Posts Tagged ‘fresh herb teas’

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

Because the worlds are round… and wavy

For the Summer Solstice and 24 Hours of Possibility I stayed offline and concentrated on connecting with the living systems of the earth, beginning with a visit to the beach at four in the morning to see the sunrise half an hour later.

It sounds like the simplest thing in the world to just remain offline for twenty four hours. The truth is I can’t remember the last time I had an internet-free day. Much of Transition communications is a web-based business. Just the previous day I’d been emailing and tweeting everyone in Sustainable Bungay about Green Drinks that evening and updating a post on the website about it. I went to the Green Dragon with a host of flowers in jars to speak about plant families for the second Plants for Life event in three days.

It was a misty dawn just off the sunrise coast here in Suffolk and I settled for sensing the moment of the sun coming up over the sea rather than seeing it. It can be just as exciting, that moment when you FEEL it and become aware of other senses than the visual at play.

But the coast was clear, the tide was out and the sea was calm! And here’s what it looked like a few minutes after the sun rose.
The photograph gives only the merest impression of the stillness and the quiet fullness of everything. No one else was around. The tide was out. The wind was occasional and light. I stilled my thoughts and tuned in with my feet on the ground. Everything felt big and wide and yes, if I had to put it in words, filled with possibility. My body felt relaxed and alert all at once. The sun seemed like a being, something like a person.

Back home

I set about making a midsummer birthday herbal drink for Charlotte to take on her journey to the Transition Tin Village at the Sunrise festival later that day. It was some time before seven, the sun well risen and the whole garden alive and shining with its mix of wild and cultivated plants and bushes. Plant and flower time can be a very different experience from clock time and when I glanced again at the kitchen clock it was way past nine o’ clock!

By then I had gathered 47 different plants for the midsummer herbal cocktail, and they were infusing in the teapot. You could smell them throughout the house: a whole array of mints, English and Japanese mugwort, elder, heartsease and marigold flowers, two types of fennel, lovage (one small leaf!), anise hyssop, giant mexican hyssop, lemon balm, salad burnet, southernwood, lemon verbena, two sages, chia, epazote (very small leaf!), lavender, vervain, alecost, plantain, white deadnettle… and twenty-odd more. I added some fresh organic lemon juice and some fruit syrup (we’d run out of honey, which tastes better, but the syrup was okay) et voila!

When I asked Charlotte to guess what plants were in the drink, she named at least twenty five that I hadn’t put in along with the ones that were there!

Now it was time for the tortilla, or Spanish omelette, all local eggs, potatoes and onions, Norfolk tomatoes and homegrown parsley, basil and Greek oregano. The birthday, solstice and cross-country journey food and drink were prepared.

So when Simon arrived from Norwich with two friends just after midday to pick Charlotte up for their shared car journey to Somerset, I thought, now I’ll do my reconnecting with the living systems.

Then realised I’d been doing it all morning.

One thing that struck me during these 24 screen-free, pixel-free hours of possibility: How wavy the living world is. And how round.

Photos: Summer Solstice Foxgloves at sunrise, Southwold; Talking plant families at Green Drinks, Bungay June 2012; Summer Solstice Sunrise, Southwold June 2012; Garden Shining, June 2012; midsummer birthday 47 herbs for infusion; mostly local Spanish tortilla (all by MW)

First published on the Transition Norwich Blog – This Low Carbon Life and the Transition Social Reporting Project on 22nd June 2012