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.