Community Gardening and the Pareto Principle

On my way to Canonbury School every week for my garden club, I cycle through an estate by Clissold Park built 1960’s style with concrete blocks, big windows, and literally acres of grass. Designed originally for the frolicking and the picknicking, the idea was to have an unbroken flow of landscape for people to use. None of this actually happens : no-one even bothers picking the legions of municipal daffodils, and I’ve hardly seen anyone even exercising their dog in the play areas.

Last week I went to a meeting to launch the garden group, and credit to them, they were prepared to fight for their right to par-tay : no accessible water, no available keys, access to only the tiniest of raised beds hadn’t defeated them.

There were 11 residents there : and eight others : the local councillor, the estate manager, three people from Garden Organic and Octopus, who have funding to help community garden groups, a local paper photographer, a lady marketing the local Transition group, and me, scoping out the estate for possible work for little red hen, which works with community groups to set up and run gardens.

I am interested in these kind of anarchic self formed groups, partly because I want a bit of a sneak preview of the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, but also, because I would like people to rediscover the lost art of working together, that capitalism has encouraged us all to forget. Gardening is the easy bit, the hard part is other people : but paradoxically its quite easy to get grant funding for community garden projects, but almost impossible to get paid to help people stop arguing, complaining and blaming, and do something fun.

I read about the Pareto Principle from this blog on the Decathlon Website about increasing the impact of your training,( having just bought some climbing shoes! ):

Basically, you get 80% of your results from a productive 20% of what you do, while 80% of your effort brings no results. Good news for anyone on a salary, because this means your boss is paying you for FOUR DAYS EVERY WEEK for doing NOTHING. In sport, it means don’t bother dragging your sorry butt round the park every day : do a proper energetic run twice a week.  80% of the World’s  wealth is owned by 20% of the people, ( who do little with it, incidentally) and in business, 80% of your work comes from a very useful 20% of your clients. Pareto himself, as a gardener, maintained that 80% of his peas came from 20% of his pods, which I think is frankly taking what might be a good principle to a ridiculous extreme.

So the point is : ( apart from that you could have skipped 80% of this blog to get to this bit ) community groups are tiring themselves out doing all manner of pointless work, which is just making them annoyed:

producing leaflets and delivering them to every door, when they could just be saying hello occasionally and chatting to their neighbours : its a much more efficient and human way of ‘engaging’ people : any angry reclusive nutcase that lives near you can produce a leaflet and shove it up your slot, but people are more likely to go to local events where they know people.

Setting up new committees and running separate meetings when they could just piggyback on existing general residents structures, such as TRA’s. People want to do fun stuff, and nobody, but nobody, ever has fun sitting in a draughty hall listening to people moaning about why they are having to do all the work.

Organising large Community Events, with the sponsorship of funded groups, when a regular informal meeting would be a lot less work, and get more people involved. The Walthamstow Village Residents’ Association who are my gurus in this, have certain principles which are key to their success :

Meet every month no matter what, so people who miss one can go to the next, and momentum can be maintained.

Get everyone to bring some food to share, because everybody likes cake.

Have fun : even if you are moving 15 tonnes of compost in the rain, because its the fun that people come for and its the fun that will bring them back.

Have fun : because if you are working for free and you aren’t having fun, then you need to take a very long hard look into your psyche, and ask yourself what the heck you are doing it for.(Hint : Your ego might know the answer.)

I’m worried I might not have mentioned FUN enough times.


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…..


Are you Granola enough?


Apparently, I am : according to Urban Dictionary : it means an urban hippy, but not like those terrible driftwood casualties of the 1960’s, but a nice mainstreamy one : shopping at farmer’s markets, eating healthfood , organic, outdoorsy, but not yet ready (or able) to turn their back on the whole nightmarish capitalist experiment.


I have decided today, while making some for myself, that everyone I know is getting granola for Christmas : and this is why :

1. I won’t have to go Christmas shopping : the soulless obligation of tramping round shops in despair of finding something nice, or failing that, appropriate. Ok, the health food shop : my favourite one  is called Mother Earth. And maybe the haberdashers!


2. As you get older, you supposedly earn more money, but feel less inclined to accumulate stuff. ( not in all cases, I grant you). The real gift is that the giftee doesn’t have to find a space in their life or house to put what they’ve just unwrapped : very easily enjoyed and recycled, is granola!

3. It’s really, really good for you. Maybe not the stuff you buy, which can have quite a lot of salt, and even corn syrup (ew!) in the ingredients, but the stuff you make : all the things western diets don’t have enough of are in here : fibre, both soluble and not, seed oils ( still in the seeds), fruits full of micronutrients, and cholesterol-lowering oats. All traditional seasonal ingredients from harvest stores btw.

4.Christmas, while being an appropriation of pagan midwinter feasts, is still a feast y’know! Apparently, we’ve been looking at Stonehenge the wrong way round all these years : instead of being built for the Great Hippy Tokefest of Summer Solstice, it was actually designed for a Hogroast and a Hoedown on the darkest day. In our modern times, a nice bag of goodness should hopefully go down better than  a freshly killed pig on Christmas morning, especially with all that nutrient-depleting alcohol we’re all forced to drink!


So far I have made it with almonds and cinnamon, then I ran out of almonds and today I have made a version with chocolate and hemp seeds.

The Recipe :

I haven’t gone into quantities, because what I actually did to make this was chuck in what looked like enough : and having just tasted it cooling on the hob : I’d say this worked fine.

Some jumbo oats

some honey

some coconut oil

some other nuts, seeds and fruit as available

Melt the honey and oil together, much like with flapjacks

Mix in dry ingredients

Spread on a baking tray and bake in a medium oven

For about half an hour,

Turning every so often if you feel like it.

Other things you could add :

dried fruit such as : goji berries, dates, figs, apricots, cranberries

Seeds such as sunflower, pumpkin, sesame,

Nuts such as walnuts, hazelnuts, coconut flakes, brazil nuts, pecans etc

Flavours such as tahini, nutmeg, orange, vanilla, molasses

The only warning I will give is that eating it all yourself is not in keeping with the spirit of the season! Enjoy!

Talking the walk

I really have been making a more concerted effort in the last week or so to start using social media properly to publicise my sustainability and landscape architecture work. I have sorted out my linked in, tweeted at least a bit, and look, am I not thus blogging?

I am not, however, fooling myself that any of these actually count as ‘doing’ something : although it may turn out in the end to have been economically useful all along, I am not paid by the word (or even, at all) and although I am consuming energy, I am not producing anything, apart from maybe some amusement, and some CO2 emissions.

Because of my current work I have been reading a lot around permaculture, urban food growing, sustainability, transition movement, food education, etc. and initially, it looks like there’s quite a buzz going on in the UK, and definitely in the uber-something bit of NE London where I am.  City Farmers, City Leaf, Capital Growth, Project Dirt, Community Gardens, Growing Communities, Organic Lea, Food from The Sky, it’s all apparently going on.

I worry, though, about the sustainability of these projects : when the buzz has gone, and the inputs of funding and time of the highly-trained and committed visionary professionals I keep meeting at projects are gone, can these places carry on developing?

For example, food from the sky is an amazing project : the roof of a supermarket in north london has been transformed into a food growing garden.They got 300 old plastic recycling boxes, and craneloads of earth up on to the roof, and the community are there in their free time cultivating veg that can be sold in the supermarket below. I like this project, and am inspired by the vision and energy of the people who have made it happen, but I wish it was more sustainable, in terms of working with the natural systems which are the basis of life on earth. A plastic box on a roof is fine for a year or two, but is too small and too isolated to ever become part of the earth’s ecosystem. Now there are no snails, but they will come, and so will vine weevils and other pests : they can be controlled organically, with inputs of labour, nematodes, compost etc, but it all seems a bit, well, extra.

What puzzles me is why they ignored all the unused land that lies all around us : housing estates are wastelands of grass, which seems to function only to be mowed and display dog poo. Historically social housing providers have been very protective of these spaces : making clear that the grass is not to be played on, but to be preserved, perhaps for the  imaginary family stroll and picnic that was pictured in the original architects’ visualisations all those years ago.

Land like this is much more likely to be built on than to be used to grow food. This guy Mikey Tomkins  has done some interesting academic work around Hackney and Southwark, about exactly how much food could be produced by  using the capital’s vacant spaces :

Anyway : as Build and Blossom, we are currently in the process of trying to convert shrub areas in the Pembury Peabody Estate to food production using permaculture principles. We are working slowly with Peabody, climbing over hurdles as they come up, keeping our patience, and refusing to let go of our vision of taking back the land from the corporations and authorities. I see it, perhaps grandiosely, as a reversal of the enclosure acts, whereby the peasants were kicked off the land by the government aristocrats, and herded into the cities to provide near-slave labour for the industrial revolution.

This land is ours : get yer seeds out!

The Triumph of Evil

I had a seemingly innocuous email today asking my community garden group for a small, easily granted favour, that ended with the words “If I don’t hear from anyone I’ll take it that silence is consent”, and I started thinking about whether this is true, and what other meanings could reasonably be construed from silence : and it turns out they are not only varied, but many!

I don’t care

I don’t agree, but I don’t want to be awkward

My opinion has not been listened to in the past so I have stopped giving it.

I don’t like you, so I am not going to afford you the respect of an answer.

I hate you, so I am going to express that by trying to make you not exist.

I do not feel entitled to express my opinion.

I wasn’t listening.

You got my email address wrong.

You sent that to another person with a similar name to mine.

I feel uncomfortable expressing views that conflict with the majority.

I don’t know what I think.

I am shy of talking in public.

I find emails too impersonal.

I don’t understand all the issues.

I am too afraid to voice my opinion.

What’s the fuss about anyway?

Not you again : forever asking people for their views!

If I tell you that you are now giving or have ever given consent by your silence, this cannot be seen in any other way but  as highly political and, in personal communications, deeply aggressive. It says  “I am going to do what I want regardless of you and what you may think, and you do not have the power to stop me”. It challenges you to have a view and dares you to make me listen : it’s like

” We decided that at the meeting you didn’t come to”

“Well you’re quite welcome to check the minutes”

“Well in that case I will be forced to resign”

Community groups, in my experience, no matter how ostensibly apolitical their aims, are exactly like political parties in this respect : good people and nice people go in for all the right altruistic reasons, but are quickly driven or manoeuvred out by people who are looking for validation and power.

Permaculture has ‘people care’ as one of its three core principles : (the other two of which are ‘earth care’ and ‘fair shares’) and until now was the one I had thought least about, but I may start giving it the attention it deserves.

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do (or say!) nothing.

La La La!

Human communication is a funny thing, isn’t it? Spoken language is supposed to be one of the things that distinguishes ‘us’ (people) from ‘them’ (animals) : but then you see a graph like this :

and you wonder why anybody bothers saying anything, ever. Because the chances are, No-one Is Listening.

Now obviously, the human condition is such that we pass our lives  locked in the inner turmoil of our own consciousness, and will therefore never know what anyone else is really thinking, even if they tell us. But I would still like to know what is actually going on for the 93% of the time when people are basically ‘not listening’. Here are some of my observations :

1. Thinking of what they are going to say next. It’s a sad fact of life that no-one is ever as interesting as you, and yet they seem to expect you to give them at least half of the available conversation time. This is why you should interrupt them as many times as you can : they will eventually realise how fascinating you are, and stop talking.

2. Trying to guess the end of your sentence. People do this to me a lot :  maybe I speak too slowly / get distracted / bore people / repeat myself? Thing is, they never get it right, though : they don’t know the end of the sentence, even though they must be listening to the beginning.  Sometimes I ask them to stop, and sometimes I  let them talk while I plan what to say next.

3. Thinking about having sex with you. This maybe sounds better than it is. For example : I used to work with road engineers, and we had a lot of meetings, talking about their projects. The first 20 minutes could be occupied with choosing which biscuit to have next out of the Peek Frean Family Assortment they favoured (public money, plenty more where that came from!). But after that I used to amuse myself by putting them in reverse order of who I would have sex with, if I really really had to.(shudders involuntarily)

4. Staring at the telly. If you have one or more children, you will know that they never listen to the first word of any sentence, which is why warnings like  ‘Don’t scooter down that hill at top speed’, ‘Don’t eat all those sweets, its nearly dinner time’ and ‘Don’t hit your brother, he’s smaller than you’ are all wasted breath. If they are watching the telly, though, this increases to the first three times you say any sentence. This is why they are indignant when you come into the room, shouting ‘I SAID, WHAT DO YOU WANT FOR BREAKFAST!’, because they missedthe first four times when you asked them nicely. In some cases this is understandable : Almost Naked Animals, a cartoon about animals in underwear running a hotel, is manifestly more involving than anything you have to say, ever.

The terrible fact is, though, that if you have ever met anyone that really truly listened to you with their soul, giving you their full attention, even for a minute, you can understand why we can never get enough  of this wonderful feeling. All of us operate with a huge ‘listening deficit’, which is why, I think, we are constantly trying to get ourselves heard with the talking talking talking.

Did you hear that?

I did think I might end this piece with a sincere plea, much in the manner of Rabbi Julia Neuberger on Thought for the Day, to anyone reading this (why, given the topic, am I imagining anyone but myself…)  to give someone today the wonderful gift of truly listening, without claiming back from them your right to be heard. Don’t, though, because if you do, they will so love the feeling of being totally interesting and valued, that they will constantly seek you out for longer and more frequent dollops of the boring crap inside their head, and probably never even think to ask how you are.

On Venting

I am currently in the process of making elderflower Champagne : the above, while it may look like a photoshop airbrushed Scarlett Johansson in a Moet & Chandon advert, is in fact me, letting the air out of the bottles.

This is a very satisfying activity, because boy, does that stuff produce some gas! When I threw out the challenge to my fellow community gardeners, i forgot to mention that you have to let the pressure out very very s-l-o-w-l-y, or the above will happen, and you will lose the lot to your kitchen floor.

I have always been a ‘better out than in’ kind of girl : a bit given to impulsive behaviour : sometimes this is good, and fun, but most of the time it scares people and makes them run away. I remember an occasion when I was five, I was at school, and we were all walking along carrying chairs, and Amanda Straderick accidentally hit me with hers, and before I knew what I was doing, I bit her nose and made her cry. I had just acted on instinct : I couldn’t hit her because I was holding a chair, but I remember a few minutes later, when I wasn’t angry any more, begging her not to tell anybody because I didn’t want to get into trouble.

Now I am 44, I think it may be time to try and stop letting the top off some of my powerful emotions so quickly.  I calm down as quickly as I explode, but it’s not so easy for those caught in the crossfire. I found out yesterday that it  may have lost me someone I care about very much.

Of Men and Menorrhagia

I went camping with two other single parent friends over the bank holiday : yes it has really taken me two days to recover! I came back determined to make a list of the things you really never want to go camping without :

1. Baby wipes. Your days of wiping babies may be happily behind you, but believe me, you will never be so filthy as when trying to live in a field : the mud, the fires, the lack of proper washing or cooking facilities…actually you could upgrade that to a whole-body size squirter of  hand sanitizer.

2.Alcohol. Vast amount, and no the hand sanitiser will not do. Getting drunk is the only way you will cease to care about the discomfort, the inconvenience, and the sheer unnecessary-ness of camping.

3. Bacon. Is the only thing that will cheer you up the next morning when you are hungover in a field, it’s starting to drizzle, and there are lots of children running around, shouting ‘Mum!’ or ‘Dad!’ in loud high-pitched voices, and some of them are yours.

4.Washing up bowl, liquid, and sponge. I think what does me with this one is the preparation : it feels farcical to spend a day packing up enough stuff to replicate your life in civilisation, in a field. You will need these though.

5. A first aid kit. Having one is the only way of being sure you will not need one :  this is Sod’s Law.

6. A Firefighter. Trained in first aid, and therefore not liable to panic when your child brains himself on the tree swing, and is running around with blood gushing from his head just at the moment that you, having crawled off with your hangover to have a shower, have just put the shampoo on.

7.A Landscaper. Who will have a van, from which all manner of useful items can be produced : some pallets to make a table, and wood offcuts to make benches and little stools;  some goggles, so the children won’t blind themselves  while manufacturing stone age flint items to sell to local museums, a beautiful japanese tree saw (Have I already mentioned the Silky Big Boy?) for creating logs. This is a picture of the boys with their Big Boys, and a selection of timber.

8 A Tent. Don’t worry, you won’t ever have to put it up yourself, even if you want to and think you can. As soon as you look even a little bit confused, or as if you might have got a bit the wrong way round, men will swoop in from nowhere, like a roving tent-erecting swat team, and do it for you. You have two choices : you can rail against them, and snatch the tent poles out of their hands and insist on your right to empower yourself with the knowledge of the tent, or you can just let them get on with it, sit down and admire their muscles, and their eagerness to please.

Oh yes, I forgot about the menorrhagia! It was quite entertaining (as these things often aren’t) to have to keep making the gynaecolo-tea from Alchemilla Mollis to treat my inconveniently heavy menstrual flow (clots the size of bulldozers, I’m telling you!: not your ideal camping scenario!)  Not only did it work, but it also kept my two (male) companions entertained for hours playing ‘Guess the Gynaecological Problem’.