sustainability

parsnips and peak oil

parsnipsOne of my top must-read bloggers is Ruth Valerio. I don’t imagine there are many highly qualified theologians who also run pig-keeping enterprises but then there aren’t many Christians thinking as intelligently about environmental issues as Ruth is.

I’m very honoured to be on Ruth’s blog today, writing about the ways that small actions around local food can help people engage with much bigger issues of sustainability.

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What do radishes have to do with rising sea levels? How can parsnips make a difference in an age of peak oil? Why would rhubarb jam inspire hope?

The answers can be found in the west Yorkshire town of Todmorden, birthplace of the Incredible Edible movement.

Incredible Edible Todmorden began six years ago when a group of residents decided they were fed up with waiting for the powers that be to do something about the problems facing the world.

They were worried about polar bears and melting ice caps, about young people leaving their town because there weren’t any jobs, and about what their children and grandchildren would eat in the future if food and transport costs continued to rise.

But they also knew that statistics about overwhelming global issues like climate change and economic turmoil tend to turn people off. Everything seems too big to engage with.

So they decided to try an experiment:

Jump over to Ruth’s site to read the rest!

Picture of parsnips by KMJPhotography (TillyDog). Used under Creative Commons Licence.

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the kale connection

This is the story of a vegetable facing extinction, a wise Scottish pensioner and the power of the Internet.

The vegetable in question: Sutherland kale. Now don’t switch off. Kale is massively underrated and it’s about time it had a revival. A sturdy, practical plant, it keeps on giving all through the winter and still manages to be beautiful.

kale

redbor kale

With its hearty, iron-rich flavour. It’s amazingly good as a pizza topping or combined with eggs to make colcannon, and I just have to try this kale pesto.

Sutherland kale is an extremely rare variety and the story of how it was rescued from oblivion should give hope to all of us who worry about the tendency of global food and seed companies to reduce all our fruit and veg to just a few dominant strains.

You can get it from the excellent Real Seed Catalogue, a small company in Wales that specialises in finding the best possible seed for kitchen gardeners and only sells varieties they have trialled themselves.

The company came across Sutherland kale in 2003, when Vicky Schilling, a customer from Ullapool, sent them a few seeds with a note explaining that she had been given them by Elizabeth Woolcombe, a 93-year-old woman from Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands. Ms Woolcombe knew it as an old variety that used to be popular with crofters.

She, in her turn, had been given some seeds half a century earlier by one Angus Simmonds, when he was researching kale at Edinburgh University.

I first heard about Sutherland kale via the Incredible Edible Todmorden blog. One of the latest Todmorden initiatives is a heritage garden where volunteers will grow rare varieties of plants and ensure they are saved for future generations.

Sutherland kale was an obvious choice for wet and windswept Tod, since it has been shown to withstand 70mph sleet showers, not to mention attacks from aphids, cabbage white caterpillars and ravenous goats.

Just two weeks later, in one of those wonderful cyber-coincidences that sometimes happen, I was reading another favourite blog, the Barefoot Crofter, and spotted a second reference to this very rare variety.

I left a comment expressing my surprise, and before I knew it Jacqueline, the Barefoot Crofter herself, had contacted me via Twitter and offered to send me some seed.

It makes me ridiculously happy to think that the kale plants in our allotment will be connected to the ones on Jacqueline’s croft and, more distantly, to a small group of enlightened people who understood the value of preserving a specific variety of plant at a time when the trend is all towards fewer types that are selected more for their ease of large-scale, commercial production than anything else.

The moral of this story is: small actions count.

The Real Seed people believe Vicky Schilling’s kale plants may have been the last ones in existence until they started growing her seed for sale.

If Vicky had not sent the seeds to the Real Seed Catalogue, Sutherland kale could well be extinct and people like Jacqueline, who farm in extreme weather conditions, would be that much the poorer.

Similarly, if Elizabeth Woolcombe had not faithfully saved seed from her kale, year after year after year, maybe it would have died out all the sooner.

If, like me, you have been involved in the Incredible Edible movement, you will know that one of their mantras is ‘Believe in the power of small actions.’

A movement that began when a few volunteers started planting vegetables in unusual places – think cemetery, bus stop, doctors’ surgery – and putting up revolutionary signs saying ‘help yourself’ is now spreading across the world and making a real difference to the way that people think about land, community and food.

The pins mark the places that are interacting with the Incredible Edible movement

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by news of increasingly erratic weather conditions, global economic crisis and issues like the huge decline in the UK’s endangered wildlife.

What can we as individuals do in the face of all that, we wonder. Well the stories of Sutherland kale and Incredible Edible demonstrate that the only wrong answer to that question is ‘nothing’.

One more home for one more bee: it all adds up

One more home for one more bee in Todmorden: it all adds up. Picture by Estelle Brown

Top picture of kale by Chris Wilcox; redbor kale by Tracie Hall. Used under Creative Commons Licence.

 

the power of free

I’m trying to read a news story about some people whose lives were so desperate that they climbed into a boat and attempted to escape to Italy. The boat capsized and most of them drowned.

All the time I’m reading, there’s a flickering on the side of the screen: it’s a moving advertisement from an online shop where I bought a dress almost a year ago.

I want to focus on the article, the picture of coffins in silent, accusing rows; the doctor describing the Mediterranean sea as a cemetery. But the dresses won’t stop tickling at the edge of my vision.

There’s a battle going on inside my head now: concern about the the vanished migrants is actually having to compete with a whole load of worry about whether I’ve got the right clothes to wear for an interview next week.

Sometimes the endless battering from the god of consumerism just wears you down.

I’m reading about people who literally had nothing and now they don’t even have their lives, but I’m still managing to feel anxious about whether I’ve got enough clothes.

Last time I wrote about how growing food has helped me face down the god of consumerism and remove some of the anxiety that prevails in our society today, the anxiety of not having enough or even of not being enough: personally I’m quite vulnerable to a suggestion that new clothes will make me more acceptable.

Sometimes though I think we need to join with others to take a stand against these kind of lies.

And one thing that seems to work really well is when people get together to give out free food.

Last week, for example, the anti-food waste campaign Feeding the Five Thousand organised a free banquet in the centre of Edinburgh.

5kEdinburgh

Volunteers cooked 7,000 meals entirely from food that would otherwise have been thrown away. It was a powerful, prophetic stand against the mentality of scarcity. Apart from anything else it was a reminder of the excruciating irony that a system which is fuelled by convincing people they do not have enough, simultaneously creates the conditions for mountains of food to be thrown away.

On a smaller scale, there’s an organisation called – appropriately enough – Abundance, which started in my home town of Sheffield.

Every autumn, Abundance volunteers go out around our lovely city, harvesting fruit that would otherwise rot. There is literally tons of it.

Then they give it away – to people on the margins who find it hard to access fresh food, and to organisations that benefit the whole community, like libraries. Places that exist for the common good.

I went on my first Abundance harvest the other week. An elderly couple who no longer have the physical agility to cope with their enormous damson tree called us in. Younger, braver volunteers than me shinned up the tree and shook the branches and hundreds of damsons thudded onto an outstretched tarpaulin below.

tree climb

After we had given the couple who own the tree enough fruit for a few crumbles, we shared the softest among ourselves for turning into jam that night and sent the rest back to the Abundance offices to be distributed later.

damsons

The whole experience was fun, it built connections, it was nourishing in every sense of the word.

In his book Journey to the Common Good, the theologian Walter Brueggemann writes brilliantly about how the mentality of scarcity, a mentality that operates through anxiety and fear, militates against the practice of neighbourliness. It makes us defensive rather than generous and leaves us exhausted and cynical with nothing left over to contribute to our communities.

Brueggemann maintains that we have to make repeated, deliberate departures from the forces that want to trap us into this culture of not-enough.

Joining with others to give away food is, I think, one way of making that kind of departure.

Of course I’m not arguing that food should always be free, or that people shouldn’t be paid for their skills in food production. But there’s something about giving it away from time to time that releases us, if only temporarily, from the anxiety of not-enough and frees our imaginations to embrace the possibility that there might be a better way of doing things.

garden rage

When I pledged to take our garden more seriously this year, I didn’t expect that I would end up full of anger.

We have had a proper old-fashioned summer here in Sheffield: long days of balmy sunshine and the odd torrential downpour have brought the best growing season for years.

And mostly I have succeeded in my goal of taking good care of our plot. The courgettes have flourished, the rainbow chard has been an endless parade of luminous, candy-shop brightness and for the first time ever we had enough raspberries for a proper pudding.

chard stalks ready for chopping

But when I decided to take more care over the garden it wasn’t just because I wanted us to have more food to eat, although that has been great. It was because I wanted to understand the land better. I was responding in part to the theologian Norman Wirzba, who wrote in his brilliant book Food and Faith:

Gardening work creates in us an indispensable ‘imaginary’ that enables us to think, feel, and act in the world with greater awareness for life’s complexity and depth. Gardens are the concentrated and focused places where people discover and learn about life’s creativity and interdependence.

lettuce

salad leaves in our garden

And this is the first lesson I learned: life is abundant. Nature’s default position seems to be excess.

Two packets of mixed salad seeds, for example, produced more than our family of five could cope with. For a few weeks in midsummer I took bags of lettuce everywhere I went, to give to anyone who would take them.

Meanwhile, down on the new allotment, our neighbour had us in stitches describing how she has battled to cope with the courgette glut: lasagne, cake, pickles – her family has forbidden her to have more than four plants next year.

It might sound as though my conclusion that nature tends to be abundant is based rather solipsistically on one good growing season. Not so: Enough Food If, a campaign supported by more than 200 organisations in the UK, is based entirely on the premise that if we can tackle the unjust structures that dominate our food system, then there is no need for anyone to go hungry. Anywhere.

Growing my own vegetables has brought the issue of food justice more sharply into focus than anything I have ever read or watched on the television.

Harvesting bowl after bowl of raspberries from just a few canes in the back garden has made me both more grateful for the food that I have and more angry about the fact that so many are not able to do even this very little thing.

Giving away lettuce to anyone who would take it and still feeling that we would never get to the end of it exposed for me like nothing else the lies that dominate our consumer culture and fuel a system where around 4 million people in one of the richest nations in the world do not have access to a healthy diet.

The lies are perpetuated by the god of consumerism, a god that needs us to be fearful of not having enough, because otherwise we might stop buying things.

This god works tirelessly to make us feel anxious, distorting language to encourage more and more purchasing. Can we really not live without double cream? Because that is what is implied when it comes packaged with the word ‘essential’.

cream

The offer of ‘buy one get one free’ that we see in so many shops is not generosity: it’s yet another way of tapping into an anxiety that says you’d better take a bit more than you need just in case there isn’t enough tomorrow.

When our whole experience of food is mediated through large corporations and industrial agriculture, it is almost impossible to stand up against these messages about scarcity.

On the other hand, reconnecting with growing and harvesting food can help us recognise them for the lies that they are – lies that, once perceived, can be beyond ridiculous.

I have four kilos of blackberries in the freezer, all gathered for free from some wild brambles. That same quantity would cost me FORTY POUNDS to buy in Tesco today. Someone’s having a laugh and it’s presumably not the people who are buying them.

blackberries

When we move from scarcity thinking to an awareness that abundance is possible, all kinds of things can happen. Like sharing. Like finding that our minds are calm enough to recognise the lies of a consumerist culture for what they are.

It’s a simple thing to grow a few vegetables in a bed or a pot. But it seems it has the power to give us a whole new way of engaging with the world.

 

making food happen


Trigrad, Bulgaria

Trigrad, Bulgaria

If you go to the ‘supermarket’ in the little Bulgarian village of Trigrad you will find crisps, biscuits, imported chocolate and, if the season is right, a few bunches of grapes. There is homemade pizza that can be heated to take away, a counter of cured meat, some cheese and, in the morning, bread.

The whole thing is about the size of a London corner shop and the range of food fits on four shelves that run round two of the walls.

You’d be wrong to think the inhabitants were short of things to eat though. Wander around this sprawling village in the Rhodope mountains, not far from the border with Greece, and you will see food growing everywhere.

 

Trigrad tomatoesborlotti beans

 

Trigrad turkeys

We visited in early September: there were tomatoes sprouting out of old oil cans, borlotti beans ripening on canes, watermelons dangling in front gardens and even a few turkeys scratching in someone’s yard.

On the lower slopes of the mountains there were rows and rows of brightly painted beehives, and everywhere trees laden with fruit: pears, apples and wild plums.

Trigrad beehives

Trigrad pears

There are no fancy hotels in Trigrad but you can stay in a family guest house. Ours looked down over the town with its jumble of red roofs, tiny mosque and even tinier church.

Trigrad church

Every evening our landlady Nadia and her husband Vincy invited all eight of us into their dining room, where Nadia served a three-course meal prepared entirely from scratch in an ordinary domestic kitchen. Meanwhile Vincy plied us with rakia, a clear spirit made from plums that goes surprisingly well with just about anything, particularly by the time you get on to your third glass.

The couple took huge pride in what they gave us. Through our Bulgarian-speaking friends Nadia told us how the trout she was cooking had been caught only hours before in a river just ten minutes’ walk away.

Trigrad river

Vincy explained that the rakia had been made by a friend of his. As I understood it, this meant it was not the absolute best we could have (that would be Vincy’s own) but it did come a close second.

In Trigrad it seemed as if not just the growing but also the preparing of food was woven tightly into everyday life. At the start of one of our walks we passed a woman carrying a plate piled with slices of warm cake: she insisted that we all took a piece. We saw another woman roasting peppers in her garden. They may have been the very ones Nadia served us that night, dripping with garlic and olive oil, meltingly soft and tasting of smoke and sunshine.

Trigrad peppers

What struck me forcibly in contrast with England was the range of food-related skills on display. It seems it is normal in Trigrad to be able to build a beehive, harvest honey, pickle vegetables, distil spirits, construct a barbecue and produce three meals a day for a roomful of complete strangers – and that’s just what we saw in one very short stay.

I don’t know whether the inhabitants of Trigrad wish their local store carried a wider range of food. I’m guessing some of the women we saw harvesting squashes might wish they didn’t always have to go out in the blistering midday sun.  I didn’t see many young people either, so I’m not trying to say this was some kind of romantic rural idyll.

But I did see enough to realise that these people have something many of us in the UK have lost. It’s a kind of confidence around food and growing, and a pleasure in eating that seems devoid of the self-consciousness and class assumptions that often accompany conversations about food over here.

With even supermarket bosses admitting that food prices are likely to rise substantially in the near future, it’s a confidence we urgently need to recover.

I often go on about Incredible Edible Todmorden, the brilliant project that is trying to give everyone in the west Yorkshire town of Todmorden access to good local food. On one of my visits recently, a resident told me about the difference that joining a growing project at her son’s school had made in her life.

‘The idea of growing something used to seem like an enormously daunting scary world of otherness that was nothing to do with me and I couldn’t possibly learn that – it was for other people,’ she said.

‘But I’ve found that it is such a simple but satisfying experience and the feeling is growing in me that if everything goes tits up and we can’t get any food anywhere then I have the means with which to provide food for myself and my son.

‘I am starting to get to the stage where I’m learning more every year that I’ll be able to make food happen.’

I love that phrase of hers – ‘able to make food happen’. The residents of Trigrad seem able to make food happen almost without thinking.

The residents of Todmorden and other Incredible Edible projects around the country offer hope to those of us who find it more daunting.

Todmorden police station

Todmorden police station

watershed

If someone asks for directions to your home, how do you respond? Our house is some way from the city centre and if I ever get a cab from the railway station I usually have to give the driver a rough indication of whereabouts to go. I generally say something like ‘near the Co-op’ or ‘not far from the shops’.

I do it without thinking. Or I did until I read this very challenging post from Leah Kostamo at the A Rocha conservation group. ‘Where on Earth are you?’ she asks – and ‘near the shops’ is definitely not the right answer.

Kostamo breaks this big question down into ten smaller ones designed to challenge the reader to see how well they really know the area where they live. Getting to know your own place, she says, is the first step towards caring for the natural environment.

Her first question is: ‘What is the name of your watershed?’

Excuse me? I have a watershed? And it has a name?

The question hit me as extraordinary – despite the fact that I walk almost daily beside Porter Brook, the stream at the bottom of our valley.

porter brook

Stupidly, I had never consciously linked this stretch of water, which I love, to the wider context of the landscape that surrounds it.

Yesterday I set off to discover ‘my’ watershed. I pulled out the Ordnance Survey map, traced the Porter Brook to its source and arrived at a place called White Path Moss.

Stanage Edge and White Path Moss

As is the nature of watersheds, it’s a big, boggy area and while it may appear to lack exciting features, it turns out to be the source of three watery landscapes to which I have a huge emotional connection. As well as feeding my beloved Porter Brook, the waters from White Path Moss also flow down to a reservoir where I used to run with a lovely neighbour who has now moved from the area.

IMG_3776

To the south, ‘my’ watershed feeds Burbage Brook in the valley below Higger Tor, a gritstone hill that I have climbed countless times, often in the company of precious people, some family, some fleeting visitors from overseas.

IMG_3811

kite

I wandered in the valley for a while yesterday, enjoying the contrasts of dark green reeds and almost neon moss against the rich, peaty water.

burbage brook

bubbly

As I walked, I realised that understanding how this stretch of water was linked to the one near my house had made me feel more connected to the entire area. I was beginning to see what Leah Kostamo meant by saying that the first step towards caring for a place is to really know it.

What I hadn’t expected was that the discovery would make me feel differently about myself. When I tell people I live ‘near the Co-op’ I am unthinkingly buying into the dominant culture that would define us all as consumers. I situate myself with reference to shops.

To say ‘I live near Porter Brook, which flows from White Path Moss, which also feeds the waters at Burbage and Redmires’ is quite a different thing. It is to situate myself with reference to the landscape and particularly to the water that is so essential for life.

I doubt I’ll be using it as a direction for cab drivers any time soon but I will definitely be saying it to myself. I want to assert my identity as a creature at home in a landscape, not unthinkingly accept one that places me as a consumer whose primary connection is to shops.

In another piece I read this week the outdoor learning specialist Dr Robbie Nicol spoke of the importance of emotion in spurring us to make ethical decisions about the environment.

Few things make us more emotional than a risk to our very identity. I hope that as I gain more understanding of the importance of the land to who I am, so I will be quicker to respond when it comes under threat.

UPDATE: This morning I received an email from Steve Dumpleton, who lives not far from me and clearly knows far more about geology than I ever will. He gently corrected my statements about White Path Moss and then explained how the waters near us actually travel. I thought the sequence of place names read a bit like a found poem, so have copied his words exactly and also included one of his beautiful photographs.

“As you have said, your local water flows via the River Porter into Sheffield and beyond, but you need to think of Stanage Edge as the true watershed divide.

stanage after rain

View NW along Stanage Edge. The photo was taken just after a shower had passed over and everything was sparkling wet and clear.

“Here are two contrasting routes for raindrops depending on exactly which side of Stanage Edge they fall:

“1. East side of Stanage Edge (River Don catchment)
White Path Moss/Hallam Moors -> River Porter; flows into River Sheaf near Midland Station; flows into River Don at Blonk Street bridge; flows into River Ouse at Goole; flows into River Humber at Trent Falls; flows into the North Sea at Spurn Point/Grimsby.

“2. West side of Stanage Edge (Derwent/Trent catchment)
Various streams into Ladybower Reservoir or directly into River Derwent near Bamford/Hathersage; flows into River Trent near Long Eaton (between Derby and Nottingham); flows into River Humber at Trent Falls; flows into the North Sea at Spurn Point/Grimsby.

“Route 1 is the fairly direct route, about 100 miles ignoring minor river ‘wiggles’.
Route 2 is much longer, about 190 miles.”

Thanks, Steve!

Picture of White Path Moss copyright John Topping and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Picture of Stanage Edge by Steve Dumpleton, used under Creative Commons Licence.

seed freedom

seed packets

I am packing up seeds today. One envelope contains too many for me so I am posting a few to my mum. We will smile when the seedlings poke through the earth in a few weeks’ time, each thinking of the other witnessing the same everyday miracle, connected through the shared act of growing food from the same source, even though at the moment we live far apart.

This sharing works horizontally as I post the little packages to her at the other end of the country. It is also a vertical process, connecting me to the past as I remember the way she taught me to sow: lay a bamboo cane on the soil; twist it a bit to make a groove; water the groove; sow the seed sparingly; cover with soil; do not water on top. A mantra she learnt from her mother and who knows when it began in our family?

This year my daughters, both of them facing the challenge of living well on a student budget, also want to grow food. If they move into their new homes in time, I will help each of them prepare a vegetable patch. I will take a bamboo cane and fast-growing salad seeds: mizuna, rocket, lettuce, land cress. I will show them how to twist a groove in the soil. I will remind them: water before you sow and not after.

This practice of passing on skills from generation to generation is as old as the human race. It goes hand in hand with the sharing of seed. It is part of the complex web of ways in which we nurture ourselves from one year to the next, exchanging recipes, comparing growing notes, meeting around tables for our rites of passage: birthdays, weddings, baptisms, wakes.

You could say it is part of what it means to be human.

seeds

The preciousness of seed is written into ancient stories from all parts of the world. Right at the beginning of the Bible, for example, we are told that God gave seed as a gift to every living thing:

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Genesis 1: 29-30

Seed is sacred.

The sharing and spreading of seed, the saving of it from one harvest as an investment in the next – these practices are a gift from God that bind us to the land and to one another.

That is why I believe the huge corporations that patent seeds so that it is actually illegal to save and share them are committing a terrible profanity.

It is why I think the bureaucrats who want to dictate which seeds we can and cannot use are, at best, a paradigm for the fools who rush in where angels fear to tread. And people who are ruled by fools do not have much to look forward to.

But I am worried that most of us who will be affected by this are asleep.

In our little corner of history we have decided we prefer the hard work of food production to take place where we cannot see it. As a result we are ignorant in ways that would be unbelievable for most people at most times, in most places.

How do we think we will eat if we allow a few corporations to increase their already tight control of food production? What do we imagine we will grow when the legislators have abolished our heritage seeds, the very ones that might help us adjust to the challenges of a changing climate?

What do we think will happen to our relationships to one another and the earth if seed is no longer freely available but yet another commodity to ration, market, hoard and fight over?

We should be scared but instead we are sleepwalking.

We need to recognise seed patenting and seed banning for what they are: acts of sacrilege, attacks on our freedom and autonomy, a kind of war against humanity by the inhuman corporations and bureaucracies who want to trick us into thinking that ordinary people do not have the ability to feed one another.

And we need to fight back. I think we should be linking arms, mother to daughter, father to son, all the growers and the beekeepers, everyone who wants to know how to make food happen, all the people who still understand that the right attitude towards seeds is one of reverence.

For many of us the counter-offensive must begin in acknowledging our ignorance, whether that is ignorance of food production or lack of information about the way corporations are taking control of the global food supply.

Then we must resolve to learn.

The film Seed Freedom from the Gaia Foundation and the African Biodiversity Network is a good start. It’s only about 25 minutes long.

So is simply growing something, even it’s just a few pea shoots on the windowsill. 

And if you live in the EU, please, please contact your commissioner about this potentially catastrophic law they will be considering on 6 May.