Archive for the ‘Communications’ Category

Dark Kitchen: Making Friends with Microbes

(Originally published by , 12th February 2018)

This week we continue our Dark Kitchen exploration of food and eating in times of collapse. For our second course in the series Mark Watson interviews Norwegian artist Eva Bakkeslett about the ancient and modern language of fermentation.

Eva with rommekolle

‘It’s the next big thing,’ said Alexis, and handed me a jar of home-made kimchi.

‘Is it safe to eat?’ I asked, nervously peering into the pungent and compelling Korean ferment.

It was a very modern reaction: industrially processed, refrigerated, microbe-free and squeaky clean (dead) is good. Everything else is dangerous.

For thousands of years the arts of fermentation have transformed and preserved raw food in cultures across the world. Yet even though some of our strongest and most loved flavours – coffee, chocolate, cheese, salami, olives, as well as soy, miso and tempeh, wine and beer – are still alchemised via the life-death-life process of bacteria and yeasts, live, fizzing vegetables can be a challenge.

It was reading Sandor Katz’s encyclopaedic The Art of Fermentation that turned things around and got me hooked, with its hands-on approach to reviving the practice of fermenting just about everything. The house started filling up with bubbling Kilner jars of fruit and flowers and vegetables –mead elixirs in the summer, kimchi in the winter – as my distrust gave way to bold, and delicious, experimentation.

Eva Bakkeslett is an artist, teacher and microbial cultural revivalist from Northern Norway. I came across her work with sourdough cultures and kefir in Lucy Neal’s Playing for Time: Making Art as if the World Mattered. Later we met and she gave me some Ivan Chai (an intense black tea of fermented rosebay willowherb leaves) made by wildcrafting colleagues  in Russia.

I wanted to ask Eva about how she got into fermentation and microbes, and how they relate to current planetary, ecological and social conditions.

***

MW: What’s going down in your ‘dark kitchen’ right now, Eva?

EB: Well, I’m tending to about six different ferments, so loads of little creatures are living on my kitchen bench: very old Scandinavian rømmekolle ferments, various kombuchas, Bulgarian yoghurts, kefir from the Caucasus, and an amazing sourdough from Russia. I’ve also started fermenting earth, using a Japanese composting method called bokashi, where you add microbes to your food waste. It speeds up the process and you get great compost for growing vegetables.

I started with bread. I always say the bread was talking to me. Fermenting bread has a very quiet language of its own. Put your ear against the rising dough and you hear these clicks and bubbles. I really wanted to learn about this extraordinary language. I wanted to befriend these guys. So it all started through language.

When I was growing up we fermented milk and bread, so when I started discovering the bacterial processes behind it I didn’t really have to overcome any distrust. I just remember being delighted at discovering this community of microbes I could make friends with. I started making kombuchas and vegetable ferments, then explored the rather funky outer edges, like fermented shark in Iceland or kimchi with fish. That really tests the friendship – can I really be friends with somebody, you know, that funky?

MW: In Playing For Time you discuss rootlessness, and the relationship between place, belonging and fermentation. How can remembering the stories behind fermentation reconnect us?

EB: For some years now I’ve been exploring this yoghurt-like Norwegian milk ferment called rømmekolle. In my childhood everybody fermented it – in certain areas people wouldn’t have survived without it. And the culture that develops between the place where the bacteria come from, and the material you ferment, in this case milk, and the humans that then share the culture, makes you very rooted to a particular place.

We now know from neuroscience research that there’s a huge connection between the bacterial flora in our guts and the way we think… so if everybody in a particular village is eating the same rømmekolle, you’re sharing that microbial community within your bodies; people would somehow be bonded through bacterial flora within a community, and to the place. And this was happening all over the world.

Also, people would closely guard their ferments and bring them wherever they went. A family from Finland emigrating to America, say, would dry their milk cultures on handkerchiefs, put them in their pockets and set off. When they settled, they’d put their handkerchiefs in milk and revive the bacterial culture.

Nowadays, with everyone constantly moving around and not connecting to places, we often feel fragmented. One way of rooting yourself is to befriend the local bacteria by growing vegetables and connecting with the soil. Ferment those vegetables and you’ll definitely communicate with the microorganisms in that particular place!

Pumpkins_kefir_and_kombucha lowres And the further you go into it the more you get excited about the taste, texture, colour – all the aesthetic elements of food and place. It’s a very rooting experience, as well as an antidote to industrialised food with its processed salts, fats and sugars: you start reconnecting and engaging with your food, the seasons – and time.

Fermentation has its own world and timeframe, and it can really help move you out of the hyped-up, driven pace of the modern world. You don’t even have to think about it. The relationship with the microbes just has that effect on you.

When people say they don’t have time for sourdough bread-making, I tell them it’s about working with time, replacing one way of thinking about time with another.

I see three elements to fermentation – time, conditions and ingredients – and the balance between those three. A vegetable ferment going for six months can be super-strong, a six-day one will be very mild. Time sits in the taste. It’s implied and embodied in the ferment and your experience of it.

Like growing vegetables, where you can’t rush your carrots, you can’t work against the fermentation process, you have to work with it. You heighten your awareness of what’s happening and your relationship with time changes. It roots you in the fabric of life.

MW: How can we learn from microorganisms?

EB: Bacteria communicate with each other with an incredible alertness, and they’re like magicians of adaptation. The hundreds of thousands of members in a culture communicate through this language called quorum sensing. And if something’s not working they’ll suddenly take a different course.

At an earlier time on the planet, bacteria eliminated all their food resources. They had to invent a way of processing the sun and transforming it into a new life substance through photosynthesis. I feel we can learn a lot from them, because we’re very set in our ways. It takes humans a long time to change.

MW: Right now we seem to need more time to get back on track with the planet, but don’t seem to have that much time. Can humans both bring time into the way we go about things and change swiftly enough? Also, so many of our collective stories seem outdated and resistant to change. Does fermentation have a story to counterbalance that?

EB: Well, we’re generally so removed from natural processes and going so fast, it seems almost impossible to slow down to a pace where we can have a natural relationship with time.

But I think through a close relationship to bacteria and to our earth, without us thinking that we have to change, it will happen naturally, through gentle action and collective absorption. If you create those relationships.

I’m fascinated by the sharing aspect of fermentation, when people give cultures to each other – especially through milk ferments and sourdough. There’s the sharing of the physical substance with the bacteria, which keeps it going, along with the sharing of cherished knowledge. With that goes the sharing of stories, which accumulate within the bacterial cultures as people form their own relationship to them. Somebody gives you some, and it already has a story; it enriches your life, and another layer of story is added to it. These stories create a different bond between people, the bacteria, and the Earth itself.

Fermentation is a beautiful way of transforming the way we live and communicate with each other. It’s an incredible thing that happens when your kefir is thriving, producing more and more grains, and you’re thriving from it, and so you go and meet your neighbour and tell them about kefir. Or like me you incorporate it into art events and share it publicly with people.

My favourite Christmas card this year was from a lady who came to an event I held in England in 2012. I gave her some of an old Romanian yoghurt culture that had travelled to a little Jewish café in New York. She’s been cultivating it ever since, and there it was in the photo, sitting amongst her Christmas decorations!

MW: What kind of art do you do with fermentation?

EB: A recent exhibition I gave in  Bodø in Norway was with rømmekolle. It had disappeared, but I managed to find some eventually and I’m cultivating and sharing it now in all my events. I gathered archive photographs of people’s relationship to their milk animals. Milk can have a bad reputation nowadays, but many people have traditionally had a close relationship not only with their cows, but also reindeer, buffalo, goats and sheep. The modern milk industry is another chapter entirely.

Sunday Best Rommekolle

The rømmekolle culture was very sociable. On Sundays people would share a huge pot up in the mountains dressed in their finery. I interviewed old people about their relationship to this ferment for a radio programme and video. So I’m bringing rømmekolle into the public sphere through these stories.

This exhibition included a bucket of worms with scrap food and a video camera and microphone attached. You could hear the worms talking – they have an amazing language, and when they’re happy they talk a lot. So I’m sharing the wonderful world of fermentation in a bucket, in the production of earth through worms.

I often do talks about bacterial connections, starting with when the Earth was formed, and about bacterial language – these always include some physical fermentation of milk or vegetables. I’ve also held a festival of different bread traditions. It takes different forms.

MW: It’s a lot about what’s worth keeping, isn’t it, particularly now when so many things are disappearing? A kind of cultural preservation.

EB: When you pay attention to these bacterial processes, you see we have to get to the roots in order to go forward.  It’s like etymology. Often a word will go astray and start taking on a totally different meaning. But once you start looking at the roots of the word you realise there’s something fundamental in here that’s been lost. The bacterial world teaches me a lot about the way forward, because it has so much to do with the essence of life. So that’s the preservation part for me, more to do with not losing contact with the processes of life than preservation.

People often go ‘Eeeugh!’ when they see a bucket of compost, or smell one of my stronger ferments. Many people live in a very clean bubble where life processes can’t come in. I think it’s really important to stick our fingers in the earth, and for our kids to as well.

I bought a piss bucket recently and shocked my family: ‘You’re not going to make us piss in that are you?’ they cried. ‘Well, yeah,’ I said, ‘because piss is an amazing fertiliser, and nowadays we just think it’s something horrible and smelly. But it’s a life-giving property, right here in our system, and we just waste it.’ I want to bring back into the life-cycle all those vital things we just keep getting rid of.

I like this idea of the uncivilised. Many young people who come to my events are fed up with modern lifestyles. They’re get really excited about hands-on life processes like fermenting. When I get overwhelmed by the horrors of our fragmented world, I remember so many people have a real need for uncivilising, for seeing a different way. Things have been sterile for too long – we need to get grimy again.

MW: What about the future? Given our bodies are host to so many microbes, might we be our own microbial revolutions?

EB: Well, the current misuse of Earth and its resources is leading us to disaster. But many small groups of people are experimenting in living and doing things differently. They don’t believe in the predominant systems and want to uncivilise themselves. So from that disaster a lot of social fermentation is happening, bubbling in the corners, creating another type of atmosphere, temperature and timeframe for other things to blossom and thrive.

And I think learning about fermentation and bacterial communication, and exploring the way bacteria have adapted and survived, is a huge beginning.

The word culture comes from the Latin cultivare: to prepare the ground for something to grow. The word is used for everything now, including TV shows. But its original meaning implies a sense of mutual nurturing: we prepare the ground and the ground gives to us. And of course bacteria is alive, and makes up the earth, and us.

***

A Red Cabbage Kimchi ‘Slaw’

Kimchi-Squash fermenting

INGREDIENTS (Organic, local and home-grown vegetables if available)

1 small red cabbage or ½ large one
1 large carrot
Japanese or daikon radish (mooli), equivalent size to carrot (optional)
Handful chives or small bunch spring onions
½ cup sea salt (not table salt)
5 cups filtered water (ratio = 1 part salt to 10 parts water)

1 small or ½ large pear, peeled, seeded, chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled,  roughly chopped
1 thumb ginger, peeled, cut into small chunks
1 or 2 fresh red chillies, deseeded if too hot
1 tablespoon raw organic cane sugar OR 1 tablespoon RAW honey
½ – 1 small cup stock: liquid from 5-6 shitake mushrooms soaked in warm water plus 1 level teaspoon kelp powder (optional)
1 dessert spoon Korean red pepper flakes/chilli flakes OR level teaspoon smoked paprika powder

Note: for some ferments I omit the red pepper/chilli flakes/paprika, and use one or two homegrown ‘Ring of Fire’ chillies in the sauce This gives just the right heat, definitely hot without going into overburn!

METHOD
Chop/shred red cabbage. Remove hard centre and keep intact for use as plug in the jar.

Place shredded cabbage in a bowl with water and sea salt. Stir and put plate on top of the bowl so all cabbage is submerged. Weight plate down with something heavy. Soak for 2 hours (at least), stirring and turning the cabbage thoroughly a few times.

Meanwhile soak five or six shitake mushrooms in warm water for 20 minutes.

Julienne carrot and daikon/mooli. (I often soak the carrots with the cabbage in the salt water.)

Rinse cabbage a few times and let drain in a colander.

In a liquidiser/food processor place pear, roughly chopped garlic, sugar/raw honey, chives/onion, ginger and mushroom and kelp stock (without the mushrooms). Blend to smooth sauce.

Place prepared vegetables in a bowl, pour the sauce on top and add red pepper flakes/smoked paprika. Gently and thoroughly mix in all the ingredients.

Place ‘kimchi slaw’ in a clean jar (mason jars are great) and push down firmly. Fold a few outer leaves of the cabbage and cover the slaw. At this point you can put the cabbage heart on top to hold the vegetables down further. The vegetables should be submerged under the liquid. Close the jar, or cover with a cloth.

IMPORTANT: Keep in a cool visible place. If you’ve put the top on, you must burp the jar frequently to prevent it exploding — seriously! You can start to eat this delicious ‘slaw’ after three days. Mine rarely last longer than a week before they are eaten up!

Next course:

The Dark Kitchen series will run throughout February, but will continue as an occasional series when the new-look Dark Mountain website is launched in April. If you would like to contribute in the future, do get in touch with a short description of your piece to series editor Charlotte Du Cann (charlotte@dark-mountain.net) Thanks all and bon appetit!

Images: Eva giving a workshop on the art and culture of viili, Finish live yoghurt, at Halikonlahti Green Arts in Salo, Finland  (photo: Tuula Nikulainen); pumpkins, kefir and kombucha in Eva’s kitchen (photo: Eva Bakkeslett); sharing rømmekolle in the snow, northern Norway, 1940s (archive photograph); fermenting pumpkin and red cabbage kimchi (photo: Mark Watson); Mark shaking it up at a raw food demo, Bungay Suffolk (photo: Josiah Meldrum)

Eva Bakkeslett is an artist, filmmaker, curator and cultural activist exploring the potential for social change through gut feelings and gentle actions. She creates spaces and participatory experiences that challenge our thinking and unravels new narratives that connect us to the earth as a living organism. Eva lives in North Norway and shows, lectures and performs her work worldwide. evabakkeslett.com

Oct2015MeadMark Watson connects people, plants and places through walks, talks, teas, meads and other ferments. He has led medicine plant walks at Dark Mountain gatherings, and demonstrated how to make mead in five minutes at the launch of Dark Mountain: Issue 8. As well as proofreading and downshifting, he is also part of the Dark Mountain production team and writes this occasional blog.

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Real Seeds and Stories 2014

A post that visitors to Mark in Flowers look at regularly is Huauzontle – Let’s Grow from Real Seeds, which I originally wrote about 18 months ago in response to the planned EU plant material regulations. As you can see I updated it over the following year as the discussions and campaigns progressed.

Essentially it’s all about anyone anywhere having and keeping the freedom to save and sow our own seeds, whether we’re gardeners, smallholders, farmers or plant people like me. This freedom is one of the things under threat from those planned regulations.

So this is a short post about some of the real seeds I’ve saved this year and some of the connections they have for me, along with a picture of the seed board I made yesterday.

Seed 2014 Banner 2

I’ve been very excited to grow and save seeds of the Ají Limón or Lemon Drop chilli, which is used all over Latin America, particularly in Peruvian cooking.

first lemon drops detailNot only are the fruits an astonishing deep lemon yellow in colour, but the taste is a phenomenal five second journey through various delicate aromas including citrus! Then the bite hits and it’s pretty strong. It’s well worth it though if you have the stomach. I’ve been making raw and cooked salsas with just tomato, lemon drop, a few finely chopped onions, lemon or lime juice and salt to taste. My mouth is watering!

I don’t know what it is about the Solanum family, but from potatoes and tomatoes to daturas and deadly nightshades, in one way or another they all seem to have the ability to grab our attention!

Lemon Drop chilli seeds are available from the Real Seed catalogue – then you get to save your own (that’s what’s great about Real Seeds, they encourage you to save and grow your own!). Lemon Drops don’t cross-pollinate with other chillis either as they are a different species.

I grew some ‘Sunzilla’ giant sunflowers (also from Real Seeds) this year; three of them took up residence in our centre bed at home and they looked great. I’m not sure whether seeds I’ve saved from these will be the Sunzillas next year as I had other types growing. But since my experience in 2011 with sunflower interpollination, I’ve grown much less controlling about it.

Sunzilla 640x480

Then there are the orange cosmos seeds. These seeds are truly real and saved, being the descendants of plants growing in Arizona when I spent quite a bit of time there at the beginning of this century. They are annuals so I plant them each season. I almost lost them in recent years as germination hadn’t been great, but this year they bloomed happily over the summer outside the back door (alongside feverfew, spearmint and Japanese mugwort) and I have good seeds for next season.

Epazote-Cosmos22-3-july-2014-smaller-2

Real Seed Catalogue is great, but there’s nothing quite like swapping and sharing seeds directly with others. That’s sometimes how I’ve made friends with people. And so a word about the envelope marked Nick’s place in Bungay. Inside are seeds of Babington’s poppy (Papaver lecoqii), a UK and Northern European native wildflower which grows in all sorts of places including Nick’s garden. Nick is a formidable grower of vegetables and downsizer and over the years I’ve known him and through our involvement in Sustainable Bungay, we’ve swapped all sorts of stories and seeds and plants and vegetables. We’ve felled dead elms and organised home medicinal wine-making demos together.

So it was a poignant moment when he moved to Wales last month to start a new life. Nick is no longer there to visit at his place in Bungay but he leaves behind many great memories (and seeds!).

Images: saved real seed envelopes 2014; lemon drop chillies Capsicum baccatum 2014; Sunzilla is coming! 2014; epazote (left) and feverfew, orange cosmos, spearmint and yomogi, 2014

(All text and images by Mark Watson under Creative Commons with Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license)

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!

Soil moving banner

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.

BCLG 13.7.2014

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.

IMG_8305 low res

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.

P4050041 tempcopy

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!”

hoary-willowherb-bury-wall-14-june-2014

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

Teas in Transition go walkabout!

I wrote this piece for the latest edition (Spring/Summer 2014) of Transition Free Press, the quarterly grassroots UK newspaper which reports “on a culture that’s shifting the way it looks at and engages in the world… with news and feature stories that other papers don’t quite reach.” I manage the distribution for the paper. The piece both records the first Sustainable Bungay* wellbeing walk of this year, which I introduced with a pot of tea, and looks at how paying attention to where we are can show us how we belong in a place.

Teas in Transition go walkabout

“Can you guess what’s in this tea?” I am standing in the community library garden in early April, introducing the first Sustainable Bungay wellbeing walk of the year. The liquid I’m pouring from the large white teapot is a light golden green in colour; “pale sunshine” someone calls it. Though no one recognises its fresh, mild taste.

The tea is from the leaves of a nearby birch tree. I’m talking about its spring tonic qualities – the theme of this walk. Birch leaf tea helps cleanse the system and reduce uric acid. Several people here have told me recently that they suffer from rheumatism, arthritis, even gout. Time to get acquainted with birch!

The monthly walks themselves are about paying attention to where are and discovering what makes us belong in a place. They began last year after a Green Drinks discussion about wellbeing and community, where we decided to walk together and map the places and green spaces around town that we valued and made us feel at home.

The route is decided collectively on the day by everyone who turns up. As we walk people show each other the meadows and alleyways that have resonance for them, as well as swapping local knowledge and stories. One month we may hear about about the history of local trade and shops, and another discover how the relationship between human society and the River Waveney has changed over time (and take a swim!). It’s also about engaging with the people (and plants and places) you meet along the way.

When I organise a walk there is a strong focus on plants and trees and learning to see them as multi-faceted fellow inhabitants of the Earth with their own reasons for being here, as well as their medicinal qualities. And there is always a pot of tea!

Birch leaf tea: 5 fresh or dried birch leaves per person (picked spring/early summer), infused 5-10 minutes in just-boiled water. No harmful side effects. Drink freely.

I teach people how to connect with the living world through plants (and my ever-present teapot!). I also manage distribution for Transition Free Press and chair Transition initiative Sustainable Bungay* in northeast Suffolk.

Photo caption: Me with a teapotful of wild and community garden flowers at Transition Town Tooting’s foodival, September 2013

Credit: David Thorne, Transition Town Tooting

One Plant Person’s Duty and Three Essential Books for all Plant People

Southern Arizona 2001
AZSunflowers & Ruin“I’m with two plant people from Britain and we’d love to come take a look at the plants growing round your place in the mountains.”

When I heard my herbalist friend Mimi Kamp arrange this meeting on the phone with another plant colleague I’d wanted to meet for ages, I felt like I’d arrived. Mimi had spent thirty years working with the desert plants of Arizona and knew the territory like the lines on her hand. And she just called me a plant person!

The desert reveals its medicine and secrets in a spiky and often difficult way. It makes you wait. There are thorns and thunderstorms and border patrol and testy inhabitants, not all of them human. I’d been visiting that high desert for seven years before that phone call was made. Several of those years were spent getting to know the terrain with its extraordinary plant life, from agave and ocotillo to amaranth and graythorn. It was an amazing period.

Suffolk 2013
Arizona seems a long time ago now. I returned to England and settled in Suffolk. I continued my practice of getting to know the plants growing in the area, native, wild and even cultivated. I even got used to thinking of myself as a plant person.

In recent years, against a planetary (and sometimes personal!) background of multiple ecological, environmental, energy and financial crises and constraints, I’ve felt it almost a duty to inspire people to reconnect with the earth’s living systems by paying attention to the plants growing around them: through everything from well-being and medicine walks to herbal tea demonstrations to raising awareness of the relationship between plants and bees.

The fact is anyone can connect with plants. We’ve been co-existing with them for ever on the planet. It’s a question of paying attention. Of making an effort. The lives and deaths of plants are so inextricably bound with our own that this reconnection is one of the most beneficial activities we can engage in now as the planet struggles ecologically and (most) humans socially, environmentally and financially. It makes us more earth-friendly and less desirous of resource-intensive activities; it encourages community by bringing seemingly disparate people together over a common theme; it requires little carbon use and it’s cheap! You can start right where you live.

Those Three Books
Whenever I do a talk, walk or workshop on plants, I always mention the three books I refer to over and over in my own practice of paying attention to the living plant world. The word ‘indispensable’ is one I use rarely. But I do use it for these three books. Here’s why and here they are:

52Flowers52 Flowers That Shook My World – A Radical Return to Earth by Charlotte Du Cann
Based on a practice lasting over a decade, the author engages with the world of plants and our relationship to them on every level: individual and socio-historical, medicinal and mythological. Could a modern citydweller “recover their aboriginal ability to communicate with the earth [and] write of the mysteries of nature intelligently, pragmatically..?” This book both inspires connection with the living world and shows us ways to do it ourselves.

Hedgerow Medicine bookHedgerow Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal
This is the book I wish I’d had to hand when I started paying attention to British wild and native plants and their medicine in the nineties. Immediate, accessible and filled with clearly written recipes for making everything from tinctures, herbal wines and fruit leathers, to ointments and oymels, Hedgerow Medicine is for herbal experts and novices alike.

P7195897 - 2Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe by Richard Fitter, Alastair Fitter and Marjorie Blamey
My 1996 copy of this plant identification book is now very well worn. And I still take it out with me on all of my plant walks. A good compact size with clear illustrations and descriptions and the plants ordered by family, Wild Flowers will end up accompanying you on many outings to field, forest and wasteground.

For details on purchasing these books click on the image links.

Images: Including Sunflowers, Fennels, Agaves and ruins, Southern Arizona, Summer 2001; 3 books (all by Mark Watson except image of 52 Flowers That Shook My World)

Admin’s Fine But Don’t Miss the Morning Glories!

I’ve been doing the distribution invoices for the next issue of the quarterly Transition Free Press over the last few weeks and giving a hand with the mailout for Dark Mountain Book 4. So I’ve been seeing a lot of addresses!

Both these publications are well worth signing up for. You can order bundles of Transition Free Press or become an individual subscriber. And you can order copies of any or all of the Dark Mountain books, or become a subscriber.

So, returning to the flowers. I’d been so caught up with all the admin, I almost missed these two beauties this morning:

Morning Glories Grandpa Otts

All text and images by Mark Watson under Creative Commons with Attribution Non Commercial No Derivatives

Self-Seeded Tree Spinach, Wild Carrot and Plant Material Laws

I am trying to finish an article on seed saving, swapping, transition and the recent EU Plant Material directive for the next issue of Transition Free Press, currently in production and due out at the beginning of September. I needed a breather so I went into the garden to see the burgeoning Tree Spinach.

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In fact, there is a strong connection between the Tree Spinach (Chenopodium giganteum ‘magenta spreen’) you see in the picture and the article.

These plants self-seeded from five or six I sowed last year to see what they were like. We ate some of the leaves last night cooked like ordinary spinach and they were very tasty. The seeds (which are also edible, the plant is related to quinoa) came originally from the Real Seed Catalogue in Wales, who specialise in open-pollinated, non-hybrid heritage and heirloom vegetables for home gardeners. Just the kind of plants the new law could threaten the existence of.

Another great thing about the people at the Real Seed Catalogue is that they actively encourage you to save the seed from your own vegetable plants for the following year. When you’re really into plants and seeds and growing, generosity and a desire to share and swap seem to be part of the mix. This is certainly the case at our annual Give and Grow events in Sustainable Bungay each May.

I’m really looking forward to trying the huauzontle (Chenopodium berlandieri) I’ve planted this year when it’s ready, which also comes from Real Seed stock.

Meanwhile I spotted another favourite beginning to bloom in the garden today. A beautiful pink version of wild carrot (Daucus carota). Who knows how long this ancestor of our more familiar cultivated vegetable has been around…

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Now I really must finish that piece.

All text and images by Mark Watson, Creative Commons with Attribution Non Commercial No Derivatives. Images: Tree Spinach, Magenta Spreen self-sown 2013; Wild Carrot, ancestor.