Category Archives: resilient communities

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.

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

raised bed with base

 

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!

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.

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

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!

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’