Tag Archives: sustainability

Rob Nixon: Slow Violence

Rob Nixon Slow ViolenceI love this book, and not just because this term ‘slow violence’ encapsulates so brilliantly what I have been fighting my entire life — particularly visible in fighting slum lords who made their money by providing tenants with rats, roaches, lead-poisoning, mould, asthma, rashes, depression, harassment, fear, overflowing toilets, uncertainty and a horrible dingy water-stained shade to life twenty-four hours a day seven days a week for years. But this kind of violence becomes visible in so many ways in the lives of people and communities where I have lived and worked. It has shaped so much of who I am, it is the violence of poverty and powerlessness — until a stand is made against it. Nixon writes:

…we urgently need to rethink–politically, imaginatively, and theoretically–what I call “slow violence.” By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales. (2)

Given how media and public attention works, how do we gain attention for slow-moving accumulating disaster? Especially important and requiring both thought and action because:

it is those people lacking resources who are the principle casualties of slow violence. Their unseen poverty is compounded by the invisibility of the slow violence that permeates so many of their lives (4)

This is also complicated because such environmental struggles are never ‘pure’, but form part of larger social and cultural struggles.But again, returning to their scope and duration, one of the greater challenges is that of scale:

how can we imaginatively and strategically render visible vast force fields of interconnectedness against the attenuating effects of temporal and geographical distance? (38)

…slow violence involves more than a perceptual problem created by the gap between destructive policies or practices and their deferred, invisible consequences. For in addition, slow violence provides prevaricative cover for the forces that have the most to profit from inaction…doubt is… a bankable product. (40)

It is this terminology and thinking through of slow violence that I find most useful, but I enjoyed the varied stories through the book as Nixon explores how slow violence is described and made prominent through

the complex, often vexed figure of the environmental writer-activist. (5)

He looks at their work as a way in to this, a way to act upon this:

To confront slow violence requires, then, that we plot and give figurative shape to formless threats who fatal repercussions are dispersed across space and time. The representational challenges are acute, requiring creative ways of drawing public attention to catastrophic acts that are low in instant spectacle but high in long-term effects. To intervene representationally entails devising iconic symbols that embody amorphous calamities as well as narrative forms that infuse those symbols with dramatic urgency. (10)

On the nature of slow violence

I love this quotation from Edward Said:

“the normalized quiet of unseen power.” This normalized quiet is of particular pertinence to the hushed havoc and injurious invisibility that trail slow violence. (6 — quote from ‘Wordly Humanism v. the World Builders, Counterpunch 4 August 2003)

and adds an interesting comparison this with Fanon’s work on violence, and how different this understanding of violence is as it

addresses environmentally embedded violence that is often difficult to source, oppose, and once set in motion, to reverse. (7)

Not that it is anything but complementary. In both

For if the past of slow violence is never past, so too the post is never fully post: industrial particulates and effluents live on in the environmental elements we inhabit and in our very bodies, which epidemiologically and ecologically are never our simple contemporaries. (8)

It is this very time scale that makes it so difficult to grasp and force action around. Others who have sought to grapple with it include Johan Galtung who coined the term ‘indirect or structural violence’, and sought to widen understanding of what constitutes violence from personal violence to include and ‘foreground the vast structures that can give rise to acts of personal violence and constitute forms of violence in themselves.’ (10)

However:

structural violence is a theory that entails rethinking different notions of causation and agency with respect to violent effects. Slow violence, by contrast, might well include forms of structural violence but has a wider descriptive range in calling attention, not simply to questions of agency, but to broader, more complex descriptive categories of violence enacted slowly over time. (11)

Just one example is how we too often look at, talk about, understand war. It is bracketed in talking of casualties between firm dates, but things like land mines, agent orange, depleted uranium all stretch out those casualties through years and decades. A whole chapter here describes Gulf War Syndrome — much of this violence is ‘invisible’ to certain or all views, purposefully hidden or erased while other views and perspectives are privileged.

Slow violence of landscape and maps:

In the global resource wars, the environmentalism of the poor is frequently triggered when an official landscape is forcibly imposed on a vernacular one. A vernacular landscape is shaped by the affective, historically textured maps that communities have devised over generations, maps replete with names and routes, maps alive to significant ecological and surface geological features. A vernacular landscape, although neither monolithic nor undisputed, is integral to the socioenvironmental dynamics of community rather than being wholly externalized–treated as out there, as a separate nonrenewable resource. (17)

This made me think so much about writers like Oliver Rackham describing the changing countryside of England through processes of enclosure, and of course this is equally true of conquest and colonialisation around the world. Nixon continues:

I would argue, then, that the exponential upsurge in indigenous resource rebellions across the globe during the high age of neoliberalism has resulted largely from a clash of temporal perspectives between the short-termers who arrive (with their official landscape maps) to extract, despoil, and depart and the long-termers who must live inside the ecological aftermath and must therefore weigh wealth differently in time’s scales.

More than material wealth is here at stake: imposed official landscapes typically discount spiritualized vernacular landscapes, severing webs of accumulated cultural meaning and treating the landscape as if it were uninhabited by the living, the unborn and the animate deceased. (17)

There is so much here, the imbrications of the cultural, spiritual, physical, environmental, political…I like this poetic acknowledgement of different relations to the land.

Our perspective on environmental asset stripping should include among assets stripped the mingled presence in the landscape of multiple generations… (18)

I also love this, more resonant with indigenous struggles but also with asset-stripped inner cities and barren countrysides:

I want to propose a more radical notion of displacement, one that, instead of referring solely to the movement of people from their places of belonging, refers rather to the loss of the land and resources beneath them, a loss that leaves communities stranded in a place stripped of the very characteristics that made it habitable. (19)

Slow violence of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism’s proliferating walls concretize a short-term psychology of denial: the delusion that we can survive long term in a world whose resources and increasingly unshared. The wall, read in terms of neoliberalism and environmental slow violence, materializes temporal as well as spatial denial through a literal concretizing of out of sight out of mind. (20)

There is some (but I would have looked forward to more I think) about walls, boundaries, what can be imagined and what can be said.

From a postcolonial perspective, the most startling feature of environmental literary studies has been its reluctance to engage the environmental repercussions of American foreign policy, particularly in relation to contemporary imperial practices. (33)

Some smart things about capitalism, that I have found echoes of in Jason Moore’s work (Capitalism and the Web of Life, which I am only partly through and also love)

capitalism’s innate tendency to abstract in order to extract, intensifying the distancing mechanisms that make the sources of environmental violence harder to track and multinational environmental answerability harder to impose. (41)

And then a number of profound thoughts around various writers and struggle and how connections have been and can be made between them. Perhaps my favourite is this mural found in County Mayo of Ken Saro-Wiwa, connecting the struggle of both communities against Shell Oil with his poetry translated into Gaelic…

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Dance your anger, Dance your joys, Dance the guns to silence, dance, dance, dance…

Nixon writes:

A quarter century ago, Raymond Williams called for more novels that attend to “the close living substance” of the local while simultaneously tracing the “occluded relationships”–the vast transnational economic pressures, the labor and commodity dynamics–that invisibly shape the local. (45)

A call I hope to respond to alongside (but probably not nearly as well) as the many writers looked at here — which has generated a whole new list of books I hope to read (and numerous essays, and the below is by no means the full list but this gives you a brief idea of the scope):

  • Animal’s People by Indra Sinha, in a context of the Bhopal distaster, how this compares to Chernobyl
  • Abdelrahman Munif Cities of Salt — five novels exploring petroleum industry and deal between Saudi Arabia and the US
  • Genocide in Nigeria (and others) by Ken Saro-Wiwa, on Shell Oil in Nigeria
  • Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed on Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and the planting of trees
  • Anna Tsing – Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection
  • Richard Drayton — Nature’s Government, on Kew gardens, and network of imperial gardens, and the ideology of improvement
  • Jamaica Kincaid on gardens! Woot!
  • Ramachandra Guha – Environmentalism: A Global History

There is more on megadams, the American pastoral and its problematic nature, wandering and etc etc.

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First day on the new farm

It is beautiful — they have all been beautiful but this is absurdly picturesque and scenic and also messy due to being a working farm, so I love it. It is very close to Wirksworth, funnily enough, where last year we had some terrifying apocryphal adventures, and some incredible real adventures, cementing my love for this area just south of the Peak District. I think it will only grow here, this farm has:

Cows
Sheep
Goats
Ponies
Ducks
Geese
Chickens
An awesome dog
a couple of cats I have only seen from afar

We are bottle feeding lambs, a goat and a calf.

This farm also has barrows and a quarry and an old lime kiln, I took a walk up through the fields today with the little guide, and I shall write more but here are a few pictures, a view from the top of the mounds with all the hawthornes in bloom:

Farm 3.1

The quarry:

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Herefords! I learned lots about these guys today, but am too tired to share

Farm 3.1

Coming back up the lane:

Farm 3.1

Farm 3.1

Home for the next month:

Farm 3.1

And the view from my door:

Farm 3.1

Happiness.

Walking through a permaculture garden

Permaculture as a way of life and process for design is quite amazing. I asked Alex before he moved on to the next farm what his favourite thing about working here had been, and that’s the first thing he said — the incredible thoughtfulness of the design. I would agree with that with one addition — how beauty has been incorporated as part of that design for usefulness, this is an extraordinarily beautiful place. I think I have pictures from each section of the garden to do a quick walkthrough to share and remember its scope and design.

It’s hard to imagine that when they arrived here twenty years ago it was just one enormous field, bare and windswept, though with some quite beautiful and fertile soil. Everything you see has been built and grown over this period.

You walk out of their door, past the washing line, and you see this:

Farming 2.3

Three greenhouses (all recycled before they were torn down in other places and the third finished the second weekend I was there with the help of Julian, who had wwoofed with them before). These are full of seeds to be planted out into the garden, and have become ever more important with global weirding, as the weather has been more and more unpredictable over the past few years. I mentioned this with the runner beans, but it’s such a visceral way to understand climate change in counterpoint to everything else I am reading.

To the right you can just see the top of the caravan, and somewhere there is also a giant underground water cistern that collects rain and water run-off which is used to water the polytunnels and the beds when there is a bit of drought. This was constructed with a small grant.

The flower bed closest to the path is full of flowers and herbs, lots of beautiful aquilegias, some old roses, valerian, ornamental grasses. Here it is after our weeding efforts, and beyond it a bed of onions, also weeded on my last day with the use of the splendid English hoe:

Farm 2.6

Continuing forward  you walk into the square we actually spent most of our time — you can see the tracks of our feet marking the grass. The hedges are of beech, and very beautiful — this once giant field has been divided up to create sheltered micro-climates that plants can better thrive in. The differences between this beautiful hedged squares and the open bit of meadow that has been left as a piece of the wild is quite amazing.

There are three sheds here, all very beautiful. Rob & Diana had been considering straw bale or cob, but received a small grant to build these on a very short time frame, so they are wood. I have completely failed to take a good photo of the shed to the right but here is a piece of it — it is where veg and boxes are stored in three different sections, and has a most wonderous wisteria climbing across the front of it. There is also a porch to shelter timber, and you can see the wheelbarrows.

Farming 2.3

Here are the others (or is it just one long one with two entrances? I somehow don’t know, I should have finished this while I was there):

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The entrance on the left leads to two rooms, one containing the beautiful collection of old hand tools, which we carefully cleaned every day and oiled with WD-40 on wet days to keep from rust, and another where I prepared the salad bags and Diana dries the herbs she uses in her practice.

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The other entrance leads to the room where Diana carries out her practice.

Continuing straight ahead through this square we come to two polytunnels and a line of grapes and berries recently mulched.

Farming 2.3

The polytunnel on the right, where I was collecting salad leaves:

Farm 2.2

Polytunnel on the left:

Farming 2.3

Farming 2.3

Behind this polytunnel could be found the very sheltered and warm area perfect for the herb garden — with the terribly overgrown bed we weeded and the one we began to create:

Farm 2.6

You continue straight ahead on the path between the polytunnels and arrive here, the stack of willow poles we used for the beans in sight (everything is used once, twice, three times — nothing wasted is a key permaculture principle):

Farming 2.3

To the right, the Szechuan pepper and the willows we planted my first day, here almost hidden by their mulch donuts:

Farming 2.3

Continuing straight through you arrive at the orchard and chickens and geese:

Farming 2.3

There is one main henhouse and a couple of smaller ones with runs, to separate mums and chicks from the others and give them a little more protection against foxes and the magpies and jays and crows that regularly predate eggs — Rob was checking down here several times a day to regularly collect eggs before the birds got them. The geese are kept in a separate enclosure with their own house just behind me here.

Farm 2.5

So back up to the sheds, towards the house (meeting Biddy as she stalks down the paths of gravel laid just last winter),

Farming 2.4

Turning right here you would come to the main outdoor vegetable beds, looking straight ahead:

Farming 2.3

Left — I realise I actually have no idea what this shed was supposed to be for, but we never did use it

Farming 2.3

Looking to your right (this closest bed is before we weeded it and where we created the willow wigwams for the beans) towards the bog garden and flower meadow, Rob’s little writing shed in the distance (he never did have energy for writing at the end of the day — something for me to remember):

Farming 2.3

Continuing straight down the main path you can see the duck enclosure (again they have a secure house within a secure fully covered pen, these are within a much larger pen with just a low fence surrounding it where they spend their days — more pics here)

Farming 2.3

And looking to the left, the rest of the beds and the berry enclosure, to protect delicious fruit from birds. There are, of course, lots of berries planted outside for the birds, because this is a smallholding to encourage all kinds of life.

Farming 2.3

Turning right you head down to the wildflower area and the writing shed — Rob has just been down here with the scythe to start to reclaim the bog garden, but I failed to take a picture of this, or the lovely yellows of the buttercups being dug up all over the rest of the smallholding.

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Looking further down the wildflower meadow to the end of the property, the Hawthornes blooming beautifully:

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To the right is the old veg bed that had been plasticed over to help kill the couch grass and nettles that we partially reclaimed for more runner beans:

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Beyond it more fruit trees (Rob has over 60 heirloom apple trees and myriads of others), here is more of Alex’s amazing mulching work with the grasses and nettles scythed down from the forest garden path you can see beyond:

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We walk down it and see the little crossroads:

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Turning left we come to the far polytunnel

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A bit battered from last winter’s storms but still very serviceable, this held most of the spinach and chard we’ve been harvesting for market, all now run to seed so in the process of being cleared and replaced with tomatoes dying to get out of their little greenhouse pots.

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Back to the crossroads we turn left now

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Newly cut grass and poles coppiced and left here to cure

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Looking right we’re back looking at the area behind the two polytunnels that we were working to weed and clear for the herb gardens proper

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We can keep walking straight past more poles

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and down to the open area just in front of the chickens and orchard (to your left here):

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Back up this little path of flagstones we have traversed before to the polytunnel

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And then back between the two heading towards the house.

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I haven’t really even started on describing the contents of the beds or the rotations — as much thought goes into that as anything else, but it is all in Rob’s head. So impressive. This smallholding is hovering at the line at which it can be maintained by Rob and wwoofers using hand tools and learning the great arts of permaculture and gardening, earning almost-but-often-not-quite-enough income through sales at Tavistock market (Rob is looking for another outlet as he has excess veg at this point) for true sustainability. It definitely feeds them exceedingly well. To make an income it needs to be a bit bigger, but that would require mechanization and more outlets — hopefully we are moving more towards a world in which a smallholding like this one, as well as Ian and Tania’s, become more viable propositions for those working in ways that leaves the planet better for their work here.

As you can see, it is a wonderful place that reflects the wonderful people who have created it. I learned so much but there is clearly so much left to learn here…not least the great wisdom of Diana around herbs and their uses. You can see her website here, she runs day courses as well as her practice, and I couldn’t recommend them highly enough based on our little session on dandelions.

You can read some of the theory and thinking behind permaculture here.

Off to the next farm on Monday! Peak district, here I come.

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James Lovelock and Gaia

James Lovelock - GaiaJames Lovelock opens Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth is SF fashion thus:

As I write, two Viking spacecraft are circling our fellow planet Mars, awaiting landfall instructions from the Earth. Their mission is to search for life, or evidence of life, now or long ago. This book is also about a search for life…

His questions — how do you detect life? How do you know life on another planet when you see it?

In our efforts to explore space and its far planets we traveled far, but the real magic happened when we turned around. That moment we were able to view the earth from such a distance in all of its extraordinary beauty as a planet forever changed how we see it, how we try to understand it, the scale at which we are able to think (though then as now, people continue to work and think at narrowed, focused, reductionist scales).

So how do you know there is life under vastly different conditions? It might take completely different forms…

Lovelock’s tentative suggestion is that you can know it is there through the slowing down or reversing of entropy. When you look at the earth it is immensely improbable that we should have life here, that there should be an atmosphere, that the temperature should remain so constant despite changes in sun’s own heat. It should have, could have settled down in any number of states of equilibrium as entropy did its work and things fell apart and died away. But on earth it didn’t. In his metaphor that I rather liked, most planets are windswept beaches, while earth is the sandcastle.

He quotes his own thinking from 1967:

Disequilibria on this scale suggest that the atmosphere is not merely a biological product, but more probably a biological construction: not living, but like a cat’s fur, a bird’s feathers, or the paper of a wasp’s nests, an extension of a living system designed to maintain a chosen environment.

The climate and the chemical properties of the Earth now and throughout its history seem always to have been optimal for life. For this to have happened by chance is as unlikely as to survive unscathed a drive blindfolded through rush-hour traffic. (9-10)

I love this idea of earth as a wasp’s nest, as biological construction. It sparks all kinds of imaginings. He continues:

By now a planet-sized entity, albeit hypothetical, had been born, with properties which could not be predicted from the sum of its parts. It needed a name. Fortunately the author William Golding was a fellow villager. Without hesitation he recommended this creature be called Gaia… (10)

Blimey. William Golding as a neighbor.

I found the unfamiliar science in here a bit dense, apparently most scientists found this far too poetic. I suppose it does quote H.G. Wells, refers to Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke. I rather love this tie between his attempt to make a leap in science based on a vision of our planet from space, and imaginings emerging from SF.

Lovelock looks not to the source and the start of everything, but to the creation of a planetary system able to maintain life. Imagining an early world of anaerobic life and stromatalites. One of the earth’s first cataclysms was the eruption of oxygen into the atmosphere, killing it all dead, though it probably entered the atmosphere little by little, allowing time for adaptation. But if there were too much oxygen? Things would get explosive. Too little? Life as we know it would die. How then, do we have just the right amount?

Through constant corrections made in myriads of ways. I loved the comparison with cybernetics, how it works not like linear thinking and moving towards a goal through cause and effect a la Descartes, but rather through a constant circular feedback-driven cycle of correction to maintain the goal. No clear beginning, rather constant movement, oscillation. Thus a focus on cycles that fits also with earth and agricultural systems and the many ways of life and thought most dependent on them.

Lynn Margulis is someone else on my list of books to read. She and Lovelock were colleagues and he quotes her saying that in each creature optimising its chances for life, the sum total is Gaia. It is an expression of how everything is connected, and life itself works to maximise the conditions for life.

Originally published in 1979, these theories have, of course, been much further developed since then. They are no longer new, no longer ridiculed in the same way. It was good to read where it started. Interesting also to see how much Lovelock himself has moved, not from thinking of Gaia as a kind of world system maintaining life on the planet, but in understanding just how much human beings are having an impact on it. Though he described a doomsday scenario in the book arrived at through genetic engineering, it is clear he thought us creatures of earth ourselves and thus integral parts of this system, our technologies were above all beneficial and could not have too desperate an impact.

He doesn’t feel the same way now, the preface makes that clear.

I am glad of that, though I rather liked the attitude that earth and life is so vastly bigger than we are, it doesn’t much matter if we manage to destroy ourselves. That reminded me a bit of Roadside Picnic by the Strugatskys.

This place has an amazing library. I hardly know what to read next. Yay weekend.

[Lovelock, James (1995) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.]

On Salad

It takes a lot of work, salad.

So. Much. Work.

This is because today we worked picking for the market, for the ‘city folk’, not for our own meal. I know now I never appreciated enough where my usual salad came from.

It took two of us much of the morning to harvest two boxes of spinach and one of chard. True, it’s near the end of the harvest and they are just at the point of bolting, but still. So much work. Back — aches. Hands — itch from that one sneaking nettle. Bending over to pick leaf by leaf, not too much on any one plant so more can be harvested. I know spinach disappears when you cook it, but it does the same damn thing filling a box.

I also picked and washed and de-slugged lettuce. I thus discovered today there are not two kinds of slug — the fat round kind and the long slithery kind with antlers. The slitherers roll up. Life was all right when I didn’t know that.

Mizuna, roquette (this is the same as arugula, who knew? Maybe I knew, but I have also been known to state I’ve never had ‘rocket’ in the US. Perhaps this forgetfulness arises from the fact I don’t care so much for it…) and a third I can’t remember. Those you can just cut all the leaves in a satisfying bunch about an inch and a half above the roots and they will grow back better than ever. Those were a pleasure to harvest. A little chicory, endive, some calendula petals and my salad bags for market tomorrow were a pleasure to behold.

There is, of course, also the choosing of varieties, preparing of beds, planting, watering and etc. Today’s labour was only the end of a much longer labour of hours and thought.

The afternoon we spent weeding around the chard and spinach, and weeding and weeding. But these polytunnels are amazing.

Farm 2.2

Today’s moral: appreciate your damn salad.

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Transition, or The Power of Just Doing Stuff

the-power-of-just-doing-stuff-160x246This book is an invitation to explore a new approach to how our economy might work, how we create employment and wealth, and how we live and work in our local communities. (9)

I’d heard about the Transition Town stuff, I’ve even been a member of the Brixton group on facebook for quite a while now, but it never seemed very active and I wasn’t entirely sure what it was all about… This book was lying around the office, brought in by Claire I expect, and reading further down the first page I found:

I hope that this proves sufficiently inspiring that in later years you might look back at the moment when you picked up this book as having been one of the seminal moments in your life, beyond which you never looked at things in the same way again. (9)

As if for all of us there’s some pre-packaged red and blue pill a la Matrix with the same content, the same deconstruction (or reconstruction) of reality that some dude can give us to swallow and thus change everything.

I really hate that shit.

That said, looking at content over style and the point of this book as a simple introduction to energy descent and what are mostly permaculture principles as they might apply to building local community and resilience, well that’s all good. I understand the idea is to inspire. So I won’t quibble too much over style, just note it didn’t work for me and won’t work for anyone else with a bit of a chip on their shoulder from having been regularly informed of what to think because you’re a woman, or poor or any of the other multitude of reasons like being a person of colour or an immigrant or disabled or elderly or… all those things.

The idea underpinning this book is that local action can change the world. Between the things we can do as individuals and the things that governments and businesses can do to respond to the challenges of our times, lies a great untapped potential, what I am calling ‘The Power of Just Doing Stuff’. It’s about what you can create with the help of the people who live in your street, your neighbourhood, your town. (11)

That’s all good. The aspiration that local action can change the world. I like too that it’s tied in to big problems that neither austerity nor any proposed new deal is talking about — peak oil, climate change, an economy in crisis that can’t just keep expanding forever.

I’d like to suggest a third approach, a new Big Idea for our times, which could prove to be one of the most essential and pivotal shifts in thinking in recent times. It is the idea of local resilience as economic development. It is the idea that by taking back control over meeting our basic needs at the local level we can stimulate new enterprises … while also reducing our oil dependency and carbon emissions… (27)

Resilience — I am still not sure what I think of this term, in many ways it has always seemed to me an academic appropriation of what poor people have doing for thousands of years to survive, and something to admire in that sense, but surely we should be aiming higher. Still, I’m willing to look at it as a construct. He quotes Lewis and Pat Conaty’s The Resilience Imperative on what generates resilience

  • Diversity
  • Modularity (leave a gap in that line of dominoes)
  • Social Capital (another word I quite hate, but ‘social networks and vibrant communities’ are all good)
  • Innovation
  • Overlap (no siloes, no one is isolated)
  • Tight feedback loops (the real point of evaluation — get better as you’re going along)
  • Ecosystem services  (real understanding of our impact) (34-35)

Thinking about how to build that into community work is important I think, and useful when actively thinking about how to knit together different people and projects to make the whole stronger. These terms used both to plan work and to evaluate how well you are doing seem very useful indeed.

The point that ‘We are the cavalry‘ is an interesting one…no government, big business, wealth benefactors or billionaires are going to bail us out. We have to do it. Am I sure about this? Frankly not so much because those are the guys really causing climate change and taking the whole world to hell in a hand basket, but I am sure that communities working together like this is a vital part of the solution. How does he argue this works?

If you can get a group of people together where you live and you can start practical projects on the ground which demonstrate this new approach, then what starts to happen is that the story that place tells about itself begins to shift. (47)

A good insight that practice shifts discourse, shifts the way we understand the world through our narratives. What Re:imagining Change talk about, but a more organic way of creating a counter narrative built in positive change rather than all the many important campaigns that stop all the bad things from happening.

Transition is an idea about the future, an optimistic, practical idea. And it’s a movement you can join. There are people near you who are optimistic and practical too. And it’s something you can actually do. Actually, it’s lots of things you can actually do. Lots of things.

The Transition approach is self-organising and people-led. It looks different everywhere it emerges, yet is recognisably Transition…It’s a social experiment on a huge scale. It’s also great fun.

You can think of it as being like Open-Source software. Everyone who gets involved picks it up and tries it out where they live, and is part of its ongoing evolution. Their additions refinements and insights are available to others who are also trying to figure it out…You can think of it as a self-organising system, driven by people’s enthusiasm and ideas. (49)

There’s a whole lot of this happening everywhere, which is so inspiring, and not all of it is Transition of course. The internet has made it possible for stories to spread so quickly, for people to learn from one another. There are multiple different networks, another one growing out of the Community Lovers Guides done by Civic systems labs, and their even more intentional approach to how the growth of a thickly networked participatory community might be facilitated (see thoughts on their marvelously detailed report on a year’s work in South London here). But networks are important, feeling part of something bigger is important. Hopkins answers the question of why label things as Transition — it allows for a more joined up approach, can be a catalyst and idea incubator, provides a network. As long as there’s no proprietorial feeling over such local efforts, that’s all good too.

Transition of course builds on the permaculture principle that we are moving into energy descent, having to scale back everything as deeper crisis approaches (Holmgren writes about this, as well as Bell and Mollison of course). The vague outlines of it as an economic approach are interesting. Hopkins argues Transition:

proactively sets about creating a post-growth economy from the bottom up, contributing to the ‘Big Idea’… It doesn’t just accept that we have to grit our teeth for five more years of ever-more-soul-crushing austerity..

What characteristics will it have?

  • Localised
  • resilient
  • brings assets into the community ownership
  • low-carbon
  • has natural limits
  • not purely about personal profit (59)

Quite vague though. It also depresses me the absence of words like justice, a line about how we end existing structural inequality. The environmental justice movement has been fighting that for so so long, arguing addressing class, race, gender, sexuality inequalities have to at the forefront of any real and lasting change. You have to throw in global inequalities as well. Graham Haughton is one place to start, Vandana Shiva‘s work somewhere else. I know this book is mostly about motivation, but this could just become (or remain) for the most part a nice comfortable middle-class thing. It can’t stay there and maintain any real meaning, especially when there is so much amazing stuff happening around the world — more amazing outside of the UK to be honest. This does try to connect to some of those things, but clearly it’s mostly limited to Britain and its former white colonies.  This is the weakness of localism in many ways I think, it tends to avoid these issues as well as the big agents of climate change with a positive goal of doing what we can here and now. An uneasy trade off that needs more work.

So all that said, I did like the case studies — I always love case studies, they actually help you do things and they really push our ideas about what is possible starting where we are.

I do like that that is the point.

Here are a few that you can look at

Totnes REconomy project

Malvern Gastketeers

Bristol Pound

Transition Town Brixton

The one I most love is Brixton Energy — I’m just sad living in Brixton for the past six years I had never heard of it, but putting solar panels up on estates is definitely my idea of awesomeness. Their last post, though, is November 2014 and like a lot of these initiatives they seem to be continuing on but not expanding. These initiatives rely quite heavily on people with a lot of time and no few skills, at least to really start up and get going. That makes it hard, and not so resilient and is something that needs more thought I think. The participatory city folks are working on what it would take to get a very dense network of projects up and running that would network a whole community and make this more sustainable once set in motion. That’s quite exciting really, and I do have immense enthusiasm for these kinds of projects…

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Starting a Community Garden

To go from gravel covered ground to a vibrant community garden of raised beds is going to take a lot of work, so we thought the sooner we started the better. The 5th of March was chosen and we stuck to it and we had a number of brave and wonderful people brave the weather to join us:

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We planned a number of activities so that all ages could participate even at this stage of the community garden, from planting seeds to planting sacks. We set up a few tables in the foyer though, so people could plant some seeds to take away and grow food on their windowsills, and if possible to bring us back a plant or two that could grow and flourish here.

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The sack planting was a bit chilly but very cool, and tomorrow’s post will be a complete how-to on how to make your own. They are very useful ways to grows vegetables in small urban spaces like balconies or a little patch of paved garden.

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The key learning, however, is that it is not too early for strawberries.

The main things for Saturday, however, was to build one of the large herb beds we want to set alongside the path across the Precinct site, so people can pick fresh herbs for their meals as they walk from Cable Street to the Limehouse DLR and back.

We started with the large but fairly flimsy structure that our first load of firewood was delivered in. To get it in out of the first drops of rain, I had already sawed this in two as you can see:

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To shore up those flimsy sides we broke up two other pallets (given to us by a wonderful foreman name of Gary running a building site off Commercial)

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And screwed it all together:

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At that point it started to hail. We brought it all inside the hub.

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Paint doesn’t usually last too long on outdoor beds, cracking and peeling with sun and rain and, er, hail. But we have gallons of marine paint left over from painting the trim on the containers and that is much more resilient, so we went ahead and used that to paint our first herb bed. Half orange and half turquoise.

It isn’t the best paint to use inside and in enclosed spaces, but we made do…

community garden

community garden

We’ll be lining it and filling it with wicking materials to conserve moisture despite the windiness and exposure of our site, then soil and plants, probably also adding a bench to make it somewhere people can sit and enjoy the fragrance once it warms up a bit. Looking at it, I wonder if it doesn’t need a few more planks and a little more solidity, but we’ll be keeping some of the spaces as things will grow as happily out of the side of it as they will from the top. We’ll be posting another how-to once it is all done, but for a first day this was absolutely lovely and we got so much accomplished.

Best of all, I think, was the time we were able to work outside and chat with people on their way through who just came up to to find out what we were doing, to say how happy they were that this vacant piece of land was finally being put to a community use, and even just how much they loved gardens. It really felt like we were creating a sense of community then, and gave us a good taste of what will be possible when the sun is shining and people are looking around for things to do outside…

I’m going to end this gratuitously with a puppy, Nala is the Precinct Art Space’s newest tenant and made Saturday even more wonderful than it was before. Along with always having strawberries, may we suggest trying to find a puppy to join you…

community garden

[also posted on St Katharine’s site]

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David Holmgren on Permaculture Principles

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and PathwaysThere is so much in David Holmgren’s Permaculture that I am sure I will return to it, but I wanted to capture the basics in one post. One long post.

Way back when I had a house and a garden, I found out about permaculture and read the huge manual by Bill Mollison and was immensely impressed and tried to grow all my own veg. I failed, and learned a lot in the process. It is many years on now, of living in rooms and flats and no access to gardens and moving and a publishing endeavour and a thesis. I am quite excited to come back to it in thinking about urban and public space and how we live, how we create community, how we leave every place we inhabit, and the earth itself, better than we found it. That’s rarely talked about.

Uncertainty about our place and our future and our knowledge, however, is more and more talked about.

We live in an uncertain age — theoretical science has opened up a whole world of uncertainty, modernity clashing with traditional values, crisis undermines possibility of certainty about the future, and the pace of technology-driven change

Even so, what surprised me — and shouldn’t have because it is a reality that we must face — is that this book starts with, and doesn’t bother to argue for, the reality of climate change, peak oil, crisis. In fact the permaculture movement started with that foundation forty odd years ago

Insofar as permaculture is an effective response to the limitations on use of energy and natural resources, it will move from its current status as “alternative response to environmental crisis” to the social and economic mainstream of the post-industrial era. Whether it will be called permaculture or not is a secondary matter. (xvii)

It argues for a true sustainability, looked at in different ways as befits a key principle for organizing life. One is ‘as a set of coherent system priorities’. There follows an interesting set of binaries that contrast industrial with sustainable culture —

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways

I am trying to think more along continuums rather than through binaries, but this is useful I think.

So on to definitions.

Definition:  Expanded from Permaculture One: “Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for porvision of local needs.” People, their buildings and the ways they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent (sustainable) agriculture has evolved to one of permanent (sustainable) culture.

A second definition: the use of systems thinking and design principles that provide the organising framework for implementing the above vision. (xix)

And then there is this

Permaculture is a whole-hearted adaptation to the ecological realities of decline, which are as natural and creative and those of growth….The real issue of our age is how we make a graceful and ethical descent. (xxix)

and if you didn’t quite get that, he writes:

I am suggesting that we need to get over our naive and simplistic notions of sustainability as a likely reality for ourselves our even our grandchildren and instead accept that our task is to use our familiarity with continuous change to adapt to energy descent. (xxx)

Yes please, let’s do that. I wish everyone from now on could just start right here.

David Holmgren’s Ethical Principles of Permaculture

Three broad principles — pretty easy:

Care for the earth
Care for people
Set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus (1)

I liked this:

In particular, we need to be suspicious of seeing the philosophy of individualism as the source, rather than outcome, of material well-being. Further, we should expect that the beliefs and values that have developed with a rising energy base are likely to be dysfunctional–even destructive–in a world of limited and declining energy. (2)

I loved this:

The stewardship concept demands that we constantly ask the question: Will the resource be in better shape after my stewardship? One cannot go far in this process without challenging the ethical validity of the ownership of land and natural resources that lies at the heart of our legal system. Control of land and natural resources has been central throughout history; in a low-energy future it will again become the primary focus for ethics, politics and culture. Indigenous land right and agrarian land reform in poor countries are two issues that continue to challenge the prevailing ethics about land. The ethic of earth stewardship provides a moral imperative to continue to work out more creative ways for vesting control of land in collective structures, rather than taking as natural the individual ownership of land that goes with our Western industrial culture. Efforts to do this over the last hundred years show that it is not an easy task.  (5)

It is part of care for the earth: understanding the living soil, stewardship of land, preserving biodiversity, seeing all living things as intrinsically valuable and minimising our impact on them.

Care for people? It means understanding the massive structural inequalities, doing what we can to undermine them beginning with ourselves and our families, our neighbourhoods, our communities. I think missing here is a little deeper thought into social and racial justice and how those intersect with environmental justice —  the words environmental justice don’t appear at all, but I think will have to be intrinsic to a wider movement. Graham Haughton‘s work is a start among that of many others I am now exploring.

And hell yes to redistributing surplus.

There then follow twelve principles:

Each of course links to the others, ‘In this sense, each principle can be thought of as a door into the labyrinth of whole-systems thinking.’ (xii)

1. Observe and Interact

icontreeThe icon for this principle is a person as a tree, emphasizing ourselves in nature and transformed by it. (13)

A process of continuous observation in order to recognise patterns and appreciate details is the foundation of all understanding. (13)

And lo and behold, a popular education spiral — I use this all the time to think through things:

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways

2. Catch and Store Energy

iconcatchenergyThe icon of sunshine captured in a bottle suggests the preserving of seasonal surplus and a myriad of other traditional and novel ways to catch and store energy. It also reflects the basic lesson of biological science: that all life is directly or indirectly dependent on the solar energy captured by green plants.

The proverb “make hay while the sun shines” reminds us that we have limited time to catch and store energy before seasonal or episodic abundance dissipates. (27)

Energy is stored in landscapes — water, nutrients and carbon. This is what our presence should be working to rebuild. This means we think about the land we can manage, we think about catchment and regional planning, and we think about households and the built environment as stores of energy.

When considering the development of the tools, buildings and infrastructure , we should aim to emulate, where possible, the characteristics…for natural storages of energy. The following design criteria are relevant:

  • modest in scale
  • well-designed for long life and/or made frmo easily renewable materials
  • simple to maintain (not necessarily maintenance-free)
  • multi-purpose and easy to adapt to other uses. (46) 

3. Obtain a Yield

iconobtainyieldThe icon of the vegetable with a bite taken shows the production of something that gives us an immediate yield but also reminds us of the other creatures who are attempting to obtain a yield from our efforts. (55)

Then he goes on to talk about Kropotkin‘s refutation of the Darwinists in arguing that cooperation is as prevalent if not more than competition. Yay. It means understanding where and how we are dependent on social relationships — harder to see sometimes in the modern world, just as our interdependence with the other creatures in our world is obscured.

4. Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback

iconself0regulateIn modern society, we take for granted an enormous degree of dependence on large-scale, often remote, systems for provision of our needs, while expecting a huge degree of freedom in what we do without external control. In a sense, our whole society is like a teenager who wants to have it all, have it now, without consequences.

The Gaia hypothesis of the earth as a self-regulating system, analogous to a living organism, makes the whole earth a suitable image to represent this principle. (72)

This is really hard, because it’s been a really long time since we’ve done it. That’s all about to change.

Learning to think wholistically requires an overriding, or reversal, of much of the cultural heritage of the last few hundred years. With little experience of whole-system thinking and such cultural impediments, we need to focus our efforts on simple and accessible whole systems before we try to amend large and complex ones. (85)

5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services

iconusevlaueThere is no more important example in history of human prosperity derived from non-consuming use of nature’s services than our domestication and use of the horse for transport, soil cultivation and general power for a myriad of uses. (93)

I love this, it encapsulates everything wrong with consumption, and a lovely definition of use value, evocative of William Morris somehow:

Appropriate use:

How well we use the products from natural resources is as important as the way those products are made. The dining table that is used each day to feed a large household is very different from the one used for the occasional dinner party in an otherwise empty house. One will become imbued with the memories and marks of living. The other will occupy space that is locked, insured, maintained and heated, doing little. (95)

6. Produce No Waste

iconearthwirmThe earthworm…lives by consuming plant litter (wastes), which it converts into humus that improves the soil environment for itself, for soil micro-organisms and for the plants. Thus, the earthworm, like all living things, is a part of web where the outputs of one are the inputs for another. (111)

A critique of privatisation, of built-in obsolescence. A recognition that the world’s poor know more about this than anyone else living, and instead of being looked down upon they should be held up as teachers and examples.

7. Design From Patterns to Details

icondesignThe spider on its web, with its concentric and radial design, evokes zone and sector site planning, the best-known and perhaps most widely applied aspect of permaculture design. The design pattern of the web is clear, but the details always vary. (127)

I don’t think it surprises me that he references Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language here, looking at the regular patterns to be found in our built environment. I quite love that he tries here to look towards beginning a similar pattern language for permaculture design.

This is all about thinking how energy is stored in the landscapes we create, but its interesting to think of ‘site design as cellular design’.

We can think of a permaculture-designed garden (Zones 1 and 2) as a human rural settlement cell. There is a limit to efficient garden size before we have to jump up into a more complex production system. Successful gardens do not keep expanding. Instead, they provide a surplus of plant stock and human knowledge that help to establish new gardens.

Despite the great challenges in recreating community, the expanding interest in eco-villages and co-housing as part of the permaculture vision is implicit recognition of the problem that the nuclear family is too small in scale for many aspects of ecological living. (138)

8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate

iconintegrateIn every aspect of nature, from the internal working of organisms to whole ecosystems, we find the connections between things are as important as the things themselves. Thus “the purpose of a functional and self-regulating design is to place elements in such a way that each serves the needs and accepts the products of other elements.”

Our cultural bias toward focus on the complexity of details tends to ignore the complexity of relationships. We tend to opt for segregation of elements as a default design strategy for reducing relationship complexity.

The icon of this principle can be seen as a top-down view of a circle of people or elements forming an integrated system. The apparently empty hole represents the abstract whole system that both arises from the organisation of the elements and also gives them form and character. (155)

Then there is this:

Permaculture can be seen as part of a long tradition of concepts that emphasize mutualistic and symbiotic relationships over competitive and predatory ones. Declining energy availability will shift the general perception of these concepts from romantic idealism to practical necessity. (156)

There’s a section called rebuilding community, and god knows we need that.

…almost everyone active in the permaculture movement would agree that stronger development of co-operative relationships between people, families and communities outside the large institutional structures is the perfect complement to personal and household self-reliance. Without this alternative, political strategies for taming the global institutions are like King Canute telling the sea to retreat.  (172)

I like too the list of characteristics of a sustainable community:

  • Local and bioregional political and economic structures

  • cross-fertilization–biogenetic, racial, cultural and intellectual–giving natural hybrid vigour

  • Accessibility and low dependence on expensive and centralised technology

  • capable of being developed by incremental steps with feedback and refinement (172)
    Because the design of sustainable culture is beyond the capability of any mortal, the process must be organic and iterative. Each small step and stage should be immediately useful and workable and should provide feedback for refinement, and even changes, of direction. (173)

9. Use Small and Slow Solutions

iconsmallandslowThe spiral house of the snail is small enough to be carried on its back and yet capable of incremental growth. With its lubricated foot, the snail easily and deliberately traverse any terrain. (181)

Lovely — though the use of the word lubricated still makes me giggle like a twelve year old.

I also love how clearly this stands in opposition to Le Corbusier’s paean to speed adhered to by planner after planner.

The speed of movement of materials and people (and other living things) between systems should be minimised. A reduction in speed is a reduction in total movement, increasing the energy available for the system’s self-reliance and autonomy. (181)

10. Use and Value Diversity

iconbirdThe spinebill and the humming bird both have long beaks and the capacity to hover, perfect for sipping nectar from long, narrow flowers….

The great diversity of forms, functions and interaction in nature and humanity are the source for evolved systemic complexity. the role and value of diversity in nature, culture and permaculture is itself complex, dynamic, and at times apparently contradictory. (203)

It’s also interesting that emerging from nature, this value of diversity is connected to place and it is the cultures most attuned to the places where they live that hold the most wisdom.

Permaculture uses the patterns that are common to traditional cultures for design principles and models. the diversity of design solutions, strategies, techniques and species are a toolkit towards new cultures of place. Wherever we live, we must become new indigenes. (211)

This is particularly interesting in thinking about cities, the new cultures of place that grow in them, and how their connections to the land surrounding them can be made visible and healthy.

11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal

icontrailThe icon of the sun coming up over the horizon with a river in the foreground shows us a world composed of edges. (223)

I like that he looks at ‘marginal’ neighbourhoods, cites Jane Jacobs as noting that they are where space and low rent allow new things to grow and thrive. Also the ways that we see the edges between rural and urban, where it is the connections that are interesting.

12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

iconbutterflyThis principle has two thread: designing to make use of change in a deliberate and cooperative way, and creatively responding or adapting to large-scale system change that is beyond our control or influence. (239)

We need to break out of the delusion of apparently linear acceleration of human material and numerical progress to a world view in which everything is contained by cycles, waves and pulses that flow between polarities of great stability and intense change, all nested one within another. (270)

Permaculture is a dynamic interplay between two phases: on the one hand, sustaining life within the cycle of the seasons, and on the other, conceptual abstraction and emotional intensity of creativity and design. I see the relationship between these two as like the pulsing relationship between stability and change. It is the steady, cyclical and humble engagement with nature that provides the sustenance for the spark of insight and integration (integrity), which, in turn, informs and transforms the practice. The first is harmonious and enduring; the second is episodic and powerful. The joyful assymmetric balance between the two expresses our humanity. (271)

I find all of these useful starting points for thinking about cities, planning, building communities. It is built for praxis, and while much of this book is highly detailed about how these have been concretely implemented in terms of household design and agriculture, I think it will be quite fruitful to explore how they can be usefully applied in a broader movement to help create a better world. All of these things fit together, and I am enjoying exploring the potential of this.

David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways

 

Edna Ferber’s remarkable Chicago novel So Big

257443So Big, Edna Ferber’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is a wonderful book. I question why it was not listed and taught among the rest of those American classics. I imagine it would be if it weren’t written by a woman with a woman as its main subject, though it tries to fool you in the beginning that it is about Dirk De Jong. Really it’s all about his mother Selina, and not in the creepy oedipal way male authors would have done it.

She is amazing.

Selina grows up alone with her father–a small time poker player who reminds me strongly of one of the Maverick brothers (But is it Brett or is it Bart?). They lead a roaming, eventful, varied life of highs and lows. His death shatters all that, and she goes to become a small teacher among the farmers in that ‘incredibly Dutch district southwest of Chicago known first as New Holland and later as High Prairie.’ She falls for a handsome farmer, and her life follows a path very different from the one she dreamed of.

There are details about this new community that I love:

She did not then know that spotless window-panes were a mark of social standing in High Prarie. Yard and dwelling had a geometrical neatness like that of a toy house in a set of playthings. The effect was marred by a clothesline hung with a dado of miscellaneous wash…

Above all, the perspective of a woman on the effects of work, the terrible weight of rural farming life. Here Selina meets Maartje for the first time:

Selina suddenly saw that she, too, was young. The bad teeth, the thin hair, the careless dress, the littered kitchen, the harassed frown–above all these, standing out clearly, appeared the look of a girl.

Selina fears it. Swears it will not become her own fate. But you know that it is.

When the next ten years had done their worst to her, and Julie had suddenly come upon her stepping agilely our of a truck gardener’s wagon on Prairie Avenue, a tanned, and weather-beaten, toil-worn woman, her abundant hair skewered into a knob and held by a long grey hairpin, her full calico skirt grimed with the mud of the wagon wheel, a pair of men’s old side-boots on her slim feet, a grotesquely battered old felt hat (her husband’s) on her head, her arms full of ears of sweet corn…a woman with bad teeth, flat breasts, a sagging pocket in her capacious skirt–even then Julie, staring, had known her by her eyes…and had cried, “Oh, Selina! My dear! My dear!”–with a sob of horror and pity…

It is Selina who comforts her. Selina who no longer minds. Selina who is not bound by the need to be attractive and thus is found by many to be the one who is truly beautiful, outside of those conventions. Selina who has lived the fullest of lives. The lives of the ‘successful’, the sons and daughters born into wealth and position, fall far short. Her position at the death of her husband:

Youth was gone, but she had health, courage; a boy of nine; twenty-five acres of wornout farm land; dwelling and out-houses in a bad state of repair; and a gay adventuresome spirit that was never to die; though it led her into curious places and she often found, at the end, only a trackless waste from which she had to retrace her steps painfully. But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.

And the wine-red cashmere. She laughed aloud.

It is Selina that you love and admire and think it would have been all right to have ended up that way — in a battered hat and men’s shoes and a shapeless body and still extracting every ounce of deliciousness from life.

Her story raises all kinds of questions. This deals with the conflict between love and self-realisation in this period (and I don’t want to say of course it does, because a woman wrote it, but really I mostly feel that way). Selina loved her husband, but she is not able to fully flourish until after his death. Not able to put into practice her innovative ideas for the farm like the asparagus beds that shocked the whole community rigid, not able to rise out of poverty and live a fuller life. She carries guilt over this because a part of her knows it…this is never resolved in the novel just as it cannot be in life.

I also question the narrative’s assumptions that innovation and a sense of beauty come from outsiders, that anyone desiring more  than survival via the truck farming methods passed down through generations demands running away the way Roelf Pool does. That is unquestioned here, a resounding yes. But unlike the many realist novels I have been reading, this is hopeful of what will and intelligence and creativity can achieve.

She is curious about everything, and I love that this novel also deals with food, how it is grown and who grows it. Their life. The political economy of vegetables and the poverty it creates, the transport of vegetables, the world grown up in Chicago streets around the wagons arriving from the farms:

Food for Chicago’s millions. in and out of the wagons. Under horse’s hoofs. Bare-footed children, baskets on their arms, snatching bits of fallen vegetables from the cobbles. Gutter Annie, a shawl pinned across her pendulous breasts, scavengering a potato there, an onion fallen to the street, scraps of fruit and green stuff in the ditch.

Selina is able to escape this by innovating, reading books, trying new things. She is fascinated by the beauty of what she grows as much as its importance to the health and wellbeing of all those who eat it. She imagines mothers making sure their kids are eating all of the spinach and potatoes she has grown. This is a time when people ate what was grown locally, could buy it direct if they chose, where farmers knew wholesalers and shopkeepers, where everything was organic. This novel fit in so interestingly with Fukuoka’s One-Straw Revolution, and you wished Selina might have met him. She would have loved permaculture too, just as she loved any field of knowledge that built, created, made — and that relieved those working the land from the terrible burdens that aged them so quickly, that killed them so young. That celebrated growing food and healthy lives.

Her son Dirk asks Selina her idea of a Chicago House, and she has already given it much thought, brings her experience of land and weather and living well:

Well, it would need big porches for the hot days and nights so’s to catch the prevailing southwest winds from the prairies in the summer — a porch that would be swung clear around to the east, too–or a terrace or another porch east so that if the precious old lake breeze should come up just when you think you’re dying of the heat, as it sometimes does, you could catch that, too. It ought to be built–the house, I mean–rather squarish and tight and solid against our cold winters and northeasters. then sleeping porches of course. There’s a grand American institution for you!

In many ways, this is an alternative narrative of the American dream of success. Not too different of course — it does lionize the business men who rose from butchers to meat-packing millionaires, those who made fortunes in grain, railways, vegetables and those who planned and built the city. It recognises not all of their methods were legal or moral, but that seems to be just part of their force upwards towards progress. They are set far apart from their beautiful discontented children who live empty though comfortable lives. In that it is very much like The Cliff-Dwellers, but pushes it further and offers a very different counter-narrative of where a woman’s happiness lies. Its sympathies in describing Dirk’s college for example, are always with those who have scraped and saved to work hard in gaining learning from the bored gilded youth who have arrived there for a little polish and take way as little actual knowledge worked for and won as possible.

There is also the uncomfortable fact that Selina’s escape from desperate poverty into a life with some comfort and fullness is partially funded by the family she befriended through the higher class boarding school her father had scraped up the money for her to attend before his death. They help her son as well Ferber doesn’t quite know what to do with that, has Selina expressing it only to have her doubts relieved because strength of character and intelligence like hers will always come out on top. The novel lets you believe it, so in the end you have to give thanks to gloomy realism once again.

Here is Dirk’s success, bounded socially, racially and geographically:

There was always a neat little pile of invitations in the mail that lay on the correct little console in the correct little apartment ministered by the correct little Jap on the correct north-side street near (but not too near) the lake, and overlooking it.

Hi office was a great splendid office in a great splendid office building in LaSalle Street. He drove back and forth in a motor car along the boulevards. His social engagements lay north. LaSalle Street bounded him on the west, Lake Michigan on the east, Jackson Boulevard on the south, Lake Forest on the north. He might have lived a thousand miles away for all he knew of the rest of Chiacgo–the mighty, roaring, sweltering, pushing, screaming, magnificent hideous steel giant that was Chicago.

Selina is the opposite.

Her years of grinding work, with her face pressed down to the very soil itself, had failed to kill her zest for living. She prowled into the city’s foreign quarters–Italian, Greek, Chinese, Jewish. She penetrated the Black Belt, where Chicago’s vast and growing Negro population shifted and moved and stretched its great limbs ominously, reaching out and out in protest and overflowing the bounds that irked it…They thought her a social worker, perhaps one of the uplifters. She bought and read the Independent, the Negro newspaper in which herb doctors advertised magic roots.

If she had read more of the newspaper, she would have known it was also full of quality reporting on world events and racism and local politics — The Chicago Defender was one of the most legendary of African American papers for example. Edna Ferber occupies that strange ground of American liberal that can’t really seem to question fundamental injustices and inequalities, while still exposing some of the cruelty and racism’s unnecessary boundaries. At the same time, she takes for granted white supremacy:

Never mind, Selina assured him, happily. “It was all thrown up so hastily. Remember that just yesterday, or the day before, Chicago was an Indian fort, with tepees where towers are now, and mud wallows in place of asphalt. Beauty needs time to perfect it.”

Ferber wrote Showboat, of course, which I have seen rather than read. Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel steal and subvert some of the overt racism of it, but it remains a fascinating commentary on the one drop rule and rife with stereotypes. She wrote Giant as well, which I am now more curious to read.

I’ll end on reading, and the nice things women do for other women — there is in the beginning a casual list of classics that Selina has read. It includes Dickens but is mostly women — Austen and Bronte, but also Felicia Hemans, who I had not heard of but will now read. And then there is a list of popular women’s literature of which much is available on Project Gutenberg and looks quite interesting — Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Bertha M. Clay and The Fireside Companion. Southworth wrote these amazing serialized stories about Capitola the cross-dressing madcap having fabulous adventures across the country. How have I never heard of those?

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Food is Free: A Practical Lesson in Community Gardens

In my day job we are looking at creating a community garden among other projects — which seems like it should be easy enough if we get the right people together and just figure it out. Better yet, I have asked for a little help from local organisations of people committed to growing food in the city, and there are lots of people working in the East End on just exactly this. But I thought I would also just see what the internet had to offer, doing a little more research on projects to learn from when we come to build our own gardens.

Besides going a little overboard on permaculture books, which I’ve been obsessive about for a long time, but without much chance to do anything at all about for the past few years. I’ll be writing about those as I go through them, I am so glad that my garden-drought is ending.

Food is Free

If not free now, perhaps some of it can be free in the near future — with food banks on such a steep rise, I think we should be doing all we can to work with people to grow their own healthy veg. Only yesterday through a friend’s post, I stumbled across the Food is Free project, which seems to me to have a particularly lovely way of both framing the project and breaking down the process of bringing people together in urban spaces to grow food not just for themselves, but for neighbours.

This is making me wish I had made a little time to do this ages ago.

In explaining who they are, they write:

The Food is Free Project is a community building and gardening movement that launched in January of 2012. We teach you how to connect with your neighbors and line your street with front yard community gardens which provide free harvests to anyone.

The gardens are built and offered for free using salvaged resources that would otherwise be headed to the landfill. By using drought-tolerant, wicking bed gardens, these low maintenance gardens only need to be watered every 2-4 weeks. This simple tool introduces people to a very easy method of growing organic food with very little work. A wide variety of vegetables along the block promote neighbors to interact and connect, strengthening our communities while empowering them to grow their own food.

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They work with people who have brought friends, family and neighbours together to build bed gardens in a whole variety of available places. They’ve even put a how-to booklet together to allow others to do what they do. The simple steps summarised:

1. Declaration – let people know what you’re doing so they can get involved!

2. Location – find a spot

3. Discover Resources – look at what you have and what you need to get — and don’t be afraid to ask for things that can be reused and recyled

4. Planting! – pretty self-explanatory, just know you will make mistakes.

5. Sharing – share the harvest, it’s nicest that way.

We love how this breaks everything down, makes it sound easy to start up something in any neighbourhood. I like the way this opens up the city so that food can be integrated into improving everyday life along every street, not just for those with allotments or a car or a garden.

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What is great about this is that these kind of projects can be done almost anywhere, even in very small spaces, so they complement our amazing local city farms like Stepney and Spitalfields, as well as existing allotment spaces.

Other Examples of Street by Street Awesomeness

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There are people doing this everywhere. From Ron Finlay in Los Angeles, who helped changed LA’s laws to allow people to plant vegetable in medians and along sidewalks, to the Yorkshire village of Todmorden growing its own food all over the place, to Growing Communities in Hackney, with its patchwork farm made up of 12 market gardens.

There are also incredibly beautiful and creative ways of making plants that we normally only think of as being grown for food both decorative and inspiring. Like this wonderful archway of squash:

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Or this spiral of flowers (that could have been strawberries or tomatoes or herbs):

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From the community gardens we hope to grow on our community site now to the rooftop gardens that could lie in our future, there is so much to learn from and be inspired by as in joining this growing movement.

For more ideas, look at the amazing collection of stories about what people are doing here, on the Community Lovers Guides site. But this is probably the first of many a post on local food growing.

I like the idea of Food is Free. It should be. Especially the food that is so good for us, both as something to eat, but also something that gives us joy to plant collectively, tend and grow.