Archive for the ‘Trees’ Category

Goldfinches

As I write this from near the east coast of England at 2pm on 17th December 2015, the weather outside is mostly overcast with pale gold light streaking through the clouds to the south. It is also extremely mild, probably 14 degrees Celsius.

Not such a different temperature in fact to that of the early October day when I took this picture of a flock of goldfinches which had landed in the elder tree at the bottom of the garden.

Goldfinches detail [2] Oct2015 1024x575

It’s not a particularly sharp or fine picture and I don’t have a very good camera; but something about the flashes of dandelion gold on the goldfinches’ wings, as if the colour came directly from the sunny flower of that plant itself, whose seeds they love to eat, made me want to post it…

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.

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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!”

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

Remembering Memorandum Nº 13,874

Quito - AndesMemorándum 13.874 is a song I first heard in 1985 as a language student in Mexico, sung with beautiful harmonies on a wonderful album called Así Como Un Gorrión (Like A Sparrow) by a little-known Argentinian duo, Nora y Delia.

I recently rediscovered the song on YouTube and found out the name of the author of the original poem (Argentinian writer and poet Humberto Costantini).

The text takes the form of a letter in which, after 20 years of continuous work in the same office, a clerk dictates to the senior administrator his 13,874th memorandum, setting out a “list of essential materials” that his boss must supply as soon as possible if the clerk is to continue with his task.

This song will speak to anyone who finds themselves inside for long periods of time under the pressure of unceasing administrative tasks.

Below are the original lyrics in Spanish followed by an English translation. Here is the link to the song on YouTube: (It begins properly at 0:18 secs) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtCQZiiIkB4

Spanish original (adapted by Nora y Delia from the poem Memorándum Nº 13.870 by Humberto Costantini)

Sr jefe,
Me dirijo a Ud a los efectos de informarle que
habiendo cumplido ya 20 años de trabajo continuo en esta oficina
es imprescindible para proseguir en esta tarea
que me envíe a la mayor brevedad posible
la lista de materiales que detallo a continuación:

Un cielo gris
algunas nubes bajas
y una tarde de otoño, si es posible.
Además, muchos árboles viejos,
casuarinas oscuras, como el tiempo.

Sería mucho pedir también,
algunos álamos?
Humedad y una llovizna lenta
y tierra, claro está,
y el olor de la tierra
de la lluvia
y del otoño
y de los árboles también.

Podrían faltar quizás las hojas secas
pero no el corazón ardiendo
ni la sangre, trinándose de pájaros.
Ni el vértigo
ni la muchacha rubia
ni toda su ternura a mi lado
ni la sangre, llenándose de pájaros…

A rough English translation by me

Dear boss,
I’m writing to inform you that,
having now completed 20 years of continuous work in this office,
it is imperative, if I am to proceed with this task,
that you send me, at your very earliest convenience,
the items I list below:

A grey sky, some low clouds and an autumn day, if possible.
And a lot of very old trees…
casuarinas, as dark as time.

Would it be too much to ask for some poplars as well?
And dampness,
a slow drizzle – and earth,
definitely earth,
and the smell of earth and autumn and trees.

You could perhaps omit dry leaves,
but not the heart on fire,
nor the blood full of birdsong;
and don’t leave out vertigo either
or the blond girl at my side with all her tenderness,
or the blood filling with birds…

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Images: Quito Under Cloud 1992 by Mark Watson; Casuarina* by Atamari (from Wikipedia) under CC BY-SA 3.0 license
*Casuarinas are large shrubs and trees native to the Southern Hemisphere (though introduced to Argentina).

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

A Strong Wind in the Right Direction

Telegraph Pole - Big Wind lowresI’d been worried about that dead elm right next to the telegraph pole for some time now. “That ivy looks a bit heavy,” said Nick on one of his visits to help me saw up wood. “You don’t want a strong wind or it could take your cable down.”

So I removed as much of the ivy as I could myself and we arranged for Nick to some along with Paul from Sustainable Bungay’s NR35 group in December this year to fell the tree and cut up the wood.

Only the wind didn’t wait until December. When I heard a storm was coming with possible wind speeds of 75 miles an hour, I immediately checked the direction. It would be blowing from the south/southwest. That was a relief. It meant if the ivy-clad tree did fall it would fall away from the telegraph pole safely into the neighbouring field. But it looked sturdy enough anyway.

This morning the wind was very strong (though probably not 75 miles an hour) as I prepared for a Skype meeting with the rest of the Transition Free Press crew (the telephone and internet were working, and all was well with the nearby world as far as my eyes could see). Then I heard a crunch which seemed to come from next door, not very loud, not very serious. A cursory check revealed nothing, so I went back to the admin.

Image2013-750 lowres enh WindfallWhen I next looked out of the window, the telegraph cable seemed to have been freed from the tangle of dead branches it had been living amongst since the elm died a few years ago, and was perfectly intact. Then I saw that yes, the main part of the tree with its remaining ivy had fallen, away from the pole and completely parallel to the existing hedge, creating the beginnings of the sort of dead hedge Nick, Paul and I had laid with the rest of the NR35 group in May in Bungay. There was no damage to anything. I don’t think we could have designed it any better ourselves.

Though are some remaining dead elms to fell near the pole, so I’m still looking forward to NR35’s visit in December.

Images: One down, several to go – dead elms near telegraph pole; beginnings of a dead hedge (both by Mark Watson)

Most Of It We Don’t See

What connects us and makes us resilient in the face of collapse, are the things you cannot ordinarily measure or see.
Charlotte Du Cann

Image2921A year ago I felled a dead elm and sawed much of the first two trunks into logs by hand. These logs burned okay, but everyone said splitting the wood was better. Yesterday I split wood for the first time.

So here I am in heroic mode, spltting the wood. I did a pretty good job, was surprised it came so easily and felt very satisfied at the end.

But no one is a hero in isolation, not even a humble woodsplitting one. In fact, I think the whole hero thing reflects the hyper-individualism of our culture.

And there is always what you don’t see in the picture. And not just the photographer. In this picture you also don’t see Nick who lent me the maul you don’t see (very well) either. Nick helped me cut down the last of the dead elm trunks last year and sawed it into logs. Charlotte sawed another dead elm by hand on her own whilst I was out a couple of weeks ago, so even I didn’t see that.

Also remaining unseen are the people and the materials that made the maul, and all the actions and connections that led to our being here and to Nick coming over on Wednesday on his way to drop his daughter off at her boyfriend’s nearby.

All those transition meetings in Bungay and Norwich and skill shares and learning about global markets and industrialisation and wanting to be less dependent on them and get to know people and places closer to home. Wanting to chop firewood with my own hands, to work with the grain, the material.

And all the conversations over the years I was listening to without even knowing I was listening to them, about how to let the woodsplitting axe fall by its own weight and how to stand properly and not twist your back.

In fact a thousand words wouldn’t be enough for all the connections making up what lies behind and beneath this simple photo.

Golden Chilli Tree 2Or indeed this one. I don’t celebrate Christmas. This year, however, we found a broken bough of pine in the local wood and brought it home for the living room. On Christmas night something got into me and I cut into strips the gold paper Dano had given me at Sustainable Bungay’s Solstice/Christmas party and tied chillis to the bottom of them reusing ties from plants that had died down. The chillis were a gift from Malcolm and Eileen where we get our weekly veg box, a mix of the formidable Ring of Fire and the fragrant serrano.

We’re taking down the bough and chilli decorations tomorrow and so I wanted to share it here.

Though this piece is mostly about some of the things we don’t see.

Photographer unseen, Splitting wood for the first time 4 Jan 2013, by Charlotte Du Cann; Chilli, gold paper, use garden tie decoration on salvaged pine bough from nearby wood (MW)

Text and pics for this and all posts here on Mark in Flowers are subject to Creative Commons with Attribution Non Commercial No Derivatives license

Trees in Transition

IMG_7423 OakThere is an oak I go to visit. Sometimes I just go there and sit under its huge spreading crown, and look over the fields and we keep each other company. Sometimes I visit when I feel fractious or discombobulated, or when a certain restlessness happens. I always greet the tree. Then I sit down and wait. At some point even on still days a breeze will rustle through the branches and echo in the nearby poplars. Within ten or fifteen minutes, I feel grounded and calm. Sometimes a conundrum or question I have is resolved. This is the effect of the tree.

I think a radical overhaul in our relationship with and approach to ‘nature’ is long overdue. All culture and civilisation is built on and over the earth’s living systems and not the other way around. The earth is primary and we are secondary, as Thomas Berry put it.

In our present civilisation trees, like everything and everyone else, are primarily considered in terms of resources, how useful or profitable they might be. Or as property to be managed, cut down or controlled. Or we might see them in ecological terms, how they store carbon and provide oxygen. Our relationship with them is often abstract.

But what about approaching trees in their own right, seeing them as a part of the biosphere along with ourselves and other forms of life? Connecting and communicating with them?

AZ 1996 Cottonwood 6-240x370Trees are always at home, wherever they are. Even though often we are not. Wherever I’ve spent time trees have shaped and informed my experience, whether growing up amongst beechwoods in Buckinghamshire, spending a season in an old miner’s cottage under a huge cottonwood in the high desert of Arizona or the decade I’ve now lived in Suffolk. Much of this is due to the quality of being-at-homeness that trees possess.

In the face of all our human restlessness and running around, trees seem to be saying, hold on, slow down, wait (at least) a minute, stay awhile, take root, connect with where you are, with the planet, with life. Come home.

And Transition challenges us to get local, to start coming home.

(ii) Trees in Transition

I’d never really considered consciously until this week just how much trees inform transition. All the abundance projects, mapping neighbourhood fruit trees and planting walnuts, foraging and gleaning apples, plums, berries. Learning how to plant and prune.

In the thousand plus posts since 2009 on the Transition Norwich blog, This Low Carbon Life, the most popular label is Reconnection with Nature. We have hosted tree weeks with posts on The Gift of a Tree,Fruitful Trees and A Swinger of Birches and we’ve run a week on Deep Nature. In Sustainable Bungay’s Introduction to Permaculture course in January 2010, which kickstarted the building of the Library Community Garden, I met Paul Jackson, a tree surgeon and nature lover, who helped save some threatened poplar trees** in the village where I live. Paul also fashioned oak planks into seating for the central plant bed and planted fruit trees in the garden.

Orchard SJ-280x200At a recent Green Drinks, Rob Parfitt, from the village of St. James, spoke about the orchard planted over the past few years by a group of villagers. Along with the varieties of apples and pears there are also quince, medlar and cobnut trees.

In the following conversation a feeling arose that what was now being done for pleasure by people in their spare time might well be a vital part of the resilience of the village in coming times. It was a kind of skilling up, learning to work together on the land and with the trees.

My own relationship with trees has expanded since becoming involved with transition. Previously I ordered wood for the stove from a nearby woodsman, stacked it in the woodpile and when it ran out, gave him another call. Later I would forage for wood around the neighbourhood lanes. Earlier this year I felled a dead elm at the bottom of the garden. There were three trunks, each between twenty five and thirty feet high. The first two I sawed myself with a bowsaw by hand (and if anyone copies the way I did it I accept absolutely no responsibility for any of the consequences). As I sawed through the wood my body entered a kind of merging with the action and the tree. It was total attention of the kind Kerry mentioned in her post on Wednesday. I had never felled a tree before but the two trunks came down in exactly the right place. I was sweating and exhilirated.

IMG_7984-240x180When it came to the third and biggest trunk the next day, it wasn’t happening. I approached the tree three times and each time I became suddenly exhausted and could hardly lift the saw. I looked at the trunk. It was not that much thicker than the others. But my body was telling me something. I rang Nick from Sustainable Bungay and asked if he’d give me a hand. We finished the job together a couple of weeks later with a two handed saw.

So we had firewood from the  bottom of the garden which was great. And there was beauty too in felling the tree by hand, a tree we had lived with, walked past and seen from the window for years until elm disease took it, where the birds had perched and sung and rested. We could honour its presence and passing. And it was joyful too, working with Nick.

**

(iii) Taking Notice

This post would not be complete without mentioning the current plight of another of the hallmark trees of Britain and Northern Europe, the Ash, in the form of dieback disease. Government failure in the last two administrations to ban imports of live ash seedlings into the UK despite warnings that our ash populations could be seriously threatened, led to an article by George Monbiot in the Guardian calling the relevant environment secretaries to account. My hope now is that no rash eradication programmes are set in place before the trees have a chance to build resistance to the disease over time.

Ash disease, like those of elm and horse chestnut, calls all of us to account. We need to start looking at trees and the earth’s other living beings in a different light and stop treating them and the land as simply property, resource or something that makes a nice view or blocks it. Or that we can cut down, uproot or trash as we see fit, without regard or negotiation.

These are the beings that provide us with timber for our dwellings and furniture, heat for our fires, shelter, shade, food and medicine. They are the books and the newspapers we hold in our hands. They are home to any number of birds, mammals, insects. Some of them give us grounding and answers in a restless, stressful time. They give so much to us and life. It’s time to take notice of them.

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Photos: Under the Oak, Winter Solstice 2011*; In the desert shade of the Cottonwood, Arizona 1996*; St James Village Orchard map by Rob Parfitt*; Felling the Elm with Nick, 2012*; Teaching Medicine Plants under the Silver Birch with Transition Belsize, May 2012** by *Mark Watson and Charlotte Du Cann, **Sarah Nicholl

Originally published on Transition Network Social Reporting project 15 November 2012