March Diary 2017

The weather during the first part of the month was lovely and warm here in Somerset. Just as everyone got ready to sow the spring seeds, the very weekend a whole lot of lovely outdoor events were planned….an icy wind sprang up and plunged us back into winter!

The Red Brick Building Garden Club still managed to make a few raised beds at their Friday workshop. These are constructed from dismantled pallets, and only take a couple of hours to make once you’ve had a bit of practice.

raised garden bed made of pallets

completed raised garden bed

They were on display for the Seedy Sunday event on the 19th, along with a biochar stove, advice on mushroom cultivation and the main event in the hall.

Every year, there’s a seed swap day in Glastonbury, in time for planting season.  It began in a small church hall at the obscure end of the High Street.  Gardeners, sorting through their seed boxes, would bring along the ones they really weren’t going to get round to planting. They’d add them to the pile on the table, and have a look for anything interesting brought by other people.

There was tea and home made goodies, of course.  You could sample exotics such as beetroot or parsnip cake, or stick to the traditional lemon drizzle. People sold gardening books, sapling fruit trees, craft items, tools, Resilience Handbooks….the event had to move to a larger venue!

I took some pictures of the biochar stove, which was being used to cook snacks while creating charcoal. A slightly different design can use this principle to generate methane gas for fuel. I’m having problems uploading images to WordPress though, you could check out my page on Facebook  ‘Elizabeth J Walker’ instead!

Green Wedmore held an Energy Advice Day in the yard of the George Inn on the Saturday; although only a few braved the icy cold to investigate, it was a great networking opportunity.  Mark and Liz came down from the Centre for Sustainable Energy in Bristol, with a display of in-depth advice leaflets and some very interesting gadgets.

I was quite glad I hadn’t been able to book onto the free willow fence making course run by Glastonbury Abbey – it was nice not to be outside all day! The demonstration at the garden event showed me all I needed to know about getting started – maybe I can upload the pictures sometime 😦

Meanwhile, I’m digging over the allotment after work most days.  We’ve been given another patch to look after and it’s pretty wild.  I’m turning over the soil, pulling out the main weed roots and binning them. Then, using the great heap of leaf mould which someone – the Council, I suppose – left in the car park, covering the dug ground with a thick mulch.

A local fast food store generates more cardboard than its bins hold; we’ll cover the lot with sheets of card, weighed down with bits of brick and a couple of tyres.  The first cleared patch is destined for potatoes, planted through holes in the card.  Strawberries next – the wild strawberries in my garden are lovely, but I’d like enough to make wine from!

Will the birds eat them instead?  Will rabbits get our carrots? Is it worth locking the shed when the most valuable bit of it is the door? An allotment presents a whole new set of challenges to resilience gardening!

Join the adventure – choose a task from the Resilience Handbook and see where it takes you!

Musing on the process of writing

When I returned from my trip to Hebden Bridge I pitched straight into completing the first full draft of my new book, on food resilience. I’ve been working on this book for some years, piecing the content together from field trips, networking events and out-takes from the Resilience Handbook. Cultivating my own resilience garden supplied me with the vegetables’ point of view!

I’ve been living on experiments for months, as I calculate exact quantities for recipes I’ve used for decades without measuring. Food resilience combines rotating your emergency stores with whatever you can forage – your own produce, special deals, community orchard fruit. This has kept me so busy that I just don’t use the supermarket any more, except to replenish heavy items in my stores.

home made marmalade jars
You can’t make just a little marmalade!

I find I become quite obsessive at this stage of writing. Once I get past 40,000 words, I encounter continuity issues, even with non-fiction. Did I write on that subject in a previous chapter? Or did I just pencil in some notes? Finally weaving all the threads of a book into a single narrative requires intense concentration on my part.

turkish style rug on a frame loom
The knotted rug pictured in ‘Diary, September 2014’ finally completed this winter

As I rewrote the ‘Table of Contents’ ready to create a master document, and reach my personal milestone – the first word count of a full manuscript – I had that indefinable feeling that it was finished. There’s still a lot of work to do – chapters to revise, recipes to refine – but the book suddenly felt whole. I can take the scaffolding away; it’ll stand up on its own!

After over a month of relentless concentration, I can relax back into my normal writing regime. The book still requires work, but not to the exclusion of all else. Spring is coming, the new Resilience Allotment is prepared for planting, new adventures await!

The Resilience Allotment
The Resilience Allotment

 

Apologies to my followers for the long hiatus! I do appreciate you, and the whole blogging community. I learn marvellous things from these windows you open into other places and lifestyles – I hope I’m giving you food for thought.

The links on this site are selected to provide stepping stones to further knowledge. Inform yourselves through many sources, and fake news will stand out like the wrong piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

February Diary 2017

It’s been a busy year so far! The astrologers say there may be a short respite in early autumn, but otherwise things promise to be relentlessly hectic.

I’ve set aside the time from January to April to finish my book about food resilience. It’s based around the seasons; it became quite disorientating, writing about the warmth of May when it was January outside.

I took a break, wrote an essay for the Nine Dots Prize then went up North on a brief networking mission. I stayed at the splendid Hebden Bridge hostel – used as a refugee centre during the 2015 floods – and spent a day in nearby Todmorden.

The Incredible Aquagarden was running a course that day, which was lucky. I caught the morning session, on soil science. It was interesting to compare the teaching styles with those of our local Feed Avalon organisation.

The Incredible Aquagarden from the outside
The Incredible Aquagarden from the outside

I met up with Estelle Brown from Incredible Edible Todmorden at lunchtime for a quick tour of their edible landmarks. The medicinal herb beds beside the canal had survived inundation, though nearby buildings had suffered badly. Pollinators’ Avenue, originally a temporary installation, was still going. The locals were fending off a planned retail centre on the site, having a perfectly good market next door.

A new mural in Todmorden
A new mural in Todmorden
the iconic police station vegetable beds, Todmorden
the iconic police station vegetable beds, Todmorden
People hang old teapots in trees to encourage robins to nest; the boat on the canal is just strange
People hang old teapots in trees to encourage robins to nest; the boat on the canal is just strange
Pollinators' Avenue
Pollinators’ Avenue

Although it was chilly and getting dark, I trekked back through the amazing park to the Aquagarden for the last part of their course. This dealt with aquaponics itself; I was able to thoroughly explore the process by viewing their demonstration equipment, complete with pet fish. This aquagarden is evolving into an educational centre, unlike the one at Mark, in Somerset, which is a commercial operation.

The fish tank and vegetable bed in the Todmorden aquagarden
The fish tank and vegetable bed in the Todmorden aquagarden
Spring courses at the Incredible Aquagarden
Spring courses at the Incredible Aquagarden

At the end, I was presented with a set of hydroponic pots to take home – and, fortunately, a lift to the railway station. You’ve no idea what a novelty local trains are to someone from Mid-Somerset!

There was some time the next day to visit Hebden Bridge before we left. The Bookcase is open again – you can buy the Resilience Handbook there now! The comic book store is back too, though there is still a scattering of boarded windows in the main street. The water level overtopped defences based on previous floods by several feet.

At the old mill, the Archimedes screw survived, though it was a near thing. Everyone had flood stories, but the millkeeper’s tale highlighted an unforeseen hazard. Tree branches caught on a bridge just upstream, creating a dam which suddenly burst, hurling a tidal wave at their mill house. Only the window glass held back this surge; fortunately it wasn’t broken by the debris. Riverside properties in similar situations could consider adding metal grids to their flood protection strategies.

Archimedes screw
The Archimedes screw generates all the electricity for the mill building. You can see some heat exchange pipes in the water at the right of this picture, which provide some of the heating. 75% of the energy harvested at the mill is resold to the Grid.

Back to Somerset, night driving in the rain through relentless traffic. It was worse than my last visit; yet more housing was planned in the area. Is there some kind of crazy motorway Jenga going on – a game to see how much traffic you can pile into a system before it collapses?

And so back to the writing desk…an icy rain sweeps the garden as I imagine the chore of watering plants in hot summer sunshine, whilst browsing on fresh raspberries…

Worried about  global uncertainty?  Buy yourself a Resilience Handbook and start learning the power of community resilience!  We need informed debates centred  around practical, ground level solutions.

Some tips to reduce mould in your house

In the interests of networking, an important part of resilience, I keep in touch with Green Wedmore. This is an active and effective community group out on the Levels. When I discovered they were involved with a plan to conduct an energy survey of the area, I was keen to join in. I’d qualified as an energy assessor some years ago, but the project which sponsored me fell through before I got any practical experience.

Last Saturday, we had an Energy Essentials Training day, presented by the lovely Lisa Evans of the Centre for Sustainable Energy in Bristol. Although I found a lot of the material familiar, it reminded me how important this information is to people.

Cold and damp are bad enough, but it’s the resulting mould that’s really unpleasant. It looks awful, stains clothes and ruins furniture. The spores of black mould can cause health problems; even touching it can provoke an allergic reaction.

Sometimes it’s not enough to wrap up warm. My daughter and her friends, in their new basement flat by the river, were faced with electric storage heaters. Not certain how they worked, and alarmed at the cost, they didn’t use them. Well insulated, the flat wasn’t particularly cold, but by December their walls and furniture were covered in mould!

black mould

You can search online for instructions if your new home has an unfamiliar heating system. If you’ve got a problem with damp, here’s a few tips…

If you have an empty room which you’re not heating, keep the door closed. Steam from the bathroom and kitchen doesn’t stay there, but wanders through the house looking for a cold surface to condense on. Move the furniture away from outside walls, and check behind it regularly. Narrow gaps and poor air circulation encourage mould; open the windows on sunny winter days.

After a shower, close the bathroom door and open a window, if you have one; let the water vapour escape. Otherwise, use extractor fans. They’re usually under 30 watts, so cheap to run. Make sure your tumble drier is vented to the outside.

Do you have a loft? If you go into the roof space, having found out about safety precautions first, there’s often a gap where the end of the roof meets the floor. Sometimes you can even see daylight through it. This gap is crucial to the overall ventilation of many houses. If it’s blocked by insulating material, you may get a problem with damp.

There’s lots more useful advice on the internet. Don’t just live with a dangerous condition like damp; do some research and find out what you can do about it!

People used to interact with their homes far more than many do today. Learn about yours – where does the power comes from, where does the water go? What’s your score in the Housing section of the Resilience Handbook? Which action should you do next?

Remember the free assessment PDF can be found at the end of the Learning Resilience page on this site.

Why learn a craft?

Traditional crafts are dying out as their practitioners retire. Soon the vast knowledge base attached to them may be reduced to outlines in books.

Learning a real skill as a hobby can keep these alive. We may need them once the fossil fuel party is over. Developing a craft can provide you with continuity in a society where jobs and homes are continually shifting. Spend time with a teacher, exchange ideas, join an interest group, network with other crafters.

Take a look at your lifestyle. What do you value most – clothes, furniture, kitchenware, ornaments, the garden? In what area do you buy yourself luxuries? Explore the variety of crafts available. Attend craft demonstrations, search online, read some of John Seymour‘s iconic books.

Find one that really interests you and start to learn. Persevere for at least a year. It takes time to acquire a practical skill. Once you are involved, you’ll find other options open up. You may decide that using a potter’s wheel is not for you, but become fascinated by the art of mending bone china. I didn’t like spinning much, but found that I loved weaving!

The hobby which I developed into a personal skill was wine making. Now, people ask me for advice, and bring me useful equipment. My friends keep bees; I’m going to discuss making mead from honey.

Extracting honey from a fresh comb
Extracting honey from a fresh comb

Many years ago, my father made wine as a hobby. I was, of course, taught to knit by my grandmother. The school tried to teach me sewing, but I was too busy resenting the fact that the boys got woodwork. Again, carpentry was something my father did quite well, while my mother hated sewing.

If you’re bringing up children, having a craft of your own could inspire them much later. Although I didn’t take much interest at the time, I do wonder if just having practical skills happening around me taught me more than I realised!

willow crafts
Baskets are always useful around the house
amazing socks from Norway
You can find the pattern for these under the More Information tab

Part of your personal resilience plan is to take up a craft – if you haven’t got one already – and try it out for a year. If you can’t get on with it after giving it a fair go, choose another one. You score for trying, not for producing wonderful works of art.

Learn more about this in the Reskilling section of the Resilience Handbook!

An Interesting Meeting

I attended an Avalon Community Energy meeting on Monday. We were admiring the new solar panels they’d arranged to be installed at a local school. Despite the continual obstacles thrown in the path of this worthy project by central government, everyone was civil to the visiting MP.

He made a short speech, indicating more sympathy for renewables than we were accustomed to hear. He regretted that taxpayers’ money had to be spent along lines informed by good business practice; later he deplored the competitiveness between various renewables providers. If business models could run a country, politics would never have happened in the first place.

The he said something really startling. We were moving away from centralised power distribution, he said. We could be building the last generation of large power stations.

Moving towards local control of the power supply is a key pillar of resilience. As control cannot be achieved without generation, renewables represent the only way forward for resilient communities. Sourcing energy in this way also leads to a more distributed network with fantastic resilience. Emergency heating, lighting and cooking facilities could be maintained in every household! Large scale power cuts would be a thing of the past.

Moving away from centralised power generation wasn’t anywhere near the top of my ‘Realistic Things to Achieve’ list. It was just a vague pipe dream, an ‘if only people would realise the importance’ idea, facing decades of struggle even to get on the agenda!

Energy groups such as ACE need to move in from the pioneer fringes and occupy the centre ground for communities to take advantage of this unexpected trend. To seize opportunity, an organised group has to be in place, poised and ready, with a sound business plan backed by an informed community. Is there such a group in your area? If not, why not?

Take back your power.

waterwheel-1

The Resilience Handbook outlines how you can form a community group in your area. More information can be found through the links on this page.

It can be a very slow process, getting a community to work together. Encourage yourself with a resilience plan; find out more in the Handbook

Growing for Resilience

Now that the children have left for university and city life, the simplicity of the resilience kitchen shows through. I’ve been exploring this concept in depth recently, researching for my next book.

I’m exploring food resilience in a rapidly urbanising area. If the global food transport network became subject to frequent disruption, you might have to live on stored food supplemented by what you could grow within walking distance. Local farmers and growers would become an important part of your landscape again, in between the arrivals of imported foods at the declining supermarkets.

The erratic income of an author is well suited to such experiments. My colleague, Linda Benfield, and I acquired an allotment this year, in addition to our gardens. With the extra land, we’re quite well off for fresh vegetables now. Next season, we plan to grow wheat and tobacco!

We’re not small holders. We depend on local farms – we still have a few – for milk, eggs and meat. Potatoes, grains, sugar and spices come from the food co-operative; other supplies from the cash and carry. We can’t provide everything for our households from two gardens and an allotment, but we’re learning what else we need. A lifestyle more in tune with the unfolding seasons, more importance given to locally based food suppliers, more gardeners!

We’re resilience gardeners, cultivating survival skills, and every little helps!

potatos-in-tyre1

Buy the Resilience Handbook and support this project! Overseas customers will need to contact me directly, or buy through their local Amazon (sorry, it won’t be signed). Please let me know if you do, and leave a review if you enjoyed the book.

Happy Resilient New Year!

The Return of the Sun

It’s been said that the December Solstice is the start of winter, but it’s really the middle.  Winter is half over….by Imbolc, Candlemas, in February, the first green shoots of spring can be seen.  No matter how you feel about Xmas, the sun has still embarked on its summer pathways now, and the daylight will increase.

sunset-iceland

This was crucial in Northern lands, where communities had to live on stored food for months.  The days of feasting celebrated the coming end of winter, not its beginning!

London Trains

The news about the rail strike on the BBC condescendingly described it as ‘a dispute about opening train doors’.

It’s nothing of the sort. It’s about eliminating human workers inside the trains and ultimately on the platforms too. The driver, who one would hope is concentrating on driving the train, now has to ensure it’s safe to move off without any second opinion.

I suppose there would be a camera feed of the platform to his cab – unless it malfunctions. There’s unlikely to be sound. The cry of a mother to her runaway toddler, the eruption of an argument about to get violent, a lone woman traveller calling for help; all go unheard. The train moves off like a hopper on a factory conveyor belt.

It’s not just emergency response which will suffer through this shortsighted plan, underpinned by greed. The London train system isn’t just a transit tube for commuters. It’s a conduit for tourists as well.

On my return from Iceland, I landed at Luton Airport. From the ticket machines at the airport door to the unscheduled diversion which took me miles from my destination without warning, I found this system to be relentlessly user-hostile. As the commuters flicked through the small entry gates, I had to drag my heavy suitcase to the double doors. I’ve often observed that these are temperamental; luckily there were still staff around to manage them for me.

I have an Oyster card. I use it once a year or so. I have no idea how the amount of money on it relates to a train journey. I don’t want to show my credit card to a machine. I want to be able to pay in cash and ask some questions at a ticket window, but these seem to have vanished already. The new streamlined system only caters for travellers who already know it off by heart.

Communters are trapped in this system, but tourists have options. Machines can’t respond to unusual problems as humans can. The combination of ancient brickwork and automation will always look tawdry and sinister, never efficiently hi-tech. There needs to be the reassuring presence of knowledgeable and experienced people in recognisable uniforms.

Train and platform staff are crucial to the London tourist industry.

Readers of the Resilience Handbook may like to refer to one of the recommended reading books here. ‘Small World’ by Mark Buchanan, chapter 8 ‘Costs and Consequences’ (p131 in my copy), describes how transport congestion affects the expansion of airport hubs. If train services in London continue to develop down this dismal path, the third runway at Heathrow could well become redundant before it’s even completed.

I’ll be flying from regional airports in future, and I expect many other tourists will make the same decision. The network will shift focus.

Resilience in Iceland

My trip to Iceland was a journey through the island’s past. I was well acquainted with the Sagas, set in the period just after Settlement, from about 900 to 1050 AD, which described a prosperous landscape. I knew that deforestation quickly became a problem and Icelanders avoided the fate of their relatives in Greenland by a very small margin.*

One of my first stops was the Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik. This museum has been built over an excavated longhouse from the Saga days. Its inhabitants enjoyed Iron Age luxury in their spacious ‘hvoll’ surrounded by natural abundance.

Following the prosperity of the early days came the Little Ice Age which began in the 1300s and lasted nearly six centuries. The trees cut for firewood, building and smelting iron didn’t grow back. The topsoil was lost and barley cultivation ceased. The fjords filled with ice; the fishing boats rotted on the strand with no wood for repairs.

There wasn’t even enough firewood to boil seawater for salt, essential for preserving food through the long winters. Luckily cows were able to survive, presumably living on seaweed and lichens like the people, and there was plenty of whey left over from butter making. The Icelanders expanded traditional techniques of preserving meat in lactic acid.

There was no clay for making pots, no iron to repair pans. People used the volcanic springs to steam food wrapped in cloth, dug pits in hot sand. Icelandic cuisine became desperately inventive.

The climate change was compounded by hostile political conditions and by the Black Death in 1402. The population fell from 60,000 to 20,000. Then there was the Skaftáreldar eruption in 1783, which poisoned large areas of grassland.

As Europe began to prosper again, there was a market for the fine woollen goods from Iceland – the sheep had survived too, and just as well as there were no fibre crops for cloth or ropes. Finally permitted to prosper from their own trade, the Icelanders invested in boats. Their fishing fleet was revived; technology trickled in from the Industrial Revolution.

Then electricity was invented! Icelanders swiftly caught on to the potential of renewable and volcanic energies. Huge greenhouses now provide all the vegetables they need for domestic consumption, and extensive reforestation is progressing. Recycling is taken seriously. So is trashing the countryside with off road vehicles.

You’ll find a great respect for the land among Icelanders. It nearly killed them. If you visit this paragon of resilience, don’t pretend you know what you’re doing. Hire locals to show you around, especially in winter!

 

*There’s a poignant description of the fate of one group of Greenland Vikings in ‘Collapse’ by Jared Diamond.  This is one of the recommended books in the Resilience Handbook…reading is a good activity in the winter!

There’s still time to order a signed copy of the Resilience Handbook before Xmas – email me after you’ve placed your order if you want it signed to another name!