Sunday, 28 March 2010

Coming Up For Air

It struck me as I boarded the X2 back to Beccles last night from the Norwich Bus Station that had I not listened to David Strahan talk about the role of anaerobic digestion in the future, I would not have noticed that the bus was partly run on methane from landfill sites. And that maybe we are not noticing the changes that are going all around us because we are just too one-track minded.

But my heart yesterday, it has to be said, was not with graphs and stats, it was on the evening performance. Facts are good to assemble, but they are not the whole story. You need to know about peak oil and that 95% of our transport (and the global economy) is run on oil ( You need to know what kind of pressure farmers are under to serve the supermarket system, and how some are taking the land back into their hands and working to turn things around. Like Tim Waygood and his Agrarian Renaissance You need to know that in small villages in East Anglia, like Cookley and Walpole, people are coming together and erecting community wind turbines ( And you also need to know what part you are playing in the movement towards the future we can't always see.

After what seemed like hours on the road and listening to speakers in a school hall (I was feverish all day and not feeling good) I suddenly found myself at home drinking rosehip tea in front of Tom's fire, as we met for a last Low Carbon Roadshow rehearsal with our three Taiko drummers, Chris, Sarah and Richard. I felt at home approaching the Forum with Mark and Tom, deer skull and yew staff in hand, as we converged to perform a ceremony to open The Earth Hour. As the drums' vast rhythmic beats sounded out across Norwich. Boom, boom, boom. The future is here.

"There's always one mate, and today it's you!" said the bus driver, smiling, as Mark dropped all the money on the floor. He didn't bat an eyelid at the fact we had blue-streaked faces and were carrying a gallon of birch sap from Nigel in our hands. Like I said: you don't always notice the changes. You think life is always going to go one way (usually down, beyond our control). And then out of nowhere something surprising happens. Seeds start bursting out of their coats.

Above: Chris, Sarah and Richard on drums at The Earth Hour (photo by Lesley Grahame); Broad beans from Malcolm, ready for planting out; fennel seeds from Erik

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Coming To Meet

Today is a busy day. On that low carbon road again. First to Framlingham to take part in the Transition East stall there at an event called FutureVision: A World Beyond Oil and then as part of the Low Carbon Roadshow at the Earth Hour.

We're travelling with Netta from Beccles, Jane from Norwich and meeting up with all the TE crew - Nigel from Woodbridge, Gemma and John from Ipswich, Glenn from Debenham. And of course all the Greener Fram inititiative. Looking forward to hearing David Strahan, author of The Last Oil Shock. I'll be reporting tomorrow on both these events.

Meanwhile here is a pic Mark took of me and a bank of glorious sweet violets on the A12. You never know what you might find on the road.

Watch this space!

For more info on FutureVisions: A World Beyond Oil
For more info on The Earth Hour

Friday, 26 March 2010

Coming Together in Resilience

Punk meets climate change and kills the Buddha on the road.

I’ve been writing some sleeve notes for my friend in Transition, John Preston. John’s got a great band called The John Preston Tribute Band (you might have heard them at the TN Birthday Party last October). John and Carol are building a straw bale house out in Stoke Ferry, one of the Villages in Transition around Downham Market, where the first Transition East gathering took place. Amongst other things, Reduced to Clear is a raw, witty take on how many ways we can stop real change from happening: personal stuff, small town grievances, spiritual autism. Me-only positions that keep us above it all, cut off, seemingly in control but actually not in life.

My self-ish, selfish self.

Resilience is a concept normally applied to eco-systems. In Transition Rob Hopkins uses it in terms of human communities, to measure how far we can weather shocks of peak oil and climate change and reorganise ourselves in a way that keeps us working together instead of falling apart. But resilience can also be one of those abstract manager words that keeps us detached from real experience (like it’s out of my skill set when you mean you don’t know what your doing).

The fact is people need to be resilient. Individual resilience is key to community resilience. If you’re not a resilient individual, you’re going to be relying on someone else to do your resilience for you. Demanding support for those fluctuating emotional states, your fragile ego eternally on the lookout for appreciation, those whooshy feel good moments. Dangerous position. Dependence is not resilience.

To be resilient in community, we need to be able to rely on each other to do those moves we can’t do ourselves.

Creative crews don’t support each other. They work together. It’s a different scene.

Reasons to be Resilient: Part One - PHYSICAL RESILIENCE

Eating Real Food
. About half way through winter I realised resilience is cabbage. I found myself wolfing down January Kings with alacrity and eyeing up the wild bittercress in the garden. In Britain we only grow 5% of the fruit we eat: so to eat resiliently in March means a larder of stored apples, forced rhubarb, bottled fruit from last summer and eating lots of peppery, pungent leaves. It sounds bleak when you think of colourful supermarket displays, but the reality is the more you eat a Real Time, Real Place diet, the more that exotic artificial oil-dependent one drops away.

Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer sage, gives sound advice in his seminal book, The One Straw Revolution: eat according to nature and the territory in which you live. Food that needs to be struggled for to obtain is the least beneficial. Nature or the body itself is the guide you need to follow, “but this subtle guidance goes unheard by most people because of the clamour caused by desire and the discriminating mind.”
Eating treats and fancies, comfort food, out of season, out of context, spoils the body and turns you into a consumer. Consumers are not resilient; people are.

Not Turning the Heating On
. Last week we went to a really good climate change drama/audience discussion called Turning the Tide and afterwards everyone was madly talking about recycling, as if bottle banks and joking about beans from Kenya were going to change the world. Listen, I said. If you want to cut carbon, you just stop flying and turn the heating off. Everyone gasped in horror.

But having spent a winter scraping ice off the inside of windows in a draughty damp cottage, if that is as bad as it gets without oil, it’s really not that bad (and boy do you appreciate the Spring!). Physically you adapt. It’s the idea of being cold that people don’t like. We forget our natural resilience: our archaic bodies that are not at home in a fossil-fuelled lifestyle at 21 degrees.


The Earth is Not a Hotel. I once had a friend who liked to think of himself as a serious painter: I was born in the wrong hotel, he would sigh, as if the world was only there to serve the five star de luxe ideas we have of ourselves. When life sends you to work down in the kitchen however, you soon find out how unresilient these fancies are (he eventually become a successful theatre designer). What we need is to ditch the big ideas and get real about our talents.

Making Material. When times got bad, I learned a good trick. Something I discovered from being a writer all these years. Well, this is a horrible situation, you say to yourself as the relationship goes down in flames, you are forced to leave a place you love, run out of money, the bus doesn’t arrive when it said it would on the timetable . . . but hey! I’ve got a story. Making material means that whatever happens in Life it’s good experience. You can’t control anything, but you are in charge of how you play it, how you create something smart and beautiful out of every situation. Experience, you realise, is what really matters.

A Warrior Attitude. Another trick I learned, from travelling in South America where things rarely go your way (especially buses). People like to say be the change you would like to see, but you rarely see them in the world. The fact is change hurts and to get in line with those resilient natural eco-systems means we’ve got to change a lot, give up all those hotel-style pleasures. People jump the suffering this entails and insist that low-carbon life is fun and somehow better, but actually that doesn’t cut the biscuit when your own life downturns.

What matters is, even though you encounter difficulty, your life has meaning, that you feel alive and in synch with the planet and its peoples, part of the times, part of the big creative shift of Transition.

We need a warrior attitude because the earth is a demanding place: to take proper responsibility for life means we need to be strong and resourceful in a way that our society has not trained us to be. We live in our airy-fairy minds with our high-maintenance illusions. We’re all stars and gurus, masters and powerful people (it’s just that nobody has noticed) with our all important families, jobs and acquaintances. Holding on to illusions means you’re going to feed those star-struck ideas about Me and Them first and let everyone else down. Ditch the Illusions. We won’t make it unless we work together.

Resilience is an ensemble act.

With rocket from Greengrow. Reduced to Clear by the John Preston Tribute Band; One Straw Revolution reissue; Masanobu Fukuoka cooking. Joker from Turning the Tide - A Carbon Fantasy in One Act by Peppy Barlow ( Feb 18)

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Coming Into Play

When the blog crew decided to try out a three day writing week, I suggested blithely that maybe we could take a cue from the last person’s post and write from that . . . luckily, I start my day with Kingfisher toothpaste. Mint, fennel, flouride free.

Fennel I reckoned was a good place to begin. A sun-loving, golden headed plant, tall, feathery, growing in great fragrant bands down amongst the East Anglian dunes, where in high summer I go collecting its spicy seeds for curry dishes and a cooling and drying medicine tea.

Everyone’s talking seeds in Transition right now: Jane’s planting for the Allotment; Erik in "zero-sweaters" is sowing a packet a day to keep himself in vegetables all year; Mark and I are planning our Herbs-for-Resilience Toolkit. At Sustainable Bungay's core group meeting on Tuesday we discussed our Mayday Give and Grow Seedling Swap when all those resilient veg and flower seeds will have sprouted. Today I’m off to see Becky at the Greengrow co-operative in Ilketshall St Andrew, where they are turning a big arable field into a market garden and apple orchard. I’m giving her a hand with setting up some press and publicity. Put everything on a blog, I'll say . . .

And then just as I was about to do a whole seeds thing, Jon posted another blog. Churches and birches! And I had to change track, towards the invisible worlds. Luckily there’s another part that fennel plays: one that's not so well known. Giant fennel from the Mediterranean once formed the Dionysian thyrsus, the staff that spearheaded the Mysteries. A procession that led down into the seedstore of the earth where the mysterious life-in-death, death-in-life process was revealed– a celebration that was performed for thousands of years in all corners of the earth.

That’s the story that plants tell us. Life works because of the connections you can’t see with your day-time eyes, because of what happens underground.

Only artists these days go down into the dark places. Because writers, musicians, performers play with the unknown. Face the music, dance on the edge. Only if you are in play, in a state of creative chaos where limits are broken up, can any new solutions emerge. Trouble is we’re living in a world where the dominant hegemony insists Powerful People have got it down and are In Control. It's been that way since civilisation began.

Yesterday some of us artists-in-Transition went to our second rehearsal for the Low Carbon Roadshow in Tom’s garden. We're planning to do something for the Earth Hour on Saturday. When we first met at the Norwich Arts Theatre none of us knew what would happen. We found ourselves enacting the future, imagining who we might be in 100 years from now. What our messages might be for ourselves in the present. 2110 appearing in 2010.

Climate change and peak oil mean that the future is not going to be that present individualist story we live by no matter how many times the Powerful People repeat it. “We’re making it up as we go along!” as Tom said. Most people feel pressured to conform to this old narrative (or it’s the end of the world for you!), creative artists can’t help following a different drummer. They know that the future is embedded in the present, and every move we make now affects what follows in our tracks.

Somewhere in their bones they remember that ancient plant story and know that time in fact is not quite as linear as historians and politicians would like us to believe, nor is matter as concrete as some scientists tell us. That’s why creators are inventive, fluid, tricky. Appearing only when they need to. Making it up as they go along, with a few ancestral tricks up their sleeves. They are holding the door open for something else to happen.

What kind of future do we want?

Which way do we want the show to go? A tragedy that ends in fallen kings and queens, a comedy that ends in a round dance, a medicine show which restores our lost connections, or a mystery play where the plant that sustains us emerges from a fennel seed, like the sun?

On the Low-Carbon Road to the Roadshow: catching a bus for the First Rehearsal, on the train to the Second. Polytunnel at Greengrow, Open Day, April 10, 10am-3pm. Ilkeshall St Andrew.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

All Hail Great Spring!

It seemed like it would never come. For months the land was hard and sere and all my attention seemed to be focussed on getting from place to place, from day to day. Even Malcolm shook his head about the lateness of it, when we went to collect our vegetables. "There’s just no sun," he said. "Nothing is growing." Then today we got up at sunrise and walked down the lane and realised winter had released us. Spring was finally here. The air was soft and vibrant. The earth felt near, as if every branch had come alive, buds ready to burst. We sat beneath an oak and breathed in the morning – blackbird singing high in the boughs, hazels dripping with golden catkins. Tapping of woodpeckers, mew of a buzzard above our heads.

After five months of watching the temperature gauge hover around freezing, it had suddenly risen six degrees. Six degrees makes a difference when you are living without central heating. Nine degrees means your bones stop aching, you no longer are terminally attached to your hot bottle, living in a cocoon of cardigans, kindling, soup and hot tea. You are no longer focussed inward, you are looking out towards the horizon, the room is full of unexpected light and air. Coming back from Norwich last week after a hard day’s work the sun burst through the clouds that had enclosed us in a grey helmet it seemed for weeks. The alders shone purple along the riverbanks and in the centre of each ploughed field there crouched a familiar form:

"I wonder why are there so many hares", I said to Mark.
"It’s March", he replied sanguinely.

Late Spring, cold spring. Is this climate change or just English weather?

One thing I know, we normally greet the snowdrops in Dunwich Wood at the beginning of February and this year it was the middle of March. We sat as we always do on a fallen trunk and listened to the soft inrolling sea against the cliffs and the birdsong amongst the yew trees, immersed in the quietude of white flowers.

It’s one of those moments you take in with your whole body – eyes, hands, feet, ears. The scent of rain and salt and sweet nectar, the hairiness of bark, the stillness and high vibration of the flowers. Spokesman for the wild places, Edward Abbey once wrote to all the environmentalists who had been inspired by his radical texts (Desert Solitaire, The Monkey Wrench Gang) to take action on behalf of the earth. Take time, he said, to go up in to the mountains and remind yourself why you are putting yourself on the line.

It’s good advice because with all the talking about feeding the world and energy reduction, about social change and behaviour change, all those hundreds of emails and newspaper headlines taking up your attention, you can forget why you are in Transition in the first place and what it means to be alive on the earth. In winter, summer or spring.

Sometimes I dream of a world where we can walk nobly, without shame, on this planet. It’s a future I hold in my heart, ready, like a leaf, to unfurl:

Happily with abundant plants may I walk.
Happily on a road of pollen may I walk
Being as it used to be long ago may I walk.

May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me,
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beauitful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty is it finished.
In beauty it is finished.

Words from a traditional Dine (Navajo) Chant; Snowdrops and Mark in Dunwich Wood, purple crocus outside my door

Voting With Your Fork

55 billion farmed animals were killed last year. That's ten times the amount of people that inhabit the earth. It's one of the shocking statistics that haunts the global food industry and asks us how far from nature will we go before we realise the real value of our earthly lives, our exchange with the creatures and plants and each other.

Food lies at the basis of our relationships with the natural world. To eat our highly processed Western diet however means you can't think about what you are eating. If you do you keep bumping up against those difficult statistics about factory farming. In the 21st century to eat a plant-based diet is an effective way to reduce carbon emissions. You are what you eat, once a sign of how fashionable or socially acceptable you were has now become political. A demonstration of solidarity with the planet and its peoples.

It also indicates how far you value your own life. You are what you eat now means we consume not only the terror and imprisonment of birds and animals, but the unholy cocktail of bleach, preservatives and enzymes contained in bread, and over 50 kinds of chemicals sprayed on vegetables and fruit. As a result our once-vibrant bodies have become inflamed and full of unnatural cravings. We blow up like balloons, get diabetes and allergies, our capacity to pay attention dwindles. The food that once sustained our hearts and imaginations, as well as our bodies, is not only losing its tastes and variety, but its ability to transfer life-force into our physical forms.

There is a way however to reverse this process. One day I stopped going to supermarkets. I started to eat plants grown in season, mostly from my local area. The positive benefits of sustainable food are usually measured in food miles, but the real shifts happen when you decide you don’t want blood on your hands every time you go shopping: forests torn down to grow palm oil and soya, rivers polluted by giant pig factories, the lands of "lesser" nations seized by multinational companies and their populations indentured.

It's hard to see these vast consequences of our small daily actions because the global food industry operates within such secrecy. The distributor hubs are kept out of sight. Farmers and producers are intimidated by corporations and supermarkets to keep quiet. The workforce (often migrant labour) is pressured by similar threats. Laws protect genetically-modified and cloned foods from being recognised. But the greatest block lies in our own minds.

We don’t like to think our habits have an impact, but the fact is they do. Eating industrialised food helps a handful of conpanies control the earth's seedstores (the most chilling scenes in the agri-business documentary, Food, Inc. were of American soya farmers being investigated by Monsanto for "illegally" saving GM seed). Some of this is played out in our contempt for "fat people". We project our guilt onto the poor and the malnourished, instead of looking at the part we all play in this shadowy business.

The fact is the more stressful and fractured our lives become the more we desire to escape. "Voting with your fork" takes perseverance because our bodies have become addicted to the comforts and treats of convenience foods. The industrial food machine tries to make us forget the things that really matter, the plants that alchemise life, the creatures who are our kin, the springs of fresh water we once held sacred. It runs on 24/7 time, in the fast lane, where human beings are interchangeable. Under its spell we have forgotten who we are, what we are doing. But some of us are waking up, stirring the pot that sits on the stove, sowing seeds, remembering that today is the first day of spring.

Charlotte Du Cann was once the food editor of Elle magazine and is now a member of Transition Norwich. Food, Inc. is showing at Cinema City, Norwich, followed by a Q&A with Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association and Norfolk organic farmer on March 29 at 8.30pm.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Bird Singing in the Dark

I discovered so much of who I am,
Sitting in deserts in the sand,
Nothing and no-one to get in the way, no bills to pay.
I love lying in the sun and swimming in warm sea,
I don`t want to think about all the places I will never see,
Living is hard and flying is easy..
What will you do ?
What will we do ?

(Flying by Shannon Smy, Seize the Day)

I’m in Chapelfield Gardens dancing next to Christine at the Zero Carbon Festival, as Chris Keene’s epic journey from Wales to Copenhagen passes through Norwich. I’m at Speaker’s Corner holding a Climate Emergency banner with Mark, just after John McDonnell's speech about the third runway at Heathrow. There’s the same song playing and the same movement happening inside. It’s a feeling I haven’t experienced yet in Transition. The song is about giving up flying, about the singer not flying to see her grandmother in America, and her sister in Australia. It’s a real song. And she’s out there singing it on show to the world.

Flying is a burning Transition topic because it’s so high-carbon. In our Transition Circle meetings it was the one subject that silenced the room. Because if you’re cutting your carbon emissions by half the national average, as those of usin TN2 decided we’d do this year (and a further half next year) there is no way you can fly. In December Not Flying was discussed at length in Transition Culture with 83 comments. In January Adrienne Campbell of Transition Lewes spoke eloquently about her difficulties with other people flying in her blog, 100 monkeys. How far does our conscience about the planet take us? Does it give us the right to challenge each other? Or is something else happening we can’t see just yet?

Tully’s right, flying is not just about figures, useful though they are. It’s about ethics and relationship and the fact that when you stop flying you’re not just giving up pleasure or people you’re giving up whole continents. Whole parts of your being that flourish in the big wild places, that can expand to the further rim of deserts and oceans and climb the mountain peaks. All the ancestor places, medicine places, wisdom trees, dreamtime.

The airports are gateways and run like a litany over my tongue: La Paz, Kingstown, Santiago de Chile, Kauai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sydney, Dehli . . . I’m like one of those shops with outlets in every destination. I could hide it. But that would be lying. I could off-set my conscience and say these flights were for work. Which they were. But the fact of the matter was I loved to fly. I was a travel writer both trade and by inclination and for ten years I lived out of a suitcase.

I took a lot of planes. I was only was in danger once (nearly crashed in El Salvador en route to Honduras). Only lost my cool once, riotously drunk and delayed in Newark one snowy New Year's eve (did the conga round the Virgin Airways jumbo with my fellow passengers - Ay! )Shortest flight? The one in the picture that took me from the Caribbean port of Cartegena into Gabriel Garcia Marquez country. Longest? 24 hours to Lima en route to Macchu Picchu and the rainforest for a fashion shoot. Lots of fashion shoots and interview work, dragging vast blue Globetrotter suitcases and typewriters (this was before internet). Difficult photographers with delicate cameras. Immigration snarling at us (won't miss those guys). Paris, Milan. New York (again). A host of American runways rising to meet me: Los Angeles, Alburqueque, Phoenix, Des Moines, Dallas, Houston . . .

I didn't get security with all my travelling, but I had a life that I wanted to live and I got to love the world the way some people love children, which is to say absolutely, knowing that you give part of your heart away when you do. I couldn’t have gone without those aeroplanes, that’s the truth of it. And so rather than sorrowing or hiding the fact, I’ll come clean and say I am thankful that I could. They were the best of times. There isn’t a day really that goes by without my thinking of those places and thanking this beloved earth for letting me experience her in all her absolute glory.

I know now that nothing will replace the feeling of Mexico, nor Arizona, nor the sound of tropical rains falling. To cope with the reality of that you have to access your heart. Only your heart can cope with that kind of loss. Because travelling takes you to places inside yourself that Western rationality and justification don’t go.

For a long time I wrestled with what I had gained from staying home in East Anglia for the last eight years (with the exception of one flight to India, one train journey to London) and I looked about me and I couldn’t see it. How was my life better? Was I now looking forward to an increasingly depressing life without any money or work or heating, or the ability to travel much beyond my own lane? Or was I missing something? And I lay awake for hours last night thinking. And then I got it. When I stopped flying around the world, I came home. Because there was nowhere else to go. I had come to the end of the line. And I realised that to live a good life, I had to love that place at the end of the line. And that was hard.

Life is hard and flying is easy. One day you wake up and realise that the future you took for granted went and disappeared, and only when there was no possibility of escape, did you face reality and begin the real work which is to see the world afresh with your heart. Right here, now.

It’s a small inner revolution that will turn everything around. But so long as we can fly away from difficulty, keeping that sparkling holiday destination in our minds, we won’t land and engage in this task. We’ll keep flying off into never-never land. Our obligation as human beings to value life on earth – which all civilisations ignore - has to be fulfilled. To love youth and success in our culture is easy, to love your own reflection in the mirror, with its wrinkled face and second hand coat is hard. To stay indoors in your coccoon, surrounded by shimmering screens and soft music is easy, to speak with your neighbour and the one you live with is hard. To love the places that are Not-Home, those beautiful deserts and mountains, those Other landscapes and cultures laid out like delights in a bazaar costs us nothing. To love this polluted, crowded island with all the responsibility for Transition on our shoulders costs us everything.

But looking at the earth, and the course our Titanic culture is taking us what else can we do? Arundhati Roy wrote a beautiful line that's often quoted and forms the last line of 'The Transition Timeline': another world is not only possible, she's on the way and, on a quiet day if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe. In the big green places where the tropical breezes blow through the papaya trees you can feel this breath upon your whole body. In East Anglia in February, with people pressing in on all sides, it’s a struggle. But sometimes you get a little help.

Three thousand miles away in Africa the migrants are preparing for take off. By April thousands of them will be touching down in Southern Britain. They’ll be following the flight paths of their ancestors and arriving in woods and scrublands as they have for thousands of years. One night I’ll wake up and steal down the lane and as I turn the curve of the road by the barley field, I’ll hear a sound that goes out for miles across the dark land jug jug jug. And I never know whether it is this song with its two hundred variations, or the fact this small insignificant brown bird sings at midnight that grabs my imagination and my heart so. But whichever, I know somewhere inside we are like the nightingale. And insignificant though we all are in Transition, grounded and struggling, we have to know that when we make our downshifting moves, our heart-felt decisions, we are like the bird singing in the dark and that there are people who are listening out for that sound.

Because when they hear it they'll know that after a long, cold lonely winter, our Spring is truly come.

On the road in the 90s: taking the plane from Cartagena to Mompos, Colombia. Sacred fig tree. Mompos.
The trip to Mexico that changed everything. Café in Valladolid, just before visiting the ancient Mayan cenote.