Professor Branestawm


They say that you pretty much know who you are by the time you’re about ten years old and when I was ten I was obsessed with Professor Branestawm, to the extent that my ambition was to become an ‘inventor’, having never heard the word ‘ designer’, and obviously oblivious to the fact that my dad was an engineer, and spent his free hours messing about with old car parts. I still have the scar on my knee from running around the yard in the dark and snow, bumping into the fan on the front of one of his engines.

I have thought of this today because as part of a design I am putting together for a wildlife friendly balcony for a client in Woodberry Down, I am trying to work out ways of creating a vertical planting bed made from pallets, a water tank, and a load of plastic tubing. The Professor would have found a way of bringing an old bike wheel into it. I’m also identifying with his eyesight issues : he had reading glasses, seeing glasses, looking over glasses, and a pair to find the others when they inevitable get lost, all of which, as a soon to be old person, I now have! Result : I am Professor Branestawm!

 

The Vegans Have Landed


Recently, I went to a permaculture association camping weekend, attended by many of the vegan persuasion, and catered entirely with plant based foods : this community is keen to show that a righteous life is one where no being has to suffer to feed another. While I understand where they are coming from, I found it interesting but wasn’t in the end convinced away from my meat and dairy eating ways.

Now, I have some experience of being vegan : it was a long time ago, in a house share in Norwich, where everyone else was vegan, and indeed, quite often freegan, back in the day when bakeries and supermarkets didn’t even think of locking their bins. It was fun :  there’s nothing so boring as having unlimited availability and funds to cook with : the challenge of culinary creativity lies in making something good with whatever you’ve got, rather than having to get all the right ingredients. Its why I make pesto with easy to grow rocket and cheap sunflower seeds, rather than hothoused Basil and imported pine nuts. It’s why I like foraging and growing my own : supermarkets, with their infinite reach have taken the fun out of exotic ingredients from far flung places, so that local ingredients, especially ones that are free, are paradoxically the rarest and most valued.

Even now I still make the occasional vegan meal : Quorn Chili, pastas all’arabbiata, Chi Vruoccoli, and con Ceci, Pesto doesn’t really need cheese: salads with grains and hoummous.

But now we get to the But : vegan food should be animal free and proud of it : no apologies should be made for  the ‘lack’ of protein, flavour or anything else, and above all, no vegan food or ingredient should be a version or substitute of an animal one. So: as a vegan I learnt to make shoyu seeds as a delicious sprinkle to add to salads, and grain based dishes, to add protein, healthy fats, texture and flavour to dishes which won’t be getting any cheese on top.

Vegan cheese  and meat exist : these are made in Switzerland :

New customers special

but I am confused that the way these highly ethical foods are presented is like sausages and pate : highly processed and packaged and resembling artificially rendered meat, which is surely the worst food the world of meat can offer, rather than the best. What is it that vegans seem to be missing in their diet? Processed paste?

We were proudly offered Soya Dream instead of custard, and ate beans and greens and beetroot as Chili and Curry with sticky brown unsalted rice.  Honestly, there’s just no need : nowadays you can get brown Basmati, which is nutritionally whole, but doesn’t stick together, and you can make curries with squash, coconut and nuts that are so delicious and fragrant no-one will care there’s no animal in it even if they notice. This is how you win people over, vegans : by giving them a Vegan Horse of food so delicious they can’t claim that giving up meat is a loss. Not death by beans.

Of course meat eaters are annoying as well : in the west we have become so used to our habits of wasteful abundance, that most of the food produced is thrown away before we even buy it.

People who love the anonymous pink, red or white slab and balk at eating anything that looks like an animal that was once alive : trotters, tongue, wings, tail and most internal organs, and anything with a face. In my veg box trials, I have been interested to note the variety of different meat on offer : my favourite so far has been Farm Direct, for offering whole wild rabbit, for a mere £5.50 a pop. It arrived de-skinned and without a head ( thank heavens, because although I believe that you should kill what you eat, and waste nothing, I am fairly near the beginning of this process, and generally go out of my way not to kill anything at all if I can possibly avoid it) for that £5.50, I made Rabbit goujons, rabbit stew, rabbit stock for risotto and gravy, and my cats ate the meat that went into the stock. I was going to eat the internal organs that were still there, but in the end, only managed the liver ( you have to take these things slowly) and the heart, lungs and kidney went into the stock.

The rabbit had lived a free life in Essex, eating greens and living a natural life until it was shot, which for my money, is worth so much more than even organic free range chicken, at more than twice the price. This is the food that our ancestors would have eaten : huge amounts of roots and greens, with a few seasonal morsels of meat and cheese every now and then. Very little processing, no food miles, humane and tasty. Given a choice between this and a tofu burger, made from imported processed soya, I feel that consciously chosen meat is the better choice.

Wreck it Ralph!


One of my favourite films of last year ( I laughed! I cried!) I read Wreck it Ralph as a lesson in family dynamics :  an explanation for children of why so many weddings, funerals and celebrations end in fights, that isn’t just alcohol.

The film is set in a video game arcade, in which all the characters from the games have self determining lives outside the confines of their games : the premise of Ralph’s game is that he climbs up a building breaking it, while Fix-it Felix, the player’s avatar, follows after him repairing the damage with a magic hammer, and avoids destruction by birds or falling debris. If ‘you’ win, the people in the block run to the top and throw a party for Felix, and give him a medal, and they throw Ralph off the building, where he goes to live in his dump of broken bricks.

The ‘arc’ of Ralph in the film is that he has to leave his game/family in search of the acceptance /medal that his role in the game excludes him from. In freudian terms, this is the necessary trajectory of the child growing up : the point at which the complexity of your needs outweighs the comforts of home is the point where you leave to find your own rewards, and create a new family structure that meets the emotional needs of the adult you become through that process.

The happy ending for Ralph is achieved  through his development of a parental relationship with a child character from a racing game, and the help he gives her in her own search for acceptance in her peer group, which mirrors his own desire for social acceptance from the somewhat two dimensional inhabitants of the flats his job is to destroy. When Vanelope Von Schweetz ultimately wins the race, and her game ( for which read ‘life’) becomes a constitutional democracy with herself as president, it is a metaphor for successful parenting : he proudly watches her win her races from his own altered reality, which now includes decent housing for all, and the inclusion of refugees from outdated games. At the end of the film, he has successfully managed to pull his family/ game out of their fixed view of him as ‘bad’, through becoming a father, and obviously, therefore adult. His last words : “Turns out I don’t need a medal to make me feel good, ‘cos if that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” is a touching reminder to parents of how much our own little ones mean to us. I did say I cried!

But that is, of course, Hollywood : and it hardly needs saying that the enduring success of an industry based on our desire for redemption, would hardly be so enduring, were the happy endings as reliable in real life as on-screen. Family life is the best thing we have so far evolved to get children safely through to continuing the species themselves, by which time, we need it to be as unbearable as possible to give us the motivation to get the hell out.

Ralph returns to his game/family, and is able to make changes there so that it meets his needs : they happily accept his changes as part of the joy of  having him in their lives. I am sure families like this exist, but perhaps, to reference Tolstoy’s view of happy families, the spectacle of a group of people lovingly nurturing each other through all of lives changes, without struggle or resistance, is so common and mundane that there is no need for it to appear  in dramatic form.

In real life, brothers Felix and Ralph, would have learnt in childhood to understand themselves and the world through their opposing roles : sometimes it seems like nature just loves the drama of matching a ‘fixit’ shy intellectual child with a ‘wreck it’ boisterous sports nut for a sibling, just for the hell of it. The answer is of course, nurture, not by the parents, but in the child’s evolution of its self, is the counterpoint of the ‘not-self’, which in the best case scenario, of a nurturing family, is helped by siblings, but in the worst case of a stressed, neglectful or abusive family becomes set in such unbreakable stone that conflict is the inevitable result of any attempt at progression by any family member.

If the sports nut grows up, and decides to become a university professor, in a nurturing family, the intellectual sibling should welcome the closeness of new areas of shared interest. Lack of nurturing in childhood is a threat to survival, and as such, activates the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emergency responses, and children who are brought up with this, will need to work very hard indeed to allow their cerebral cortex, which deals with reason, to override their emergency responses. Children whose ideas of themselves and their siblings have evolved in brains bathed in stress hormones are unable to develop into adults, and change these ideas without a huge amount of work and commitment from their analytical brain. Any suggested change in those ideas will be experienced as threatening to their sense of themselves, and will be fought straight from the amygdala : “Stop trying to be clever, you’re the pretty one, it’s not fair” was something I saw my own mother throw at her sister, when both were in their fifties.

Mostly, like Wreck it Ralph, people sensibly go off in search of a medal in a different game, and keep exposure to siblings stuck in childhood to a minimum : Weddings, Christmas, Ancestors day, Thanksgiving…..

 

One at a time…


I became a landscape architect, way back in 1999 ( yes, I partied) because I wanted to work on projects to transform the environment, and empower communities to engage with changing their place for the better. One of the first projects I worked on was the forecourt of a call centre somewhere in Scotland. I never visited the site : why bother, there was nothing there but an area of grass overlooking the River Tay. What my employer wanted, thinking back, was a quickly produced, cheap to build, turning area for cars that would look nice in front of the building, and require no maintenance. What I did instead, and which was probably chucked out as soon as I resigned in a huff, was created a break out area, for the call centre staff to be able to commune with nature in their breaks. I struggled like this for about 15 years, trying to find the space for people and nature in what was supposed to be an environmental design profession, and not really succeeding. I wanted to work together with communities to design spatial solutions that worked to improve people’s lives, not just produce attractive images for publication : aesthetic design / landscape as art was fine as far as it went, but to me seemed shallow :

http://www.landscapeinstitute.org/news/Proposal-for-Silvertown-Docks-wins-Royal-Docks-competition

Then in 2005, everything changed. I had a baby, did my maternity leave, and found that the worth of my many skills was invalidated by my need to work ‘part-time’, which in architecture means having to leave the office, not just at a regular time, but basically ever. The fact that this causes a skills drain is the subject of regular bemused hand-wringing in the professional and mainstream press :

http://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2013/aug/07/women-leaving-architecture-profession

I am and have always been, incredibly ambitious : On the last day of college I had a conversation about aspirations with a fellow landscape graduate, that has stuck with me : I was not intent on a particular area of design, but I did want to do useful public projects that would be significant to real people. She replied, ” I am sorry, but I really look down on those kind of ‘worthy’ projects : I am much more into minimalist design”, which one sentence would be a whole blogsworth of unpicking in itself. But, she is probably at least the head of a practice landscape team that…yawn. Sorry, what was I saying?

If anything, I have got more ambitious, while earning less money, and doing ‘lower status’ work : I work with people in urban areas to design and run sustainable systems for growing food and maintaining their landscape. Its a job that has no actual title : its permaculture, yes, but calling it that doesn’t necessarily help : I have settled for the moment on Community Landscape Architect ( I removed the ‘Chartered’, because that also doesn’t help.)  Why people think gardening is easy, I don’t know : the knowledge and experience you need to do everything well is perhaps why our best ones are the oldest!

This work is actually Revolution, but disguised, so as not to bring the government’s new water cannons out, as Gardening. My ultimate design would be a place that looked as if it has not been designed at all, but had occurred naturally : so that my peers, my boss, my trainer, and actually, my lunch are all Nature herself.

Every time someone says something like :”I have never thought about that before” or “I’ll remember that, next time”, or when people who scream at the sight of worms stop screaming, and start looking, I feel that I am helping to build the revolution, one thought at a time, and one person at a time, which is the most powerful way there is.

9 flower & bees

 

Zero Hours


Is it just me, in the runup to Christmas, that can’t stop thinking about Capitalism? As its the season of wish fulfilment, I’ve put Capital by Karl Marx on there, along with a juicer, a DVD of It’s a Wonderful Life, and  a Norwegian Style Jumper from Primark.

jumper

Without having read Marx yet, what I can say about capitalism is this : profit is made from using what money or resources you already have to make more, and the more people you have working for you the more you can make, and the bigger the difference between what you pay your workers and how much you make from their work, the bigger your profits.

The only limit on this being how many hours you can get from your workers, and of course, the limits on how you can treat them, imposed eventually, and long overdue, by governments. They listened for far too long and with far too much sympathy to the businessmen who proclaimed their value to the economy, and claimed they couldn’t survive without slave labour, then child labour, then banning unions, then exporting production to the ‘Developing World’, now zero hours contracts.

And they have some powerful guys on their side :

Boris Johnson

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/quiz/2013/dec/03/boris-johnson-iq-test-questions

The idea of getting people to work for free occurred early and was applied with enthusiasm globally : slavery was the basis of capitalism because it obliged people to work, firstly by genocide and landgrabbing within Africa, then by  the imprisonment, forced labour, dehumanisation and more genocide on the descendents of the survivors of this process : these are the foundations on which the prosperity of the ‘Free’ or ‘ Developed’ World is built.

Nowadays, apparently,  we do things differently : mass enslavement and brutalisation is not an acceptable business strategy, per se, at least in the UK : but because the origins of global corporations are in the Perpetration of Evil, maybe its not such a great surprise, that a couple of hundred years later they are still very much in evidence.

zero hours

I have been reading recently about the wholesale destruction of the rainforest in central Africa, to make way for oil-producing palm oil plantations. You may think you never eat this stuff : but apparently enough of us do, that without it Mr Kipling would either be out of business, or simply using a more traditional, but more expensive, local ingredient, and making a few pennies less profit on every nutrient free item in the production line.

sponge-equipment brazil-stephenferry-getty4601

The picture of the rainforest in Brazil above came from this explanation of the links between economic growth and deforestation :  http://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/amazon_destruction.html

If I had a choice of what life to lead, I am not sure I would choose to be a hunter-gatherer, with my life dependent on the weather, the outcome of chance meetings with large predators, and my ability to survive childbirth : the value inherent in individual consciousness is of huge importance to me. I am glad for every day I don’t have to spend searching for enough calories to keep going : whether working for a global corporation or living off the land.

It often seems that the only way out of capitalism is through capitalism : from eco-villagers to co-housers, from organic garden volunteers to ethical food businesses : all have benefited from capitalism’s surplus to fund their escape. From doctors to designers, we are all paid from the surplus produced by the exploitation of slaves, but does it have to be so?

boy, is it sunny in Wales

RIP Bikething


2.0-Roads

I’m finding it really difficult at the moment to decide what to do ‘for the best’, so I was really pleased today to find, via a thread on WOFATI houses by Paul Wheaton : http://www.richsoil.com/wofati.jsp, a link to the Lammas ecovillage people, who live in this lovely house they’ve built,

lammas house

and have made this list of small steps that we can all make : http://www.beingsomewhere.net/things.htm.  At the risk of boasting, I’d say I can tick off a good 90% of these things : I make chutney, I don’t shop unnecessarily, I use public transport, I grow food, and share my knowledge : I can’t, however, get past the fact that my values are not shared by my neighbours, and this is uncomfortable for me.

I used to have a box bike : one of those Christiania ones, that I bought from a beekeeper for enough beans to buy a small car. And for a while it lived, parked on the road, attached to a lamppost, in the space where my car used to be. I got used to the sensation of being famous when riding it, as local people stared, smiling, and sometimes , yes, laughing and pointing. ( this isn’t me, by the way).

box bike lady

One day, a polish family moved in up the street, and all was well and good, until the day they bought an Audi. Sometimes there were so many other cars in the street, they couldn’t park it in front of their house, and when they saw my box bike, happily sitting in its spot, they got angry, and started to move it on to the pavement, and park the Audi there instead. On the pavement it was in the way of people walking by, and so when the space became free I put it gently back in its space.

One day, they wrote me this note, and put it in my bike, and they became known as ‘enemy of bike thing’ and I told my friends the story and everyone thought it was funny.

letter

I think I laughed because the alternative was too uncomfortable to contemplate. I would have had to recognise the deeply passive aggressive and bullying undertone of this letter, and that they had ignored the fact that my phone number was on the bike, in case of theft, and chose instead to write their anonymous, sinister note .

On solstice night, I went to Hackney Tree Nursery and Forest Garden for a little green soiree, and noticed when I got back that my bike was on  the pavement, and in its place the Audi, and I woke the next day to its destruction, kicked to blazes by a drunk idiot (Adrian Kopec, relative, it turned out, of Enemy of Bikething) wearing, by the end, only pants.

He paid for it, in the end, in order to avoid prosecution, and I donated the broken bike to Green Peppers Orchard Project in Camden : its in the Maiden Lane Estate, which has lots of tuscan style terracotta walkways, and will be put to good use. I hope it will be happy, and I hope that my lingering discomfort in my neighbourhood will start to disappear.

Required Reading for Permaculture


seminal permaculture texts

Everybody loves a story, right? They speak to us as humans in so many ways : from scary campfire tales to blockbuster horror, the plays of Shakespeare to story adverts (Kenco, John Lewis, the EDF blob (see below))

blob-edf-energy

some of them are supposed to be culturally significant, and some are supposed to just be entertaining. The trick is spotting which is which. The EDF blob, by the way, is obviously the former : many people feel their lives will not be complete until they can own a little ‘Mr Zingy’.

These books are part of my 70’s childhood : Ah, Ladybird books, as comfortable and unthreatening as listening to the shipping forecast by the fire with a nice cup of tea and a round of toast. A story about a chicken who makes a loaf of bread, and one about an old lady with a recalcitrant pig, which surprisingly, hold the answers to some of the conundrums of community gardening.

The Little Red Hen  is about a chicken who finds some grains of wheat, and instead of just eating them, she looks for help from the other farmyard animals to plant them : none of them is interested in helping with the work it takes to create a whole loaf of bread, until the very end, when they are all keen to help her eat it.

My work life in community landscape architecture is so like this I have often thought of calling my company Little Red Hen Ltd : there are any number of ‘charities’ and ‘social enterprises’ to ‘help’ community groups spend their money, once they have worked for years to form a group and get funding, but no-one who wants to do the laborious work of helping people to learn how to work together for shared aims.

In the other book, the old woman buys a pig, then can’t make it jump the stile to get to her cottage : she asks a dog to bite it, but it wont, so she asks a stick to beat the dog, but it won’t, and so on, until she comes across a cat who makes a bargain, that it will kill the rat if she gets it some milk. To get the milk she has to fetch the cow some hay, and after that everything falls rapidly into place, and the pig springs over the stile at the mere sight of the dog’s teeth, and she does get home that night.

Both stories are about the limits and possibilities of self-interest : it’s legitimate to profit from the fruit of your labour : why should that chicken give away the loaf she’s worked so hard to produce? (I do remember as a child, worrying about what the hen was living off while doing all that work : times were hard in the farm!). Conversely, the old woman is caught in a chain of interdependence that she isn’t able to unlock until she offers something to the people she wants help from.

Are you more like the entrepreneurial & pioneering  little red hen who can do it all herself, or more like the old woman, who wastes so much energy before finally understanding that she must give something to get something?