Archive for the ‘Celebrations’ Category

On Making Space for Nature with Sustainable Bungay

This post was first published on 24th September 2014 under the title ‘Mark Watson on Making Space for Flowers’ as part of the “Making Space for Nature” theme on the Transition Network website.

IMG_1158“Did you grow all those yourself?”, a young woman asked me last week at Transition Town Tooting’s 7th Foodival.

She was pointing to a wicker basket filled with the aromatic lemon balm, rosemary, anise hyssop, marjoram and a dozen or so more herbs and flowers I was preparing tea from at the event:

“A lot of them I grew at home in Suffolk, some are wild plants and others are from gardens here in Tooting, including the Community Garden up the road.”

She looked suprised, almost shocked. “My only reference for that kind of thing are the supermarket shelves,” she said.

In that moment I realised many things all at once: that events like the Foodival show how we can come together and regain autonomy over what we eat (and drink); that you never know who will walk in the door and get switched on by something they’ve never considered before; that making space for nature goes beyond the world of nature reserves, wildlife documentaries or even pilgrimages into the wilderness. I realised that an intrinsic engagement with the living world is what I’ve been showing and teaching in the last six years since I became part of the Transition movement; and that Transition has offered me a role where I can use my knowledge and skills to bring plants and people together in a dynamic and inspiring way.

Bungay is a small rural market town of 5000 people on the river Waveney in north-east Suffolk, surrounded by conventionally farmed agricultural land. The common idea that people in rural areas are automatically more connected with nature can be misleading. Wherever we live now much of the time is spent in artificial spaces: in front of computers, television screens, in our minds and indoors.

When I consider Sustainable Bungay, the Transition group where I’ve been most active since 2008, I see that (re)connection with living systems and considering the planet is implicit in everything we do, from the permaculture inspired Library Community garden, to the Give and Grow plant swap days to a cycle ride down to the pub by the locks of the Waveney at Autumn equinox. The very first Transition event I led was a Spring Tonic Walk introducing people from Bungay and Transition Norwich to dandelions, cleavers and nettles, the medicine plants growing in the neighbourhood.

Voilet-adorned prunes detailOur monthly community kitchen, Happy Mondays is now in its fourth year. A meal for 50 people, most of it locally sourced, is prepared from scratch in under three hours and features everything from nettle pesto and bittercress salad to puddings with foraged sweet violets or blackberries from the common.

Bungay Community Bees was formed in 2009 in response to the global pollinator crisis. There are now more than a dozen beehives in orchards and gardens in and around the town. The group has also created a purpose-built apiary (an observation shed with a hand-crafted glass hive) in association with Anglia Regional Co-operative Society and Featherdown Farms. In the summer schoolchildren from the region come to visit the bees and go on nature walks where they learn about flowers and pollinators.

College farm apiary

Even behind the Give and Take days with their ethos of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refashion, Re-just-about-everything, there is the sense that the planet needs a major break from all the stuff the industrial system keeps pumping out. Nature needs a breathing space!

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A natural breathing space is among the many things that Bungay Community Library Garden offers. In 2009 a subgroup from Sustainable Bungay teamed up with the town library, organised an Introduction to Permaculture course with Graham Burnett and worked with local builders, gardeners, tree surgeons and group members to transform the unused brick courtyard with one jasmine and a honeysuckle into a flourishing community garden with raised beds, fruit trees, flowers and herbs.

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Each year since its opening in 2010, the garden’s central bed showcases a different theme: plants for bees in 2011, plants as medicine in 2012, an edible bed in 2013 and this year dyes and textiles. This way people can get a feel for just how multi-faceted plants are and just how interwoven they are in our human lives. In many cases the categories change but the plants stay the same. The calendula you made a tea from in 2012, you tossed into a salad in 2013 and dyed a scarf with the following year!

The person curating the garden each year organises events around the theme. In the Plants for Life series I ran in 2012 focusing on health and wellbeing, there were monthly talks, walks and workshops with guest speakers, on everything from biodynamic growing to walking with weeds to the medicinal properties of homemade wine! I also ran ‘plant surgeries’ during the summer where people could come and ask questions about the project and the plants and exchange their knowledge too.

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The garden has become a focal point for many of Sustainable Bungay’s activities from steering group meetings in the summer to seed and produce swaps, Abundance exchanges of foraged fruit, and apple pressings. It is also the starting point for the wellbeing walks begun by the Arts, Culture and Wellbeing group last year.

The idea behind the walks was to explore local places together to encourage wellbeing and a sense of belonging. How that might increase personal, and particularly community, resilience, help combat the desire to be somewhere else and so encourage lower use of fossil fuels. Many people reported that simply by taking part in the collective walks brought an experience of wellbeing in itself.

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There is more. Recently a group called NR35 (‘Natural Resources’ 35) based on the local postcode, began to explore “how to use our skills, knowledge and labour to generate an income by sustainably managing/harvesting the resources which are wildly abundant around our rural market town.” The results include the harvesting of fruit and vegetable gluts, some of which are supplied to local restaurants and grocers and a communal firewood store. Last spring a small group of us learned how to make a dead hedge with local tree surgeon Paul Jackson. It took just a morning but I remember practically everything Paul taught us.

So what I’m saying here is that making space for nature can start right outside our doors, and in the places we find ourselves. That it’s not always the big exotic landscapes abroad where Nature is to be encountered. We need to discover the natural world where we are and engage with it, because it’s the natural world that makes sense of everything in the end.

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In 2015 it will be my turn again to curate the theme at Bungay Community Library garden, and the focus will be on ‘Helpful Herbs’ of all kinds. Lavender and rosemary are settling into bed, with thyme, St. Johns Wort, sweet cicely and others already there. And I’m working with a team on some exciting events. I’m also planning to map the project as part of a group helping to shape a new Transition Diploma, a collaboration between Gaia University and the Transition Network. Oh, and to make it into a Transition livelihood!

Meanwhile here is a picture from a plant walk around Bury St Edmunds I led in June this year with Sustainable Bury. The caption would probably go something like this:

“You can’t go anywhere nowadays without people sitting on walls looking at Hoary Willowherb!”

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Mark Watson is co-chair of Sustainable Bungay, a Transition Initiative in Suffolk, UK. Mark teaches groups and individuals to reconnect with nature through plants in the places they live. Details about his talks, walks and workshops can be found on Mark in Flowers.

Images: Talking plants and teas at Tooting Foodival, September 2014 by Chris from NappyValleyNet; Wild sweet violets adorn Happy Monday pudding by Josiah Meldrum; School visit to Bungay Community Bees’ observation hive by Elinor McDowell; Preparing the beds, 2010, Bungay Community Library garden (MW); the garden flourishes, summer 2014; Walking with Weeds, Plants for Life, 2012 (MW); 1st Wellbeing walk by the Waveney, 2013 by Charlotte Du Cann; Throwing our arms up under the cherry trees, April 2014 (CDC); Of walls and hoary willowherb in Bury St Edmunds, 2014 by Karen Cannard

Making Tea in Tooting – Foodival 2014

Tooting FoodivalI was delighted to be invited back for the second time to take part in the 7th fabulous Transition Town Tooting Foodival, which took place this last weekend.

A total celebration of locally grown and cooked food, involving many different people and organisations from the local community: individuals, restaurants, the community garden, the Friends of Streatham Cemetery bee group… it is a most joyous affair, with performances by neighbourhood musicians and artists and a Top Tooting Cook competition to boot.

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I was there making and demonstrating fresh herb teas and like last year I was struck again not only by how much everyone enjoyed the teas, but how interested people were to know about the plants.

IMG_1158I collected 25 or so different types of leaves and flowers from the garden here at home in Suffolk, and was brought lovely bunches of lemon balm, sage, marjoram and thyme by Jenny from Tooting Community garden and Malsara from the Foodival organising group. And on Sunday morning Lucy took me to a spot on Tooting Common where she’d seen yarrow growing after we found the community garden wasn’t yet open. And there it was! The day was saved.

It was in fact a brilliant day and I didn’t stop making, pouring and talking about the plant teas from the time the event began at midday until about 4.30pm. I hardly left the table. Thanks to Charlotte (the day’s ‘food tsar’) and Lizzie at the food table, I got to taste some of the wonderful food – including delicious aubergine fritters, spicy vegetable stew and poori masala.

My only regret at being so busy is not having had more time to visit the other stalls at the Foodival. I need to factor that in for next time. But it was a great day and I spoke with many people. Some hadn’t realised they could grow herbs themselves and didn’t have to get them from the supermarket; others wanted to know what to do with all the lemon balm in their garden; still others had no idea that there was a community garden they could join in with in Tooting. One woman who had no growing space where she lived was delighted to find out about it.

IMG_1168One of my favourite things was seeing people’s responses when I offered them to smell the mixture of plants in my herb basket. And the openness many showed for trying something different. The small pieces of Aztec Sweet Herb flowers and leaves went down particularly well. As you chew the taste just gets sweeter and sweeter. I’ll write about this extraordinary plant in another post…

Meanwhile thanks to all the Foodival crew at Transition Town Tooting for welcoming me up from the country for the event! And of course to Lucy and her husband Simon for having me to stay and being great hosts.

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Delicious teas

PS If you would like to host a plant medicine talk, walk or workshop with me please see here for details.

Images: Foodival banner by the Phantom Knitter of Tooting; Setting up the herb tea table; talking with people about the plants; tea-tasting; the foodival in full swing; a lovely bit of twitter feedback Photos by Simon Maggs, Transition Town Tooting, Mark Watson and Chris at NappyValleyNet

Text and images: Creative Commons with attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives

Of Blackcurrants and Beans, Epazote, Cosmos and Playing For Time

Herbs, Flowers, Food 22-3 July 2014 smaller 2The days are hazy and warm if not always entirely dry this post-midsummer here in Suffolk. And whilst in the moment time feels fairly slow, the days and weeks themselves seem to rush on apace.

This week Lucy is here and she and Charlotte are at work in the caravan putting the finishing touches on Lucy’s book about collaborative arts practices and new narratives, ‘Playing for Time‘, which they have been working on for the past year and a half. Maybe calling it finishing touches is a bit premature as there’s still quite some editing and picture work to do over the coming months. But later this week Lucy will take her Puck caravan back home to London and her regular visits will have come to an end.

So yesterday, whilst they were both in London meeting with the publishers, I prepared the evening meal. What was to be a tortilla had to undergo remedial action as I almost burnt it chatting to Lucy and her daughter Alice in the garden when they got here. All was not lost though I just had to rename it an egg and potato hash! It tasted fine.

I prepared a herbal refresher as ever and added some very lightly stewed and strained blackcurrants to the 18 herb infusion, which along with the lemon juice turned the whole thing a startling magenta pink (see bottle in picture).

But the refried beans were what most excited me. Already cooked black beans simmered for a further hour or so along with two large sprigs of our homegrown epazote (aka Mexican Tea or Wormseed) and a bunch of coriander with tomatoes, onions and salt added. They were delicious. Epazote is incredibly pungent but when cooked tastes very different from what it smells like raw. It’s what makes Mexican beans taste like Mexican beans. And as you can see in the picture (above left) it grows very easily here.

The centre picture in the banner is of feverfew, orange cosmos, Moroccan mint and Japanese mugwort, all growing happily by the back door.

This Midsummer Life (1) Creatures

P1010454 Frog detailIt was only when I sat down to reflect on the past few weeks that I realised what I thought had been a stream of ordinary and uneventful days of the usual work and household tasks, in fact, turned out to be a midsummer period filled with life.

This includes: the exciting and abundant flowering of a cactus for the first time in the twelve years it’s been with us, and which rarely blooms at all in cultivation; a visit to Bury St Edmunds to lead a wildflower, feral flower, cultivated flower, all-flower walk and talk (and teapot!) through the town with a great group of people from Sustainable Bury; and celebrating both Summer Solstice and Charlotte’s birthday with a local walk and picnic of mainly local and seasonal ingredients along with perhaps the most delicious herbal refresher I’ve made yet.

I hope to post some words and images about all of these things in due course. But first the creatures…

This year three creatures have returned to the garden and the field beyond we thought had disappeared for good. All of them used to be regular visitors and inhabitants. At least five years had gone by since we last saw a hedgehog here, but last week I came upon the fellow in this picture ambling nonchalantly up the path and into the long grass. I’ve seen her/him several times since then, so it may have made a home with us.

Almost the same amount of time has passed since there were any frogs here. I have seen several recently though, leaping over plant pots when I take the watering can around. This morning I found a young one peeking out from beneath a sunflower.

Winter 2012/2013 was a bad time for barn owls. A deadly mix of continual cold weather right through into the spring and the widespread use of rat poison, brought the populations in the country to a serious low. Suffolk, where we live, is well known as a stronghold for these birds. For the past couple of years we had really missed the familiar jizz of the barn owl at dusk (sometimes we’d see a pair), and how they would skirt the fields beyond the house on their hunt for prey. I only realised how much I’d taken them for granted when they were no longer there. Then last week we saw one again making its rounds. That was a very joyful moment.

We have also found common lizards again on the anthills, and the grass snakes continue to render the compost heap out of bounds for the season.

Insects too, seem to be more abundant this summer than of late. I’ll finish here for now with a picture I took earlier of hoverflies pollinating the ribwort plantain flowers…

P1010461 plantainhoverflies23June2014

Text and images by Mark Watson under Creative Commons license with Attribution Non Commercial No Derivatives.

Solstice Posy

ImagesFromDec2013503-detail 2 lowresRose hips, spindle flowers, sloes, oak galls, hawthorn berries, holly and butcher’s broom (or petit houx – little holly – as it’s known in France). Gathered today on a sunlit solstice walk.

And if I’d forgotten about the burdock burrs, they certainly hadn’t forgotten about us.

Archive: A Different Kind of Tea Party

from August 2011:
Summer came to an end yesterday with a surprise… a visit from fellow TN blogger John (Heaser) and his wife Rebecca. They turned up on our doorstep after a sea walk in Southwold, armed with a huge bag of homegrown carrots, beetroot, romanesco courgette and cucumber.

I picked fresh peppermint and spearmint from the garden for tea and we sat in the tent porch talking about plants and vegetables – everything from runner beans through to sunflowers, the ten types of potatoes John is growing this year and the ‘ricola’ peppermint I gave to Rebecca for her herb patch. This type is grown for Swiss chocolate and smells like After Eights.

This year we have grown more vegetables than normal – runner beans and tomatoes in amongst the herbs and flowers, potatoes at the edge of the compost heap (currently home to a large family of grass snakes), cucumbers, courgettes and aubergines. But the garden is still mostly unmown and left to its own wild devices for the benefit of birds, lizards, bumblebees and the friendly snakes.

John gave me a vital piece of advice for potato growing. And though it will be obvious to people who have been growing them for years, it may not be to novices (like myself). So I’d like to share it:

Potato leaves love sunlight BUT the tubers need to be protected from direct sun and so need at least an inch and a half of soil over them. This keeps them under the ground and stops them from going green (green on potatoes indicates a high level of solanine, which is poisonous to humans). Yesterday I had found a few good-sized potatoes exposed to the surface. But there wasn’t a lot left of them after I’d cut the green away.

Then the conversation turned to another kind of blight – imminent economic collapse, which had been a key subject of discussion both at the Uncivilisation Festival Charlotte had gone to, and the recent off-grid Sunrise festival. John said he’s glad to have 30 years’ experience of growing food at home to provide at least some basic necessities in the face of future adversity.

But what of the general awareness of anything being other than ‘business as usual’? Last week I had gone to Southwold for tea with a friend from London. She was glad to be on holiday she told me because her next door neighbours have spent the past nine months having building work done on their house and the noise is unbearable. And EVERY one of the houses around her has had major building work in the past few years. And the conversation among the other Londoners present was the same conversation I would have heard before I left two decades ago. Money, house values, children’s education. Nowhere in this seemingly financially secure company was there talk of collapse or the sense that life was going to be any different than it had always been.

As I walked home in the pouring rain I wondered: Is this because most of us are not aware of the storm brewing, or don’t want to look out of the window, or that it’s a taboo subject? Not the kind of surprising talk you have over tea?

There is an excellent interview on Transition Voice by Lindsay Curren with Dmitry Orlov, peak oil commentator and author of Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects. The interview is long but well worth the effort to read. In it he talks about collapse American style, where for most people in the ‘polite society’ of ‘how are you?’ ‘Fine’, collapse is ‘not even on the radar’. I don’t think that’s just America.

What kind of teatime conversations are you having?

Text and images by Mark Watson under Creative Commons license with Attribution Non Commercial No Derivatives Pics: John, Rebecca, Charlotte and me at the tent with mint tea; John’s homegrown vegetables; ricola peppermint

This post first appeared on the community blog This Low Carbon Life on 30th August 2011

Travels with my Teapot, Next Stop: Tooting

Teapot in Tooting detailThis weekend I travelled to Tooting with my teapot and a bunch of herbs, to join in with Transition Town Tooting’s 6th annual Foodival, a community celebration of locally grown and cooked food. I’d been invited by the group to make fresh herb tea demonstrations and be one of the “distinguished (somehow I must have gone up in the world!) judges” in the informal ‘Top Tooting Cook’ competition, which meant I got to try over a dozen extraordinary salads, stews, snacks and cakes (and even a vegetarian paella), all with the recipes written out and most with the ratio of local/non-local ingredients. It was great fun with a very friendly crew and I was even given the honour of announcing the results.

I based my teamaking on three places:  the Suffolk Herbal Mix came from wild and cultivated plants in my garden and neighbourhood, a good strong fragrant brew with lemon verbena and several types of mint; Lucy’s Garden Tea was a local, uplifting (and antispasmodic) infusion including lemon balm and Andalusian mint and Tooting Community Garden Tea featured calendula flowers, marjoram, peppermint and rosemary. I thought people might be a little wary of fresh herbal teas, but not a bit of it. I was kept on my toes for the whole time on Sunday and people kept coming back for more. There’s just something about those teas!

Tooting Community Garden Flowers and Herbs

Many thanks to David Thorne for (almost) framing me in the top picture and letting me use it. See here for more pics and David’s lovely photo collage.

PS If you would like to host a plant medicine talk, walk or workshop with Mark please see here for details.

Images: markinflowers’ Suffolk Herbal Teapot at Tooting Foodival 29-30 September 2013 (by David Thorne); Tooting Community Garden flowers and herbs plus garden rose from the neighbourhood for Foodival teapot

Text and images subject to Creative Commons with Attribution Non Commercial No Derivatives license