Josiah Meldrum (now of Hodmedod's beans, peas and quinoa) called Roots, Shoots and Seeds. This chapter centres on wheat, the dominant crop of Western civilisation, and the makers and bakers of real bread.

There are seventeen of us in a room at the Baptist church on Boltolph Steet – a farmer, a miller, several bakers, wholefood shopkeepers, members of Transition Norwich, Professor Martin Wolfe of the Organic Research Institute and Andrew Whitley of the Village Bakery and author of Bread Matters. We are meeting to discuss Resilient Bread, the project that aims to create a sustainable supply of bread for Norwich, using locally milled flour from English wheat, grown on Norfolk farms.

There is a plate being passed around and on it are not wafers but slices of real wholemeal bread, baked by a neighbourhood community store. Everyone is looking at each other as if we can’t quite believe we are all in the same room together, eating those slices and listening to these lectures about peak oil and agriculture, about the natural selection of wheat genotypes that can thrive in eco-systems undergoing climate change. It’s hard somehow to get all those graphs and words about the future to relate to the rough brown food in our mouths.

Andrew Whitley, master baker, has worked with organic flour milled in a local water mill for many years. He is a neat and compact man with a keen intensity and a round face. Whereas the other speakers stood in front of us as they spoke, he remains seated within our circle and leans forward to reveal the secrets and horrors of the industrialised bread trade. Maybe it’s because he was once in the BBC Russian service that he emanates such a conspiratorial air (he is famous in bread circles for bringing a Russian sourdough culture into Britain 19 years ago that has since spawned thousands of loaves throughout the land). It was his rediscovery of the sour dough process that eventually led to the Real Bread Campaign which he launched last year (2008).

It is half-way through his speech about the infamous Chorleywood baking process that I find myself suddenly looking at a universal truth. It’s one of those moments that opens like a door sometimes when you pay attention, notebook in hand. One minute the speaker is talking about their subject and the next they are talking about Life. Whitley was talking about time. Bread is all about time: time to mix, time to prove, time to bake. The key to real bread is in allowing enough kneading time so the gluten in the flour is activated, and enough proving time for the yeast to expand the dough to twice its size.

Gluten is a protein that when kneaded makes an elasticated web, “like a series of tiny balloons” that become filled with gas from the fermentation. Yeast is a tiny mushroom, arguably the most successful symbiont with man. It is born to ferment. It ferments our food and drink and transforms them - wine, asses milk, bread and beer. Wild yeasts appear naturally in sour dough starters (made from fermented water and flour) as well as lactic acid bacteria. Sour dough was how all bread was made until the manufacture of commercial yeast. The longer you leave these agents to do their work, the greater the nutritional quality of the bread.

Industrial baking, invented in Chorleywood in the 1960’s, has not got time to spend on the niceties of natural alchemy, on these subtle relationships between gluten and yeast and lactobacilli, and has invented deviant ways to by-pass them. Whitley is listing them: high-speed mixers, addition of hydrogenated fats and water, increased use of commercial yeast, bleach, preservatives, a cocktail of artificially-mixed enzymes, as well as countless additives and emulsifiers (the so-called flour improvers). All these deny bread its natural fermentation time. And it is this cheating of time, he argues, that leads to the malfunctions within the Western diet: all its disorders of stomach and guts, its huge ballooning of bodies.

Robbed of time industrialised bread brings disorder into the digestive system. Robbed of its rough coat of wheatgerm, the grain gives no nutrition. We keep eating but nothing satisfies our deep hunger. We pay 19p for something that should cost us £2.50. The staff of life has become an industrialised commodity without any connection with our physical beings or our intelligence. Our minds are no longer paying attention to what is on the plate but are elsewhere fixed on the cheap fast dreams of cities. On escapes and fantasies. Caught in a treadmill of hard labour, we are grabbing breakfast toast and lunchtime sandwiches, pizza, hotdog rolls, burger buns to go. We are so busy we don’t even know what we are eating.

To reverse this 50 year old habit would require a restructuring of our outside and inside lives. It’s where the grassroots movement of Transition and master bakers like Andrew Whitley meet. We meet in unlikely venues and discuss ways of bringing real food back into the hands of people and places: community baking in local hubs “where good transactions happen between people,” reskilling of home bakers and the creation of the Local Loaf (paralleling the National Loaf of the 1940’s) using local millers, bakers and shops and locally distinctive varieties of wheat.

The ingredients for real bread are simple - flour, water, salt, yeast. Bringing a resilient local loaf into Norwich is more complex. The mega-distribution system of the big three industrial bakeries have trucks perpetually on the road travelling 200 miles transporting ready-sliced to the city’s 122,000 inhabitants daily. They are roaring across East Anglia from Stevenage, London and Enfield. To feed Norwich sustainably would require 30 tonnes of wheat and several local mills. On the agenda that day in January were questions about the supply chain: quantity of flour, storage and transportation of grain, the price of a loaf, the feasibility of setting up and maintaining an electric mill in the city, the packaging and marketing of the loaves. Should the flour be stone-ground or roller-ground? Tin or round? Could Canadian wheat be used as a last straw (sic) in times of bad harvest, or grain kept back? Was the Norwich Loaf initially an everyday item or a speciality one-off?

East Anglia has arable land for growing the wheat but few working mills. The first challenge for the project is to find a mill in the city to grind the corn. The nearest wind or water mills are 25-30 miles away. The other is the quality of the wheat. The gluten content of bread is a key consideration in baking. Wheat has a very high gluten content (between 12-15 per cent) which gives the dough its extraordinary elasticity and ability to be moulded into the hundreds of shapes in which we have historically consumed it – from the heaviest of wholemeals to the airiest of croissants. Artisan bakers in England have been using commercial Canadian flour for decades because its exceptionally high gluten levels makes the light and fluffy white loaf we have got used to. The lower gluten content of our native wheat is compensated for by the Chorleywood method. The Norwich bakers’ main concern with using local flour was one of consistency (“No one is going to buy a bad bloomer”, one said rather gloomily; “You could call it ciabatta,” another quipped to much laughter) and there was a long discussion as to how we were going to get over the fact that life was unpredictable and that white and fluffy was not the future. It felt like it was going to take some time for all of us to get used to the idea.

You could tell the bakers. They had a physical presence in the room that was quite distinct from those whose business was in words and figures. They seemed familiar though I had never really considered bakers before, or even talked to one. They existed in my imagination as mythical figures with white hats and aprons. Suddenly I realised they were men who worked with their hands and worked at night. And this was why the meeting that day had begun at 2.15pm.

The Field

One of the lesser known facts about Charles Darwin is that when he bought Down House (where The Origin of Species was written) it was not for the house but for the chalk grassland that surrounded it. The species-rich habitat provided the man who was about to shake the paradigm of the Western world with the perfect opportunity to observe bio-diversity and see how its elements worked together. It was here he saw that everything in the natural world is connected and that the greater diversity that exists in a place the greater its abundance.

At the same time as the naturalist was looking at biological complexity in the field, chemists were singling out individual components in their laboratories and developing the first nitrate fertilisers that would lead to the appearance of a very different kind of grassland. And a plant that once grew wild around the Fertile Crescent began to be bred as the basis of the global diet: modern wheat.

Professor Martin Wolfe is a plant pathologist who has spent the last decade working at his organic research station outside Metfield developing what are known as Composite Cross Populations of wheat. The evolution of wheat is a complicated business and requires your absolute concentration. Where once we ate thousands of different plants, the human species mostly lives off half a dozen crops of which wheat is now the top one.

Outside the window of the Institute’s meeting room small green spikes are everywhere on trial: in a conventional agricultural field and in organic strips bordered by timber and fruit trees (a layout known as agroforestry). The Composite Cross Populations have a complex origin: three populations that come from 20 varieties and 200 intercrosses and a random male sterile genotype who acts like the joker in the pack. As a result the plants contain thousands of variations. It’s these variations that give the wheat the ability to produce consistent yield and quality of grain under a wide variety of conditions.

“Natural eco-systems are complex because they evolve that way for a damn good reason. The whole way of developing agriculture around the world depends on functional diversity. What evolutionary breeding showed was that if you dissemble the elements (in an eco-system) you find that yield increases with the positive interactions occurring. The more complex the connections, the better everything responds.”

We sit in the Institute meeting room, Mark, Josiah and I facing Martin. The biological history of cereal crops, he explains, goes in two directions: one that concentrated on a simple system using synthetic fertilisers to boost yields that led to the separation of agriculture and the natural world around 1850, and another known as evolutionary breeding that began in California in 1929 which introduced variation and worked within complexity.

His story veers from wild barley in Israel to the development of maize in Africa and traces a familiar shape: the taking of heritage seeds out of farmer’s hands and putting them into the fists of seed merchants, the manufacturers of pesticides and herbicides and finally the corporations who patent rights for certain genes and focus on their monoculture (as well as produce the agrochemicals that support the varieties that contain them).

“Oh, I’ve got a story about Monsanto,” says Mark breezily who was taking notes. I shoot him a fast look. We haven’t got time for asides, even good ones. We have another meeting to go to. Martin is an ex-professor and has that smooth ease of delivery honed from years of lecturing to Cambridge students for exactly one hour. Although there is something bristly and creaturelike about his manner I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a creature I know, a tusky fellow, one not to be crossed.

Wolfe has no time for simplificaton and bristles academically about evolution being side-stepped by global corporations. The memory of how to thrive in different conditions – light and shade, temperatures, with plant pathogens and insects - persists in the genetic structure of naturally evolved seed. It has an inbuilt multifunctionality. But in the millions and millions of hectares of monocultural wheat these shared memories are not available.

“What happens if the weather is different from the weather it experienced during its ten years of selection? Modern wheat is bred to react maximally to input from pesticides and herbicides. But in the future the environment will be much more variable. How do we deal with that?”

Amongst the Composite Cross Populations there are answers to these questions, as well as an ability to function without agrochemicals based on fossil fuels. Because of their diversity and ability to complement and compensate for one other “there are huge amounts of variable phenomena emerging.”

As Wolfe points out: “There are lots of things breeders can’t see which are being affected by the environment.” Scientific plant breeding depends on things that can be easily measured such as height and leaf shape and so on. But the strength of living systems depends on things that cannot be seen in this way. “Inevitably the natural world is a much better selector than the trained human breeder. We have to be humble in these things.”

For 150 years however, sanctioned by the “Darwinian” assertion that nature is red in tooth and claw and inherently competitive, we have gone in the opposite direction. From Darwin we have taken the image of animals fighting for survival and justified all our aggressive acts against nature and each other. We consider evolution in terms of exotic birds far away in South America and conveniently forget his ecological analysis of the native grasslands of England that tell quite a different story. The plant world shows that nature is essentially co-operative and the success of eco-systems depends on a complex weave of relationships, as well as a long genetic memory. The simple system science behind modern agriculture, most explicitly expressed in “the crude plant technology” of GM, is one of control and domination. But this control has now, according to Wolfe, reached its ultimate, and is about to face the music in the form of climate change and peak oil.

“The question we are posing (or that is being posed for us) is how has evolution coped with a huge variety of conditions? It’s coped by lots of variation, lots of diversity, lots of different answers to potential problems.“

Maybe it’s the word population but every time Martin starts talking about the CCP that door begins to swing open again: he’s not just talking about wheat diversity, he’s talking about human diversity! We are, after all, what we eat. In a Westernised industrial world where human populations are forced to become increasingly monocultural and dependent for their survival on artificial conditions, our own evolutionary moves are now being called into play. What is happening to wheat is happening to ourselves. What would it mean for us to become composite cross?

The Bakery

We are on our way to talk with a baker in Stanton, where Josiah went to school. If Wolfe represents the biological thought at the beginning of the supply chain, the bakers represent the working craft at the end. It’s mid March, after a long and relentless winter, and there is not one cherry plum tree in blossom. The land still wears last season’s coat and the hedgerows are twiggy except for sudden bursts of golden-tasselled hazel. A low grey sky hems us in as we hurtle down the small roads that wind along the border country between Norfolk and Suffolk. It’s already bleaker here. The clay fields are giant-sized and empty, punctuated by the occasional spinney or solitary oak. Apart from the rooks, we are the only thing moving amongst the swathes of blunted green barley and darker rosettes of rape.

On the wooden shelves at the back of the Hillcrest Farm Shop in Stanton we find a quote from Felicity Lawrence’s Not On The Label on Radio 4: “Only a small number (of Britain’s independent bakers) genuinely bake from scratch, many depend instead on factory ‘premixes’. Today there are only 3,500 individual craft bakers in the UK, compared to about 35,000 in France . . .” In between crusty white and crunchy granary loaves, a round face is beaming at me from the kitchen.

The smile belongs to Mick the Baker who has been baking from scratch for 37 years. “You can talk to me as I’m working,” he says. It’s probably the only time we can talk to Mick as he is definitely a man on the go. As he works ten pans of dough into hundreds of hot cross buns, he gives us a run down on his working schedule, baking, singing with a band at the weekends and driving long-distance trucks. Most of his days start at 4.30am, Saturday begins at 1.30am. Do you ever get time to sleep? I ask. “I don’t get a lot,” he says, “I used to survive on three hours. The only way is to keep going and not sit down. The trouble is I’m fifty now. The mind says you can but the body says maybe not.”

We’ve come to talk with Mick because he has just started baking with locally grown and milled flour. He bakes “the old-fashioned way” entirely by hand (except for the mixing), uses natural ingredients and is one of only nine traditional British bakers left in the Waveney Valley. “I’ve always done it natural. Slow mix, slow dough. Throw it in and hope for the best. I’ve got it right for the bread, I’m not sure for the rest of the life!”

Mick is “an old East End boy” who began his apprenticeship at 15 and came to East Anglia in 1991 to run the Swan Bakery in the neighbouring village of Garboldisham. He chose baking because he was waiting until he was 21 to follow his dream of being a long-distance lorry driver.

“I’m more into quality than money. I’m not motivated by money, I’m motivated by music.”

Mick is a motivated man. As he whirls his two hands around 360 buns he talks non-stop about bread, about bread making machines, about his old-style baking equipment and the necessity of hot ovens, the time John Peel almost came to interview him but then he died, how sweeping up is the most important part of the job, how he likes to barter, swapping bread for customer’s eggs, surprising children with a box of cakes when they hand him a picture, how he holds the peace between the scrapping artistes in his band (“I’m in the middle of it,” he laughs) and sings almost everything – jazz, blues, funk, soul - just not country (even though he is a trucker), how he hasn’t got time to teach, has never read a book in his life and the reason he likes baking is because it’s creative: he creates everything from start to finish.

“I use Canadian flour which isn’t very patriotic but it makes the best bread. The organic English one comes up quite small and heavy but that suits some customers. I don’t mess around with fancy stuff. Mine’s the proper old English bread. People like a bit of crust.”

Like most hands-on craftsmen he learned everything by watching people. “If anyone asks me anything technical, I can’t tell them. I know what happens if you leave yeast out but I couldn’t tell you why. I know when the salt is left out because the dough moves quicker. In the summer it’s a nightmare in here because the bread keeps moving and you can’t stop.”

We stand in the tiny back kitchen, peering at Mick busily not stopping with the currant-spotted dough, occasionally swerving out of the way as he whisks a tray into the fridge or freezer. I want to ask him when do you have time for life? And then as I listen to him, hands spinning, talking about gigs and whacking everything in the bowl, knocking it on the table, whacking it back in the prover, I realise this is Life, this whirl of activity, creating, producing, bartering, sweeping up. On the wall there is a photograph of Mick singing with a hat on (“I always wear a hat”), a smiley T- shirt and rainbow trousers. He’s carrying a giant sunflower in one hand.

Mick tells us a story about working through the night. At the Swan Bakery he had a chill-out room and at night people used to drop by: policemen came for a quick kip, firemen on call, young boys without anything much to do. One night a couple came on their way from the Glastonbury Festival lured by the lights of the chill-out room. “They said they could not believe it.” You could imagine it then, stoned out of your head in the small hours, finding a light burning on a dark road, and a man working in the kitchen mixing yeast, flour, water and salt, cooking up the kind of bread you might like to eat. What did they see when the door swung open?

“It’s time to decompress,” said Josiah as we reeled out of the shop. We chewed our buns as we walked about the garden centre. Everything after the intensity of the kitchen didn’t seem quite real: the stiff and clipped box trees, the flashy petunias in their pots, silently waiting under a grey and cold sky. “What’s the story?” he asked, as we climbed back into the small car. We had come out on an adventure the three of us for the day. I don’t know what we had expected from either the scientist or the baker. We all felt rather dazed.

“I don’t know yet,” I said. I was thinking about what I had first seen, as I glimpsed Mick’s round face between the shelves of bread. It was like the sun was smiling at me.

When I came to the story I realised that we live in a culture that keeps everything separate and that when you start to assemble the components back together again, it requires a way of thinking about life and engaging in it that is not just a matter of graphs and statistics. The bakers and millers and shopkeepers once appeared in our imaginations as part of life. These people operated in the fabric of our daily lives: they lived in songs and in fairy tales, as characters in children’s picture books and playing cards. They were apparent and lived in the brightness of day.

The processes of industry and science and agriculture are hidden. They recognise no people, only machines and numbers. They operate secretly in the dark and rely on our not joining up the dots and connecting the facts. Even when investigated by determined journalists like Lawrence, knowing facts about the global food industry does not actually shift our ways of thinking about them.

What shifts our awareness are the door-opening moments, when those connections start cross-referencing and self-organising inside you - those revelations about time, about Life. Suddenly you get the whole picture. You know that when the time is out of whack, everything else goes out of whack. How when you side-step evolution there is a price to pay. And that’s the moment you start asking yourself who exactly is paying.

At this point, I don’t know which way the story is going. It’s still fermenting: the faces of the three men appear before me and need time to reassemble themselves into a coherent shape. What I do know is that when you look at wheat, you find yourself looking at civilisation. The ability to domesticate wild grasses and feed thousands of people happened at the same time in different continents – rice in Asia, millet in Africa, maize in the Americas. Wheat, with barley and rye, was the main cereal crop of the Middle East and clearly marks the shift from the nomadic and hunter-gatherer world, to the city-ruled agricultural world of conquered and indentured populations. When you look at wheat you look at bread, and when you look at bread you’re looking at people. You’re looking at a certain kind of people eating for a certain kind of reason.

It’s not sacred anymore in the way we understand sacred - our daily bread - but it serves the same function. Modern factory bread is cheap and in a world that prizes convenience and availability and money most of all, the cheapness of bread means it is highly prized. For one section of the population of course. For cheap food is and always has been, since the city-states established themselves 5000 years ago, the fuel of the workforce. Though civilisations prize themselves on their architecture and technology and their high-flown ideals, all of them depend on a huge and expendable underclass. The daily bread that was apportioned to the city slaves in Rome is as vital to them as the ready-sliced bought by the urban poor of the global metropolis. And the contempt the modern ruling classes have towards the masses who eat junk bread is in proportion to their great and ancient fear that they will one day rise up and demand not wholemeal loaves, nor even croissants, but equity.

Sometimes I think that my intolerance to wheat, to gluten and yeast, is a symptom of my own revolt against the prevailing order. I used to think it was an expression of the imbalance between settled agriculture and the wild places of this earth – a shout of solidarity for all those medicine flowers and prairie grasses, sometimes as tall as a man, mown down and replaced by the millions and millions of hectares of identical corn. Our minds may acquiesce to industrialisation, to the maltreatment of nature, but our archaic hunter-gatherer bodies do not. They close down, blow up and start minor revolutions. But now I realise the body doesn’t just revolt in sympathy with the earth, but also with its own kind.

There are millions of people who are allergic to wheat. Some so allergic (the so-called coeliacs) they cannot consume one tiny speck of flour. It’s a phenomen that came with the industrialisation of cereals, particularly in the last 20 years. There is no medical cure for what happens to the intolerant body. Gluten is seen as a foreign invader by the immune system and it attacks the delicate lining of the intestine that normally takes in the goodness of food. As a result the micronutrients - the essential minerals and vitamins - are not absorbed by the blood. Without these vital ingredients we grow weak and tired and depressed, rashes appear on our knees and ulcers in our mouths. We sweat, feel poisoned and our bowels collapse. White bread, the symbol of oppression of the dominant Western world in many cultures, is often blamed as a cause of malnutrition amongst the poor and indigenous. But gluten intolerance is widespread amongst everyone in a wheat-consuming world. Between 1 in one hundred or 1 in 600 of people in the UK, depending which report you read. Allergies don’t just happen to the masses.

It’s difficult to look at food allergies like this. We want there to be scientific solutions, fixes and formulas. We want to be separate and blameless and live our lives in discrete units, as if our physical reactions bear no relation to the way we treat the earth or the culture we uphold. We want to cheat time and cheat each other and think we can get away with things forever.

But we can’t.

The Bowl

It’s a bowl my sister gave me years ago and has, for as long as I can remember, sat quietly in the corner or in front of fireplaces in houses I have lived in. It sat on the long table in my London flat for years. When I went travelling it was one of the only things I kept during a decade of perpetual moving and shifting. I just liked it for its great and useful form - a large deep pottery bowl, terracotta on the outside, creamy yellow on the inside with a hand-drawn ox-blood-coloured rim. I cooked up a lot of dishes in that London flat with its long table, and in all the places where I went travelling. Except bread. Bread was not my style: it felt way too domestic and slow.

But last Sunday I made my first loaf in the pottery bowl, and found out what it was really called: a panchion. My fellow first-time breadmaker took a snap of me holding it at my hip to send to her mother. “She used to use one,” she said.

It wasn’t a grand production, just a regular soda bread made with local spelt and rye. We were a small group of people in a neighbourhood restaurant, taking part in a bread making club that meets the last Sunday of every month. What was surprising was that when my hands went deep into the sides of the panchion, they knew what to do without any instruction. Push, pull, knead.

It was not like making pastry or anything else I’ve mixed in a bowl because the soda had activated the dough. You could feel the stuff living in your hands. Recorded somewhere deep in the bone-memory of those hands, in that bowl, in the spelt and rye, was the knowledge of people working with the staff of life for thousands of years. Knead, push, pull.

After kneading we waited. We had some tea and talked to each other. Then we put the round shapes into the oven. When we pulled our tins out forty minutes later, my two loaves were perfect. How did that happen? They were cracked in a cross shape - the distinguishing mark of soda bread - dusted with flour, chunky, sweet smelling. When I got home I went round and gave the spare loaf to my neighbour and the other I put in the centre of the table. I looked at that bread for a long time. And then I cut a thick slice and ate it the way I remember we used to in Ireland, with butter and hot tea. I did not get sick.

It’s something about craftsmen, about creators, that I’ve noticed. It’s not money that motivates them, or a machine that makes demands on their time. It’s something else. Wolfe remembers the strains of wild barley he saw once either side of a rock in a Middle Eastern field: short on the shadowy side of the rock and tall on the sunny side: beautiful! he declares and his face lights up (finally I recognise the creature, it’s a wild boar). Now I’m looking at those tough spikes of green outside his window in a different way, imagining how they can in a matter of months turn into pale golden fields of edible wheat on stalks of differing heights.

Mick is telling us he makes real English bread, that people like a bit of crust. Now I’m looking at his shiny loaves stacked on the shelf. How come I never noticed that English bread was crusty before, that it is square? I ate bread for years. I’ve gazed out across arable fields for years. How come I never examined those hairy ears of wheat closely, the stiffness of their forms? I could have missed everything, skimming on the top of what I saw or thought, and never delving deep into the place where time lives, where the cross currents of our lives make sense of everything, where what happens behind the scenes before dawn is everything that happens after sunrise.

What did these three men have in common that made me look at life with another eye? I realised it was a relationship with the material: the desire to shape the stuff of life with your own hands. If you talk to a man about his passion for making hats or chairs, or turning a bowl from a piece of old railway track or a cherry tree that has blown over, or to a man who knows how to turn the earth so that beans or roses will spring from it, or how to make a necklace of out of seaglass that reflects light all about your throat you will find a man with a deep satisfaction inside him. I’ve spent some of my life talking to such men, without knowing why there is a strong curent that flows between us. And now I see it’s because we have something in common: their eye is on matter in the same way my eye is on the blank page. The possibility is that what manifests could go one way or another and your interaction in the matter is everything. It’s the kind of relationship you never tire of.

To be in life requires your utter engagement. Industrialisation switches us off. It’s only interested in people working like machines To put yourself in the centre of things is the position in which time starts making sense, whether you are a biologist, a baker, a writer or a musician. You are working with the substance of life. In those spaces created by the synthesis of gluten and yeast and bacteria, nourishment is forged from the seeds of the wheat grass. In the spaces created within the matter, the craftsmen glimpse a possibility of eternity. It’s a mysterious process that even deeply practical bakers like Whitley acknowledge. It’s being fully engaged in this daily alchemy that gives us the real rewards of life, that mere possession of things, or endless hours of leisure never can.

The industrial machine produces from life what can be bought and sold, demanding endless energy and life-force. It makes slaves of people and gives us money and entertainment and cheap goods in return. But you never get to engage with the fabric of life that way - with plants or bread or words - or find any kind of satisfaction. The craftsman is using his hands to making life beautiful, useful, delicious: he is putting his attention and his skill into those loaves and those loaves are coming up good. No one gets sick afterwards.

To find satisfaction you have to have an encounter with the real world and absorb its great subtleties. It’s difficult to make the deep connections about food without meeting the people that grow the plants or bake the bread, or doing those things yourself. You have to stand in the intensity of the kitchen and in the emptiness of the land. And then you have to go home and let those ingredients shift and move and expand together. Real bread takes time. Real stories take time. How many stories can you make with 26 letters? How many songs can you sing with 12 notes? How many solutions can you come up with with 17 people in a room? How many things can you make out of flour and water that are not the monocultural white sliced loaf?

The loaves of the old world are stored inside me: cottage white, granary brown, bap, bagel, pitta, naan, focaccia, ciabatta, pumpernickel, brioche. A man with a black face is gulping water from a bucket like a horse, his warm bread stacked on a rough shelf set in the side of a Greek mountain. I am standing by the door, a dish of Easter kid at my hip, about to put the dish inside his oven stoked with thornbushes. An old man takes my hand in a French patisserie in Queensway and puts a sweet roll in it. His name is Monsieur Pechon. He is eighty years old and blind. I am four years old and wearing a coat the colour of the sun. Each morning he waits by the door for us, les petits, to come and hold his bread baking hands. It’s a long time ago. It’s a long long way away from where we are now.

I am wondering as I write this story about wheat, whether we will make it back in time.

Images: Organic loaves baked at the squatted farmhouse co-operative, Can Piella, in Spain (Philip Evans); Brockwell Baker Vincent Talleu, gathers Blue Cone Rivet heritage wheat at Perry Court Farm, Kent; baker from the community owned Handmade Bakery, Slaithwaite, Yorkshire; Ann-Marie Culhane and Corn Mask 1; CDC with the panchion and soda bread, Yoxford, Suffolk; Mark's first sourdough loaf made with local spelt and wheat, 2009, Suffolk.