On Making Space for Nature in Sustainable Bungay

This post was first published on 24th September 2014 under the title Mark Watson on Making Space for Flowers as part of the “Making Space for Nature” theme on the Transition Network website. It appears here unabridged.

IMG_1158“Did you grow all those yourself?”, a young woman asked me last week at Transition Town Tooting’s 7th Foodival.
She was pointing to a wicker basket filled with the aromatic lemon balm, rosemary, anise hyssop, marjoram and a dozen or so more herbs and flowers I was preparing tea from at the event:
“A lot of them I grew at home in Suffolk, some are wild plants and others are from gardens here in Tooting, including the Community Garden up the road.”
She looked suprised, almost shocked. “My only reference for that kind of thing are the supermarket shelves,” she said.

In that moment I realised many things all at once: that events like the Foodival show how we can come together and regain autonomy over what we eat (and drink); that you never know who will walk in the door and get switched on by something they’ve never considered before; that making space for nature goes beyond the world of nature reserves, wildlife documentaries or even pilgrimages into the wilderness. I also realised that an intrinsic engagement with the living world is what I’ve been showing and teaching in the last six years since I became part of the Transition movement; and that Transition has offered me a role where I can use my knowledge and skills to bring plants and people together in a dynamic and inspiring way.

Bungay is a small rural market town of 5000 people on the river Waveney in north-east Suffolk, surrounded by conventionally farmed agricultural land. The common idea that people in rural areas are automatically more connected with nature can be misleading. Wherever we live now much of the time is spent in artificial spaces: in front of computers, television screens, in our minds and indoors.

When I consider Sustainable Bungay, the Transition group where I’ve been most active since 2008, I see that (re)connection with living systems and considering the planet is implicit in everything we do, from the permaculture inspired Library Community garden, to the Give and Grow plant swap days to a cycle ride down to the pub by the locks of the Waveney at Autumn equinox. The very first Transition event I led was a Spring Tonic Walk introducing people from Bungay and Transition Norwich to dandelions, cleavers and nettles, the medicine plants growing in the neighbourhood.

Voilet-adorned prunes detailOur monthly community kitchen, Happy Mondays is now in its fourth year. A meal for 50 people, most of it locally sourced, is prepared from scratch in under three hours and features everything from nettle pesto and bittercress salad to puddings with foraged sweet violets or blackberries from the common.

Bungay Community Bees was formed in 2009 in response to the global pollinator crisis. There are now more than a dozen beehives in orchards and gardens in and around the town. The group has also created a purpose-built apiary (an observation shed with a hand-crafted glass hive) in association with Anglia Regional Co-operative Society and Featherdown Farms. In the summer schoolchildren from the region come to visit the bees and go on nature walks where they learn about flowers and pollinators.

College farm apiary

Even behind the Give and Take days with their ethos of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refashion, Re-just-about-everything, there is the sense that the planet needs a major break from all the stuff the industrial system keeps pumping out. Nature needs a breathing space!

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A natural breathing space is among the many things that Bungay Community Library Garden offers. In 2009 a subgroup from Sustainable Bungay teamed up with the town library, organised an Introduction to Permaculture course with Graham Burnett and worked with local builders, gardeners, tree surgeons and group members to transform the unused brick courtyard with one jasmine and a honeysuckle into a flourishing community garden with raised beds, fruit trees, flowers and herbs.

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Each year since its opening in 2010, the garden’s central bed showcases a different theme: plants for bees in 2011, plants as medicine in 2012, an edible bed in 2013 and this year dyes and textiles. This way people can get a feel for just how multi-faceted plants are and just how interwoven they are in our human lives. In many cases the categories change but the plants stay the same. The calendula you made a tea from in 2012, you tossed into a salad in 2013 and dyed a scarf with the following year!

The person curating the garden each year organises events around the theme. In the Plants for Life series I ran in 2012 focusing on health and wellbeing, there were monthly talks, walks and workshops with guest speakers, on everything from biodynamic growing to walking with weeds to the medicinal properties of homemade wine! I also ran ‘plant surgeries’ during the summer where people could come and ask questions about the project and the plants and exchange their knowledge too.

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The garden has become a focal point for many of Sustainable Bungay’s activities from steering group meetings in the summer to seed and produce swaps, Abundance exchanges of foraged fruit, and apple pressings. It is also the starting point for the wellbeing walks begun by the Arts, Culture and Wellbeing group last year.

The idea behind the walks was to explore local places together to encourage wellbeing and a sense of belonging. How that might increase personal, and particularly community, resilience, help combat the desire to be somewhere else and so encourage lower use of fossil fuels. Many people reported that simply by taking part in the collective walks brought an experience of wellbeing in itself.

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There is more. Recently a group called NR35 (‘Natural Resources’ 35) based on the local postcode, began to explore “how to use our skills, knowledge and labour to generate an income by sustainably managing/harvesting the resources which are wildly abundant around our rural market town.” The results include the harvesting of fruit and vegetable gluts, some of which are supplied to local restaurants and grocers and a communal firewood store. Last spring a small group of us learned how to make a dead hedge with local tree surgeon Paul Jackson. It took just a morning but I remember practically everything Paul taught us.

So what I’m saying here is that making space for nature can start right outside our doors, and in the places we find ourselves. That it’s not always the big exotic landscapes abroad where Nature is to be encountered. We need to discover the natural world where we are and engage with it, because it’s the natural world that makes sense of everything in the end.

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In 2015 it will be my turn again to curate the theme at Bungay Community Library garden, and the focus will be on ‘Helpful Herbs’ of all kinds. Lavender and rosemary are settling into bed, with thyme, St. Johns Wort, sweet cicely and others already there. And I’m working with a team on some exciting events. I’m also planning to map the project as part of a group helping to shape a new Transition Diploma, a collaboration between Gaia University and the Transition Network. Oh, and to make it into a Transition livelihood!

Meanwhile here is a picture from a plant walk around Bury St Edmunds I led in June this year with Sustainable Bury. The caption would probably go something like this:

“You can’t go anywhere nowadays without people sitting on walls looking at Hoary Willowherb!”

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Mark Watson is co-chair of Sustainable Bungay, a Transition Initiative in Suffolk, UK. Mark teaches groups and individuals to reconnect with nature through plants in the places they live. Details about his talks, walks and workshops can be found on Mark in Flowers.

Images: Talking plants and teas at Tooting Foodival, September 2014 by Chris from NappyValleyNet; Wild sweet violets adorn Happy Monday pudding by Josiah Meldrum; School visit to Bungay Community Bees’ observation hive by Elinor McDowell; Preparing the beds, 2010, Bungay Community Library garden (MW); the garden flourishes, summer 2014; Walking with Weeds, Plants for Life, 2012 (MW); 1st Wellbeing walk by the Waveney, 2013 by Charlotte Du Cann; Throwing our arms up under the cherry trees, April 2014 (CDC); Of walls and hoary willowherb in Bury St Edmunds, 2014 by Karen Cannard

Happy Mondays at the festival marquee (recipe here)

Sustainable Bungay’s “Community Kitchen” crew got busy on Castle Meadow preparing a 2-course meal for 115 diners.

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Margaret leads the setup crew, organising tables and the exquisite Turkish-themed decorations to the venue.

Angie and Terry spud-bashing before turning their hands to the finer aspects of preparing the feast. All of our fresh ingredients came from local smallholders and retailers.

Josiah sourced (and cooked) quinoa from a farm he works with in Essex (contact <josiah@hodmedods.co.uk> if you want to buy some.) The recipe for our adaptation of Kiser is given below.

Lewis got the job of prepping all the salads!

Gemma and Christine with the lemony courgettes get ready for service.

Lots of other volunteers make it possible for us to make a modest profit despite using top-quality ingredients and charging only £5 a head. Thanks to everyone who helped make this event such a success.

We’re proud to say that by careful segregation of recyclables and compostables we consigned just 1 carrier-bag of rubbish to landfill in the process. Promoting low-carbon, community-focused lifestyle choices is a key part of Sustainable Bungay’s work.

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Kiser with quinoa (serves 2-3)

1 small onion, 1 clove garlic, 1 tbsp olive oil, 2 tsp paprika, 1/2 tsp ground allspice, 1/2 tsp chilli flakes, 1/2 tsp salt

60g quinoa, 2 tbsp tomato purée, 1 tbsp honey, 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar, 240 ml boiling water, 50 g toasted walnuts

Little gem lettuce leaves, fresh mint and coriander to serve

Soften the onion and garlic in the oil.

Add the spices and cook for a few seconds.

Add the salt and quinoa, tomato purée, honey and balsamic vinegar and mix well.

Cover with boiling water, cover the pan and simmer gently for 15 minutes or until the quinoa is soft and the liquid absorbed.

Take off the heat, add the walnuts, roughly chopped and set aside to cool.

Fill the lettuce leaves with spoonfuls of the mixture and sprinkle with the chopped herbs.

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Photos and washing-up thanks to Simon Bloom 😉

 

Grow and Give, Produce Exchange, Sunday October 6th, 10am-1pm, Library Courtyard

grow&giveposter2013-001It’s been a difficult growing season from start to finish* but we’re pressing on with our regular autumn “Grow and Give” to help make sure none of that homegrown harvest goes to waste. Whether or not you have surplus to bring, do come along to the Bungay Library Courtyard* between 10am and 1pm on Sunday 6th October to see what’s available, and share a brew and a chat with fellow gardeners and foodies…

*The coldest spring since 1962 meant it was hard to get seeds germinated and seedlings growing. The driest summer since 1995 meant using valuable time & lots of precious water, or resigning oneself to poor yields. As erratic weather patterns become a seasonal norm, it’s becoming increasingly apparent what real effects climate change is already having. Sharing our produce, reducing waste, and coming together to talk about what and how to grow in these testing conditions is an important way of building resilience – a key aspect of the Transition Movement.

*Bungay Library, Wharton Street, NR35 1EL

Apple Harvest Day – Emmaus Orchard, Saturday 28th September, 11am-4pm

IMG_3092Apple Days are held all over the UK by community groups during early October. As well as a celebration of our favourite national fruit, they are a great way to share the harvest, distribution and pressing for juice and cider. At Sustainable Bungay foraged and fallen fruit are a key attaction at our Grow and Give events and Abundance tables. and Community Orchards was a popular subject at last year’s Green Drinks. This year we have received a lovely invitation to pick and share fruit in Ditchingham from Ronagh Williams and Emmaus Norwich:

To celebrate our second birthday and make new friends Emmaus Norwich are holding a special bring and share birthday picnic. There will be picnicking, apple picking and harvest sharing, all washed down by birthday tea and cake. Bring a plate of food to share and a basket and keep your fingers crossed for good weather! (Do please bear in mind we have a no alcohol on site policy).

Emmaus Norwich is a charity and business with a social purpose. We aim to offer a stable home, community and work for people experiencing homelessness. Our main activities are recycling and reusing all sorts of unwanted household items which we sell in our shop as well as online and at local auctions and street markets.

We aim to rebuild lives and enable our residents, known as Companions, to achieve their aspirations in a supportive environment without the pressure of a fixed timespan. Our values are based on solidarity, helping others in our area as well as further afield around the UK and as part of a global network of over 300 local community led groups providing access to education and healthcare, clean water, freedom of movement and micro finance.

At present we are small but have plans to grow over the coming months and are also in the process of preparing for an ambitious refurbishment of the former Victorian convent buildings here on our All Hallows site.

 Apple harvest day, Saturday 28 September, 11am – 4pm at Emmaus House, Belsey Bridge Rd, next to All Hallows convent, Ditchingham, Norfolk NR35 2DT.RSVP by 23 Sept on Ronagh@emmausnorwich.org or call us on 01986 895444.

 Image: harvest to share from Sustainable Bungay Apple Day (with Suffolk Wildlife Trust), Castle Meadow, 2010

NR35 Dead-Hedgers Society – the Over 50s Contingent

Image3822 low resIt just so happened that the five of us who turned up at Richard’s on Wednesday morning to learn how to do dead-hedging with Paul were all over 50,  and so the title of this post was the ad hoc name we came up with for that morning’s grouping. However, anyone of any age was welcome to join the new Transition social enterprise NR35 (NR = Natural Resources and NR35 is the local postcode) practical dead-hedge laying session.

Image3823 low resThis involved laying out and hammering in stakes staggered along a boundary of about twenty-five feet, and then placing and roughly weaving in branches and twigs from recently coppiced trees between the stakes. Making a hedge in this way would not only provide Richard with a decent boundary, but create a refuge for wildlife. Birds like wrens will often build their nests in dead hedges. Tony found an old nest rather larger than a wren’s, which we placed in the hedge once we’d finished.

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This was the first time dead-hedging for all of us except Paul, who is a professional tree surgeon, and who taught us with consummate calm and patience. I asked everyone how it had been for them.

Cathy: Well, it uses up an amazing amount of material you might think would be difficult to dispose of. And it’s delightful doing it with others.

Nick: It’s hard work and it makes you sweat, but I’m surprised how easily we managed to get a good end-product (the hedge), in  the space of 2 hours. And it’s brilliant we can go away and do it ourselves now.

Tony: Working as a team is really good fun. And it’s satisfying to start off with all this dead material and end up with a hedge.

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I asked Paul how he found us as a group to teach: “It’s been really satisfying. Everyone’s been very receptive and quick to learn the skills and techniques. The results speak for themselves: we have a very reasonable dead-hedge. I’ve seen a lot worse.”

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Me: I found the whole morning instructive and really good fun. I noticed that being physically engaged in building the dead hedge you got into a kind of rhythm with everyone- I would find my hands often knew just what to do. It would have taken forever to do it from a book.

Part of dead-hedging is jumping up and down on top of the laid branches when they’re at a certain height. Cathy and I held hands and pogo-ed up and down together. Later, I realised that over the years I’ve frequently bounced up and down at our events!

Just because you’re over 50 doesn’t mean you’ve got no bounce! Or that you can’t learn a new practical skill in the course of a morning in a congenial atmosphere with fellow reskilling dead-hedgers.

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For more information on Sustainable Bungay’s NR35 Natural Resources group, see here.

All images by Mark Watson: Hammering in the staggered stakes; building the hedge from the bottom up; bird’s nest; receptive and quick to learn; the finished dead-hedge; bouncing up and down on the hedge

Natural Resources – 35 ways to generate an income?

NR35 is not just our postcode – it’s the name of SB’s newest “social enterprise” – a subgroup starting to think about how to use our skills, knowledge and labour to generate an income by sustainably managing/harvesting the resources which are wildly abundant around our rural market town.

An inaugural meeting early in the new year was attended by a diverse group of 8 eager participants, and having quietly weathered the snowy second half of January will continue exploring possibilities with another meeting in early February.

By way of action, some of the members have collected dead elm trees from a nearby verge (felled by the council last year) which is stacked ready for logging, splitting, bagging & then selling to the public to raise seed capital for the enterprise.

Produce Exchange, September 16th

As part of our ongoing “Abundance” work we are holding another autumn produce exchange at the Library Courtyard on Sunday 16th September, 11am to 1pm. More details below.

There is an annual sister event in the Spring: Give and Grow. Both occasions encourage use of the permanent swap area in the courtyard for free exchange of anything garden-related. There’s also an Abundance table at most SB events.

There are obvious benefits to satisfying one person’s “famine” with another’s “feast” and avoiding waste. And these events also provide a social occasion to meet friends and neighbours. But we are generally trying to encourage the gift economy within our community, to strengthen bonds and provide a support network ready for when the conventional money-system falls apart (as is normal towards the end of a debt-deflationary cycle like the present).

Autumn Produce Swap at the Library Garden

It was the hottest October weekend on record, and it certainly didn’t feel like Autumn in the library garden on Sunday morning (Oct 2) at Sustainable Bungay’s produce swap. Here was truly an abundance of fruit, vegetables, plants and seeds all from people’s gardens and allotments. Apples, pears, marrows, beans and people came and went and those golden delicious were the best I have ever tasted – who brought them?

Paul set up his small apple press so people could have a go at juicing some of the fruit. It was really good fun, and the juice was delicious – very welcome in that heat.

This was an event in true Sustainable Bungay give and take style, open to everyone, friendly and very transitional. A result of our persistence over these years in meeting together, organising and setting up events and projects. A live demonstration of community-in-action, working with each other, sharing what we’ve got and building social resilience for the future in a time of increasing economic and environmental pressures.

For when things get too hot and too lean!

One detail which symbolised the attention and effort people make for these days was a set of envelopes containing seeds and handpainted (or handprinted?) with calendula flowers. I asked several people who did them and no one seemed to know – but they made me feel very joyful.

I spent some time that morning looking at the central flowerbed with a view to the medicine plant theme I’m organising for next year. I experienced a sudden flash of permaculture insight about starting with the plants which are already there and working with them. I felt relief that we won’t have to dig everything up and start from scratch (which would have been more in line with our dominant throwaway culture than with working towards some kind of organic and sustainable continuity).

When I spoke to Richard about it he said he felt the same. Which was great since he mainly takes care of the garden. I’ll report on the project as we go, beginning with the lifting and moving of (some of) the plants on October 30th.

Meanwhile to breakfast… porridge, with a baked Bramley from the Produce Swap…

Pics: Apple pressing; people, pears and marrow; handpainted calendula seed packets; delicious golden delicious; central flowerbed still thriving by Mark Watson

Transition Towns Tea Tent at the Waveney Greenpeace Fair

The Waveney Greenpeace Fair took place this Sunday at Henham Park near Blythburgh. All the 21 previous fairs had been held in farmer Paul’s post harvest stubble fields in St. Michael South Elmham, so this was a brand new venue.

I did wonder beforehand if recreating the mellow, intimate atmosphere the fair is known for might be difficult in such a different place, parkland rather than farmland. But with the tents and stalls framed by beautiful mature lime trees, and the months of preparation by all the organisers (hats off to everyone, you know who you are!), the stage was set for what turned out to be a great day. (The one fight was valiantly held in check by several green men, so I won’t dwell on that).

Nick had spent the previous three days organising and setting up the Greenpeace Tea Tent, which was manned this year mostly by Sustainable Bungay with ‘a little help from our friends’ in Diss. Charlotte and I set off on our bikes in the morning with bags of display posters and photos (laminated by Gemma and Eloise) and a jug of cut flowers in the bike basket and joined Nick and Margaret to prepare for a day of tea and cake provision. Daphne, Gary, Lesley and Kris arrived a little later and we all got into a good team flow of keeping the kettle and teapots full (mostly), refilling the water barrel, washing up – and occasionally swinging our hips to Norwich Samba as the music carried over to us from the Mainstage.

Friends from Transition East and Beyond came to visit, including Chris from Norwich, Gill from Diss, John and Carol from Downham Market and Kristin and Sim from Transition Bristol. It was lovely to catch a few minutes’ chat with everyone inbetween tent duties.

The 250 plus cakes, biscuits and muffins were baked by Gemma, Josiah, Margaret and Frances. Throughout the day I overheard people saying how delicious everything was and by 3.30 they were all gone and we were reduced to selling organic flapjacks from Dove’s Farm (no offence Doves’ but you can’t compete with Frances’s moist homemade lemon drizzle cake!!!)

Our Waveney Greenpeace/Transition Towns Tea tent with its Sustainable Bungay and Bungay Community Bees display boards, Abundance table with Cathy’s damsons and Norfolk Beefing apples, Nick’s green tomatoes and cabbages, and Margaret and Charlotte’s lovely flowers on the tables drew people all day and when it started raining at about 4.30 everyone moved closer, shared tables and carried on chatting and drinking tea.

 

Charlotte and I went for half a cider in the main bar at six and returned to help Nick with the last of the clearing up before cycling home, where Nick joined us for supper – which included those green tomatoes of his, fried in olive oil – delicious!

If anyone would like to add their experience of the tea tent or indeed the fair please feel free to use the comments box below.

STOP PRESS: Arlene at Halesworth library just told me on the phone how much she and her friend enjoyed the fair, including the lemon drizzle cake (and her friend the dairy free carrot cake!)

Pics: Transition Tea Tent from the beginning to the end of  the 2011 Waveney Greenpeace Fair by Mark Watson

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