Monday, 31 January 2011

My Inconvenient Life (without a Car)

First the exhaust fell off and Mark tried to tape it back Mexican-style. Then we took the car down to the garage. Carl welded it and Chris gave us one of his laconic predictions: OK for short journeys. But we knew - as you always Just Know- that it was a Sign. We drove gingerly down the bumpy icy lanes and started to do complicated arithmetic with bus timetables. In a full-on blizzard we skated off the road at night into a ditch. That was another one.

Then, out of the blue Daphne, a fellow Transtioner said: you can have my old car. A reprieve! Another Vauxhall, and a diesel, so we could try out the fuel from our Sustainable Bungay bio-diesel project in the Spring! We were exultant. Two weeks later it refused to start. The alternator had gone. And Chris gave us another of those looks and a list of other unforeseen horrors to do with camshafts and brake pipes. Oh God, here it is: The Total No-Car Situation.

If you’re reading this in the city you’re probably thinking, what’s the big deal? But in rural England, right now, not having a car has consequences. We can walk to the local town (35 minutes) but that ancien regime, non-organic seatown is not where our social life is, or Transition, or most of our food. And since the cuts the buses have rocketed in price (£3.20 for the same journey) and the services drastically reduced. I cycle to collect our veg box (20 miles), Mark walks out and meets everyone in the lane. We are getting fit and back in touch with the neighbourhood, with the elements, after a long secluded winter . .

But how are we going to get to Bungay? Our 30 minute car journey suddenly turns into a two-bus, two and a half hour one. £5 becomes £12. And there are no buses back. Our Norwich journey at least has one night bus (at 11.15pm) from Lowestoft train station. You see, life shrinks. You don’t have that freedom anymore to go where you want. And that’s why, though the petrol prices have reached a record high, people hold on desperately to cars.

But something else happens. It really does. I found that out in the first post I wrote about Car-Free Day and found myself canoing down the River Waveney under the stars at Autumn Equinox. You can stay the night with us, said Nick and Josiah and Elinor and Gemma and Daphne. After Green Drinks, Margaret drove us home, Rita and Kate picked us up to go the Lowestoft Anti-Cuts meeting, and Lesley gave us a lift to the Core group meeting. Come in for a cup of tea, a glass of wine, supper, we said. We found ourselves talking and laughing, getting to know each other in a way that isn’t always possible in our Transition events or meetings in the library or the pub.

Do you want control or do you want relationship?

That's a question I used to ask people when they wanted to connect with flowers or with their dreams, in the days when I taught such things. There was this big struggle inside as the desire to have it My Way ceded to the kind of openness required to tap into the multi-dimensional nature of the earth and ourselves. You can’t see the earth as it really is with your dualistic rational mind. You can only see it with your heart, when you are immersed in the fabric of life and allow self-organisation to happen. When you risk and let go. You think generosity comes from the giver, but actually it comes from the receiver. It comes when you work within an open system, rather than a closed system over which you have Total Control, steering wheel and gear stick in your hands.

We’re not taught relationship. We’re taught to live in isolated bubbles and to escape into our minds. We sit in circles and share ideas about community and support, but we’re mostly talking to ourselves, in separation, as cycles of inconsolable grief and terror go into replay in our emotional bodies. I found out in our old flower and dream work that people like to be in control of the earth they are saving, in the same way lovers like to be in control of who they are loving. To manage and design every situation. Not because we’re dictators but because we have been bullied and shamed by our upbringings to live in shut-down. Seize power or be humiliated! Take the wheel or take the bus! However you can’t control and communicate at the same time, neither with people, plants nor the planet. It’s either a one-way domination or a two-way free-will exchange. And the world we get to inhabit depends entirely on that choice.

At some point in Transition you have to become the passenger. And accept the invitation.

Photos: Dashboard with devil's claw seed pods, Arizona, 2001; Sustainable Bungay Library Community Garden and the new hazel screen.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Medicine People - Arizona 1994 - 2001

The sky island rises above the desert floor; a ring of mountains known as The Mules. The town within its rocky arms appears, at first glance, unremarkable: a collection of small wooden shacks scattered up a red hillside, down a gulch, with narrow steep streets, skinny metal staircases, a red-bricked main street with a few old-fashioned storefronts; an alternative cafe, a co-op store, a library with oak floors, a parking lot shaded with ash trees and desert willow. By the highway that winds through the mountains there is a “hell’s hole” where European immigrants once mined for copper; in the abandoned gardens the fruit trees they planted still grow - pomegranates, mulberries, figs. Everyone that lives here has been somebody somewhere else. One day they woke up in the city and the desert called them. They got sick, or cried too much, or had a dream, or like me, met someone on a film set who said it was funky place full of artists, full of thorny attitude.

There is something that calls you: in the luminous space that surrounds the border town, in the mineral mountains, in the prickliness of the people. Something that brings you to be tempered in the alchemical furnace of the desert. To gaze up at the stars that burn bright in the obsidian sky. Outside the thorn bush and cactus keep their independent positions in the flat lands and in the canyons. Keep your distance! they say to each other with their formidable spines. Stay out of my way! And yet standing amongst them you have never felt so together in your life.

For seven years 1994 - 2001 I came with Mark to this old mining town in the Chihuahua desert. We rented apartments, bought thrift store furniture and made friends with those fierce independent spiky people. This is a postcard and if I could put everything I loved about this place into it I would. But that’s for a book.

What I want to say is I learned a lot of things here I couldn't have done if I'd stayed in my conventional London life. England is a time place, cold and damp and saturated with ghosts and history, obsessed with form, always looking back. Arizona is hot and dry. It's all about space and opportunity and looking forward. My old friend Carol went into the desert when she was 40 years old. Everyone had left her and she had to start again. She sat down in the middle of nowhere and cried for a long time. Then she put her hands into the earth and her hands formed bricks out of the red mud. She built a house with those adobe bricks and then she lived there.

To start again you have to find a new point of departure. I had left the city and my old life and I had to learn another way and this is where I learned it. I learned medicine plants, I learned to live in a straw bale house without A/C or a telephone or a lock on the door. I learned to hold my own and come to my own conclusions about the empire, as I watched chain gangs working along the highway, when the sulphuric acid from the mine’s slag heaps stung my eyes, when I heard immigrant families running down the streets at dawn and helicopters searching for them, when found young men standing in the garden, lost and collapsing with thirst and exhaustion, having walked and hitched all the way from El Salvador.

I learned from real hippies who had settled here in the 70s: flower girls who had come out of Haight Ashbury, artists who had walked away from fame in New York, who had spent ten years travelling in a bus across America, radical lesbians, activists, poets, the first permaculturists, the first people to build compost toilets and grow organic vegetables. People who had put themselves on the line and weren't going back. They were tough and bitter when I met them, living in rooms full of books with painted floorboards and a wood stove. And I spent winter and summers in those rooms in an old miner’s hotel, in an adobe roundhouse, in a yurt. I lived among medicine plants on the edge of the wild desert and I listened to their stories. They passed everything on. Everything that worked and everything that didn’t.

It was not paradise. It was an immense red land with an immense blue sky, where you could drive out down a road edged with sunflowers all the way down into Mexico and feel entirely free. But, of course, no one was entirely free. “Little roads not immune from grief,” Carmen used to call them. This was Apache territory, the last tribe on Turtle Island to stand against the white invaders. They lived in warrior bands in these sky islands like mountain lions, red bands tied around their heads, men and women smoking the rough leaves of wild tobacco.

What I learned from Arizona was about keeping a flame of a different world alive in spite of circumstances. How you do this without losing heart. How to endure alongside the earth and all its creatures. How to withstand the shocks of history and keep your humanity intact. To live a medicine life. How to wait in the long afternoons, to live without comfort or convenience. How to walk through the territory and not be afraid of snakes and scorpions, of flash floods or a bear or the border patrol asking you, what are you doing out here? How to look them in the eye and say:

Why officer I'm looking at a flower, what are you doing?

I'm looking at this scrawny stick because underground it has a vast reservoir stored in its tap root that can keep it going through this summer drought and tonight when we are sleeping it will unfold its white lotus-like flowers as it does once a year. And all the moths in the desert will be summoned by its extraordinary fragrance. I'm learning to be like that flower that some call Queen of the Night and the Apaches call Pain in the Heart.

When I returned to England I brought that medicine with me. It's a bitter medicine because it's got broken heart in there and shattered illusions, dreams that didn't work out and loss. But the medicine of the heart is bitter, because it's our experience that will really come to matter in Transition. Not just our obvious skills and abilities, but those some of us learned while we were out travelling in the far-flung places, on the road, waiting in a desert town for destiny to knock on the door.

Photos: Bisbee, Arizona and coral bean flowers; Mark and the San Jose mountains; soaptree yucca flowers; medicine jars with hop tree flowers and wild lupines.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Strictly Roots - Low Carbon Cookbook

This is the veg that Erik brought. It came out of the dark clay of his garden in Hethersett, though the plant, one of the Sunflower tribe, is originally from far away in the Andes. It is a yacon, sometimes called apple of the earth and is eaten sliced as a salad with lime. Erik cooked it up in Christine's big North African pan with some chopped kuri squash. You said you liked water chestnuts he said (and it’s true tossed into a stir fry it was deliciously, surprisingly crunchy). What else is going on in your garden right now? I asked him. Roots, he replied. And sage. And proceeded to add a handful to the pot.

It’s been a tough winter for growers. Roots from swedes and salsify have done OK (once you could haul them out of the snowy, frost-bound ground) but anything above ground and leafy has suffered. Cauliflowers spotted by frost are being thrown away in their hundreds. At our January meeting we talked parsnip and horseradish, we talked the ecological footprint of quinoa, lacto-fermentation and how we are eating a LOT of cabbage (but not so many oranges). And afterwards we watched a programme about the discarding of tons of good fish into the North Sea.

This is the garden that Jeremy showed me. It’s the Grapes Hill Community Garden at the corner of the Dereham Road that's about to open its gates after two years' hard graft, from finding funds to putting up railings. It’s an act of local regeneration, an alchemical work that is turning a run-down playground into a flourishing green space - a showcase of what people can do when tarmac is pulled up and imagination and goodwill gets to work. Jeremy is one of a team of growers who along with Lara Hall from Norfolk City Council are turning the paper plan above into physical reality.

At the moment what you see is bare winter earth with the structure of five wedge-shaped beds, four square (all with wheelchair access), a round lawn, trellis, spaces for compost, rainwater tank, hand-hewn wooden benches. But when Jeremy starts talking trees and plants the garden starts coming alive. Here's the corner where the fig tree will go. Here are the posts where the grape arbour will be. Here is the apple and cherry orchard, with room for medlar and quince. Here under the trees are currants and strawberries; here late raspberries and a heritage crimson-flowered broad bean, fragrant herbs and spring bulbs. The vegetable beds will be allotted to the community and members of the garden this month. Everything will be organic. As well as a living breathing space amongst the bricks Grapes Hill will be a teaching garden (Jeremy is a Master Gardener), showing people how to grow their own fruit and veg, from sowing seeds to harvesting.

We stood for a long time in the rainy twilight talking plants. People who love plants are always able to communicate with one another. Do you know oca, he asked me? Oca and mashui are two root vegetables that are grown alongside potatoes in the Andes. Which families are they from? I asked. Oxalis and nasturtium he replied. And I remembered then how wild nasturtiums grew alongside the freeways in Quito. And that’s when I realised that I hadn’t noticed the traffic all this time. It was coming up to rush hour but standing under the bare-limbed ashes, talking roots, the cars had disappeared.

When you have plants in common something happens. When you cook together something happens. It’s hard to say what really except that invisible connections are made that make sense of things in a time when absolute madness seems to rule. When fish are thrown back into the sea and everything once owned by the people is up for sale.

A humble pie cooked by four people who don’t fly in aeroplanes anymore. A small Eden by the ringroad.

This is what I wanted to say on Monday: it’s what we put our attention on that matters. Communication can bring attention to what is happening before our eyes and bring the spirit of things into play: it can make a simple dish into a feast and a small garden into a paradise. It can make those South American vegetables appear as marvellous magical beings that bring connection with the great Andes with them, roots that connect two meetings on a rainy Tuesday, the community garden with the Low Carbon Cookbook, everyone in the room.

We’re living in a cold and hostile climate right now and we need to put energy into our root communication systems. Because what’s happening beneath the ground, under the radar, is what is going to make sense of our lives. Not our individual fantasies, our special moments, our spiritual beliefs, what “I” think about the world, but what we are physically doing with our hands and our time together. At the meeting we talked about our vegetable connections with places and people: the school allotment Erik had when he was eight years old, Christine’s grandfather who kept pigs and chickens in his back garden in Tottenham, about Kerry’s family who kept cherry orchards in Kent, my father in Kent who loved to grow asparagus and transmitted a love of vegetables that has endured when almost everything else has been taken away. Our inheritance, our memory, our imagination - what all good cooks and writers and gardeners share.

People who put their attention and love and intelligence into what they do are a resilient people. Because when you are engaged in seeing the world afresh, seeing the world through creative eyes, everything that happens around you matters, takes on a shine. You’re not in shut down. You are not a.n.other and infinitely replaceable. You are valuable. This transition only happens because of you.

Erik, Jeremy, Fran, Christine, Kerry, Martin, Charlotte . . .
Oca, Yakon, Mashua, Kuri
Salvia officinalis
Grapes Hill, Norwich, Quito
This Low Carbon Life.

Grapes Hill Community Garden have three meeting dates this month: 15/16 January – bindweed root removal between 11am to 2pm both days. Monday 17 January - AGM 7.30 – 8.30 pm Belvedere Centre bar lounge, Belvoir street, NR2 3AZ. Sunday 23 January – Tree planting day. Meet on site from 10.30am. All welcome.

photos: Yacon roots from Garden pictures from Grapes Hill Community Garden

Monday, 10 January 2011

Happy Monday! Transition Themes Week #2

Is it just me or have things suddenly got much harder? Here I am on Monday and I'm supposed to be introducing our second Transition Themes week, as part of the communication group, and Omigod I've found myself with writer's block. Or rather I've got something infinitely worse, which is I've written several paragraphs that don't seem to make any sense. I got up at six with Venus blazing in the sky and frost in the garden and four hours later "It" is just not happening.

I couldn't write at New Year, said my colleague, Trevor, on the OneWorldColumn. I looked ahead at 2011 and couldn't find anything positive to say. You could write about gloom, I said. Maybe other people feel the same way and need to hear how it is. Not how it should be.

And so now here I am with a taste of my own medicine. What do you do when something doesn't feel like it's working?

Here's why a forest garden in Devon is heading up the week. This agro-forestry garden is really working. 500 species of plant interacting in perfect harmony and symbiosis. I found this video via Twitter. Transition Norwich is one of 101 Transition initiatives world-wide that take part in this social media engine. So as well as tweeting the latest blog or TN event the twitter feed acts like a roll of small newspaper headlines that bring the kind of news it would take hours of individual surfing to find (you can also subscribe to the excellent Transition Initiatives Daily and Transition Partners "twitter newspapers"). Some of them make your heart jump.

I sent the video link to the Food and Farming google group and Fran Ellington wrote back and said the Grapes Hill Community Garden was inspired by Martin Crawford’s design and did anyone in TN want to get involved in some of the activities they are holding this month? Hey, I said, why don’t I visit the garden and write it up for the Low Carbon Cookbook slot (on Friday). That's when I began thinking about other places in the city, what activities we could highlight. Things you might not know were going on underfoot. So on Thursday Kerry will be writing about the Carbon Conversations course she's running (with Peter Ellington) at UEA and Elena will be reporting on the progress of the CSA at Postwick (having it's own agro-forestry planting day on 30 January).

Rachel, one of the movers and shakers in the Magdalen Street Celebration in October will be writing tomorrow on Transition Urban Lifestyle. Rachel just moved to Norwich from London (where she was involved with Transition Wandsworth) and runs the excellent Ecomonkey blog ("ethical and sustainable news, updates and opinion, plus tips to help save our planet"). On Saturday Eco Tree Dweller who wrote about her recycling business Wombling (also in NR3) in our Waste Week last year will be back reporting on a new social enterprise Norfolk Co-operative Communities. And Mark will be rounding the week up on Sunday.

What will you be writing about Mark? I asked. I don’t know yet he said. It depends on what happens in the week.

I was going to write how human communications act like fungi in a complex eco-system, such as a forest. The garden works because of this massive underground exchange network. You can’t control that kind of system: it's open and flexible and self-organising. What you can do is make the space and allow creative symbiosis to happen. You make the meeting place -a garden or a blog - so people and ideas can work together. So connections and relationships start happening. So we know we're not in isolation. That's what I'm doing really as the organiser for this week. Preparing the ground for the days ahead. Sweeping the stage for everyone to appear. If those paragraphs make more sense later I'll let you know. Meanwhile it's over to the crew . . . Happy Monday!

From Transition Themes Week #2