The hot dry weather continues. Here in Somerset, we’ve only had about five days with even a light shower of rain since Easter. It’s been a relentless round of watering; not so difficult in the garden, but a real challenge down at the allotment.
This gravity fed system delivers a trickle of water to the tomatoes and courgettes, but the barrel has to be topped up manually.
The raised beds are filled with a mixture of leaf mould, shredded paper and soil imported from the Resilience Garden. This is full of seeds from useful, fast growing annuals which are shading out the perennial weeds. Borage, marigold and poppy can be seen in the picture; lower ground cover is supplied by scarlet pimpernel and blue speedwell.
These are easy to pull up, and good to compost, unlike the bindweed, horsetail (outwitting vertebrates since the Triassic) and couch grasses they replace. Most of the weeds have to go to landfill just now, which deprives this poor soil of even more nutrients.
We took some time out to go to the Scythe Fair in June. Adventurous visitors could sail down the River Parrret and catch the horse drawn bus to site!
Most people came by car though, and this is finally becoming a problem. It’s a wonderful event and its popularity means that some formalities will have to be put in place. Perhaps it will lose some of its rustic charm…
….or perhaps not. Suppose it was possible to close the whole lane for a day, so visitors had to leave their cars (in a convenient field) and walk or cycle to the event? The locals would need to go along with the plan too, and not use their cars for a day.
The management felt that was too radical a concept – and I agree. It’s a shame that everyone is so attached to their cars!
I’m just about to set off on another adventure, spreading the Resilience word …more when I return!
In my father’s day, few men in the newly created suburbia lacked a garden shed. The sharp tools and poisonous chemicals, which were still part of everyday life, allowed a ban on children entering. The shed was a haven of orderly peace.
The men justified its existence by repairing household goods and DIY projects. They could indulge hobbies; many people were still quite skilled at craft work. The consumer culture disposed of the first two functions. Dispirited, the lure of the TV replaced the last. When the neglected shed finally collapsed, decking took its place.
Television, though entertaining, is not much company. Once out of the workplace, retired men find few opportunities to socialise and their health is often affected by loneliness and boredom. Inspired to address this issue, the Men’s Shed movement began in Australia just over ten years ago
Essentially, these are community workshops where a group of people meet up to work on their own projects. Rather than an actual shed, which might not be large enough, many are housed in portacabins or empty buildings. Most members, but not all, are retired men.
The UK Men’s Shed Association was founded in 2013, to provide an umbrella group for the thirty sheds already established. Today, there are over 400 in operation, with another 100 in the planning stages.
The Sheds mainly provide workshop space and tea. They host a wide variety of crafts – wood and metal working, electronics, model-making. Other community organisations soon learned that they could ask for tools to be fixed, or equipment made. Often adapted for disabled access, the Sheds are providing a valuable resource for care services.
The Association’s website has a map showing your nearest UK Shed, and a resource library to help you start one. Street Men’s Shed in Somerset, who hosted the remarkably well attended AGM in the pictures above, take their information stand to local events. Shed days welcome drop-in visitors, though you may need to be a member to use the facilities; there will be a small charge.
The Reskilling section of the Resilience Handbook outlines the importance of keeping craft skills alive. If you’re following the Resilience Plan, you can see how becoming involved with this group will cover everything you need to know in this section and a great deal of the Community section too. Achieving a useful level of resilience isn’t hard – it just requires the sort of gentle steady progress so unfashionable these days.
A community, town or nation which values resilience doesn’t need public campaigns to live a sustainable lifestyle. Everybody understands where their resources come from, and that payment isn’t always to do with money.
The true goal of a resilient community – and this is a long way off – is to be able to survive on its own, with no imports of goods and no exports of waste, for a year. Once you begin working out how this could be possible, it’s clear that we need to start progress to a smaller population. It’s not so hard to keep a form of internet going, even in a low-technology situation.
Perhaps we could finally depart from the city-state model, which always ends in environmental degradation and the obliteration of a once-proud culture.
Most emergencies you’re likely to encounter are simple domestic ones. If you lock yourself out, you’ll need a locksmith. Here’s some simple precautions to take, and a few things to try first.
Sometimes things may get more serious. Suppose you’re snowed in and can’t get to work? Take a look at this guide to your legal position – as both an employee and an employer. Is your area at risk from flooding? What should you do?
Do you know how to turn your utilities off safely? You can protect your home better if you understand these basic principles.
If your area is hit by an emergency, you will either be evacuated or isolated from one or more mains services. There’s a whole section in the Resilience Handbook about coping with both situations, but here’s some quick tips:-
Keep a camping stove and a portable heater; if you don’t have room for the latter, some hot water bottles at least. A large flask is also useful. Have a store of food and water – its size depends on how much suitable space you have.
In the UK, the National Health Service and the Government websites will be used for emergency announcements; you could bookmark them. Announcements can also be made on local radio – it’s a challenge to list all the local radio stations in the UK, but Wikipedia have had a go!
If you’re evacuated, you’ll need a grab bag; keep this ready packed and check it once every few months. American preppers are always good for practical survival tips; here’s instructions for assembling a first aid kit.
On the subject of medicines – always take your medications and a copy of the prescription with you in an evacuation! You may expect to be gone for only a couple of hours, but these situations have a habit of escalating; pack for at least one night away.
There are many ways you can contribute to forming a resilient society, but keeping a grab bag ready is only a small chore. There may not be much time to escape a flood, so people who are ready to go are really helpful. If you’ve packed some useful things to share – a deck of cards, some sweets, a spare torch – things can go much better during the long wait at the evacuation centre.
And, if there’s never an emergency….take your grab bag out on a camping adventure and see how it works for real!
Wild garlic, or ramsoms, is growing in profusion now. It can be used in many recipes, added to soups and stews, or washed and munched raw.
Below is the young leaf of a Cuckoopint, or Arum Lily. These often grow in the same patch as wild garlic – weed them out of your own forage area. Pay attention to the leaf veins. They are branched, as opposed to the garlic which has parallel veins like a grass blade. The arrow shape becomes more pronounced as the leaves mature.
If you eat cuckoopint by accident, it will cause a burning sensation in your mouth which can last for several days.
Bluebell comes out a little later, so it’s fairly easy to tell the leaves apart from wild garlic, which will be moving into the flowering stage by then. It occupies the same woodland habitat as the garlic too.
All these leaves vanish completely in the summer, except for the cuckoopint which goes on to produce its vivid orange berry spikes. These are also poisonous to humans. No sign of any of these plants is visible in autumn and winter. However, the edible bulbs of the wild garlic are still there underground.
When learning this plant series, it’s identifying these bulbs which you should concentrate on. Without any other clues, it could be tricky; you need to avoid including cuckoopint or bluebell in your forage.
Establish specimens of each in pots and watch them grow. Dig up some roots and study them. Wash your hands after breaking up the cuckoopint; if you have sensitive skin, it may be worth wearing gloves. Once you have thoroughly learned all three, you are equipped to forage for them in the woods, should you ever need wild food.
In order to protect these important plants, it is illegal to dig them up in the UK without the permission of the landowner. Hence you should grow your own for study.
When you do, you will observe that the tiny first-year roots of all three look much the same – an oval white bulb about the size of a match head. Only gather the larger wild garlic bulbs which have developed the brownish root skin.
Action task 9 in the Food section of the Resilience Assessment requires you to go on a walk to identify edible wild plants. Look for wild garlic in local woods or under trees in parks. Are there more plants which grow in that area, such as daffodils, which you need to be confident of identifying?
The simple questions in the Resilience Handbook encourage you to establish a layer of underpinning knowledge upon which you can build your resilient lifestyle!
Earth Hour is an annual event which celebrates a global network committed to creating a sustainable world. It’s organised by the World Wildlife Fund, and began as a ‘lights out’ event in Sydney, Australia in 2007.
The idea is for people, organisations and businesses to turn off all non-essential lights, and other electrical devices, for one hour. The hour begins at 8.30pm local time, so the effect ripples around the world. City landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Shard, participate now, as well as millions of individuals.
Some people organise whole events around the occasion, and one such is Earth Hour Chard where I was booked to talk about Resilience. Their first event had been a magnificent street fair, betrayed by a bitterly cold March wind. They’d hired the Guildhall this time, for a whole day’s programme of activities supported by a cafe, bar and numerous stalls.
I arrived early; the kids’ activities were in full swing. Everyone was busy, so after I unloaded and parked, I took a walk to the museum.
In a county of farming communities, Chard always stood out as a factory town. The textile industry was important, particularly machine made lace for net curtains and clothing. As outlined in the Resilience Handbook, the presence of machinery in the area encouraged a support network of craftspeople. These skills were then available to inventors.
It was in Chard, in 1848, that John Stringfellow’s Aerial Steam Carriage first showed that engine powered flight was possible. Other major advances credited to the town include the development of articulated artificial limbs and of X-ray photography. Today, it’s the home of the Henry vacuum cleaner.
I strolled down Fore Street, admiring the remaining old countryside architecture, the thatched houses and diamond pane windows, arriving back in time for the judging of the colouring in competition. I hastened over to the Phoenix Hotel; the talks were being held there while the Guildhall was set up for the evening event.
I’d decided to create a new talk, outlining how the Resilience Project came into being through a fusion of Transition’s Energy Descent Action Plan and local emergency planning, with decades of experience in living off-grid thrown in. Jason Hawkes covered ecological footprints and housing; Kate Handley talked on local food.
We packed up in time for the music; a selection of bands often seen at off-grid festivals, compèred by Tracey West, publisher extraordinaire. Simon West manned their Word Forest Organisation stall on the top floor, where the poetry slam was going on.
It was a very entertaining evening, networking and enjoying quality performances. We didn’t turn off the lights in the venue for Earth Hour – a health and safety issue – but at least the people attending had turned theirs off!
Although Chard is poorly served by public transport, it’s worth a visit. I found some charming hotels with reasonable prices, though in the event I stayed with one of the organisers. Check for parking, as this may be a local issue.
Sadly, the nearby Wildlife park at Cricket St Thomas has closed and is now on the Heritage at Risk register.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We left the Grand Dynasty Culture Hotel and drove through the choking smog of the morning rush hour to Xi’an airport. We had a lot of turbulence on the flight to Beijing, but landed safely and were whisked off for more sightseeing.
It was much colder here; the ‘maybe later’ marketeers sold fur-lined Mao hats and warm gloves. Tired from the flight, it was difficult to properly appreciate the beautiful Summer Palace.
The Dragon Boats were moored for the winter; in the summer season, these rowed out on the lake. Once, the entire court used to sail between the Palace and the Forbidden City.
Although our own camera batteries were nearly done, we did feature in a lot of photos. Despite the crowds, there were very few Westerners here, and we were a centre of covert attention every time we stopped.
We crossed the Palace grounds at a brisk walk from East Gate to North Gate along painted cloisters (restored after the Opium Wars of 1860) used by the Empress Cixi. She was the widow of the Emperor, and ruled for 48 years until her death in 1906 at the age of 73. Her son predeceased her.
The sun set behind hills on our way to the hotel. Autumn had been and gone here, the leaves already fallen; it seems quite abrupt.
We were in a Mercure hotel, out on the fifth ring road of seven. Security was high; there was great confusion in the lifts before everyone realised you had to swipe your room card before you could select a floor!
The next day was to be a long trip to the Great Wall, which was apparently even colder than the city. Linda needed a hat and gloves; we were both out of camera batteries. There was rumoured to be a supermarket just opposite the hotel; we were highly motivated to go out and look for it.
Careful to pick up a ‘please take me home’ card from the hotel reception, and take a photo of the entrance, we set off. There was nothing but a large empty courtyard behind the buildings directly opposite; we headed for the road and turned left, away from the hotel.
Most of the high rise surrounding us were decorated with coloured lights, so it was quite easy to identify landmarks. At the next intersection, we risked another perilous crossing – you have to watch out for cars turning into your road, even when pedestrian lights show green. The cycles and scooters are in a world of their own when it comes to traffic control, but they travel quite slowly.
Spotting a Pizza Hut in the distance, we made for that, and found a large shopping mall tucked away behind it. Our quest for a cheap hat led us deep inside, past the designer outlets, right to the far end. Here, we found a Carrefour sign and an escalator down to the strangest supermarket I’ve ever seen!
Camera batteries and gloves secured, we turned our attention to food. The mystery vegetables served at dinner were displayed in heaps; so much fresh meat was out that it was a wonder what they did with it at closing time. Bread and a profusion of little cakes were supplied by an in-store bakery; there was a selection of chocolate and biscuits, some of which were actually familiar.
Back at the hotel bar, we heard the tales from our fellow adventurers. Some people had found the supermarket; many had missed it and found other places; nobody got entirely lost!
In China, the culture is to buy rather than rent. A boy’s family must be able to purchase a property and pay for the wedding, or no girl will marry him. The families like to plant trees for their children in order to make furniture for their new home. Although Ikea is an important source, one or two pieces should be traditionally crafted to ensure a long marriage.
The relaxation of the one-child policy, dating from 1979, allows only children to have a second child without the usual massive fine. This is to help with elderly care, though youngsters employed by private companies are reluctant to take it up as they fear losing their jobs. Generally both parents must work, but childcare and schools are good.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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