Heygate Urban Forest

As featured on the new nature.

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I lie on my back on the grass and watch the clouds, my view framed by hundreds of newly-budding branches arching above me. I’m the only person in this vast decanted housing estate, once home to 3,000 people. There are precious few places you can do this in London without sharing the space with others. Lying here, I feel both grateful and vulnerable.

There are 450 mature trees, some of them exotics, in this estate which is earmarked for development. For this reason the activists who have been trying to save the Heygate Estate trees call it an urban forest. Apart from the famous parks, nowhere else in central London has this amount of public tree canopy. It is cushioned from the dirt and noise of Elephant and Castle roundabout by the original design, which placed larger blocks on the periphery to protect its low-rise heartland.

Forest. The word itself is romantic. It can mean different things to different people, but I think this site is entitled to bill itself as an urban forest as it fits the definition of ‘a large area chiefly covered with trees or undergrowth’. Moreover, forests have long been places with their own rules and where commoners have had special rights. I find something of this character lingers here in the Heygate Estate, as it does in Epping and the New Forest. A special bond between people and place, forged over time.

It feels mournful here, as well as peaceful. Residents have created a gallery in the heart of the estate to tell the story of being forced out of their homes with compulsory purchase orders, and priced out of the new high rise development that is already being advertised to rich international buyers. Here and there you find the detritus of past lives – a broken tennis racket, a jumble of audio tape spool lying in the grass.

In the three years since most residents left, nature has taken over. A quietly rampant carpet of green tears up the tarmac, and at night bats dart amongst a secret greenwood world of light and shadow. This morning the birds are triumphant, their spring song bouncing off walls and grass. All these mature trees have finally reached the optimum height and size envisaged by the architect, Tom Tinker, when he dreamed up the site in 1969. His plans belong to a more visionary, egalitarian period, when architects and developers built high quality housing estates for all classes of people, and when government set money aside to maintain them.

This is a special time, a hiatus, after the people have left and before the JCBs move in. Already fences and barriers have gone up to prevent pilgrims like me from traversing the walkways. Pretty gardens have been smashed up. A yard or so away, a robin sings, before swiftly treading a female. Forget-me-nots and violets stain the grass purple and blue, the former strangely mirroring the aquamarine of some graffiti on a lock-up opposite.

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Lichen, moss, chickweed and buddleia creep over the steps and walkways. A 3D image of a wolf’s mouth, colourful elephants and other fantastic creatures adorn some of the walls, created by graffiti artists exploiting the brutalist vertical and horizontal lines. It all adds to the feeling of this being a secret, uncircumscribed, wild place.

Guerrilla gardeners tended vegetable plots here last year, working alongside isolated residents who refused to move out. Broad beans and flowering lettuces sprout up amidst DIY raised beds. In one area, the gardeners stacked crates of flowers and plants up a slanting brick wall. The plants have long since escaped their plastic framework and the wall is covered in green and brown leaves, which spill and spread over the floor. How quickly we can be replaced and forgotten. A post-apocalyptic landscape, all quiet now after some great lost battle with market forces.

Over 300 of these 450 mature trees will go, it seems. The developers promise to replace all of the trees they remove where they can in the new development, and in surrounding streets. But, given the housing density required to make the project “economically viable”, the forest’s days are numbered.

This spring has been fast and furious, making up for the Narnian winter that dragged on for months. I’m hungry and diligent for all the signs of spring, having waited for so long. The transient beauty of tiny tree flowers is capturing my attention, unfurling with the leaves. Like the woodland here, they will be gone before we know it.

© Kirsten Downer 2013

heygate garden

NB For those interested in more on this, my earlier blog post has more: https://simplyradical.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/magic-in-the-forest/

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Posted in forest gardening, guerilla gardening, nature connection, politics, simplifying daily life, urban gardening, urban living | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Tree flowers

I’ve really enjoyed noticing flowering trees this spring, hungry for signs that the Narnian winter was on its way out. Many wind-pollinated trees put out tiny flowers before, or alongside, their leaves, as leaves can get in the way of this process. Sitting on the top deck of the bus is great for noticing them high in the canopy. They’re easy to miss, and given the pace of growth this Spring, will be gone before you know it. A simple way to connect with nature in the city.

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Posted in mindfulness, nature connection, simplifying daily life, Uncategorized, urban living | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The denatured cat

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA beautiful rescue cat has recently come to live with me, and she is wild and lovely in many ways. No-one knows how old she really is, but we guess somewhere around 10-14. That means she’s on the elderly side, but she doesn’t act that way. She behaves like a new kitten, charging around the flat transforming crumbs, elastic bands and plastic bags into her toys. She plays ferociously.

However, in some ways she is just as denatured as the rest of us. Ok, I know that the domestic cat is itself a ‘man-made’ creature, but over the past twenty years the cat – all pets – have become massively commodified. I climbed a steep learning curve the first time I walked into Pets R Us and saw the scale of  ‘choices’ awaiting me in the food section. There was food for indoor cats, food for kittens, food for special breeds, food for obese cats (‘Obesity Management’); on and on, the products filled an entire wall in the megastore.

When I was a girl and grew up with cats, vitamins and minerals were never mentioned. Now on every packet it seemed special cat-related minerals and vitamins had been added to meet ‘a healthy cat’s needs’. I looked at some of the ingredient lists and shuddered inwardly at the ‘reconstituted poultry meat’; a large proportion of the food seemed to be vegetable oil. But nowhere in this confection was there any raw meat,  despite this being the diet cats have evolved to live on.

What feline in the world consumes cooked food? Yet this is what we are told to feed our cats, and then charged for the extra vitamins and minerals needed to make up for the fact that we’re feeding them something un-natural.

In the past, cats worked for their living, and if they needed anything extra,  people fed them meat and fish scraps and bones from the butchers. Somewhere along the line we’ve forgotten this, and now are duped into shelling out yet more cash on food and supplements. And of course pet insurance to cope with all the ailments that arise from eating a junk food diet.

Cats often experience problems with their teeth nowadays, but this wouldn’t be the case if they followed a natural raw diet, because animal bones provide the necessary calcium and trace minerals as well as necessary teeth-cleaning effects. So it’s important for a cat to learn how to chew bones.

Another trumpeted amino acid is taurine. There’s no need to supplement with this if you give your cat fish heads, because the eyes in particular have plenty of this so are really nutritious to cats.

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So I was pleased that I was cooking trout the following day – this way I wouldn’t have to throw away the fish heads or tails – they would go to good use. Unfortunately, when I put them in her bowl, although she liked the smell, sniffing at them was as far as she would go. She had no idea how to eat them, and subsequently ignored them. I thought of chopping them up, but if anyone out there has tried, you’ll know how slimy and impossible this is to do, without a meat cleaver, at any rate.

I realise now that the only way I’m going to get her to eat raw meat is to chop it up small and hide it within her ‘de-natured’ tinned food. Some older cats can be weaned back to their original diet this way, I’ve heard, though by no means all. Some have become so addicted to the carbohydrates and additives in the cooked tinned food they’ve been given, they are hooked for life. Just like so many of us with our sugar addiction.

She’s only been with us a few weeks, but I noticed another example of denaturing recently- the failure of our new, energetic cat to tackle our mouse problem. Both humane and ‘evil’ mousetraps have failed to capture the rodent, but I assumed that the mere smell of a feline would cause the mouse to move on. Wrong. One morning recently I went to fetch a hat, and picked up a mouse instead! At first I thought it was the cat’s fabric mouse-toy, but as it wriggled under the nearest door I realised it was the real thing. Meanwhile my cat remained immobile in her chair, simply blinking at me as I muttered vague anathemas…

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For more on raw food and pets, go to:http://www.rawfed.com/

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Two weeks of silence and poetry

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI recently spent two weeks on a silent meditation retreat deep in the Scottish Highlands. I’ve done a silent retreat before but it was only 7 days long, and it was four years ago. I don’t meditate as regularly as I’d like to. So I knew this retreat would be a bit of deep dive. Like the weather, my moods and feelings kept changing mercurially, so what follows is not a literal day by day account, more an impression.

The whole experience was about becoming more still, and becoming more aware of your physical body and the surrounding environment; and to allow yourself to feel a part of that landscape, rather than separate from it, as most westerners do. Doing so makes us feel like we belong, and feel more supported. As the teacher, Paramananda, pointed out; ‘This land has supported life for hundreds of thousands of years. It can support you.’

The meditation posture (whether cross-legged, kneeling, or sitting) in many ways is the meditation: it’s all about rooting ourselves in the world, like a tree, balancing  that movement down into the earth with a rising up to the sky from the upper body.

Days 1-3. To help us along, and because  in some ways ‘the nature of reality is poetic’, the meditation teacher dropped in some splendid poems from time to time. To sit in stillness, feeling your body and sensing the landscape around you, and then encounter a poem like this one made it possible to enter a much deeper realm of experience.

Earth by Derek Walcott

Let the day grow on you upward
through your feet,
the vegetal knuckles,

to your knees of stone,
until by evening you are a black tree;
feel, with evening,

the swifts thicken your hair,
the new moon rising out of your forehead,
and the moonlit veins of silver

running from your armpits
like rivulets under white leaves.
Sleep, as ants

cross over your eyelids.
You have never possessed anything
as deeply as this.

This is all you have owned
from the first outcry
through forever;

you can never be dispossessed.

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Day 2. Weather turns wild and fierce, the wind hurtling and crashing down from the mountains all around us. I wake in the night as the house shudders violently, as if a gigantic animal has just leaped over it.  At the sunrise meditation, I see a small sprightly 65-year-old woman doing Tai Chi in the midst of it all, valiantly greeting the elements through extended limbs as gothic black clouds rush  above her. Snow falling thickly by end of day.

Day 3.  The silence allows you to eavesdrop on some of your crazy thoughts, which can be uncomfortable. I want a pair of those ski socks she’s wearing. I’m the best meditator here! Look, I can just sit here looking out the window without having to pick up a book!

I’m becoming much more aware of sounds and physical sensations. Occasional aeroplanes soar overhead and the sound enters the meditation room. Have I ever noticed musicality of aeroplanes before? Maybe when I was a child. Today I hear the sound of the engine far above me descend through the musical scale. Not only that, I see an attendant image – a dark inky rectangle of blue paint, which moves as the note descends, almost like I’m seeing the sound in colour and movement.  Hearing the rain on the other  side of the stone wall of the meditation room, I feel a connection between me, the rain, and the stone. We are all part of this landscape, in this moment.

Day 4. Snow starts to melt and I venture out into a sparkling new world.

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I find a tiny clover under a pine tree and wonder at it: how could something this tiny and lightweight survive the past two days’ battering?

The Buddhist emphasis on the impermanence of all things is borne out by the life around me, where fallen trees, taken by earlier storms no doubt, sprout myriad new life forms; pools, ferns, lichen, moss and fresh saplings.

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Is this a branch or a clump of moss? Everything is in process of transmutation.

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I’m noticing a lot of judgement. It’s difficult to sit in a meditation room day after day with a group of strangers. You develop a reluctant intimacy with each other’s bodily functions. Stomachs gurgling, noses running and whistling, breath clicking, swallowing, belching…is this amount of noise normal? We do a Metta Bhavana meditation on loving kindness and someone starts sobbing. Shut up! My ‘small mind’ wants to slap her.

The teacher is getting us to drop our own names in whilst doing this loving kindness meditation, to say our own names with love and respect. I ‘see’ myself calling my name over the mountains, my tracks in the snow petering out, I’m trying to find me…

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Day 5. I’m the worst meditator here. If it’s just sitting, why don’t I go on a fishing holiday? Then again, a dancing holiday would have been much more enjoyable. At times I’m feeling trapped and bored to the point of exasperation with the relentless framework: wake at 6, meditate, break, then another meditation before breakfast which is taken in silence, then another meditation session from 11 onwards, then lunch, then meet again at 4 for another session, then dinner, then one last evening session after dinner. The bell keeps on ringing and sometimes I skip a session and sleep instead, or go for a walk. Then other times I feel peaceful, more immersed and think: ‘Great! Another 9 days of this!’ I’m realising I shouldn’t take a lot of thoughts too seriously – they change as fast as this weather.

Day 6. I really need to get out of the city more. I’m noticing my default urbanised response to things. Groggy, early morning, half awake after a poor night’s sleep frayed by tinnitus and a bad stomach, I hear my room-mate’s shower water pouring down the drain. Well I don’t – I hear a police siren. Then later, gazing out of the skylight in the meditation room I see part of crane – except it’s not, obviously, it’s a tree limb. I’ve suffered from tinnitus for the past four years or so, but haven’t been aware of it for ages. Now, in the quiet of the meditation room, it’s come back, and it’s driving me mad.

The Buddhist take on this is that there is pain in this world: that’s inevitable. However, the suffering which our egos add to this pain is not. It’s the way we try to escape pain, or crave sensory and other pleasurable experiences – this is the root of our suffering – our ego’s difficulty with being with what is. So I try to tell myself that how I feel now will likely change, try not to fret about the future (will it go? will it get worse?) and that my experience of the tinnitus will likely change as well.  I’m feeling down and sad. I try to accept this. It’s tough.

A beautiful walk down to the lochside. The gentle water slurps and licks the shore like a mouth. A sheep seems to try to hide from my binoculars behind a tree – I can just see its muzzle peeping beyond the trunk. For a while standing there, I’m convinced there must be someone nearby, someone with a transistor radio, because I can hear constant murmuring high-pitched voices. It takes a while to realise there is definitely nobody around, and trace the ‘women’s voices’ to a tiny burn bubbling over some stones. I never heard water make a sound like that before. Maybe that explains the old stories about mermaids and sirens.

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Day 7. I’m the worst meditator here. Not this again. This isn’t working for me. Tired, still not sleeping well, the volume of pulses and grains are doing uncomfortable things to my belly. Finding myself reading cereal and cracker packets in desperation at the lack of stimulus. ‘Nairns Crisps. Naturally energising. We’ve been baking since 1888.’ What the hell am I doing? Enjoying hearing owls at night and early morning. Also birds of prey keening over the loch and mountains.

Day 8. Better. Realised it’s ok not to be too rigid with the meditations and the instructions. If the technique ain’t working, ditch the technique. Felt a gentle joy by the loch’s edge sharing a mutual stare with a sheep as it chewed the cud, first one way then the other. Enjoying some beautiful body scans – imagining breathing in one side of the body, then out the other side of the body. Repeat on the other side, then the same up one leg and down the other. When one is concentrated and involved, then this experience is unbelievably peaceful.

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At times I’ve become aware of myself as a life force inside my body, inside looking out. At other times I’ve felt myself as empty, like a vessel, and a sense of disbelief at the small size of my physical body, as if I were really much larger, part of the landscape in some way.

Day 9. I‘m the best meditator here. I’m the worst. Etc. Really enjoying the chanting of some of the mantras. Especially when I let myself sing harmonies and when we do cloud chanting (different people coming in at different times). At times  it feels like the singing is just coming through with no effort from me at all, and I can’t tell whether it’s my singing or others I can hear. It’s as if we’ve all become one giant Tibetan singing bell which is playing itself.

I hear the faint cry of a bird of prey above the loch. Except it’s just the air whistling through my meditation neighbour’s nostrils.

Day 10. One of the participants breaks the silence in the evening to share with me, desperately. ‘I can’t stand this fucking chanting! I’d rather sing Morning has Broken! At least that it’s in English!’ Makes me smile.There’s been times I’ve felt like jumping up in the shrine room when it’s all quiet and we’re meant to be concentrated – and just screaming ‘FUCK!!!!!’

Day 10-12. Several days of moroseness, blankness, distraction and frustration. I climb a low mountain to the snowline and feel a bit better. I chant some of the mantras to the Highland Cattle nearby on my walks, who are the epitome of impassiveness. Nevertheless, one always stands on a high point looking out over the water. There is nothing much to eat on this spot and she is not chewing the cud. Yet there she stands. I can only assume that she likes the view. Who knows, perhaps she meditates.

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Day 13. We come out of silence after lunch. I’m surprised to realise that part of me doesn’t want to. Realised that despite the silence over the days we’ve built up an intimacy and caring between the group members (about 15 of us). Strange to know this is possible despite very little verbal contact. Eleven inches of snow falls, spreading the silence all over the blanketed landscape. Great to share with others after so long, but speaking is still rationed: we will still stick to silence over night and up til lunch the next day. I like this blend of sharing and silence, which has now spread beyond our group to the snow-blanketed landscape.

Tonight, after the last meditation, I glimpse the Northern lights for the first time. I nearly miss it because I assume the moving floodlight over the trees is a helicopter. I must get out of the city more. I go back outside to glimpse a massive orange streamer flexing like the muscle of a huge creature hidden behind the sky. Then a massive stripe of firework-type light bounces across the entire horizon, as if an invisible hand has waved a massive wand.

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Day 14. Group sharing is amazing. I wish this could have happened earlier; I might have realised that I wasn’t alone in some of my difficulties. Am deeply moved and admiring of the raw honesty of other group members talking about their experiences. I see what has happened over the past two weeks in a much larger context.

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I’m definitely up for doing this again – I won’t leave it for four years til the next one. It’s easier with practice. I’ll leave you with a beautiful poem:

Lost by David Wagoner.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

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CSI in the snow

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI took the advantage of the fresh snow to get some information about what kind of crepuscular/nocturnal creatures could be lurking around my home – human and non-human!

It was fascinating to get a glimpse of last night’s activities, most of which seemed to have happened behind bushes, sheds, and lead to and from the nearby railway embankment…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA fox track is supposed to be very dog-like, but far more compact and oval in shape. The print has four digits with the outer two curved towards the inner ones. I think these may qualify?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI found other tracks much harder to read. Some indentations were simply airholes, other shapes caused by seeds and twigs..an intriguing record of the last night’s activities. What did these two similar shaped marks signify, for example (about the size of my palm) ?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI took one trail to be a cat, which suddenly seemed to do the splits as it turned a corner….OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAObviously it hadn’t, it must have been a convergence of two cats, which had then gone their separate ways. There were a lot of markings at this meeting point, one set of which which really puzzled me. Any guidance much appreciated!

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Could this be a complete track with large kidney shaped pad and two claws in front? If so it doesn’t match any animal round here I can think of. Or is it more likely, two tracks combined – the pad of an unknown larger mammal and the ‘claws’ the feet of a bird?

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn which case, perhaps it was being hunted. But I couldn’t find any feathers or blood anywhere. Could the regular marks show it dipping its head into the snow to dig around for food? I’m stumped! I found many more bird-like tracks..OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd a strange indentation nearby which looks as though some animal has rested here, but the markings are so regular I’m not sure they can be fur…

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A relaxing way to spend an hour or so. I hope I’ll get better at reading the signs – if anyone recognises any of these, let me know!

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Magic Party in the Forest

I recently attended a full moon party in a forest.  A romantic idea, you might think, but what if I told you this forest gathering was in the middle of an innercity housing estate? In Elephant and Castle, SE1 to be exact?

I tell you,  it was romantic…..perhaps even more so than if it had been a wood in the countryside. You see, this estate has only a few residents left, the rest having been strong-armed and intimidated into leaving, and in 2015 the whole area will be demolished. Two years ago most residents left, and since then nature has taken over. There are bats here, birds, and 450 magnificent mature trees, some of them exotics. More than that, at night there is a secret greenwood world of light, shadow, whilst a quietly rampant carpet of green tears up the tarmac.

Forest. The word itself is romantic. It can mean different things to different people, but I think this site is entitled to bill itself urban forest as it fits the definition of  ‘a large area chiefly covered with trees or undergrowth’. Moreover, forests have long been places with their own rules, and where commoners have had special rights. I found something of this character here in the Heygate Estate, just as there is in Epping and the New Forest. A special bond between people and place, forged over time.

All these mature trees have finally reached the optimum height and size envisaged by the architect,  Tom Tinker, when he dreamed up the site in 1969. He designed all these trees, shrubs and green space into the plans, arranged with low-rise housing inside a ‘heartland’ protected by larger blocks on the periphery from the  surrounding traffic and noise. His plans belong to a more visionary, egalitarian time, when architects and developers built high quality housing estates for all classes of people, not just the worst off, and when government set money aside to maintain them. (For more on this I recommend Tom Cordell’s excellent documentary Utopia London).

Allegations of profiteering are backed up by the fact that there is nothing structurally wrong with the buildings. Private investors will make a fortune from replacing family housing with up-market units packed in like sardines. Of course they don’t want a few trees getting in the way of those profit margins! Original plans of the redeveloped space showed that most of the trees would be lost.

A community of over three thousand people has been decimated, sent to different corners of the borough, most never too return. It’s too late to save that community, but an inspiring and determined group of activist residents hope it is not too late to save the trees.

Earlier this year they conducted a CAVAT (Capital Asset Value for Amenity Trees ) study into the value of the trees, believing that Southwark Council had badly undervalued them as collectively being worth £700,000 – the same value as a single plane in Westminster! According to the CAVAT valuation, which is backed by the Forestry Commission, the true value is in fact £15m.

To quote one of the activists, Guy Mannes-Abbott: ‘Imagine trying to plant a 450+ forest of large trees which have a life span of at least 2 or 300 years anywhere else in Zone 1. ..imagine transplanting it, transferring its priceless canopy and ecosystem to another part of Central London… Itʼs impossible! This impossibility is a very convincing reason why we need to look after this existing forest. The GLA and Mayor want to increase canopy cover as a major part of meeting the real challenges of climate change in London by 5% before 2025 …Southwark Council and [the developer LandLease] want to destroy this mature forest so reducing canopy cover in the area by something like 50 %…’

It might seem sad that we have to express the value of trees and green spaces in financial terms – part of a wider trend to equate cash values with so-called ‘eco-system’ services. Yes – but it’s also a pragmatic response to the fact that money is the only language our current system understands. If you want to protect something, you have to put a price on it. Unfortunately developers and bankers have been better at doing this than environmentalists.

I took part in a CAVAT training workshop recently, where I met the creator of the valuation system, Christopher Neilan. He conceived of  CAVAT over 12 years ago after becoming increasingly frustrated at the disposable way in which trees are treated in urban areas. He wanted a valuation system which would reward tree officers for maintaining trees, and which would enable them to argue for greater budgets and investment in their tree stock – just like officials negotiate for budgets to maintain other assets, such as roads and property. Accountants reckon that 10 per cent of any asset should be spent on maintanance – but traditionally tree officers haven’t been viewing at their trees in this ‘asset’ type way.

CAVAT is interesting in that not only does it measure the value through factors such as species, age, health, canopy, and size – it also takes into account the ‘ecosystem services’ of a tree – things like stabilising temperature, preventing flooding, cleaning the air and benefiting the mental and physical health of residents. Unlike other systems which tally the tree’s value to the price of land (which would mean that trees in richer areas are worth more than those in poorer areas) under CAVAT,  the more people who live or work near the tree, the more it is worth  (which means that a tree in poorer, higher density areas like the Elephant and Castle will be worth more than the same kind of tree in Bromley, Kent, for example.

CAVAT was envisaged as a tool to protect trees, and it has already been used successfully . Recently in Bristol a number of mature trees were damaged when utility pipes were laid, and the tree officer there used CAVAT to successfully argue for adequate compensation – which enabled him to not only replace those trees, but invest in others elsewhere.

Let’s hope that CAVAT can help the Elephant and Castle Urban Forest. The Council has already acknowledged that its original valuation was wrong, and it seems that the developers are promising to retain more trees under amended plans. Meanwhile, the activists are doing amazing things, including guided walks every Saturday, Bat Walks and other community-based activities. Watch this space and support the campaign here.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-13629021

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/08/heygate-estate-housing-gentrification

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/mar/04/death-housing-ideal

Posted in community activism, nature connection, urban living | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Shocks to the system – response to the riots

Like many people living in cities across the UK,  I was deeply upset by the riots last week  – but not entirely surprised. And like other people, the social problems I’m used to seeing within the city came one step closer to me.

What happened last week showcased two things – social breakdown and collective solidarity. I’m already involved in an existing movement, Transition, which is all about building community and solidarity on a local scale.

What I saw and heard last week offered a scary foretaste of the social upheaval predicted by numerous economists, artists and social commentators, many of them featured in films and talks utilised by people within and without the Transition and permaculture movement – Chris Martenson’s Crash Course, A Crude Awakening, Paul Gilding’s The Great Upheaval, the Dark Mountain project.

Balanced against this, I also saw last week how swiftly and beautifully the community mobilised in response – the creativity, the courage, the generosity, the dignity – through the riot clean up initiative, the websites set up to channel support and funds to individuals and businesses affected, the passionate street debate between citizens, the dignified wisdom of the bereaved father Tariq Jahan.

Social upheaval is the often unspoken context of Transition – strengthening community so we are better protected against these predicted shocks – but when my local Transition does outreach, we don’t want to focus too much on scary, doom-laden scenarios. We’ve all heard how too much fear causes paralysis and apathy, especially as we’re getting apocalypse rained down on us from all sides in the media. It’s easier to concentrate on food, on ways we can all grow it and exchange it more locally.

But last week I realised that the predicted social upheaval is already here. Where does that leave me when I talk to people in my community about Transition?

Reskilling workshops are part of the Transition model – helping equip people with the basic tools of resilience they may need in an oil-scarce world – things like making and repairing things, growing and storing your own food, creating your own energy supply. These are popular and necessary. But perhaps we need to join with others to start offering other less ‘hippy’ things likely to be useful in times of transition – things like basic healthcare, dealing with broken arms and injuries, self-defence and conflict resolution techniques? These would all have been useful last week!

New presentation of data in figure 20 of http:...

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Growing back to nature…

Combing my hair gave me a bit of a fright recently. Combing my locks over the bath,  I found several of these:

They felt brittle and unlike normal hair follicles. And the root was so big, and tough; could these be signs of early menopause? I’ve already noticed lots of grey hair; perhaps this could be the next stage, before the hot flushes begin. Apparently some women get the menopause in their thirties! I began to fear the worst.

But then I took a closer look at the specimens, and put one under a magnifying glass. It was in fact….a seed.

I’ve roamed numerous grasslands recently, not to mention the jungle on my allotment. Somewhere on my sojourns, I had become even more connected to nature than I’d realised. Dare I say, too connected?

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Carry on camping: where the wild things are

the ideal...

An attempt to get back to nature backfired on me last weekend.

I made the mistake of a/ choosing a campsite on the fringes of London and Essex and b/timing my visit with the start of the school holidays. An additional risk factor in hindsight was my choice of companion, an old-fashioned kind of  person who loathes swearing of any kind.

I apologise now if the rest of this sounds elitist and full of anti-Essex stereotypes. In my defence I’m Essex born and bred, and my companion grew up on a council estate. Everything that follows really happened. Stereotypes exist for a reason!

People who’d been had told us: it’s ok so long as you camp in Field 2, the one furthest away from everywhere else. But Field 2 resembled Glastonbury, with tents and mobile homes rammed next to each other – any privacy was absolutely impossible.

We found another field with fewer people in it, and some fire pits. This seemed the best option, especially as my companion noticed a group of silver-haired gentlemen in the far corner opposite our spot. ‘At least they’ll be well-behaved,’ he said.

On the other side of us, a handful of young male students tended a fire. I judged them docile and quiet.

We tried to ignore the insistent bass emanating from several sound systems, comforting ourselves with the curfew rules of the site: all noise to stop after 10.30. At least we had some space around us. We set to work erecting our bell tent, and sourcing wood for the fire.

As it started to get dark a tiny car pulled up next to our pitch, containing two young skinheads, two girls and somehow, two huge Alsatians, one promptly defecating right next to our fire pit. One of the girls kept them on a lead, but made no attempt to clear up their mess; I wondered how they would avoid treading on all the turds in the dark. The smell wafted over to us on the sylvan breeze.

Meanwhile, my companion’s face was darkening. ‘Unbelievable,’ he kept repeating. ‘The language! It’s just unbelievable.’  His outrage wasn’t just occasioned by the couples closest to us, who were effing and blinding loudly at each other with every sentence. What really bothered my companion was the group of elderly men he’d found reassuring earlier, sitting round a fire opposite. Their sentences drifted over to us along with the dog turds, and it was true that a good many of them ended in ‘you old cunt.’

‘Wanker’ and ‘fuck’ were popular choices in all corners of the campsite, along with funeral pyre-sized campfires.  While I’m less allergic to swearing (using some of these myself in extremis) the amount and volume of it was making me uncomfortable. I gave up any residual hopes that this camping trip might be a romantic getaway.

One of the Ray-Winstone elderly gangster types threw a glass bottle on the fire, where it exploded. ‘You crazy old cunt,’ they all laughed. My partner’s outrage began to turn into depression. ‘Is this what society has become?’

I didn’t see the experience quite the same way. Yes, there was a lamentable amount of swearing, noise and rubbish being strewn around. But underneath that, everyone there still felt the lure of the woods. We were all magnetised by fire, and we all wanted to share time talking and laughing in nature with friends. I watched the dark silhouettes against the jumping flames and the illuminated green of the trees behind them. This was an archetypal scene of the greenwood, albeit bastardised.

By 11pm, the amplified noise had stopped and some of the groups had already put out their fires. I stayed by my fireside  long enough  to watch the ‘W’ of Cassiopeia shift upwards through the sky, and a glorious full moon rise behind an old oak tree.

That was a window of peaceful reprieve. From midnight onwards the noise levels grew again, this time coming from the previously docile students. One crate of Stella later, they had completely forgotten they were sharing a field with anyone else. The exploding beer bottles at 4 am sounded like bombs, shocking me fully awake. Along with other recriminations we heard: ‘You’ve pissed on my head!’

Some environmentalists love nature but hate people. I’m really trying not to go down that road, but sometimes it’s tempting.

the reality...

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Zen and the art of mindful pond dipping

Pond dipping is something I associate with frogspawn and young kids. Not something on my top 10 list of fun things to do.

But this week I discovered its fascination and oddly therapeutic benefits, when myself and my fellow students had to dip several ponds in order to work out their state of health and how this might relate to where they are situated.

After noting what the pond looks like from standing beside it (is it covered in green algae? Is it shaded by trees? can we see any insect life on the surface, such as water boatmen?) we took turns to swish a net back and forth through the water at varying depths and then, deposit the contents into a white plastic tub containing some of the pond water. With the aid of an ID book, we then tried to identify the species.

It’s literally like eavesdropping on an alien world.  Sometimes murky, sometimes disturbing,  and often eerily beautiful. It requires patience, but as you make the effort, your mind starts to slow down and drop into another way of being.

Everything you observe is on a much smaller scale than normal, and so concentration and attention to detail becomes much more important. What first looks like a bit of greyish water with some green and black smudges in it starts to reveal itself, as you use your eyes and your imagination. Is that just a blob of mud and plant matter, or could it be the nest of the caddis fly larvae?

Gradually creatures start to reveal themselves as their go on with their lives. The spiriculae gyrate elegantly across the water. The dragonfly larvae shuffling towards a developing newt. Dragonfly and damson fly larvae  look like what they are  – carniverous predators. Some of the cast of this underworld, scaled up, could be in Alien 3. Especially the fearsome dragonfly nymph – look out for its huge dead shed skins near ponds in June as it transforms itself into its stunning flying incarnation.

Our pond dipping coincided with the frog and toad mating season, and one pond was full of them. Again, this was very Zen – the much smaller male perches on top of the female, hugging her to stay on, and together they float motionless, seemingly content in the sunshine.The mating process can take a whole day: ‘Bliss: The most I ever got was three minutes’ was one person’s comments at the scene.

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