Inner city mindfulness

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The kernel of this blog is simplicity. If we could only move our lives back into simplicity, so many of our contemporary problems would diminish or depart entirely.

And I find it ridiculously hard to do sometimes. The ‘things to do list’ only seems to grow, and the economics of living in London in 2016 seem so pressing. The pressures to ‘not fall behind’, ‘to keep up’ weigh on me mightily at times, when I feel a sense of panic at the sand pouring through the hourglass.

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But then there are other times, where I drop back into the flow again, moving with the stream, tuning into the myriad ways it nourishes me. Last Sunday was one of those times, and it was all delightfully, gloriously, radically simple.

I was participating in a day of mindfulness in Kennington at the small beautiful Jamyang Buddhist monastery organised by the Heart of London group which follows the wonderful Vietnamese Zen tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh,

Over seven hours we ate, walked, spoke, listened, and meditated together – all things I might do in an average day anyway – but this time all these things were drenched in mindfulness.

What do I mean by mindfulness? Simply being aware in the present moment of what is actually happening – physically,  emotionally and cognitively.

Mindful typing

As I type this article, my fingers are flying across the keypad and the pads of all my fingers are feeling the plastic of the letters as they hit the right key. It’s like a little massage for the fingers, and as I tune in I notice that sometimes it’s the nails that are touching the keys and sometimes it’s more towards the centre of the fingertip. And now I’m tuning in further, I’m aware that my wrist is involved and my two arms, and as I notice this, my whole posture changes, I’m more upright and simply enjoying the wonderful physical and mental experience of turning thoughts into words.

Wow! That increased sense of wellbeing came from just three minutes of mindful typing.

Elusive simplicity

Of course, although it’s a simple practice, it can also be difficult because it runs so counter to the way we’re encouraged to run our lives today. Busy, busy, busy; we are all so caught up in our own heads, thinking about the past, the future, the looming deadlines. Even the way we ‘consume’ our ‘leisure’ can come from that same driven, grasping place, that sense of urgency and box-ticking.

That’s why attending a day of mindfulness is such a good idea. In the company of others you remember, yet again, the basics. How good it feels to come home to your own physical body and feel what it feels, see what it sees, hear what it hears. You become more aware of the thought clouds passing through the sky of your mind. It’s easier with other people to encourage you. Some of your calmness passes to them, and vice versa. Through giving gentle attention to your body as it takes an in-breath and an out-breath, or feeling it move through space in the process of walking, you come to a much more solid place. It’s not a magic wand of happiness: if you are dealing with difficult things in your life then you may feel that sadness or anger more consciously. But I tend to find that if I allow myself to feel these, then relief and peace come in their wake. And I always become far more aware of the simple things in life which bring me joy.

Mindful eating

And so it was on Sunday, when I had my first proper experience of eating mindfully. Usually I bolt down my food quickly, with gusto, like a happy tail-wagging dog. I am dimly aware of the taste and texture, I enjoy it, but it’s not mindful – (apart from when I’m eating something I’ve cooked outside in the open air for some reason).  This time I noticed my sensations of  hunger and impatience, as I watched the steam spiralling up from the hot plate in front of me,  and felt the juices in my mouth rising. We were made to wait a short time until everyone sat down, and I realise now that the wait was really important. Because when I finally started eating, it was a revelation.

I was struck by the wonderful texture of the rice – the way it had bite and firmness, cooked to just the right point. The flavour of the cashew nuts in the stew came and went, teasing me, sometimes right there, sometimes evading me. The salad was like a wonderful mystery – one minute biting into the nuttiness of a sprout, the sweetness of a pomegranate seed – there was a roasted seed in the mix that I just couldn’t quite identify, which imparted a wonderful extra taste and texture to the whole thing.

Healing urban sounds – really?

As my awareness of sensations increased during the day, I became more aware of the city sounds in the distance. The train’s two note hooting was jaunty, cheerful, like a friendly wave. One riff even sounded like a huge saxophone.

I also became aware that planes were flying overhead more or less constantly, with a new one every five minutes. But this didn’t bother me – instead I found I enjoyed the noise when I really listened to it. I rediscovered, again, that it has a musicality to it – a blend of notes moving down a scale from high to low, like a strange wind instrument, driven along by its engines’ rhythmic roar. It even seemed that I could feel its vibration as well as hear it – the way it rumpled the atmosphere through which it moved.

And it didn’t stop there. On the way home I paid attention to the sound of a car accelerating and slowing down repeatedly as it moved over speed bumps on my road. Normally the sound would annoy me and I’d try to block it out. Now I sang along to it – high, low, then high again.

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Postscript

When I switched on the radio later it just so happened to play the Ultimate Care album by electronic duo Matmos, constructed entirely out of  sounds generated by a Whirlpool Ultimate Care II model washing machine. Mindfulness makes art, too.

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Posted in mindfulness, nature connection, simplifying daily life, spirituality, Uncategorized, urban living | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

A better life is possible – I’ve seen it

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This blog started out as a record of my attempts to ‘escape the system’ and live more lightly and simply on the planet. Over time it’s become more focused on nature as a theme, and I’ve posted poetry as well as prose. The concept of fairness and equality has become more and more important to me in the wake of cumulative austerity policies, and the lack of challenge to them in mainstream media or political parties – until very recently.

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So perhaps it’s not surprising that nearly three months ago I escaped the dismal political situation in Britain and moved temporarily to Sweden, attracted by its egalitarian reputation and large areas of wilderness. This post explores what it was like there, and what I’ve learned….

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I’m travelling back to the UK after nearly three months in Sweden. My Blah Blah Car lift lands me in Brussels, the home of the European project. In one single afternoon, I hear and see more mentally-ill, aggressive, desperate and borderline criminal people than in the whole three months I’ve just spent in Sweden. I’m perplexed by the Metro, with its lack of staff, and overwhelmed by the city’s noise, cars, graffiti, smell of piss and the excrement in the streets. But it’s good, in a way, because I know this will toughen me up for returning to London.

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Most of my adult life I’ve heard about the higher levels of income and gender equality in Scandinavia, as well as its cleaner environment, lower crime rates and higher levels of trust. I wanted to experience the reality behind the statistics and find out what is it really like to live there.  And, perhaps more importantly for a person coming from England: how do you create a fairer, better society? Does it have to cost more, does it entail losing a creative, competitive edge?

A parallel life

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Over the past few months, helped by the disorienting effects of the midnight sun and the northern lights, I’ve played with having a parallel, Swedish life. Through the volunteering website Workaway.com I found myself several ‘jobs’ in different parts of Sweden – which gave me the chance to experience life in the north as well as the south of the country, both the countryside and the city. I lived with Swedish families, and I met some wonderful and less wonderful people. I embedded myself in local Swedish communities in a way no tourist ever can. I spent much of my time in the city of Luleå, not far from the Arctic Circle, but also spent time in Stockholm and the Uppsala area.

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No paradise yet, but closer..

I didn’t find the perfect egalitarian idyll. Sweden shares some of England’s (and other European countries) issues, such as widening social inequality, refugees, obesity, race segregation, and unemployment. Like the UK, corporates have too much power, and the market culture has deformed public services (such as the state water company near-bankrupting itself by buying stakes in German nuclear power stations without bothering to tell anyone). On the whole though, I found the symptoms of these problems to be far less extreme than in the UK. So although I’ve noticed some examples of excessive wealth – such as Swedes parading themselves on huge expensive yachts, and a family where every child had its own speedboat – I found it possible to have a great quality of life here with little money.

High quality of life with little money

Sweden has a reputation for being expensive, but as far as I can see it’s mainly the alcohol, and apartments in Stockholm, that deserve this reputation. Don’t come here if you want to have a boozy holiday, that’s for sure. Accommodation is getting more expensive and harder to come by but it’s nowhere near the ridiculous levels in Britain. Nearly everything else which one relies on to navigate life- buses, trains, somewhere to study, places to relax, spend time with family – are affordable, subsidised, clean and accessible.

 You can have a life here which is near impossible in Britain

What this means is that if you’re a student, creative person, or a parent, or a woman, or even a refugee (Sweden takes more refugees per capita than any other European country apart from Germany) – your life here will be completely different from that in the UK. Think about that. You’ll be able to do things, create things, that you’ll never be able to in Britain. I saw examples of this all the time.

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inspiring view from KKV, a fantastic artist studio collective in Lulea

 

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one of the artworks in the  sculpture park surrounding KKV

Support for creativity and families

For instance, an artist couple I met in Luleå are able to combine being part-time artists with bringing up their son. The fact that they are artists, and part-time ones, means they do not have a lot of money. But thanks to a rent-subsidised apartment (roughly £320 per month) and an incredibly cheap, stunning cooperative art studio containing state of the art facilities (less than £100 per year) and subsidised child care (£53 per month) they can practice what they are good at, look after their son, and even have time and energy to enjoy themselves.

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The large studio space available for hire at KKV – looking out onto forest

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printing room at KKV

Compare that situation with Britain. I know so many parents where one partner finds that they have to work longer hours or take on a more stressful job to cover the cost of losing an entire income whilst the other parent looks after the child. Or mothers who go back to work and find that a huge proportion of their salary goes straight out again to cover the childcare costs. This creates stress. Stress on the person having to work harder (usually the man) and therefore see less of their children, and stress for the person sacrificing their career to look after them (usually the woman). Stress for the child, whose parents are too tired to enjoy them. It’s sad for all of them, and it probably leads to a few marital breakdowns along the way.

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Another affordable great art coop in Lulea with affordable artist studios

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Another artist coop with beautiful affordable studios

Even those artists or writers I know in Britain who don’t have children often have to work in other jobs part-time just to ensure they have enough money to live on. They have to find a way to fit the creativity in around their job. And of course that means they’re often too tired or busy to develop their art.

 Gender equality

One of the things I noticed in Brussels on my return were huge advertising posters of women’s breasts, not even bothering to include a head. This kind of image was entirely absent in Sweden, where there are three women party leaders in parliament, two of whom have had babies this year and are sharing their parental leave.

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Swedish fathers can take months off work to look after their children or leave the office at 4pm to pick them up from school, Maddy Savage points out, editor of the Local Sweden, an English language news website. And because sharing childcare is normalised, so is the idea of having both men and women in senior jobs, regardless of whether they have kids.

Most Swedish women I met seemed very practical, confident, grounded people. We all know how to get a fire going and forage for food, they told me – at least in the north of Sweden. And travelling at night on public transport felt very safe as I noticed lots of other single women doing the same.  I also noticed the widespread coverage of women’s sport in local newspapers and on TV; it’s taken seriously, unlike in Britain.

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Swedish women doing their practical thing!

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Foraging for wild raspberries

Free education

Although I already have a degree, I’d love to take another high level course of study – but I know that doing so will involve a large sum of money, which makes me think twice, and delay while I find ways to save the cash. But if I lived in Sweden, I’d get to study for free.

In my parallel life as a Swedish citizen I would be much more highly skilled and better-educated than I am now. And it shows – Swedes have a track record for innovation. I  didn’t realise til I came here that Skype and Spotify are Swedish inventions, and that the country produces more patents a year than any other.  The World Economic Forum recently voted them the seventh most innovative economy in the world due to the amount Sweden spends on education, alongside infrastructure and R and D.

Sweden gives the lie to austerity

This shows how the austerity policies in Britain have nothing to do with economics and everything to do with ideology. Sweden invests in its public sector, its infrastructure and yet has weathered the recession better than the UK. Whereas in England we’re told that if we want to be competitive we have to hammer the public sector and cut costs.

Sweden’s large public sector and high taxes doesn’t seem to have put off business- Facebook has its only data storage facility outside of the US in Luleå. The public sector in Luleå employs over 7,000 people, according to its tourist handbook (numbers like this wouldn’t even make it into an English tourist handbook) for a population of 75,000. I googled the numbers of public sector employees for Lewisham, where I live in London. With its population of 286,000, over three times the size, they employed under 3,000 employees. Where would you rather work?

Disposable income not needed

If you’re a student, or a creative person in Sweden, or a lower-paid worker, you likely won’t have a lot of disposable income, but that doesn’t matter so much here, because so many great, well-maintained facilities are free, or subsidised. That’s partly why Swedes who’ve previously lived in India or London tell me that they mix more with people from different backgrounds now – in Sweden there’s less of a social divide between a hairdresser and someone with a pHd. Greater income quality, less consumerism and shared, appreciated, public resources make this happen, but underlying this are the Scandinavian concepts of ‘Lagom’ and ‘Jantelagen’.

Lagom- Just enough

Folk myth says that the Lagom ‘just enough’ concept came from the Viking practice of sharing out mead fairly among the crew, but whatever its origins it underpins the Swedish psyche, behaviour and what I felt in Sweden – a sense of cohesion, of things working well, and working for everybody. ‘Just enough’ offers a sustainable alternative to the hoarding  ‘more, more’ pressures of consumerism. In Sweden it is still considered ideal to be modest and avoid extremes, a welcome change from the prevailing competitive culture of the individual which, post-war, has spread throughout the Western world (see NYT Bestseller Quiet by Susan Cain for more on this).

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Jantelagen – it’s ugly to think you’re better than anyone else

I have never heard anyone in Sweden bragging at length about their accomplishments. And I met a lot of people who were very good at listening. Even when I attended a party to launch a new book, the hosts who’d written the book spent much of their speech thanking their guests and those who’d helped them write it.

Jantelagen is a Scandinavian concept advocating societally-enforced humility. It discourages people from promoting their own achievements over those of others. Viewed negatively, it discourages individual effort, but viewed positively, it keeps egos in place, boosts self-esteem and reduces stress. I certainly didn’t notice it hampering the individual creativity of many of the many artists I met and worked with in Luleå. Perhaps it just means you can spend more time creating and less time having to market and sell yourself – a relief, if you ask me.

The Swedish Commons

So what are these great well-maintained facilities? I booked a night train at the last minute all the way from Stockholm to the Arctic Circle, with a nice bed for the night – for about €60. The trains are safe, and clean. Free wi-fi at every railway station meant I could surf the net for free most of the time. Buses were fairly cheap in Luleå; and best of all I found I could cycle everywhere, without risking life and limb, thanks to ubiquitous cycle lanes. It also felt far more pedestrian-friendly.

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In Luleå, when it got too cold to swim outside, I went to the beautiful state of the art swimming pool and super-hot sauna – it cost me 40 SEK, which is less than four English pounds.

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The concept of the ‘commons’ is important. Even relatively expensive apartment blocks have communal washing machines, freeing up space and saving money. Yes, this can lead to arguments between neighbours, but it also means Swedes get good practice in finding consensus. My friend in Stockholm, who owns her own flat, tells me that she and all the other residents make all the communal decisions about the block – they have to work cooperatively to get things done, rather than farming out these decisions through an external housing association, like where I live in London. Her resident association agreed to install a communal sauna in the block, which meant I could enjoy a free sauna during my stay.

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you get paid to recycle some items in sweden – another example of swedish pragmatism

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But the UK is fairer in some ways

I don’t want to suggest that everything in Sweden is perfect. The far right Swedish Democrats are doing well in the polls. One thing I’ve noticed where Sweden is less egalitarian than the UK is going to see the doctor and getting free access to museums and art galleries. Although it only costs a nominal fee to see the doctor ( approx £16) this was enough to deter me making a follow-up visit towards the end of my stay when funds were low. Sweden started charging for doctor´s visits when it carried out its programme of cuts in the 90s, and I suspect has created widening health inequalities. Most of the art galleries and museums in Stockholm charged for entry, I also noticed, which meant I didn’t visit as many. However, Lulea’s impressive Kulturhus had many free exhibitions, events and affordable concerts, so the picture is mixed.

Still a cohesive community

Despite the recent popularity of the Right wing party, most Swedes I’ve spoken to are proud of the fact that it’s possible for anyone in Sweden to have a great quality of life, irrespective of income. They don’t moan about paying their taxes to support people who work supposedly less hard, like I hear in Britain – they feel that they share in the bounty their taxes provide, like free education.

No long hours culture

Maybe they’re more community-minded because they don’t have to work so hard. Here, people tell me it’s unusual for people to work more than 40 hours a week – working more doesn’t earn you brownie points, it’s more likely to make people think you’re anti-social. Taking regular fika breaks for tea and coffee with your work colleagues is important social glue.

Some companies in Sweden are now experimenting with a six-hour working day, reporting greater efficiency, less conflict, happier staff. Then there’s the generous maternal and paternity leave – parents are entitled to 480 days of parental leave when a child is born or adopted, getting the equivalent of 105 euros a day. Imagine how much easier life would be if we had that, combined with the Swedish virtually free child care, in Britain.

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Fences still low

There was talk a few years ago about Swedes emulating the US and UK and embracing the concept of ‘gated communities’ but I’m pleased to report I haven’t yet found one. What I have found is that the fences around properties are still really low, and that even in rich areas it’s common for the main back doors of apartment blocks to be unlocked.

Trust

Surveys show that Swedes have one of the highest levels of trust in the world, and I think this attitude permeates all the positive things I notice here. Trust has enabled the generous welfare state to work, and the ensuing great quality of life encourages more trust –  a virtuous circle. Everywhere I see examples of this trust; for example municipally-maintained fire pits in densely wooded areas, or in the middle of towns. In Luleå on a Friday night by the docks, I enjoyed glowing lights of fires, manned by groups of teenagers. They were expected to light fires, encouraged to do so and trusted to look after them.

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these glowing lights are from cosy fires tended by groups of teenagers

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Another thing I noticed was axes left everywhere. People would totally freak about this in the UK. An axe had permanent residence beside the ubiquitous fire pit in the back garden of my friend’s place, an apartment block where several children lived. I remember watching a five-year-old carve her likeness out of a branch using a sharp Mora knife, her mother barely supervising – this was obviously something she did regularly and could be trusted with.

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My Swedish friend allowed her kids, aged 5 and 7, to roam independently in the local area, and said this was a fairly common attitude ( British children have far less personal freedom to roam independently than their European peers, largely due to traffic and stranger-danger fears). A Stockholm metro worker loaned me his state-of-the-art Apple Mac laptop when I needed to book a hostel.

Come and sleep in our cathedral

When I got to Stockholm and visited the famous church in Gammelstan I was very tired, having taken the night-train (cĺean, safe, well-used) from down south. So with what I see now as typical Swedish pragmatism, the woman on the desk and the priest tour guide invited me to sleep in the church. Can you imagine that happening in Westminster Abbey? They’d probably call the police. The pew was a bit hard, but I had a great nap that afternoon, awaking refreshed and able to enjoy the tower tour and fantastic views over the city.

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An example of the swedish relaxed attitude: am I imagining it, or has this guy got his hands in his pockets ?

Life is less of a struggle

Statistics tell me that Sweden has lower crime rates, but I saw that for myself, at least low-level crime –  Swedes have no truck with large cumbersome bike locks. Many bikes come with a built-in, small mechanism on the wheel which takes a second to lock and unlock, and some people don’t bother even using those.

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All these things add up, and affect your quality of life. Here life seems far less of a struggle, even down to the small detail of not having to carry a heavy lock around with you and spend unnecessary amounts of time locking and unlocking your bike.

The Natural Commons

But I’ve saved the best, accessible, affordable, communal ‘resource’ til last – nature. This is where I spent most of my time, walking, swimming, boating, picking berries, star-gazing, cooking over fires, watching the Northern Lights. Even in Stockholm, I went for an early morning swim naked off one of the islands, yards from a petrol station, and picked wild mushrooms from nearby woods. And when you’re cooling off from a wood-fired sauna naked as a baby in a crystal clear sea, the world of consumerism just pales into insignificance. ( I want to write more about Swedish nature in my next blog post).

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Swedes have codified their love of nature into law through the Allemansrätt. Unlike Britain, this means you can walk, swim, boat and pitch a tent anywhere, even on private land, so long as you can’t be seen from the house. Picking berries and fungi are important seasonal pastimes for many Swedes, and I got involved in mushrooming, blueberry picking and searching for elusive cloudberries. And I think this love of nature, as well as the welfare state, is what roots the trust and the pragmatism I saw all around me.

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mushrooms

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All in all I’ve seen a society which is still working well, despite the privatisations and cuts which took place here in the 90s. I’ve not found a panacea for climate change, unsustainable growth, corporate dominance, the end of cheap oil; but I can see that Sweden, like other Nordic countries, is managing the transition to the new order much more gracefully. Next time, I want to visit Norway and Finland. Norway consistently tops social equality polls and Finland has even mooted the idea of Basic Income.

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My experience has invigorated my belief that a better life is possible for people living in Britain (and Sweden), if we can finally overthrow the poisonous neo-liberal legacy of Thatcher. What kind of life would you like you and your children to lead? Ask for it. Demand it. Because, not so many miles away, I’ve seen that it’s still possible.

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On time and patterns

for ‘our pictures, your words’ event at the fantastic Made in Greenwich gallery May 2015.

Inspired by Nicola White’s fish, Deborah Larne’s Signs of Serendipity (and accompanying music) and David Weekes’ Greenwich railway station painting, all part of a Made in Greenwich current exhibition.  And also the wonderful book Journey of the Universe! With thanks to Adrian Harris for telling me about this exhibition…

Tonight my lucky numbers might come up
Or I might go out and take the train
And if I do, who knew – I’d end up bumping into you
Under a Greenwich street lamp in driving rain.

Seven notes describe a pattern
Just as rigorously random
As time and tides, our loves and lives,
From Seven seas came scales and eyes.

We climbed up and out and onto land
Had dinner parties, shopped, got tanned
Plates got made and glasses smashed
Promises were broken, the planet trashed.

And now fish watch the busy street
The buses, tourists, ‘Subway’ sign
Blue green glass, unblinking eyes
Swimming silently outside of time.

Thrown up, cast off, smashed up and glued together
Welded, forged, destroyed and made
By human hands and weather.

They watch me hurtle down the street
In peace they watch the planet turn
They know that from the sea we came
And to the sea we will return.

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Blast away winter blues with herbs

Seeing as I’m running workshops at a city farm to help people move to a simpler lifestyle, I’ll start sharing some of the learnings here. I’ve covered lots of different subjects in my workshops this year: growing on balconies and containers; using and growing herbs; growing and pruning fruit; even keeping urban chickens!

A SAD antidote?

The clocks have gone back and it’s dark in the evenings – we’re in late autumn, heading to winter, with a few minutes less light every day. This can be a depressing time, and many of us adapt by enjoying winter fires and drinking hot-toddies. But how many of us use or grow herbs over the winter as a SAD antidote?

Many herbs are evergreen, including rosemary ( helps  with concentration, fatigue and depression) and winter savory. If you know someone with a decent rosemary plant in your area you could experiment with propagating it, even at this time of year – rosemary is a forgiving, easy-to-grow plant.  For instructions, see below with photos. Some tender herbs, like basil, do well indoors all year round – I have one on my windowsill which is flowering now.

I’ve seen a bay thriving indoors in a pot, and you might just get away with taking semi-ripe cuttings of a bay tree, now, if you want to start your own. Nurturing a new plant into life in your home over the autumn and winter is a simple way to bring colour and vigour to the season.

Seed sowing and light levels

As light levels decline, growth and germination drop off, but we can cheat a bit speeding up germination by sowing indoors in late summer/autumn. Coriander does particularly well (ie bolts less fast) if you sow it in late summer or early autumn, but it’s probably too late now to get much of a crop – but why not experiment? If you don’t take growing herbs too seriously and see it more as play and experimentation, you won’t mind if some of your trials don’t work!

Propagation – a revolutionary act!

One of the things I like about propagating from cuttings is not only the magic of conjuring new life, it’s yet another way of subverting a system which always wants you to buy things. You just don’t need to shop for plants once you become familiar with taking cuttings. And it’s not difficult to do.

This year I’m also going to experiment with growing mint over the winter indoors by chopping off some of its many runners, placing in a shallow tray and covering with earth to see if I can continue to harvest a supply of fresh mint.

Ginger and garlic

You can still get away with growing garlic now – though it’ll be a long time before you see any signs it’s growing.

And then there’s ginger rhizomes, which you can buy from the supermarket and grow indoors – apparently the best time for this is late winter/early spring. Just push one inch rhizome pieces into the soil, not covered too deep. I have one which is already sprouting, so I’m going to start now and see what happens. Ginger likes partial light, which makes it a great plant for growing indoors. If growing indoors, make sure you have good drainage. Apparently ginger likes humidity, which makes sense if you remember where it comes from, so it’s a good idea to spray the plant with water especially if you have central heating. It makes a handsome house plant, you can move it outdoors in summer, and once it’s grown enough next autumn you’ll be able to harvest some of the leaves or small rhizomes for tea. Not only that, you’ll have the uplifting scent of the leaves; you can give them a stroke whilst watching Christmas movies on TV!

In my next few posts I want to share other ways we can bring nature and beauty closer to us over winter; including growing indoor salad gardens and using natural materials to decorate our homes.

Propagating rosemary

  • When taking cuttings, an easy way to avoid mistakes is to consider: what are the needs of this shoot, which I want to encourage to grow roots, and make its own way as a new plant?Answer: a healthy shoot to start with; light; water; air and some warmth.
  •  Snip off a semi-ripe shoot (some green, some hard wood) just below a leaf node (this is a vigorous growing point of the plant). You want the shoot to be about 4 inches long. You could  tear a little of the adjacent woody stem so you get what’s called a ‘heel’.
  • Remove the lower leaves – you want enough so the plant can photosynthesise (thereby producing enough energy to make new roots) but not too many, as it loses water through its leaves (transpiration).  Also you’re going to bury part of the shoot in soil so you don’t want leaves getting buried and rotting in the soil!

 

 

heel of rosemary cutting

heel of rosemary cutting

heel close up

heel close up

  •  Your new plant will need air in the soil, to help those new roots form and grow, which means you need a good free-draining compost with lots of air holes – either buy potting compost or make your own by mixing compost 50/50 with sharp sand or perlite.
  • Pot up in a small pot- not too large, as you don’t want to encourage the roots to rot.

 

pot up

pot up

  • Don’t put your cutting in a bright window. It will need some  light, so it can photosynthesise but direct light in the early stages will make it dehydrate and wilt. You can move it later once it’s growing strongly.
  • Water is the other key thing, but not too much – make sure the soil is moist but not wet. Keeping a clear plastic bag over it (until it takes) can help it retain moisture.
wrap up your cutting to keep humid

wrap up your cutting to keep humid

  • Gentle warmth from being indoors will also help. Depending on the light levels, the shoot can start to root in about 4 weeks. Pot on to a larger pot with normal compost once it starts growing bigger -which may not happen until the light levels pick up in February.
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Growing and making your own medicines

Earlier this month I found myself alongside three other women, standing round a stove watching an older, grey-haired woman stir something in a cauldron..sorry saucepan.

I was on a day’s intensive workshop focusing on 15 medicinal herbs – how to grow them, identify them and process them to make simple remedies for everyday ailments. Exzema, high blood pressure, colds, catarrh, period pain, cuts and grazes, that kind of thing. I’d read in numerous books how to use plants for these ends but it all seemed daunting and complicated and so I’d never tried.

There’s nothing like watching someone do something, and taking part yourself, for instilling confidence. Our herbalist teacher, Penny Ody, wants to empower people, and does so through her demystifying, generous and straightforward approach.  (You can read more about her courses here). Standing around the stove in her Hampshire kitchen, we all participated in stirring, tasting, measuring and macerating the herbs. Delighted smiles broke over our faces as we realised how simple and doable most of it is. It occurred to me, as we dug up plant roots in her garden and stirred hot syrup, that we were taking part in something which has gone on for hundreds of years; an older woman showing younger ones how to work with herbs.

I was there thanks to LILI, the low impact living initiative, an umbrella body for all kinds of fabulous workshops pointing the way to live more lightly on the planet. Through its website you can find workshops on all kinds of subjects, from hedgelaying to curtain-making courses.

We left with many plant cuttings as well as  five different herbal remedies for our home medicine kit – a therapeutic dried herbal tea blend, a macerated cold oil, a macerated hot oil, an ointment and cough syrup. More than that, we carried with us the knowledge of how to repeat the processes at home.

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Basic home medicine kit: Calendula oil, Hypercal (St John’s Wort and Marigold Oil) Thyme Syrup, Comfrey oil, dried tea cold remedy

Making basic herbal remedies like this is something – like all those other skills such as carpentry, sewing and food growing – that until recently, most of us knew how to do. For me, learning how to use plants to keep well and treat simple ills,  is part of what the transition movement calls ‘the great reskilling’ – an important shift if communities are to survive and thrive within the unfolding ecological and economic situation. It’s about taking back some control, refusing to simply be a passive consumer, avoiding harming others in this economy of anonymity.

Thanks to recent legislation requiring medicinal herbs to be licensed at a cost of £30,000 per year, many small independent suppliers have been put out of business and it’s likely that certain herbs will become commercially unavailable. So learning how to find, grow and process them oneself is now even more of an imperative.

I won’t keep this knowledge to myself – I plan to share it during an upcoming herbal workshop I’ll be organising on a London city farm soon. And as I cook up my own remedies, I’ll be sure to post photos and descriptions here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bladerunner weather

Friends dubbed last year’s winter ‘Narnia’, it went on so long, with snow falling on Easter Sunday. This year the winter reminds me of Bladerunner, as I negotiate city streets through day after day of rain. Today, as I hurried past scaffolding ominously flapping in 50 mph winds, I realised that the weather is both depressing and invigorating me.

All over the country, but especially in the Somerset Levels, or Dawlish, where a rail track transformed into to a rope bridge overnight, we’ve been staring awe-struck – and sometimes aghast – at what nature can do. It’s like we’ve belatedly realised – duh! we’re part of an ecosystem, not separate from it, not above it.

The big elephant in the room, Climate Change, oh we’ve so tried to ignore it and get on with our lives –is roaring and pouring and squalling at us.  And yet, even now, BBC news online discusses the causes of the wettest winter for over 100 years without mentioning climate change once (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-26050452)

I told you so, I told you so- I can almost hear the voice in my head as I dodge the rainwater waves thrown by speeding cars. This is exactly as predicted. Mainstream reality, as doled out by the media and business as usual, has ignored the scientists, the activists, the Occupiers, the film makers, the artists, the many many people who care enough to send warnings, to carry out studies, to plea, to show another way. But this is harder to ignore. This is really beginning to cause serious inconvenience.

Dried off, indoors,  I watch silent aerial TV footage of more Biblical flood scenes from around the country. The water’s creeping closer to the capital now, with 2,000 homes in the Thames Valley affected. The camera sweeps over a huge Gothic pile, with towers and ironically a swimming pool, marooned on a tiny plateau. Middle England is going to wake up.

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On foraging

I’m writing this in response to a recent column in the Independent on foraging. The column by CJ Schuler was prompted by destructive, commercial foraging of wild garlic at a local ancient woodland in south London. 

Any foraging, let alone commercial foraging is inappropriate in such a fragile setting. As a conservationist I’m as concerned by this kind of ignorant foraging (trampling the stock, removing too much and done for profit) as Schuler is, but I must disagree with his conclusion that ‘Foraging is not part of the solution; it’s part of the problem.’

A newspaper column like this one entails confrontational argument, which generates more heat than light. Schuler seems to think that most foragers are aiming to source their entire food supply from the wild, rather than supplementing their diet. Perhaps this is to shore up the confrontational stance, or perhaps he hasn’t met many foragers, or listened to what they have to say. No forager I know would ever entertain that thought, and would understand that on a small island like ours, with its relatively large population, mass foraging for all our food would spell environmental disaster and starvation. Foragers also know that sourcing all one’s food from the hedgerow, even if were possible, would be depressing and unpalatable.

But my real bone of contention is when he denies that foraging establishes a connection with nature ‘in any meaningful sense’. Do you have to source all your food supply from nature’s larder to establish a meaningful connection? I don’t think so. His logic is all or nothing – if it’s impossible to source 100 per cent of your food supply through foraging, it must be irrelevant and absurd at best, destructive at worst.

In my environmental education work I try all kinds of approaches to galvanise engagement with the natural world. None works so well and so consistently as food – whether it’s growing fruit and veg, herbs, or the therapeutic and edible properties of wild plants. When you talk about food, people make the connection between their bodies and those of the natural world around them. They see the reasons to protect these plants, and how they can work together with them for mutual benefit. This is instinctive conservation, and this bond is what has protected the natural world for millenia. And I would argue that we’ve only needed ‘professional’ conservationists to step in now that most of us have stopped depending directly on the land for our food, fuel and other resources.

It’s not all about harking back to some golden era of hunter gathering. Fifty years ago most  Londoners were foragers. It’s not something alien and exotic. Many kept chickens, grew peas and beans, and would pick blackberries, rosehips (encouraged during the war), mushrooms and go scrumping. And of course, as regular foragers they would know that if they wanted a good meal next year, then it made sense not to take too much.

Many of the people coming to my workshops originally come from other countries, where the responsible foraging tradition is still alive and strong, and where herbal medicine is still current. Talking about food, foraging and helping them ID British wild plants has been a wonderful way to validate their traditions and exchange cultural learning.

There’s something elitist about Schuler’s tone, which is probably just the tone he has to strike for the article. But it bothers me. Do we condemn a whole practice on the actions of an ignorant few? Do we blame those teaching and encouraging responsible foraging for the actions of a minority who’ve misunderstood? If you extend that argument then we’d have to stop teaching and start banning a lot of things. Like driving. Or media punditry.

If we want to win the battle against the impoverishment and destruction of the natural world, then we must democratise access and engagement. Encouraging people to make the link between plants and food is vital part of the process, complementing efforts to get kids playing in nature,  and other more ‘hands off’ ways to experience nature such as walking, painting, photographing, or writing about landscapes. 

Foraging does not operate in a vacuum. It’s happening in a world where profit trumps ethics and selfishness is encouraged, and where populations are transient. But that’s not foraging’s fault. I would argue that responsible foraging works against these pressures.

Conservationists and environmentalists, including me,worry that they don’t garner more support, or attract diverse audiences. I think it’s because too much of our message is ‘don’t do this’ ‘stop doing that’ and ‘look, don’t touch’, or even, ‘we know best’.

I whole-heartedly agree with Schuler’s encouragement to let the dandelions, nettles and weeds flourish in your garden – assuming you have one, of course. This is the main way that I forage, although as my communal garden was built on a former industrial site and  the land deemed ‘contaminated’ when I moved in, I tend to pick the weeds which sow themselves into empty pots.

Foraging shouldn’t have to involve travelling far and certainly shouldn’t take place in any nature reserve or protected space. For me, foraging is all about a deepening relationship, between myself, a particular spot of land, a plant and the seasons. Our fates become entwined, and I look out for the elder bush opposite my house, making sure it doesn’t get chopped down in the latest well-intentioned community clear up. After all, I’m looking forward to that elderberry cordial later this year.

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Simplicity and wildflowers Part 2: New London Meadows

All over London this summer, I’ve noticed wildflower and grassy meadows where before there was regularly mown grass. This is something I’ve been persuading landlords to do for the last year and a half, and now, suddenly, it seems to have become part of the general zeitgeist.

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Sometimes people worry that they make a place look neglected or untidy, but this isn’t the case if the areas are clearly demarcated with tidy mown strips beside them.

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This shows it’s clearly a deliberate act. Meadows (even small ones) are fantastic for several reasons; they encourage pollinators and other insects, which are essential for both our food supply and which many birds and mammals depend on; they help reverse the general impoverishment of our age, where once common species have become a rarity; they bring moths, butterflies, bees, hoverflies, flying beetles into the common experience once again, thereby gladdening city-dwellers’ hearts; and – a real clincher for cash-pressed councils and parks – they save time and money. I’m pretty sure that austerity is one of the main factors behind this sudden attention to wildlife, alongside a growing awareness of the benefits. And that cheers me – I’ve finally found one positive then, out of all the injustice, pain and loss which, to me, UK ‘austerity politics’ represents.

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Simplicity and wildflowers Part 1

In my part-time day job, I attempt to sow wildflowers, food and inspiration in built-up urban areas. The idea is to make them healthier to live in, for both humans and other beings. Despite the huge benefits, there are many barriers to inviting nature in to a concrete jungle, both physical and psychological. I’ve heard people calling nettles and teasels ‘dangerous’ for example. Or residents worried that a nearby bat box will mean bats come stalking them through their bedroom window.

Most people can enthuse about a wildflower meadow however –  partly thanks to the recent media focus on wildflowers, pollinators and particularly, bees (see Sarah Raven’s BBC Series, the Olympics wildflower meadow, the recent neonicotinoid and bee campaign).

Of course, I want to build on that enthusiasm and create a wonderful wildflower meadow, replete with grasses, poppies, cornflowers, buttercups and ox-eye daisies – a Jackson Pollock of colour. Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple to pull off something glamorous and eye-catching. Whilst it may look stunning in the height of summer it can turn straggly and brownish for part of the year.  All kinds of things can go wrong: birds can eat up the seeds, housing contract gardeners can mow the meadow down too early, people can dump litter, steal plants, or let dogs poo on your great work. The best meadows need impoverished soil, plenty of sun and regular watering at the start.  Very often in urban areas the ground is too shady or nutrient-rich (thanks partly to dog poo and previous regular mowing) to give meadows the best chance.

So here I am, working hard to achieve a glorious result – and in the meantime have neglected my allotment. When I do finally turn up, what do I find? A gorgeous, entirely natural and self-seeded wildflower meadow!

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How perverse! Nature has created the result I’ve strived for elsewhere – but in the ‘wrong’ place. How could she do this? So rants my mind. And then my annoyance turns to admiration, humility and reflection: it is us human beings who are perverse. Meddling, egotistical, arbitrary – wanting wildflowers here, but not there. We want Nature to dance to our tune, when we say so, where we say so. But we forget we aren’t her master – we’re part of her.

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Sunlit tree flowers and leaves

In homage to this week’s beautiful sun-filled evenings…

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Sun through horse chestnut leaves, Dulwich

Silhouetted tree flowers, Dulwich

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