Thursday, 27 May 2010

the swarming of the bees

The recent sultry, heavy weather has been perfect for swarming bees. And they have been swarming. Last week I helped collect a swarm from an apple tree in New Road. And then two days ago, an empty hive in St John Sub Castro cemetary near me was suddenly inhabited by a swarm. I wasn’t there to witness it, only came upon it late in the day when the queen had already entered and the bees were outside the hive, abdomens in air, fanning the pheromone scent that calls the other bees to the queen.

That makes fours swarms I’ve been involved with so far this year. Every time, it’s an incredible honour. It’s a strange experience, one that involves total trust in the bees and some courage, especially as my intention is to gradually stop using the veil and other protection for most bee work. In fact the two seem to go hand in hand; many beekeepers, with protection, can be quite clumsy and inconsiderate of the bees. Being vulnerable makes one far more gentle and observant.

When I collect a swarm I feel like a midwife, and try to be someone who is simply observing, supporting and there to help in case of any problems. The ideal midwife, to me, is someone who is both invisible and very present.

I read today that bees have existed for 45 million years (dated from a bee preserved in amber). Compare that with humans who have been around for at most half a million years. Yet, in one human generation we’ve managed to bring 45 million generations of bee to the brink of their own existence. Or, if you think of the bee as one organism, we have brought the bee being who has lived for 45 million years, to near death. And, according to some, when the bees go, our days are numbered.
Clearly humanity has gone very, very wrong and the bees (and most other beings) are telling us this. Yet society’s response to the bee collapse is more funding and research involving genetic and physical manipulation of bees to help make them varroa resistant and so on: more focus on the symptoms rather than the cause.

My belief, and that of the Natural Beekeeping Trust, is that honeybees need to be left alone to do what they have been doing for millions of years. We have got to start understanding their needs, not ours. They simply need a healthy environment – both a (natural) hive environment and also biodiverse, non-toxic air, water and food/foraging, which is what we need too. The bees are our greatest teachers, and I deeply hope that we can start to learn from them.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

letter from the future

I'm planning a trip this summer to visit my brothers in America and Canada. I’m taking three months – one to cross the Atlantic and back by Clipper ship, one to spend with my brothers and other friends and one getting around. The electric train network, especially down the East Coast, runs really well now the electricity companies have sorted out the solar fields around cities and the major train junctions. I’ve been saving up for this trip for a couple of years and I’m really looking forward to travelling slowly.

Travelling wasn’t always like this for me; I was in the local paper in 1960, for being the youngest child in England to fly transatlantic – for my New York christening. When I was in my twenties Freddy Laker figured out how to run cheap transatlantic flights – I was at university in America then, studying science, and I remember getting standbys for £50 to come home for holidays. Later, I took cheap flights when I could, and when the children were young we had holidays in St Lucia, Sardinia, Morocco and all around Europe. Those holidays deepened my sense of awe and respect for all life and people on earth. That global mind was one of the good things to come out of the century of flying.

Which is why, in my 40s, when I discovered the effects of burning fossil-fuels, in gory scientific detail, I had to stop all that flying and buying that I’d been brought up to believe was my birthright. I was sad to leave it behind, but my conscience made me do it. Some friends got the message long before me, in the 70s; others continued flying for a few years, often because, like me, their family had scattered around the world in the age of cheap flights. But gradually flying, like smoking, became socially unacceptable; people started to discover that flying was not a resilient or – real – way to live, and that other ways, like conference calls, or just working closer to home and family were more relaxing and effective. That’s when other modes of transport also became more common and more affordable.

I think the turning point was around 2010. That was a bad year for the airlines. First the early stages of the economic contraction left many of them bust or consolidating. Then fuel prices started going up and that made it more difficult to run cheap flights; the whole scandal of the tar sands didn’t help either. The Icelandic volcano erupting grounded airlines for the first time since they were invented and made some people long for quiet skies, and that uncertainty started a trend towards trains for short-haul. Plus, everyone was saying how unpleasant flying had become, with the anti-terrorism checks and so on. And then I remember the new government - it was that brief Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition – announcing that there would be no more new runways built at Heathrow, Gatwick and Standsted, the main hubs.

I remember storming parliament to demand this, dressed as a suffragette, linking with the right for women to vote. Your mother also had a big sit-down picnic in the arrivals lounge at Heathrow, and your aunt Anna too; I think she still has the Flash-Mob T-shirt. To them, as teenagers, it was so clear that new runways were incompatible with the move away from fossil fuels and the age of earth repair that we could see coming by then. Yes, if there was a day to celebrate, when the age of air travel turned a corner, I think it was the day they stopped building new runways.

I hope that helps with your essay about ‘flying in the olden days’
With much love, your granny, May 2030

Thursday, 13 May 2010

the lewes bubble

It struck me the other day that not a single one of my friends has a proper job. That is, a 9-5, Monday to Friday job. So are they all dossers? Far from it; on analysis they work quite intently at their profession, or should I say professions. It seems that most people I know do a range of jobs, mostly part time, mostly self-employed, some paid, some unpaid, some as a hobby, some as part of a training. Take one friend, for instance. She’s not well off but manages to rent a room in Lewes. She works with disabled children three days a week, and as a yoga teacher some evenings. As an accomplished artist, she does occasional community art projects, paid or unpaid. The rest of the time she grows food, spends time supporting friends and experiencing life to the full. Take another friend. He occasionally works for the Royal Shakespeare Company as a musician; he composes library music when the opportunity comes up and the rest of the time he works for community projects in Lewes for free and sunbathes. Lewes is full of people like that.

I know, Lewes is a bubble, but I’ve noticed that what happens here tends to be what the national trend will be. People are becoming ever-so-slightly uncomfortable with mass consumerism, and this feeling seems to have intensified since the banking and politicians’ expenses fiascos. Class isn’t a factor: the class system is far less defined these days in terms of prosperity. Perhaps conscience is the motivating factor these days. Either way, consumerism is being dismantled, invisibly: a revolution that’s not being televised.

I find the trend towards self-employment exciting. By embedding themselves in the community with their work, such people (including me) are more self-determined and therefore more resilient. Recently, I’ve been bartering with friends who are manually skilled – a polytunnel erection for a cord of wood; a beehive for help with marketing. This is a serious game – one that’s incredibly fun, it’s bucking the money system, and it’s so much more real than this plastic world we’ve been living in for most of the 20th century.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

veg out

Something is happening to me and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I had to go to the supermarket a couple of times last week - I can’t remember why - I was in a hurry or my usual shops were closed. Standing in front of the vegetables my stomach spoke to me: ‘Don’t eat that stuff. You don’t know where it’s from.’ I walked up and down the vegetable aisle but there wasn’t a thing there I felt like eating, even organic. Normally I get a little joy-song from my body when I think of eating the food in front of me. But the sullen silence meant I left without the planned supper. Maybe it was seeing Food Inc a couple of weeks ago. Maybe I’ve gone off industrial food.

What to do? The allotment is still mid-hungry gap, and my Ashurst veg box is still fortnightly. But there are a few things to eat. There’s the last leeks and some chard, just about to bolt. I’ve been steaming chard, chopping it up with the end of the garlic and olive oil. There’s nettles, of course, which make the best soup on these cold days. There’s rhubarb, loads of rhubarb, still. And there are some good salads around, if you use the young lime leaves along the Pells to replace lettuce, and mix in a few odd leaves like dandelion, kale and rocket. I’ve got some spring onions left over from last year, some just-up chives plus the last parsnips from the old lady in the nearby allotment.

So, in fact, there’s plenty of food. It’s free and it’s incredibly tasty. It’s what there is, until June when the variety starts to grow.

Someone commented recently that I am a rich woman playing at the good life. And the Tesco supporters at the planning meeting implied that local food is for wealthy people. These facile repetitions need to be challenged. I am technically quite poor – poor enough to qualify for tax credits and maximum grants for my children in education, and happy to be so. But I am educated and I read about the world, and so good quality food is a priority, and I forego much of the ‘stuff’ and activity other people seem to find so essential. I’m not alone on the allotment in growing my own food partly because it saves money, and will do so increasingly as economic growth continues to stall and peak oil starts to be felt. The kind of food we eat is a choice. We are not victims of our economic circumstance; we are partners in our own destiny.

Our vicar in Firle, Pete Owen-Jones seems to feel the same in a new BBC2 series, How to Live a Simple Life.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

the buzz about bees

Honeybee swarming season is upon us again and I collected a swarm from a garden in the Pells last week. The bees are now safe and cosy in a beautiful Abbe Warre top bar beehive made by my Lewes beekeeper friend Mike Millwood. Abbe Warre was an abbot, living around 1900, who spent his life experimenting on 350 different hive designs to find the best kind of hive for bees to be live in naturally and with minimal intervention. The design allows bees to make their own foundation and comb and it assumes bees will swarm. The whole art of natural beekeeping is observation. Needless to say, I’ve been sitting on a little log near the hive observing the bees (and they have been observing me).

My new hive is on my allotment on Landport. Blessings on Steve Brigden, the Town Clerk. I asked him if I could keep bees on the allotment and he then all Lewes allotment holders whether they object to honeybees being kept on allotments. As far as I know, there were no objections, only replies of delight, and Steve is now writing a new clause in the allotment contract allowing bees to be kept on all Lewes allotments.

Three other lovely things have happened this week. First, I heard the great news that the North St industrial estate has been redesignated functional flood plain by the Environment Agency. The definition of functional floodplain is land where water has to flow or be stored in times of flood. Which effectively means no new build on almost the entire area. Presumably for the duration of the transition, in other words, a long time. So Angel Properties and the likes will never be able to get their hands on Lewes land. Hooray!

Industrial land like this shouldn’t be built on. It’s meant to be flexible and open for use by the creative, local livelihoods that are emerging as a result of the transition. There’s already a lot of local employment in the area. Some of the warehouses, such as Zu, Pop-up and Arthole, are already buzzing hubs of innovation. Hooray for Lewes Matters, Phoenix Action and the Lewes Community Land Trust. Hooray for Marco Crivello, Anthony Dicks and John Stockdale, our local heroes.

On Sunday I heard Satish Kumar (founder of Resurgence and Schumacher College) give an extraordinary sermon at Glynde Church in a service led by radical pilgrim vicar Peter Owen-Jones. He spoke of the difference between people who are like tourists in this world, seeking what they can get from life, consuming. And people who are pilgrims, who celebrate life and seek to enter a relationship with all beings.

Tomorrow morning I accompany Steph Bradley, a Transition storyteller, on a walk out of Lewes towards Forest Row. She has walked from Totnes along the footpaths over the last month, and is walking around England for six months, visiting about 200 of the transition towns and cities in England, listening to and sharing our stories. Steph is an Earth pilgrim, documenting and celebrating England in transition in 2010.