Yesterday on the beach, our little regular group of meditators came together to celebrate the winter solstice by walking a labyrinth. It was just a circle, really, drawn into the sand with the handle of a tennis racquet. It spiralled in to a centre space marked with a tumble of smooth grey stones. The lines were perhaps too close together. It required concentration and balance to stay between them. But maybe that was the point.
It didn’t take long for me to realise I had to slow down. In order to keep my balance, I had to ensure that my front foot was centered before lifting my back foot. My mind tried to race forward but the constraints of the labyrinth brought me back to my body. Feet connecting with sand. Legs brought back beneath my body instead of charging ahead. For once, the destination was not the focus of my walking. Rather, I was drawn to watch the space directly before me. To gather in my senses. To slow my breath. In my peripheral vision, I glimpsed my fellow meditators. Each one walked as slowly as me. Each deep in their own experience. Once we were inside the labyrinth, there was no turning back. We would walk until we reached the centre, the space where we would meet up. From time to time, we walked alongside each other. Me on my track and they on theirs. Apart and yet together. We did not look up. We did not look at each other. Yet the presence of the others accompanied me.
In one moment, I felt a huge sadness arise, as it often does at this time of year. Sadness for my ancestors no longer in this world. For my friends and family far away. The impulse was to walk faster. To rush through the sadness to a place which felt more comfortable. But the labyrinth would not allow me to rush, so I walked with my sadness, holding it gently. At another point, I glanced to the side, only to see the lines of the labyrinth smushed into the sand. A giggle rose in my throat and I laughed out loud at the way we mess up our lives. There was compassion for myself, for the others. We messed up, yes, but here we are. Still walking towards the centre.
When we reached the middle, first me, then the others, we held onto each other and huddled into the spot. The sun had emerged warmly from the morning clouds but the wind was from the mountains and you could smell and feel the snow on it. We stood still, pausing a moment as the solstice suggests that we do. Sol meaning “sun”and sistere “to stand still”. As the sun seems to pause in the sky, so we paused. Before the flurry of Christmas takes over, we paused.
Over some warming tea, we took some time together to reflect on the experience.
Maybe you can take some time to make your own solstice ritual? To walk slowly. To stand still. Before life sweeps you up again and carries you relentlessly on.
Whilst writing this post, I stumbled across the work of Geraint Rhys, a Welsh singer songwriter who has recorded a great anthem-like song, Visca la Terra. He translates this phrase, often associated with radical independentistas, as “Bless this Land”. Whatever we feel about the politics, we of the smaller nations cannot help but see ourselves reflected in these struggles to be seen and heard.
So it is that I find myself a sunny beach, with the first chill of winter in the air, meditating in solidarity with those striking over the independence question in Catalunya. As foreigners in this land, we may not feel the pain of what is happening as deeply as those who call themselves Catalan, or those who consider themselves Spanish, or both. But what we can do is to listen without judgement. We can hear their stories and bear witness, as the sun and the sea bear witness to our meditation.
It was my friend Joe who recently used the word witness. Just two weeks ago, we were in Germany on a Mindfulness Teacher Training Course and I was interviewing him about his work as an activist. He was bearing witness, he said. And now here I am on a beach in Spain, holding a meditation group for peace in Catalunya. The word comes up in my mind and sticks, like a flag or a badge I can wave or wear. If I can do little else, I can bear witness.
We sit listening to the sea lap on a sunny shore, aware that the traffic is backed up all the way to the city, that public transport is severely disrupted, that many shops and offices are closed as part of the strike. “People were on the streets this morning as I took my son to school” said one woman. “The company I work for has banned us from talking about it.” said another. The idea of witnessing seems important to me, but it is only later that I reflect that it feels good for me to have found a role in this drama.
Last week, Joe wrote to ask how it is on the ground here. I gave him a comprehensive picture of life in our small village, just one hour south of Barcelona. “To be honest,” I said, “on the ground here for us, nothing has changed. Summer is cooling into Autumn. The vineyards around are turning red and golden. Yesterday a huge electric storm shot forks of lightning into the hills around our home, the sky cracking as if the world was breaking part. Nature is far more threatening than the Guardia Civil!”
I was joking, but it was true all the same. And all the same, I wrote, “It’s hard to escape the awareness that our Catalan friends are suffering. It’s been a traumatic time and emotions are being pulled at. Those of us with less rooted connections feel empathy, but also see that folk are being manipulated on both sides.”
When the idea of being a witness pops up, the thread of thought is inextricably linked to Joe, to the Agents of Change course and to the practice of mindfulness. For what is mindfulness but kind awareness? And what use is kind awareness if we cannot find a way to bring it into the service of others? Into the service of wellbeing of humans, animals and the natural world? Into the service of peace?
On Thursday this week, the International Day of Peace, I gave a talk at a local school about how the practice of mindfulness relates to peace. Drawing on the idea that without inner peace there can be no outer peace, I outlined how our personal practice can help facilitate calm, clear communication with others, even if they have harmed us. I was careful to tell the young people that there are times we need to stand up for ourselves, call another out for their wrongdoing, but suggested that it could be done non-violently.
On Friday, sitting with friends in a flat in Barcelona, a clattering begins outside. It’s 10pm and the casolada has begun. From all around, we can hear the dull chiming of spoons on pots. This is a people’s protest, Catalan style. I stand on the balcony and look out over the darkened city. To my left, I can see the tallest towers of the Sagrada Familia, where we have just spent a pleasant hour in one of their free public openings. It was my first visit, though I have been living in Catalonia for over 18 months now. Gaudi’s masterpiece cathedral is astounding, but to be honest, I am much more excited by the casolada! My friends have heard it before. They live in the city and have been present during the last few days of protest, but I live out in the countryside and though I have heard stories, this is my first contact with the indignation currently sounding throughout Barcelona’s streets and homes.
Catalonia is preparing for their October 1st referendum. They will vote to decide whether to split from Spain and claim independence. This is not news. The banners proclaiming “Sí!” hang from balconies in every town and on the recent Díada of September 11th – Catalonia’s National Day – a torchlit march in my local village saw people wearing the Señera – the national flag – like capes and carrying a thirty foot long version of it through the streets. This year, it was hard to separate national pride from the question of independence.
Although there is a lot of support for independence, with most people naming the fact that Catalonia gives far more in taxes to Spain than it receives in resources, it is by no means clear which way the Catalan people will jump. However, fear from the Spanish authorities has grown to such a pitch that they have decided to try and block the vote entirely and nobody knows how far they are prepared to go. In the port, it is said there are ships housing thousands of Guardia Civil, the Spanish State Police. Catalonia has its own police force, known as the Mossos, but it is not they who have been raiding local government offices this week and confiscating ballot boxes. Several officials were arrested, which caused protests to arise, demanding their release. This is no longer about Sí o No, this is about human rights. I ask my Catalan friend what she thinks and she tells me how she and her husband have been taking turns to attend the round the clock vigils. “There are all sorts of people there.” she says. “Grandmas who were alive in the fascist times of Franco and young people who took to the streets during the Crisis. People are coming together because this time, the Spanish government have overstepped the line.”
Life in Catalonia, though relaxed and relatively easy, is always infused with contradiction. The Catalan language is spoken everywhere, in schools, in shops, in the street, at home. Because everyone knows it is a language that has fought for survival, the very speaking of it is an everyday political statement. As a Welsh person who grew up learning, but not speaking Welsh, I have nothing but respect for the way this language has been fiercely protected. It is a mark of identity and solidarity, but not, funnily enough, exclusivity. Catalan people meet the stumbling Spanish of tourists with grace and kindness, though, like the Welsh who insist they are not English, the Catalans are defiantly not Spanish.
As Britain prepares to redefine itself as separate from Europe and the Scots back away from declaring their own independence, I feel ambiguous about separatism and nationalism. Cultural identity is important. It helps us feel we belong somewhere and reinforces a sense of community. However I still feel that these arbitrary frontiers, drawn along lines which tell tales of war and conflict, seem at best like childish spats over yours and mine and at worst, deadly symbols of division. How can we have both? How can we express ourselves and our feelings of home and country without making our neighbours the enemy? This is a question, surely, that we all must answer every day, in each encounter, in every single human relationship. After all, peace begins with me.
My feet hurt. You know that kind of “Festival Foot”, when the balls of your feet are sore from tramping through fields all weekend? I peeled off my slightly soggy socks to find four, sore, bright red patches. At least my Festival Foot did provide an excuse to lie around in the unexpected Welsh sunshine, contemplating the incredible weekend I just spent at Off Grid Festival in Devon, England.
I wasn’t planning to go, but for the past five months I’ve been helping to promote the Festival. As I posted news of each fascinating new workshop, speaker or band, I gradually convinced myself what an amazing event it would be! The Off Grid College offered a platform for pioneers to talk about practical sustainability and appropriate technology. Low impact building, solar installation, permaculture and medicinal foraging were just a few of the themes on offer. At Thrive, it was all about all things healing. Massage, mindfulness and yoga, as well as in-depth discussions around activist burnout, trauma and the future of elderly care. At the Community Convergence space, discussions ranged from The Power of Networks to Co-housing to the Economics of Happiness. Plus, of course, there was uplifting, original music from live bands all weekend.
As usual, my Festival experience was filtered through the lens of my camera, which gave me an excuse to grill various inspirational people about their passions. I also learned a lot about the art of podcasting from fellow festival journalist Carl Munson, aka the Barefoot Broadcaster, who set up his “field” studio to interview passers by and had them uploaded within minutes. Unlike my interviews, for which you’ll have to wait a bit, you can hear his exchange with Guy Coxall, Compliance Officer for CBD (cannabidiol, the non-psycho active ingredient in cannabis) right now!
Carl’s Barefoot Broadcasts are a from of alternative media, which, in this time of “fake news” are more important than ever. I spent more than 15 years working as part of the Undercurrents collective, reporting on environmental activism. We trained hundreds of people to create their own media and to get their voices heard, enabled by the revolution in video camera technology which made high quality recordings both accessible, portable and affordable. Now, everyone carries the technology for citizen journalism but instead, what do we use it for? Spruiking ourselves on socal media and pinging selfies around the world in an effort to gain attention. What a waste.
Alternative media relies, more then anything, on an alternative ideology. Offering a fresh view on the world requires contemplation, discussion, a willingness to question and to go against the mainstream. The off-grid culture provides a natural home for alternative media, since it challenges all the mainstream systems and approaches which underpin culture and way of life. Off Grid means a challenge to the growth economy, the religious hierarchy, the mass approach to education. To Big Pharma, Big Oil and Big Banking. To top-down government, just-in-time commerce and housing as investment. To prioritising profit over people, humans over animals, and development over nature. An alternative media practitioner needs a strong stomach, a deep curiosity and a fearless attitude.
My involvement with Off Grid Festival, combined with this latest damning report from Reporters Without Borders, has reminded me of the importance of alternative media organisations and of how the people that contribute to them need our support. With this in mind, I’m making this the first in series of blogs featuring journalists and filmmakers who, in the widest sense, are spreading the Off Grid message. I’m beginning with James Light, a talented film maker who gave up his job in television news 8 years ago in order to tell the stories he thought really mattered. James has made some beautiful films for the Off Grid Festival but this year, was unable to attend because of a calamity which put his van off the road and himself into debt. As part of this profile, I’m sharing his crowdfund page, in case you feel like helping him get back into action.
James’ inspiring film “What’s Your Story?” is the true-life documentary about people who are daring to ask life’s ultimate questions. “Through sharing and listening to each other’s stories and experience we not only make everyone feel like a valued member of society, we also help drive innovation, as though sharing our thoughts and ideas we will be able to harvest more wisdom from our collective intelligence. Together we are stronger and through changing our story we can change the world.” To this end, James is a committed supporter of Off Grid Festival.
“The most enjoyable part of Off Grid Festival is feeling part of a strong, resilient community” says James. “What I really love is seeing passionate debate and people talking and the quality of that conversation across the board. Even if they disagree, there’s a way to which they disagree which is really comforting and nourishing and given the current paradigm of arguing across a room, that’s what fills me with hope.”
Hope is a big theme for James, having overcome personal tragedy when his brother died young of epilepsy and going on to pursue his dream of becoming a film maker.
“I now know that I am here to help tell a more compelling, loving and sustainable story of self. I am here to help shift the cultural narrative from unsustainable selfish greed to self-sustaining and sharing freely. The stories I tell are to help us all find or clarify our story, to help everyone discover their gifts and hopefully inspire them to share it.”
It’s time for the British to go French. I know, I know. They’re arrogant, they’re rude, they don’t like it when you try to speak their language. But here’s the thing. They don’t put up with any crap. Sorry, merde.
French people are really defensive of their way of life. It’s easy to be critical of French lorry drivers when you’re queuing at Calais and they’ve shut down the roads because they want a pay rise. And it’s a pain to be stuck at the airport when French air traffic controllers are striking for better work conditions. But these are the consequences of people standing up for what they believe in and I, for one, think it’s worth the rest of us putting up with a little discomfort to support them. After all, perhaps next time, it will be us who needs THEIR support.
How is this relevant in Britain at the moment? Well, it’s time to say, to quote our vainglorious leader: “Enough is enough!”
Remember when the referendum vote – that slim, barely noticeable majority – got turned into “the will of the people?”. It’s not so long ago. That vote for Britain to leave the European Union got hijacked into a “hard Brexit” where Britain left not only the European Union, but the single market, the protection of European laws, a respected and (relatively) stable economy and perhaps most stinging, the status of a country respected the world over as sane and tolerant. Now the Tory party are trying to do it again. The minuscule lead they have managed to maintain after an election campaign foisted on an unsuspecting nation and opposition party was designed to get a blanket mandate for all sorts of damaging policies. The dismantling of the NHS to be speeded up. The disintegration of the education system manoeuvred through increased examinations, more private schools and university tuition fees. The undermining of the police force. The shoring up of the wealthy elite with tax cuts, loopholes. And the erosion of privacy laws which protect society from human rights abuses. And how we got to this place is becoming clearer and clearer. The ideological and information systems by which people set their moral compass are rigged. The billionaires who own our newspapers, corporations and who sit on the boards of hospitals, schools and religious institutions have set the dial in their favour. We the people are effectively being screwed and we are finally waking up to the fact.
The thing about consciousness is that once it is raised, it is difficult to put it back in the box. Apartheid, Ghandi’s India, women’s liberation, the Arab Spring. Once the people have that awareness, it’s only a matter of time before it is expressed. Whether it is a slow or quick revolution depends a lot on the conditions. What freedoms are in place. How draconian is the oppression. In Britain, we have been given an opportunity. A window into a world free from austerity, oppression and divisiveness. That window is the Labour movement under Jeremy Corbyn. In just two months, he has turned a country sick with fear and anger into a country filled with hope and aspiration. He has ignited imaginations and that may be his most important gift. He has helped us see how a better future might come about.
While the US still struggles to find valid reasons to remove Trump, Britain has the chance to remove May before she makes her coalition of chaos. The union with the DUP is ill advised, not only because of their militant right wing ideologies ( anti-abortion, anti-gay rights) but also because it contravenes the hard-won Good Friday Agreement. This alliance is the height of cynicism and a desperate attempt to hold on the power. They are trying to tell us that once again it is the “will of the people”, but we’re not falling for it again.
I haven’t used this site for party political campaigning before, being somewhat of the opinion that ‘whoever you vote for, the government always wins’, but with the 2017 General Election, the UK is experiencing nothing short of a revolution and that’s pretty exciting stuff! The massive sea-change of support backing Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party has not been seen in British politics since 1945, the year that Clement Attlee’s Labour Party achieved a 12% swing against Winston Churchill’s Conservatives to gain a mandate for post-war reforms. These post-war reforms included the creation of the National Health Service, which guaranteed free health care for everyone. How fitting, then, that one of Corbyn’s strongest election pledges has been to reverse the privatisation of the NHS that has been accelerated under the present Tory government and is set, if they are elected, to continue under advice from the Naylor Review.
It would be wrong to suggest that this revolution has been bloodless. The terror attacks perpetrated over the past year have left a nation stunned and heartbroken and in this, I include the murder of Jo Cox. While the mainstream media glossed over this latter atrocity as the actions of a single lunatic, other murders have been railed against with the shrill indignancy of a country whose values are under siege. But the truth is, our shared values have been under attack from within, from cynical, greedy and violently racist political leaders and these murders are being used to justify the erosion of our human rights.
Living in the Future is not an overtly political project, but the values which underpin ideas of community and environmental care are undoubtedly left wing. What’s more, Living in the Future was born out of Undercurrents – a not-for-profit organisation which rose out of the public unrest under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative policies. At that time, it was the protests against road building and the poll tax which were ignored by right wing media. Now it is the left wing opposition itself which has been ignored. As Gill Scott-Heron predicted, the revolution is not being televised.
As a student and teacher of media studies, I have spent a lifetime arguing that there is no such thing as objectivity. That the ideologies drummed into us at home and school, by he church and other influencers, seep into our words and actions, not least as journalists. But the deliberate slanting of mainstream journalism against policies of peace and social care as put forward by Jeremy Corbyn has been nothing short of lying. And not only by the right wing tabloids, but disappointingly, by the so-called left wing Guardian newspaper as well. In a society where the gap between rich and poor is propped up by Conservative policies, with tax cuts for the wealthy and companies evading payments though they benefit both from the people and the infrastructure of the country, it’s not hard to see why a vote for the Tories is a vote to maintain the status quo.
And at a time when depression, mental illness and loneliness spread like epidemics in our world. At a time when the earth needs us to stop pillaging her bounty and start giving back, at a time when climate change threatens our very survival on this planet, we can no longer afford to appease the rich. We can no longer allow hate and division to prevail. We have to find a way to work together.
In our most recent film, Deep Listening, we explore how intentional communities, in harmony with ancient aboriginal ways, practice a quiet way of being with themselves, with the land, and with each other. This way involves us hearing the profound messages needed for healing. Healing of ourselves, of the earth and of our communities.
We need to listen to each other.
It’s not a coincidence that Jeremy Corbyn, his values and principles miraculously intact after many years in politics, expounds these very practices and aims to bring them into his government. If ever we needed someone who understand how to listen, we need it now. It won’t solve everything, of course, our system is undoubtedly broken and needs urgent attention, but if you are in the UK, it’s time to perform an act of revolution and to vote Labour on June 9th.
Note : Re: “For the Many, not the Few”
Thanks to Steve Coogan for clarifying the source of the Labour Party election slogan. In this poem, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley is speaking about non-violent direct action.
Written on the occasion of the Peterloo Massacre, Manchester 1819, Shelley begins his poem with the powerful images of the unjust forms of authority of his time “God, and King, and Law” – and he then imagines the stirrings of a radically new form of social action: “Let a great assembly be, of the fearless, of the free”. The crowd at this gathering is met by armed soldiers, but the protesters do not raise an arm against their assailants:
“Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.
And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there;
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew;
What they like, that let them do.
With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay,
Till their rage has died away:
Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!”
Note on the note…
(Shelley’s poetry sometimes had only an underground readership during his day, but his poetic achievements are widely recognized today, and his advanced political and social thought impacted the Chartist and other movements in England, and reach down to the present day. Shelley’s theories of economics and morality, for example, had a profound influence on Karl Marx; his early—perhaps first—writings on nonviolent resistance influenced both Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi.) Wikipedia.
Husband has found a novel way of dealing with pests in the garden. He eats them. Though he’s not keen on slugs (he ate one by accident and it took two days to cleanse his mouth of slime), he has developed quite an appetite for snails. In Catalunya, where we live, snails are a delicacy. So when they proved to be the culprits who were munching all the tender, young plants in our community garden, he started collecting them up. He feeds them on carrots until their poo turns orange and then fries them with garlic.
At Gaia House Retreat Centre in Devon, I discuss pest control with Will Newitt, the Garden Co-ordinator. His approach to slugs is to pop them into a container with some greens and then tip them out some distance from the centre. “It’s a real way to explore non-violence”, says Will.
I’m at Gaia House on a work retreat. Five hours a day in the garden, four hours on my cushion. It works well, not least because my body is so tired that my mind is happy to sit still. Engaged so fully in the physical world, I notice how joy arises from simple things. The sensation of warm sun on my back as I push tiny potential lettuces into pots. The chatter and squawk of crows. The excitement as seedlings I have sown emerge as bright green shoots. Will explains that the garden relies on volunteers like me to make it work. “Often people will compliment me on the garden and I accept the kindness of that, but it feels a bit fraudulent, because I’m just here for a very short amount of time. It’s whoever comes in who actually creates it. It’s many people over many years, with open hearts and with a sense of care and loving kindness and joy for what they are doing. I think that contributes something precious.”
Working in silence, I become more aware of how this cycle of being recreates itself. The garden only grows some of the food eaten at the centre, but their scraps are returned to the earth as compost, which enriches the soil to produce more food and the cycle begins again. As I harvest the last of the sprouting broccoli, other helpers are preparing beds for the next crop. Slowing down, I begin to notice the cycles everywhere. In the rhythm of day and night; the cooking and eating of lunch. Beginnings and endings. “When you really stop and look”, says Will, the teachings are there in every moment.”
Will remarks, too, on how friendly the wildlife is here. ‘I feel they are drawn to this place because it’s a safe haven. They’re not scared.” I, too, feel safe to dive deeply. Stripped of all the doing in my normal life, there is plenty of time to simply be. I feel content with this. It is enough. I am not seeking excitement, nor entertainment, nor distraction. I am not even seeking ‘liberation’, but it occurs to me that this might, in fact, be something like it.
In his talk one evening, the teacher, Stephen Batchelor, speaks about solitude. On a retreat, he says, we seek solitude amongst others. Alone with our thoughts, feelings, sensations, we have an opportunity to slow down, to watch our breath and feel the beat of our heart. At this time, he suggests, we come close to the fragility of our own life. We understand that any moment, it might end and we will come face to face with death. He directs us to the walking room, where a real skeleton sits in full meditation pose.
As if to reinforce the teaching, the following day as I am sitting in meditation when I hear a thud at the window. I look up just in time to see a dark shape fall away. A fluttering blue tit looks down, a quizzical tilt to its head. I get up and go outside to find a thrush, lying face down, wings spread. Reaching out towards the bird, not yet sure if it is alive, it startles awake and hops into the undergrowth. The following day, underneath one of the apple trees I find a thrush. Its body is stiff, wings tightly folded. Will and I agree to leave it there for a while and I garland the body with dandelions, strung together in the way I wove them as a girl. Bright yellow encircling the small, dead form.
Back in our garden in Catalunya, I meditate amongst the rows of vegetables. In the warmth of the midday sun, I arrive briefly at a place of stillness before words bubble into my consciousness. Limpiar. Cuidar. Plantar. Esperar. Weed. Care for. Plant. Wait.
With this simple set of gardening instructions, the land speaks to me. But then wait, there is more…”Don’t forget to Disfrutar!”
Enjoy. Don’t forget to enjoy.
Because who knows when we will be halted by our own fly-into-the-window moment?
I’m sitting in a sunny garden on a family farm in West Wales. Birds singing. Cows lowing. Wispy clouds skimming the horizon. It’s hard to believe that our world is in the midst of environmental crisis. I’ve been invited to Bronhaul by Abel Pearson. A permaculture graduate, Abe is turning part of his family’s farm over to Community Supported Agriculture, envisaging a time when his small acreage in Carmarthenshire is the “breadbasket of Bancyfelin”. Together with his energised and forward-thinking parents, he imagines hosting workshops for local children to learn how to grow food, and retreats so that people can experience the replenishing effect of immersion in nature. Inspired by projects he has encountered around the world, Abe is planning a sustainable, resilient future living close to the land. He will be carrying out regenerative activities to increase plant and wildlife biodiversity by creating a closed-loop cycle which can continue through generations to come.
I met Abe a year ago, high in the Catalonian pyrenees. I was on a meditation retreat and he was a member of the Ecodharma community, a centre for radical ecology and dharma, for sustainable activism, permaculture and nature-based practice. In discussion over a hearty vegan community lunch, he discovered that I made the series of eco-films he had watched on the Living in the Future website. He told me the films had helped inspire him to turn his dreams for Bronhaul farm into a reality. I tell you this because in the midst of political turmoil, it’s easy to get disheartened and fearful. To fall into despair. But then something comes along that gives you hope, and it may be as simple as watching a film.
As part of the Wales One World Film Festival, Abe and I watch the enlightening and hopeful documentary Demain (Tomorrow). Shocked by statistics about the world their unborn child will inherit, the directors embark on a global journey to discover stories of hope. They explore urban food gardens, local currencies and sustainably-run factories. They investigate new democracies and groundbreaking school systems. What the projects have in common is their determination to look toward the future and to imagine the kind of world we will be living in. Where fossil fuel is no longer an option and where people are empowered through autonomy and imagination.
There’s a lot of talk at the moment about how we need to tell ourselves a new story but sometimes, there are old stories to be revived too, if perhaps with a new twist. What Abe is doing with his family farm is re-working an old model in a way that is more suitable for the times we are facing. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) offers a re-connection for the local community with the land and with each other, whilst supporting a small enterprise to grow vegetables and fruit in a sustainable way. To get some more inspiration, Abe and I visit Cae Tan, a CSA in the heart of Gower, near Swansea. Founder Tom O’Kane tells us :
“People are craving something that makes sense in our natural environment. They really like the connection of knowing the person that’s growing their food and seeing the place where its coming from. There were loads of market gardens on Gower, people were running businesses on areas much smaller than this and it’s been a really short timescale since everything stopped. There’s no reason why it couldn’t be turned around again. There are lots of young people proving that this is a really good business here and they’re having a lot of fun! So they’re selling the idea really well.”
Employee Francesca started WWOOFing on organic farms in Portugal and Germany before landing a job here in Cae Tan. “I love the veg and I love being outside and getting my hands dirty. We now have a project idea for selling leafy greens an high value crops and selling them to restaurants.”
At the end of the day, Abel is buzzing with ideas to take back to Bronhaul farm. “I’m very inspired to see this happening in more places. I dream of a day when this is just the norm.”
In Buddhist circles, January is traditionally a month for retreat. It is the time of the monsoon, when the nomadic life of Gautama and his disciples was hampered by the rains. Instead of their usual pattern of roaming and teaching, they stayed in one place, waiting out the weather until the spring allowed them to once more take their message to the villages. With Husband away for 10 days visiting family, I decide to engage in a self-retreat, committing to stay in one place, more or less, until his return. It’s a way of connecting deeply to myself, but I’ve also been thinking that it’s a way of building resilience.
At the beginning of my retreat I impose boundaries, choosing the lines I draw between ‘normal’ and ‘retreat’ life, making an intention to limit those habits which I know take me away from my present state of being. I decide, above all, to limit my use of media. For me, there is no better tool for producing a sense of FOMO – or missing out on something, than trolling through Facebook! In addition to this, I commit to a daily practice of those things which enhance my sense of being present. Yoga and a daily walk – to bring me into my body. Meditation, to quiet and centre my mind. I add in a writing practice, to exercise creativity and ground my energy, but I promise myself that I will not expect productivity, which helps me approach it in a relaxed way.
The retreat begins as usual, with me feeling very tired. It’s as though in the very act of turning my attention inward, I come face to face the effort of daily life. I sleep more in the first day and on the second, I really enjoy the stillness and softness of a warm home and little activity. On the third, my energy starts to rise and I feel surges of spontaneous joy. My walk takes me through the local village, which is celebrating the Festa Mayor of Sant Pau. What strikes me now about these festivities is how they manage to include the whole community. How everyone takes such pride in their role. An hour before the parade begins, I see people dressed in traditional costume walking purposefully through the village. Their white shirts and pants are immaculate, contrasting impressively with the bright red and blue of their shoes, belts, cravats and headscarfs. Small bells attached to their ankles jingle excitedly as they walk. There is a sense of anticipation in the air.
In Catalonia, no festival is complete without a correfoc, a ‘fire run’, evolved from mediaeval street theatre. Bands of young people dressed in painted hessian cloaks hold aloft fireworks which rain sparks onto the crowds lining the street. Their hoods are adorned with bright red horns, their clothing painted with images of demons and fire. It’s not hard to work out the symbology. This is an ancient standoff between good and evil. These devils are followed by dancers, clearly from the same origins as Morris and Ceilidh dancers, leaping and jumping and swinging each other around, or bashing sticks one against another with a force that suggests the moves, like the katas in karate, mimic combat. Each crew of ‘devils’ is accompanied by an ear-splitting samba band. Each set of dancers by jovial pipers. The whole procession lasts an hour or more and winds up with a moving maypole attended by male and female young people and topped with an extremely lifelike owl. Back in my retreat space, I can hear the sound of real owls hooting in the forest around me as fireworks resound through the valley.
Maintaining my retreat intention, it seems fitting to join the celebratory mass at the hermitage the following morning. The day breaks cold, gray and rainy and as the same parade weaves out from the town centre, plumes of smoke from fireworks fill the damp morning air. The sinister sound of drums moves closer and closer, the fizz, splutter and bang of explosions creating a stir in the atmosphere. I am reminded of the noise and clatter of Tibetan horns, bells and symbals as the buddhas are summoned for a puja. Up close, it can be an unnerving experience. There is little doubt that the spirits are responding, for when the monks play like this, the room crackles with energy. This morning, two new players have appeared in the throng. A woman and a girl in the same fireproof gear join the head of the procession, but instead of demons in yellow and red, their cloaks are painted in white and blue with angels and doves . Amongst the noise and hubris of bedevilment, they make a calm case for the peace and innocence.
Inside the church, where it is standing room only, I am moved to contemplation. The choirmaster conducts a willing congregation, producing melodic harmonies which rise past the elaborate chandelier to the simple arched ceiling. Outside, the dancers continue the procession, filling the space outside the church with a party atmosphere. A makeshift bar is doing a roaring trade in patatas bravas and beer. It seems that the whole town is here and everyone, from the smallest child to the greyest elder has a costume and a role to play.
A week later, I walk the same path past the hermitage and out into the vineyards. I am accompanied by three other ‘pilgrims’ on a small yatra, a meditative walk, mostly in silence, to celebrate Imbolc, the beginning of Spring in the Celtic calendar. Empty shells of fireworks litter the path and along the way we pause to take in the scent of rosemary and thyme growing abundantly in the wayside. All through the fields, the vines are bare, stretched out and prepared for leaves that will soon appear. Warm rays of sunshine have broken through the early mist and we peel off layers as we walk. Pink and white almond blossom, thronged with happy bees, gives pause for reflection.
In challenging times, these resources will create resilience.
Connection to self, connection to each other and connection to nature.
Boodaville. The name is a play on words, taking itself lightly, but underpinned with intention. This is not a folly. This is wisdom in action. The land is 1.5 hectares of tracks and terraces and trees on the border of Aragon and Catalonia. “Cross the blue bridge and take a left” says Anna Gurney, the permaculture teacher and activist who owns this land and runs the eco-project. Of course we miss the turning, and need to drive ahead some way and turn around.
All the best places I visit seem to be at the end of a bumpy track. At my home in Holtsfield, we have both a bumpy track (at the front) and a muddy lane at the back. The residents call the back lane “the time tunnel” because it seems, in this tunnel as it does on the track, that time slows down. You slow down. Somewhere between the worlds, a switch is flicked and the magical zone is entered. In this magical zone, anything can, and does happen.
What happens at Boodaville today is a permablitz. A group of enthusiastic people in shorts and sturdy shoes inhabit a newly-landscaped terrace. In huddles of three or four, they crouch, tending the soil, building small hills of compost and thumbing in favas (beans) and small plants of broccoli and spinach. The chatter is multi-lingual, strings of Spanish and English, smatterings of German and Portuguese. A slender woman with an indeterminate accent encourages us, initiates new tasks, and generally keeping things going. Progress is both swift and congenial.
On a higher terrace, a makeshift but functional kitchen is buzzing with life and the aroma of cooking wafts around, making me aware of my hunger. In a sort while, the group will gather to eat a hearty plate of stew and rice with fresh salad leaves and the conversation will crank up into laughter and even song. But when I mention “hippies” to Anna, her response is dismissive. So where does the inspiration for Boodaville come from?
“It was a silly nickname given to me in my early twenties.” says Anna, a little embarrassed. “The first event we had was a birthday party, which got called Boodaville. Then the next event followed and still got called Boodaville. Then there was the festival…After a few years, it just stuck. So it was unintentional but it sounds a bit like buddha and there are lots of things about buddhas that we like.”
Anna’s modesty is a clue to the ethos behind the project, which is all about community. All of the events, training and workshops are designed to be collaborative and Anna’s long-term plan is that the land will be split between four families, who will live there as an eco-village.
“ With lots of projects, there is one person that is determined to make it happen, and that’s me. I always wanted it to be about permaculture and then I realised how close this community-led approach was to the ethos of permaculture, so it was entirely appropriate. People underestimate how hard it is to get a community project up and running and they often fail before they manage to buy land. Now I feel that having the initial bit done through our courses, activities, buildings, etc, will give the future community a head start.”
On the land, participants drift back to the garden to finish the day’s productivity and I take a look around, walking up the steep hill to admire the view over mountains both near and far. A newly-built cottage in traditional Catalan style will house a floor-full of tired party-goers this evening and the geodesic dome is being prepared for music and dancing.
“We always say that if it’s not fun, it’s not sustainable.” states Anna. It’s important to make sure people enjoy themselves. In order to learn, you have to be emotionally engaged with something – or at least, you learn much better.“
The day’s activities in the garden round off with a small ceremony – a tree planting to honour the life of Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture who has recently died. Bill suggested that if people want to celebrate his life then there could be no action more fitting than to plant a tree, so here we are, holding hands in a circle, moving slowly around so that each of us can splash a symbolic handful of water onto a young almond sapling. I’m amused when the leader of the ceremony invites us to sound an OM together, which we do. Anna, holding hands as part of the circle enjoys the moment as much as anyone, though it somehow runs contrary to her claim of it being a “non-hippy’ environment!
A couple of weeks after visiting Boodaville, I am inspired to see whether we can pull off a permablitz in our area. I open a Meetup group, which quickly gathers 15 members, some of whom sign up for a day at our property, sharing some activities. The day is even more successful than I could have hoped and we adopt Anna’s model of emphasising a good, long, lunch and plenty of conversation. We get a load of things done and people give each other big hugs when they leave, talking what they’d like to achieve at the next permablitz! The focus on shared activity, shared food and shared learning makes a container for activity that is permaculture all over. If you haven’t already tried it, my advice is – don’t wait! Find your local permaculture group and pitch in with a project. Time spent collaboratively is good for the soul. You’ll most likely learn something new, share a great lunch and maybe, like me, you might even make some new friends.