Monday, 21 December 2009

the darkest hour

Pretty much everyone agreed that the Climate Talks at Copenhagen failed. Although it was brilliant to have all the world's leaders agree, in one room, the scientific imperative of keeping our global temperature under 2 degrees, they failed to make an agreement that would make it happen.

The commonly agreed target for safe levels of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million (ppm). We've already overshot that: there is currently around 388 ppm in the atmosphere, with a need to reduce emissions as soon as possible to safe levels. According to my daughter Sophia, a calculation of emissions agreed in Copenhagen would lead to a very unsafe level of CO2 of over 700ppm by the end of the century and we'd have reached the point of no return long before that.

Two commentators have this to say today in the aftermath of Copenhagen.

In Requiem for a Crowded Planet, the Guardian's George Monbiot
gives us some bitter medicine

Johann Hari wrote in the Independent that we're finally realising that Daddy is not going to look after us and only grassroots practical and even protest action will get us the changes needed.

I've been struggling with despair for the planet for again lately, which is not good for my new-refound physical health nor my mental health. I don't know where to put this information, and I wonder if anyone does. My belief in God has transformed into worship and gratitude more akin to that of indigenous people so that's no help. Perhpas, as Philip Carr-Gomm said on the solstice on the tump yesterday, when it's dark, just wait. The light will come.

I will have 10 days off with my family and friends over Christmas. I'll eat and laugh and sit by the fire and walk in the cold. I'll love my wonderful life. And then, come the new year, I'll start again to do whatever I can, anything in my power, to Be the Change I want to see. I've seen this coming and, alongside many others, I'll see it through.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

the joy of socks

I recently visited the Land Girls exhibition at Brighton's Pavilion museum. It's a vivid illustration of how a group of people respond to a sudden change in circumstances. The general message was that although life was tough for the young women volunteering to feed the nation during the wars, good times were had. Freed from the binds of domestic life, some women, certainly, seemed to come into their power, driving huge tractors, managing teams of workhorses, barrowing muck from dawn to dusk. There are some hilarious stories, some from videoed interviews, of sharing bath water between several people and parties at the local officer's mess.

The girls were issued uniforms, with strict instructions about how to maintain them. Along with three pairs of socks came the advice to darn them using the gusset of old pairs of socks. Those well-worn socks looked so robust, so much better than the flimsy socks I get from M&S, on which darning hasn't worked, and which need constant replacing. So when I walked past Cathy Darcy's excellent Vintage Shirt Company on Mount Place, and saw some very fine pairs of English socks in the window, I had to buy a pair.

Made of Shetland wool in subtle colours, these socks are a wonder to behold and, frankly, I haven't taken them off since buying them. Along with a warm head, warm feet are important in winter. And although they cost £22, they are eminently darn-able, so these socks and I, we're going a long way together.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Behind the white noise

In the lead up to the UN's Copenhagen Climate Conference this month I'm feeling a sense of awe and prayerfulness. The understanding of our planet's situation deepens and matures, with some insightful pieces of writing. Behind the white noise of Christmas advertising, some of us are starting painfully to understand the degree to which we are all complicit, as western consumers, in an unstable world, of which climate change - waves of rain, flood, heat - is only one symptom. And we're slowly, achingly, waking up to the idea that a better future is within our reach.
Last week, around 100 people of all shapes and sizes turned up at Lewes New School to discuss the future of North Street, since the developer's companies, who bought the acres of riverfront land, have gone bankrupt. In the Open Space discussion that ensued, lots and lots of fabulous ideas emerged, which will be presented to the town for discussion. Ideas for the land, healthy, sane, useful, inclusive ideas are emerging from people who live and work in Lewes, including those really essential people who work on North Street. These acres, surely, should be kept for a resilient, practical transition, rather than to feed one person's greedy neediness.
And despite all the western world's displacement activity, which includes flying here, there and everywhere for crazy reasons - holidays, spiritual retreats, sunshine, weddings, last chance to see... - some people, many people, are discovering that slow and simple are what we want anyway. Slow and simple. Breathe. Relax. The poet, Wendell Berry, says it all.

Friday, 27 November 2009

eating local

It's great to see a new butcher in Lewes as Martin Tebbutt of Boathouse Farm recently moved in to the Riverside. He sells almost exclusively local, organic meat, the best kind, really, for all sorts of common sense reasons. Recently, when I couldn't get to Boathouse's farm shop outside Lewes, I bought an organic chicken from Waitrose, and found it insipid and unsettling.

There's been an interesting debate about the future of meat in a low-carbon world recently, with Sir Nicholas Stern of the Stern Report suggested we become vegetarians. That's fine, if you're inclined to be one, but I do like to eat a small amount of local, organic, meat about once a week. In fact, I'm moving rather away from pulses, grown overseas and more towards local food, with high proportions of nutrition-packed local fruit and vegetables and small amounts of high-quality protein. Last weekend I got a small amount of stewing steak from Boathouse and stewed it in loads of gravy, long and slow with leeks, swede and carrots and topped the whole thing with a thick layer of sliced potatoes. The meat cost £2 for the four of us and the whole thing less than a quid a head. Yum yum!

Traditionally, that would have been a typical meal, with the Downs supporting sheep and the market gardens supplying our veg. Now, of course, the dozen or so market gardens of Lewes are all car parks and housing developments. An acre of land on North Street, now that it's no longer in the hands of Angel Properties, would grow a huge proportion of Lewes's food in raised beds, which is what they reverted the car parks to in Havana when Cuba ran short of oil recently. Growing on North St would also be a great source of training and employment, and a real, handy use for an area that was always a productive, working area and, let's face it, never really meant for a developer to grab for housing and take out of community use (come to this Saturday's hugely important Open Space if you want influence the future of the land).

All around the world, amazing urban food projects are springing up in vacant lots. In Chicago, where there are huge problems with urban blight, residential areas are being re-zoned and re-prioritised for food production over housing. And in Britain, Incredible Edible Todmorden, with the support of the council and businesses, is aiming to grow a significant amount of its food within the town.

According to Local Food, a Transition book, there is a myriad of ways to grow food locally. Transition Town Lewes's food group, for example, has run a successful Open Kitchen Gardens project, opening edible gardens for public inspiration; its Food up Front Lewes has run a year's pilot and is considering another year; Common Cause is running food-growing workshops on the community Lottie, and a few transitioners created, in an afternoon, Eat Lewes, a mini forest garden of perennial edibles in a tiny triangle of land outside my house. In this, its first year, the plot yielded rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, tayberries, horseradish, 10 different herbs and greens, and an impossible amount of Jerusalem artichokes.

I also notice an increasing number of Lewesians growing food on land out front of their houses, a celebration of resilience. You can grow loads of food on small urban patches, measured in food feet, and it's terrifically exciting to think of the delicious food we'll be growing all over Lewes in a decade's time.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

plastic forever

I've just returned from visiting our oldest daughter Sophia as she settles in to life at Exeter University in Falmouth, Cornwall, where she's studying environmental geography. It's been a strange experience having my first child, who's been with me for 20 years, leave home. I don't miss her, or my second daughter Anna who's also left home recently, although I think of them both very, very often. I have a sense that they're still with me, in a timeless way.

I've returned from my visit feeling excited by Sophia's idealism and optimism in her new life. As part of her new, experimental life, Sophia's decided to give up plastic for a week, inspired by a fellow student who has been living what she calls post-plastic consumption for three weeks. Her friend Ruthie 'got to the point where she physically felt sick when she threw away plastic. Because it can't disappear - that's only an illusion - it stays around for a very long time.'

Curious, I asked Sophia for tips for people reading this column about how to kick plastic out of shopping. She told me, 'The main way of doing this is being prepared in advance - taking tupperware with you when you go to the fishmongers, carrying cotton bags, having a network of friends who can help each other out, like picking apples from your neighbours' trees when they're not using them. I'm not using supermarkets as there are enough local shops around and I have the time. It's a very idealistic way of living because there's not a widescale framework for this way of living.

'The main reason I'm doing this,' she told me, 'apart from reducing my carbon-embedded consumption, is to inspire other people. As a young person I realise I'm a symbol of the future - I am the future, and that's powerful.

'When people say that I'm just being idealistic, I say, idealism pushes the boundaries of the norm, allowing more movement for mainstream society to be radical. I'm not saying what I do is feasible for everyone, but what I can do is to help remind people that it is possible to live in less carbon-intensive ways. It's also about community and helping local farmers in Cornwall, remembering the traditional way of living and maintaining that for future generations, at the same time as living in modern times. You can't go backwards, you can only go forwards.

'My friend Mark, who created the Freeconomy, writes a blog on his year of living without money, which ends on Buy Nothing Day on 28 November. I know a lot of people who are getting into this kind of thing. Living without money, or with less money, living more simply, is very related to buying no plastic. A life like this is also a lot less mundane, it's a life where we rely on and connect to each other more. This way of living is an integral part of inhabiting the earth, which is the only direction we can go in.'

Thursday, 12 November 2009

jump up and live again

During this week's World Cafe conversation at Bill's Cafe about supermarkets, I realised how insane it is to eat supermarket food when delicious, vital, colourful, word-free food springs up out of the ground all around us. For instance, last night our family ate a wonderful organic supper of baked potatoes with butter and a yoghurt sauce, butternut squash roasted with masses of garlic, and rocket salad with a honey dressing - a very cheap meal using what was available, now, from my allotment, from my home stores and Laportes. Sure, I did have to grow some of the food and tend the bees, but I probably spent less time and probably had more pleasure than many people do earning money to pay for supermarket food and other accoutrements of the modern world.

Meanwhile, Tesco's application to expand in Lewes by 50% is still pending, despite already taking a full 2/3 of our retail spend out of our community; Waitrose is arguably simply a plusher little brother. We know that industrialised fossil-fuelled supermarket-driven agriculture feeds on and uses up soil, community, health and wellbeing. Yet the sheer rut of habit runs deep.

Many people I talk to know they want to change their food-buying habits but feel powerless over the situation. Yet as with all addictions, change can be easy, one step at a time. To step out of the rut, it can be as simple as: Turn off the TV, get informed and get a veg box delivered from this link. In these extraordinary times, when our addictions to lifestyle threaten life itself, I believe we are called to question everything. We're being called to adventure, to live at our own edge and reconnect the broken threads. Deep within each one of us lives an indigenous soul, a natural human being. It's time for that being to jump up and live again.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Abenaki nation

Duck and Dive Abenaki dance and song

How the Abenaki would have lived in 1609

thinning of the veils

This whole week is the time of all Hallows, or Samhain, the celtic/druid festival. A time of year when the veil between the worlds becomes thinner and we can, say some cultures, connect with our ancestors. During my spiritual practice this morning I felt the qualities of a young native American ancestor within me. I often wonder who he is, his story having come to me in glimpses of ancestral memory over the past three years. So, this evening I decided to ring my aunt in New York. She’s an amazing aunt, free spirited and visionary, who lives in the same apartment she was born in, in Queens, New York. When she was growing up, this place was surrounded by fields, but now she’s the only white person in a barrio of Columbians, at home, aged 84. My sister, who visited her recently, urged me to ring her. So tonight, after 15 years, I did.

She told me of our ancestors, some of the early settlers in Eastern Maine. Life was hard for them, and the local Indians, a woodland tribe called the Abenaki, helped the early settlers to grow food, give birth and so on. She told me that interbreeding was common in those times. She spoke of how my grandfather used to love to take a canoe out on the lakes in Michigan where he grew up; how he used to walk about without a coat in the snow. When I did more research about the Abenaki nation – which is still seeking recognition from the US government - I felt a strange mix of powerful emotions. The young basketmaker who is interviewed here speaks with the kind of sentiment that comes from my heart too, at times. And this paragraph, Darkness Falls, describes so poignantly how Europeans influenced the native ways. Scraps and echoes coming through the ages.

I’m fortunate to have native ancestors who are so recently connected to the land. Since the first Cro-magnon (wo)man, we have lived close to, and utterly dependent on, the earth for 40,000 years before that. So the vast landscape of our collective ancestry is native. Sometimes I wonder whether, in these pressing times, these people, my people, are talking to me now, across time. I would like to slow down enough to hear what they’re saying.

Since writing this blog, I watched Ray Mears's TV programme about the settling of Canada, describing the hunting to extinction of the estimated 7 million beavers to make felted European hats. You can watch his inspiring programmes here.

Friday, 30 October 2009

give and take, and take, and take

As the Indian summer turns to a mellow autumn, there seems to be an intensification in the air of all good things. It gets to me every year, in small surprising bursts, like the sight of rose hips lit up by the low sun, or in whole blasts, like a walk past the autumn colours or watching the bees bring in loads of ivy pollen for their winter stores, like little bundles of late sunshine. And the more I’m out there, in nature, the stronger it gets: a harvest festival of the heart. Yesterday I spent a morning on the Landport allotment, moving compost to a new bed, raking it out and planting next year’s garlic and onion sets. It was a perfect confluence of elements: a couple of days before the full moon, on a root day, the sun was on my back and the earth was warm and moist. I moved through the soil with my bare hands, crumbling, smoothing, patting it, before sprinkling over a thin layer of straw mulch.

I worked slowly, savouring the moment. I had time to think about the things I’d read about the world, the previous day on the internet. Things are happening fast. Science and politics seem at last to agree that we’ve got a problem, or a great convergence of problems. Most still seem to think that technology and carbon agreements will get us through, though the pragmatists say: look folks, we’re already beyond the 350ppm tipping point. At 387ppm we in the West can only now look at radical reduction of consumption and conservation of forests, soils and oceans.I hope this isn’t the autumn of the human race, even though the external signs indicate that it is. I’d rather believe that we’re growing up at last. Mother Earth has given and given and we have taken and taken. I’d like to think we’re starting, one by one, on a very personal quest, in which we will learn to take personal responsibility, to become accountable. In the blessed absence of a judgemental God, we only have our own conscience, our sense of interdependence, our own mothering instinct, to be accountable to.

This video made me happy.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

the great turning

Like a hunter tracking its prey, I’m always on the look out for signs of the Great Turning. Sometimes you find the tracks in the oddest places. Last week I got a flyer in my door from Milk and More. My milko, now celebrating 150 years, has, over the last couple of years, evolved from a beast at the edge of extinction, under threat from the great supermarket giants, to a multitasking, all-song-and dancing delivery scheme. He now offers me not only our usual organic cows and goats milk, but 150 ‘essential items’ including bread, yoghurt, cheese, veggies and baked beans. OK, these are big national/international brands delivered by a national chain, but that will change. And, surely a sign of the times, among the usual tacky Christmas offers, there’s an energy-saving ‘novelty’ draught excluder – in the form of a cat or a dog – for £2.99! But most brilliantly of all, I can order online, up till nine, the night before my 5am delivery. No more last-minute bread baking/neighbour cadging (which used to be supermarket dashes) for lunchbox materials. Milk and More has come to the rescue.

Why is this a sign of the Great Turning? A recent important report from the UK Energy Research Council, authored by Lewes resident Steve Sorrell, predicted that despite recent discoveries, peak oil would hit within the decade, with very little government preparation for a bumpy, chaotic, irreversible energy descent. In a future with less cheap oil, we are going to have to be more resilient, that is, flexible to unexpected changes and shocks. Mainly, that means, more interconnected, more local. Local means fresh, real, food, which means more local markets and, probably, more deliveries. Life will – if we make a planned, managed, rather than resisted, Turning - look a bit like Victorian times, in terms of food, though in other ways, very different. Problem is, much of our resilience/infrastructure has been destroyed in the meantime. But not the milkman. Long live the milkman.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

the vanishing of the bees

At last loads of people are getting concerned about the plight of the honeybee and some interesting things are happening locally in response. On Saturday, Zu Studios was the venue for a Celebration of the Honeybee. My friends Clive and Philly hosted it, and it included an undescribable, full-body, bee experience, as well as song and dance of various kinds. Clive and Philly are two of my beelover friends, and they have created a walled bee garden in their new home in Polegate. The day before the Zu experience, I spent the morning with my beekeeper friend Mike, who made three beautiful topbar beehives last winter and filled them with swarms this spring. We visited the bee garden of another new friend, Heidi, who has just started the Natural Beekeeping Trust. Her place is heavenly, with a feeling of wholeness and integrity about it. And it’s home to all kinds of hives full of bees – none of which have died out because of varroa or Colony Collapse, which killed about 30% of the British bees last winter. Heidi, as a biodynamic beekeeper, takes a whole-system husbandry approach that includes agriculture, the moon and stars, and a high degree of observation and loving kindness.

Conversely, ‘traditional’ beekeeping has involved increasing levels of intervention and, one could say, corporate violence. Some people have likened this approach to the way chickens are kept in battery farms. The film Vanishing of the Bees, which I saw on Tuesday at the Duke of York’s, implies that there’s no one cause of the vanishing of the bees, and although nicotinoid pesticides are likely to damage the bees’ resilience over generations, there are other factors, including lack of biodiverse foraging, and the way the bees are treated by traditional beekeepers.

Despite the British and US governments’ refusal to ban nicotinoid pesticides, and as the British Beekeeping Association continues to be sponsored by Bayer, the manufacturer of the main nicotinamide, there are many voices calling for change. Meanwhile, there’s lots we can do to help the honeybee, apart from training as a natural beekeeper. As Michael Pollen, food commentator from the University of California, says, simply by eating organic, local food we are creating an environment with less toxicity for bees. And, he added, we can turn our lawns into bee-friendly havens.

Rudolph Steiner predicted – 50 years ago – that in half a century, the traditional approach to beekeeping would cause a crisis for the honeybee. He rightly pointed out that our existence depends on honeybees (2/3 of our food species are pollinated by them). In order to take care of ourselves, then, we have to take care of the bees.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

goodbye to all that!

My treatment for cancer finished last week. Hurray! My friends want to know whether the cancer is gone and all I can say is that the tumour was removed, along with my breast, in June, and that the radiotherapy I've been having daily for three weeks was to zap any cancer cells remaining on my chest wall. Will it return? I don't know, but for the rest of my life I will be much better at nurturing my terrain of wellbeing.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer nearly a year ago I set out on an urgent quest to find the cause. The toxic mix for me was a combination of despair about our planet (along with an echo of grief about my mother's death and even from lives beyond that) and a great attraction to alcohol; no doubt the two were related. I didn't tell many people, but for most of the last year, the cancer was suspected (but no longer is) as being a rare and agressive form of cancer, 'inflammatory breast cancer' from which only 40% women are left surviving after five years.

That really focused me on healing in a way that perhaps nothing else would have. So apart from handing myself over to the good people of the NHS - who really are wonderful despite working within a very limited paradigm - and all the other healers from whom I've learned so much - I've been developing (it's still wobbly) a 'trust that goes beyond time' about the process our world is going through I've also finally got the hang of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is one of the sanest, funniest bunch of people I've ever come across. It sometimes strikes me that the one billion of us who are so determined to follow an over-consuming lifestyle that we would even destroy our own home and the people around us, are behaving much as an addict does towards alcohol. Watching myself and the people around me gradually letting go of flying, giving up the aspiration to material wealth, this feels like a kind of withdrawal, with all the sadness and loss of deluded, pseudo-identity that goes with it. But as I've found out this year, losing things can actually be quite liberating.

Thursday, 1 October 2009


I’m in a state of utter bewilderment. My planet is at risk and the people I love are causing it. It’s like abuse in the family, but speaking up is dangerous. To some extent I’m colluding. And oy! The flying! Everyone I know seems to be getting on a plane this month. Isn’t it bonkers? Don’t they know? One long-haul flight (10 tonnes) is about a decade of bearable emissions (1 tonne). But the addiction is strong, and as the song goes, Don’t take my freedom away!

My only refuge is to reconnect, with Spirit, with nature and likeminded souls. So it was with relief that I turned up to the Transition Camp, last weekend, convened for all the Transition initiatives in the South East of England. It was hosted by Wo-Wo, a wonderful campsite just 20 minutes north of Lewes, that allows open fires and gives a fantastic welcome to families. We were in a field surrounded by woods and a little stream, where nestled yurts, a wood-fired sauna and compost loos. In true transition style, several dozen of us turned up and tuned into what we could offer and what we wanted.

So this glorious Indian summer weekend was filled with rich experience for my head, heart and hands. One minute a wild food forage, the next an intensive Joanna Macy Conference of all Beings. A bicycle workshop, a seed saving talk with a biodynamic expert, and exchange of seeds. I helped someone make fire with friction and led a visioning session. Much of the time we just sat and chatted. In the evening, after a delicious meal, we sat around the fire receiving training in consensus decision-making followed by music and a warming sauna till I tumble into my sleeping bag with owl song all around.

In an insane world, it’s healing to let go of the pain of bewilderment and allow myself to be Be-Wild-ered.

get a life!

More and more people are discovering the joy of living a low carbon life. One of the first steps for our own empowerment starts with measuring our carbon footprint. This is the amount of carbon dioxide we emit each year as a result (mainly) of using fossil fuels: petrol, oil, gas and coal. There’s a good website for doing this. The Carbon Independent tool is both accurate and easy to use; it takes a few minutes.

Currently the average emissions for someone living in England is about 12 tonnes. The average emissions of someone living in India is about 1 tonne. That’s about where we have to get to (by 2050) and what the Copenhagen agreement is about, if we want to aim for a world where every person emits (consumes) equal amounts. In an unequal world we need to aim for 3 tonne living.

Over the last couple of years our family has been able to halve our emissions from about 9 tonnes to about 4.5, quite easily, through small steps that have also saved us money; I've documented many of them in this column. Roughly 1.2 tonnes of that is emitted for me by the government in terms of roads, hospitals and war.

One of the easiest ways to go on a carbon diet is to reduce inessential flights. A return flight to New Zealand or Australia emits 12 tonnes – doubling our annual load. To South Africa, Beijing and Bangkok it’s 6 tonnes; New York, India it’s 4 and to Greece, Moscow, it’s 2; Rome is one tonne and Dublin is .5 tonne. We’ve become rather addicted to non-essential flying and somewhat forgotten the joys of local living. So by getting a life you’re also getting other people a life. Which can only be good.

Source: 3 Tonne Handbook, written by Ann Link, a transitioner – available at Lewes Farmers Markets on the Lewes Pound stall.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

fallout from the future

I wrote about the economic downturn in these pages long before it happened and it’s now very interesting to watch the fallout, as it were, from the future. Newsnight commentators, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, a year on from the Lehman bank collapse, agreed in this fascinating debate, that we were probably in for a long period of little or no economic growth, and that this would be a good thing. And they also agreed that they did't know what might replace capitalism as a more viable culture or ideology.

The environmental imperative is that economic growth that is based on consumption is brought to a halt and then even reversed. You can have a growth in services, in value added, and so on, however, and that’s what the new social entrepreneurs are going to be taking up in the future. But continuing to over-consume trees, metals, fossil fuels (especially by travel and transport) water and topsoil (thanks to supermarket-fuelled agriculture) is taking us to the brink of existence.

My personal view is that the change will take many forms – emotional, practical, spiritual - and is in the form of a wave. For many of us early-adopters, we’re already focused on building our own resilience, localizing, downsizing and changing the way we work, shop and spend our time. We’re aware of the paradigm shift and in some ways, say, through the Transition Movement, spending our new-found spare time helping precipitate it in a 100-monkeys kind of way. This isn’t a smug, middle-class indulgence. It’s more about cutting edge survival: learning to live realistically within the limits of our planet. And, as a writer commented in a piece about the ethics of climate change, it’s about becoming the kind of person I want to be.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

the buzz about bees

Things are looking up for honeybees as a small but significant number of people are looking for new ways to support their continued existence. The commercial world has latched on in the form of the Beehaus - plastic horizontal beehives that were launched in high excitement this summer. I don't think it's a good idea, because plastic beehives aren't great for bees, who like natural materials that breathe, to live in. But urban beekeeping is the general trend, as there's far more biodiversity and fewer pesticides in towns. Yesterday's You and Yours featured the urban beekeeping phenomenon. It appears that the Cooperative Bank has funded a movement to populate the allotments of Manchester with bees - next stop London and Birmingham.

But more and more people are questioning the promotion of this 'traditional' way of beekeeping, which has remained unchanged for 100 years. This involves taking off almost all the winter honey supplies and feeding the bees with sugar over the winter - surely a disaster for their immune system. It involves going through the brood - the intimate core of the integrated bee colony - every 10 days during the main flow to check for pre-swarm queen cells. And it involves chemical intervention for disease instead of creating a terrain for general good bee health.

The Soil Association this summer launched a campaign to get the government to ban nicotinamides, which have been found to be one of the causes of colony collapse disorder. The British Beekeepers Association, still the source of most of the standard beekeeping courses, receives sponsorship funding from Bayer, a major manufacturer of nicotinamides. So beekeepers are having to flout their association and go to the Soil Association's petition.

New forms of beekeeping are emerging - or perhaps a revival of old forms based on an old, indigenous, more caretaking attitude towards bees and nature in general. One of the pioneers, Biobees, last week launched the Natural Beekeeping Network, which is also a research arm as well as supporting top-bar beekeeping. More locally, in Ashurstwood near Forest Row, the Natural Beekeeping Trust, based on biodynamic beekeeping, also launched last weekend. They have two courses coming up in October. For more about biodynamic beekeeping, read this page.

Lewes's walled, biodiverse gardens were once full of beehives. Wouldn't it be lovely if Lewes's gardens, allotments and parks were, in a couple of years, buzzing with honeybees? There's already a bunch of us supporting, mulling or experimenting. Contact me if you'd like to get involved.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

first step 10%

The Silver Bean Car Club of Lewes is now the proud owner of a brand new Toyota Yaris. Our carbon emissions are so low - 106g/km - that our annual road tax is only £35. I've been involved in this car club for about three years and it has been so easy and saved us so much money that I never want to own a car ever again. The average car driver emits about two tonnes of CO2 a year and CarPlus estimates that sharing cars can cut that dramatically as well as create huge savings. The car is centrally parked and it costs £2 an hour to book, plus petrol, after an initial registration fee of £75. Nobody's making any money on that but it pays off the cost of borrowing. With 11 of us in the club, we're full at the moment, but we might well take on more people in the future. If you're interested please email

Talking about cutting carbon emissions, this week saw the launch of an exciting new national initiative called 10:10 whose aim is for us all and collectively to reduce our carbon emissions by 10% in 2010. The point is that it's all very well for us to aim for 85% reduction in emissions/fossil fuel use by 2050 a la Copenhagen, but it's what we also do in the interim that matters: the line of trajectory. Transition Town Lewes's forum agreed last night to take this on as a major theme and I will be writing about this in the months to come. At present we in the UK each emit roughly 13 tonnes of CO2 per year. We'll need to aim for around one tonne by 2050 (if we're going for international equity). The first step is interesting: 10% - that's more than just recycling and turning down our thermostats, which I think we've all done now. It's about changing our habits more profoundly: changing the way we source food, buying far less stuff, halving our flying, sharing things. See here for some ideas about practical actions.

It's actually quite diffucult for our family to reduce our carbon emissions further: we're down to about 5 tonnes of emissions since we started as a household a couple of years ago, and apart from not flying, it's all been quite easy. Two of those tonnes are down to central government decisions on roads, airports and schools. But Dirk has just had a thousand pounds of surprise royalty from a piece of music he wrote and, inspired by Transition Town Lewes's Open Eco-house event in July, we're finally going to spend it on on an eco-lite retrofit of our house: perspex secondary double glazing from, interlining our curtains in our main room; low-energy lightbulbs throughout (except the main kitchen light), reflector behind the radiators and draughtproofing windows and doors. I find the prospect strangely exciting.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

hook, line and sinker

Every time my birthday comes around I ask Dirk for something useful. This way, in recent years I've acquired a storm kettle, a bivvy bag (for sleeping in the rain), a book about plants, a new beekeeper's outfit and a Hennesey sleeping hammock (which I've slept in for the past two nights, rocked by the young trees in my woods). This year I asked for a fishing rod. Dirk sourced it from Percy's Fishing Tackle on Cliffe High St. I tried it out last week with my young friend George. We stood on the jetty near the cliffs at Seaford. Having figured out how to tie on the hooks (cunningly disguised as little fish) and lead weight, we cast off. The first few times the cast was all over the place. Then a fisherman showed us the proper way (you have to hold the line in your index finger) and suddenly the line just flew - swish - over the water. 'That's a good cast,' our helpful fishing friend said, 'At least a hundred feet. And a good rod.' We didn't catch a fish but I've heard that you can catch mackerel on a rising tide before October. Just standing there, casting out, reeling in, casting out, reeling in... in the warm evening light, with dozens of other fisherfolks was a sublime experience in itself, one I plan to repeat soon. George Monbiot recently wrote the most beautiful feature article I've read in a long while - and it was about fishing from his kayak.

PS last week's column about Tesco's proposed expansion was incorrect - Lewes District Council's planning office says the decision will be 'some time in the autumn', when all the necessary information has been gathered. I hear that there is a zombie invasion of Tesco afoot (If you want to join in, please ring 07910411071).

Friday, 14 August 2009

putting our house in order

Everywhere people ask: "What can I actually do?" The answer is as simple asit is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.

Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, 25 years later (p252)
with commentaries by E.F. Schumacher.
Hartley & Marks Publishers, Inc., 1999.

emissions admission

I'm spending the week at my friend Cat's in the Languedoc region of southern France. As ever, it's a hugely sensuous experience. My daughter Sophia and I spent one day cycling down lanes through the grapevines that cover the plains, along the Canal du Midi and through quiet stone villages shuttered against the midday heat. The dry wind sweeps through the bleached grasses and wild fennel, the air is scented with fig trees and the cigales sing with intensity. Most meals are spent leisurely eating largely the produce of Bernard's garden, including all kinds of incredible-tasting tomatoes. Although I eat only English tomatoes while at home, they are a poor relation to these ones, ripened in intense sun - and after such an experience I know I'm going to find it hard to eat tomatoes in Lewes, even those from Bill's.

Bernard, Cat's boyfriend, comes from this region of France, and he is passionate about keeping local crafts - incuding stonemasonry - alive. He has reclaimed this old garden fom the maquis, the scented, thyme-filled scrub that covers the hills behind the village. There is a spring on the land, that waters the crops by gravity. Like all good gardeners, Bernard has been busy making humus-rich soil in raised beds.

Last night we took a tortilla and a bottle of Bernard's own wine up to the garden, to have a late supper, as the sun set. Fabiola, Cat's 2-year-old daughter, pottered around nibbling on an onion she'd just picked, and Sophia and I picked and ate some ripe figs straight off the tree. We settled Fabiola to sleep in the hammock, and watched the stars come out. Much later, Sophia and I, on our way home, lay down on the warm earth and watched the Persiad meteor shower.

This has been a bittersweet week, and I felt like weeping in the road. Not only will I be giving up English tomatoes but these French tomatoes too. Although my carbon emissions from my rail journey here are a half (0.1 tonnes of CO2) of those of our road trip last week, that's still too much for me. I'm aiming to live within a one-tonne budget (generally accepted as the annual level of emissions that will avert climate meltdown). To this end, over the past couple of years I've changed a lot of habits quite easily, but this final frontier - giving up travel - is a lot more painful.

As Bernard said, most tourists travel because they wish to see other people living the authentic life. Why, he asked, don't we learn to be more authentic in our own terrains?

Friday, 7 August 2009

westward ho!

Now that our children are just old enough to be left alone for a week, Dirk and I decided to go on a road trip, our first time alone for that long since we got married, 20 years ago. Unlike the road trips of the past, I planned it carefully, to take in permaculture projects and friends throughout the south west and Wales.

First stop Ourganics, a 4 acre field in Dorset, lived in by Pat Bowcock. Run on permaculture lines, the field is irrigated by sluices from a spring and is off the grid, using solar and wind to power Pat’s lights and laptop. The veg, grown on no-dig beds and in tropical-feel polytunnels, are part of the lunch, eaten by us and the WOOFER volunteers, who include our friend Penny Barltrop from Transition Town Lewes. One of the best things about Pat’s integrated plot was the anti-mud patio made from bits of stone and marble, and weeded by the geese.

We spent the night with friends Franny and Justin Owen in Lyme Regis, hearing of their stories of opposing the Tesco Express in town. They live elegantly in a house that’s falling about their ears and we harvested a huge bowl of salad for supper from their first-time food garden. The next morning Fran took us to Fivepenny Farm, run by Joyti, an amazing American woman. This was a much larger mixed farm, with different kinds of livestock and plants, also powered by solar and wind, and including a household of four children. Joyti is clearly a grant magnet, and has built a huge barn used by a cooperative of local producers to process their food and add value to it. Both Fivepenny and Ourganics are having to apply for ongoing planning permission and may not get it – it’s gutting that such pioneers of new ways of farming are not being fully supported.

Next stop the Transtion Network headquarters where we spent a happy hour exchanging news with Ben Brangwyn, the coordinator. One of the most exciting bits of gossip was that the Transition network is talking to the Cooperative Food, apparently the second largest landowner in the UK, about how to feed Britain on a low-fossil fuel diet. According to research being carried out by Rob Hopkins and Simon Fairlie, it’s just doable, if we eat far less meat. That evening we had a tour of the Forest Garden, an abundant, layered edible landscape, run by Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust. Perennials, especially nut trees, are an important part of the mix of future food: walnuts yield tonnage more per acre than wheat. Quite a few of his plants, such as the Italian alder, are nitrogen fixers or support microrrhizal networks, which distribute nutrients across the land.

The next morning, after a scintillating breakfast with our friend Sapphire, we moved on to Cornwall, where we visited the Keveral Farm community of 13 adults, 10 children, which has been going for 36 years. Sarah, who has lived there for 15 of those years, showed us their approach to collective growing, which is divided up into separate areas of enterprise. One man, Oak, has planted most of the trees that tower above this lush and productive valley, and they now have a business allowing people to come and camp there. After a night with Dirk’s old friends Dave and Barb, who happen to live across the valley, we moved on to stay with another old friend in Stroud, Steve Hurrell, who first introduced me to permaculture when it came to Britain in the 80s with the Australian founder Bill Mollison. Steve took us up to see the Stroud Community Supported Agriculture project, where people commission the farmer to grow their year’s supply of veg, thus sharing the risk and rewards with the farmer rather than the farmer carrying all the financial risk. It’s a brilliant system and I’d love Transition Town Lewes to catalyse one here. The next day we went to Stroud Farmers Market, a weekly market that’s so successful that it spills out through the town and creates a real market day buzz of real people shopping for affordable local food. Again, wouldn’t it be great to have one in Lewes, a real antidote to the Tesco expansion. Let’s hope the new coordinator will facilitate that.

Up to Wales, where we stayed with our old friends Marcus and Daniela Lampard. Marcus, who farms cattle and sheep, is dubious about permaculture but over the years I’ve noticed a shift in his practice away from herbicides and pesticides and towards low-impact tilling, green manures and interplanting. The farm is really gorgeous, with lots of mature trees, many of which were planted in the 40 years he’s tended the farm. They also run a successful bed and breakfast, and have recently put in a shepherd’s hut with a woodburning stove in one of the fields, along with a solar/wood heated shower and compost loo, and we stayed there for two nights, waking to an awesome view.

On, through the rain, to the Centre for Alternative Technology, set up 30 years ago and now a real centre of excellence, with the Welsh Institute for Sustainable Education being built to cater for the hundreds of people being trained in Masters degrees from CAT each year. That night was spent with our friend Siam, who has just bought a piece of lush land in the remote hills, to run courses from and plant trees. She’s just starting out, not letting her ripe age or lack of funds stop her.

The next day we landed up at Park Attwood, Britain’s only anthroposophical (Steiner) nursing home, where I’ve been having mistletoe treatment. They hold a rare vision of a truly integrated, holistic approach to health.Our final stop was not permaculture but Ryton Organic Gardens, a demonstration site for everything organic, started by Laurence Hills, many years ago by experimenting in his back garden ways of growing food and feeding the soil to combat his allergies. There we ran into our friend Anna from Lewes taking a short introduction to permaculture course – merry met at the beginning and end of this unforgettable road trip.

For me the week was about two things. It affirmed that Dirk and I can survive being alone together for long stretches, post-kids, because I still find him very interesting and funny. Second, it reminded me that there are many successful visionaries out there, people who care and who are really making a difference, usually against the grain for their time.

As someone who’s trying to reduce fossil fuel use, can I justify the trip? If we’d had longer time we could - just – have reached even the remote places by public transport. In the car, we travelled 1,000 miles, which is the equivalent of .43 tonnes of C02 emissions for our medium-sized community car. Given that most Westerners are emitting 13 tonnes of CO2 annually, and our family currently emits about 5 tonnes per head, that’s a significant proportion of our budget*. The same trip by train and bus would have emitted a quarter of that. Which I didn’t realize. Till just now. So perhaps that’s the last road trip I’ll ever take.

*Ref the 3 Tonne Club handbook by Ann Link, a Lewes resident and Transition Town Lewes member

Thursday, 16 July 2009

baked beans

Here's a little success story of how a few people can help build the world anew. Nearly three years ago, my friends Raphaella and Hermione decided along with Dirk and me to form a car club. Raphaella had a small orange Daewoo Matiz, so we called it the Baked Bean car club. We book it through the google calendar online, and we pay £2 per hour plus petrol to use it, which covers all the costs, including replacing the car periodically. Our current car is silver, so it's a silver bean club. Some of the joys of our car club are finding out how to share stuff and have fun. But it's also saved us bucketloads of money and hassle. I've rarely not been able to access the car when I want, which is parked in central Lewes. Looking back, I can't imagine ever wanting to own a car ever again. One of the reasons for forming car clubs is that people realise that they can use other forms of transport. Car clubs use cars to reduce car use. But that creates a strange problem: our founding group is using the car less and less because we've discovered the joys of a car-free life. So we're looking for new members. In fact, we've just had a meeting to decide that we want to buy a new, hire-purchased eco-car, and in order to do that we need to take a step up and expand the car club to ten members. So this is a rallying call for people to join our club. Please email us at

Friday, 10 July 2009

some notes on the notes

The launch party for the new higher denominations of the Lewes Pound was a blast - with hundreds of people from all walks of Lewes life, at the stunning Harveys Depot. A woman in the pub afterwards actually kissed me when she heard I was one of the team behind the Lewes currency. I feel deep delight to have been part of this initiative, and though I've only been cheering from the sidelines for the last few months, I've held it in my heart (like so many others) and keep on buying and spending Lewes Pounds at every opportunity.

A few months ago the group asked Lewes traders for feedback about improvements - in fact we have asked for frequent feedback wherever we can spare the time, as volunteers (none of us are paid a dime). Three consistent messages were - higher denominations, more issuing points and more incentives for locals to use it instead of spending sterling in town (some people already realise that 80% of money spent locally stays local whereas 80% of money spent in chains leaks out of Lewes, according to the new economics foundation). After some consultation we devised a plan whereby 5% of Lewes Pounds go into a Live Lewes fund - the first fund specifically to support eco-projects in Lewes. This money goes into the fund when traders trade LPs back to sterling. So for every LP21 traded for sterling £1 goes to the Live Lewes fund.

Some traders will now be deterred financially from simply going to their nearest issuing point and turning the LPs spent in their shop back into sterling - which some of them have been, We wish to discourage this since if the LP continues to circulate locally it builds wealth locally. Traders can still keep LPs circulating by paying for local goods (perhaps finding new local suppliers) or paying their staff or themselves or by giving it back to the customer as change - a popular move among high-volume LP traders such as Laportes. And they can, after all, simply opt out.

We really do have it in our power to build the world anew. But together. This transition is not going to happen if we sit back and wait for someone else to tell us how it's done, or complain if it doesn't work straight-off. That's the old paradigm. What's new about the Lewes Pound and the whole Transition Town concept is that - like it or not - the new world is going to be built, brick by brick from the foundations. I won't go through the reasons for this imperative, though Colin Firth put it well in a recent column: 'We are not in a position to choose whether or not we have a relationship with our own society or with the world's poorest people. We can choose the nature of those relationships, but either way they're there'. Last week it was announced tht a billion people are living in chronic starvation, but I digress...

Yes, we can do it different and better but we're not sure how it's going to happen. We'll get there, not through fear, opposition and polarisation, but through creativity and courage, by developing a conversation about how we can do this together. The Lewes Pound is an experiment. It might not work. But I say it deserves the chance to be tailored, cherished and nurtured into being by us all.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

hive alive

Why are you reading this and not cavorting outside from dawn till dusk? Why am I sitting inside writing this? I'm far too busy being obsessed with sailing boats and allotment and bees. This last fortnight has been dramatic on the honeybee front. First, three young lads pushed over the beehive in the churchyard near my house in Lewes and ran off. Thanks to my neighbours I was alerted and the hive and bees, clustered together in the toppled box, were reinstated a day later.

Then Mike, who's one of my friends developing the natural top bar approach, helped me catch a swarm from a hedge in Newhaven, and I put it in a topbar beehive I'd made over the winter. Normally, on a secondary swarm, or caste, the virgin queen is bullied out of the hive by the workers into her once-in-a-lifetime mating flight with 5-15 male drones up there in the drone congregation area. But when we peeked in the hive we noticed the young queen staggering about, unable to make it out of the hive. And the next day she was dead, surrounded by workers on the hive floor. A hive without an egg-laying queen is doomed to die, so when a few days later Mike and I took another swarm from a low hedge in Rodmell, we decided to unite this with the queenless swarm in the hive. Unfortunately, although they did unite, they decided to swarm off together, clearly unhappy with the situation. I caught the swarm first time, hanging outside the hive in a cluster. But they swarmed again, this time to a branch of a nearby holly tree. Again, I got them in the box, but they'd already decided to fly far. I hope they found a dry place, or even better, were taken by a beekeeper.

I was feeling pretty low about losing all the top bar bees, though there is a conventional colony in the churchyard and one in the woods. But Mike invited me to visit his bees today - he's taken three swarms this season and they are well established in his top bar hives on a farm outside Lewes. They were actively flying in and out of the hives and took no notice of us gingerly lifting up the lid. Inside the hive it's nothing like a standard beehive. The bees get to make their own comb, hanging in arcs from the topbar. I don't think I can describe both how natural and right that appeared. It's what I was trying to say last week - the man/nature balance; it's subtle and we need to do things differently. This fortnight I made some mistakes and also the bees had a mind of their own. I learned a lot, and I feel more humble.

Friday, 26 June 2009

a walk on the wild side

The allotment has been invaded by ladybirds. At first I didn’t understand what was happening; tiny scales coloured orange and black were appearing on the logs and the stems and the leaves. I knew some predator was coming, just not what.

Then one day I turned up and next to a shrivelled larva shell was an yellow ladybird with no spots. When I next looked at the beetle, the spots had gradually faded into being. Was it next going to turn red? Now there are hundreds of red ladybirds with spots all over the plants. Just in time to consume the aphids, which are also proliferating on the fruit trees and other sensitive plants.

Last week a large snake appeared in the long grass at the edge of the allotment, to die. It was three feet long, probably a grass snake. I sprayed water on it but it was on its way out. After it died, I noticed it had been bitten, perhaps by a fox, which had left its poo on the path edging the allotment.

Perhaps the snake had been attracted by toads there. I noticed one when I was picking redcurrants from the forest of currants; it’s cool and dark and damp there, a good place for a toad.

The blackbirds are still singing as I pick the currants. They love redcurrants particularly, and I wonder from the poo on the leaves whether they’ve had their fair share. The hungry gap is over and the land has started to yield a crop for us humans as well as others.

I am in love with the whole thing, and every part, as well as the interconnectedness. Of ladybird, blackbird, snake and cabbage. Compost, soil, nettle and worm. The lessons just deepen and will never end.

I look at the yield of my allotment neighbour, who used to be a farmer. It’s far better than mine, at least double, even triple. He's a top-notch grower, and everyone's envious of his yield. Yet I doubt whether he has any ladybirds, snakes or toads. There’s no room for wild places on his allotment; he uses every square inch and he’s an avid weeder. He uses slug pellets and goodness knows what else. Bless him. This is the situation of our world: we humans want to maximize our crop, our income from the earth’s ‘resources’, but what happens to wild nature? I doubt we can exist without it. I welcome a time when we humans discover our own interconnectedness, learn to walk on the wild side.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

malling brooks

What would the world be, once bereft,
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left.
Oh let them be left, wildness and wet.
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Gerald Manley Hopkins 1844-1889

Thursday, 18 June 2009

what doesn't kill us heals us

I am now a woman with one breast. Don’t be distressed by this news – I am not. I’m recovering well, resting, doing only what makes me happy. What’s surprised me about this surgery to remove the tumour is that I still feel entirely ‘me’. I’d somehow expected to feel diminished, more vulnerable or less worthy. But so far, and it’s only been a few days, it’s increasingly clear to me that even if I lose my hair or a breast, or my work or identity in my role, I am still essentially me. The me that is not me.

It’s often been said that what doesn’t kill us heals us and I’ve felt for a long time that this cancer has come to teach me how to really live. You could even say that I have chosen this path. As Aristotle commented a couple of thousand years ago, breast cancer can be caused by grief, and part of my healing is to end – now, in this time and for my line - the huge grief and even despair I have felt for mother earth, which is linked to and sensitised by my own mother’s death when I was three.

So nowadays I’m living firmly on the lighter side of my own edge – in full trust in the process of the Universe, which is where meaning is for me. And by trust I don’t mean sitting back and watching life unravel like a movie. I mean being actively involved in the extraordinary art of co-creation, yet with trust and acceptance.

I recently walked with my friend Viviana past this sign on the building site off Western Road. At first glance I was convinced it said No Hat, No Boobs, No Job. A zen-like description of how I feel, and how perfect that feels.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

save Malling Brooks

I’ve been wondering about how visionaries appear and manage to influence the society of their time and place. Tom Paine, for example: did he emerge from the crucible of a world ripe for revolution and revolutionaries? And how has Barack Obama appeared just at our hour of greatest need? I do have a sense that doors are opening very easily nowadays even for ordinary people with vision, perhaps because the underlying instability of our times allow us to make large changes using small leverage points.

What got me thinking of this was John May’s new Vision for Malling Brooks (read it at the new Lewes Coalition website). This is a wild piece of green-field land of 2.7 hectares surrounded by houses, which the developer Charles Style has proposed to pave over and ‘develop’ in to light industrial units and parking. The land is a cornerstone for Style’s proposal to develop North Street, so he can move the remaining light industrial users to Malling Brooks.

Malling residents are outraged by the proposal, since the land was under four metres of water during the last floods; further development of this floodplain would, they claim, increase the risk of flooding to their homes and be dangerous to the development itself. The District Council’s planning committee has twice postponed a decision about the application on technical grounds, and it goes back to planning in a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile I ran into John May at the Farmers’ Market and he told me how he’d come up with the vision. He’d been trying to find a fault in the application on the basis of damage to the wildlife. But Style’s plans had included a comprehensive survey and proposed moving the wildlife to a corridor in one corner and managing it more intensively. May took a long walk around the site and woke up the next morning with a vision for the whole area – to leave most of it as a managed wildlife sanctuary as well as creating some much-needed allotments for Lewes residents. One of the reasons why our planet is becoming eroded is that money and markets and national development policy speak louder than nature. As Prof Michael Sandal said in this week’s Reith Lecture by turning everything into commodities, we lose sense of its real worth to us. OK this vision doesn’t make anyone money, but it is deep ecology and it is common sense, which, says May, is lacking in our society.

I love the way that visions, however impossible-sounding or against the materialistic status quo, have an irresistible magnetism, a life of their own. Positive visions seed themselves in our minds and take root; they grow in our imagination so that pretty soon we’re living AS IF they have already happened. I do believe that once you have a vision, it’s virtually already happened. So kudos John May and the Lewes Coalition for dreaming dreams.

Friday, 5 June 2009

queen bees

So the swarming season is in full swing and any colony of honeybees that has an old queen or wants to multiply is now looking for new places to swarm to and colonise. It’s that perfect combination of heat, light and moisture that affects all beings in different ways. My fellow beekeeper Steven and I have tentatively welcomed two colonies in to the Lewes churchyard near my house. One is an artificial swarm: frames with queen cells from my colony in the woods and lots of unhatched brood and worker bees to support the emergent queen. It will take a month before we know the queen bee has hatched successfully and then flown out and mated with the 5-15 drones hanging out in the ‘drone congregation area’ high above the land and then returned and started to laying - half her bodyweight in eggs in one day.

The other colony was a swarm clustered on a wall along the Winterbourne seasonal river last night. They’d been there for at least a day and were unusually tired, hungry and aggressive. I got a sting to my ankle, which has swollen up. But Steven got the bees in to the box and then in to his top bar beehive. When I looked yestarday many of them had died – of starvation. I fed them syrup to try to save the rest – assuming there was a queen –and today they are flying in and out quite purposefully, but it will be a month before we know whether both queens have survived and their larvae are hatching.

I am starting to form a relationship with the bees. I visit them and ‘tune in’ to their energy – sometimes I sit and hum and sometimes I just sit. Ever since my scrape with death I just don’t care how that sounds. My hair is growing back now the chemotherapy is over and I have dared to expose my head to the sun and other people – which has been really liberating. I suppose that after a certain amount of life experience, or surviving a serious illness, you can either batten down the hatches and live within your comfort zone, or just let go of, or leap over, self-limiting inhibitions and boundaries and feel an intense freedom. I love being around people who embody that freedom, and here’s a video of someone else who seems to know a thing or two.

Thursday, 21 May 2009


As I slipped out of the house this morning at dawn I felt like I was keeping a secret assignment with my lover. The allotment land at Landport greeted me and as I entered, I slowed down and deeply breathed in the scent of the soil and the blossoms. I paused… and asked 'Hey. What is the plan?' According to the biodynamic calendar – following the stars and the moon – it is a leaf day. I had brought lettuces to transplant between the runner beans. Artichokes… I transplanted the tiny seedlings, with copper rings against slugs, several feet apart, imagining them a few years from now when they are full grown, bursting out of the ground like mineral fountains. I sowed leeks, Autumn Mammoth, in case the young Mussleburghs weren’t enough. I hoed the paths and sowed red clover on the brassica beds – kales for next winter, my mates Pentland Brig and Ragged Jack. I weeded, mulched, spoke to the little Blue Lake French beans that had been taken by slugs; spoke to the slugs. I grazed on a few early strawberries; They already had slugs and woodlice in them. I looked for the sweetcorn that has not come up and wondered if tomatoes would like to go in to that bed instead. I sowed rocket, imagining its peppery taste. I harvested rhubarb and decided to make a ginger and rhubarb cake. Time passed…

All of us on the allotments are entering in to a relationship with, a commitment to, nature. All of us have our own different ways, we are all learning. As the dew evaporates and the birdsong saturates my soul on this gorgeous May morning, I am in awe of the lessons I am being taught. If I listen, I can enter the flow of life, be guided and allowed a sense of ease and one-ness. It’s about food and bees and friends and life itself.

I went straight from the land to meeting the surgeon who will remove my breast(s) in 3 weeks, as was always planned. I had hoped that by miracle the breast cancer would have disappeared. But the surgeon told me that the miracle is that the tumour has shrunk so much and become manageable. Like the chemotherapy, surgery seems alien to the natural order, yet I am learning a new level of acceptance. I just wanted to say that, because this column is documenting my recovery from cancer and a discovery of how to live, ‘allowing myself to become obsessed with the best part of my life’.

I am the lover and the beloved… This is deep ecology, and here is abeautiful short video called Earth Sprit Action.

Thursday, 14 May 2009


As part of its expansion plans, Tesco revealed that it has a £30 million turnover compared to 17 million for all other retail businesses in Lewes, including Waitrose. That means that about two thirds of our total retail spend is spent at Tesco. That overdependence makes our food supply hugely vulnerable to the ‘perfect storms’ the world has started to experience. It takes ten calories to get one calorie of supermarket food to your plate. Plus, it’s bad for our health and the planet’s.

Friends who shop at Tesco tell me it’s cheaper and more convenient. Those are partly myths: various recent surveys have shown that local wholefood is cheaper than Tesco’s. And in terms of convenience, you can redesign your habits to make local shopping easier, getting most of your food delivered.

The average family spends only 6% of their income on food compared to 30% a generation ago. That’s roughly what our family now spends on food, which is almost all organic wholefood. We make up for it by doing less on other things like expensive holidays. I’ve shopped like this for our family of six for some years, including years when I was holding down a demanding full-time job. Friends say they can't imagine how to wean themselves off supermarkets. Here's how I did it, including weekly costs for a family of 6

Bulk delivery (including loo rolls and the likes) from Infinity Foods three times a year £35
Weekly veg boxes delivered from local farm Ashurst Organics £15
Organic goats and cows milk delivered £10
Occasional meat from Boathouse Farm; fish from Riverside £20
Additional fruit, cheese, bread, butter, tofu and other fresh staples, mostly from May’s, Laportes and Barefoot Herbs, and Waitrose when I’m lazy: £80

That’s £160 a week, £27 a week each on food, or £3.80 a day, including lunchboxes. We could even cut that budget in half if we had to.

Tesco already gets two in three of our retail pounds. It wants to expand in Lewes by 50%. The application goes to the District Council’s planning department in early June. If you object, stop shopping at Tesco. And write to the Lindsay Frost, the director of planning and the councillors below, referring to planning application number: LW/08/1395.

See the Tescopoly website for the issues that the planning committee will consider. Though personally, I think being a major contributor to the destruction of the local economy, communities, the environment, the creatures such as honeybees, our national farming and our health should be good enough reasons to object.

Cllr Bob AllenCllr Rod Main (Chair) Cllr Sharon Davy Cllr Ian Eiloart Cllr Peter Gardiner Cllr Barry Groves Cllr Tom Jones Cllr Ron MaskellCllr David Mitchell Cllr Robert Worthington (Peacehaven)

UPDATE May09: The committee decided to postpone the Tesco decision while gathering more information. It's due for decision autumn 2009. I now grow most of our vegetables on our new allotment but still use the veg boxes and some veg from Barcombe Nurseries' stall in cliffe most saturdays.

Friday, 8 May 2009


I was sitting on my terrace yesterday, sunning my bald head, when a solitary honeybee flew into the glass doors and fell to the ground. It was the first honeybee I’d seen this year in my garden, and I eased myself to the floor to make contact with it. It was dusting itself off and resting, its abdomen pulsing. Hey little one, how fare you? (I always talk to the bees.) Not so well, clearly, since bees tend not to collide with solid objects. After a pause, it flew off and I bid it well. I’ve spent some time this week setting up three ‘lure’ hives in different locations, calling in swarms to set up camp. It’s perfect swarming weather, warm and wet, though, given the dearth of bees in the air, I accept that they may remain empty.

In this week-long bee immersion I’ve been finding out some truly shocking information. The British Beekeepers Association has allegedly been accepting large sums of money from agro-giant Bayer, the manufacturer of the powerful modern insecticides, called nicotinamides, in exchange for allowing Bayer to market these pesticides to farmers as ‘bee friendly’. These pesticides, used extensively in Britain, were banned from France, Germany and Italy from 2001, when the beekeepers there protested after large swathes of the bee population were decimated by the agrochemicals. What is tamely called colony collapse disorder here, is very likely to be caused by Bayer’s toxins, which are systemic poisons, in that once in the plant they continue to work against insects throughout the plant’s life. More worryingly, they wash off the land into groundwater - their half life is two years – where they are taken up by the weeds and other wild foraging plants loved by bees. The effect of such chemicals, which, according to Bayer, work as low as two parts per billion, is that honeybees and other insects get disorientated and cannot find their way home, or dance the dance that shows the rest of the hive the source of nectar. The colony starves, collapses, even in the peak of the nectar flow.

Private Eye this week quoted environment secretary Hilary Been as insisting that "We haven't seen any evidence that [pesticides] have an adverse impact on bees". This love affair between our leaders and corporations is taking the honeybee, which has been around for 50 million years, and worshipped by wiser humans than us since the beginning of humanity, to the edge of existence. It bears repeating that 30% of British honeybee colonies have died out in the last two years and that we depend on the honeybee for pollinating 80% of our food.

How to deal with such outrageous information without tipping in to denial and powerlessness (which is the numb-down route taken by so many of us in the western world at the moment) or despair (the route of illness and loss of the essential life force needed in this time of change)? Philip Carr-Gomm, our resident chief druid, spoke of this in an evening hosted by the Transition Town Lewes Heart and Soul group last week. He called for the need to look at such information with ‘bifocal vision’ – to see things simultaneously as whole and also as sick. Dancing on this edge, we can stay sane in an insane world and be alert and effective change-makers.

And we are powerful, each one of us like a honeybee in a colony; we can manifest goodness and health if we work together. What can we do to help the honeybee? The answer is clear. Short-circuit the corporates through choice; eat local, organic food. Do it now, and do it as though your life depends on it. And watch this video to make you smile.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

bee movie

I’m getting pretty alarmed about the lack of honeybees this summer. The giant rosemary bush on my allotment is spookily silent – in years gone by it would have been covered by flying insects of all kinds especially honeybees. Who Killed the Honey Bee, a documentary on telly a while ago (watch back here) points the finger at pesticides, lack of habitat, the Americans’ habit of moving bees around and, I would add, micro-wave radiation. But perhaps the biggest cause of stress in honey bees is, I believe, the way that we are managing them.

The current practice of western beekeeping hasn’t changed much since it was introduced by the Victorians. I’ve been keeping bees for 15 years, after a training course at Plumpton, and I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the degree of intervention that this entails. In order to stop colonies from swarming and taking the year’s honey supply with them, beekeepers open hives regularly in the summer, thus disrupting the bee atmosphere, with its powerful yet delicate matrix of pheromones, heat, smell and Goddess knows what else. They smoke them, they take off almost all the honey stores, replacing them with sugar syrup for feed, and they treat them with antibiotics and pesticides when the bees get ill. Perhaps most damagingly, honey bees are encouraged to create cells on a foundation of wax made by man, in order to harvest more honey, which is often about 10% bigger than the cells that bees make naturally, and they can’t make many of the larger drone cells. Far from being natural, traditional beekeeping is highly intrusive.

So I was delighted last year to find out about the Top Bar beehive, a model adapted from an intermediate technology approach used in Africa. I’ve just finished building my first top bar beehive, with my friend Steven. With the top bar beehive, you leave the bees alone to do their thing, including making cells of the size of their choice. With the Top Bar you take only a small proportion of the honey, leaving most for the bees to overwinter on. And if they want to swarm you let them, instead of destroying their new queen cells. With the colony in the woods I’ve decided not to open the hive at all other than to treat them naturally for varroa mite twice a year. Basically, natural beekeeping – or bee caretaking - is about learning about what bees want to do instead of bending them to our will, for our own profit. A few beekeepers are starting to listen to the bees. We’re generally vilified by standard beekeepers as allowing disease to enter the population. But given the facts – 30% of British bee colonies have been wiped out in the last two years – I reckon there is a call to create bee sanctuaries.

Rather than focus on the human colony collapse that might well follow from the bees, I will just bless and thank our honeybees. May you flourish and multiply. May you teach us about how to live in balance. And since I am now looking to populate our new hive, I now sing to the bees and if anyone hears of a swarm in this swarming month for our new hive, please contact Viva Lewes, and they'll get in touch with me.