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.

90 seconds of Incredible magic

This is fun: a whistlestop tour of Todmorden filmed by Tom Boyden, who’s been cycling around Europe looking at sustainable food projects. It only lasts a minute and a half and it’s sure to give your day a lift.

Julian (my partner) and I are currently crowdfunding to raise money for an initial print run of the book about Incredible Edible Todmorden that I’ve written with co-founder Pam Warhurst. There’s only ten days to go – will we make it? Maybe with your help! You can pledge from as little as £1 and it’s perfectly safe: if we don’t make our target, nobody pays a penny. I’m not making any money personally from this campaign – we just want to get the book out there and spread the Incredible Edible magic even further. You can find the campaign here.

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.

knitting with chocolate

My husband has a proper Guernsey sweater, given to him years ago by his stepmother, a proud native of the island. You would hardly know he’d worn it, but it’s his go-to garment whenever he has to be out in the cold.

Detail of traditional Guernsey sweater

Like most islands, Guernsey has a strong fishing and seafaring tradition and this traditional style of sweater developed out of local sailors’ need for a garment that would resist fierce winds and freezing temperatures. It works because of the tight knit of the fabric, which traps warmth against the body even in the most ferocious weather.

During our Christmas shopping experiment, when we tried to use more local shops and avoid the retail giants that usually dominate our spending, I was reminded that we often draw on textile-related language to describe social interaction. We talk about ‘the fabric of society’ and about a ‘close knit community’. We might speak of a relationship ‘unravelling’, and of our hope that it can be ‘patched up’. Or we might say sadly that a group is ‘coming apart at the seams’.

The start of the experiment was quite hard. I hadn’t realised how much longer it would take to visit local shops than to click through a list on the Internet. I’d forgotten how much I hate struggling for a parking space, and how much worse shopping is when it’s bitterly cold and raining and your hands are so full of bags that you can’t carry your umbrella.

But as time went on, it was thoughts about social fabric that dominated. One story will serve as an example.

Late in 2011 I gathered sloes to turn into sloe gin and when December 2012 came around I realised I could decant the gin to use for gifts.

Blackthorn flowers

Blackthorn flowers spotted in the lanes near our home in April

Sloes ripening on the same bush in October

Sloes ripening on the same bush in October

The crimson of sloe gin is glorious and I had a wonderful time pouring it into bottles and inhaling the astringent aroma of juniper (and yes, OK, having the odd sip to make sure it was fit for use).

Finding I could not bear to chuck away the gin-soaked berries, I did a quick internet search and uncovered a recipe for sloe gin chocolates.

We are blessed with a fabulous chocolate shop just two minutes from our house so I nipped along and asked the lovely owner for a packet of Montezuma’s giant chocolate buttons. Montezuma is a brilliant company, a shining example in an area of trade that tends to be even more exploitative than most, and the chocolate tastes just amazing. I mentioned to the owner that I was planning to melt them to mix with my left over sloes and she asked if she could try one when I had finished.

Making the chocolates was as easy as could be and the result quite delicious, although if I did the recipe again, I’d probably omit the orange zest as it was a little overpowering. They were also a great accompaniment to the sloe gin gifts.

Sloe gin and sloe gin chocolates ready to be given to a friend at Christmas

Sloe gin and sloe gin chocolates ready to be given to a friend at Christmas

It was lovely to take a couple of chocolates round to the shop for the owner to try and I was rather proud that she liked them. Most of all, though, I enjoyed the strengthening of the connection between us (she recently introduced me to a colleague as ‘the sloe gin chocolate lady’).

How strange that we can be geographically close to people and yet not connect with them. What is a neighbourhood, really, if the people in it do not make links with each other?

In the book I’m reading, Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Wirzba talks about the deadening effect of ‘impersonal shopping’, a perfect description of shopping at an out of town store or a large internet retailer. ‘Our affections wither in the face of so much anonymity,’ he writes. ‘We slowly lose the ability to be alive and responsive to the world.

‘Rather than interacting with a place and making deep, abiding connections, we become more and more passengers, always going through, but hardly into, a place.’

My interaction at the chocolate shop might seem like a small thing but I believe it is bit by bit, through connections like these, that our communities can be strengthened – just as the resilient fabric of the Guernsey sweater consists of tiny stitches, constantly repeated.

The occasional inconvenience of using local, independent shops seems a small thing in comparison with the benefits, especially at a time of global economic uncertainty.

After all, when the weather looks threatening, a tight-knit Guernsey sweater is a much better thing to have in your wardrobe than something loosely woven and mass produced.

a world on your doorstep

Last week I met a young man who is an expert in South American tree frogs. He used to take tourists around a remote part of the Ecuadorean rainforest, identifying all kinds of wildlife for them, but especially his beloved frogs.

I was a bit in awe of this guy, of his knowledge and of his experience of the world. He lived for six months in that isolated spot in Ecuador, an hour’s plane ride away from what you might call civilisation. He worked with tribal elders, helping them to work out how to make a living without damaging the forest.

But then he said something that changed everything for me. ‘I used to think that nature was far away and out there,’ he said. ‘I thought you had to travel for miles and get away from everything to find it. But then I realised it is on your doorstep.’

We were talking at his home in west Yorkshire, an apparently ordinary house in a seemingly average street. But when you look more closely you see that Mike’s home is anything but run of the mill. Instead of a hedge in the front garden, there’s a rustic fence made of the trunks and branches from the Leylandii he chopped down when he moved in. The rest of his plot is being slowly developed as a forest garden, a way of growing edible plants that imitates the ecosystems found in woodland. There’s a ground covering of strawberries, then a layer of bushes – in this case currants and gooseberries – then a planting of nut trees. This is just the beginning: eventually the whole plot will be a low maintenance, sustainable source of food for Mike’s family.

I was struck by the whole concept of gardening in this way, but even more by the richness that Mike was discovering simply by being attentive to the nature on his doorstep. When I got back to Sheffield it made me look at our lovely valley in a new way. As luck would have it, when I took one of my regular walks up to the top of the stream, it was just after one of the heaviest rainfalls of this incredibly wet summer.

Often in summer the water just trickles through this valley but on this day it was in full spate, fiercer and stronger than I have ever seen it. It was surging down towards the parks at the bottom, pleating and plaiting as it dropped more than three hundred metres through a series of weirs and millponds, relics of the days when it drove more than 20 mills used in the manufacture of cutlery and hand tools.

After rainfall like last week the iron deposits that have shaped this valley’s history churn up to the surface, shading the water through ochre and dark ginger to a kind of luminous rust colour. From a distance you could think it was flowing over a succession of underwater lights. As I made my way along a path made sticky with mud and sodden leaves I was thinking of our daughter currently hundreds of miles away, planting trees in a remote corner of Madagascar. I’d been a little envious of this trip of a lifetime, but today the unfamiliar roar of a stream in spate and the memory of Mike’s fascination with his garden were giving me a new perspective.

Here I was, a few hundred metres from our front door, surrounded by ancient woodland, torrential water and a long, rich history that I knew disgracefully little about. I know even less of the wildlife that inhabits this wonderful spot. Thanks to my parents’ fascination with ornithology I’m not too bad at identifying the birds – I’ve seen nuthatches, woodpeckers, dippers and even a kingfisher on my walks but I know almost nothing of the mammals that live round here and still less about the insects and reptiles, not to mention the fungi, the trees, the plants and what you can do with them.

The truth of what Mike said about nature being on our doorstep came home to me on this walk. I realised too that I didn’t even need to come this short way to find it. It’s in my tiny garden, too, a whole ecosystem that I am barely aware of.

The pond in our garden at frog-mating time

Back in the eighties, when AIDS was first identified, there was a health campaign with the slogan ‘don’t die of ignorance’. With the world now facing unprecedented food shortages, spiralling transport costs and weather patterns that are both unpredictable and potentially devastating, it seems our ignorance about the world in front of our noses may be at least as big a threat.

Mike is a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to the natural world. He knows what weeds you can eat, what to plant to fix nitrogen in your soil, how to manage ponds so that they sustain the widest possible range of beneficial wildlife. It’s a knowledge acquired over years and it flourishes within a deep appreciation and respect for the world on the doorstep.

I think it’s time to do something about my ignorance.

What to Eat

What to Eat is a risky title for a book. People can get very defensive about diet – hardly surprising, given the number of confusing and judgemental messages out there. Writers who tackle food-related issues run the risk of sounding either unbearably preachy or so full of doom that the reader is driven screaming towards the nearest doughnut.

Only a first-rate writer with a deep understanding of the issues could write successfully about how to eat in ways that are ethical, inexpensive and good for you. Fortunately, Joanna Blythman is just such a writer. She easily achieves the goal she sets out in her introduction of helping people ‘recognise and locate food that’s good in the broadest sense of that word – food that’s healthy, affordable, doesn’t trash the environment, exploit producers or cause unnecessary animal suffering, and, last but not least, tastes great’.

The book is divided into sections, each devoted to a particular food group, such as vegetable, meat and dairy products. Within each section she lists a range of foods and gives tips on how to prepare them, along with information about price, seasonality and health benefits. Although I’ve been interested in food for years, I learnt a lot from this. Did you know for example that grapes can contain residues of up to eleven different pesticides? An argument for buying the organic variety if ever I heard one.

Blythman also gives information about how our food is produced, along with an indication of the impact of that production on the environment, and whether people or animals are exploited in the process. Some of this is genuinely horrifying. In Costa Rica, for example, pineapple plants are drenched in so much pesticide that the workers who put them in the ground often end up with deformed fingernails. I was also shocked to learn that half the UK’s pear orchards have disappeared in the last 30 years, and that several of our native breeds of pig are classified as endangered species.

My only criticism of the book is the puzzling lack of an index. It’s the kind of resource you want to return to again and again, and it would be far easier to use if you could look up individual foods by name. Otherwise, though, this was well worth the money and I came away from it with a new enthusiasm for eating well and at the same time using my power as a consumer responsibly.