Posts Tagged ‘ecology/permaculture’

Some Notes on Tracks and Edges

At the edge where we encounter another human being, we discover for ourselves what it is to have to break down a little… Cat Lupton

I am standing on the platform at Lowestoft Station. It is early evening. April 2010. And May. And June. In under an hour I will have traversed the Broads on the two-coach train, past the swans and waterways, past the big sugar factory, past the wide green and gold vistas and the boatyards. And will have arrived in Norwich where I am on my way to a carbon conversations course.

I have loved these journeys, made possible as they have been by a bus service connecting Lowestoft to where I live further down the coast. This will not last. The bus route which has run for 26 years will be reduced then scrapped altogether in the Autumn. No more connecting night buses. The carbon conversations will finish.

I am unsure about the carbon conversations, a 6-session course over twelve weeks aimed at helping people reduce personal and household carbon use and emissions using a non-confrontational approach. I often feel like I’m at school disrupting more well-behaved pupils in a quiet and serious class, and prefer the more creative, deeper, experimental nature of our Stranger’s Circle meetings where we bring our household energy bills to show each other, take a good look at the industrial food system, have difficult conversations about transport use. Where we’re making it up as we go along. Where there’s more of an edge.

Down the line (sic) I see the value in both approaches, and it was through both the Strangers’ Circle year and carbon conversations that the Low Carbon Cookbook group was born, which meets monthly to explore low carbon ways of buying, growing and preparing food (and write a book about it – always the hardest part!)

But back to the easternmost station in England. I have no such ambivalence about the journeys themselves (carbon-footprint-calculated though they were). Having downshifted in a major way over the past decade from someone who travelled all over the place in bus, car, train and plane, I rarely travel beyond East Anglia now. And I’ve learned to become less spoilt, less desirous of more ‘glamourous’ destinations, more present to where I am.

That platform for instance. If you walked past where the small train stops, where no one goes, in June and July of 2010, you would find, there at the edge, the most extraordinary outbursting of native wildflowers and medicine plants, all Growing Up Through the Cracks: midsummer Mugwort, St. John’s Wort, Plantain and Yarrow, Buddleia and Wild Carrot. All shining in the early evening light. The plant the Chinese use for moxa in acupuncture, the ‘sunshine herb’ dispeller of demons and nightmares, the menders of myriad wounds, the butterfly bush and the ancestor of one of our favourite vegetables.

It is so easy to hate: those who flail the countryside hedgerows and pour poison on the poppies by the junction of the main road. The stupidity of councils and people obsessed by tidiness. The compulsion to keep anything that smacks of ‘wild’ or ‘untamed’ out or under strict control.

Those rude, healthy, resilient plants. How dare they push through those cracks in the polite concrete and tarmac. In the end they were not left alone, beautiful and shining on that part of the platform where hardly anyone went, but removed in the manner of all ‘weeds’ in the name of civic orderliness. They still make their appearance further over on the tracks and by the fences though it’s not quite the same.

And anyone who loves the ‘wastegrounds’ and the natural world will know how difficult it is to live with the feelings that these things bring up. In my pre-Transition years I was frequently overwhelmed by them. Now after all the meetings and events, carbon conversations and circles, food and plant swaps, wild plant and foraging walks and experiments in downshifting, I still feel the same about the destruction of wildflowers and their habitats, but I’m tougher. I’m taking people out to show them where the ‘weeds’ grow, what their properties are, how they feed bees, how they heal us and how beautiful they are in their own right, and curating a plant medicine bed with related events.

Not that Transition has been either an easy ride or a magic pill. Learning to temper one’s individualism to relate to others, even include them at all and not lose yourself, can be a struggle. There’s the frequent temptation to cut off when that carbon conversation is just too, too… annoying. Boring. Left brain. Whatever. Or to simply go along with things that don’t feel right because challenging them would make you feel like you WERE THE ONLY ONE IN THE WORLD WHO FELT LIKE THAT and EVERYONE would look at you like the OUTSIDER YOU REALLY ARE and you would be EXILED.

But engaging in that struggle, difficult, edgy though it is, can bring a meaning and sense to life which no amount of comfort or opulence will ever bring.

And the quote at the top of this piece? It’s from an extraordinary post, Meeting Your Edge, by Cat Lupton, writing this week on The Place Between Stories about grappling with individuality and community after an introduction to permaculture course.

It was reading Cat’s post that gave me pause to consider these things.

Pics: Mugwort Lowestoft railway station 2010; on the train to Norwich, Lowestoft, 2010; Midsummer wildflowers, Lowestoft, 2010; Plants for Life talk at Bungay Library community garden, 2012

First published on This Low Carbon Life 30th March 2012

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White Deadnettle, Bumblebees and Making Plant Support Sticks

We have several stands of White Deadnettle (Lamium album) in the garden, and the bumblebees just can’t get enough of them. I’m paying attention to these common wildflowers these days as I become more bee-aware, and they really are handsome.

In the weeks up until Bungay Community Bees’ Bee Day in July, when I’ll be leading a couple of groups on a bee and flower walk as part of the Plants for Bees project, I’ll be posting (probably sporadically) here on the flowers and bees I come across, as well as other subjects…

Such as whittling my own plant support sticks down from the vast number of branches which came from pruning our Buddleia last month. I’m trying to reduce the pile you see here in the picture – but talk about task of Sisyphus. I seem to spend hours on it and the pile still looks the same size. I’ve got quite a few good sticks though…

Postcard from Madre Tierra, Southern Ecuador – Early ’90s

Dear All,

As you can see, the view from the straw palapa I’m staying in here is beautiful. I’ve just been watching a condor circle high above the peaks. We’re in the foothills of the Andes in Southern Ecuador in a place called Madre Tierra near the small town of Vilcabamba.

The journey took seven hours by bus from Cuenca to the north, which is much higher up, and colder. The bus was crammed with passengers and belongings and I thought at one point I’d be driven mad by the 24-hour salsa music the driver had on full blast. Then we started to descend. Banana and papaya trees began appearing. They became more and more abundant. I felt my body unwind with the warmth.

But it’s not really the view or the bus ride I’m writing to you about. Nor the fact that Vilcabamba is famous for people who live to be a hundred years old, and for the San Pedro cactus said to hold the keys to eternity.

It’s this place. Madre Tierra. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere like it. You can’t book in advance, so the bus drops you off and you walk up the hill in the warm dark past the sugar cane field twinkling with glow worms under a sky full of stars. I was nervous about finding the place packed. Where else would we go in the middle of nowhere? What if we have to SHARE with PEOPLE WE DON’T KNOW? Kitty, the Australian girl who told us about Madre Tierra in a cafe in Quito, told me “no worries, Mark, it’ll be fine.” (How come Australians are always so laid back?)

We arrived to a friendly welcome and were given a bamboo hut to stay in. Very elementary, a couple of beds, a rickety table, a ceiling light – with a wasp’s nest built around it. WASPS! I’ve had a phobia of wasps since childhood. It took me a VERY long time to get to sleep.

Next morning I saw the other huts dotted about the hillside. On the balcony outside our hut there are coffee beans drying in the sun.

Loos and showers are communal and the water is solar-heated. It took me some time to get used to the low pressure (I’ve always loved a bit of a power shower!), but I’m slowly tuning in to the place. It’s lovely to shower outside with my bare feet on the earth.

Every day at breakfast and dinner, everybody converges upon the communal ‘dining room’, a huge table set under a verandah, overlooking the valley. There you meet fellow travellers on the South American trail from all over the world, and watch rainbows dance between the mountains. The owners are Jaime from Ecuador and Durga from Canada, who live in a small house on site and come and talk with the guests at mealtimes. The wasps won’t hurt you, they told me. And the coffee is seriously local. As are the awesome fruit salads of papaya, mango and banana, and the flowers in the huge pot of afterdinner tea.

Most of the food is grown here in the gardens at Madre Tierra. It’s all vegetarian, the cooks prepare it fresh every day (and eat what the guests eat) and any waste goes to feed the very free-range chickens and turkeys. The latter are glorious fowl who let you know audibly and with a proud display of tailfeathers just who has the right of way when you meet them on the path.

Last night we had a steam bath heated from wood gathered within walking distance. Several of us sat pressed together naked in the warm darkness of a small hut. We threw water on hot stones with a scented eucalyptus branch, breathed… and sweated! And got to know each other.

We’re probably leaving tomorrow or the day after. But we’ll come back whilst we’re still in Ecuador. There’s something about this place that tastes of the future.

(ii)

Suffolk, England 2011

PS: On that visit to Madre Tierra I got over my fear of wasps. It has never returned. You could call it sleeping with the enemy that turned out not to be the enemy.

PPS: Coming to think of it, I’m not addicted to power showers anymore either.

PPPS: I have not been to Vilcabamba since 1993. I’m not addicted to flying now, either. But I do love communal eating, flower tea, rainbows, cactus, condors, turkeys and Madre Tierra wherever I go.

Post first published on 29th January 2011 on This Low Carbon Life; pics and painting: Madre Tierra, Vilcabamba, early 90s, Visions in Ecuador 1993, all by Mark Watson under Creative Commons with Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license.