Category Archives: resilience

A Significant Encounter in the Water Village

On the second day, there was a trip to one of the water villages around Shanghai. The city is built on the delta of the Yangtze River; the surrounding countryside is crossed by many small rivers. To the west of the urban area, there are several ancient towns which preserve much original culture. We were going to Zhujiajiao, about 50 km from the city.

sampan in water village nr Shanghai

We began our explorations in the Kezhi Gardens. Our guide led us through the living areas, now displaying various examples of the crafts once practised there, to a large room which housed a model of the original design.

resilience village model

I was stunned – it was an exact depiction of the imaginary ‘resilience village’ which I’d described in ‘Recipes for Resilience’! The establishment used to house not only an extended family, but also students learning about plants. The ethic was that the whole community would work on the fields and vegetable gardens, as well as studying, in order to have a balanced life.

Although the place had undergone changes – at one point it was a junior school, and is now an exhibition – the small craft workshops still housed skilled artisans. You can watch paper-cutting, calligraphy and embroidery; pick up some pretty souvenirs.

calligraphy and paper cutting

Paper cuttings
Paper cuttings

Some of the extensive fields survive as a demonstration area on the other side of the lovely formal gardens. I saw rice ready for harvest for the first time; it certainly seems to give a good yield of grain.

A bronze buffalo beside a rice field
A bronze buffalo beside a rice field
Vegetable patch in Kezhi Gardens
Vegetable patch in Kezhi Gardens

The garden itself was lovely. There was more space here than in the Yu Yuan; the water features were more intricate and the pavillions grander, with higher levels. You can see more pictures here, and read a brief history.

Too soon we had to continue our tour, emerging to take a walk along the riverfront and down the narrow colourful alleyways. These were lined with small stalls – the weather is quite warm here, even in November – selling all manner of enticing articles. Often the craftspeople themselves would be there, working on their next piece as they waited for customers.

riverfront water village

We paused for roll call by the famous Fang Sheng bridge, and were let off to explore. Across the bridge was an area of new development; modern apartments and shops, with the ubiquitous Starbucks. Part of the old bank was artificially preserved to ensure the survival of the old culture; the rest seemed to have managed it unaided.

The old and new in Zhujiajiao
The old and new in Zhujiajiao; the man in the boat is clearing weeds from the river

Zhujiajiao water village is one of the closest to Shanghai. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can get there by public transport. Most city hotels provide small bilingual cards at Reception, instructing taxi drivers on returning wandering guests to the right address; make sure you pick one up if you’re going exploring without a guide.

Next week: Towers, silk and shopping in Shanghai

Advertisements

May Diary 2017

Even here in Somerset, land of marshes and muddy festivals, there’s been no proper rain for weeks, only an occasional condensation like a wet mist.  It’s been relentlessly dry, and now a chilly breeze batters the valiant peas clinging to their frames.

The soil of our resilience allotment, overused and drained of nutrients by the last gardeners, has turned to rubble where we’ve dug it; concrete elsewhere.  We’re holding the rest of our seedlings at home still, where they can have more water, but they’ll have to go out soon.  The dark line to the right in the picture below is a compost-filled trench ready to receive peas.

soil like rubble
soil like rubble

The leaf mould mulch has run out now; we don’t want to use straw in case it combines with the clay to make bricks!  We’re building temporary raised beds, using the wood from the neighbour’s old shed.  These are getting filled with free manure and topped with a thin layer of bought compost.  In the winter, when the soil is soft again, we’ll dismantle the beds and dig this in; now, we’ll raise a catch crop in them.

Disposable raised beds
Disposable raised beds on the leaf mould mulch, showing cardboard weed suppressant

I don’t see much hope for the remaining seed potatoes, though.  I’ll probably put them out in the lower quarter to break up the soil there, but I doubt we’ll get much from them.  We’re relying on courgettes and squashes to fill in the bare patches.

The allotment is hard work, but so was the resilience garden until it was established.

Spring flowers in the Resilience Garden
Spring flowers in the Resilience Garden

The techniques we are exploring in the allotment can be adapted to reclaim post-industrial landscapes.  I’m impressed with the mulching properties of packaging card. Once the rainwater distribution system – which we can top up from the communal water trough – is in place, and the perennial weeds conquered, we’ll have the basis of a low-maintenance, high yield system.

Just in time, as the next project is on the horizon – the Resilience Field!

Weeding the new hedge

Above is the hedge…there wasn’t time to weed the ground first, so the deep rooted perennials, able to access buried moisture, threaten to overwhelm the thin young trees.  This is the worst section, being weeded by hand.  Once it’s clear, we’ll lay a cardboard sheet mulch around the saplings and cover this with soil, now easily accessible as the field has been ploughed.  The trees will be able to defend themselves in a few years, especially if we import wild garlic as ground cover.

Writing ‘Recipes for Resilience’, I learned how crucial grains were for survival in the seasonal North.  The dry weather isn’t doing British grain farmers any favours; does anyone else worry about poor harvests?  Everyone eats bread, cakes, pies…how many of you bother to find out where the flour comes from?

It’ll take you ten minutes to vote in June.  Instead of banging on about it, use the time to write yourself a shopping list.  Can you order any of it online from suppliers who buy British?  Is there a farm shop nearby, a food market?  Put Facebook down for a few minutes and have a look around.  Read the Hemp Twine Project to see how much difference buying local can make!

“Farmers go bankrupt in the midst of thousands of potential customers for their produce” from ‘The Resilience Handbook – how to survive in the 21st century’.

Then what will you eat?

 

Why do you need the Resilience Handbook?

The answer is in the subtitle – ‘How to survive in the 21st century’.

Even in a quiet little island like Britain, there are more episodes of ferocious weather now than we were used to in the last century. Flooding is a growing problem. What can you do about it?

Read the Emergency Planning section of the book, keep it handy to consult if you suddenly have to evacuate your house. It’ll tell you what to do, remind you to turn off your utilities, how to pack a grab bag.

Contents of a typical grab bag
Contents of a typical grab bag

You may not be directly affected by flooding, but the damage to the economy is shared by all. What can you do to help the long-term situation?

Rain comes from the sky, but flooding happens on land. Meetings of experts discuss useful management strategies, but the people responsible for the land have to implement them, Most of these are farmers, already struggling to make a living.

If they were able to sell to you, the consumer, without having to be routed through a supermarket chain…they’d have more money. Enough, perhaps, to consider engaging with flood relief; to invest in growing willow, in reforesting the hillsides.

Learn to make willow fencing!
Learn to make willow fencing!

The Resilience Handbook outlines a number of practical steps you can take to support community resilience at every level. It’s a call to action, not an invitation to more debate. Read through it, then keep it to hand as a reference book. Much of what it says won’t be clear to you until you begin to fulfill the set tasks.

Ignore the sneering quitters who tell you your personal buying choices mean nothing in the bigger picture. Supermarkets didn’t spring out of thin air. They evolved as a response to these choices. You can choose to return to a more resilient, locally based economy. Both processes are achieved one piece of shopping at a time.

It’s not just about food and its effect on the landscape. Every time you wash your clothes carefully, so that they last longer, you’re doing your bit for a sustainable community. Less waste means less landfill space. A culture where clothes are respected and cared for encourages a market for quality products. Well made clothes can be repaired or altered by local businesses, not thrown away.

local craft shop
Shops like this often take in sewing jobs

Every little helps, as they say. With the Resilience Handbook you can keep track of your efforts, see how tiny changes lead to bigger ones, learn what really is important and know that you’re doing as much as you can to secure it.

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!

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!

The 21st Century Instruction Manual

The global situation seems a little tense just now, and there’s been a lot of interest in the Resilience Handbook. Don’t be shy. It’s not another point-of-view book telling you how wrong you are. It’s not scary like ‘Protect and Survive’ civil defence textbooks. It’s the tale of how you can be part of a positive change, how you’re already contributing, how you could have fun and save money by doing more.

The Resilience Handbook is an instruction manual. It’s a book designed for the digital age. Densely packed with information, it’s a series of notes for you to expand on through internet searching, and through your own experience of trying out the suggested actions.

It’s also a briefing document, condensing basic knowledge about each topic so you can participate in an informed discussion with others. That’s why I included a ‘resilience exam’ in the project. There’s no assessment for sustainability, no means of weighing contributions to a debate. Resilience has much clearer goals and heads in the same direction. There are certain things you need to be aware of, to have actually done, to know how to use. These can be identified and listed.

Read more about the test in the ‘Learning Resilience’ tab. Download and print the free resources. What’s your score? Where are the gaps in your knowledge? Create a resilience plan, start doing things you don’t normally do. Take your time, enjoy it!

What do you achieve by this? The actions and research I suggest are carefully thought through. They’re based on decades of experience. Once you’ve worked through the plan, I expect you to be more confident in an emergency. More aware of your environment, what you eat, who you are.

A wheel can’t move unless it’s balanced.

the resilience wheel

October Diary 2016

It’s about time for another diary post, since it’s been a busy week here in Somerset.

Thursday was the Community Food Forum, an annual event organised by Feed Avalon. Around forty people gathered this year – its third – to network and exchange ideas. It was great to see projects like Plotgate, a community supported agriculture venture near Barton St David, developing from their initial fund raising to a successful business!

There seems to be a steady increase of interest in growing food, with new sectors engaging every year. This time there were people who work with mental health, where its therapeutic benefits are being recognised.

Saturday saw the Glastonbury Town Council hold a public consultation on possible uses for a splendid old building they have just acquired for the community. It would be ideal for a practical crafts centre; I’d like to see that combined with an ‘eco-college’ like Dartington Hall in Devon. We could explore local materials for textiles and ceramics – Somerset having a lot of wool and clay.

edible flower baskets in Glastonbury
edible flower baskets in Glastonbury

In the evening, I went to the energy evening hosted by Green Wedmore. The purpose of the presentation and following debate was to explore future energy options for the local area. The range of these on the table was impressive. Not only solar, wind and hydropower, but also biomass from the surrounding RSPB nature reserves and anaerobic digestion using farm waste.

Vince Cable, former business secretary, gave the introduction and Pete Capener from Bath and West Community Energy provided an inspiring talk on how the renewables industry is adapting to a hostile government. I chatted to a long-serving member of the parish council, who’d recently had an impressive 16Kw array installed on the roofs of her farm buildings – using panels built in Wrexham. We snacked on excellent smoked trout vol au vents from the nearby aqua farm. The people of Wedmore intend to take quality with them into their sustainable future!

Someone had brought a particularly backward article just published in the Times. After spending much of the last forty years off grid, I view people who harp on about ‘the lights going out’ with the same astonishment as I’d view a flat-earther. Lights are easy. Washing machines, even freezers, are well within the scope of a modern personal renewables system without mains backup.

Tumble driers now, you could have a point.  It’s not such a rousing battle cry though – ‘without nuclear power, you might have to actually hang your clothes out to dry!’

Meanwhile, the smart consumer is considering the benefits of making their own electricity…..

solar power regulator

The best way to start this process is by looking at the devices you use already, and finding out how much electricity they use.  In the Energy chapter of the Resilience Handbook, task eight asks ‘can you calculate how much of your home could run on a supply of 2 kilowatts?’  This level of supply is not only possible with a personal solar array, but designed to use a small ‘suitcase’ generator as emergency backup. ( More power requires a larger, noisier generator.)

Once you know the answer to this question, you’ve got a much better idea what local energy can do for you – it’s more resilient than a centralised power supply!

For more information about food and energy resilience, read ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to survive in the 21st century’

Storing Water

Some European countries are advising people to stockpile a minimum amount of water and food in case of emergencies. This certainly makes good sense in a rural area like Somerset. Our civil contingency plans recommend looking at two weeks’ supplies before normal services can be resumed, in a general worst case scenario.

We’ve had the mains water cut off before. If you’ve got enough bottled water to last a whole fortnight, it’d be easy to cope for a day or so. Where could you keep it? Any dark place will do – under the stairs, in the loft, out in a shed. Be careful in a loft as the floor is not safe to walk on, nor strong enough to hold full water containers. You’ll have to put planks across the rafters.

The five litre (gallon) bottles are the best ones to keep. The empty containers will be useful if the authorities bring a bowser or outside tap. Ideally you should have two litres of drinking water per person per day. For a fortnight, seven of these large bottles each will do.

This is quite a lot of storage for a family of four! If you simply haven’t the space for a full supply, keep a couple of the 25 litres (5 gallon) plastic water containers as well, such as people use on caravan holidays. Store them dry and empty; keep a bit of hose and a funnel with them as they’re hard to fill up from a sink tap. You’ll probably get some warning if the mains supply is going to fail, so you can get these full before it does.

a selection of water containers for an emergency

Make sure your bath plug fits and fill this up too. Extra water for washing would be nice! Remember full baths can be dangerous for small children. Add a couple of buckets and a large jug to your list and you have an excellent emergency kit to cope with quite a long interruption of mains water supplies.

For more information about emergency planning and community resilience, read ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to survive in the 21st century’