Tag Archives: ecosystems

April Diary 2018

The weather in the Summerlands went straight from cold and icy to cold and wet.  I planted some onions, but the peas went in the neighbour’s greenhouse to get started, and the potatoes are still chitting in the shed.  I found out that you should wait until the soil is roughly the same temperature as the potatoes before planting them.  I’m experimenting with new varieties this year, so there should be notes.

The wasabi plants thought they might die, so they flowered again; they haven’t done this since the last snow, seven years ago!  There are four pots, all cloned from the same rootstock, and they all flowered at once, even the one kept some miles away at the allotment.

wasabi flowers UK

Starting with a scrawny two-year plant from the market, over the years their leaves have become smaller, glossier and tougher.  Wasabi are awkward customers in that they like damp but cope badly with slugs; they make up for this by thriving in the cold weather.

I planted out the burdock salvaged from the resilience field.  Three plants had shared a pot over the winter, and their calorie-rich roots grew so fast that there was hardly any soil left.  I’m hoping to start a breeding colony in the woodland strip.

I’ve written about burdock in ‘Recipes for Resilience’ as it’s a good emergency food source.   The root fattens up in the first year, and is used up in the second summer to produce the large flowering stems.  This is a good time of year to harvest these roots, but only the spring leaves can be seen.

spring burdock

Compared with….

The spring leaves of poisonous foxglove

Growing both these plants in your Resilience Garden enables you to study them in detail, so you won’t dig up the wrong one – note the foxglove is kept in a pot.  Feel the leaf textures and observe the shades of green.

Practise  identifying them on a forest walk – but don’t dig up wild plants as that’s illegal in the UK unless you have the landowner’s permission and it’s not an endangered species.  Take pictures, and return later in the year to see if you were right.  It takes a couple of years’ study to really learn a plant.

The dismal, threatening weather meant the planned Magic Oxygen Literary Prize Giving was filmed for YouTube.  None of us were confident about travelling to Lyme Regis, given the weather forecast!  Although we didn’t get much snow here in the South, the rain was relentless and there was a lot of water on the roads.

Saturday itself was almost a nice day.  I worked on some of the infrastructure projects in the garden, feeling that these should have been finished weeks ago.  The plum tree is blossoming with the utmost caution; the bumblebees are about, but I haven’t seen any honey bees yet.

plum flowers 2018

Winter slinks out of the door, turning to snarl “I’ll be back!”, as Spring tiptoes tentatively in.

 

 

 

 

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Town Tree Farm

The Somerset Levels are flat, and barely above sea level.  Most of the land is drained now, to form cattle pastures, but it used to be a mix of swamp, wet woodland and bog.  The value of the latter is now becoming appreciated for its role in flood control.  Towntree Farm is decades ahead of the game!

View of a normal Levels field through one of the trademark horseshoe constructions
View of a normal Levels field through one of the trademark horseshoe constructions

In the 1970s, farmer Chris Burnett began a visionary landscaping project on the family farm.  Starting small, with a pond outside the farmhouse, he used the spoil to form a lawn, then landscaped a neighbouring field in a similar fashion.

Towntree farm

The left over soil made pathways this time, and the pond soon attracted a breeding pair of swans.  Encouraged by this, Chris dug out a seven and a half acre pond, specially designed for water birds.  It’s quite shallow, which allows a good growth of reeds.

towntree lake vista feb18

He planted the new high ground with trees and plants, both wild and cultivated.  Once these became established, hundreds of migratory birds began to visit, and he has hopes of attracting a pair of cranes soon.

In 1987, ‘Capability’ Chris – as he had become known – was persuaded to open the 22 acre Nature Garden to the public.  He celebrated this by making a ‘Peace Arch’ at the entrance from the car park, which is covered with climbing roses in summer.

towntree peace bell feb18

Following the yellow arrows, the curious visitor traverses the winding paths.  It’s not just the peaceful atmosphere and nature that bring people here, though.  The trail is dotted with statues and sculptures, left to gradually merge with the wild.

towntree slab urn

As the path meanders, bordered by ditches, you can see inaccessible alcoves.  Further on, the twists and turns suddenly bring you out into that very clearing!

There are benches made of stone slabs, or of dozens of horseshoes welded together.

I don’t know what the huge dead flowers behind this chair are; I’ll have to return later in the year and see them growing.  Their leaves are the size of umbrellas!

 

The decaying greenhouse lends an apocalyptic air to the place, along with the greening statues.

I’m definitely coming back in the summer for a picnic in those shady groves!  If you’d like to visit Towntree Farm, and marvel at how much difference one man can make, there are instructions here.

 

Compared to a grass pasture of the same size, the Nature Garden clearly holds a lot more water.  This is restrained by the natural features re-created here, protecting land further downstream during times of flood. 

The Towntree Farm project has always been a hobby, laid out simply for the delight in nature.  Using permaculture and forest gardening principles, other such gardens could justify their existence with some financial return.

 

 

A Cruise up the Yangtze River – The Three Gorges Dam

Exhausted by the long train journey from Shanghai to Yichang, we barely registered our late arrival on board the river cruiser ‘President Number Six’, except to note with relief that we had our promised balcony. We awoke to the 6.30am cheery morning call, swiftly learning the volume function of the mysterious dials under the mirror!

Another ship was moored parallel to ours – you could practically step across to their balconies, so it’s a good idea to close the outside doors if you’re on a shore excursion – but it glided off before we’d made our first coffees, revealing a stunning vista of white cliffs and dark forest. After the hectic pace of the city tour, the peaceful riverbank scenery was delightful.

The first morning on the Yangtze river, another Resilience Handbook adventure

Far from being pestered to join in the optional excursions (priced at around 290 yuan, about £30 at the exchange rate then), we weren’t even allowed on the first one, there being no English speaking guide available. We’d already planned to try and avoid this trip, hoping that it wasn’t part of a compulsory package. Although a visit to the home town of Qu Yuan, a famous poet from the Warring States period, was tempting, we knew we’d need some rest before tackling the Three Gorges Dam inclusive excursion later.

Heading for the 3 Gorges Dam up the Yangtze river, the project supplies clean electricity and protects from floods, as outlined on a smaller scale in the Resilience Handbook

We were content to explore the ship and admire the view. The weather was still mild enough to enjoy sitting out on the deck, or sketching on the balcony; we began to move upriver. Our ship glided smoothly through the calm waters past ever changing views, through everyone’s stories, towards the Dam.

A shipyard on the Yangtze river; adventures broaden the mind and increase resilience, as outlined in the Resilience Handbook

Resilience Handbook author Elizabeth J Walker explores the Yangtze river

We discovered the ships always moored in parallel. Landing parties had to walk along internal gang planks through other cruise ships and over the bare decks of commercial barges before finally reaching shore.

Our group was promptly assailed by husslers, politely but insistently offering us T-shirts and maps of China. This, we learned from our guides, was the ‘maybe later’ market. The prospective vendors seemed to have some invisible boundary, and they were never a real pest. Their goods weren’t too bad either; I actually bought one of the maps, though I probably paid too much for it. Apparently you have to watch out for counterfeit money in change though.

A tour bus took us up the winding road to the Visitor Centre, thronged with Chinese tourists. We were introduced to the 3D model of the dam complex, touched briefly on souvenir shops, then ascended to the summit up four long outdoor escalators. We were lucky with weather ourselves, but an umbrella could be a handy item to bring.

escalator view 3GD

 

summit 3GD

The summit plaza itself was decorated with significant statues, murals depicting drowned cultures, and information boards. Stairs led to the viewpoint at the very top – for, of course, the view was the main attraction.

view of locks 3GD

 

Building this steel/concrete gravity dam, long planned, was finally started in 1994 and completed in 2012. The ship locks and lift were finished later; our vessel was too large to go up in the incredible ship lift itself. The dam is 1.2 kilometres across and creates a reservoir 600 kilometres long, reaching all the way to Chongqing. Its output is 22.5 megawatts; half the average UK power demand.

view of 3G dam

The landscape of the entire river was altered by this project, and over a million people had to be relocated. Many scenic features were covered by the 90 metre rise in water levels. Silt builds up in the reservoir instead of being washed downstream to fertilise the soils. Some endangered species, such as the Siberian crane and Yangtze sturgeon, may not survive the changes.

lock and earthworks view 3GD
The ship locks are in the foreground

However, having experienced the pollution caused by the coal fired power stations elsewhere, the clean air of the Three Gorges, where white mists replaced brown smogs, was a powerful argument in favour of hydropower. With the deeper channels, goods can be carried by ship instead of fleets of diesel lorries. Floods no longer threaten the densely populated Yangtze basin and the coastal towns.

These could be devastating. In 1998, over three thousand were killed and 15 million homes destroyed. In 1954, the floodwaters covered the entire city of Wuhan for three months; over thirty thousand people died and 18 million were displaced. The catastrophic flooding of Nanjing in 1931 claimed at least two million lives.

no thunderstorms on the summit
Great advances have been made in weather control!

The way back down was a gentler stroll down flights of stairs and through parkland, bringing us out into a charming market full of affordable souvenir trinkets. We hastened through this, back on the bus, ran the gauntlet of the map sellers and were welcomed back on board the ship with hot flannels and tea.

The ship moved off soon after we returned; there was an indefinable air of tense excitement among the crew. By the end of dinner, we were in a holding position in front of the huge lock gates; the rain considerately stopped while we waited on the deck.

I thought we’d just move to the front of the queue but, in an amazing feat of pilotage, all three large ships entered the lock together. The great doors clanged shut, and the water began to run in.

lock gates open

 

We rose surprisingly fast – ‘up’ is not a direction usually associated with ships! In less than twenty minutes, we’d emerged from our concrete chasm and could gaze out over the landscaped working areas.

waiting in the lock

 

The second lock swung open and we moved through in a tight group. It took about two hours before we emerged from the fifth lock onto a broad, placid lake. The sharp line of the dam, crested by illuminated machines, retreated into the night, and we were on our way to the Interior!

 

RSD don’t do relaxing normally, but here they were in the hands of the cruise ship agenda. So there wasn’t much advance information about the shore excursions available, some of which are included in the price, but a little research shows these are usually much the same for all the cruises, differing slightly whether you are going upriver – as we were – or down.

It was a relief to find that our cabin – like most places we stayed – had a kettle. Remember to use bottled water for hot drinks. There is often more tea supplied than coffee, so if you prefer the latter, bring some extra sachets with you.

You can visit the Dam from Yichang; it’s about a 90 minute drive. It may be possible to book an excursion which takes you up the ship lift.

Next week – The White Emperor’s City

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!

Malta – Transport and Trees

We thought we had come well prepared for the challenge of hiring a car in a strange country after arriving late at night. We’d printed out a full list of Google directions to the hotel at the far end of Malta. Luckily my colleague, Linda Benfield, had also bought a map at Bristol Airport.  It was a very valuable last minute purchase!

The directions relied on street names. We found one later, sixteen feet up a wall in inch high letters, some of which were missing. Navigation was a challenge even with the Marco Polo map. Signage seemed optional, the names of towns changed as you got nearer and EU funding had inspired a proliferation of new roundabouts. There was even an extra tunnel to the ones depicted!

Hedgehog sign
Beware of the hedgehogs!

Being resilient, we had a torch to do map reading with, and made it to the hotel. The ‘Riviera’ sign lights up blue at night and is something of a landmark as you drive the the hairpin bends of Marfa Ridge. There was no need to worry about Reception closing, as a coach full of German tourists had just arrived.

Discovering it only took ten minutes to go from really close to our sought after destination in central Mdina, to being confused on Route One at the northern edge of the island was a revelation, and explained why we spent the first few days visiting sites at random as we stumbled across them. We were simply expecting too much distance.

Malta is a small island with a long history. Everyone knows their way around. If you’re able-bodied, there’s an excellent bus service – without, alas, the iconic yellow buses, which were stood down in 2011. Walking is a good option too. Some of the important Neolithic sites can only be accessed on foot. Remember the summer sun can be merciless in this open landscape; take water and a hat.

Land here has been cultivated for centuries and deforestation is a problem. On their arrival in 1529, the Knights of St John – soon to be the Knights of Malta – reported ‘an island without trees.’

Rural landscapes are divided into tiny vegetable plots, there is neither space nor water for many large trees. Although it was only 20 C in January, the impact of the summer heat was baked into the very stones.

The contrast with Buskett Forest Gardens was startling. Here, we found open water, running streams, cool and damp air. This reforestation project dates back to its use as a hunting preserve by the Knights in the 1600s. It’s now a Natura 2000 site. Native tree species from Malta’s once extensive forests support a variety of rare wildlife, including many migratory birds.

Buskett Forest Gardens, Malta 2016
Open water in the forest

On Sundays, as we discovered, many Maltese families come here for picnics, and the car park becomes very full. We were hoping to find the famous cart tracks and caves, which were surely just at the top of that hill, but couldn’t find the way. Perhaps it was signposted from the other side of the plateau. I recommend hiring a guide!

 

 

 

Gardening for Resilience

Convert your garden into a year round food supply!

 Open Day at the Resilience Garden is on Sunday 15th September from 11 am to 5 pm at Harters Close in Coxley, Somerset. Entry is free as part of the Incredible Edible Somerset Open Gardens Day.

Visitors will have the opportunity to test their skills at plant identification and there will be a talk on community resilience at 2 pm, with demonstrations of useful and easy to learn crafts.

Save money, keep fit and be prepared

A visit to the supermarket, even for a pint of milk, rarely leaves you change from a £20 note, it seems. Shopping carefully on a budget, you’re better off only having to go there once a week! Having fresh vegetables to hand just outside your back door cuts down those extra shopping trips, as well as being healthier and involving no food miles at all.

Gardening is a good excuse to spend some time outside, taking gentle exercise. Modern no-dig techniques take much of the heavy labour out of maintaining a garden. Using home made organic fertilisers and recycling your food waste as compost reduce costs while companion planting and a healthy soil cut the need for expensive pest control products.

In the event of a national emergency, through extreme weather or hostile actions, our delicate and extensive food transportation network could be badly affected for some weeks. Rural areas could become isolated and dependent on limited stores. There may be no electricity, which would destroy frozen supplies and force reliance on tinned and dried food.

Growing your own would help your community through this, by providing a small but necessary amount of fresh produce with its vitamins and minerals.

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 Learning how to survive in the 21st century

The Resilience Garden is one of a series of projects designed by Elizabeth Walker, a teacher and writer with many years of experience in living ‘off the grid’. Her Resilience Wheel concept links all the factors necessary for a robust and sustainable community based economy into a single framework. No positive effort, however small, is wasted and everyone can do something straight away to bring a better world closer, while saving money and improving their quality of life.

She trains volunteer event stewards in emergency procedures during the summer, organises workshops around adapting traditional crafts to the modern world, and writes educational materials, articles and stories set in strange landscapes.

For more information on the Open Garden or on planned courses with Carymoor Environmental Centre and Somerset Skills and Learning, please follow this blog.

 

Step away from the edge

How did we get here, poised like the mythical lemmings on the cliff edge?  What madness made us think our careless greed would have no price?

The damage was far away and out of sight. Ancient forests razed to the ground and all their inhabitants wiped out. Pits of destruction so vast that mighty lorries seem tiny as crawling ants in their depths. Thousands of women and children imprisoned in factories churning out cheap throwaway clothes.

In our frantic search for fulfillment through ever more shiny material goods we have destroyed the framework which supported communities working together for each other’s benefit. The more money we have the faster it disappears, instead of enriching our own area.

Why should you care about your neighbour’s business when it has no effect on your life? Why should they care about you? Would it improve their life if they did?

It’s time the party ended. We need to reduce our dependence on a global economy, move away from our insidious addiction to oil and grow a country whose core needs can be satisfied by quality local produce.