Tag Archives: Environment

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

Advertisements

On the Yangtze River – White Emperor City

We’d turned down the morning call, so we slept in till 7 am, missing the 6.30 Tai Chi class again. After a hasty breakfast, we were in the lobby by 7.45 ready for the inclusive trip up the Shen Nong Stream.

We sailed up this tributary in a smaller ship, passing through amazing wooded gorges with caves and the strange hanging coffins. These were usually carved from a single log and placed in caves or crevices in the cliff faces. They date back to the Stone Age and no-one knows why or how the people did this; it would have been a very difficult task.

Ancient cliff burials in China - use the Resilience Handbook to prepare for adventures!
Cliff burials

Other cultural artefacts and lifestyles are submerged now the Three Gorges Dam has raised the water level here by 90 metres. Our tributary was once a fast mountain stream, hurtling over rocky rapids. Now it’s much deeper and slower, but the banks are still teeming with invisible wild life. Panda (cotton) bamboo grows there, but the panda range is now further south. Huge swallow nests hung from cave roofs; when the boat engine quietened, we could hear other birds singing. Once we saw a small flock in the treetops, but mainly they kept out of sight.

Shen Nong stream; a tributary made much deeper by the hydro dam
Shen Nong stream

We pulled in at a jetty and transferred to small wooden boats. A man on the bank demonstrated how these boats used to be towed upstream when the river level was lower. The boatman sang us a traditional song from his drowned culture. Then we encouraged them to race the other boats, singing them sea shanties till we came in first!

Me and Linda at shennong (courtesy of the ship's photographer)
On the jetty at the end of the stream

Back on the ship I had to fix my camera – it turned out that the White Elephant batteries we’d bought locally could run out rather abruptly with no warning – so I was late down for lunch. I had to take dessert up to the coffee lounge to admire the Wu and Qutang Gorges as we passed through them. There was a standing stone sacred to the Goddess at the entrance, and dragons in the hills.

The Qutang Gorge; viewed on a Resilience Adventure with Elizabeth J Walker
The Qutang Gorge

After this, we moored for the White Emperor City tour (optional extra, well worth it). We teamed up with the Bavarians (also here on an RSD tour) to make up numbers, and had a very knowledgeable and well educated young Chinese lady as our guide.

Running the gauntlet of the ‘maybe later’ market, we discovered that each stop had a different speciality, probably for the internal tourist trade. We were swiftly guided past the water gate, a Post Office kiosk and statues of famous poets.

Poets statues White Emperor City China

Food market at White Emperor City, there were many varieties of edible fungi on sale, as described in 'Recipes for Resilience'

We cut through a large indoor market full of exotic foodstuffs. I longed to try some of the huge range of dried mushrooms or take some of the exotic nuts home to identify them, but of course it was impossible. There are severe restrictions on casually transporting vegetable matter across continents, in case they harbour insect pests which can devastate crops. Finally, we crossed a long bridge, chilled by a stiff breeze, and into the White Emperor City.

Crossing to White Emperor City, China

Researching these tours had warned me of over 700 steps to climb; the information was out of date, as the inundation had reduced these to 346. The sedans, bamboo chair litters, were still available to hire for the climb; they now cost 100 yuan rather than 10 yuan. We didn’t use them.

‘You don’t mind a walk,’ suggested our guide firmly.

Zhuge Liang WEC

The first sixty stairs brought us to Loyalty Square, celebrating Zhuge Liang, a prime minister of old renowned for his honesty and wise counsel. There was a stupendous view of the ‘Entrance to the Three Gorges’, a very strategic site in ancient times. A huge rock there, an ancient landmark, had to be blown up after the first of the three inundation stages; submerged, it would have been a shipping hazard.

Strategic entrance to 3 gorges seen from WEC

We climbed many more steps to the summit, passing an archery range. Visitors shot arrows at straw men to celebrate ‘Taking arrows from the enemy using straw men’. This was a famous strategy of Zhuge Liang, as featured in the film ‘Red Cliff’.

archery with straw men WEC

Main gate White Emporer City

On the far side of the ornate painted gate at the top of the stairs was a huge dragon statue. The founder of the city, Gongsun Shu (or someone else), saw a white dragon rising from a well (or in the form of a cloud). The white dragon was considered a good omen for founding a city there anyway, and it remained untouched during the warlike period which followed.

Inside the buildings was a large tableau, with very expressive figures, depicting the story of ‘Handing over the Orphans’ where Liu Bei (a hero of ‘Red Cliff’) calls Zhuge Liang out of retirement to look after his two young sons.

story tableau

This ancient city is also famous for poetry, though the displays were being packed away for the evening. Our guide managed to show us how bamboo, pomegranate and plum were often used to decorate scrolls. Their survival over winter made these plants symbols of endurance.

We also learned that the purpose of the high thresholds – which we’d assumed were some sort of flood control – was to keep zombies out! The walking dead in China can’t bend their knees.

In addition, you had to bow your head as you entered a room, to watch your step, so automatically kowtowed. It was important to step right over and not set foot on the lip of the threshold.

water feature

Returning down a different set of steps as the light began to fade, we passed through the closing market, and the evening street food vendors just setting up, to the ship.

The whole point of an adventure is that you don’t know what will happen. However, you rather hope it will be enjoyable, so it’s worth doing some research before you go.

Use the Resources section of the Resilience Wheel as the framework for a check list of things you really ought to know. It’d look something like this:-

Energy – do I need an adapter to use the local electricity?

Food – what food hygiene advice is there? Is there anything I shouldn’t eat? Will I encounter problems with my food allergies?

Water – can I drink the tap water? If not, why not? Does it just taste salty, as in Malta, or should I avoid getting any in my mouth while showering, as in China?

Housing – look at reviews for the places you plan to stay

Transport – use Google maps to check out your route, check Trip Advisor for reviews

Waste – do I need to be prepared for squat toilets? (yes, in China! Although there were one or two pedestal toilets available at all our stops, there was a longer queue for these)

Communication – can I make or receive calls from home? Use the internet? (download WeChat to your phone before you leave; you can then message people outside China who also have this app. Google, Facebook and Twitter are all unavailable there at the time of writing)

Environment – what hazards might I encounter? Should I get vaccinations, bring special equipment?  

Clothing – what sort of weather can I expect? (If you need heavy clothes, bring your second best, then you can sacrifice then at the end of the trip to make flight space for souvenirs)

No matter how much I prepare for an adventure, there’s always more to learn about the places I’ve been. I enjoy reading up about them back at home; my colleague and I have developed a taste for Chinese films and dramas, especially historical ones unfolding against the landscapes we just travelled through!

 

Next week – Chongqing and the Dazu Rock Carvings

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

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

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.

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

Growing for Resilience

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

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

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

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

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

potatos-in-tyre1

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

Happy Resilient New Year!

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!

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’