Category Archives: Sustainability & Environment

Wayside cross on the Camino de Santiago

Camino de Santiago – tourist trap or spiritual path?

We start early, woken by the keen energy of other Camino pilgrims and greeted outside by a star, falling through crisp, dark sky. Since we began our walk, the moon has waned from a full, bright round to craggy quarter. A dirt road takes us around lanes, between village homes still quiet with sleep, until we reach an intersection where a highway, already busy at this early hour, leads us precariously onward. Spooked by huge trucks passing at fierce speed, we’re relieved to see the beckoning lights of a cafe,  countertop replete with warm empanadas, fresh croissants and an almond cake named for Saint Santiago. As we offer our credential booklets for the pligrim’s stamp I wonder, are cafes the new churches?

Busy Pilgrim Cafe
Busy Pilgrim Cafe

Although there is some sadness in this being the final section in our Camino Way, my feet will be glad to finish. These past few days, I’ve been walking with the assistance of efficient painkillers that I’m pretty sure were not available to the first pilgrims in mediaeval times. Blisters upon blisters upon blisters. Ouch. I blame the asphalt roads – hard and unyielding to human feet. There are too many of these for me. I prefer the quiet of forests which, being full of eucalypts, are achingly reminiscent of our time in the forests of Tasmania. Imported to control erosion and as fast-growing timber, eucalypts are causing havoc in Portugal, covering up to 7% of the land. As in Australia, they make great fuel for forest fires, and as climate change ramps up the summer temperatures, both these countries are re-considering how to manage these magnificent trees.

Stepping aside from the path, we lie down on dry, sweet-smelling leaf litter and gaze up through the cathedral of trees to a denim blue patch of sky. After a scramble for beds at the auberge on the first two days, we took the decision from then on to book ahead and skip the stress. After all, what Way does not include time to stand and stare? In addition to soulful wayside dreamings, my companions and I make time for daily reflections. These practices add richness and meaningfulness to our journey – an inner element to weave alongside the outer scenery.

Cathedral of Eucalypts
Cathedral of Eucalypts

During the tough bits, I plugged one ear into my i-pod and listened to The Good People by Hannah Kent. Kent iridescently imagines rural Ireland in the 1800s when the local “doctress” – a local medicine woman – finds her ‘old ways’ outlawed by the church. Treading these ancient Galician pathways graced with autumn fruits and nuts, elderberries, blackberries and hedgerow mint, I am reminded how the land holds so many cures for our ills and how women were mostly the ones who held the knowledge of how to use them. It was a male-dominated clergy who helped push them out and a patriarchal university system which monopolised the medical profession to which women – no matter how skilled or priviliged – were not admitted. What was I doing then, walking along a Christian pilgrim route? And amongst the masculine icons, where were the peregrinas – the symbols of female power? I sit quietly in a wayside chapel to contemplate this, but am interrupted by a babble of pilgrims, bustling into the chapel to take pictures and gather a stamp for their Camino credencial. Once again I question – what am I doing here, hoping for a spiritual experience at a time when the spiritual path has been replaced by the route to the next coffee shop?

Capela da Virxe Peregrina, Pontevedra, Galicia
Capela da Virxe Peregrina, Pontevedra, Galicia

The following morning, we arrive in Pontevedra, its ancient town centre now lauded for extensive pedestrianisation. Walking the quiet streets, we are drawn into a rounded church where, to my surprise, the image of a woman gazes down at us from the vestry. The frieze above her depicts a donkey on which rides a pregnant woman. In this way, the elegant Capela da Virxe Peregrina seems to answer my question. Yes, there is still magic to be found on the Camino and yes, it’s available for all of us.

 

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garden-harvest-2018

Harvest Gatherings

In the Anglo-Saxon calendar, September is known as Hāligmonath, or “holy month,” when traditionally, people came together to celebrate the bounty of summer.  I remember Harvest Festival from my childhood, bringing ripe plums and crisp apples to school and church, piling them up on the table amongst pumpkins and sunflowers. I was thinking about this last week whilst clearing and tidying our garden beds. After the crazy abundance of July and August, it’s satisfying to see things clear and fresh again, but it’s also time for taking stock – what worked really well for us this year and what might need re-thinking?  In gardening, as in life, you tend to get out what you put in and once again, we’re considering which vegetables and fruits give the best value for our time and money. This summer, aside from the reliable abundance of tomatoes, we’ve been lucky with the squash family – not only courgettes but also pumpkins, butternuts and delicious, sun-ripened melons. As a result, we’re looking forward to an autumn of soups, tarts and warm salads, generously sided with this year’s chutneys and relishes.

Home Made Spicy Tomato Relish
Home Made Spicy Tomato Relish

Gardening as a spiritual practice

Gardening is often used as an analogy for inner work. Buddhist teacher and activist Thich Nhat Hahn has this to say :

“When I am experiencing a difficult feeling, I often choose to bring to mind a beautiful, positive memory to comfort me and to water the seeds of hope in my consciousness.”

Back in my own garden, whilst pulling up deep, far-reaching weeds, I contemplate how I need to keep working at the root causes of anger and fear, preparing the ground for the seeds of peace and contentment.  One of my teachers, Christopher Titmuss, has a meditation he likes to do with children. Holding a biscuit, he asks the children to tell him where the biscuit came from. Initial responses are obvious. “From the packet”, “from the shop” or maybe, if they are lucky, “from the oven.” If the biscuits are home made, it might be easy to see who put the ingredients together, but they still need to look deeper to identify the work of transporting the grain, making and selling the butter, shipping the sugar. Looking deeper still, they eventually see the farmers, but even deeper inquiry shows them the earth, the sun and the rain. Growing food gives us this kind of connection on a daily basis, along with a healthy dose of humility when attempting to manage the elements of sun, rain and wind!

Christopher Titmuss Biscuit Meditation
Christopher Titmuss Biscuit Meditation

Here in Catalunya, harvest time means grapes. Last weekend, we took a meditation group to the vineyards and spent a pleasant afternoon wandering mindfully amongst rows of juicy fruit. When we came to taste the wine, we paused to remember the rich, red soil; the smell of ripe grapes and the many farmers who have tended the vines over generations. With focussed awareness, we were able to taste in the wine the lightness of air, the freshness of rain and the heat of summer sun. In addition to feelings of joy and gratitude, we were able to connect with our own deep knowing – sowing seeds of hope and wisdom for when we next meet difficult times.

mediation walk
Meditation Walk. Photo: Julie Bryant

 

Wine Tasting in the Vineyards
Wine Tasting in the Vineyards. Photo : Monica Garcia Hurtado

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Off Grid Festival

Hand in Hand – The nature of reciprocity

“When times are easy and there’s plenty to go around, individual species can go it alone. But when conditions are harsh and life is tenuous, it takes a team sworn to reciprocity to keep life going forward. In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.” 

This is a quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass, a book so inspiring that  I used another excerpt to begin a recent article for The Ecologist. That article draws a parallel between the way sweetgrass is grown and the way wisdom is passed on “hand to earth to hand” and how, in places such as  Off Grid Festival, we can practice this reciprocity whilst learning tools and techiques to help bring about a more resilient world.

The Economist article discusses the permaculture principle of the edge effect, which is about all the juicy stuff that goes on at the edges and how the zones between systems and cultures tend to be creative, fertile, abundant places. Off Grid Festival is one such space, perched as it is on the edge of mainstream culture. Braiding Sweetgrass is an example of this too – a book exploring the intersection between modern science and traditional lore. A botanist who is also a member of the native Potawatomi people, the writer speaks from the margins – between two cultures each running counter to society’s established norms.

As a female scientist, Kimmerer faces the derision of male counterparts who consider her thinking irrelevant, insignificant or just plain wrong. Her Native American wisdom exists only thanks to the stubborn refusal of her ancestors to surrender their world view to those who thought they knew better. From these cultural edges, she creates a fusion which is a powerful testimony to motherhood, belonging and indigenous wisdom that manages to be both unique and universal.

Braiding Sweetgrass was recommended to me by Claire Dunn, an Australian writer and wilderness guide who has made it her mission to bring nature wisdom to urban dwellers. In this way she, too, creates meaning from the intersection of two cultures – three, if you count also the culture of the feminine. In addition to ancient and modern wisdoms, both Claire and Robin Wall Kimmerer offer a perspective that my Catalan friend and healer Esther Pallejá Lozeno might call mano izquierda.

“No tener mano izquierda” is an expression said to originate in the bull fighting ring, where the right hand – mano derecho – is the hand of action and force, and the left – mano izquierda – is the hand which is linked to intuition and skilful means. A person with mano izquierda has the ability to handle difficult situations with sensitivity, even using a ‘sixth sense’, whereas someone said to be lacking in this will appear tactless and undiplomatic. It’s not hard to see someone with mano izquierda is displaying qualities associated with the feminine.

In traditional medicine and yoga, the left side of the body is linked to the feminine, but as with many other left-handed associations, the expression in Spanish also has the sense of acting with cunning and trickery. In some cultures, left-handedness is said to be linked with the devil and children have been discouraged from writing with their left hand. It is painful, yet unsurprising that in a patriarchal world, this left-handed/ left sidedness, along with many other ‘feminine’ qualities, has been devalued.

Gently yet persuasively, Kimmerer asks us to re-evaluate. What if, along with honouring Mother Nature and Mother Earth, we could honour this more intuitive, feminine approach? Might it bring about a more gentle, respectful way of being in the world? A more attentive way of listening – to ourselves, to each other and to Nature herself? And in so doing, might we facilitate a more reciprocal kind of culture, the kind of culture about which indigenous people – both male and female – speak so wistfully?

“Science and traditonal knowledge may ask different questions and speak different languages, but they may converge when both truly listen to the plants.”

Reciprocity requires that we recognise the value of the other and enter into a mutual relationship. We see that masculine  energy allows us to act decisively and with strength, while the feminine brings a more feeling tone, concerning itself with the WAY that we do things – or sometimes, the way that we do NOT do things. A feminine way of being might ask that we wait longer, rest often, take more time to be. Between these two cultures – the culture of the masculine and the culture of the feminine, we can find harmony, balance and equality as well as reciprocity.

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The Future is Now

Circling in…re-tuning and re-attuning…this is a key foundation for sustainable living.
To keep growing and learning, we all need to find our edge…
Back in 2008, Living in the Future began as a project documenting ecovillages and low impact communities in the UK and beyond. It was hard not to be concerned about the way things were going but as well as saying ‘no’, I wanted something to which I could say ‘yes’! Our team set about recording positive alternatives to mainstream lifestyles and twelve years on, Living in the Future engages in all aspects of this question, from natural building and offgrid living to food, health and nature connection. As well as the physical impact of this way of living, the human context is becoming increasingly evident. Society is facing a collapse in emotional and mental well-being and we find ourselves embracing an eco-spiritual edge. In permaculture, the edge effect describes how there is a greater diversity of life in the region where two adjacent ecosystems overlap, such as land/water, or forest/grassland.

Where is the fertile ground between ecology and spirituality?

Sustainable Living is more than an eco-house, more then a veggie garden, more than planning laws and turf roofs, though all of this is relevant and necessary. Sustainable living has to encompass the whole of it. The soul of it. The way we live includes our humanity, our community and our relationships – with ourselves, with the land and with each other. Filmmaker, writer, environmentalist and human rights advocate, I am also a yoga teacher and a meditation guide and my lifestyle encompasses all of these aspects. Many years ago, I made a commitment to earning my living through Right Livelihood and with your support,  the Living in the Future project has helped me do that. Part art, part activism, we endeavour to bring fresh conversations, fresh inspirations and a fresh perspective.

The data laws in Europe are changing and whilst we understand from our providers that we are fully compliant and feel comfortable that you do not object to receiving these updates, we’re taking this opportunity to reach out with a question that those who publish always ask themselves. What you want to hear from us?

We’d love this to be an opportunity for constructive feedback, so we’ve created this little survey. If you have 5 minutes to spare, please help us refine our content to keep you curious…

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Off Grid Festival – A Thriving Alternative

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.

Relaxing in the Thrive area at off Grid Festival
Relaxing in the Thrive area at off Grid Festival

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.

seize-the-day1
Seize the Day

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!

Barefoot Broadcast
Barefoot Broadcaster meets Guy Coxall

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.”

Support James’ fundraiser to help repair his van and get him filmmaking again!
https://www.gofundme.com/ydfek-keep-on-trucking

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The Revolution is not being Televised

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.

nhs

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.

tv
The Revolution will not be 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.

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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.

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Life, Death and Gardening

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.

Will Newitt at Gaia House Garden

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.”

seedlings-web
Seedlings emerging

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.”

Gaia Garden Greens
Gaia Garden Greens

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.

Meditation Hall at Gaia House
Meditation Hall at Gaia House

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.

Skeleton at Gaia House

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.

A fallen thrush
Fallen Thrush

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?

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Community Supported Agriculture

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.

Bronhaul Farm Garden
Bronhaul Farm. Bancyfelin, Carmarthenshire

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.

Cae Tan CSA
Cae Tan Community Supported Agriculture. Gower, Wales

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.”

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Boodaville Permaculture in Spain

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.

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Boodaville Permaculture Project, Catalonia

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.

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Permablitz – a shared permaculture activity

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!

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Planting a tree in memory of Bill Mollison

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.

permablitz at a property in Spain
Permablitz!
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The all-important long lunch

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Average, Normal People

The recent revelation that Theresa May’s UK government is set to override the wishes of folk in Lancashire and pave the way for fracking in their county. Locals petitioned their council to bar the practice on the grounds that it is potentially environmentally damaging and dangerous and the council agreed. Now the government have overturned that decision and given the go-ahead for exploratory exploration of coal seam gas in Lancashire. This authoritarian, dismissive act started me thinking about a discussion I was having the other day about “average, normal people”

It was early on a Saturday morning after a wedding party and we were having a fry-up in a seafront cafe. I had picked up a newspaper from the ones available at the cafe and it started there. The paper was one I wouldn’t usually read. Its views are pretty much diametrically opposed to mine, but as it turns out, so were my friend’s.

My habit with a weekend paper is to read out an article which has caught my eye and offer my opinion. “Hey!” I say. “Listen to this!” On this occasion, the exchange began with a journalist who thought that offering a help-line after the Archers’ storyline of domestic abuse was namby-pamby. “Who could possibly be upset by that?” he asked. “Surely there are more noble recipients of our sympathy, like soldiers, for instance?” Well I don’t wish to take anything from soldiers, of course, PTSD is a real thing and they could do with more recognition for it, not less. However…

The latest figures show that seven women a month are killed by their partners in England and Wales. 1.4 million women will suffer domestic abuse in the UK this year, mostly at the hands of their (male) partners. if that were a virus, it would be an epidemic. It follows that there must be a huge number of women affected by trauma, sometimes after years of emotional and physical abuse which too often ends in hospitalisation and in many cases, death. I pointed out that the author of the piece was a white middle aged man. I thought it relevant. White, middle-aged men hold a lot of power in the world. Their collective voice is pretty loud. In contrast, the voices of abused women are small and easy to drown out. Like I say, I thought it relevant.

My friend disagreed and took offence. Or rather defence. My feminist analysis clearly touched a nerve and he rejected the idea that patriarchy was a force for the oppression of women. “Patriarchy is an historical fact”. I argued, admittedly taking the bait. I treated him to a brief outline of the ways that patriarchy was evident in modern society – in the system of patrilineage that had rubbed out generations of women from the records and robbed millions of their inheritances; in the fact that men sit at the top of a vast majority of global organisations, hold power in the media, in education, in politics. He argued that we have a female prime minister. I countered that in order for women to hold such a role, they had to play a game of politics defined by machismo and strength. He said he’d rather have a leader strong in negotiations than a wimp.

This week, journalist Zoe Williams said it better than I could when commenting on Donald Trump’s boasting about assaulting women. Although loathe to argue that a female point of view exists in politics, Zoe suggests starting with freedom from violence and reproductive autonomy as good “muster points”. She goes on to point out “A constant eye on the future, a calm assurance that not everything of value can be counted, a love of international co-operation and respect for the institutions it has created, a knowledge that some things are too important to be left to the market, an empathy with the dispossessed : there is nothing essentially feminine about these ideas, yet where no women are, you never hear them.” I wished she had been there to put those ideas before my friend.
Our argument, for argument it was by now, lurched on, until my friend came out with the phrase “Average normal people”. That was it. The voice of Nigel Farage and his Brexit crowing ringing in my ears, I got up and left the cafe.
Outside in the early autumn sunshine, locals and tourists wandered up and down the promenade, enjoying their weekend stroll. I all but collapsed into one of the seafront seats. Tears came. If even my friends think like this, what hope is there? I moaned inwardly. I re-ran the discussion in my mind, trying to come to a place of peace and trying to understand what on earth he, and Nigel Farage meant by the phrase “Average normal people”.

This conversation mattered little. It was just a weekend morning chat in a lazy cafe in Wales, but when the words are uttered by a politician, they matter a lot. By uttering these words, a politician is inferring that you and s/he are the same, which, merely by virtue of their privileged position, let alone the opportunities that probably came about to help them get there, is rarely the case. (I acknowledge there are some notable exceptions to this but they are the exceptions that prove the rule). The language of politicians is designed to make us feel that we are all in the same boat, but we’re not. At least, we might be, but it is only they who have access to the first class suite and the life rafts.

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