Category Archives: useful crafts

Chongqing and the Dazu Rock Carvings

We spent our last day on the boat relaxing. I made it to the early morning Tai Chi, then drank coffee on deck and sketched the Shi Bao Zhai pagoda while the others visited it. Sailing on to the Ghost City, we avoided another tour and watched one of the Bavarian group flying his drone.

This made the ship’s security officer quite nervous, especially when it disappeared over the hill.

Made in China,” commented the owner, as he packed it away.

After a peaceful journey through pitch dark empty valleys, we awoke the next morning to the New York style skyline of Chongqing. It was all high rise blocks and suspension bridges here!

The New York style skyline of Cjongqing, a Chinese megacity on the Yangtze River - adventures of a resilient traveller

We had to be ready with our luggage at 7 am, flasks full and lunch foraged. There was the chance to buy more food, if you could decipher the labels in the supermarket where we paused to provision ourselves for a day’s sightseeing. The dried beans flavoured with star anise were interesting, but the spicy snake wasn’t so popular!

Browsing the supermarket in Chongqing, few of the labels are in English

Meat floss bread - more ambushes for the vegetarians!
Meat floss bread – more ambushes for the vegetarians!

Chongqing is a steep mountain city, so cycles are rare. Bus and land rails supplement private car use. A few large houseboats were moored in the river; this megacity is at a key confluence.

Houseboats on the Yangtze at Chongqing

As we drove, we learned about housing and the cost of living. The high rise flats are sold by floor space in square metres, rather than the number of rooms. There’s no fittings when you buy a new build flat. It’s only a concrete shell with one tap, one electrical point and the standard underfloor heating. You add everything yourself. Ikea is big in China.

Entrance to the Dazu carvings complex

The Dazu carvings were right at the end of a huge modern complex comprising various courtyards and steps; it was quite a walk. Luckily the weather was still dry and warm. We crossed the Bridge of Separation, festooned with padlocks and ribbons. Red was for fortune and yellow for health. The path wound on through a pleasant forest until we came out at the central cliff face.

The camera is cunningly disguised as a palm tree

These huge, intricate murals were cut between 1170 and 1252 CE, at which point a Mongol invasion scattered the community. The carvings were gradually concealed in the jungle, and only recently rediscovered.

Ancient rock carvings at Dazu near Chongqing

The murals show various aspects of Buddhism. Heaven and Hell are pictured, with a disturbing emphasis on demonic torture. Rather extreme examples of filial piety and parental love are also depicted. The figures aren’t statues dragged into place, but a three-dimensional mural cut into the rock face itself. It’s quite a feat of engineering for the time!

More Buddhist carvings at Dazu

Our flight to Xi’an was delayed the next day, so we had time to look around Chongqing. They’re fond of sculptures here; we saw some very evocative bronzes. 

The time teller walked the midnight streets of old China, and always knew the best ghost stories!

The time teller, portrayed above, walked the midnight streets of old China, and always knew the best ghost stories!

statue at waterfall shrine Chongqing

There was an opera house, fronted by a collaged mural. Informal mosaics of broken pottery were a feature in this area; they were said to bring good luck.

Collaged mural on the front of the old opera house in Chongqing

snake and bridge Chongqing
The old and new are never far apart in Chongqing

The banyan tree is the emblem of Chongqing; we have no idea why this one was being drip fed. It was one of the many mysteries we encountered.

Banyan tree with bottles Chongqing

The guide rounded us up and we were off to Chongqing airport, where we lost our water and lighters again in the security check. A couple of sinners in the party had accidentally left lithium batteries in their hold luggage, which had gone on ahead of us; our group was called over to the naughty desk!

A couple of hours flying, and we were in Xi’an, the ancient capital city.

 

We occupied ourselves during the flight by reading the sign on the back of the seat. We’d finally worked out how to use the Chinese-English dictionary to look up words, and were very pleased with ourselves! It only took us a couple of hours to read six characters!

If I’m visiting a country where I don’t understand the alphabet, a small dictionary can be helpful, like a paper version of Google Translate. It covers the areas that phrase books don’t reach, such as ‘orthopaedic surgeon’, though it only works in countries where most people can read their own language.

It seems to me that reading Chinese is more like understanding a picture than reading a sentence. The meaning of each character is influenced by the ones surrounding it, which is why translation programmes struggle.

Keep off the grass image

 

Next week – The Terracotta Army

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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

July Diary 2017

Things haven’t felt as hectic as they’ve clearly been, for here is the evidence in my long gap between posts!

I joined the local parish council to work on the Emergency Plan for the area.  While exploring emergency routes on my bicycle, I found this milk vending machine at a farm gate!

milk vending machine 2017

My fridge broke, I replaced it from a local independent store where there are people who can fix it if it goes wrong.  Score a ten in the Resilience Assessment!

I celebrated by freezing some of my home made elderflower cordial – diluted – into ice cubes with flower petals and mint leaves.

flower ice 2017

It’s still all about food and growing.   Someone dropped out of the Resilience Allotment project, so we lost a third of our growing area.  Maybe it was too much to manage, as the new hedge in the field needs a lot of attention.

hedge mulch 2017

We’re continuing with the cardboard mulch, which is working well so far.  The perennial weeds can’t get through it easily; eventually the trees will shade them out.  Note the edges of the holes around the saplings are pushed downwards, to channel water to their roots.

‘Recipes for Resilience’ occupies a lot of my desk time.  I’m working my way through the final selection of recipes.  Some recipes I’ve never tried before, but they illustrate important techniques in preserving, which you may need come the Zombie Apocalypse or even a few months of international trade disruption.

I thought I’d try dehydrating strawberries.  The internet confidently assured me that, on a low oven, this process could be accomplished in two hours, after which you could powder them into a jar.

It was a chilly summer evening, so I decided to do this instead of turning the heating on.  I set my cooker, which runs on bottled gas, on to less than gas mark 1, propped the door slightly open and put the strawberries in.

dehydrating strawberries 2017

The greaseproof paper was crucial, as they leaked puddles of juice, which then began to scorch.  I moved them on to a clean piece twice, which was tricky as they were very soggy at this stage.

After four hours, I had not very much of something which looked like it might keep for a few weeks, but certainly couldn’t be powdered.  All those strawberries came down to one large tablespoonful.

dehydrated strawberries 2017

Although the dried fruit was chewy rather than crunchy, the taste was quite intense.  It was more like a fruit leather than something dehydrated.

It’s not usual to make fruit leathers out of summer fruits – you wouldn’t want to have the oven on all day when these are in season.  If you were getting some of your electricity from solar power, though, it would pay to buy a dehydrator.  You could preserve your strawberries free of both cost and sugar!

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?

 

April Diary 2017

It’s been an early, dry Spring in most of England this year. Here in our southwest corner, the rhubarb is thin and the potatoes slow to come up. On the positive side, the slugs are discouraged and the seedlings are getting a good start. Watering them is a daily chore now.

Well watered rhubarb in a pot
Well watered rhubarb in a pot

Having failed to negotiate a supply of wheat seeds – it’s hard to buy a small handful – I planted some old gleanings I found in the seed box. They seem to be coming up, but look exactly like grass just now. If the experiment doesn’t work, I’ll dig over and plant out squashes, or grow a catch crop of cress.

We managed to subdue most of the really wild quarter of our new Resilience Allotment while the soil was still soft. To clear the established perennial weeds – couch grass, bindweed, dandelion and horsetail – we turned the matted turf over to a spade’s depth, pulling the exposed roots out by hand as we broke up the clumps. These went to the tip for recycling, as they can sprout again from fragments.

The rough bit of the allotment before digging
The rough bit is on the left
The weed roots we are removing
The weed roots we are removing

A layer of leaf mould covered with cardboard sheets was laid on the sections we dug over, topped with another layer of leaf mould. Holes were cut in the card and our vegetables planted through it, in a handful of compost. The thick mulch will discourage the weeds – though we haven’t seen the last of them – and give our plants a head start.

The leaf mould was free, from a huge pile dumped in the allotment car park. It’s not ideal; in this dry weather it starts to blow away, and I worry that the potatoes may not like it.

“Do not dig your potatoes up to see if they are growing” – a modern Zen saying!

There was an urgent need for a weed suppressant though, and the leaf mould was available in large amounts. Resilience gardening is about making use of local resources, in a very permaculture-like fashion.

It’s also about low maintenance. While I’m concentrating on the allotment, the original Resilience Garden is ticking over nicely. The leeks and purple sprouting broccoli are finishing now, the kale going to seed, and the new peas coming up. The wild garlic is getting a bit ragged, but other salad leaves are coming up fast. The remaining small piece of lawn takes me more effort to maintain than the vegetable patch does.

You can learn the basics of starting a Resilience Garden from the Handbook...the best way to learn is to try things out. Even a windowsill pot of herbs is worth doing!

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!

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!

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

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Happy Resilient New Year!

Potato Scones

Autumn is the prime time for eating potatoes. They’re a good crop for the novice gardener as they’re such a user-friendly vegetable. I got a good yield this year from the tyre stacks; the harvest has kept me supplied since August!  Pick out the blemished or nibbled spuds and eat them first, keeping the good ones in a cool dark place for later.

I always cook more than I need for one meal and use the leftovers next day. Twice baked potatoes, shepherd’s pie or fried potato cakes are my usual recipes of choice, but I thought I’d give potato scones a whirl this time.

You need a griddle to cook them on. This is a thick, flat metal sheet, about the size of a frying pan. It’s a useful piece of kit; people often used griddles to make pan breads over an open fire when we were living off-grid at long events.  You can use them on a gas cooker, but I haven’t tried with an electric ring.  Experiment; I expect it’ll work.

I haven’t got a griddle, so I used the heavy Le Creuset frying pan which is so perfect for pancakes; that worked just fine!   Although their kit is fiendishly expensive, I’ve used this pan constantly for twenty years and it’s probably good for the same again.

This recipe is for eight ounces of mashed potatoes. Weigh your leftovers and adjust the amounts accordingly. Don’t mash butter in if you plan to make these; serve them for the initial meal with the butter dotted on top, or the quantities will be wrong.

8 ounces mashed potato

1 ounce butter

2 ounces self-raising flour

dash of salt

Mix the flour and salt into the mash. Rub in the butter to make a stiff dough. It might seem a bit dry at first, but will soon soften as the butter warms up, so don’t add liquid. Knead this lightly, roll it out to about a centimetre thick on a well-floured board. Cut into triangles and cook for five minutes each side on a hot greased griddle or suitable equivalent.

potato scones recipe

I’d eat these with beans and bacon, but the kids from the Gardening Group preferred to spread them with golden syrup – this was surprisingly tasty, if rather sticky!

potato scones and syrup

This recipe made eight scones at a total cost of thirty pence, using organic locally sourced butter and flour.  Read the Food section of ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to survive in the 21st century’ to get started on low cost living!

I eat from stores, supplemented with my own produce – it’s not even a big garden, nor does it take much effort.  I only venture into supermarkets to stock up on heavy stuff and bargains; I feel almost deprived of retail experience!  However, I’m off to explore Iceland next week thanks to the money I’ve saved, so I can live with it!