Friday, 25 September 2009

My Grandfather's diaries

Mum just emailed me with an entry from her father's diary on 21st May, 1948 

"Reading 'The Rape of the Earth' , a survey of world soil erosion by G.V. Jacks and R. O. White.  Makes you think, and also a bit scaring.  I want to stock up with at least 5 years' supply of of tinned provisions, in case man's stupidity with the earth means soon that the earth will not be able to produce enough to support man. Finely balanced nature hasn't a chance against man's industry, energy and science; later, man hasn't a chance against the revolt of unbalanced nature - deserts, floods, drought and  sterile soil."

Plus ca change....

Love, Mum

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Farmer Suicide Rates

Further to my thoughts about how knowledge work and growing go better together than in isolation, some stats on farmer suicide rates - around double that of the rest of the population.

Source: Defra

Clear Village

"Developing sustainable living solutions at the village scale"...

"Goals of the CLEAR Village Foundation:

Develop an aspirational future of living in the midst of financial and ecological crisis. Co-design a replicable masterplan strategy with global experts to reboot rural & peri-urban areas. Harmonise low-tech romantic ideals with 21st century high-tech solutions and which offers alternative paths to non-sensical new builds."

Monday, 21 September 2009

In praise of yurts

"While this [yurt] looks like a normal, round canvas tent on the outside, inside it is... considerably more comfortable, and certainly a lot bigger, than my sitting room at home. If this is camping, then please let me live in a tent for the rest of my life."

The yurts at Embercombe  were what got me hooked. They had really big windows in the side that light poured through in the day, and a big skylight at the top that you could see the trees and the moon through at night as you feel asleep in your super comfy bed.

I like what they've done here (above) with the flooring and woodstore beneath. Wood must get damp in the rain though, no? The Embercombe yurts had fitted round wood floors, in four layers: wood, insulation, ratproofing, top wood. They were gorgeous.

(You need source of, and storage for, wood with yurts because you warm them by wood burning stove. And unless you hook up electricity you need oil lamps too, which produce a beautiful light.)

I'm wondering about how I'll power my speakers. Maybe a mini solar pannel?

Fuck it - the ultimate spiritual path

Friday, 18 September 2009

Knowledge work and farming

I said goodbye to the farm yesterday. Everyone is likely to leave in the next three to four months; the landlord has requested an exit strategy, for the distance between what he wants done with the land and what the community want to do with the land is too great. The community wants to run events there and produce food to sustain themselves and their visitors: the landlord wants them to just farm tons of veg for his farm shop in Bristol. The community aren't really interested in being farmers. Yesterday was a sad day, for the group have put their love and sweat into that place for a year and a half, and now they have to leave, and all their lives will change, because a man who owns more than they do wants something different to them.

Such is the world.

I once stayed in the welsh B&B of an ex farmer named Marcus Lampard, who wanted to start a website named

Radford Mill was the first time I've helped out in a garden for commercial production and it had a totally different feeling to a garden producing just for the community.

In producing food for the community at Embercombe or Findhorn for example, there is a feeling of something like love in what you're doing because you're helping to make delicious, healthy, sustainable food for people you know and care about.

Why should that sense stop simply because you have never seen the face of the person who will eat the lettuce you're picking? At the Mill, I was trying to imagine the tables that the salad bags I was making, complete with delicious organic mixed leaves and decorated with blue and orange edible flowers, borrige, nasturtiums, marigolds - beautiful! At least when picked. Wilted probably by the time they're eaten unfortunately... Anyway, I was trying to imagine the people that would eat them and thinking, why can't my feeling of delight in producing food extend to these people I will never meet?

It can, I thought, but I don't like this because we're selling wholesale to a landlord, the relationship with whom is widely perceived here as exploitative, and that makes me an exploited agricultural worker right now, and that's the last thing I ever wanted to be.

And that's only participating in the system at one remove from a farm shop fifteen miles away, working in a beautiful place with nice people. How must people feel producing food on a massive non-organic farm for Tesco? Putting in a lot of effort for virtually no money in return?

I've done a lot of shitty work at the Mill. I took down yurts after a big party (heavy and dull work that took a team of 5 an entire day), and dealt with the party's rubbish (disgusting, and formed my resolve to live in a zero waste community). That rubbish was mindless, just like all rubbish is, and it only becomes mindful when you're the person having to sort it out and think about where it all goes. It all goes into Great Big Piles of Crap.

I think we can do better than that.

So I did a lot of shitty work. And it offended me inside which was interesting. "This is manual labour," said my pride. "I am not a manual worker. I am a knowledge worker. Why am I hauling around sacks of crap like someone with no education?"

In the first week I had three dreams that senior members of my family - who have tried for me and have expectations of me - died and my silly actions were partly to blame. Last year a consultant writing think pieces for government strategy units: this year, a shit-clearing farmer. You're letting your family down, wasting all that has been invested in you, my guts seemed to be telling me.

But it was also interesting. I was grumbling to myself about spending a day hauling around canvas and bits of yurt, but then, some of the most amazing experiences of my life have happened in festival yurts that someone put up and took down. And I pay for my ticket, come in, sit in them, experience nirvana or something like it, throw my rubbish in the bin, fuck off, and people I never meet do the dirty work.

And food. My London housemate Mark wastes a bunch of food. If he ever buys vegetables, he makes one thing using some of them, and the rest go in the fridge in their plastic packets never to be touched again until they're mouldy and he or I or the Brazilian cleaner picks them up and throws them away.

Harvesting at Embercombe is inclusive. It involves all the vegetables. The criteria for inclusion is ripeness. If you're ripe, you're in. Harvesting for the Radford Mill farm shop involves a tonne of wastage. The criteria for inclusion is visual conformity to a norm. If the leaf is too big or wiggly or holy, it's to the house or the pigs or the compost heap - and a lot of it ends up in the compost because the house and the pigs between them can't eat all of the fresh ripe organic food that tastes amazing but never gets to the customer because it doesn't look pretty enough.

All of that, every bit of it goes out the window when you produce your own food. When you've invested in it, you love it. You won't let it be wasted.

Kim and I walked the mile and half back from the goat farm in the dark the other night, me carrying the three litre tub of milk we'd just taken gratefully from The Ladies. We walked a bumpy bridleway by starlight, slowly. We didn't want to drop the milk! If we spilt the milk, we really would cry! The whole no-use-crying-over-spilt-milk thing means something totally different if you have taken the milk from the creature with your own hand, and it is then to become the milk and yoghurt and cheese for your family for tomorrow / the day after / three days after respectively, and if you spill it, that's it! Effort wasted and a hungry(er) family. Something to cry over for sure - and avoid.

So. Where does this take us. Most people who eat food are many steps away from the people who make the food. So we value it much less and waste it a lot, and the growers get a shit job. And we get worse food because of the time-lapse between field and plate.

It's alright, it's not bad, some people get work, others get fed, that's good. But isn't is also much more miserable than it could be?


It's time to get specific. Growing food all day every day doesn't work for me. So what does?

1. Growing as headspace

If I've been doing office work for hours, there is nothing more fantastic than stepping away from the screen and the phone calls and the meetings and going into the calm space of Growing. You feel the sunlight and the air and you work manually with the sensual food factory, involving lush black earth, in harvest time handling gorgeous sensual colourful forms of food - food just picked beats an art gallery for me every time - in spring time preparing beds and carefully laying rows of seeds full of promise. It's slow, steady, measured, physical work in nature and it lets the head slow down and breathe.

That can be an end in itself, or sometimes, when I would grow food in the garden, I'd scramble my own head by working for hours and having tea and biscuits instead of actual breaks, then I'd go into the garden and slow down with the veg and ahhhhhh that's it. Your brain wanders around and gradually, new ideas bubble up, the problems you were caught on get unstuck, useful questions and perspectives just arise in your mind. You stop forcing and start letting, and everything starts to move again.

When you return to the screen, you do good work. Somehow you have been nourished.

Aside from work, just pottering in the garden with the radio on is great.

2. Growing as group headspace

There's a lot of value in working in the garden beside people you have important relationships with. Members of your team or family (I include partner in family), or your friends.

It brings space into conversation. And it slows it down. It's ok to pause for thought as you poke a hole in the ground and wiggle a tiny red onion into it, knowing it will come back a big onion.

Embercombe does this really well. Groups go and work the land together to talk and reflect and process and think slowly, at the pace of the garden, at the pace of the heart.

3. Growing as fun

On our first friends weekend at Embercombe, mark and I were asked to clean the outside of an entire polytunnel with a hose and a long mop/broom, which we did, while getting each other wet in the Autumn sun, playing around, being silly, shreiking with laughter, and teaching each other songs.

4. Singing and growing

Sometimes we started to sing songs while we picked together at the Mill. That was good. I reckon we should have fun fed singing sessions on the land while working it. Nice.

They do stuff like that in Africa.

Malidoma Some describes how it works in his village in Burkina Faso:

"Villagers are interested not in accumulation but in a sense of fullness. Abundance means a sense of fullness, which cannot be measured by a yardstick of the material goods we possess or the amount of money in a bank account...

"Most work done in the village is done collectively. The purpose is not so much the desire to get the job done but to raise enough energy for people to feel nourished by what they do. The nourishment does not come after the job, it comes before the job and during the job. The notion that you should do something so that you get paid so that then you can nourish yourself disappears. You are nourished first, and then the work flows out of your fullness.

"Many areas of work among villagers, including farming, are accompanied by music. Music is meant to maintain a certain state of fullness. People recognise that even if you are full before the work, you can't take that fullness for granted. You have to keep feeding it so that the feeling of fullness continues, so that the work you are doing constantly reflects that fullness in you. It is as if the output of work takes a toll on your fullness, even it if is an expression of your fullness, and you have to be filled again before you can continue. Music and rhythm are the things that feed someone who is producing something."

Malidoma Some, The Healing Wisdom of Africa, p68

So. Do I seem to be saying that:

Knowledge work and food making need each other. Knowledge work without land work is too heady and tight: land work without knowledge work is too dull

The participation principle rises again - it's good if you participate in making the food you eat, even a little bit

Growing works in community, in conversation, and with music, but not in isolation

So on the funny farm we'd have a garden that one person manages and the whole community and all it's visitors participate in a little bit. And musician gardeners / garden musicians get everyone singing. What about everywhere else? Maybe starting with getting it right on the funny farm is enough for now.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

My first Goatmilking

I breakfasted from the hedgerows on my way to the bus stop this morning, and my pockets now bulge with a couple of ripe apples taken from the autumn tree.

I've found it glorious to conduct my daily business in the countryside, walking to work, home, the goat farm and the bus stop through fields, woods and bridleways.

I'm on my way to London. I've been at the farm nearly two weeks now. Here's what I've found.
The greatest thing is the goats at the goat farm over the hill. When Kim and I first arrived, we were silenced and spellbound by the herd of baby goats in the lower fields, their mothers all up top getting a milking. On a Devonshire hillside, the sunset valley behind them, they clustered curiously and characterfully towards us, each one a clear Personality, and gradually explored us and nuzzled and cuddled and made friends.

We dragged ourselves away and walked up to the main shed where Rowan was milking their mums. I fell in friendly love with Rowan on the spot. She was a grinning no-nonsense tall strong slightly posh bird like me, and she was goat crazy. Casually milking 24 organic, Neil's Yard dairy goats in about 7 minutes with the aid of a machine, she invited us to help while she chattered away merrily about all things Goat.

I approached my first goat. Yowzers. I reached my trembling hand towards her bulbous udder, made first contact – yeek! - my poor goat jumped all over the place – my trembling hand tickled her! I jumped away in fear of these flailing goat legs and stood there with Rowan and Kim laughing all over the place and me trying to calm myself down enough to touch the poor beast without tormenting her.
Several similar tries later, I kept going, and I finally managed it with a bit of steady breathing, a different goat, a pat on the haunch to warn her I was about to come in, and softly repeating 'steady now, steady now, here we come, nice and steady...” and it kind of worked.

When we were on our last batch of the 120 goats we milked, she let us have a go at milking by hand.
Goat udders are like warm jugs made of incredibly soft leather, and holding one in each hand is like eating a bowl of steaming porridge in winter, with honey or brown sugar and cinnamon. I farted around a bit figuring out how to get any milk out of the teet, but once I managed it, I got into something of a rhythm. Goat milking is meditation. Provided you don't have to do 15 by hand morning and night, it basically gives you the same good feeling as sitting in a tree or putting your head or tummy to the earth, but it's even better because it also gives you milk.

And more. I've eaten yoghurt with my breakfast every morning for the past several years. Maybe you've bought a plastic bottle of milk every couple of days for years. If I collected all the plastic yoghurt pots I've thrown away to god knows where, they'd probably fill both decks of this bus.

I don't like that.

A goat eats up your brambles, nettles and leftover food. You have a little homecoming meditation on it each day in the quiet of the shed and as a result you get milk which lactose intolerant people can handle and is really good for the skin (I was allergic to my mother's breastmilk when I was born – projectile vomited it across the room after every feed – so I was weaned on goats milk. I've never liked cows milk and I find that when I drink it it makes my skin flaky, my nose blocked and my singing voice muffled). If you do some very simple things, you can also get yoghurt, and really delicious cheese quite easily – more on that in a sec.

Their shit becomes fantastic compost if you can sweep it up and put it somewhere quite regularly, their girl babies can either be kept to increase your herd or raised, impregnated and then sold for something between £120 and £200, and their boy babies can be killed at between 3 and 6 months old and turned into human energy, either yours if you want to eat it and you have a local slaughterhouse and butcher to use, or Rowan's farm sells their boy kids to flashy London restaurants who are interested in unusual food like goat meat.

You also get calm, peaceful friends.

And when your ladies die, you can bury their carcasses several feet below a new veg patch and they'll make excellent fertilizer. Actually any roadkill or fish bits (you can buy these) will do the same – this is fairly common practice in New Zealand I'm told.

Your milk is unpasturised so healthier for you, says Rowan, the biochemistry graduate Neil's Yard cheese maker - that's why she makes her cheese with unpasturised milk. Pasturisation kills a lot of the vitamins and nutrients, apparently.

And you don't participate in a questionable dairy industry...

How much better is that than a tub of yoghurt from the supermarket? And that's not even going into the economics.

I'm sold on goats.

Kim and I went up again last night and came home with three litres of milk with the following simple additions to prepare it for cheese: a couple of drops of rennet, which comes from the stomach of male goats - you can also get vegetable rennet – and a couple of spoons of whey (the liquid that separates from the curd when goats milk starts turning) from yesterday's goats milk that's already on the turn. This introduces the cheese culture into the milk. If you want to make yoghurt you add a couple of spoons of yoghurt instead; that introduces a different bacteria, the yoghurt bacteria.

For yoghurt, you don't need rennet, but Rowan says that adding a couple of spoons of skimmed milk powder makes it more thick and creamy, otherwise it can be a bit weak and runny. Kim and I looked at each other at that point – skimmed milk powder isn't the sort of thing we have on the farm – then clearly simultaneously thought, what the hell, worth a try.

We left half the milk in the larder overnight, covered, and this morning it was already solid like set yoghurt. Amazing! The over half we'll do tomorrow when I get back from London.

She said, what we do then is taste the curd to make sure it's no longer creamy but a little bit sharp and acidic. Then we put a sieve in a bowl, and put some cheesecloth in the sieve. Carefully spoon the curd into the cheesecloth without disturbing it too much, and when it's all done leave it for a day or two and then eat it like cream cheese.

I don't know make mature goats cheese with a rind. I'll investigate.

Ok. Enough eulogising on goats.

So veg. I love vegetable gardens, but I'm not loving this one. The production is more for sale than for the community, and that creates a different feeling. There is a widespread feeling that the relationship with the landlord, who buys the veg wholesale for sale in the farm shop - is exploitative, and I find that demotivating: I don't want to be an exploited agricultural worker. My interest in the veg garden is removed.

The community is struggling right now with the relationship with the landlord. Profound uncertainty looms about the future of the farm. The effect on the community is paralysing. A troupe of 8 pigs is down to two – we're slowly eating our way through the third – delicious! - and is not being regenerated. The three goats were weaned off milking weeks ago and are being sold today. The chickens were all killed by foxes one day – yes, they don't just come at night – when they'd been let out and about – and they haven't been replaced. Their pen is grownover with tall weeds.

Understandably, nobody wants to do anything until they know they can stay on terms that work for them and that don't make everyone feel like exploited agricultural workers.

Moods pass like viruses through the house. When we're happy and chirpy, we bob around happily together chirping. When a mood of uncertainty and somnolence descends on the house, it descends on all of us. We all retreat quietly to our bedrooms, caravans and yurts, and in my case at least sit there thinking about what next, what else, what instead of this.

Monday, 14 September 2009



Lammas, a group of people trying to create an eco-village in Pembrokeshire, submitted a planning application for 9 smallholdings and a community hall in June 2007.

Their application was rejected once, twice, but their third application was successful on August 27 2009.

This was the crowd in the courtroom last month.

Pembrokeshire County Council adopted a low-impact policy (Policy 52) that allows new-build eco-smallholdings in July 2006. Lammas' application is the first to be passed under it.

"The planners require that 75 per cent of all household needs must be met directly by land-based means," says the press release.  Wow. That's not blended living. Blended would be more like 50%. "Each smallholding has had to be meticulously planned to meet this requirement with a broad spectrum of enterprises ranging from strawberry production to basketry, from smoked hams to furniture making, from woollen crafts to medicinal tinctures."

More here.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Doing it: Three Months

This is my first night at Radford Mill Farm, near Bath.

I'm going to be living here and volunteering three days a week on the land, learning about harvest and winter vegetables and goats and chickens and everything, and 2.5 days a week at my laptop, working professionally for the Fun Fed.

I can already feel the tension of the city draining from my body.

At dinner Deasy did the nicest thing. She casually Held Court on all the hilarious things that Bad volunteers had done, and all the great things about the Good volunteers, thereby subtly giving me a clear and entertaining outline of expectations, desires and norms.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

I want to tell you about my dream

I went out dancing with Jo, Anna and Graham a couple of weeks ago.

Graham is my boss. 

After a few glasses of wine and cocktails, I came home in the small hours and had a nice-feeling urge to email him about the Funny farm.

It was the first time I'd clearly articulated the idea.

The first part only makes sense if you know that we'd been talking about the strange experience whereby when you follow instructions to stand beside a tree, listen carefully to it and then communicate on its behalf, you have a clear impression of receiving communication and a strong feeling of pure, basic goodness.


Subject: i want to tell you about my dream

Date: August 9, 2009 3:41:00 AM BST

To: Graham


i want to tell you about my dream

not a dream from sleep

a dream from my tummy

a dream of the 'funny farm'

it's a place of goodness

like the inside of a tree

when you listen to it

that's how it feels

and at this stage, for me, it's a dream, not an aim

but if a point comes when life brings together enough people with the same dream

maybe a shared aim will whirl together

the idea is like a cake of several pieces

there's a rural fun fed home

a place of play, and knitting, and singing (and fooling and dancing and and...)

a place that celebrates seasons, and birth and marriage and death and weekends and the passing into different ages of life

with joy and upliftment and laughter

applying our techniques and art to the important moments of life

there's a school

for the children who live there and the children who live nearby

that jo can take care of and lead on

there's a rural hub

that a man you don't know but who you would trust and like, called alastair, could lead on, this is his dream and he has the competence to make it real

it's a space where people who live there and people who visit can work

there's a farm

where everyone can feel the simple nourishment of helping things grow

and teams can share broader conversations than the office usually holds, over planting carrots, or digging raised beds together

maybe you haven't experienced the quality of conversations that seem to happen over working the land

they're good.

it's a place where people can buy and sell and build and make homes

it's a place of rehabilitation for maybe five people a year

people like my late friend charlie, or jo's late brother

people who have been through a trauma and through their most intense period of rehabilitation elsewhere

and who now need not to go back to their old lives, communities and ways

but to go to a place of nourishment where they can begin to imagine and create new, healthier lives with goodness at the core

it has a spa/watsu/hottub/sweatlodge

where people can be naked outdoors if they want

that zoe could lead on; this is her dream, and she has the competence to make it a glistening reality

and it's run by a progressive, sustainable, just and growable business/ownership/finance model

and it is a community

of people who live very close, slightly close, not very close, and not at all close

who share in each others lives

for a long, long time.

it is a place for children and old people and everyone in between

for permanent, semi permanent and visiting people

it is a place to live out gold day by day

this is my dream.