Tag Archives: Sustainable community

May Diary 2017

Even here in Somerset, land of marshes and muddy festivals, there’s been no proper rain for weeks, only an occasional condensation like a wet mist.  It’s been relentlessly dry, and now a chilly breeze batters the valiant peas clinging to their frames.

The soil of our resilience allotment, overused and drained of nutrients by the last gardeners, has turned to rubble where we’ve dug it; concrete elsewhere.  We’re holding the rest of our seedlings at home still, where they can have more water, but they’ll have to go out soon.  The dark line to the right in the picture below is a compost-filled trench ready to receive peas.

soil like rubble
soil like rubble

The leaf mould mulch has run out now; we don’t want to use straw in case it combines with the clay to make bricks!  We’re building temporary raised beds, using the wood from the neighbour’s old shed.  These are getting filled with free manure and topped with a thin layer of bought compost.  In the winter, when the soil is soft again, we’ll dismantle the beds and dig this in; now, we’ll raise a catch crop in them.

Disposable raised beds
Disposable raised beds on the leaf mould mulch, showing cardboard weed suppressant

I don’t see much hope for the remaining seed potatoes, though.  I’ll probably put them out in the lower quarter to break up the soil there, but I doubt we’ll get much from them.  We’re relying on courgettes and squashes to fill in the bare patches.

The allotment is hard work, but so was the resilience garden until it was established.

Spring flowers in the Resilience Garden
Spring flowers in the Resilience Garden

The techniques we are exploring in the allotment can be adapted to reclaim post-industrial landscapes.  I’m impressed with the mulching properties of packaging card. Once the rainwater distribution system – which we can top up from the communal water trough – is in place, and the perennial weeds conquered, we’ll have the basis of a low-maintenance, high yield system.

Just in time, as the next project is on the horizon – the Resilience Field!

Weeding the new hedge

Above is the hedge…there wasn’t time to weed the ground first, so the deep rooted perennials, able to access buried moisture, threaten to overwhelm the thin young trees.  This is the worst section, being weeded by hand.  Once it’s clear, we’ll lay a cardboard sheet mulch around the saplings and cover this with soil, now easily accessible as the field has been ploughed.  The trees will be able to defend themselves in a few years, especially if we import wild garlic as ground cover.

Writing ‘Recipes for Resilience’, I learned how crucial grains were for survival in the seasonal North.  The dry weather isn’t doing British grain farmers any favours; does anyone else worry about poor harvests?  Everyone eats bread, cakes, pies…how many of you bother to find out where the flour comes from?

It’ll take you ten minutes to vote in June.  Instead of banging on about it, use the time to write yourself a shopping list.  Can you order any of it online from suppliers who buy British?  Is there a farm shop nearby, a food market?  Put Facebook down for a few minutes and have a look around.  Read the Hemp Twine Project to see how much difference buying local can make!

“Farmers go bankrupt in the midst of thousands of potential customers for their produce” from ‘The Resilience Handbook – how to survive in the 21st century’.

Then what will you eat?

 

Why do you need the Resilience Handbook?

The answer is in the subtitle – ‘How to survive in the 21st century’.

Even in a quiet little island like Britain, there are more episodes of ferocious weather now than we were used to in the last century. Flooding is a growing problem. What can you do about it?

Read the Emergency Planning section of the book, keep it handy to consult if you suddenly have to evacuate your house. It’ll tell you what to do, remind you to turn off your utilities, how to pack a grab bag.

Contents of a typical grab bag
Contents of a typical grab bag

You may not be directly affected by flooding, but the damage to the economy is shared by all. What can you do to help the long-term situation?

Rain comes from the sky, but flooding happens on land. Meetings of experts discuss useful management strategies, but the people responsible for the land have to implement them, Most of these are farmers, already struggling to make a living.

If they were able to sell to you, the consumer, without having to be routed through a supermarket chain…they’d have more money. Enough, perhaps, to consider engaging with flood relief; to invest in growing willow, in reforesting the hillsides.

Learn to make willow fencing!
Learn to make willow fencing!

The Resilience Handbook outlines a number of practical steps you can take to support community resilience at every level. It’s a call to action, not an invitation to more debate. Read through it, then keep it to hand as a reference book. Much of what it says won’t be clear to you until you begin to fulfill the set tasks.

Ignore the sneering quitters who tell you your personal buying choices mean nothing in the bigger picture. Supermarkets didn’t spring out of thin air. They evolved as a response to these choices. You can choose to return to a more resilient, locally based economy. Both processes are achieved one piece of shopping at a time.

It’s not just about food and its effect on the landscape. Every time you wash your clothes carefully, so that they last longer, you’re doing your bit for a sustainable community. Less waste means less landfill space. A culture where clothes are respected and cared for encourages a market for quality products. Well made clothes can be repaired or altered by local businesses, not thrown away.

local craft shop
Shops like this often take in sewing jobs

Every little helps, as they say. With the Resilience Handbook you can keep track of your efforts, see how tiny changes lead to bigger ones, learn what really is important and know that you’re doing as much as you can to secure it.

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.

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!

Potato Scones

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

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

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

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

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

8 ounces mashed potato

1 ounce butter

2 ounces self-raising flour

dash of salt

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

potato scones recipe

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

potato scones and syrup

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

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

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’

Buy British

So…Britain voted to leave the European Union, and what sore losers the Remainers are turning out to be. Despite claiming the compassion corner, the vitriolic hate spewing out from many would do credit to any xenophobe.

It’s a democracy. Get used to it. The 60% of young people who didn’t vote may well have voted to leave; we’ll never know.

In the countryside, Northern England and Wales, people are still stunned that their concerns have finally been noticed by city folk. They shouldn’t relax. Already there is talk of ‘not really leaving’ and murmurs of ‘punishing the rebels’.

While this acrimonious debate rages, we’re all still buying food, clothes and gadgets. It’s never been so important to target your spending at British products. Money spent in the country stays in the country and enriches it. Our economy needs that boost from ground level right now.

resilience handbook local produce in Glastonbury

If you shop in a supermarket, take a little longer and read labels. Find out what we actually make here. Try going for ingredients rather than ready-meals of dubious provenance. Spend a few pence extra to buy local vegetables, meat and dairy. The country of origin is on all packaging.

So is the name of the supplier. When you get home, go online and check out the firms which make your favourite foods. Can you buy a similar product made in Britain? What about clothes? Gadgets and services? Every little helps, they say, and it does.

Seventeen million people voted to leave the EU. If each of them made the effort to spend an extra £10 with locally owned businesses this week, it would add up to well over 2% of the entire weekly turnover of the retail sector. Joined by remainers and non-voters, just a tenner a week each adds up to 6% of this turnover – close on £500 million.

It wasn’t just the European Union who encouraged multinationals to mop up small independent businesses. Your consumer choices also helped shape this situation, and they can act to change it.

Take back your power – bring in strategic spending!

for more about bringing prosperity back to your area, read the Resilience Handbook

This link takes you straight to me at my desk, where I sign the book and send it off.  All the money goes straight into my account to be spent in local shops.   If you prefer familiar labels, you can buy it at Amazon, where I eventually get some kind of pittance.  Your choices certainly matter to me!

June Diary 2016

I expected June to be a quieter month than it usually is for me, as I’m not going to the Glastonbury Festival for the first time in many years. There’s no going against the rhythm of the seasons though, and events conspired to make this month every bit as hectic as before!

I’ve been working hard on my next book, about food and resilience…this involves a lot of experimental cooking and field studies. We finally got an allotment garden for our project; it’s quite overgrown. Although late in the season, we’ve managed to plant out the last of our seedlings, and there are quite a few food plants there already which only need the undergrowth cleared away.

Linda hoeing our new growing space
Linda hoeing our new growing space

It was the Green Scythe Fair on 12th June, which is an annual fixture for me. Strolling among the colourful stalls is like visting a future where everything has worked out fine. People gather around to admire the latest electric car on display, discuss the merits of the various tools offered for sale, consider hand made clothes or choose a pair of angora rabbits to breed for wool. The faint tap of peening scythes underscores the murmer of conversation. A woman plays her fiddle while children dance; other youngsters make nests from the cut grass.

A tremendous selection of local delicacies are to be sampled here, from crystallised flowers to venison steaks.

sea buckthorn juice stall
A stall selling juice made from sea buckthorn

You can get anything you can think of to do with honey, including a hive of bees. All the brand names, the shiny labels, are absent though. The cafe heats its water by wood-fired rocket stoves; the electrical power is from storage batteries recharged by renewables, including the lights and entertainment at night.

In the Craft area, one can see blacksmiths, stone masons and thatchers at work. There’s a stall selling hemp twine, another with leather pouches. A man haggles for an enamel basin, a woman picks a new copper kettle. The plough horses watch curiously as you pass by; yesterday they were demonstrating techniques for a land workers’ training session.

The centre piece of the event is the scything. A grand marquee is set up like a scything supermarket, with blades, whetstones, files, all the odds and ends of the craft. You are ‘fitted’ for the right size of handle, consulted about the appropriate blade and shown how to attach it. The complete novice is given a introductory pamphlet, but it’s wise to enrol on one of the day courses. Like any skill, it’s best learned alongside a master.

On the day of the Fair, however, all these craftspeople were out on the long grass in the centre, where the competitions were taking place. There were trophies to be won, reputations to be made! A sudden downpour had flattened much of the grass – how would this affect the form? The skilled scythers – men and women in separate heats – would cut their allotted square down to the length of a well trimmed lawn in only a few minutes. Assistants raked up the fallen grass while the judges inspected the quality of the job and considered points.

After the business of the day was done and the cups awarded, the music and carousing began in earnest. The stalls closed up and stole away; the families left. Only the crafters and campers were left to wind the evening up in traditional style and wobble gently home across the dark, empty fields.

Adventures on the Resilience Trail

There was so much going on at the Food Sovereignty Gathering, that there was little time for me to explore the Hebden Bridge area properly. I’d taken a chance mentioning it in the Resilience Handbook (p86) on reputation alone, and wasn’t disappointed.

The Archimedes screw at Hebdon Bridge Mill
The Archimedes screw at Hebdon Bridge

The movement itself turned out to be too concerned with international affairs to really connect with the firmly local criteria of resilience. I met some interesting people and had many productive discussions however.

In among the demanding schedule were visits to the key features I wanted to see: the Incredible Farm and the Aquagarden in Todmorden, of which more another time.

aquagarden at Todmorden and Incredible Farm

The Gathering was quite tiring and I needed Tuesday to unwind. Our hostel, being on the Pennine Way, had a great interest in rambling, with a collection of useful maps.

I explored the Hebdon Bridge Loop of the Pennine Way in the company of Helena Paul (author of ‘Hungry Corporations‘). It was an eerie, misty day but the trail was well marked and we wandered up and down the landscape, often on paved ways which must have taken a lot of work.

 

sylvia plath grave at heptonstall

We called at Sylvia Plath Hughes‘ grave in Heptonstall; a place of pilgrimage for her admirers, who are accustomed to leave pens as gifts. It turned out to be the poetess’ birthday, and we learned the history of the site from a fellow author there. Nibbling on Himalyan Balsam seeds, we followed the maze of paths, challenging bullocks for right of way, pausing by the washing pools to look for dippers, and back along the river with its decaying industrial remains.

 

 

 

Off the next day through the nightmare of Manchester outer ring road, a four lane dual highway crawling along in second gear amid a fume of exhausts. This country overcrowded? You bet. The Peak District looks like a rock in a crusher. Arrived with relief at the Anglesey Outdoors hostel with its early morning kayakers. Rather them than me in those waves!

I drove along the coast and visited Copper Mountain instead. The mining operation which reduced this hill to a pile of toxic rubble ceased 150 years ago. All that grows in the sparse acid soil is heather, the only sound of life the occasional apocalyptic crow. It takes two hours to walk around the edge of this tortured landscape, among the rocks drenched with warped and twisted bands of colour, the heaps of pink scree.

copper mountain anglesey

Somewhere in the world this process is destroying another place of former natural beauty. The Internet – an enthusiastic user of copper – comes with a price.

Onwards and decidedly upwards along the west coast of Wales to the Centre for Alternative Technology. I’d been offline since Hebden, so failed to organise a meeting, but the Resilience Handbook I left was well received. I bought a ticket – valid for a whole year! – and explored this iconic establishment for the first time.

It has developed and expanded over the years to a full scale educational facility with over a hundred staff. The fascinating exhibits, set in a lovely natural landscape, cover the whole spectrum of resources from energy provision to waste disposal. I certainly need a return visit to take it all in!

centre for alternative technology fruit trees and solar panels

I spent the night at the Corris Hostel just down the road, where the hostel manager organised a cook out in the forested garden. The visiting party of young singers fom Liverpool were entranced, even abandoning their smartphones to fry sausages and toast marshmallows!

The final stage of my travels took me via Swansea,, to supply the nascent Resilience Project there with Handbooks, and so home to a welcome bath.

By using hostels and public transport, a single traveller can take an adventure break very cheaply. Families could pool transport and stay off season in a holiday camp. So it might rain? Adapt. Learn resilience.  Everybody needs adventures.

Diary October 2015

The Resilience Handbook has been out in print for a busy two months now. Distributing and promoting has taken up most of my time – learning to sell books from a standing start! I’m just about to go on tour, heading north through the scary urbanisation of the Midlands to Hebden Bridge for the Food Sovereignty gathering.

poster for Food Sovereignty

I’m planning to stay on and revisit the wonderful people at Incredible Edible Todmorden nearby – I hear their aquaculture project is thriving. Then, taking the North Wales Expressway which I hear so much about on the traffic news, off to explore Welsh bookshops ending up with a visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth. I hope the weather holds!

No wonder we obsess about the weather in Britain. I’ve had to pack for wet cold, dry cold, unseasonable warmth and days of torrential rain. I could get all or none of these during a ten day walkabout! I’m afraid I drew the line at taking a spade to dig myself out of snowdrifts, as my neighbour advised, though that may turn out to be a false economy.

Packing wasn’t the only weather challenge this autumn. There were two weeks of cold wet weather at the end of August. My optimistic crops of sweetcorn and chickpeas went mouldy where they stood. The slugs multiplied alarmingly, not even bothering to crawl into hiding during the long wet days.

Once things dried out somewhat, I had to clear up the wreckage and deal with Mollusc World Domination. I replaced the stone slab garden bed paths with oven shelves and bits of fireguard; metal grids providing no shelter for them, nor for Ant City. I’m normally quite tolerant of ants, but this year they managed to destroy an entire courgette crop and most of the broad beans with their bug farms. Chemical warfare, however, is just not on the agenda.

The elderberry harvest in early September was upset by this weather; it took far more trips to collect enough for the crucial anti-flu syrup and we may not have a full winter’s supply. Elder trees can exert a great deal of influence over their flowers. They will hold them back as buds during rainy days, then open them like sudden umbrellas as soon as the sun comes out. Much the same applies to their berry clusters.

My friend’s bees didn’t produce enough honey to see themselves over the winter, so they will have to be fed by humans. I don’t know if this was the weather. Perhaps they are on strike against pesticides.

Right. Departure delayed to let the high winds abate, but not for too long or I’ll get entangled in Rush Hour. I just have to check out Knit for the Planet – who are the Woolly Angels? – and pack some wool….