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.